I wasn’t particularly bothered at the situation. After all, I was the dumb-ass who’d decided to hitch-hike the highest navigable road on the planet.
I was literally in the middle of fucking nowhere. No villages were in sight. But damn, was it beautiful.
The 490km that stretch from Manali in Himanchal Pradesh to Leh in Jammu & Kashmir is one of the most remote, dangerous passageways you can on wheels…and by foot. Shut off from vehicle access for almost 8 months in a year, public buses chug precariously while motorcyclists in Royal Enfields skip along its narrow lines during the brief weather window from May to August.
I perched my tent along a trickling stream beneath a giant slab of rock, built a fire and rolled a joint…the mountains illuminated around their edges by the sleepy pink sun. I’d been going for four days. So far I’d secured passage via a rickety army truck, an overloaded fruit van and a piece-of-shit tractor. That was kind of a waste of time; it went way slower than I was walking, but offered a welcome respite from hauling my 30kg backpack. I know…what the hell was I carrying in there? Steaks and wine for a week? It wasn’t easy to find beef in this part of the world and the wine was pretty average by any standards. Of course, a stone-sizzled rump and fruity glass of cab would’ve been superb at this moment, but I accepted quite happily the immense feast of stars enveloping me, so close I could pluck them from the deep blue heavens.
Back on the trail fresh the next morning the thrill of unplanned wandering surged through me. Oh my god! A truck! The driver pulled over almost as soon as he saw me, agitating a cloud of dust into my face. Thanks man. I climbed the stairs up into the massive beast of a thing, gasping for air.
‘’Good afternoons my little brother! Where are you be going?’’
‘’Leh! You going that way?’’
‘’Yes of course, please come.’’
Mr Singh resumed his wide-armed grip on the steering wheel and jerked into gear, cursing the shift-stick a ‘son-of-bitch’ and spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco before we rattled along. When in India I thought. Adorned with bobbing figurines of the Hindu deities Shiva (the god of destruction), Krishna (the god of love) and Ganesha (the god of fortune) along with colorful plastic flowers and Sanskrit mantras, the truck made for a quaint setting for the incredible landscapes that unfolded before us as we snaked around hairpin after hairpin. I lay back and drifted into a daydream, happy to have a long-distance ride on my way to Leh.
Suddenly I was jerked awake by a shrill crunching sound as we careened down a steep, curved slope, Mr Singh clutching the wheel in bewilderment and hurling a new slew of insults. The brakes were wearing thin and we were losing control. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!! Mr Singh flashed at me in trepidation.
‘’My friend, I am most sorry! Maybe we will be dying!’’
‘’Focus on the road! We’re not gonna die!’’
My turbaned companion stamped on the brake pedal as hard as he could while I winched up the hand brake, sweating profusely. The thought of jumping out of the out-of-control vehicle fleetingly crossed my mind. As we veered a tight corner ever steeper down the road the track abruptly gave way to a section of thickly walled up mud. Splat! Our vision was blotted out completely but the truck was moving much slower now and seemed to be coming to a halt. At this point Mr Singh was clutching a string of prayer beads and begging for propitiation to his dashboard of deities. I opened the passenger seat door and sloshed into the bog beneath me, peering out in disbelief.
The truck had careened to a stop at the edge of the curve, its front wheels in mid-air over a drop-off that looked at least 500m. Attribute it to what you will – karma, God, destiny, fate, fortune or whatever else – I definitely felt lucky to be alive as I stood in shock peering over the sheer expanse of space below. Mr Singh had climbed out the front seat and was now running around in hysteria crying out at the sky in tears. Consoling him didn’t do much and after smoking a cigarette to calm my nerves I bade him farewell and continued down the road alone.
After a shitty walk of about 15 kilometers I caught a glance of some feint lights in the distance. Yes! A welcome reprieve from near death day. I approached the humble little tented settlement – one of the many that dotted the Manali-Leh highway when the weather was relatively forgiving – and offloaded my backpack on stony ground. The sun was setting quickly and a frigid wind began ripping through the air. I pulled on my jacket and lifted the flap of a nearby tent, reminiscent of a Mongolian yurt. Inside were huddled several weary looking men in heavy parkas and Russian-style ushanka hats. In broken Hindi I asked how much a warm meal and bed would be amidst some rather suspicious stares. A grand total of 200 rupees (roughly 3 dollars) would do the trick. Not shabby for a shoestring budget.
After a much appreciated plate of dhal bhat and sabji (rice, lentil soup and fried vegetables) I strolled outside into the brilliant start-spangled night. In felt incredible to be in such a remote place, on the edge of the Himalayas, and although I was alone, the spirit of adventure was my best companion.
A crescendo of snores resounded throughout the tent around dawn the next morning, rousing me from my sleep and out into the chilly morning air. A couple of steaming cups of chai later I was on my way, setting a brisk pace down the trail north bound. I’d been walking for about four hours when a fruit truck came rumbling over the hill behind me.
‘’Hello my friend! Where are you going?’’
‘’As far as you are brother!’’
‘’OK! Jump in!’’
Well as far as the old battered fruit truck as headed turned out not to be that far, only about 20 kilometers, but I was grateful for the ride, exhilarating on the back with whipping wind as we carved through bends and beautiful scenery. I even scored few bananas and mangoes and shared some laughs with the men who shared passage with me. I’d learnt that grinning and bearing awkward stares only gets you so far as a gringo in a faraway land. It certainly helps to be friendly but you sometimes also gotta be kinda cocky, willing to poke fun at the locals, throw in some sarcasm and just be yourself more than anything else.
My ride had reached its drop off point for the day and I hopped off and thanked the driver once again. Back on the road solo I was almost immediately approached by some camera boasting Sikhs in freshly pressed suites, pleading me for shots at a frozen waterfall.
‘’Why do you want a photo with me? I’m just a climber.’’
‘’You are white! From America?’’
‘’No. South Africa.’’
‘’Ah! South Africa! Very very good in cricket!’’
I relented and posed for a couple selfies before heading down the road, somewhat bedazzled by the breadth of experiences I’d had in such a short space of time. I was close to the village of Zingzingbar, almost half way to Leh on this epic trans-state route in northern India. Just a little later I saw a picturesque monastery perched atop a pretty looking hillside above a peacefully flowing river. I was open to camping, but a night at a Buddhist monastery would be amazing! I slogged through some steep terrain, meeting an amicable French traveler along the way who seemed to be doing a trip similar to mine.
The day was yawning quickly and I stepped up my pace as I neared the monastery. I was offered a bed in a small room attached to the main temple area and a hot bowl of thukpa, Tibetan style noodle soup with vegetables. I sat and journaled in front of walls adorned with rainbow-colored prayer flags, gazing over toward the mountains as the horizon was shot with brilliant pinks, oranges and blues. I couldn’t believe that I was in the Himalayas, a place I’d dreamed about for years and now had the gift of experiencing first hand.