Our Travel Editor Alex shares her journey over the Himalayan roof of India by Jeep – from Himachal Pradesh, and later to Ladakh, Kashmir.
The trip I embarked on in July of this year was one of those experiences you return from and are bursting to tell the world, and yet it can’t quite be put into words. I’m going to try. Our journey to the extreme north of India has been a rarefied roller-coaster of feelings: awe, fear, love, hot, cold, exhaustion and exhilaration but to list a few.
The Road Less Travelled
The Manali – Leh Highway, which wends through the Himalayas from the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh up to Jammu and Kashmir, is regularly referred to as one of the most dangerous roads in the world by even the most daring drivers and travellers.
The highway is only open for four months a year, from May to June when the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has finished clearing the debris of all to frequent avalanches; so we thought it would be a good idea to tackle the melting glaciers, churned mud, landslides and thrashing rain to make our way from Kasol, Himachal up to Leh, Ladakh by Jeep. A Jeep with no handbrake.
With our 15 days, we then planned to extend our exploration of Kashmir, heading to its capital, Srinagar, with its vibrant waterways and Mughal gardens, then skirting the baron hills which straddle the Pakistan border and passing through heavily army-based Kargil, with echoes of armed conflict between India and Pakistan still resounding through the lower Suru basin and in the hearts of those mourning the many lives lost there.
Treacherous road preparation aside, we were certainly not prepared for the indescribable beauty of Himalayan views, dramatic sun-bleached hills, verdant alpine forests, and the valley region of Ladakh – a cold desert in the sky nesting its Tibetan influenced city, Leh. Here are a handful of too many moments of awe, some recommendations on where to go, what to do and some trials we faced along the way.
Himachal’s Peaceful Parvati Valley
Kasol: Little Israel of the Himalayas
Our first pit stop was Kasol, which, although remote, is still the main headquarters for backpackers and those on a pilgrimage to Leh or further north. Home to native Himachalis, settled Israelis – and abundant bushes of marijuana growing in clumps along the roadside, this is a worthwhile place to get your fill of home comforts and stock up on supplies before heading into the abyss. Kasol is full of fairly cheap (700 Rs for a double room) and quality accommodation, Western-style restaurants, reggae bars and wild charras (hash), which is readily available. What is really remarkable about Kasol is not the town itself, but the areas of river pools and hidden waterfalls you will find if you follow the river by foot, or keep your eyes peeled whilst driving alongside it. We stumbled across a network of bubbling aqua streams and pebbled rock pools, which with a short rocky climb led up to to a large, dramatic waterfall. Where there had been a few friendly locals washing clothes and chatting, there was no one here. We hiked up to the mouth of the falls, and went for quite a cold swim. We cooked some breakfast and boiled some masala tea in a sandy alcove on our gas stove; I didn’t think it could get much more idyllic, and I was wrong.
Manikaran: Religious Haven for Sikhs & Hindus – Welcomes the Whole World
Manikaran is set in the banks of the raging Parvati river just 4km north of Kasol. If you’re searching for a breakfast stop with a spiritual dimension, then this is it. A pilgrimage centre for Sikhs and Hindus, the town hosts a scattering of Temples along with a large Gurudwara, which sits looming over the surging rapids below with its resplendent white minarets, colourful prayer flags and dynamic hordes of visitors, pouring in and out of the bridge entrance. Manikaran is always busy, or it was busy all three times we visited at different points during the day. Whether you visit the town for its religious significance (I was with three guys from a Sikh and Hindu family) or you’re just interested in what happens here, everyone regardless of faith, background and social status is invited to eat for free – called ‘lunger’ in Hindi – in the Gurudwara canteen: just collect a tray, sit on the floor with everyone else and get served the best Indian food you’ve ever tasted – and remember to give a small donation afterwards.
Tosh – A Tiny Village Peeking Through Snow-Tipped Peaks
As we approached Tosh, the landscape began to change ever so slightly. This was to mark the start of the drastic and panoramic transformations we would encounter as we moved from the alpine foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal, to the frosty fanged peaks as we climbed in altitude, through to the weather beaten desert dunes of Ladakh, Kashmir. Tosh was our first real view of snow peaks, though we had spied one vast snow cap jutting above the fir trees in Kasol. Parking the jeep in the only car park outside of the village, we considered how we would tackle the issue of leaving our Jeep on a mountainside overnight, considering it had no working handbrake. Images flashed through my mind of the car rolling backwards, an unforgiving tonne of fortified metal leaving the high ledge and plunging 100 ft into a carefully made slate-roofed hut, squashing a family of Toshians on the way. Wedging 4 large boulders under its wheels and leaving it in gear, the four of us tried to push the jeep to no avail, and only partially convinced, left it there. Set into the hillside and overlooking a lush green valley framed with snow-peaked mountains (how many times will I use the term ‘snowy mountains’ or its synonyms? Please don’t count) Tosh is considered to be a Himalayan gem by even the most discerning seekers of solitude. We stayed in the Sunrise Guesthouse, which at the time was 200 Rs (£2) per double room, and met a French guy wearing only a lungi; THC-induced capillaries reddening his bright blue eyes. We told him we had come from Kasol, at which he spat “eugh, shit hole” along with pinpointing a handful of other ‘shit holes’ he had encountered around India. Establishing himself as a tough critic of India’s best tourism spots, he had been staying in Tosh for his final two weeks on the subcontinent, which I think says it all.
Kheer Ganga – Hike Into an Organic Spa and Spiritual Paradise
Meaning ‘rice pudding river’, Kheer Ganga is a tiny village, or really just a sparsely populated hillside, up up and away from it all. Unreachable by car, the easiest route is to park up in Hydel Project Parking space, offer the security guard fifty rupees to keep an eye on your vehicle, and begin the 15 km hike – it’s quite a climb – up to the village, taking only your essentials. We started early and moved slowly, and it took five hours, stopping for several cups of tea, squeezing past lines of mules picking their way down the hillside with cargo, and with one of our friends almost knocking himself unconscious on a low-hanging branch en route. It is more than worth the long walk when you reach the hillside of cabins, black cows and hot natural spring baths complete with a mountainside view which is inspiring to say the least. According to local tales, these springs used to gush out rice pudding. Lord Parshuram got pissed off with mankind and stopped that treat, however you can still find a vaguely cream-like substance in the water (white algae, hopefully, which is reputedly very good for your skin). Naturally, the water is holy and you can wash away all your sins by having a bath here. After one night of soaking your pores in bubbling sulphurous pools, and nursing your aches with a fat pipe of charras should you choose, you can head back down the mountainside to civilisation (or not, but its all relative) to check whether or not your car has been smashed in and looted.
Manali – Happening Himalayan Hub
Though it was said of Kasol previously, here is the next, – and last – relatively big town stop before heading up into the ‘proper snowy Himalayas’ as we all know them from the films and stuff. Between Manali and Leh, there are no facilities to use wifi, buy pharmaceuticals, or obtain a variety of cuisines which aren’t Tibetan or local Indian fare, if you happen to be missing pizza and pork pies. Importantly, service your car and buy some acclimatisation tablets for the altitude; its up and up from here, and you may just need them. There is a list of interesting things to do in Manali too, besides stocking up and preparing for the road ahead. Stay in Old Manali, on the other side of the river with eclectic market shopping and endless food options. Eat at the Punjabi vegetarian restaurant on the Mall Road – hugely popular with locals and one of my culinary highlights of the trip. Visit the Hadimba temple and monastery, with gardens of long-haired Himalayan rabbits and lambs, and take a trip to Vashisht – the up-and-coming backpacker town just 3km from Manali, to relax in the Vashisht temple’s hot spring baths, if you can handle the heat of water fit to boil a lobster. As we arrived at the only fuel station for the next 300 km and filled up a succession of jerry cans with diesel – just in case – this marked the end of the beginning. The image on the Sat Nav was demonstrative enough of our upward journey into solitude – a single pink squiggle on an un-plotted map of grey.