Leh to Delhi Saturday 5 – Saturday 12 September 2009
The road from Leh to Manali is the 2nd (or maybe 3rd - see previous comments) highest motorable road in the world.
The scenery is incredibly dramatic roads twisting their way up mountains with the only on lookers (other than the likes of us) being nomads with their hardy ponies and goats, soldiers and teams of road workers struggling to keep the road open.
These latter are everywhere and are usually economic refugees from Nepal or from Bihar one of the poorest parts of India. They must live a pretty harsh existence living in makeshift camps in some of the coldest conditions and working hard to send every penny home. On the whole given all this they were amazingly cheerful when we pass wanting to have their pictures taken and waving. I guess we helped break up the monotony of the day!!
As we journeyed on the Buddhist temples gradually gave over to Hindu ones as we crossed the Indus Valley. The first ascent to Tanglang La (at 5328 metres the world's 2nd (or whatever!) highest pass) was very steep - but we made it! Through the journey the Indian road signs - from the funny to the moralistic to the sheer bizarre carried on! The weather can change very swiftly here and a few days ago it had been very bad but mercifully we caught a good window and the snow was cleared away. It was incredibly cold though!
After this we journeyed on past the tent city of Pang set amongst the beautiful Gorges and some flat open plains. The scenery truly is awesome here. It was very sparsely inhabited and we were flagged down a couple of times to see if we had fresh water and with our tank full we were happy to oblige.
Climbing on we reached the 21 Gata loops a series of twisting roads which criss-cross climbing the mountains to Lachlung La a cold pass at 5060 metres.
We stopped that night at Sarchu - the end of Ladakh after which you pass into the next state of Himachal Pradesh. It can be tricky getting showers on the road in this climate and a few kms out of Sarchu whilst the sun was still with us I asked Andrew to pull over so we could have a quick shower. If we turn on the motor we have a hot shower and with the engine running all day I thought it would be toasty warm. Wrong! The low temperature were too much for our shower to rise above and after a brief spate of luke warmness I had a FREEZING dousing in cold water in very low temperatures! The problem was I'd soaped up my hair so I had to endure it whilst I rinsed it clean! It was very old out and at the end of all this my lips were blue! This didn't set me up ideally for a night at Sarchu - a tent city described by the LP as "cold & miserable." After seeing my suffering Andrew wisely decided not to bother!!
We met lots of other overlanders - all on bikes including Anna & Lochie from New Zealand and some people from Germany Italy and India respectively and it was a fun night - though I just couldn't seem to warm up! There was a mixture of overlanders and truckies there and the Tibetan ladies ran an amazing little restaurant and gave us a good plate of curried vegetables and rice which warmed me up!
There was also an (English!) grog shop and whilst we hadn't drunk alcohol for a while being in high altitudes we each accepted a large whisky!!!
The next morning our water tank was frozen solid for the first time ever and the car wouldn't start. The Tibetan ladies helped by providing kettles of hot water which we poured over the engine to thaw it out. This is why the truckies lit fires under their vehicles! It was great fun but we wouldn't recommend Sarchu as a long term holiday prospect - strictly a "one night only" affair!!
On we drove - next was Baralacha La or pass at 4883 metres - again very cold with stunning scenery which was extensively rocky. We even saw what looked like some rock carvings - not sure how old they were. After this the scenery started to get increasingly green again leaving the Ladakhi starkness behind.
We passed through Keylong the only major town on the route, a nice little river side town but not great for camping - we drove right through the middle and were relieved it was Sunday afternoon as it was full of tiny narrow streets with overhanging wires and we were lucky to escape without being caught up in anything.
We headed on out of Keylong when amazingly we saw a car with WA plates heading the other way! It was Sam the German guy we last met in Bangalore! He was supposed to be in Pakistan by now but had delayed to stay in India and was on his way to Leh. It was nice to catch up.
Interestingly he'd just re-registered the car. As you may remember we had real fun and games doing that last year and are dreading doing it again - it's due at the end of this month. As we're on the move until we hit Nepal it will have to be done there and getting a car inspection there which satisfies the authorities in the RTA NSW will not be fun! We asked Sam how he'd managed and he'd just done it on line no inspection necessary! This is the joy of being WA registered! Darwin also doesn't need an inspection and we're kicking ourselves we didn't re- register the car there prior to leaving. The RTA itself admitted that the regulations in NSW make it "very much harder" than all the other states. Doesn't seem fair!!! We'll report how we get on in Kathmandu. At the time of writing the NSW RTA have told us we have to get an inspection from a "government approved body" but we can't find one!!
Another thing of interest we've found whilst talking to other travellers is the inequalities which exist within the visa system. Regarding obtaining Pakistani visas the wisdom is that Delhi is a bad bet so we planned to try in Nepal. Sam had no problem getting one in Delhi or an Iranian one but that is as he is German. We met another lady who had been travelling in a group she was German, and her group had an English guy a French guy and 2 Americans - for Iran her visa was granted all the rest knocked back! Apparently Germany have some sort of trade agreement with Iran so their citizens are never refused. We were advised for Iran not to bother trying under our UK passports as we'd never succeed but that the Australian one should be ok. Fingers crossed we get both - being German seems to be a good thing in these parts!!!
Anyway we said our goodbyes to Sam and headed on to Sissu where we spent the night. We camped outside a little hotel with a great view of a spectacular waterfall opposite. It is still chilly but nowhere near as cold now. We met up with 3 Spanish people we keep seeing who are cycling the Leh to Manali route. Thus is really no mean feat and we felt lazy as we waved them off next morning!!
On we headed to cross the final pass -Rohtang La - down towards Manali. This was a series of hairpin bends and we drove past a car completely squashed at the bottom which had fallen all the way which was pretty horrible! There were numerous shops hiring out wellies and coats and the pass offers sleigh and pony rides - aimed at Indian tourists getting their first glimpse of snow! It was actually pretty mild when we passed by. Everyone going the other way told us what a nightmare this bit of road was and we were presently surprised at how ok we'd found it. Then we hit the road works. It was total chaos big trucks getting stuck having to be pushed up by bull dozer and of course no one waits here so people tried to squeeze by and got stuck themselves - all in all it took a good few hours to get down this final stretch of road!
Finally we hit the tourist centre of Manali. The area is very lovely and the countryside - pine clad hills waterfalls bubbling river- very beautiful.
Sadly we didn't really have time to explore the locality. It was now Monday and we had to leave India by Friday so the clock was ticking!! Manali was a very large centre probably there are prettier villages outside but it has a lovely setting and lots of facilities so we could see why it is such a major centre for travellers - including a lot of long termers.
After a brief look we headed on towards Naggar. This little town about 25km from Manali was set in the Kulla valley which was truly lovely. This valley is famous for 2 things apples and shawls and we saw plenty of both as we drove along. Apple season was upon us and everywhere were stacks of apples being crated and loaded onto trucks prior to being transported to Delhi. We bought some and they were delicious.
The road wound down and around through the mountains through lovely little villages with houses made traditionally out of stone and wood, past numerous herds of goats -the "before" of the shawls. Whilst they are linked with Kashmir the famous Pashmina shawls actually mainly come from this area and there are 100's of shawl shops.
Naggar is a lovely village famous for its castle - 500 years old it is now a hotel and we were allowed to park just next to it - affording us a fantastic view down over the valley. There seemed to be a lot to see in this area - including a museum to a Russian painter Nikolai Roerich who lived and painted and here before dying in 1947 - sadly no time! This area has a lot of long term visitors from Europe mainly, who spend the summer months here - prior to the winter snows - and you can see why, it was a nice relaxed town in a great setting. We tried the local specialty fresh river trout and treated ourselves to a bottle of wine - both delicious!
So on Tuesday 8 September we drove on towards Chandigarh. A fairly pretty drive along the river - we're probably a bit spoilt now with all the gorgeous scenery we've seen in the last month! It was a long drive but we got to the Dhandes that evening. It was nice to hit Punjab again - people were incredibly friendly. At the toll booths they waved us through without payment and offered us drinks and people flagged us over to say hello and get their picture taken with us - all very much like coming home, as was arriving at the Dhandes' where we were given a very warm welcome.
We were both tired (especially Andrew!) and would have loved to accept the Dhandes' invitation to stay a few days - but whilst it was the last thing we felt like we had to head on to cross the border by Friday. This was a bit tight but with a couple of solid days driving we were on track to make it. So next morning we got up horribly early and hit the road.
This was where it all started to go pear shaped. Heading down the highway (in the driving rain) with a huge crunch our wheel fell off!!!! There was a scary hour where we tried to contact a pickup truck but no one seemed to understand us. It was scary as trucks couldn't see us in the bad weather and so were heading for us and swerving with a screech of brakes just in time so we were in danger of being hit! Andrew put out our hazard warning beacon and the first car to pass smashed it to smithereens!!
Luckily for us we were saved by Nip and Morgan 2 good Samaritans. They took us off and arranged a tow truck found us a mechanic and even took us for lunch sacrificing their whole day!! This typifies the extreme friendliness we've found here. We also got to ride in an Indian tow lorry complete with leopard skin dashboard and flashing disco lights!! Cool!!
Someone had tried to steal the wheel the night before and had - thankfully- been dumb enough to force the nuts the wrong way so they'd sheared off. We managed to get new ones on but had some more bad news - our brake shoes were worn and needed replacing. They were ok to drive on but the mechanic definitely recommended replacing them prior to driving to Nepal.
We managed to call and arrange to pick new ones up in Delhi - Nip and Morgan helped a lot here as they seemed to have numerous contacts- and so at 6pm on we headed. The guys wanted us to head out for dinner with them but we thought we'd collapse if we didn't keep moving! Thanks to them both so much for their help.
So on we headed we'd done a good hour and were making reasonable time to Delhi when with a hiss our wheel (different one) went down!!! We got all over the mountain passes with only one puncture and on the main highway to Delhi somehow we got one!! This day really seemed to have been going on forever!!! We tried to get the spare wheel off the back but found that when the tow truck pulled us that morning it had pushed on it and jammed it so we just couldn't shift it!! We really had both had enough by this point - and thankfully before we could jump off the nearest cliff help arrived in the shape of 2 policemen on a scooter. They didn't speak English but soon got the point and took Andrew off on the scooter returning from a nearby workshop with a team of helpers. In a "many hands make light work" sort of way the wheel was soon off and we were ready to roll!!
The police in India get a bad reputation for being corrupt and the papers are always full of these stories - just to redress the balance our experience here was the opposite. By the time we were ready to go everyone had got dirty crawling around helping so we gave some money to the police and the workshop guys. Neither would take it though we insisted several times. Eventually the workshop boss took a sum of less than half of what we offered to buy chai for all of them, the policemen wouldn't take a cent.
We receive quite a lot of emails from people thinking of doing a trip like ours and recently got one from a lady Amber who asked what the problems/ negatives of the trip were. I got the email last night and then we went on to have the day from hell - it was now almost midnight we were both dead on our feet, we had to be in Nepal (still 18 hours drive) in 2 days - and we hadn't eaten since midday. This was a BAD day - but through it all we met Nip and Morgan who we'll see on the way back through and we were helped by these guys - so I'd have to say in this and elsewhere the odd bad day is so much made up for by the good. We're both having the absolute time of our life on this trip and wouldn't swap a day of it.
We got to the Tibetan Colony where we'd stayed before in Delhi at 3am - thank god there was a room free. Both semi delirious we collapsed into bed!!!!
Next morning was Wednesday 9 September - and I was starting to feel that realistically we just weren't going to make it to Nepal by Friday in one piece! Whilst Andrew went off to do the car I went to the internet to research and found that whilst on a tourist visa no extension was allowed a few days grace could be possible in an absolute emergency. To cut a long story short there followed many hours in government departments backed up by a letter from the mechanic saying the car couldn't be driven and they had to source the parts - and we have scored 7 extra days in India.
As I type it is Saturday 12 September and I am at the Tibetan colony in Delhi updating my long neglected website. Ironically the car was fit to go yesterday evening as the guys at Toyota really pulled out all the stops - but we have to wait until Monday to get our passports stamped. We had to take various bits of paper around various government departments and whilst we really had a good go the Delhi traffic went against us (4 hours in one traffic jam - the Delhites are prepared for this they all carry pack lunches and laptops!!) so we missed the deadline and have to go back Monday morning.
Nip and Morgan have a friend in Delhi they put us in touch with, Saurabh and special mention has to go to him. He met Andrew yesterday and ferried him around - using numerous contacts to get help with our visa and car problems - very well connected these Punjabi boys!!!
Finally when very generously the workshop we went to refused to charge us for any labour we were overwhelmed but have a sneaking suspicion that Saurabh's custom was behind it. At the age of 26 he is a property developer who collects luxury cars (not least a new Ferrari!) and is a major customer of Toyota. We think that our huge discount was a sort of favour to him - either way our extreme gratitude goes to all at Toyota and to Saurabh.
Once this is on the web the writing will be up to date - though I am behind by nearly 200 pictures!! I'll try and keep plodding on with this it's often hard with dodgy internet connections. Blame the scenery here it's too good so I'm no doubt putting too many on. India has been amazing for 6 months and feels like home now - but we get to have a second go in a month's time. In the meantime (fingers crossed ) we should finally make it into Nepal by next Friday at the very latest!!!!