Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Moment of Weakness

That's how I'm coming to think of our decision to work with the travel agency in Delhi to set up our transportation and lodging for our time in India. The most tedious part of long-term travelling is dealing regularly with mundane details--where to sleep, where to eat, and arranging transport. After 3+ months of this, we thought we would "treat" ourselves to only having to worrying about food. We had had such good experiences in Vietnam, especially with the Easy Rider tour and even going to Halong Bay that we thought this would be a good idea, but we've regretted it ever since. We've definitely spent more time trying to deal with the agents from afar than we would have spent setting up our own arrangements. The worst part is that we're so unhappy with that decision that it's really putting a pall over this entire leg of the trip.

So after a few extra days in Leh (trying to get our ticket for a shared taxi or bus to our next location, Manali), the travel agency finally booked us a private taxi for the 22 hour trip. At 9PM yesterday, two young-ish Ladakhi brothers showed up at our hotel--one of whom spoke a little English, one seemingly not at all. So we took off into the darkness, Tyler and I wide awake as we hit the dark and bumpy road.

It was probably just as well that we couldn't see the cliffs on the other side of the car. The Leh-Manali Highway had been open for a few weeks, but we were still surrounded by snow on one side, crossing streams, and, at one point, journeying through desert sands. To make matters worse, Tyler and I had recently succumbed to some kind of stomach bug and a couple hours into the extremely bumpy trip Tyler started having bad stomach cramps. Fortunately, a break from the bumps and some medication made him a little more comfortable*.

We drove until about 2:30AM when we pulled into a makeshift campground where other buses, taxis and delivery trucks stop for a break in the driving. The driver turned off the car, made gestures to go to sleep, turned off the interior light and went to bed. Luckily for me, we only stopped for about 2 hours. I was up in the front seat, unable to get comfortable but fearful of robbing our driver of his rest. I was also getting increasingly cold--no blankets, no way to get warmer clothing from my bag--and you can imagine that the temperature in the car was only slightly warmer than the outside, mountain air. I ended up sitting, shivering, trying to distract myself and stay still. When there was a bit of light in the sky, the driver and brother got up and got started on continuing the drive.

Apparently all that exists between Leh and Manali are mountains.** We climbed up and down mountains for almost the entire journey. At one point, we saw a sign at the pass saying we were at 16,500 feet!*** But the scenery--the little that I saw, being quite sleepy from the "rest stop" non-nap and anti-motion sickness medicine--was amazing. Snow-capped mountains in every direction, villages set among terraced fields directly on the mountain side, glaciers, more pashmina goats and horses.... (The pictures aren't great since we were on the move and mostly had to take them through windows)

Snowy mountains at the 16,500 meter high pass

Mountain village (if you enlarge, you can see houses on the hills)

More mountains and farmland

With only about 100 kilometers left, we crossed our last mountain, which is also a favorite winter ski resort. Interestingly, though, it seems that many Indian tourists come here even in June during their family holidays. People can rent boots, skis, fake-fur full-length coats and hang out in the fog and snow. We passed a small area of old snow that people were climbing up to then sledding or skiing down. (You do have to admire their fortitude for skiing without a chair lift.) You could also pay for rides on horses and yaks or even parasail off the mountain. It was a very surreal scene.

So now we're in Manali. We haven't seen too much of it yet, but it seems to be a very popular holiday location for Indian families. As with most of this trip so far, we don't really like the location of our hotel and we're tempted to leave here early to have more time at Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj, but that would mean more conversations with the travel agent. There is still sexism here, and sadly it is better for Tyler to deal most issues, and he's getting pretty sick of talking to them. We tried really hard in Leh to get out of our contract. If we're lucky we'll be able to recoup some money and be done with them when we get back to Delhi around the 20th.

Special Tyler Addendum: Because I was rewriting my Leh entry, Sarah offered to do the Leh to Manali entry. But, since I was the one who got sick, and because I had a couple other observations, I'm going to add some last comments... with her permission of course.

If you notice throughout her entry, there is a couple of asterisks (*). These in to my comment below.

* Yeah, this hurt. In fact, it was probably the most painful experience I've had on this trip to date. I'm not sure what exactly brought it on, but I'm guessing it was a mixture of bad food, and maybe the altitude. All I know is that about 2 hours into our 22 hour odyssey, my guts suddenly turned to cement. Then, it felt like someone was inflating a walrus-sized balloon in my stomach. After grinding my teeth and whimpering for a while, I finally gave in and had to ask the driver to stop the car for a bit until the pain subsided. Luckily, as she said, a few pills and some water, and things improved rapidly... today, I'm back to normal. Go figure.

Unfortunately, that was at the top of the first major pass we had to go over of, I believe, five). So, it was freezing cold, the middle of the night, and with gale force winds.

** This isn't entirely true. For example, we'd be driving along, and you'd see a sign for, say, Zingzingbar that would read: "Zingzingbar - 64km."

Then, a kilometer later: "Zingzingbar - 63km."

And so on, and so on. Eventually, you'd find yourself becoming oddly curious, and thinking "Wow, I bet Zingzingbar is going to be a really cool place!" Then, 63 kilometers later, you'd finally arrive at Zingzingbar only to discover that its only three or four yurt-sized tents with women selling food and tea to passing truck drivers. And that's all.

So, maybe Sarah is correct in saying "all that exists between Leh and Manali are mountains" after all.

(Oh, and I didn't make up the name "Zingzingbar." It's an actual location.)

*** 16,500 feet is really high up. For comparison, Everest's Base Camp is at 17,600 ft. And Washington's highest mountain, Mt. Rainier is only 14,410.

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