There’s magic and mystery about visiting places of high altitude, especially for plains-dwellers. Snow-capped peaks, unpolluted air, pristine streams, gigantic conifers that stab the sky … the Shangri-La of our dreams.
Manali, a one-time popular hippie destination in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, together with the Kullu valley, had always been on our bucketlist of places to visit. The long Eid break was the perfect time for this getaway. Tickets booked, bags packed, we excitedly set out on our adventure.
We were in for a nasty series of shocks. The 12-hour car journey from Delhi (which was an ordeal in itself), stretched to 18. It seems it was high holiday season, and just everyone had decided to make their way here to escape the sizzling heat of the plains. After arriving totally exhausted and with frayed tempers, we found that the picturesque hotel the travel agent had booked us had no elevator, so we had to trudge up three flights of stairs. The next day too, the local sightseeing trip was marred by gridlock.
The ride up the mountains is not for the faint-hearted. The roads are narrow two-way lanes, with no barrier to stop a vehicle from hurtling down the craggy ridges.
Totally knackered, we decided to cut short our holiday, but were advised by our driver-cum-guide not to leave Manali without a visit to the Rohtang Pass, where we would actually see snow in this June heat. We reluctantly agreed.
The Rohtang Pass is about 50 kilometres from the town, open to the public just for a few months in the year, and only a certain number of cars, drawn by lots, are allowed to ply the treacherous mountain roads. We managed to get one at almost twice the normal rate, a tiny Alto, into which the three of us squeezed in.
Dear reader, let me tell you the ride up the mountains is not for the faint-hearted. The roads are narrow two-way lanes, with no barrier to stop a vehicle from hurtling down the craggy ridges. My heart was in my mouth when we took each hairpin bend, not knowing whether a car or bus was trundling towards us in the opposite direction. “Just last week, a car fell off, and an entire family perished,” our new driver cheerfully told us. One small mistake on anyone’s part would result in sudden, instant — and gory — death.
Joy at the top
As we drove on, the air became cooler, and we were glad for the snow-dress and boots we had rented below. Our mood lightened. Gone were our bad tempers, gone was our general lethargy and sluggishness. The scenery around us was, to use a cliche, magnificent. Snowy peaks, mountain sides dressed in the glorious green of the conifers … and then — snow banks! Yards and yards of snow, still pristine white. In the distance, we could hear the faint sound of bells as herds of goats made their way towards the summer pastures of Lahaul-Spiti on the other side of the pass, tended by sure-footed nomadic herders. We spent a glorious hour sliding down the snow banks and drinking steaming hot cups of tea sold by resourceful merchants.
It was soon time to return before darkness set in. The traffic snarl was just as bad as it was coming up. At an intersection, while waiting for what seemed like hours for the traffic coming from the opposite direction to pass, I saw something powdery falling from the skies. It was snow! I opened my window, and let the magic flakes hit my face and hair.
There is something about the mountains that brings out the best in people. Despite the traffic snarl, I did not see anyone blowing their horn in road rage, or a motorist taking undue advantage and overtaking a waiting vehicle. En route, a car had broken down, and we all waited patiently while someone changed the wheel. We’d learnt to be calm. No more hurry sickness.
The mountains are Zen. They bring out the best in us.
Padmini B. Sankar is a Dubai-based freelance writer.