In the beginning, I had some misgivings on writing about this trip. When the prime objective of reaching Leh could not be achieved, what else remained, but to write about the rest of the trip – and about the Aaloo Parathas and Momos that I ate? And the company of dear friends?
But that would be the story of my life, too. I haven’t achieved in life what I’d have loved to; dreams remain, like that of going to Tierra del Fuego, some day. Or ride through Scotland in my bike as Bikram has done. Or spend a month or two in the Amazon river. Or turning the entire world green with one wave of my magic wand. Or finding a home to all the street dogs of the world. Or – well! When you get to middle age, when you see your dreams and fantasies charred to ashes, when you see your aspirations remained mere aspirations – when, due to reasons whatsoever, you realize your mediocrity – that’s when you really start living, having accepted finally who you are, what your limits are. Long, long ago in the turbulent youth, I used to exhort my friends – ‘Break your limits!’ Now, decades later, I have accepted my limits. Of my dreams – I smile gently to myself, light a cigarette and watch the smoke rings wobble in the still air.
Having decided to make the next attempt to cross Rohtang on 11th, we lost 2 precious days of our itinerary. We languished. We walked to Manali town and did some indifferent shopping. Manali’s shops cater to the freewheeling, gullible tourists. Most of what you get in Manali, you can get in New Delhi for half the price. We investigated - what else, restaurants. Near the Hadimba Devi temple, we drank excellent Lassi, ate Momo and Fried Rice at ‘Green Forest’. Waiting for the food, I take photographs of the beautiful Roses. The small teashop near the Old Manali bridge was our favorite haunt. We have been saying too many goodbyes to the old man who owned the teashop. But the pick of our choice was ‘Chopsticks’, a Tibetan restaurant in the Mall Road. There was a very pretty Tibetan girl sitting in the counter, so pretty that one might cry. She looked as fragile and lovely as a Rose petal. Sitting at a table near her, I watch her beautiful slender fingers drumming on the desktop. Her straight hair falls across her face whenever she prepares a bill. I eavesdrop. She is talking politics and China. She smiles and like a springy doll, nods her head up and down in agreement with her friend.
The food is excellent and the service, friendly and courteous. I gorge as usual on Momos and Thupka. Bit expensive, but sumptuous and very tasty. Ananthu has an obsession with Chowmein or Chopsuey or such other gooey stuff. Doc is enamoured with Veg Manchurian. For starters we have chilled beer and Momos. Gopi orders some fancy chicken curried with bamboo shoots and shares it with me. Satheesh is a vegetarian and dunks his head in his delights.
You might wonder why I am not so enthusiastic about Manali. Till this trip, I hated this place. Because it was here in 1995 that I was robbed of my entire camera system, the Canon A1 and three other expensive lenses. It was a disastrous trip. I had badly wanted to come to the mountains, but P, would not let me go alone. There weren’t any friends to join. Desperately, I managed to rope in a partly willing acquaintance, whose carelessness resulted in my loss. The equipment was worth about 40,000/- then, an immensely huge amount for the likes of me. I had painstakingly built it up, saving money so frugally. I was devastated. I roamed the streets of Manali for 4 days, staying in a decrepit hotel in the village and hung around the Police station. I still remember the Police Station; on the front door were pinned notices, of missing persons. Young foreigners who had ventured out into the vastness of Lahaul, Spiti and Zanskar and disappeared forever. In fact, it was those faces that finally calmed me down.
As our hopes to reach Leh seemed to flounder, my friends jokingly accused me, saying that it is the curse of Hadimba Devi and Lord Manu, the presiding deities of Manali, for hating their town.
There isn’t much to see in Manali town, other than the Hadimba Devi temple. You can walk around, do window shopping, ogle at the scantily clad foreigners, visit the Tibetan monastery, the hot springs at Vashist and if you have children, go to Solang Valley for a round of paragliding (3 minutes in the air for Rs.1000/-) or bungee jumping etc. You can do river rafting in many places downriver. In the outskirts of the town or in an undisturbed corner, you may discover a quiet nook and watch the Beas.
So went Ananthu, paragliding. We elders thought it best to humour him.
Feasts and drinking bouts later, the next day, the 11th July, we set sail again for Leh. Matters were more abrupt and clear this time; the road was blocked right at Marhi. We were told that the Pass would be open by 1200 noon, we waited till 1600. It was obvious to us that even if we were able to cross the next day, i.e, the 12th, we would reach Leh the latest by 13th evening (which would mean rushing through the 3 Passes and missing all the beauty of the landscape). High Altitude Sickness would take its toll on us without a day’s rest – and we have to catch the flight on 15th morning.
It was a gloomy group that trundled back to the same guesthouse once again. Doc said that it had become a second home to us.
Booked bus tickets back to New Delhi for the 14th evening; our return flight home was on 16th morning. Over rum, whiskey and vodka, we discussed how to utilize the remaining days. Options were few; we decided to visit Jalori Pass in Kulu district, about 80 kms from Manali. Turning left from the mouth of the tunnel at Aut, we pass little villages like Banjar. At 10000 odd feet and lush with Pine trees, Jalori Pass and the climb to the Pass is pleasant. Aalu Parathas again and we walk into the forests for a 6km trek to the --- lake and temple. We are making do with what we can. It is an easy walk with a couple of climbs.
We walk in the incessant rains and thick mist. Stopping to catch my breath, I notice the white paper stuck on a tree. It has an arrow pointing in the direction to the lake. Below it says – ‘ Better alone than with bad company’. I ask Satheesh, panting beside me –‘ Who is my bad company, myself or you?’
PS: I check the ‘net for news on Rohtang Pass; as on July 24th, the Pass still remains unpassable.
********** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 27.07.2011