The road from Manali to Leh is stunningly beautiful. Of course there are washouts and holes and detours. There is mud and snow and rivers to cross. And most of the road is one lane and the art of moving around large trucks with wheels inches from a thousand foot drop is common. Far below, in the river valleys, one can see the rusty carcases of cars and trucks that tumbled off the highway.
The mountain passage is hard on vehicles, too. The truck drivers and auto drivers work together to fix flat tires, broken brake lines or a snapped engine belt. Every hour, it seems, there is a group huddled around a vehicle trying to fix one thing or another.
When we get to Tanglang la (5328 meters) we all gather around a loader blocking the one-lane road. What needs fixing? Numerous guesses float in the high mountain air. A truck driver brings spare fuses. The loader starts–but then dies again.
Finally, after two hours and some work on the engine the loader starts again and we are on our way, descending into Ladakh.
Into Himal Pradesh on a curvy road where we stop for Nathaniel to heave his five-star breakfast on the side of the road. More climbing and descending before passing through the Kullu valley to Manali where spend two days among beautiful pine forests, rivers and charas (cannabis) bushes alongside the city lanes.
It’s summer in India and the tourists have descended upon this mountain town. The main street, at night, is like a festival, with traditional dancers, drug dealers and people who look as if they want to be hippies.
Our agenda in Manali (besides buying a shawl or two and walking beneath the grand pines and breathing clean mountain air) is to arrange a journey by car to Ladakh. And we do. On day one we climb the switchbacks on the single-lane road to Rohtang la (3978 meters) where we stop amid Indian tourists playing in the snow.
We leave the crowds behind as we descend into the Chandra River valley. The road is washed out in places, and narrow; and yet somehow we find our way around trucks as they slowly climb to the pass.
We spend the night in the isolated village of Keylong where we stay in a guest house where we have dinner and watch Rajasthan defeat Chennai in the final game of IPL Cricket season. We begin day two with a morning hike through terraced fields of peas and potatoes and then in the car again, climbing from the Bhaga River up over the stunning Baralacha la (4950 meters) and down to roadside tents at Sarchu where we spend the afternoon and evening walking along the river, eating and tending to children with altitude headaches.
Day three is the longest, about ten hours of travel time, with three passes, the third and highest over 17.500 feet.
From Sarchu we enter Jammu and Kashmir, climbing over Lachlung la (5060 meters) and then descending through a stunningly beautiful gorge to a roadside camp at Pang where we eat chapati omelettes and butter tea. Then up again from the army depot across the high plain with wild asses and khampa nomads tending sheep. Then higher once again, to Tanglang la (5328 meters), where we change a flat tire above 17,500 feet and then wait for close to two hours as road workers try to fix a loader blocking the one-lane road.
And then down through a narrow canyon to Upshi, in the Indus River valley, where we eat a late lunch, repair our flat tire, and drive up the valley to Leh.
After a night in Delhi and a six hour bus ride north we find ourselves in a five-star hotel in sector seventeen of Chandigargh—the capital of both Punjab, the “land of five waters,” and Haryana, “abode of the god”—at a three-day conference with Indian Fulbright scholars.
The city of Chandigarh, envisioned by Nehru and designed by Le Corbusier, is home to Nek Chand Saini’s rock garden where we enjoy an afternoon walking narrow corridors among the animals and human-like figures.
The Southwest monsoon is holding steady this week, having reached the Andaman Islands five days early; it is forecast to reach Kerala on May twenty-ninth, two days before its average arrival on the Southwest coast. We are regretting our imminent departure from central India, for we will miss experiencing the annual arrival of the monsoon. Still, yesterday afternoon pre-monsoon rains drenched the city of Pune-the first soaking rain since we arrived in late December. The skies darkened at about five. Then heavy rain fell for about an hour. The temperature dropped to thirty-six or so, though it was a steamy evening as E and enjoyed a good soak on our walk home from the bookstore.
This morning the sky is clear and the air crisp. The trees seem greener, washed clean by yesterday’s rains. In the afternoon we watch the Cheel chicks in the nest at the top of a tree above the Tilak Tank. Every day they grow larger, their feathers darkening. While we watch, the mother takes flight, pumping her broad wings under dark thunderhead clouds building above the hills to the South of the city.
In Mangalore we pile into a white ambassador for a Mr. Toad’s wild ride: the car careens through the city, its frame swimming loosely on the suspension as we overtake slower rickshaws and autos, horn blaring, weave into the right lane to pass larger trucks and busses, and then jerking back into the left lane. We drop down to the river and village on the other side of the city where it is green, green, green-fields and paddies and palms.
We spend the afternoon at a fancy water park where the kids (and their parents) slip and slide and swim, where a large Muslim family enjoys the water (the women fully clothed), and where a young woman, at the end of the day, runs after a friend and slips and falls and slams her head into the pavement. It becomes apparent that the park employees simply have no idea what to do when someone gets hurt. But thankfully we do. R takes charge of what by all indications is a serious concussion. She clears all the helpless men away and then gets the young woman out of her wet clothes and into a rickshaw for a ride to the hospital. Then, another late dinner at home, rice noodles and curry, mopping up every drop with our sticky right hands. We spend two days swimming in the river, collecting snail shells with the kids by the pond. One day Babu climbs a coconut tree to harvest green coconuts and we enjoy drinking the sweet milk. In the evening we walk by the old house closer to the river with the chattering of hundreds of huge black bats rousing themselves as the sun dips behind the hills and the valley falls into darkness.
Back on the road-this time our driver, near seventy, piloting a well-loved white ambassador, careening up the coast road overtaking every car and truck and bus in his path. Nathaniel rides in the front and, like many Indians riding in an older car, has no access to a seat belt. While I am grateful when we move him to the back I now find myself in front and realize quickly how tenuous travel is on a road where trucks and cars and buses and two wheelers weave back and forth, narrowly avoiding collisions, speeding up and braking and honking. It is kind of like two running queues moving in opposite directions with everyone trying to get to their destination at the expense of the other person. Except, of course, the stakes are higher out on the open road. Again and again the old car breaks right into the path of an oncoming truck, our driver timing the weave back into the left lane with not a second to spare before we would slam head on into the truck. It is no wonder that every day the newspaper carries stories of traffic deaths on the highways. Drivers in India are willing to take remarkable risks-there is no “lane discipline,” as people say-and out on the open road there is little to no enforcement of traffic. It is not uncommon, in fact, to see charred vehicles in the ditch on the side of the road.
Two days swimming and bodysurfing in the Arabian sea, eating fish curry on the sand under palm trees and the watchful eyes of crows, boating and swimming in the backwaters on the other side of the coast road. Then back in the well-loved white ambassador with the seventy-year old driver whoh is, one might say, “hell bent for leather”-a phrase used in the US but that seems to have actually originated in India to refer to beating on a leather saddle. (The phrase is used by Rudyard Kipling in “The Story of the Gadsbys.”) Our leather seats are for clutching as we motor into the forest on narrow and curvy one-lane roads, overtaking buses on blind curves-at one point slowing to pass a car that has slammed into the side of a bus (no one is hurt).
Winding under stunning peaks of the Western Ghats, we arrive with thousands of other pilgrims at the Kukke Subramanya Temple on the banks of the Kumaradhara river in Kollur. The temple here is dedicated to Mookambika and sits on the lower part of Kodachadri peak. We leave our shoes in the car and walk to the entrance gate where a cow stands peacefully among thousands of chappals. Inside the temple, standing in the courtyard shirtless, we pray and sweat with the crowd, heeding the firm and encouraging waves of the priests charged with keeping everyone moving. The spiritual power and peacefulness alongside the utter human chaos of sweaty bodies pushing and shoving in the courtyard mirrors the world outside the temple walls. Our temple hopping day takes us next to the eight century Hattiangady Vinayaka at Hattiyangadi in Kundapur taluk. We are fortunate to arrive precisely at the beginning of an elaborate puja and we all leave with holy water on our heads and little white bags of sweet prasad.
The following day we travel to the Manjunatha Temple, a Shaivaite center in Dharamasthala, where a friend leads us through the pressing crowds. Cars and trucks drive the gate and they are washed with holy water (for a set rupee fee) and an elephant accepts our coins and caresses or heads with a pink speckled trunk. We then curve back to the coast to join the Shetty family at the Sri Mahalingeshwara temple, the oldest temple in Puttur, where we watch an elaborate puja with priests carrying the idol out of its chambers and setting it in a flower festooned chariot that is carried around the temple courtyard by music and the light of a full moon. Exhausted, after a long day, we gather for a typical late night Indian dinner at our hosts’ home in the village of Puttur.