KEYLONG - LEH
At Rohtang Pass, the weather can change abruptly, spelling disaster for travelers. (Rohtang means "a pile of bones" in Tibetan!) It is the entry to the regions of Lahaul and Spiti and definitely gives the feeling of a gateway as you cross over.
After driving for about four hours and 115 km on a very scenic road, one can reached Keylong in Lahaul. At Lahaul, the mountains present a different sight. Brown barren slopes, icy rivers and streams that gush around rocks and boulders after emerging from giant glaciers. In these mountains are the passes that lead to Leh and the valleys of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers in Keylong, which become the Chenab on entering Kashmir.
Lahauli villages, white in patches of irrigated green, cling precariously to the mountain slopes. They are built of sun-dried bricks and are white washed, with borders of black, yellow and burgundy around the doors and windows. Life is hard, but the people smile and plant trees to liven up this desert which is their home.
Buddhism and Hinduism are the major religions. Deities consist of wisps of cloth tied to a pole, or yaks’ tails reverently hung outside homes. The gompas in Lahaul are beautiful. They include Gondhla, Kharding, Tayul, Shashur and Guru Ghantal. Famous temples around Keylong are Triloknath near Udaipur and Mrikula Devi. Keylong is a very cheerful place. Watched a full yellow moon rise over the demure and graceful Lady of Keylong – a peak that looks over this town, veil and all. The moment of moonlight filtering through her translucent white veil is magical.
As you crossed Lahaul, alongside the Bhaga going towards its source. You passed a half-frozen blue lake. Deepak Tal, you passed the area that would be the Jispa camps in season, and Darcha. Everything was deserted except a checkpost.
As the landscape opened up, the hairpins towards Baralacha-La (4,892m) began. An occasional streak of black tells you athat you are on the road with Massive ice walls in a black-and-white world greeted at the frozen pass. It is unique as it is a tri-junction with a trail coming in from Spiti in the southeast as well. This is the watershed between the Indus and the Chenab. What a crossing it was! Every moment revealed a new beauty: you would experience through many gateways into paradise.
Baralacha opened into a vast moonscape: surreal boulders, gravel and ice. No vegetation was visible. Down from the pass at Sarchu, over the border of Himachal and Jammu & Kashmir. During the brief tourist season, buses going from Manali halt here for the night. The road for a short while followed the bluest of rivers we had ever seen, the color of copper mixed with cobalt. It was called Tsarap Chu and left us as suddenly as it came upon. Now its begin to cross the Zanskar ranges over two passes. Climbing a road that looped and looped into the sky, we were almost at Lachungla (5,059m), the second highest pass on the second highest road in the world. The Gata Loops that brought us here are a set of 21 loops that seem like a roller coaster ride upwards. Further on was Lachungla. On our way down, we sighted a sinister black canyon which gaped like a bottomless crater. The Pang Canyon, on closer examination, did not look so fearsome.
After descending, you are soon on a smooth plateau road, on the way to Pang, the halfway point from Keylong to Leh. Here army activity and a tent camp were a welcome sight.
So this was what a high altitude desert kingdom looked like. Here was a world of oracles and magic; of butter tea and Buddhism; of long-haired horsemen riding into the sunset. You can see the Chang-pa nomads camping with their sheep, horses and dogs. Spring was bursting in the desert.
Tanglangla. A rough road leads to this pass, at 5,328m, the highest on the road. There’s a little temple here and you can get a free cup of tea at the government teashop... A high pass is the most incredible feature in the mountains. From a peak you see breathtaking views, but from a pass you see the other side.
Beyond this white and black world you can see the colors of a desert. And silently saluted the universe.
You can follow the Gya River down to the Indus at Upshi, after which it would be plain sailing. Here, the colors of this valley began to reveal themselves. There were cliffs of marble in combinations of pink and purple, blue and red, green and copper. Past the turning to the fabled Hemis monastery, you can see the imposing Shey Gompa.