We had our first hint of bad luck when, as the bus climbed up from Kullu towards Manali, our thrill at the first sight of snow-clad ranges was dampened by a co-passenger: 'You said you wanted to go to Leh? It rained here last night - snowed up there. The road's closed.'
Even the money-spinning Rohtang Pass (a "tourist spot" few thousand feet above Manali) was inaccessible for a few days. When we managed to get to Rohtang-La, there was a traffic jam on the way that would put Brabourne Road to shame. Stuck in that jam, I got down from the bus, plodded through a foot of snow to make my way to a Himachal Pradesh Transport bus that too was stuck. The bus had a sign - 'Delhi to Leh'! Its driver seemed determined to reach Ladakh. Was the road open after all?
Down back at Manali, the HP Transport office was quite firm - 'Our buses are going till Keylong (the headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti, the northern-most district of Himachal Pradesh); no further.'
We decided to try our luck till Keylong at least and landed up next morning at the terminal with our baggage. There we found a bus sporting the legend - Ladakh Bus Operators' Union . Its crew seemed desperate to return home before the snow cut Leh off. So desperate, in fact, that they were willing to take the considerably circuitous (and terrorist-laden) route via Srinagar if the Manali-Leh road turned out to be closed. Fourteen or fifteen other desperadoes appeared - the spirit in the bus was that of an adventurous camaraderie.
We crossed Rohtang a second time and noted with pleasure and hope that grass
had appeared where there had been all snow only two days ago. At three in the
afternoon, we were at Keylong. Though there was a couple of hours' daylight
still to go, we were forced to stop there as no shelter was available beyond
Keylong. The bus was to start moving again at three next morning.
The crew and most of the passengers (including a couple with a three-month old baby) had spent the freezing night in the bus. We landed up at three and roused them from sound sleep.
Soon, we were moving steadily. Darcha was an outpost with a couple of locked houses and an empty, parked, grey HP Transport bus. 'There you see - it's going to Leh,' I point out to the conductor. 'Fat chance,' he replies, 'it's turning back as soon as it's daylight.' It's all very confusing. The driver at Rohtang had told me he was going to Leh; the May I Help You at Manali bus terminal says the road is closed after Keylong; a bus is parked in out-of-the-way Darcha; and here we are, blundering towards Leh with our conductor insisting that his was the only bus going to Ladakh - and that too for the last time before next June.
The headlight suddenly reveals a statue-like mule sleeping on its feet on the edge of the road. It's getting chillier by the kilometre. Somewhere in the middle of this, our bus stops and two men get down - road builders, apparently - and vanish into the cold night.
It's Lakshmi Puja night - which means a full-moon one. It's all white with snow and moon. The interrogating Ursa Major hangs on the sky - its quizzical dot at times dipping behind a hill and then bobbing up again. Is it puzzled with human folly and foolhardiness? We question our wisdom in attempting this journey.
For some time now, the engine has been sounding a little tired. The driver slows down and then stops the bus. The crew exchange knowing nods. The diesel is freezing in the tank. The conductor takes a rod, wraps a rag around it, douses it in kerosene and sets a match. I get out of the bus to watch him torch the fuel-tank and coax the diesel to flow. The cold rises like a glow from the snow lying on the roadside. Back inside, my teeth chatter for a full ten minutes.
The engine is rivived, but only for an hour or so. We are approaching treacherous Bara-Lacha La. It's getting on towards sunup. Bara Lacha is a snow-covered pass through mountains closing in on either side. In some places, the road is covered with a few inches of ice. A lake is shrouded in white. We spot a military truck a little higher up on the pass. Relief! We are not alone. As we approach it we realize it's abandoned, loaded for some inexplicable reason with old wooden crates. A few military constructions lie deserted in a clearing.
Soon after this, the engine gives up again. And this time it isnt revived so easily. For two hours, driver and conductor battle the cold. The irresponsible mother looks grimly at her baby. A foolish tourist suffers in wet socks. A few more hours of this cold and the child will be dead blue, the wet feet frost-bitten. The sky is lighting up but the enclosing mountains deprive us of the succour of warm sun-rays. A woman cries - 'Helicopter! Rescue Us.' Her husband, with civilization's tug of leave applications and plane reservations, wishes he had been more prudent.
A fire is built on the ground, right under the engine, using wooden crates from the abandoned military truck. But even this only gently warms it. In desperation, they set fire to the engine itself! It coughs to life, the fuel-pump spitting out congealed lard-like diesel.
At last we crawl out of the snows. A little distance ahead, we find a
broken-down truck. A man, possibly the luckless driver, looking miserably black
with grease and cold, waves us down, and asks for a bidi. That's all he
needs, till his companion returns with spares. Our driver makes polite queries
and expresses sympathy. The man is more than satisfied; he gets a Wills Filter.
The road slopes down into the most fascinating part of our journey. A real valley. Just the right size. Now if you tell me Srinagar is a valley or, for that matter, Kathmandu, I'll have to accept because the gegraphy books say so. But, for tiny me, they are too big to retain any sense of the valley - only a flat expanse of country with pretty hills in the distance. And if you put me next to a river with rock walls on the left and rock walls on the right and ask me to call it a valley, I refuse - it's only a narrow groove of a gorge.
But this was perfect. Hills at the right distance all around. And fine-grained sand in the middle. At noon, the chill of a desert night. A ravine a little too deep and a little too far to the left to show its river. Mountains made smooth and pliant by glaciers of millenia. And the black ribbon of a road slithering through it all. World's most counter-intuitive landscape.
Arent we in Afghanisthan? Is this road Soviet-built? There you spy Mujaheedin playing buz-kashi with their own carcasses. A sluggish caravan ambles along the sand in the distance. What wares do the gypsies carry? Carpets from Bukhara or Kalashnikovs from Moscow? There's the sentry at the frontier demanding their passports. Anything to declare? Do these nomads have multiple citizenships - a la NRI?
Suddenly hordes of bandits on mount invade the valley - black steeds from one slope, white from another. What a rush of hooves! With what stereotypical callousness and dash are men crushed under the animals!
Shoot! cries the second-unit director. The camera rolls smoothly on the tracks. The making of a Bertolucci blockbuster.
An air-horn rents the air. The tourists collect their reveries and cameras and run back to the bus. Oof! dont we pant! The rarefied air of exclusive Himalaya.
After a little while, the valley narrows up and our road snuggles up close to the ravine. It reveals itself not to be a mere ravine but a wide, huge river-bed lined with pebbles and boulders. The river has seen better days. It has fashioned this magnificient landscape out of solid rock, eroded the sides of the ravine into strange shapes that remind you of sunken temples and vanished civilization. Now it has retired into the insignificance of a thin, blue streak, like a dying king made to look the frailer by the grandeur of his own bed.
The entire route has plenty of food for folklore. Buckled hills, gnarled mountains. Rock formations that look like fortresses with battlements, their manning sentries dead ages ago. But, for five hundred kilometres and fifteen hours, not a single human settlement. Not a smoking stove or a bleating goat. Without grandmothers to spin fairytales, the castles languish.
About two, we stop at a tent where we could get only tea. It seems during July/August, when the Manali-Leh road is at its busiest, the place is a regular stopover for lunch. Only a few hundred yards after this point, a military truck is parked with the studied aimlessness of a soliciting woman. Like a practised client, our bus pulls up next to it. Diesel flows from the military truck to the civilian. Easy money for the soldier. Cheap fuel for our bus.
The late afternoon of the journey is marked by a huge plain right on the roof of the world which we must cross to reach Taklang-La, 17500 ft above sea-level. The road through Taklang-La is unmetalled and the bumpiness combined with the low oxygen in the air produces physical discomfort ranging from a nagging headache for the hardy to an unbearable, suffocating nausea for the unacclimatized.
After Taklang-La, there's only height to be lost as we descend into Ladakh, the land after the end of the world. Chortens appear, and prayer-wheels. Villages are marked by clumps of trees; the unclouded sun and dessicating air have given their leaves the paradoxical yellow of ripe corn. Just before darkness sets in, we catch a glimpse of the Indus, flowing westward into Pakistan, its swimming-pool blue waters characteristic of rivers here.
Seventeen hours after we left Keylong, we enter Leh at eight, a freezing, dark
town that has recoiled from the cold into its quilts, with the bar at Hotel
Ibex the only sign of life after sundown.