Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Circle of Life: Chapter 2: First Look (Manali-Keylong)

The revelry from the night before thankfully left few traces on us the next morning. All of us woke up as scheduled and got ready by around 4.30 am. Our hotel owner had not woken up, and would not be woken up by any means. He paid the price for this, quite literally. We were in a hurry and hence we just hung the lock on our door, couldn't pay him for our tea the previous night and began the long walk to main Manali. Having reached there we boarded our shared cab, which incidentally had only the four of us and pushed off to our second way-point- Keylong. Keylong would give us our first look at the stark, barren beauty of the Lahaul Valley.
And as luck would have it, we met with our adversary within an hour. Another serpentine traffic jam, the cause the same. We moved ahead and steadily made our way higher, snaking through the towering mountains, their greenery disrupted at regular intervals by mudslides. And then we hit the big one. Once we were sure that our vehicle was jammed in the queue, Gussu and I decided to take a walk to source of the jam and see how it was working out. Along the way we met some roadside food vendors, whose good business sense had pushed them down the mountain to the jam site and also cause them to triple the prices of their goods.
After a half an hour walk we reached the source and found it to be a rather exciting event. A few years ago a cloudburst washed away all the vegetation off this plot of land. Ever since, whenever it rains, the road turns into a mud path and cars often find it hard to find traction as the make their way up the treacherous slope. The paharis, friendly and helpful as they are, join hands with car owners to give the struggling cars a helping hand. Gussu and I watched in excitement as the cars and heavily loaded oil tankers crossed the area one by one, their engines groaning and their tyres screeching and spinning as they attempted the climb. Some cars got stuck and started rolling back and nearly fell off the cliff. The locals would then give them a helping hand. We too pitched in and got a share of the excitement. Some of the cars also left behind marks of their struggle behind in the form of burnt rubber. Burnt rubber on a wet, muddy road.
We filmed our car crossing this stretch (which it did with surprising ease) and hopped on, hoping that this was the last of it. All of us of course, in our hearts, knew the answer to that question.
As we carried on to higher altitudes the vegetation changed and an open view from the top enabled us to see that the jam we'd left behind had grown to almost 5 kilometers long. Along the way we also saw the wreckage of an unfortunate truck that had fallen into the ravine and been mangled beyond belief. Without any further incidents we made it to Rohtang Pass and across the dirt left by the tourists and past the zero point at 13050 feet, into the Lahaul Valley. The mind of the local tourist is shown very clearly by the fact that there were hardly any vehicles on the other side of the pass. The weather changed drastically and so did the view. From the tourist infested windward side, we changed over to stark, bare, and pristine rainshadow area of the Lahaul Valley.
However beautiful the view was, the road turned into a dusty, narrow path, eaten up by streams of melting snow at regular intervals. We slowly made our way to the valley floor, where we got our first view of the Bhaga river. A quick meal at Koksar, and two hours later, we'd reached Keylong.
Settled amid the mountains, Keylong is a small, sleepy little hamlet. Just to give the reader a measure of its remoteness, there are very few vegetarian dishes available because veggies are expensive and hard to supply. It is flanked by 3 monasteries, all of which were quite a walk away. For that evening we decided to roam around Keylong 'Town' and then come back. A few games of the staple sport later, we'd dozed off, hoping to find our bus to Leh in the morning, which was to arrive at Keylong from Manali the next morning.
That of course, as our experience teaches us, was not to be.

The Circle of Life: Chapter 1 : Battle Royale (Delhi-Manali)

The idea floated past my head on a trip to Srinagar in 2005. And while I knew that turning the idea into something concrete would be no less than a Herculian task, I never let go of it. This was on my list of things to do before I turned 30 and this was something I would do; come what may. After the plan failed to get off the ground in 2006 and 2007, I felt dejected, but never stopped trying. Its always difficult to find people as mad as you are, people who'd support your adventurous (sometimes foolhardy) ideas and would be party to it. The surprising bit of course was that I found support where others find trouble- my parents, who were all out in support of the idea.
Spurred on by this, I floated the idea again to a few friends in Feb this year. As is usually the case, it was met with great initial enthusiasm, since the plan really wasn't in place. A couple of months down the line and everybody except me had pretty much forgotten about it. When I raised the idea again in May, only a few hands went up; these hands too, were shaky. To cut a long story short, after great deal of planning, bickering, arguing and more planning, it was finally four intrepid young men; Siddharth Krishnamoorthy aka SK, Manu Saxena, Abhinav Dhar aka Dhar, and Dhruv Goswami aka Gussu, found themselves waiting for the Manali bound bus in Janpath on a warm night. While Dhar and my parents were all out in support of the trip, Manu was nearly eloping, and Gussu's parents had basically given up the fight against his will. In their defence, their fears weren't misplaced or irrational. The road was dangerous, both human and natural threats, potentially deadly, lined up the road to the gates of paradise. But a risk must be taken to reap the rewards and hence these men warred against their kin to undertake the perilous journey.
The first leg however from Delhi to Manali wasn't supposed to pose any danger and the four of us were bursting with excitement (and heavy luggage) that usually characterises the start of a journey. We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know what man or nature would hurl at us; and that made us secretly happy albeit in a weird, scary way.
With the bus operating on the standard, stretchable and adjustable schedule, we were running about 2 hours late as we crossed Ambala. While Manu and I were engrossed in a long midnight discourse on philosophies in life, women and the like, Gussu was fast asleep and Dhar was humoring his first love; his Ipod Touch. The crossed the night.

When we woke up next morning, we realised that the bus was running further behind schedule and therefore everyone would need to curb their natural instinct. And then we ran into, for the first time, what would be the most regular feature of our trip. No, not a loo. A nice kilometer long traffic jam. There had been overnight rainfall and a landslide and traffic was stuck. On top of that, when our driver decided to gun it, he scraped the tyre on the mountainside and caused a puncture. So there we were, staring at a kilometer long jam with no wheels to move. I reminded Manu of the recent bad luck I'd had with visiting places that were disputed with the Chinese!Then we also spotted a poor bird whose name would be contorted badly over the trip, a Jackdaw. It would later be called by myriad names such as Jack Black, Black Jack, Jack D, Blue Jay and the like!

Morning went by and it wasn't before three that we landed in Manali and booked ourselves in a small place in Old Manali, far away from the noise of the bustling hill station. We paid a short visit to the Hadimba Temple and clicked pics where we weren't supposed to. On the way down, we spotted one of the old carnival games of toppling 6 glasses with balls. Macho men Dhar and Gussu decided to show off their prowess and did so by not toppling a single glass in 6 shots!
Meanwhile Manu was jumping with joy. We soon discovered the reason for this. Our copy of Lonely Planet read, "Manali literally means Abode of Manu". A visit to the town soon proved this. Manu had his name stamped all over the city. He even had a temple to his name!Manu, in Hindu mythology is the person who recreated the world after it was sunk in a flood and prescribed a code of conduct for Hindus to follow. Anyway, after Manu got all the self gratification he could handle, we headed for dinner to a place peculiarly named "Crazy Funky"! Manali receives its fair share of foreign tourists and one gets a lot of foreign cuisine. Crazy Funky was one such place. A hutment by the river, it looked like it was from the 60s hippie era. A song with the lyrics "Govinda Radhe Shyam Gopal Radhe, Jai Shree Radhe" completed the ambience! I must confess, the song was infectious. To this day, all of us hum that song intermittently.
After a satisfying meal, I claim we went back to our room and retired for the night, to prepare for the journey ahead.
No! Wait! The official version's different! We did go back. Far from asleep, though. My three companions got very 'happy' once we got back. There was of course, that staple sport of Texas Hold'em that was played and not to mention some brief breaks one had to take from sleeping to get up and laugh at Manu and his horror stories!
And then, of course, we retired to prepare for what would come swinging by next morning!

The Circle of Life: Preface

I just returned from what was a trip to others and a lifelong dream for me. I, along with three friends undertook a perilous, exciting and surreal road trip to Leh and back. The sights and sounds of this trip will remain with me for as long as I live. Each step along the way was as eventful as the one before. Not a single day went by without incident, and hence, I decided to chronicle my dream in the form of a blog book. The Circle of Life is not taking birth and dying. The Circle of Life is living the life. The Circle is Delhi-Leh-Delhi.