I hate travelling by night, especially on precarious mountain roads, but darkness had already fallen by the time we reached the Rohtang La, the final pass into Manali in Himachal Pradesh. We’d been on the minibus for 15 hours already and I was exhausted, but I was more concerned about the driver’s state of mind. Heavy monsoon rains had turned the dirt track into rivers of mud. Vehicles slithered, whined and groaned as they tried to gain traction on the ascent. Brightly-painted lorries were abandoned in the middle of the road. And as we climbed higher up the switchbacks, I knew, but couldn’t see, that there was a huge drop off the side of the road into the valley below.
There are several ways of reaching Manali from Leh, none of which appealed to me. The state buses leave at 5am and take 2 days, overnighting en route. There are private buses which travel mostly at night and you miss the scenery. So, I jumped at the chance of joining a group of travellers who were chartering a bus to Manali which would also include a night at Tso Moriri, a high-altitude lake to the south-east of Leh. It involved quite a detour off the main highway, but it was well worth it.
We left at 9am and followed the Indus River for much of the way as it narrowed through a spectacular canyon. Close to the lake, we had our passports and permits checked at the Indo Tibetan border control. This is another sensitive area as the Tibetan border lies close. When we reached the small settlement of Korzok, the light was already fading, so I rushed down to the lake to take some photos. The water was a deep blue and, on the other side of the lake, rose snow-capped mountains.
As the sun set, I heard the distant sound of a drum and wandered up to the monastery to investigate. I found a lone monk in the main temple building, bashing a drum and clashing some cymbals. I sat cross-legged on the floor, hypnotised by the sound. Or maybe I was just numb with cold. After a while, I decided to explore the village and watched a woman tether goats together for the night, while her kids played in the dirt street.
The next morning at the brutal hour of 5.45am, after a chilly night in the homestay, we boarded the bus for the long journey to Manali. The first few hours took us across wild, dramatic terrain with little habitation, except some families of goat herders who come up to these highland pastures for the summer. As our bus bounced by, toddlers ran down to wave, goggle-eyed at the sight of tourists.
Once we were on the main highway to Manali, we had four passes to negotiate. The most hair-raising and photogenic was the descent from the Nakila La (4915m) through the Gata Loops, an astonishing series of switchbacks and loops with a mesmerising view down onto the river valley below. But the poor quality of the roads meant we were well behind schedule and had to complete the final pass in the dark.
We arrived in Manali after midnight, a journey of 18 hours, just as a torrential downpour began. I was relieved to get off the bus, but realised the adventure wasn’t over yet. I still had to find a place to stay in the dark, in the rain, in a strange place I didn’t know. The joys of travelling ….