Wednesday, October 1, 2008

It isn't a rally

We leave James hard at work and take a nightbus to Manali, another touristy town, set in a wide green and forrested valley. The area is famous for marijuana and stoned Israelis but the peak season is over, the local cafes with Bob Marley or Bob Dylan murals are closing up, the shops selling the usual hippy clothes and their staff are following the tourists to Goa. We are still waiting to see if the roads north will be cleared of snow and wander around visiting the local Buddhist and Hindu temples, meeting Indian tourists doing the same thing. Manali, like some other towns, has banned the use of polythene bags, so all the shops use paper bags. There are also press adverts informing everyone of the ban on public smoking that comes into force in India at the beginning of October. The times, as one Bob says, they are a-changing.
The road to Leh is re-opened and we take an empty minibus on the 17-hour journey across the Himalaya to Ladakh. We set off at 2am and cross the first high pass in the dark. The road is a crumbling mess and it's impossible to doze. We rattle past the ghosts of Tata trucks parked up along the roadside and chase jeeps taking the same route. After a couple of 'tea and pee' stops we start the climb to the second pass at 4950 metres. We are soon zig-zagging up a road walled with fresh snow. The sun has risen and the surrounding whiteness is dazzling. Descending the other side, the landscape has become barren mountain scenery - a wild desolate place with snowy peaks, shallow winding rivers and endless shades of brown. There are roadwork teams of southern Indians labouring to improve the worn-out road - members of the Border Roads Organisation. Their road safety signs keep us entertained:
after drinking whisky driving is risky
driving faster causes disaster

More hairpin bends as we ascend to 5060 metres before leaving the tarmac and crossing a sandy plateau. There are occasional herds of sheep and the tents of nomads but it's imossible to imagine how either survive in this high-altitude wilderness. We bounce and buck over a fractured road and crawl up to the final pass at 5300 metres just as the sun is starting to dip. In twilight we wind down into a gorge of vivid red rock before finally emerging into the Indus valley. The road follows the river to Leh and we are entreated by further signs:
it isn't a rally enjoy the valley
safety on the road means safe tea at home

Our driver drops us off, looking none the worse for wear after a gruelling drive and we are welcomed with a hot flask of safe tea at our guesthouse.

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