Parth and I were quite confident of ourselves that we will not only make it through the 1000 odd km road journey to Leh but also enjoy every bit of it! We kicked it off with an overnight ride to Manali in a AC volvo bus, alas in the last row! One has to pay a price of booking at the last minute. Anyhow, the seats did recline with enough of a buffer from the seat in front. As we started out of Delhi, the rain Gods spoke and we were stuck in traffic for couple of hours before we felt that we had actually started. A quick stop was made at the Mirchi resturant in Ambala (which had CCD by the way!). With the intention of keeping the passengers entertained (or was it for the driver, hmmm!), two bollywood movies back to back made sure that we did not get much sound sleep! But I could feel myself moving at the thumping beats of the nice songs, though! One great thing about the Volvo buses are the large windows with no grills giving a clean view of the outside world. The hills came into view along with the river and trees...hmmm...the unrestful night did not seem so bad anymore.
Our guesthouse-The Drifters Inn was quite close to the bus station and we passed by this little colony of foreigners in Old Manali with handicrafts shops, tour operators, German bakeries, and cheap guesthouses. After a big breakfast and a three-hour nap, we set on to explore Manali by foot. Following an intriguing sign of "Little Italy" in the inner lanes, we stumbled upon this guesthouse for Israelies. Continuing our exploration, we found this path down to the river and had real cappucino and chocolate balls at the German Bakery near the the river. Eager to build up our appetite for the infamous trout dinner I was so looking forward to, we wandered around the Nature Park-a green enclosure with a nice walking path overlooking the river below. The trout was as great as its omnipresent advertisements. Parth picked up some anjir (fig), walnuts and pine nuts (of how I remembered my little days when my Mom patiently opened pine nuts for me!) for our onward journey. We met the rest of the gang who had come from Mumbai by train.
After a restful night, we set about our two jeeps in the morning unsure about the Rohtang pass which was rumoured to be blocked. Which it was!!! An oil tanker was stuck on the road which had blocked traffic for six days! The weary truck drivers looked on hopefully at the least bit of movement by the army "Recovery team". We hardly witnessed foul language or angry behaviour from them. Not so true about our army guys who did their best to spew out the worst of obscenities! One army guy even beat up a truck driver. Hour by hour of wait turned into about nine hours in total. Luckily we had one jeep to ourselves, so in between dosing and reading and munching on whatever we could find, we managed to kill the time. When it was cleared, a dysfunctional government babu claimed the first right to cross over from the other side again blocking the traffic. One driver died. Atleast three others were seriously ill. 2000 vehicles got stuck that day.
And what makes the news? Aishwariya Rai's movie shooting is affected as Rohtang pass is blocked! The night halt was at Keylong a few hours drive from the Rohtang Pass. Vinod managed to get us a comfortable hotel with nice hot food and water! With four hours of instant sleep, next morning we started off our day long non-stop ride to Leh. When we passed by Sarchu, a part of me was very happy we did not stay there as planned! The tents and open fields next to mountains would have made for a cold cold night! The change in landscape was the first thing to take our breath away. The second was the altitude. Armed with Diomax and Avomine, we managed to fight the nausea and the headaches. Even though we were munching throughout, we devoured the dal-chawal-subzi at the lunch break. Some tents had nice beds which helped stretch our legs.
The next part of the journey was the most difficult for me. Sitting on the back of the Jeep with not so good roads helped digest every bit of food but also made me cry out for a butt massage. Thanks Preeti for the long chat about your work and HR, kept me distracted! But slowly slowly our time to Leh was reducing. Issa our driver was in a chatty mood and patiently answered all my questions about Ladakh, the schools, the governance, the effect of tourists, the future of young men like him. As our words exchanged, the landscape kept changing. The colour of the mountains from brown, red to black...with patches of green shrubs in between. The Chortens started appearing marking habitations. We passed by villages and small towns. One last stop before Leh was Upshi. Interestingly, the bus that had left at the same time as us from Keylong arrived just after us. Small vehicles may not necessarily reach faster than big ones! There were two foreigners on the bus and the smiles on their faces showed no fatigue, no frustration. Keshav and I had a another lot chat about Andhra politics and soon enough we reached Leh. All my tiredness and grumpiness vanished in an instant, I felt just pure happiness at arriving at a new place I had never gone before.