This is an experience that is still clearly impressed in my mind despite not recent. It was August 2010 and I was almost at the end of my 9 months Asian trip, planning to visit the legendary Buddhist hamlet of Leh in Ladakh, India. Unfortunately I wasn't able to reach my final destination, because we got stuck on the famous road from Manali to Leh, hit by unexpected floods.
August generally means monsoon in India, but not in the Himalayan region where there is a totally different climate, thanks to the altitude and the protection that the mountains give against the rainy clouds. That's why I decided to go in Ladakh in that period, sure to find the dry climate I couldn't get anywhere else in India. Getting to Leh from Manali is a 20 hours trip at high altitude, across amazing landscapes and primitive roads, strangely called "highway", split into two days.
Despite it was supposed to be a good season to go toward Ladakh, unexpectedly torrential rains and floods caught us on the way, and while we were blocked on the road, at the same time on the city of Leh over two hundreds lives were lost. Below my point of view of the event, seen from a much further and safer, though still dangerous, condition.
We started the trip with a minibus from Manali, the most common starting point to venture in direction of Leh. We made friend very soon with the other passengers, a necessary and welcome step since we were going to share a long trip and an important experience.
Since the beginning the weather was quite bad, rainy and foggy; the road was really tiny and muddy, hardly two car could cross the road at the same time, and despite this there were even trucks coming both ways, pushing us to find dangerous trajectories to overcome the obstacles.
After just a few hours we had to say goodbye to one of our new friends, a girl that was sharing the bus with us. We were still not arrived at 3000 meters of altitude (10 000 feet) that she started to feel sick. It was mountain sickness and we had no other chance than leaving her in a taxi to go back to valley as soon as possible. The weather was still not improving and in the rare moments of rest, dramatic views were opening over the valley.
Soon rain started to accumulated and to transform into streams of torrential water that we had to cross in several occasions. We were constantly hitting our head on the ceiling of the bus while gong on this bumpy "highway". The adventure was getting more and more extreme.
But we still were able to enjoy the landscape, the amazing views and the experience, unaware of what was going to expect us.
The rain was falling with almost no interruption, and trucks filled with road workers started to appear, trying to make up for a situation that was almost going out of control. Most of the workers were coming from Bihar, one of the poorest region of India.
Eventually we couldn't go any further. The road was blocked by a landslide some kilometers in front, and we had to find a location to pass the night. The possibilities weren't a lot and the pretenders many: the few Yurta tents available along the way soon filled up. We found recover in one of them and we were all fed with industrial "Maggi" noodles and tea. We managed to find enough space to sleep one next to the other in an emergency situation, but it was still a very uncomfortable night for me: it was pouring water over my head from a hole in the roof, and I couldn't move anywhere else, since every inch of space was taken.
In the morning the situation apparently looked better, it wasn't raining despite still cloudy. But the road was still blocked by the landslide. The main problem was that we were cut out of every communication with the outside world. Mobile phone weren't working, it was no network at over 4000m of altitude (13 000 feet), and the road being blocked, we couldn't have any information about the condition of the "highway" further away. We were waiting for somebody able to make it the opposite direction, from Leh to Manali, to have some fresh news, but the landslide was still not cleared.
Eventually we had to take a decision: to try to keep going to Leh, or to give up and go back to Manali. We were still at one third of the distance and a long and tiring way was waiting in front of us, but I was ready to take up that challenge and try to reach Leh even with some days of delay. But only a few others were supporting me, we were the minority and we had to start our return trip against our wills.
Eventually this revealed to be a life saving decision, but at that moment I was very pissed off, because we had no clue of the floods and deaths that were happening in Leh at the very same time.
So we started our way back, and still the conditions of the road to Manali were catastrophic. New torrential streams appeared since we passed there the first time, and they were so big that looked more like rivers and waterfall. Cars were systematically getting blocked attempting to cross the water, and they were left to pass one by one under the supervision of the road workers, that were having a big will and abnegation but not much equipment.
Eventually it was our turn to cross the torrential river, and we luckily managed quite easily to pass it for the happiness of the passengers.
After passing the obstacle of the water, some more landslides blocked us on the way. The rocky walls weren't able to retain all of that water, and the rock was just disintegrating.
It was still a long and dangerous journey to reach Manali, constantly under stress because of the circumstances, with little sleep and the disappointment for to having reached Leh and Ladakh. But even in a worst condition than us were the poor workers, moving rocks and earth with bare hands to recover the road service.
Eventually even the TV arrived and our misadventures were broadcasted live in the Indian Subcontinent and around the world.
And when eventually we passed also the last landslide our misadventures still didn't finish. Our minibus got broken, and we couldn't go any further. The thread of the accelerator broke up, and we literally couldn't move. But some smart Indian mind found an effective and hilarious solution: one man hanging outside of the bus pulling the tread of the accelerator while the driver was steering the wheel inside. It was really funny but at the same time scary since the road was muddy, narrow, crowded and the precipice just a few feet away. We managed in this conditions to reach a safer place where to temporarily fix the bus to be able to reach Manali.
While going down the mountain the situation was slightly improving and we were able to enjoy again the landscape and to feel a little bit more relaxed. The view was full of contrasts and we had mixed feelings thinking of our failed journey.
We still had to pass through other obstacles and to stand in long lines before arriving to Manali but at least we were sound and safe. Only after reaching the city we were told about the hundreds of people that died at our initial destination, and we were supposed to be there exactly at that moment. We felt really sorry for the news, but at the same time extremely blessed and lucky to be able to tell this story.