Monday, September 5, 2011

The Manali-Leh Highway, or: Wow, that was far and away the most difficult trip I've ever taken

"Highway" is a bit of an overstatement. Shoot, "road" is a bit of an overstatement. There were roady bits, and then there were bits where we monster-trucked it over dirt and rocks. So, okay, so riding on the Manali-Leh highway is a little bit like riding the Blue Streak for 19 hours. Fine.

Did I mention it took 19 hours? Yow.

But the best part is the elevation: it starts in Manali (6000 feet), quickly climbs to about 12000-13000, and then... keeps going up. We hung out at about 15000 for a while, and the highest pass is 17470. Eventually it goes down to 11500, in Leh. But what this all means for you, dear reader, is that your whole journey is a big spin of the Wheel of Altitude Sickness.

(Altitude sickness apparently strikes pretty randomly. I think the only thing that can prevent it is already being acclimated to a high altitude. Being, say, a fit and clever lad of 25 doesn't seem to matter. Having previous experience skiing at 9000-12000 feet with no problems also doesn't seem to matter.)

At 2AM I was chipper. At 6AM the sun rose and I could see how beautiful all these mountains are, and by 8AM I was a lightheaded, weak, uncontrollably-shivering wreck. I put on all my clothes. It helped. But I still spent the next 8 hours pretty much suffering. It was at this point that the title for this post came together in my head.

At lunch, around 4, a couple of Europeans noticed I was having trouble. Maybe because I was slumped over on the couch/bed with my wallet in my hand, having fallen asleep before actually paying for my food. And, bless them, bless them again, they knew exactly what was up, confirmed my suspicions of altitude sickness, and gave me some aspirin and Diamox. I survived the rest of the trip more or less okay. And by that I mean, I still want to sleep for 96 hours right now, but, y'know, I'm all in one piece.

Oh! But about the actual scenery of the Manali-Leh highway, which was the reason I took this route, and indeed, one of the guiding forces for the early days of this trip: it is sublime. Dang. The mountains are so big! How can mountains be that big! It is like a set from Star Wars- sort of like Tatooine but not actually that because it's much bigger than Tatooine. Whah! Words or pictures* cannot describe the enormity of those mountains. My pictures sure can't, as I usually didn't feel well enough to reach in my pocket and get my camera. Here are some other people's pictures that might look better: A cyclist (whoa) in 1996, More Plains, a particularly great stretch, on wikipedia, another guy's photos.

So, do I recommend the Manali-Leh highway? I'm actually not sure. I'm not planning to do it again. But I'm glad I got a glimpse into this remarkable moonscape. I'm glad I hung out in some parachute-dhabas  and chatted with other travelers about how sick we were or weren't. And if I'd had some Diamox from the beginning, it would have helped. Perhaps my friend Justin is right, in both ways: "Manali-Leh is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

This happened maybe 5 times.

* skippable side note: I was just reading "Consciousness Explained" by Daniel Dennett, and he talks about this device for blind people. It has a video camera, and whatever images it sees, it projects onto this array of little vibratey things on a panel taped to the user's stomach. So if the camera sees a circle, a circle of these little devices buzz. So it's low-resolution, but the users get used to it pretty quickly, and they can recognize what things are, walk down the street, etc. The neat bit, though, is that the images don't trigger the emotional response that they usually would! Dennett suggests that the reason is not because of the stomach thing, but just because it's low-res. Think about it: if you saw a fuzzed-out picture of a beautiful flower, you probably wouldn't think about how that's so beautiful, like you would if you saw the sharp image. Anyway, this is all to say, my photos actually can't trigger the right emotional responses that I'd want them to, and without that, they just look like a bunch of hills. Maybe (maybe) I'm starting to come around to the idea that getting good at photography is worth it.


  1. So glad to hear from you! Sounds like a wild ride!
    And yes- take more pictures!

  2. Sounds like some really timely good sams. 17,000 feet is really high. You'll need to get your Sherpa certification.
    Cool entry; moonscape indeed. Was there a Starbucks up there?

  3. You poor thing! Sounds a bit dreadful. I'm happy to hear that some good people were there to help you along. I understand altitude sickness can be quite disorienting and miserable. I LOVE the pics! The goats are so cute ans surprisingly healthy looking. It's like a whole different world out there- Something you would see on Dr. Who or something. Keep up the pics and hope you feel better soon.