Indian Himalayan Grand Traverse - Day 18 - 21 Back to Delhi

Although it took three days by road and train to get back to Delhi it was a trip I thoroughly enjoyed.  I've only done one other road trip in India (from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal) and that was good as well.  There is always so much to see and best of all "things happen".  To be honest I'd love to do a road trip from one end of India to the other if I could fine someone to go with, Christine unfortunately refuses to sit in a car for that long.

After a couple of hours walk along a gorge and a final small climb, we met up with 2 minibuses and said goodbye to the ponymen.  Christine gave a speech and tried to express how grateful we all were for everything they had done for us.  They were as charming as ever, all smiles and handshakes.  After saying goodbye to us they have just over a week to get themselves and their animals back over all the passes to where we started trekking, where they will support the next trekking group.
Donkey disguised as haystack

The first part of the road journey took us down a winding mountain track to the Kye Monastery. It's the most important Buddist centre in the Spiti valley, over 900 years old, and contains all sorts of wonderful art treasures.  Here we met up again with Mary Helen who we hadn't seen since we left her a week ago in Korzok.
Kye Monastery
We spent our last night under canvas at a riverside campsite just outside the little 'frontier town" of Kaza. In the afternoon we took a trip to the town to buy beer and in the rain Kaza was a sad depressing sort of place. The liquor store was down an alley, up some rickety stairs and inside a closet surrounded by iron bars. In Kaza drinking is not encouraged.

For the meal and as a special treat the cook prepared lamb he had bought from a Kaza butcher. We shared our beer with the support team who drank surprisingly little. They were however keen to sing and at the end of the meal we were treated to a series of traditional Nepali folk songs, many of which we had heard before from trips to Nepal. As usual they wanted to hear the sort of thing we sing around the camp fire but after a half hearted rendition of "yellow submarine" they seemed to loose interest.

Next morning everything was again packed into the two minibuses. The support team and all the gear were coming with us to Manali - the next stop - from where they would head off in different directions, some going on epic bus journeys back to Nepal. Before getting on the bus Amanda made a speech thanking them all for their help and we handed out the tips - all distributed to a formula agreed with Dilip.

Everybody finds this part of a trip difficult. The importance to the crew of relatively small sums of money, the time it will take them to get home, and the fact that most of them will still not be seeing their families, brings home uncomfortable truths about relative levels of affluence. As far as the Nepalese are concerned this is well paid work, but if they weren't so poor trips like this would be unaffordable even to affluent westerners like us. They are however very gracious and the smiles and warm handshakes we got at as we handed out our little packages stemmed any feelings of embarrassment and guilt.

And then we set off to Manali on what turned out to be my most exciting ever road trip.

Even by Indian standards this was never going to be ordinary. To get to Manali from Kaza you have to travel along a narrow mountain road which involves crossing two high passes - the Kunzum Pass (4551 metres) and the Rohtang Pass (3978 metres).  Even on a good day the trip - no more than 100 kilometres - takes 10 hours but on a road like this things can always go wrong.

The first half was brilliant but relatively uneventful.  The road took us on an incredibly indirect route across flat bottomed valley's, zig zagging up valleys to cross rivers on narrow ricketty bridges, and past tiny villages with fields of barley and peas. We were travelling through more of the amazing scenery we had walked through during the last fortnight. We spent the time discussing the geology and geomorphology, trying to work out the origins of features such as the huge river terraces we had never seen on this scale before.

At Losar we stopped to have something done to our passports - we were leaving a security zone which we had been in since Upshi,  a small town we stopped at on our way to our first camp site at Rumtse.  We were held at a barrier until the security staff decided we had spent as much as we were going to in the shop and let us through. Already a dirt track the road became more uneven as we left Losar and wound our way up to the Kunzum Pass, and even the weather got worse. By the time we got to the top there was rain in the wind and despite the opportunity for photographs everyone was pleased to get back on the buses which then headed down the mountain the other side of the pass.

On the way down we passed a "JCB" (everything yellow here is called a JCB) - a large tracked digger which I guess is being used permanently to keep the road open.  Shortly afterwards we passed a bus was parked on a bend, full with passengers but going nowhere.  Further along we were flagged down by a European cyclist (four panniers and heading up a dirt road to a 4,551 metre pass!) who told us the road ahead was blocked.
Lorry on the side of the road
Blocked was an understatement.  A lorry full of fresh peas (we are in the middle of the pea harvest) had missed the road and was hanging over the side.  The gap left on the mountain side of the road was too narrow for anything to get past.  It had happened about 12 hours earlier and the driver - perhaps in a state of shock - had left the scene.  Traffic had built up on either side of the blockage - particularly more lorries full of peas heading down the mountain - but no one seemed to be doing anything to open the road. We were stuck.
Dilip takes his turn with the screwdriver

The driver of one of our minibuses was a man of action and after an initial appraisal decided that if he could just chip away at the mountain he could create a space big enough for the minibuses. The search for tools produced a screwdriver and an ice-axe and with these, and enthusiastic help from the rest of the crew, he started to chip away at the rock face.  The lorry drivers of course weren't interested - whatever our man was doing was not going to help them - and they only begrudgingly shuffled their lorries to let him through with his van.  Our driver was also brave, driving his bus right to the very edge of road to squeeze the lorries - the drivers of which would happily let him disappear over the cliff.
Our hero the minibus driver

Despite his bravery and hard work, the gap was not big enough (although he had annoyingly created enough space to let all the 4 wheel drives through) and to top it all the ice-axe broke.

It was about 12 o'clock, we had been on the road for 5 hours and we were stuck miles from anywhere without any means of contacting the outside world.  Fortunately there was a tea house 5 kilometres further down the road and Dilip decided we should walk there and see if they had a phone.  We left the driver working away at the mountain with the screwdriver and set off.

The tea-house turned out to be an interesting place - full of trekkers from various places with a large party of young Indian climbers who had just finished climbing six 6000m Indian peaks. No one was going anywhere and, in the tiny nissen style hut, the Indian climbers in particular were starting to celebrate with bottles of whiskey.  The jolly atmosphere was some consolation as the news from Dilip was not good. He had managed to phone Exodus in Delhi and arranged for cars but they would not get there to about 9 in the evening which meant we would not get to the hotel in Manali until 4 in the morning.

At about 5pm someone saw our minibuses coming down the mountain.  Our brave driver had somehow broken through and as he arrived at the nissen hut was treated to a round of applause.  He was slightly embarrassed but it was clearly easier to accept the plaudits rather than attempt to explain that the JCB had eventually squeezed its way through and lifted the lorry back onto the road - a solution available from the beginning if only someone had thought of it.

We were soon on our way thinking that nothing else could happen.  A couple of hours later and we were again stuck behind an overloaded pea lorry stuck in a river now swollen by late afternoon glacier meltwater.  Our man of action driver was on the case again but this time to good effect. Wading into the water he pulled out boulders and cleared the way for the lorry which, after enormous effort and much clutch burning had managed to somehow rock its way out of the river.  This happened again about a mile later and our hero was once again on the spot with a remedy.
Lorry tries to swim across river
Although not as high as the Kunzum, the Rohtang Pass is supposed to be even more dramatic. There were definitely a lot more hairpins but by the time we started to make the climb it was dark and we were spared what, by all accounts, are some pretty scary views.  What we couldn't help but notice was the sudden change in vegetation as soon as the pass was crossed.  There were trees everywhere - from a desert landscape we were suddenly in a lush warm green India.  Perhaps it was the moisture on this side of the mountain but, as well as lush with trees, it also became foggy with visibility occasionally dropping down to a few feet.  Given the tendency in these parts for herds of sacred cattle to deposit themselves on the road our drivers had to keep their wits about them. We finally arrived at our hotel just after 11pm and were greatful to the skills of our two amazing drivers for getting us there in one piece.

After our first night in a bed for two weeks we spent the morning relaxing.  Manali is at the bottom of an intensely green valley - greener than the deepest green you'll ever see in Europe.  It's also a lovely resort town with nice places to eat and plenty of things to buy.  We had spent nothing on the trek and Manali provided the perfect opportunity to stock up with presents for home.

In the afternoon we were on the road again - this time with two cars.  The road was good but still entertaining with all sorts of vehicles making the trip.  We headed down to Mandi along the beautiful Kullo valley passing a series of little towns as we went.  The architecture around here is very colourful with houses painted pink, yellow and lime green standing out against the deep green of the forest above them.

The hotel at Mandi was particularly nice but it was another early start as we hit the road for the final 200 kms down to Chandigarh. A cement works on the way means there is much heavy lorry traffic and holdups often happen but we sailed through joining a dual carriage way just beyond Swarghat.  Our drive to Chandigarh co-incided with a Hindu festival and the vehicles on the road were particularly entertaining.  We had a particularly enjoyable exchange with three young men on a motorbike who kept racing up to us and taking pictures.  All my camera batteries had died long ago but I managed to get a picture on my smartphone.
Best place to wear a crash helmet - on your arm

Chandigarh is the capital of Indian Punjab and was built when partition meant that Lahore, the old capital, went to Pakistan.  It was designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier.  It's like Milton Keynes but hotter and bigger.  The grid pattern boulevards are massive and it must have been really something when it was built in the 50s when the only motorised vehicles were tuk tuks.

I don't think Le Corbusier designed the station - which was hot and sticky - but the tourist train to Delhi was a treat, air conditioned, lots of space, good service with afternoon tea and then dinner, and of course great views until the sun finally set.

So three days was a long journey but I'm not complaining - it was a great way to de-tox from a great trip.

No comments:

Post a Comment