The trip from Leh to Delhi, cities as far apart as perhaps Boston and Washington, D.C., takes an hour and a half by plane. The same journey overland requires at least two overnight buses, often three. Most travelers break up the journey at Manali, a lush hilltown in Himachal Pradesh, that is an 18 hour drive from Leh when the snow and ice on the road have melted to only thin coats at the highest passes. From Manali to Delhi is another 14 or 15 hours by bus. There are no trains as far north as Manali.
Eighteen hours is a long time, and you cannot be on the highest parts of the road at the darkest and coldest times of night, which is why private buses from Leh to Manali leave at 3:30 in the morning. (The public bus stops at a tent camp called Sarchu for a night.) I pack a few hours before leaving after dinner with Lobzang, finishing in the dark by the light of my iPod when the power goes off at 11. When I get to the main lot downtown at 3, the caravan of three vans sits in the parking lot for 10 minutes, then 20, then an hour while the drivers try to resolve a seating problem. The travel agents, who talk only to the drivers and not each other, have double-booked one of the seats on the buses. Lobzang and his wife have gotten me what they called the “best” seat on the bus, which is next to the driver and so has great views. It also has no neck rest, which makes sleep, with your head slamming against the stooping seat back on the unpaved roads, close to impossible.
But the views, true enough, are great. I doze as the sun rises and we blaze south through towns I recognize, then villages I don’t. We climb one high pass on hairpin turns, dangle off the edges of cliffs, then drop into a long, glacial plain
where a herd of yaks moseys over the road. A fuzz of grass begins to coat the hillsides and plains, disappearing and reappearing as we chug over passes, jump out to pee and curse the wind, then drop back into ever-descending valleys. We stop for breakfast and lunch at places that are marked as “towns” on my guidebook map but are actually clusters of tents, where Ladakhis have set up camp to sell tourists omelets, soup and hot tea. I have two egg and paratha omelets for breakfast and two super-sweet instant coffees for lunch. On the ride I get to know my fellow travelers: two Israeli girls who are about 21 and, of course, just out of the army, Tara, a 19-year old Brit who has been traveling India by herself for 6 months, two Scottish boys–both named, really, Scott–who are getting to the end of a 6-month tour of Asia, a Spanish couple that keeps to themselves, Chris, a Polish man who is headed to China so he can travel the whole Silk Road by motorcyle, a Dutch woman who spent 20 days alone in her room meditating, and, crucially, Saurabh, an Indian man from Delhi who’s fluent in both English and Hindi.
The road is almost completely unpaved; every rocky patch and ditch rattles the teeth in our heads. We stop for passport checks that sometimes last an hour–“I don’t get it, we’re in the same effing country,” Tara growls–and watch crows hopping over the bare earth while we drink tiny cups of chai.
We appear to be making excellent time, in spite of all the delays, and we grow concerned only when the fog picks up at nightfall as we begin climbing up to another pass. At 8:30, the van stops in a long line of trucks and buses. The driver gets out and walks ahead through light rain. Other drivers are calling to him in Hindi. “What’s he saying? What’s happening?” we all shout at Saurabh. “Landslide,” he says, frowning. “The road is blocked.” Groans, looks of worry and concern. I get out with a few others from the van and creep cautiously up the road. A few hundred meters ahead, just visible under the haze of work lights, a tanker is perched dangerously close to the edge of the road, shoved there by a steep slide of rocks coming off the mountain. There’s a clanging sound and we realize rocks are still falling, hitting the truck, and we scamper back to the van.
“What now?” we ask each other, turning to look at Saurabh. He and the driver exchange a few sentences in Hindi. “We’ll probably be able to squeeze through, we’re smaller than all these trucks,” Saurabh translates. “Probably we’ll get through tonight.” We cheer. “But only if it doesn’t rain. If it rains, the rocks could keep coming down.” Almost on cue, the drizzle outside begins to pick up.
“Uhmm,” says Tara. “Shouldn’t we…not be parked directly next to the mountain if…rocks are falling and…it’s raining harder now???” We all exchange meaningful looks. “Back in the van!” shouts Chris from the road outside. “Back in the van!” We pile in and the driver throws the car into gear and manuevers us to a spot some 20 meters away, backed up against the edge of the road, where it drops away into a cliff.
“Now what?” “Can’t we leave?” “Why isn’t he leaving?” “Where is he going?” Saurabh keeps his cool, but he can’t keep up with our babbling stream of questions. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” We sit in the dark, listening to the rain. It is bitterly cold outside and I can’t believe I threw my shawl away in Leh. I ask if anyone has read Bel Canto, a book in which a group of people from many different countries gets trapped in a hostage situation. There’s a long beat of silence. I finish my supply of dried apricots, then Tara and I start quizzing each other on Hindu gods. Saurabh is just telling us the legend of Hanuman when our driver gets back. There’s a long exchange in Hindi. Then a pause.
“Are we leaving? Are we leaving?” the Israeli girls are shouting. “No,” Saurabh says. “They can’t clear the road tonight. They can’t, there’s not enough equipment.” Currently, they’re trying to clear the road by hand, which is proving difficult, given that most of the rocks are half the size of the trapped truck.
“Well, can’t we go back up the road to one of those tent camps to stay for the night?” someone asks, probably me. Saurabh shakes his head. “We’re staying right here.” The Israeli girls start muttering in Hebrew. Tara blinks in disbelief. Saurabh shrugs and pulls out a blanket. It’s 10:00 at night, and we’re in a van on the edge of a cliff, and we’re not going anywhere. I find it hard to believe, like someone’s playing a bad joke and the punchline is coming any minute now, any minute. The driver unrolls a sleeping bag, settles his feet on the dashboard, and closes his eyes.
Seven hours later, when the sun rises, I’m trying desperately to roll the stiffness out of my neck when Saurabh and Chris return from a brief expedition. “No movement on the rockslide,” they report. “But there’s a path to a village down there.” We climb out of the van, shivering in the cold morning air, and look. Sure enough, down a steep slope this road curves along is a small cluster of houses. “We could go get breakfast.” None of us has eaten in a while. We discuss only for a few minutes, then agree: we need to get the hell out of this van.
Most of us have packs too heavy to carry down the steep, loose slope, so we agree that we’ll meet the driver on the other side when the Indian government–no doubt very concerned about what is a huge loss of money for them–clears the road later today. Actually, we learn over omelets and chai down in the village, the road has been blocked for days, and it’s unlikely to be fixed today. But vans and trucks alike keep gliding cheerfully past us along the main road to join the huge lineup snaking up this side of the mountain. “What the hell is wrong with them? Can’t someone report that the road is blocked, so they stop sending people up the road?” Tara wonders aloud. When we get to Manali, we learn travel agents have been sending vans to the blockage all week. They wait for a few hours, then declare the road impassable and turn around–money for driver and agent, in most cases, already pocketed.
We realize we’ve made a huge mistake: we’re not going to get our bags back today, and possibly not tomorrow, if we wait for the road to clear. The Indian government is sending nothing anywhere. This is the only road between Leh and Manali, but we’re just too far from big wrecking machines and cranes that could clear this road quickly. We discuss. “Well, we could just hike back up and bring our bags down,” suggests one of the Scotts.
“I can’t,” says one of the Israelis. “It’s too heavy.”
“I have two bags,” says the other Israeli.
“Yeah, mine’s too heavy as well,” I agree. We watch a caravan of ponies walking up the village road, strapped down with backpacks. “Well…” says Chris, looking at the ponies thoughtfully.
An hour later, after we’ve hidden our white selves while Saurabh negotiated the price of 500 rupees a horse–another villager told us 1000 when he saw foreigners standing near Saurabh–we start leading a caravan back up the footpath ourselves, thanking various Hindu gods that we have Saurabh with us. The Indians are nothing if not opportunists–the pathway, which was empty when we descended in the morning, is now full of villagers renting horses to stranded passengers, kids selling chips, and young men selling bottled water and samosas. I meet an Indian on the climb up who is on break from university and was just trying to get back to his home village a few hours north of here. “My whole family is here,” he says. “My mother, my father, and down there, my 80-year-old grandmother.” I am genuinely impressed, and a little sad. Like the rest of us, he’s hoofing it around the blocked road so he can try to hire a ride on the other side. I wish him luck and watch his mother helping his grandmother up the field of boulders towards the high road.
At the van, we hand out pockets full of chocolates and watch our horsemen tie our bags to the ponies. Saurabh shakes both hands with the driver, for whom he and our friend Jose have brought lunch. “He could be here for days,” Saurabh mutters as we’re leaving. “Days.”
Back in town, we barely have time to bolt a cup of chai before loading up the taxis that the other half of our group has hired. I pile into the back with three other girls and have fallen asleep almost before we leave the village. When I find a room in Manali, I fall asleep at 5:00 pm to take a nap and wake up 8 hours later, confused at the sudden quiet darkness. I don’t get out of bed until 8:30 the next morning.