Trying to reach Manali

Trip Start Jun 13, 2005
Trip End Dec 05, 2005

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Friday, July 8, 2005

Thursday 7th July

Well, the bus left as scheduled. It travelled for precisely three hours before stopping at a dhaba for what we thought was a short chai-break, but turned out to be the night. A group of Israelis swore this was a plot on behalf of the driver, to receive a hefty commission from the dhaba on all the food and drink we'd consume for dinner AND breakfast, and they may have been right, since somebody did board the bus before we left Dharamsala to tell the driver the road was closed.

We finally hit the road again at 8.30 this morning and got as far as Mandi (about halfway to Manali) before stopping again to the news that we couldn't get any further and that this would now be the end of the bus trip. Since we'd paid deluxe prices for this deluxe bus and weren't going to get a refund for the missing half of the journey, the ever-assertive Israelis insisted upon being driven to the very point where the road was closed before they'd believe they weren't being conned. So we were driven to the next town, outside of which was a line of oil tankers about 1km long - enough to convince me, at least, that we weren't going to get much further. Sure enough, all traffic was stopped in the town, and we opted to return to Mandi for the night; it had looked more pleasant than this place. I also remembered hearing of a town around a lake somewhere near Mandi, which we might visit.

By the time the Israelis were quite finished arguing with the driver and instructing him EXACTLY where they wanted him to deposit us in Mandi, it was after lunchtime. Mica and I decided to try for a bus to Chandigarh, from whose airport one can fly to Leh, only to find out that the only flight is on a Wednesday - too long to wait.

Instead, we made the hour-long journey to Rewalsar, the Tibetan town by the lake. The scenery is lush, the town is peaceful and we have a room that opens almost right onto the lake, at one of the monastery guesthouses. It's a great spot for an unplanned pitstop - it'll calm our nerves and tempers before we attempt to reach Manali again tomorrow.

We took a walk around the lake after dinner - colourful prayer flags flutter in the trees on the shoreline and monkeys run between lakeside and hillside, raiding dustbins and screaming abuse at each other. Halfway around the lake we encountered an old Tibetan man feeding monkeys, much like crazy old ladies with funny hats feed pigeons in Central Park (or so Hollywood would have us believe). I imagine he does this every evening - he had a big bag of some sort of treats and the monkeys were gathered around him like kids around Santa Claus.

A few minutes later, an amazing sight: people were buying bags of puffed rice to feed the fish, and the fish were clamouring for position near the feeding spot, to the point where some of them had half of their bodies out of the water. There was an area of, I would guess, five square metres of fish that looked like they'd been pulled up in a net - they were literally climbing over each other! I put my hand out and stroked one across its exposed back - I could have lifted it out of the water without any struggle whatsoever.

Friday 8th July

Manali - the second attempt.....
We were at the bus stand in time for the 9.30 bus to Kullu, where we could change buses for Manali. Walking to the bus stand, loaded up with our packs, we passed a large cow with no horns.
"Hey, you've got no horns!" I said to the cow. I didn't mean it offensively, but a second after I finished my sentence, the cow came at me and rammed me with its hornless head, nearly sending me sprawling. Beware the cows of Rewalsar.

The bus trip was another scenic one - climbing into the mountains of the Kullu Valley, following the swollen River Beas through the lushest surroundings imaginable. At least half of the verdant undergrowth is marijuana; from what I've seen on various bus trips through Himachel Pradesh, there is enough dope growing wild in this state alone to keep the entire sub-continent stoned for a decade. I often see animals grazing on it as we pass, and wonder if they experience paranoia at the height of the cliffs on which they're grazing....

It wasn't hard to see why the road was closed yesterday - large boulders had just been moved aside enough for traffic to pass, and sections of road had become narrower where their edges had caved into the water. The water level has dropped significantly since yesterday, and even so it was just below road level in places. Down on sandbanks, which yesterday would have been two metres underwater, enterprising villagers were at work with ropes and saws, salvaging wood from massive tree trunks that had washed up in the flood.

6km outside Manali the bus stopped - we disembarked with our luggage to find a 100m stretch of road had completely collapsed into the river, leaving us a path just wide enough to walk to the other side, like lambs to the slaughter into a crowd of beaming taxi drivers who had just become our only option to complete the journey.

But complete it we did: we're finally here, enjoying hot water in en-suite bathrooms for the first time in quite a while.

If anyone's looking for the lost tribe of Israel, they're here in Manali. I've been few places in India where I haven't met Israelis, but this takes the cake. The place is like Camden Market with a Hebrew soundtrack, and feels very far removed from India; the backdrop is stunning though.

Despite buses still not running to Leh, we've found out that the first convoy of jeeps will be allowed through tomorrow night (actually very early the next morning), so we hope to begin the 18-hour trip in one of them.
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