I didn’t miss the bus. An hour or so after my last post I met up with the others for lunch, we got sandwiches and fresh cookies in Roasted and Toasted and ended up staying there till about 7pm, joining our table with two or three others. I met a guy from London too, and we spent a few minutes doing what Londoners do, moaning about the price of drinks at home and the Great British weather. After this the four of us split up again, planning on meeting in a few hours for dinner.
We met up for our last meal in Manali (I missed the opportunity to try one of Manali’s famous trout, which needs to be ordered a day in advance). Dinner was accompanied by beer, followed by a few more beers and the odd drinking game. We decided afterwards that we should go to Steve and Keenan’s hotel, where we found a group of the hotel’s guests were sitting outside. We joined the group and by the time we said goodnight it was 12.30am, I had an hour and a half till the pickup so Helen and I went to the hotel, I packed up and spent the last half an hour with Helen, talking about Dr Who and the reasons I should have The Beetles in my top 5 artists list. When it was time to go we said goodbye and I headed out.
I met Steve and Keenan outside my hotel and we went to find the 24h bakery that was the pick-up point for the minibus that would take us to Leh, a journey that was going to take us 18 hours to complete.
After we found the bakery (which really wasn’t very good, stale cakes) and hung around for about half an hour before a convoy of about ten minibuses rocked up. We managed to find our driver and he led us down the line of busses until we reached the one we’d be travelling in. It looked ok, at the very least both wing mirrors looked to be more or less intact. After everyone was on we were away.
There were 13 of us in total, plus the driver. By now it was about 3am and I was ready for bed, and therefore perhaps a bit more grouchy than normal. This wasn’t helped by the group of young Israeli’s who seemed to be having a who-can-chew-the-loudest competition, and the driver, who obviously realised that he would be driving for at least 18 hours and so cranked up the music to near defining to prevent himself, and by extension us, from falling asleep. Our bus was in contact with another, I think this is pretty common, in case one needs assistance. This system turned out to be incredibly handy.
Around 4am, despite the music, people started to drop off to sleep. I couldn’t quite manage sleep at that point. Though my ability to sleep in transit has improved since I arrived in India, the bouncing, cracking, juddering minibus was too much at that point. My resolve to sleep was also weaken slightly by the first of our delays. Whilst on a fairly tame mountain road, by that I mean there was at least a few trees between the road and a few hundred feet of nothingness, one of our tyres was punctured. The minibus stopped suddenly and the driver told us all to get off the bus. Our buddy minibus pulled over too and the two drivers did a quick job of changing the tyre. I appreciated the chance to stretch my legs and soon we were back on the road.
At one point I looked at Stephen on my right, he had been staring out the window and looked a little tense. I asked him what was wrong. Turns out we were on Rotang La (literal translation (according to Wikipedia): pile of corpses
, due to people dying in bad weather trying to cross the pass) (3,978 m or 13,051 ft). Unfortunately it was dark but I found out after the trip that it’s pretty hairy.
Not long after that the sun began to rise and we could see the mountains around us and the mountain roads we were travelling on, they were by no means the worst that we would see on the journey, but it was a little hairy. We were forced to stop once or twice whilst bulldozers cleared away the blockages caused by landslides, luckily, unlike when I went to the Valley of Flowers, these stops were pretty short.
Around midday the bus exploded, well it sounded like it did. There was a loud band and we stopped dead, jerked forwards in our seats. We got off and found that one of the tyres had completely burst, ripping the rubber into a single tattered strip. Thankfully our driver had had the first puncture repaired during a toilet stop. It was changed over and we were off again.
By this point the world outside was amazing. Made up of wide rivers and jagged, snow capped mountain peaks. Villages, which are only inhabited for the few months the road is open, were made up of large canvas tents. Further on the landscape changed and we were surrounded by rocky mountain which have been accurately described as moon-like. Further on still this turned into a more mars like world, red mountains, huge red boulders and stone rock formations, shaped by the wind and sand, that looked like ancient fortresses high on the mountain.
It was in a huge flat valley/floodplain that the minibus, once again, shuddered to a halt. This time we got out and saw that the bus had dug itself into the ash-like sand covering the valley floor. We filed out into the sunshine and lined up in front of the bus. Tried to push the bus back, didn’t work. New tactic, we lined up along one side of the bus and rocked it, it almost worked, until it stopped working and the bus dug itself deeper. Eventually a pair of minibuses stopped (our buddy had disappeared ahead and couldn’t be contacted, which was less than ideal). The driver used the old rope that secured our bags to the roof to tie the rear of our bus to the other. I got into position by the driver’s side door. We were all ready to go, the driver jumped in, slammed his door closed and the entire valley turned blue. It’s possible that a few swear words passed my lips as, when the driver slammed his door shut, my fingers were in the way, not that that stopped the door from locking shut. It took about 10 seconds for the driver to work out what happened and open the door. Cradling one hand we managed to get the bus out and we were off again, and with no broken fingers just a few bruised fingernails.
Once the bus was moving again it started to get dark. One of the Indian guys in the bus said that the Taglang La (17,582 feet (5,359 m)) mountain pass was coming up. This is the second highest motorable road in India, unfortunately it was dark when we were on it, but I couldn’t sleep so I sat where I could see out the front at the narrow stretch of rocky, windy and completely unprotected road that forms the second highest Himalayan pass. The only surprise on the final leg of the journey was a possibly drunk truck driver overtaking us before swerving his way down the road. 4 hours later we arrived in Leh. The journey had taken 24 hours, we grabbed a taxi, found a hotel with a lovely owner who found a mattress so Steven, Keenan and I could share a room. We promptly passed out.
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