From Manali, at 2050 m above the sea level, we start the climb to the Rohtang Pass at 3980 m. It is the first of the five high passes to be crossed to reach Leh. Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world, is 45 km beyond Leh. The road is a work of art as well as an engineering feat, built with sweat and tears. "When you go home tell them that we gave our today for your tomorrow" read memorials in many places on the Manali-Leh road.
The drive up Rohtang starts at Palchan. At the first corner shoddy, unauthorised shops dot the road. Years ago, Marhi was a sleepy spot. Half a dozen huts and no temple. Today Marhi has a large temple, couple of dozen dhabas, jowl to check, right on the road, plastic chairs spill onto the road which is a parking lot. Breakfast could be hot tea, boiled eggs and nitrous oxide!
Tandi is definitely the most important town on this road. It is the only refuelling point. Leaving the pump a notice informs you "next filling station 375 km!" That’s in Leh. Amazing. In over a quarter century of this road being functional, neither the government of Himachal Pradesh nor Jammu and Kashmir nor the Indian Oil has given a thought to the convenience and safety of travellers on this road. Howzzat for promoting tourism?
At Keylong, Himachal Tourism has built a very fine hotel, Chandra Bhaga. It is Himachal’s only contribution to tourism on this road. I have been driving on this road for more than 25 years. This year was the first time I slept in a clean bed, had a clean toilet that flushed and a hot bath.
The drive up Baralacha La at 4892 m above the sea level is a never-ending road. Almost at the summit is Suraj Tal at 4800 m where the River Bhaga originates. Coming down from Bara Lacha La, we traverse the Lingti Plain and at Sarchu we check in at the HP police check post. Once we cross the Lingti Nalah, we are in Jammu and Kashmir.
Lacha Lung La is next at 5035 m. This drive certainly introduces you to driving at high altitude and experience the effects of rarified air. Pang at 4634 m is another Army transit camp. You may get a place to stay, a meal, some medical aid. There are no refuelling facilities.
The road climbs up through some beautiful mountains. Suddenly, it’s the Pang Plateau, really flat with an excellent road that meanders lazily along the valley floor. Just keep in mind that you are over 4000 m high and heading for Taga Lang La at 5360 m, the second highest motorable pass in the world.
Taga Lang La is a disappointment. The magnificent motorable road brings you to the second highest garbage dump in the world. As usual, there is a temple at the summit. Mercifully, the urinal that was built right next to the temple has been shifted. However, hundreds of empty smoke blackened tar barrels lie around, defacing the mountain.
The excitement of driving up in a snowstorm to the world’s highest motorable garbage dump is dampened by what one sees at K-Top as Khardung La is known.
Definitely Himank, BRO and GREF are the best road builders in the world. Sadly, the word landscaping is not in their vocabulary. Simply building roads does not give them the authority to desecrate and destroy the exquisite and extraordinary beauty of the Himalayas. They are holy and to be treated with great respect.
The rather grandiose monument which attests to the world’s highest motorable road at 18,380 feet above the sea level stands in a sea of mud. Tourists from all over who come to Khardung La want to be photographed against the marker.
Right next to the pass marker stands a bulldozer under repair. On the other side stands another dozer. The marker is sandwiched in between the two dozers. There is an excellent metalled motorable road up to the world’s highest garbage dump!
However, it is the temple that is the icing on the cake. It is the Khardung La Baba temple. The world’s highest at 18,380 feet.
The temple has two windows. In one of the windows, a pane has been removed to accommodate a loud speaker. For whom? Is God deaf? Other than the visual pollution along this Himalayan highway, a loud speaker at 18,380 feet above the sea level is just one more nail in the coffin for the destruction of the Himalayas that are easily accessible to the motoring tourist.
What is it that makes this road so dangerous and consequently so exciting? It is the lack of almost everything. Lack of oxygen to begin with. You are as much as 6000 m above the sea level and functioning at about 40 per cent of your normal efficiency. High altitude sickness is a very real possibility. Yet there is no medical help anywhere along the 500 km stretch.
Travellers are left to their own devices. Even in June, night temperature in the open is sub-zero. Anyone with a second puncture can be stranded and exposed to the elements. There is not a word of caution or warning from any of the tourist or government agencies about these possible problems.
At Koksar, there is a police check-post and everyone has to register. A pamphlet warning and informing the travellers about what to expect on the world’s highest road would be a step in the right direction to promote tourism of this unique and one of a kind road. The Manali-Leh road and on to Khardung La is no ordinary road. It is the world’s highest. It is excruciatingly beautiful, demanding, difficult and dangerous.