We are now in Leh. We were in Manali. Here is our story. Manali was nestled in the lush green valleys of the Southern Himalayas, but breathtaking scenery and cheap pot drew tourists by the thousands. It can be hard to really feel as though you are experiencing something cultural when you crouch down to take a picture of a elderly local and the same photo is being taken by an obese western lady who is breathing all hard and 4 guys from a Japanese break dancing competition in full Adidas gear. The magic is just... gone. I'm no longer Indiana Jones. I'm just the tourist who chose to take a shower today and not dress in a way that would make Ralph Lauren roll in his grave. We needed to move on.
The Lonely Planet guide describes Leh as a remote, high altitude destination in the Himalayas. It says that it's geographical location has spared it from the Hindu/Muslim turmoil and it remains a sleepy, Buddhist town butted up against cliff side palaces. It is a two day jeep ride through some of the world's highest mountain passes (17000 feet) and dangerous cliff side roads. It also has an airport, which we should have taken into consideration. We booked our jeep from Manali to Leh and, deciding to rip the trip off like a bandaid, went for the 1 day, 20 hour ride. It left at 2 am from one of Manali's 30 or so 'German Bakeries' and was scheduled to arrive in Leh some time after 10pm the following night. Stephane (one of our travel companions) booked two extra seats in the jeep so that there would only be 8 passengers instead of 10. But still... Awesome! A real adventure!
We slogged down through streets of cow diarrhea to the bakery in the middle of the night. The first thing we saw was the entire population of Israel (and a one Irish guy) eating cakes and smoking pot on the front steps of the bakery and a whole fleet of jeeps and minibuses. Israeli tour companies must really be pushing the Himalayas because even the computer keyboards here are in Hebrew. We climbed into our jeep feeling a bit less original and headed down into the main part of town to change drivers and pick up the four people who were going in the back. Turns out they were 3 locals and a French guy.
As they were loading into the jeep two tourists who were passengers in another jeep began freaking out at their driver. "This was supposed to be a TOURIST jeep! There are locals getting in! They are loading MERCHANDISE on the roof! MERCHANDISE!" They came over to our Jeep. "Look! THEY have MORE ROOM!" We pointed out that we paid for extra seats so that we would only have 3 people across our little bench seat instead of 4. "Yes, but they put MERCHANDISE on our ROOF!" They returned to yelling at their driver.
Our jeep, fully loaded, took to the road. It took to it FAST. Often, in small transport vehicles here, I find the drivers have a death wish but this one took the cake. 3 am and we are whipping around switchbacks in dense fog, in the rain, 2000 feet up a cliff, in an overfilled, lifted jeep that has all of our heavy packs on the roof. We were going so fast that the tires were squealing around the corners. At one point the fog got so thick that we could barely see the lights of the car we were tailgating to overtake, and we had to slow down. The rest of the time the fog was not that thick, so he kept it balls to the wall. Our driver seemed uninterested in his own road handling, and always kept one hand free to switch out Hindi cassette tapes and constantly adjust his hair in the dark.
The locals in the back provided at least some distraction from the fact that we were probably going to die. They smelled BAD. The guy directly behind me had the worst breath I have ever inhaled. I could have farted directly into his mouth and it would have smelled better. Then there was an enormous oaf of a man who knew all the Hindi songs and decided to sing along at 4am. This would have been fine if he wasn't tone deaf and if he wasn't mostly trying to mimic the female vocals. I should cut him some slack though, he did a nice job of echoing some of the singers during pauses in the vocals. When he got too hoarse to sing anymore he resorted to drumming along to the beats on the back of our seat. At one point the guy behind me discovered he would be more comfortable if he reached over the seat and slid his arm between me and the chair. After a while I found the best way to counter this was to press my spine hard enough against his elbow that he put it back on his own side. I repeated this process many, many times.
Sleep in this situation is almost impossible. Because we were going over huge bumps and around sharp corners at 80 KPH gravity didn't really have any direction. Any time I got comfortable against the door we would whip around a corner, my pillow would go flying and then we would bounce/swerve back, whiplashing me into the door, hard. If I rested my head on my hand the next large bump would bring me down into my palm with the force of a dragon punch. The only option was for Mia and I to take turns laying our heads in each other's laps. This worked well except we only got about 15 minutes at a time before the worst dead leg imaginable would set in. It would start as just a nagging numbness, but when you sat back up you'd have a solid minute of overwhelming pins and needles. Intense. These short naps could only be used in emergencies.
Also our driver ran over two dogs.
And what were the upsides of all this? The thrill and the views. I ran out a fully charged camera battery just during the daylight portion of the drive. The air is so clean that there is no difference in clarity from the mountain right in front of you to the most distant snow capped peaks. Monoliths of stone rise up from the valley floors, cradling ancient glaciers from which waterfalls drop thousands of feet. Clouds roll off the blackened peaks like billows of smoke, making them look as though they are smouldering after a devastating fire. The valleys are a rich green, and strewn with black horses and yellow beavers. The sky, hidden away from pollution and dust, almost glows with a warm, deep blue. A constant variety of pearly white clouds parades across the scenery, winding between the peaks or clinging to them for dear life.
All along the road, repairs are being done and new construction is being completed. Not unlike lower India, the work is still all being done by hand. Crews of men in dust blackened clothes flatten dirt with archaic shovels while others follow behind with tiny hand brooms for the final smoothing. Asphalt is heated over open fires and carried by hand in what appeared to be woks. The asphalt is sporadic at best and even in the places it does exist it is bumpy and crumbling. All along the way signs warn to slow down. "This is a mountain way, not a runway", "I may be curvy, but take it slow", or my favorite, "Don't gossip, let him drive." The last one is really just more about how men are better drivers and women are always talk, talk talking. The government here doesn't mince words.
Our driver had us into Leh before sunset. I shook his hand and said energetically, "Good work! New world record!" He smiled. We beat every other jeep there by hours I'm sure.
And what is the payoff for all this? It ends at the scenic trip. As soon as the jeep stopped a million touts crowded the windows selling guesthouses and taxi services. We stepped out into a landscape that is so similar to southern Arizona it could be Tucson, right down to the white people. I don't think we have seen a local human being here yet, and our morning walk turned into yet another stroll past tourist trinket shops, guest houses, and 'German Bakeries'. Well, I'm off to have a slice of warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream while I watch reruns of Friends.
Love, Indiana Jones.