It was mid-September, the nights in Leh were becoming increasingly colder, the snowline on the mountains outside my bedroom window was visibly dropping day by day and the mass exodus of tourists and business owners had begun well over a week before. The road to the land of high passes would soon face intermittent closures due to landslides and heavy snowfall and in another month or so, would cut the region off completely for the following four months.
After the completion of the inaugural 3-day environment and wildlife film festival that featured a wide range of insightful Indian films based around local issues, I too begrudgingly decided that it was time to move to lower, warmer pastures where I hoped the monsoon had begun to recede. The only question was how.
Tackling this epic route on two wheels twice in under a month was out of the question, for I surely would have been frozen to my saddle at 5,000m. Given my budget, flying or taking a jeep that would offer relative comfort to my body and the King Brown was also a no go. And my six-foot frame yelled at me not to cram it into a knee-crunching bus seat on this rocky road for two days.
This left me with only one option; Tata.
I awoke at 5am on the day of my departure and with the morning sun just beginning to burst through my window, sadly farewelled my beautiful home and its surrounds. Stopping only to buy my last few pieces of warm Tibetan bread, I rolled down to the start of the long road south and began approaching weary truckies who were just waking from a night curled up on their bench seats by the roadside.
9am rolled around and I still had not managed to hitch a ride, with the trucks either; not going far enough; going the opposite direction to Kashmir or flatly refusing to carry me, despite my offers of reimbursement. I began to question my decision and considered accepting defeat and heading to the bus station, but I persisted, took rejection on the chin and eventually found success in a cheery, skinny driver with Asiatic features and his young, dark, baby-faced co-driver. Using mainly hand signals and a passing translator, we negotiated a price, secured the King Brown in the enormous, empty, metal container in the rear and were off. Although this Tata was slightly beaten up and not the immaculately maintained and extravagantly decorated Punjabi beast that I had hoped for, as soon as I pulled myself up into the cabin, I knew that I had made the right decision. Seated between the driver and his companion, who if they were to stretch out their left and right arms would barely have touched fingertips, I was able to rest my back against the rear of the cabin with room to have my legs at full stretch towards the huge pair of windscreens. Alternatively, I could lie down in greater comfort than most guesthouse beds I stay in. This truly was the Leh to Manali first class travel package.
Doing this road with 50kgs between my legs was one thing, doing it encased in many tons of metal proved to be something else altogether. At those sections of road where the King Brown had rattled and bounced furiously, Tata did the same, but on a scale in accordance with the weight difference. Feeling as though I was at the epicentre of a richter seven earthquake, I would be thrown from my seat while all around me metal clanged and banged with great force. The driver would turn around to me wild-eyed and slap me on the knee with a huge smile on his face. He was the typical nice guy. Engaged in the constant face-offs with oncoming trucks where the road was barely wide enough for one Tata let alone two, he was invariably the one to yield, often reversing as far as 50m so that they could squeeze past one another.
Just by looking at him, I would have put the co-drivers age at no more than 15 years, though the way he conducted himself and went about his duties suggested he was somewhat older. I get the impression that many kids are forced to grow up a lot faster around here.
The relationship shared by driver and co-driver that I was privy to is an intimate one, fueled by a great mutual respect for one another’s duties; the driver’s being to drive and the co-driver’s being to do everything else – run papers out to police checkpoints, cook, order chai, clean the windscreen and cabin, handle luggage and most importantly; co-drive, for it is impossible for one man to handle such a beast on such a road, which had us doing balancing acts on the edge of huge drop offs and scraping sharp walls of rock. The co-driver dare not take his eyes off the road for anything other than to light beedies for himself and his companion.
I wrote earlier that sometimes it came as a surprise to find that these colossal machines had a human element to them, but as darkness fell over the mountains and the plethora of stars began to reveal themselves, I was not so sure that they did. My companions, whose names I forgot the minute they told them to me, so ‘driver’ and ‘co-driver’ will have to suffice, had been going for nine hours with little more than a couple of chai stops and a small meal early in the morning and still they carried on into the night.
As we bounced along the road, which seemingly came into existence only as the headlights illuminated it such was the blackness of the night, it took me back to those precious times of late-night cruises around the old Tenney property in Gunnedah. Although, Tata is on a slightly different scale to the battered, green army that was fired up by twisting a spoon in the ignition and the Himalaya is on a slightly different scale to Digby Farm. Though both were as magical as the other.
We finally arrived in Sarchu at about 11pm after fourteen hours on the road, having crammed six days on two wheels into one on six. When we drove straight through the main row of dhabas, I thought that the madness was going to continue with the tackling of Baralacha La that night. Six kilometres later however, we pulled up at one of the more expensive camps on the plains, which was owned by one of the driver’s mates who was in the process of packing up for the season. We were fed and while the others retired to their familiar cabin, I was shown to a relatively luxurious tent with a carpeted floor, ample mattress, thick blanket and attached bathroom with throne toilet – all provided on the house.
Before turning in, I made sure I took a moment to admire the spectacle that was the full moon and abundance of stars whose brilliance pierced the cold, black sky. Such spectacles had been a highlight of my time in the Land of the Gods. This was to be my last performance and they had really put on a show for me.
The next morning I awoke early to find that an army of men had arrived and proceeded to tear down what remained of the camp. It was to be taken back to Manali that day in our Tata. When it came time to load the bundles of tents, blankets, toilets, poles, gas canisters, stoves, pots, pans, etc into the back, co-driver began removing my bike, “Woah, woah, woah! What you doing man?” I asked. He indicated that it was to be placed on the roof of the cabin where, laid down on its side, it would cop an absolute beating – one of the reasons I had avoided taking the bus. I protested, explaining that the cost of my ‘ticket’ was not just for me, but for the safe passage of the King Brown. They did not see why I could not put him on the roof. After all, it’s just a bike. I did not see why they could not pack their things around the bike, which was occupying a fraction of the enormous container. A deadlock ensued. It was nine against one, but I stood my ground.
Eventually, the driver begrudgingly told me that he would find me another truck. I begrudgingly replied that I would find my own and began to unload my things and carry them to the roadside. No sooner had I done this though that I was told to return them. As I did, the group of locals sat dejectedly on my bundles. I apologised for the situation and the only one who spoke English said that he understood my position. Likewise, I understood the awkward situation my driver had unwittingly placed himself in. He had a loyalty to his mate to whom he promised this favour, but he had to weigh up whether such loyalty was worth 600 rupees or not. Obviously, he had decided it was not.
So with the King Brown comfortably secured once more, I thought that we were ready to roll, but still we sat around and sat around while my driver and his mate spoke to one another in whispers, even though I could not understand a word they were saying anyway. Eventually, the King was untied and lifted out once more. It seems that loyalty was worth more than initially believed or perhaps a little sweetener was thrown into the deal. Whatever the case, I was bitter and expressed as much, but deep down I understood and was almost glad with the outcome. On one hand, bad blood had been created between my companions and I, and would have made for an unpleasant day or two. On another, more greed-influenced hand, I had got a free ride to Sarchu.
I loaded up the King Brown and cycled back to the row of dhabas where I took a seat in the exact same chair that I had spent the day in drinking chai, reading and writing several weeks earlier. Looking across the road to the majestic, scree-covered mountains, my view was somewhat spoiled by that which had tainted all of the tent camps on the highway; scatterings of rubbish callously dumped on the roadside. Seeing this and the guilt-free dropping of paper, plastic, bottles and cans by the inhabitants of this beautiful environment can be hard to take for the Westerner, for whom the organising of garbage comes as second nature. Even harder to take is that there is no provision for those who do want to do the right thing. Bins are placed in dhabas for the sake of the peace of mind of tourists, but when one sees the dhaba-owner pick up the full bin and upturn it on to the ground, one can not help but feel that their efforts are somewhat futile.
It is easy to condemn these practices, but is it any different to the way in which we pollute in the West at the rate of ten times that of the average Indian? Our guilt-free polluting is more ‘civilised’ because we are disconnected from it and the effects are not so immediately obvious – we are not polluting, we are just driving to the shops. We are not polluting, we are just cooling down the house. We are not polluting, we are just getting our standard fill of 200gm of meat per day – I assure you however, that everywhere I travel the effects are becoming more and more obvious and will soon be glaring the entire world in the face.
Once again, my entire day was spent with a book and a chai, but my reading was intermittently interrupted by my having to jump up and flag down each passing truck. Tata after Tata and hour after hour rolled by without success. Most were tankers unsuitable for the job. Some stopped only to refuse me for one reason or another and some just shot past kicking up plumes of dust. Perhaps I would be forced onto a bus after all.
As night arrived however, the place began to look like the truck stop it is and I found success with two faces obscured by the darkness that agreed to carry me to Mandi the following day. I went to bed feeling like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but awoke feeling like it had been inserted into my stomach. Sharp, intense pains had me going about my morning business doubled over, but this was nothing compared to the state that I found my new driver in. He was laid out in the cabin in agony, clutching the region of his appendix. A skinny guy with a bushy, black beard and similarly bushy head of hair, I suggested that he see a doctor as soon as possible. He suggested I roll him a spliff.
It took him some time, but he eventually got moving. Despite knowing that he was doing nothing all day but sitting behind the wheel, he got his co-driver to help him wash his hair after which he brushed it to perfection, as is the Indian way, and we were off.
My new Tata lived up to my original expectations far more than the first. The enormous front grill blazed with an impeccable coat of red paint and various decorative designs. The double windscreens were extravagantly bordered and proudly displayed the words ‘National Permit’ and the vehicles registration number. It was the interior however, that made it special. Bright colours burst from every corner of the cabin. Running above the two side windows and along the top of the windscreens was a cluster of fake flowers, frilly curtains, bells, love hearts, ornaments, beads, tinsel, stickers of Hindu Gods and pretty Indian women and what looked like Hawaiian leis. The piece de resistance however, placed prominently between the windscreens, was a statue of a seated Shiva, surrounded of course by flashing LEDs.
As we got started, it was the co-drivers duty to light two sticks of incense and with a few words of prayer, pass them over the gear stick, steering wheel, engine bay and driver, before placing them uprightly rooted in a bowl of sand beneath Shiva. With this ritual completed, I felt confident that the divine being would not possibly let us come to any harm on our travels. However, I also got the impression that the driver would steer us all off a cliff before running down one of the many sacred cows roaming the highway.
The day held little more than a relaxing drive with good vibes wafting through the cabin. True to Indian hospitality, my companions flatly refused to allow me to pay for a single chai at one of our many stops. When night fell, we were still a very long way from Mandi, but my driver, who had been driving with one hand on the wheel and one hand clutching his side in pain, was convinced that we would make it. Insanity would prevail and we did.
Crossing Rohtang La a month earlier, I had been wet, cold and exhausted. Crossing it this time, I was curled up beneath a blanket in the midst of a deep sleep – it has to make one question their primary mode of transport.
I awoke at 2am to find us at a police checkpoint 50kms past Manali, the hashish capital of India. When a policeman in his pale green, impeccably pressed uniform saw me in the cabin, he ordered me out immediately. Dazed and confused, I stumbled out and was given a full pat down. My bags were brought down from on top of the cabin and very thoroughly searched.
Fortunately though, I was clean………………….or they just did not look hard enough.
After a ridiculous nineteen hours on the road, the truck was stopped, “Mandi bus station,” the co-driver announced and began unloading my things. “Woah, woah, woah,” I said. It was 3:30 in the morning and the streets were deserted (apart from the eight guys who had just piled out of the back and walked off into the darkness – how long they had been riding with us and where they were going, I have no idea). I explained with difficulty that I did not need a bus and that I was going to cycle to Dharamshala the following day. They could not believe it, “Cycle?!”
Did they think that I was lugging this hunk of metal around for show?
I explained that I just wanted to sleep in the back of the truck for the rest of the night and I would be off at daybreak. For reasons I could not understand, the co-driver seemed agitated by this idea. It soon became clear why.
Having parked at a spot by the road, he grabbed a blanket and climbed to the roof. Indian hospitality would not allow me to sleep in a dusty metal container and he was giving up his place inside the cabin. I was appalled that after 19 hours of co-driving while I had been snoozing, he was going to sleep on a metal roof outside while I stretched out on the cushy seat within. Alas, no amount of pleading would bring him down and I was forced to accept his amazing gesture of goodwill.
As if I could not feel any worse about the situation, when I awoke a few hours later, it was to a grey, spitting sky. I jumped up to wake him, but he was already awake…….and wet.
I unpacked the King Brown and said my goodbyes to my very amicable co-driver, who really just wanted to get into the cabin and join his driver in sleep. They would rest that day before again completing the same journey that I had found to be so epic and exhausting, even in a truck. Then they would complete it again…….and again……..and again, and if fortune favours these two, they will continue to be gainfully employed and completing it for years to come.
Where one may see a living hell, another sees a blessed living. That’s the kind of perspective one is exposed to every day in the land of extremes that is India.