Roads in this region and all the way down to Manali are maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, or BRO for short. BRO loves you and doesn’t want to see you career off a dodgy road to your untimely and no doubt messy death. Most of the roads are pretty shit around here, probably because they spent all of their money on signs which are admittedly genius and they do their bit to make the long, slow journeys that little bit brighter as you try to spot a slogan you’ve not seen before. Slogans such as,
“Drive on horse power, not on rum power.”
“Keep your nerves on sharp curves.”
“Life is short, don’t make it shorter.”
They don’t all rhyme, there’s the short but sweet, “What is hurry?”
Or my personal favourite, “Love thy neighbour, but not while driving.”
And then there’s that one that doesn’t make any fucking sense, “Don’t be a gama in the land of the lama.” You can imagine that board meeting though. “Okay, I know there’s a few hundred kilometres of road that could use a bit of asphalt, but Raj has an idea for a new sign…”
Anyway, we needed to use these roads to get from Kaza to Keylong then on to Leh, but there’s nothing direct from Kaza. What you have to do is book a jeep or minibus to Manali, and you do have to pay for the seat all the way to Manali despite the fact you’ll be jumping out at Grampu which is ancient Sanskrit for “the middle of fucking nowhere.” Okay, I’m clearly lying about that last bit, but all of our Manali to Leh research suggested that by the time our vehicle reached Grampu, the Manali to Leh bus would have already trundled past. We were assured it’d be fine though, we could just hitchhike. Haha, yeah, hitchhike, great. Outward me was all like, “so yeah that’s cool we’ll just hitchhike cool yeah.” Inward me was more like, “OHMYFUCKINGOD WE’RE GOING TO FUCKING DIE!!!” Hey, I never said I was an intrepid adventurer. I clutched my Lonely Planet to my chest and prayed to whatever deity could stand my whining that this wouldn’t go horribly tits up.
Off we went, then. Back through the passport check point, around the huge Buddhist monument, until eventually we reached Grampu and me and Jess got out of the minibus and retrieved our bags. There were several blokes waiting for a ride on the side of the road that’d take them to Manali. We were, it seemed, the only humans trying to get to Keylong at that moment which I guessed was a good thing as we wouldn’t have to wait our turn for a lift. We crossed the road and we hadn’t even taken our packs off our backs when a truck slowly rounded the corner and the driver signalled us to ask if we wanted a lift. I’ve no idea if we waved, or nodded frantically, or if I dropped to my knees and thanked the heavens, but next thing we knew we were aboard a truck bound for Keylong with two men who didn’t speak a word of English which perfectly complemented our complete lack of any Indian language in an uncomfortable silence kind of way.
We stopped not too far up the road so they could have a break and a feed and the younger non-driver jumped into another truck, leaving us with the driver. I bought biscuits to share because that seems to be my default thing to do these days. Lots of stray dogs? Buy biscuits. Hitched a ride in a truck with a stranger with no common language? Buy biscuits. We had no idea whether we were meant to offer him payment or not, we didn’t want to offend him either way, so when he pulled into Keylong to let us out we meekly asked if he wanted money. He just laughed and shook his head. Just gave these two random foreigners a lift, just because. He didn’t get any conversation, or gain anything at all. He’s just a really nice bloke.
Right, so now we needed a place to crash and a bus ticket to Leh for the following morning. There are loads of places to stay so that wouldn’t be a problem but you couldn’t actually buy a ticket to Leh until 6pm despite the fact the booth was already manned for other tickets. Well, rules is rules, and as we wanted to be at the front of this queue I loitered around the booth with a bunch of Indian men and one American called Austin, whilst Jess went to check out a hotel opposite. We didn’t need anything too fancy, it was only one night and being right next to the bus station would be ideal on account of the ridiculously early start the following morning. Like, really early. Stupid early. So when 6pm rolls around they ask that you queue, but you know this ain’t gonna happen. Fortunately I’m much better at this than I used to be so I employed the tried and tested “push your arm through the throng until you can grab the counter then just forcibly pull yourself in” technique.
Once there you simply thrust your money at the first man who looks your way and say, “Leh, two.” It’s a two man job, sorting out tickets for Leh. One bloke takes payment, the other staples all the fucking tickets together and you end up with a wad of paper that you could wipe your arse with for a week. I don’t know if it’s because each ticket has a different value and they have to add up right, or if each ticket is for a separate leg of the journey. It didn’t matter. Mission was accomplished. I joined Jess in the concrete cube that would be our room for the night, dumped my bags then we went in search of food and snacks for the morning before we got an early night. Because have I already mentioned the fucktard early start the next day?
Well it was about 4.30am as we sat on the bus in the station. Early. I nibbled on a cold samosa I’d bought last night and wondered if I’d be judged if I drooled on the windows when I fell asleep. The journey was as expected; long with stops for food and refreshments and general not being sat on a bus. Fun fact though, if you neck a Red Bull at one stop the chances of your bladder lasting until the next stop are somewhat laughable. Good god I was dying for a piss. We were sat quite far back in the bus. I’d have to walk past quite a lot of people to request a pee stop, and even then there’d be no guarantee that there’d be a suitable rock for me to crouch behind. I could do this. I could hold it. And every single bastard bump in the road, of which there were a significant amount, reminded me that actually no, I probably couldn’t hold it. Fine. I stood up and made my way to the front, stepping over the luggage and bags of whatever which completely blocked the gangway. I made it to the driver and asked him if we could please stop. He looked at me, indicated a cluster of temporary buildings off in the distance and said, “Five minutes until next stop.”
Five minutes? Five fucking minutes my shiny arse! I had a fair idea as to how long it’d take to drive that distance in a vehicle this size on roads like this. I returned to my seat and tried not to have a nervous breakdown. It was more like fifteen minutes later when we pulled up and I bolted from the bus, through a dhaba and to the toilet out the back faster than you could say diuretic. Oh good god that was nice. There are few things more enjoyable than having a piss when you’re that desperate, even if you’re a weak legged Westerner attempting to squat in a less than hygienic loo housed in a bamboo and tarp structure which didn’t have much in the way of a locking mechanism beyond a frayed rope and a loose bit of wood. Lesson learned there then. Nothing bigger than a cheeky little chai per stop from now on in. Speaking of chai, my newly emptied bladder was just about ready to be refilled with a bit of sugary nipple juice and I could use a feed too. I walked back into the dhaba, which was actually a massive tarpaulin tent, and thought I’d break out some of the Hindi I’d spent several months trying hard to pick up with very little success. I approached the woman cooking.
“Aloo paratha milega?” Because I wanted potato paratha in my facehole and milega means possible and everyone knows sabkuch milega in India. Everything is possible in India.
“Haa“, she replied. This means yes. She wasn’t openly mocking me.
“Dois paratha, dois chai.” Two of each, not because I’m a fat greedy bastard but Jess would be wanting things too. I threw in a head wobble and a smile for good measure. I believe that Hindi for please is kripyaa but I’ve literally never heard this used apart from at train stations when they ask for your attention please before announcing that your train is about 40 hours late and the inconvenience caused is deeply regretted.
The bus winds its way over some pretty high passes. I think if you’d not been at altitude for a while already that the bus ride to Leh alone might fuck you up a bit, at one point we cruised over Lachungla (“La” means pass in local languages, including Tibetan) at 16616 feet which Google reliably informs me is over 5000 metres and everyone knows Google doesn’t lie. The landscape around here is something else though, it’s incredible, very similar to the scenery in Spiti Valley which took my breath away. I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of of it. We stopped again 49kms from Leh where toilets were very much an issue if you didn’t possess the innate ability to piss up a wall whilst maintaining conversation with strangers, and eventually, after so many hours on government bus on a bumpy road I wasn’t sure my arse would ever forgive me, we rolled into Leh and walked around aimlessly until someone pointed us in the vague direction of the main backpacker accommodation strips which include Changspa Road and Old Fort Road, and we opted for the latter because that’s where Ti-Sei Guesthouse is and that was the cheapest place we could find after much enquiring. Leh is a bit more pricey than most other places, probably on account of how bloody remote it is. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get from Kaza to Leh. It’s actually quite easy as long as you have all the time in the world, the patience of a saint and a bladder of such epic proportions that they’d have sung songs about it in banquet halls in the 17th century.
Leh, Ladakh, India
Altitude: 3500 metres
Stayed at: Tisei Guesthouse in Leh