You do a lot of driving in the Himalayas, if you’re not just staying in one place. Up and up and up. And down and down and down. Highway 1’s got nothing on the Manali-Leh road. Parts are paved, parts are gravel, and parts are dirt. The bridges are all marked “one veh at a time” and clatter as you drive across. The entire road seems to be continuously under construction, so you are always passing clumps of road workers walking along with pickaxes. Despite the heat, they are all wearing sweaters and parkas and knit hats.
You also do a lot of honking. You honk when you want to pass an army truck; you honk when you’re driving headlong towards a bus and want it to shift over; you honk when you’re coming around a blind curve; you honk when you see a friend. All of these things happen on a regular basis.
The road is dotted with truck stops called dhabas. Since the road is open only a few months of the year, the dhabas are more or less make-shift affairs—the more permanent ones may have a stone base, but for the most part they are constructed out of corrugated metal, plywood, and tarps. They all serve dal, rotis, and soup from instant packets. Any place where there are 2 or 3 dhabas together (usually there are 5 or 6 in a row) has a name and sometimes even a population sign.
Speaking of signs: the road signs are hilarious.* Some poor English major wound up with the job of composing rhyming couplets encouraging drivers to slow down and stay alert. “No hurry, no worry.” “It is not rally, enjoy the valley.” Others are weirdly sexual and/or sexist: “Darling, I like you but not so fast.” “Be gentle on my curves.” “Don’t gossip—let him drive!” And then there are the philosophical signs: “You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.” All these signs are hand painted, often directly onto the cliff face. And since the roads are maintained by something called the Border Roads Organization, many of them have BRO tacked on to the beginning or end, which makes me imagine them in a frat-boy tone of voice. Try it. It’s endless entertainment.
On the way out, we stopped to buy honey from a beekeeper in what felt to me like the middle of nowhere—and by the middle of nowhere, I mean on the dirt road halfway down the mountain from the Rohtang Pass. He just had bee boxes out on the slope, and a tent. We stopped and honked the horn and he came down to sell to us. The ground was covered with scrubby little bushes, which seemed pretty sparse after Kullu Valley. We passed the same spot on the way back from Ladakh, and it seemed downright lush and civilized in comparison.
Just when I was feeling smug about being totally adjusted to Himalayan roads, we turned towards Spiti. Where before there would be charming little streams cascading across the road, now significant stretches of the road bed WERE the stream bed. In a couple spots, Brighu had to get out of the car, take off his shoes, and clamber around moving rocks so we could go forward. Lucky for us he’s a very good driver, so we’ve gotten through everything just fine.
*We were considering doing a photo-essay of these signs, but in Leh we found a book called “Peep Peep Don’t Sleep”—somebody beat us to it.