Two hours after final staff meetings, we left Mussoorie with a couple of Aussies, Matt and Meg and set out for the hill station of Shimla. Inside the car were a) one pregnant lady prone to morning sickness (Meg), b) one non-pregnant lady who is prone to carsickness (Bethany), and one very jumpy driver (Nikky). After a few wrong turns and lots of nausea, we made it to Shimla just after dark and checked into the Gulmarg Regency Hotel, a dank and overpriced honeymoon destination. They had no special lodgings for drivers, so Nikky had to sleep in his car on the street, much to his chagrin, though this seems to be the norm for drivers.
Shimla seemed nice enough but we were only there long enough to sleep before continuing on to Dharamsala, which is a smaller hill station. It’s best known for being the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. The Dalai Lama lives there when he’s in town. Inside the main Tibetan Buddhist headquarters you can sit in the quad area and watch the monks debate each other, which they punctuate with looping, choreographed hand claps, as if to high-five themselves following an especially good point.
We never saw the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan history museum was unfortunately closed on Mondays. But McLeod Ganj is a charming little bazaar with lots of good coffee shops and momo restaurants. It’s also a very interesting window into a nation living in exile. Most of the shops had Tibetan liberation signs or sweeping photos of Lhasa on the walls. And it makes you wonder: if China pulled out tomorrow, would all these Tibetans just pack up and go back? At what point do they begin to think of themselves Indians of Tibetan ancestry? And just how many momos can I eat?
Our hotel in Dharamsala (the very pink Hotel Ladies Venture) was much better, though they still had no lodgings for our driver, so Nikky again slept in his car. The next morning, he came to the hotel looking rather upset. He told us his aunty had died and he wanted to be released to return to Delhi to be with his family. It was a somewhat suspicious story, given that he had seemed deeply uncomfortable for most of the trip and had previously asked several times if we could get another driver so he could return to Mussoorie on his own. It was all very strange, since we contracted him to drive us all the way from Mussoorie to Manali and he stood to make a make a lot of money doing it.
Nikky’s replacement was an extremely aggressive driver (nevermind that he was driving a minivan), but somehow seemed more in control than Nikky ever was. He got us to Manali in record time and in one piece, with less nausea to boot. It was this driver and the one we met the next day who nurtured our appreciation for the art of Indian driving.
In Manali we met up with two more Aussies, Haydn and Katya and rented jeep driven by a Ladakhi man named Rinzin. The Leh-Manali highway was the longest, roughest, most dangerous and exhausting part of our trip, and I had prayed for a good driver because there is so much that could go wrong, from rattling our teeth loose to ending up at the bottom of the ravine. But Rinzin was a brilliant driver. Not only did he own a clean and roomy Scorpio, he was also meticulous about driving. We all felt very good about him driving us over 3 of the 4 highest motorable passes in the world under bad conditions, and our tailbones were thankful that we were in a car with real suspension.
In India we don’t drive. We pay people to get us from point A to point B, and it’s always a crapshoot. It’s like a box of chocolates, as Mr. Gump would say. Sometimes your car reeks of fumes, the tires are bald, and your intoxicated driver won’t turn his music down.* Other times you get a masterful road-sherpa like Rinzin, and it makes all the difference in the world. While Nikky seemed like a local taxi driver who was in over his head once we got outside Mussoorie, Rinzin’s makes a living getting people safely through the Leh-Manali highway and his expertise showed.
*We’ve never knowingly had a drunk driver, but we’ve been advised to check.
So at 5am we left Manali, on the way passing scores of Indian tourists from the plains who paid money to rent sad-looking snow suits and drive up to the first pass. Rohtang pass, as it’s called, is a popular tourist destination, so we left at 5am to beat the rush. Still, we were immobilized for about three hours in a traffic jam. Also there was still some cleanup happening since a car apparently went over the edge the day before.
There is nothing anyone can say about the Leh-Manali highway that would do it proper justice. It is simply the most breathtaking and spine-rattling drive any of us will probably ever do. It’s only open in summer, but even then it’s unpredictable. Sometimes it is a paved two-lane with guardrails, other times it’s just a muddy stream bed clinging to a cliff and there is risk of whiteouts, snowfall, rockslides, and altitude sickness. The road averages about 13,000′ in altitude and tops out at 17,585′. There is one town with legit lodgings (Keylong). Otherwise, your options are “hotels” like this: