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A Travelogue

A Holiday in Rohtang Pass

-V.S.P. Kurup

Delhi was getting scorched under the blazing June sun. Load-shedding
and power breakdowns, often in tandem, were making life miserable for citizens. Water taps had gone into the dry-season mode long ago. Everybody who was somebody in the city was scampering to the hills to beat the heat.

My life-mate too had the bird instinct and wanted to fly to cool climes awhile. She longed to make it to the Dal Lake in Kashmir. It has been a fond dream since her arrival in Delhi from the salubrious Kerala coast some years ago. All preparations were done with great anticipation. Guide books were gone through, mental notes taken of the places to be visited and friends notified of our impending departure. We did not want anything to be left to chance.

But chance did play its dirty trick all the same. While we were making our travel plans in detail Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan was equally busy preparing for a holiday among the snow-capped peaks of Kargil. Apparently, he too was thinking about it for a long time and this time he was hell-bent to make it, come what may. His advance party had already camped there and was making the place a little too dirty and noisy. It was as yet an unofficial visit, but the way he was going about gathering stores and establishing essential facilities, he was going to make it official and meant to tarry a bit too long. Sharif not being really sharif, he not only kept his host in the dark about his intentions, but also transgressed the hospitality by misbehaving with our gallant boys out there doing their solemn duty. That was a little too unpleasant for our Government to ignore. They chose to respond in kind. The fireworks began in earnest on both sides.

My wife had a pathological dislike for firing and fireworks—they left her absolutely cold—and, purveying the daily news, she was dismayed to find that there was no let up in the exchanges around and on the hills even after some weeks. It only showed signs of getting worse. Some wild rumours said the fire might even spread and set ablaze the lovely house-boats on the Lake on one of which we were planning our week-long sojourn. Alas! We had to abandon our trip until Kargil became cool again.

The sudden dislocation in our well thought-out holiday plan depressed my wife. She was angry with Sharif and his ilk, but refused to lose her cool. The world would be better off without them, she thought aloud.

My wife’s depression, like that in the Bay, moved fast. It did not even last an afternoon. She had too robust a mental frame to give up easily. Before dinner time she was ready with an alternative plan. Time was of essence. She had to go on a holiday to a hill station—any hill would do—before the summer vacation was over. Once her school reopened the routine grind will start and go on—class work, homework, unit test, corrections and so on-- without any full stop for another one year. It was monotonous, enervating, which left her stale and weak by the end of each academic year. Some recharging was, therefore, imperative. What better way to do it than have a whiff of mountain air?

So the travel guides were pulled out and gone over once again. There were Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Shimla, Nainital, Sikkim and Manali—all equally enchanting. Some of these we had already been to, and some were too far away for a sudden trip. There was also the question of arranging rail reservations both ways. It was tourist season and reservations at short notice were next to impossible. So after a few telephone calls the choice was reduced to three-- Shimla, Nainital and Manali -- where we could reach by bus in less than 24 hours.

Prime Choice.

After hearing that Atal Behari Vajpayee was vacationing in Manali every year, that it was like a second home to him, there was no doubt left in our mind where to head for. We could not presume to be a better judge than a prime minister in the selection of a holiday station. Once the destination was decided, things moved fast.

A visit to the Himachal Tourism Office, on Janpath, Connaught Place, sorry Indira-Rajiv Chowk (or Maa- Beta Chowk if you please), in the forenoon next day fixed the ticket problem. The fare was Rs.450 per person one way. It was a de luxe bus alright, but no A.C. Departure time was 7 p.m. from the same premises and the journey time was about 17 hours. A leaflet offered to me by the booking clerk along with the tickets indicated the route, day and night temperatures in Manali in summer, clothes to wear and places of tourist interest around that town.

A number of buses, ordinary (but to board these, one had to go to the Inter-State Bus Terminus at Kashmiri Gate, Delhi) as well as de luxe, left for Manali everyday. But all of them took the road at night. It puzzled me. Considering the mountainous terrain, the heavy traffic both ways and the narrow, winding road, one would have thought that day journey was safer. As a matter of fact, I prefer travelling to new places during daytime because that gives me opportunity to see and savour the sights and sounds on the way. I enjoy observing the changing frames of landscapes, as well as people en route in their natural setting—what they do, wear and eat, how they live, their distinct physical features and, generally, how they go about their daily chores. I have found the study of people and their diverse ways of life immensely absorbing. But this was not to be during this journey.

Our Manali odyssey was to start next evening. We got ready a single suit case with enough clothes for my wife and self to last ten days. Since we were going to a relatively cool area we could manage with a single change of dress everyday. After considering the pros and cons of including some woollen items, it was decided to limit them to a shawl for my wife and a pullover and a cap for me. I did not want to add more weight to the already bulging suitcase. But my wife was overly concerned about my whimsical asthma. If it makes a visitation the holiday would be in jeopardy. Already she had assembled assortment of medicines for all conceivable contingencies.

A big shoulder bag carrying sundry items and the ubiquitous water bag completed the full complement of our luggage. Half the morning of the appointed day was spent instructing the housemaid, milkman, newspaper agent, gardener and the chowkidar about various matters to be attended to in our absence. Not feeling confident that any of these people would carry out the instructions in letter and spirit, my wife went across and requested the neighbour’s wife to keep an eye on our house just in case…. Just for formality’s sake my wife asked her whether she would like to have anything in particular from Manali. They would be happy to bring it for her. This grandiose offer was politely declined with the statement that they themselves were to go to Manali this season but for her husband’s preoccupation with an important office matter.

That afternoon was much longer than usual. I looked at my watch several times and checked its accuracy with the wall clock. The watch was all right. I had a feeling that unless we reached the bus station quickly, something would happen to scuttle our trip. I suspected the watch letting us down. It was, of course, a baseless fear; all the same we started somewhat early, and justified it as necessary to beat the evening rush on the road.

When we arrived at the bus stand and found that no other party destined for Manali had arrived, and not even the driver or conductor was anywhere in sight, we felt sheepish about the juvenile hurry. In a little while one by one all the passengers ambled in leisurely and the forty-seater bus was full to capacity. Our luggage was taken care of by one who looked like the conductor’s helper , who courteously moved and arranged the boxes in the side-boot of the bus.

After the baggages were loaded the fellow went round collecting his fee for the unsolicited service—he asked for Rs four apiece flat. We were surprised by his cool demand, but paid up, suppressing the resentment at the imposition. Of course, there was no free lunch, we knew, but how could he pretend to be a philanthrope and suddenly turn extortionist? Our anger knew no bounds when we saw that he was not a member of the bus crew.! He just walked away with the loot. Was he acting in collusion with the crew to make some 200 fast bucks?

By the time we recovered our composure even without an answer, we were on our way. The next few minutes were invested in bridge-building and pleasantries with co-passengers in the neighbourhood. The couple on the right-- middle-aged, healthy and serious-- were from Pune. They did not seem to relish being introduced, and summarily cut off further communication. Probably they had already reached the icy peaks in Manali.

On the hand, the young couple with a bubbly child sitting in front of us were sociable. They were from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, famous for its silk sarees of the same name. The girl’s fabulous appearance told her origin. They were visiting Delhi for the first time, and before returning to south (Tamil Nadu is a southern state), wanted to see Manali about which they had heard so much.

Their girl child seemed to strike an instant rapport with my wife—she smiled and, with the seeming familiarity of several years, extended her little right hand to her. It was no wonder.

Being the mother of three girls, now all grown up and happily married, my wife has a mesmerizing way with kids that defies explanation. I have always felt very jealous of her immense popularity among children. The number and kind of cards, bouquets and other presents she gets on the Teachers’ Day every year from students, past and present, will shame a reigning queen on her birthday. And, it is not as if all teachers get similar spontaneous ovation. Some, in fact, go home empty-handed. making barbed comments about those who are treated differently by the students.

The couple behind us were part of a group of four from Bengal. They all talked loudly and assertively. They were on their way to visit Shimla after Kullu-Manali. It was not feasible to sustain their interest in one topic for long. They were prone to switch subjects suddenly and even language—they broke into Bengali frequently leaving non-Bengalis non-plussed. Their difficulty was that they were ill at ease with English.

Wayside Dinner

By 10 p.m. we were feeling hungry, stiff of limbs and bored. As if the driver had guessed our condition, he stopped the bus near a wayside restaurant decorated with flags, buntings and multi-coloured lights. It was actually a dhaba with tables and chairs. We had seen numerous similar eating places on the way with crude attempts to give a carnival atmosphere. They supply virtually anything there, some openly, some on the sly. This road being an important artery connecting several prosperous towns and industrial cities in the north, the traffic becomes heavy and alive at night it is to cater to this clientele that these restaurants have sprung up.

It was on the outskirts of Karnal town that we stopped for dinner. Probably it was our driver’s ususal haunt, because he granted half an hour to have our dinner and disappeared into the make-shift restaurant. Fearing the quality of the fare at such eating places, my wife had brought some home-made stuff for the night. Enough water for the night also had been carried in a water bottle.

So we did not order anything from the restaurant. But when we took a table and sat down to eat our frugal dinner, the boy in charge of the table protested. We could not use their facility for nothing. Just to please him we ordered two ice-creams. He was mollified. The resumed journey was uneventful. Probably the late dinner, the steady drone of the engine and the mild rocking had a sedative effect on everybody. If they woke up after a long while, it was because the bus had begun the ascent and the engine, in high gear, was hard at the job.

The sharp turns on steep hillsides, especially on poorly-lit roads gave me the creep often. Since I was always thinking of the consequences if the driver, despite his long experience and expertise, failed to control the bus at any of the numerous bends, I lost my sleep completely. My trained mind also suspected, as a result of investigating many cases of road accidents while I was working as a cub reporter for a national newspaper, that the driver could be drunk. The fearsome thoughts drenched me in cold sweat.

My wife peacefully snoring by my side was blissfully unaware of my mental peregrinations. After a long, long time which seemed interminable, when chirpings of birds announced the impending dawn, I felt relieved. There was no need to fear about any mishap anymore. Probably we were closer to the destination. I was mentally preparing for a wash and a sumptuous breakfast to restore my spirit fully when the disaster struck. As if to give shape to all my vanished fears the bus suddenly jerked and ground to a halt. Luckily the road was level in that area. But that did not help much. It refused to get into the gear, any gear. The driver tried his level best to set it right, but in vain.

We were feeling despondent and cheated when we saw another tourist bus coming from Delhi. There was hope yet. The driver and conductor also were relieved to see it and told us to get into it: we could proceed to Manali in that bus. The newcomers gallantly offered to accommodate us, but there was not much room left. Probably in the rarified mountain surroundings when things go wrong, such mutual bonhomie and generous gestures were common, even imperative. So accepting their offer we moved in with bag and baggage, putting things wherever we could. Some had just standing room. Still there was no protest. We just wanted to get out of this place quickly.

The second bus resumed its journey with the extra guests. When it covered some distance it came to a small wayside teashop with a toilet. Time was past 8 a.m. and pressure was building up inside everybody. The driver thoughtfully stopped the bus and said we could have 15 minutes to refresh ourselves. There was already a queue in front of the toilet. So we had to be a little pragmatic. While the women went into the bush nearby in groups, men did it on the roadside as usual.

While we were taking tea, another bus of the Himachal Tourism from Delhi arrived. It had space to accommodate some people from the ‘break down bus’. The moment the information was out, there was a scramble. In a jiffy, without waiting for my help, my wife took out the suitcase and bag from the second bus, got into the new one and took possession of two comfortable seats. It was a lightning operation and I congratulated my wife for her agility. The late-comers had to contend with the back row. Happy with the turn of events, we settled down to enjoy the rest of the journey.

We were now following the course of the river Beas. We could see it a little distance away, lean and silent, winding its way through a bed strewn with huge boulders. Further away on either side huge blue-green mountains were rising to the cloud level and beyond. The countless snow-capped peaks reaching into the sky were an unforgettable and inspiring sight. Surely it was an environment in which one who was truly gifted could scarcely resist reaching out for his pen or brush.

It was while in this twilight area of creative mood that I reached for our water bottle. No, it was not there. Where could it disappear? Suddenly it came as a flash that we had left it behind in the second bus from which we disembarked in a hurry. I felt very sorry for it.

Lost and Found

My wife felt guilty that it was she who had forgotten to take it out along with the baggage. It was not just the cost of the bottle; it was the thought that our carelessness had caused the loss that dampened our holiday mood.

After a while of silence and deep thought, my indefatigable wife said we would get the bottle. She was confident that the costly present from our daughter could not be lost. I was not sure, and put her optimism to her fond wish. Her idea was to wait at the terminal for that second bus, from which we had disembarked in a hurry. That bus was following us, probably a little behind. But suppose it goes to a different terminal? Or finding no owner, if somebody had picked it up and got down on the way? My wife would not entertain any such negative thoughts. She was an incorrigible optimist.

Around 11.30 a.m. we reached the terminal bus stand at Manali There was the usual chaos created by people coming and going in a hurry, touts canvassing tourists on behalf of their hotels, coolies looking for custom, petty traders hawking their wares and so on. Touts were a real nuisance. They would not take a “no”, but would go on citing the rates and quality of different hotels they canvassed for. But our immediate thoughts were solely on locating the bus which was carrying our water bottle. Several buses came from different destinations and an equal number went out. We rushed at each incoming bus and looked for any of the faces we recognised, for it was pointless to look at the exterior of the buses: almost all Himachal Tourism buses looked alike.

After half an hour when we had almost given up hope and was about to accompany the Tibetan boy who had attached himself to us in spite of repeatedly rejecting his services, the silent prayer of my wife was heard. As if from nowhere a bus came and parked just in front of us and a lady holding out the water bottle came out of the bus. With a broad smile she gave it to my wife. She had seen us waiting from a distance and was happy to restore the water bottle to the rightful owners. We profusely thanked her for taking care of our property and delivering to us. Needless to say, after this small episode I had to register a peg or two higher my esteem for my wife’s analytical judgement and deep faith.

The Tibetan boy who had already taken possession of our luggage agreed to take us to a good hotel with moderate charges, for, he guessed from our appearance and luggage that we were not in search of five-star comforts. His own fee was Rs 10 (apart from what he would collect from the hotel as his commission). Probably there is no fixed rate—these poor but intelligent Tibetan boys are badly exploited by the local business people. Anyway, two minutes walk and we came inside the courtyard of a good hotel over-looking a row of high mountain. The going rate was Rs 450 per day for a double- bed room with all modern amenities. We thought it was slightly high for us. The boy took us to another hotel, Parijat, for a look. It was no hotel, but just a guest house. A double-bed room with television and hot water on the ground floor here was quoted at Rs.300 per day. Since the place was centrally located and there were plenty of good restaurants around the place, we settled for it. We booked the room for three days.

After a wash and change of dress, we had our lunch from a Tamil restaurant close by. The fare offered was not very good, but since we had good appetite we did not care. When we got out after lunch the sky was overcast and air very cold. We consulted our hotel people about the places worth visiting in Manali. They said there were quite a few but since they were scattered far and wide we had to take an auto. By the time we were ready, it had started raining. Since the sight-seeing could not be postponed, there was no point in waiting for the sky to clear. The mountain weather was unpredictable anyway. The hotel manager arranged an auto and said the driver would take us around for Rs.250. I suspected that the charge was on the high side. As it happened we were literally taken for a ride in the rain.

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