I'm not even sure this reflects the different nature of this journey, though. When I think of the other big journeys I think of them as episodes, too; for example, my time in Mongolia and my time in Italy, as well as other places, took place on the same trip but they were so different the link seems tenuous. Perhaps what's different about this journey, what's so strange, is the way I seem so much more immersed in it; how, when I do think about being back in the Pohangina Valley, I have no trace of the slight wistfulness that usually accompanied those memories on all the previous journeys (which is not to say I won't greatly enjoy being back there). More than on any other trip, I seem to be comfortable wherever I am, which is remarkable given the physical conditions -- this almost unrelenting heat and humidity -- which are more difficult than anywhere I remember except perhaps Ghana, which they resemble. Perhaps this is a good sign. Perhaps, after all this travelling over all these years I'm only now beginning to learn how to travel truly.
I remember too, how one of Chris Bonnington's books about his attempts on the south-west face of Everest included an extract from an expedition member's diary; in that, the diarist admonished himself for wasting time in unstructured thought. When I read that, decades ago, I felt guilty because I recognised how much time I spent in 'unstructured' thought. Now, much older and more critical, I think the claim that unstructured thought is a waste of time is utter bullshit. Certainly, structured thought has a place -- for example, when you're trying to resolve a logical problem -- but most insights, I suspect, come from thoughts allowed to wander, to make connections where they will, to go off on tangents or explore their own paths.
The bus leaves two hours late. Waiting for passengers from Leh, the driver said. Plausible, and frustrating, but delays, often protracted, are part of life in India and the trick to dealing with them is, I think, to know when something might be done to hasten the process and when the only option is acceptance, resignation, and a philosophical attitude. The problem, however, is that knowing whether something might be done requires a good understanding of how things get done here, and for visitors like me that's seldom possible. Consequently, I might sometimes be too philosophical, too resigned. That's hardly a great cost, though.
Already late, the bus then stops several times to load vegetables. This involves groups of men standing around apparently doing nothing except talking and occasionally putting another large, shattered-cardboard box held together by flimsy twine into the cargo hold. Five minutes' work turns to half an hour; what should have been several hours of gazing out the window watching the evening landscape pass by turns into several hours of watching the landscape NOT pass by, until finally night shuts down even that option. Once the possibility of enjoying the scenery has passed, the long stops cease.
Surprisingly, I manage a fair amount of sleep -- fitful, but it helps the night pass. We stop at a truckers' dhaba where the extremely efficient staff deliver my paratha promptly and I finish it with time to spare. Back on the bus we continue to drive through the night and I continue to sleep, off and on, seeing almost nothing of the places we pass through save for house lights high on mountainsides; small, illuminated villages; a large market selling mostly fruit and vegetables; and occasional bridges, including one over an expanse of water that in the moonlight looked impossibly large to be situated in the mountains.
Dawn comes; the sky lightens; the sun glows just above the horizon, red and perfectly round through thick haze. As it rises, it turns from red to orange to an intense yellow disc bearing the threat of tremendous heat. We stop again soon after, around 7 a.m., at another travellers' complex where the conductor tells me we have 15 minutes. I order an excellent aloo paratha and chai, bolt the breakfast down within the 15 minutes and wait around for the remaining 15 minutes until we begin the final leg to Delhi.
Every restaurant I visit in Paharganj feels like a sauna, even the rooftop restaurants that in theory should catch the breeze. This wouldn't be so bad if clothes were optional, but unfortunately they're not (although some foreign visitors with less concern for local sensitivities seem to be testing that requirement to its limit). Besides, if I stripped down I'd be taken for a reincarnation of Gandhi and I could do without that attention.
The bottle of ice cold water I bought half an hour ago has already reached blood temperature, and I can't help thinking of those evenings on the top floor of the Tiger Eye in Manali with a cold Kingfisher, a plate of steamed veg momos, and a view of misty, forested mountainsides. On my last day there I'd had breakfast as usual at the Bee's Knees and had been greeted like a long-absent friend, which in a sense I suppose I was. I lingered there, wondering why so few people seemed to visit and deciding that perhaps it was because here you couldn't be seen from the street; here you couldn't display your coolness as effectively; here, too, you couldn't evaluate the passersby and keep an eye out for friends who might be walking along the road looking for similarly trendy and conspicuous places to eat.
Eventually I abandoned my cynicism and simply enjoyed being where I was. Jungle crows held an animated conversation in the trees and some other bird, probably a Himalayan bulbul, warbled melodiously nearby. A dog barked; a vehicle screeched its horn as it made its way down the narrow road; the thump of the kind of music Rico detested sounded like a heartbeat lower down in the town, and perhaps that's what it was -- the sound of the kind of life that attracts a certain kind of traveller to Old Manali. Marco, the Italian photographer in the minibus that had survived only half the journey from Leh to Manali (another story), didn't fit that stereotype -- not in the least -- and he chose to stay in New Manali. Coincidence or not? I know what Rico would have said.
As for me -- just as far as Marco from this stereotype of the typical Old Manali traveller -- I prefer the sound of the birds.
1. I've skipped much of what I sketched out in my handwritten notes in Leh, not because it's unimportant but for precisely the opposite reason. Leh affected me deeply, and when something's that important you want to do it justice. I don't know whether I can; I don't know how I might. I think it needs time, but the previous post is as good an attempt as I can manage for the time being, even if focused more on events outside Leh itself. (Conversely, the photographs are all from in and around Leh, but that's mostly because the bug-riddled app, Photomate R2, won't let me access anything from Manali or earlier.)
1. The Taglang La, 5328 m, on the road from Manali to Leh. When I returned, this was lit by the light of the almost-supermoon.
2. Mani wall at Rumbak
3. Dog on the steps leading to the palace, Leh.
4. The poorer part of Leh at sunset, from the Monastery knoll.
Photos and original text © 2014 Pete McGregor