Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Entry 6: Over the Edge & beyond

There’s a sense in which Manali represents the end of the known Indian world. It isn’t, of course. Lake Pangorn, an arduous 120km journey further on from Leh, scene of the denouement in Aamir Khan’s still-new and already famous film “3 Idiots”, and lying mostly within Chinese territory, is a geographical, political and now my personal boundary for India.

But Manali still has enough reminders of the plains of India that lie far to the south to make me think that though it’s 2,000 metres above sea level, though the sky is a clear blue, not a murky, toxic soup, and though the women are a gorgeous mixture of subcontinental and east Asian, it definitely belongs to the subcontinent.

50 kilometres to Manali’s north lies the first of the great mountain passes, named Rohtang. (There is also Jalori Pass to the south east. If anything Jalori is more dangerous than Rohtang, but at merely 3,000m high it hardly qualifies as a great pass!) Rohtang is dangerous enough, and it represents the far edge of plains India. The word “Rohtang” means “pile of corpses”. Prior to roads, fossil-fuel-driven vehicles and soon (perhaps!) a tunnel that is still being built it was closed by snows for over half of each year, trapping the people who lived behind it. Sometimes people had to attempt the arduous, dangerous journey out. Often they failed.

Now all of that has changed. Each summer thousands of newly-rich middle class Indians from the heat south of the Himalayas come to Manali and to Rohtang Pass. They flock in their recently purchased cars, often hopelessly inadequate to this task, or in vehicles driven by tourist operators whose goal seems to be to spend as little time on the road as possible. The road? This twisted piece of ribbon on the south side of Rohtang Pass is being improved and widened, but still resembles an asphalted goat track in places. Up to 4 lanes wide, it narrows to less than 2. Two thirds of the way up is a toll station. And right there you have the ingredients of a recipe for continuing traffic jams. Oh, and male pride and impatience, of course! 

During the tourist season the daily traffic jam typically starts near Gulaba, about 10km from the toll station. We Peace Riders had our first real contact with this form of “un-peace” there, and our response was instructive. Not content with sitting in a traffic queue we set about burrowing through small holes between and to the sides of the vehicles. In about 20 minutes we reached the toll station, where we discovered that our efforts were futile. The Bishop, who held the necessary documentation for our group to proceed, had decided to travel in a vehicle that day, and that vehicle now languished in a traffic jam many kilometres behind - one might say under - us! So we waited, and talked, getting to know each other and other groups in similar predicaments. We ate breakfast and drank tea prepared by enterprising Indian vendors who had set up shop under tarpaulins. Riders were despatched back down the mountain to get the papers from the Bishop. Still we waited. And eventually something happened, as it always does in India, and we were allowed to proceed.

Filled with pent up impatience and energy the good riders shot ahead as we had been told not to do…into the thickest mist I have ever experienced. It was sobering to think that, utterly alone in this impenetrable mist, I could see 10-15 metres ahead, and had no idea how much further on was a sheer drop. Any bravado in me drained away. Vehicle after tourist operator’s vehicle slid past me in the murk as I discovered just how few rpm the Bullet needs to keep going, and as I tested to the limit my inadequate ability to negotiate hairpin bends. The mist cleared somewhat, then thickened, then cleared again, which only encouraged other drivers to speed up! I found another Rider by the roadside, taking selfies in front of the spectacular backdrop. I joined him, and we moved on to discover two more. I joined them, leaving the first Ride-cum-self-photographer to his devices. Perhaps he thought that if he was going to fall off the cliff he would at least leave a photographic memory of himself! My new companions outstripped me and I reached the Rohtang Pass alone again (“…naturally! It’s been a little while from now.”). After riding back and forth a few times in a vain effort to locate someone, anyone, I knew, I decided to continue. Fortunately I have been here before, for in its own green way the backdrop of vast mountains on the other side of the valley I was now starting to descend into was a intimidating as anything we were to meet later. It was raining, windy and cold. Despite my passing familiarity I started to wonder whether I would die alone on this incredible descent.

Rounding yet another hairpin bend I came upon fully 8 of our group, standing around and shivering. One of them had a puncture, and the others had decided, wisely, to stay with him. The frontrunners had, generously, left behind a couple of sweaters, but this was a group of boys and young men from the hot plains with no experience of these conditions. Lessons I learnt as a Scouting patrol leader nearly 50 years ago kicked in. No, I wasn’t going to go on, I would stay with them. When you’re lost or in trouble, STICK TOGETHER! I showed them how to find shelter in the lee of the hill. Someone produced a cigarette lighter and some packaging from which they made a fire which, for a couple of minutes at least, warmed their hands. 

Eventually the Bishop and the service vehicle arrived, the puncture was fixed and the situation resolved. We continued down the mountain, only to find that the good bitumen surface gave out into a kind of road surface that had just enough bitumen left along with gravel and a great deal of by this time very slippery mud to make it tricky. Sometimes it’s in extreme situations that one finds one’s calling. I discovered that I was pretty good at negotiating this gunk! As tentative as I was at getting around hairpin bends and riding on a good surface in rain, so bold I became at what you could almost call offroad or trail bike riding. 

All of a sudden I was outpacing some of the others, secure in the knowledge that the service vehicle was not far behind. I almost shot past the primitive tea shop in a tiny settlement on the valley floor that was packed with wet, happy and (one suspects) relieved Riders letting chai do its re-invigorating work on them. The rest of the run along the valley floor to the petrol station at Tandy, then the nearby buddhist retreat centre a few kilometres from Keylang was a high speed doddle compared with what we’d been through. Even the weather abated. Our huts felt like palaces, the food tasted like cordon bleu cuisine, and we retired to bed that night wet and tired, but feeling that we had achieved something of significance. We had gone over the edge, and into a new world, and we had survived to tell the tale!

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