The road from the Manali to Leh in the far north of India should take over 22 hours on a good day, but is closed for most of the year. Only a few tents and one horse towns (or rather one yak towns) break up the long journey. Instead, brave drivers stop at pass markers to let their altitude sickened passengers relieve themselves next to stupas tangled in prayer flags while they tie yet another flag before barrelling on through tunnels of snow to the next pass.
The conditions of the road are always brutal, so it is difficult to determine when it is safe to pass. This topic is incessantly debated by travel agencies, locals and travelers at the beginning of June each year. We too joined in on the fuss hoping to get an early start on our own Himalayan adventure.
At first we heard it wouldn't it open until July and we were beginning to consider back-tracking to Delhi to take the pricey alternative of a flight. Then the road from the East opened, but it requires travel through the politically unstable Kashmir region, where tourist sometimes go missing. When we remembered our goal was to hike in Leh we approached an agency with the intention of making a trek over the fearsome passes. Then, to our surprise we started hearing rumors of non-commercial vehicles making it. Here our most ridiculous idea yet started to unfold. We had a motorcycle company recommended to us that took groups on 7 day journeys to Leh. The road is one of the world's most dangerous, but views are reportedly (and I can now confirm) spectacular! Don't worry Moms, we quickly abandoned this when Jen realized she was terrified of motorcycles.
Between Manali and Leh there are several Himalyan mountain ranges that along with the mountains of Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet make up the famous and ferociously jagged Himalayas, a relatively young range. In the south they are dramatically painted year round with snow and glacier, but to the north they have a mean rugged dryness that has you imagining them tearing up recently through the Earth's crust.
It was, finally, in the very first commercial vehicle, at 2 am June 4 that we set out for Leh. Despite the Gravol and altitude sickness pills, I wasn't keeping food down, but the sights were so powerful, strikingly beautiful, that I often forgot my discomfort. At 5 am I arose from a short nights sleep on the Jeep to discover we were driving on the edge of a barrier free road with a drop of more distance than I can estimate. From there we crept along fresh and old snow on a road that was literally carved through a glacier to our first pass with views that go beyond description.
At nine o'clock that evening we made record time arriving exhausted in Leh, where we were hunted by Raj and his brother, touts who later became our friends. They swept us into their guesthouse and invited us to a second story room. I almost cried in resistance to going upstairs, I couldn't see any reason for more elevation gain.