Coffeeshops and Landslides

Wednesday 28th July 2010

I know I just wrote a few days ago, but honestly there is so much to tell you I felt a need to write some more down!

I left Leh at 4.30am on Monday morning, and began a gruelling 2-day bus journey down to Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. The bus was comfortable enough, although the woman behind me refused to let me put my seat back, and the views as we crossed the Himalayas were breathtaking. On the first day we crossed several passes, including Taglung La, the highest point on the road at 5350 metres. It was cold and snowy, and very stunning. I used up most of my camera battery on that first day, as well as all of my ipod battery, and the journey finished for the day in a small town called Keylong, about 16 hours later. We had travelled 230 miles, and were put up for the night in “tented accommodation”, which sounds like a very posh way to say that you’re sleeping in a tent!
However, the tents were surprisingly comfortable – they were big while canvas tents, tall enough to stand up in, with 4 camp-beds per tent and nice clean sheets and blankets, even an electric light! I slept surprisingly well, and the next morning we set off at 7am for the last leg.

The journey altogether is about 300 miles, going up and down steep passes through the Himalayas. The second day was only 70 miles in total, but it still took us almost 12 hours to do. After the incredibly dry, rocky, barren mountain terrain of the Ladakh region (said to be drier than the Sahara) we were now down in the lush green wet foothills, and mostly in clouds and rain all the way. The roads were wet and muddy, and notorious for landslides. At one point we were stuck in a traffic jam for about 3 hours, balanced in our big bus on the edge of a muddy track looking down on the fresh mud where a landslide had happened just the night before.

The sheer drop down the hillside went down for about 600 metres, and you could see the remains of a lorry that had gone over where the road had collapsed the day before. The traffic jam was caused because the landslide had taken out half of the road, leaving only a single lane section of not-too stable mud and earth. This in itself wouldn’t be so bad, but the majority of Indian drivers adopt the aggressive, if-there’s-a-space-I’m-forcing-my-way-into-it method, meaning that cars, lorries and buses were shoving their way to the front, blocking traffic from coming the other way, so that on either side of the narrow stretch there were two cars side by side trying to shove through with nowhere to go on the other side. This impasse went on forever, as we were on the side of a mountain, and you can’t exactly turn around and go back! There was lots of slow reversing and angry honking, etc.

The funny thing was, we seemed to have the only sensible driver on the road – he stopped our bus further back from the jam, at a wider space in the road to let trucks come past easily, and went slowly and steadily through the slippery, muddy, steep tracks, and all of us foreigners on the bus kept commenting on how great he was. Of course the Indians on the bus (mostly men) spent the three hours cursing the driver loudly and shouting that he was an idiot and should be pushing up to the front like everybody else!

Anyway, eventually we got through the hairy bits and carried on. One of my favourite distractions on day two, now that I was without camera and ipod, was reading the hilarious and informative road signs placed at strategic intervals along the way. Signs like “Be gentle on my curves” and “Let your insurance mature before you do” were common, as was the ever-present reminder “India traffic says: Left is right, Right is wrong” because in general in India, driving on the left is more of a guideline than an actual law! By far my favourite sign, on a very tricky, steep series of 21 hairpin bends and switchbacks called the Gata Loops, simply said “Don’t Gossip. Let him drive”.
It made me laugh for hours that one.

So, I eventually arrived in Manali, a bit stiff and sore, and still swaying slightly from the bus motion, last night around 7pm. I found a hotel, took a shower and changed my clothes, and immediately discovered that I seem to have developed a seriously worrying pot-belly since arriving in India! Naturally I blame the constant jiggling motion of the bus, which has clearly caused all of my body fat to shake it’s way to the belly-area of my body. I pondered several possible methods of intervention and fat re-distribution, such as working out the gastric muscles by having dinner, allowing gravity to to do it’s work by lying flat on a bed for 8 hours overnight, and liposuction. I have also asked my mother to purchase a bicycle in the vain hope that I might actually be forced into exercise by having no car when I return to the UK, but this is mostly just wishful thinking at the moment (I hate almost all forms of exercise and am horribly unfit).

I only have one day in Manali, and haven’t done much except wander around looking at things really, and I’m back on a bus overnight down to Delhi this evening (maybe after another 16 hours on a bus, the fat will continue to be shaken loose and I’ll end up fantastically skinny with huge fat elephantine ankles when I arrive in Delhi?). I stopped in a very swish looking coffee shop for some breakfast this morning, and had the most hilarious couple of hours. Firstly, the staff, who despite the fancy menu and fresh, modern decor, looked as if they had just wandered in off the street and found themselves behind the counter through some bewildering misunderstanding. They clearly hadn’t seen the menu before, and were not quite sure what was involved in making a cup of tea (it took half an hour and 4 gentle reminders to get my cup of tea, and another bewildering 15 minutes of confusion to get milk and sugar for said tea). To say that they were gormless would be a massive understatement, and offensive to people with even the smallest amount of gorm.

Anyway, I did enjoy the atmosphere, even after the exhausting process of trying to order something, which went something like this:

“What’s in the vegetable wrap?”
“Uh, cabbage? and some onions? and um, cucumber….. but we don’t have any wraps today”
“What’s the cake of the day?”
“No cake”
“No muffins today”

(At this point most of you are suddenly realising where my pot-belly came from!)

“Ummm…..with chicken?
“No, vegetarian”
“Are you new by any chance? Have you worked here for long?”
“Oh yes! Long time (big grin)”
“Just the tea then please.”

While waiting approximately half of my lifetime for my tea to arrive, I couldn’t help but overhear the group of guys sitting at the table next to me – it was a small, quiet cafe and they were the only ones talking. There were 4 of them, 3 Americans, and one quiet one who occasionally spoke up in what sounded like Hebrew, which two of the others clearly spoke as well. They looked like your typical young backpacker types, with beards and scruffy clothes, and were discussing random things like whether it was only Californians who say “Bro” and if you were starving, would you rather eat a slug or some garbage (this debate raged for quite some time).

Then suddenly, without any preamble, the conversation switched to much deeper and more intense topics – mainly focused on the younger one of the group, who seemed to be having some kind of spiritual crisis and serious doubts about his faith, and the others immediately set about bucking him up and encouraging him. It gradually dawned on me that they must be Jehovah’s Witnesses, or some kind of evangelical born-again Christians, as the younger one was feeling a bit down about his abilities to properly witness, and felt he was “like, dwelling on my sins” a bit too much. The others swiftly pointed out that he was in fact witnessing very well, for did not God say to “go forth and proclaim my good works”? And after all their mission was to, like, proclaim, and like, he was doing an awesome job of proclaiming. Then they moved into a more philosophical debate about which was their favourite book from the bible (it was unanimous – James, because, like, James has this totally different tone, from like, the other gospels and books, you know?”).

I felt oddly embarrassed to be eavesdropping on such intensely proclaimed religious beliefs, even though you couldn’t help but hear them, so I buried my head in the coffeeshop leaflet, pretending to read, until their conversation, just as abruptly, moved on to an argument about where in Southern California you can get the best fish tacos.
It was quite the bizarre morning!

So, that’s probably enough for one email. I’m off to explore Manali a bit before getting back on another bus and jiggling myself and my pot-belly back to Delhi!
Hope you’re all well – and still able to read my increasingly long travel emails!

tons of love
“Don’t Gossip, Let him drive” Maya

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