I was in Leh after a great weeks trekking looking south. The first act was to get through Ladakh and into the most different looking state of Himachal, after flying in I’d chosen to go back out by a 400km bus journey.
The Leh to Manali bus route is billed as one of the world’s great road trips. This may be true for a number of reasons I will describe in a moment, however it founders on one point, there needs to be something you would describe as a road, ha ha. Anyway, the journey began with many of us kicking our heels in Leh as the bus failed to appear. This was resolved by waking up my travel agent at half past two in the morning, thirty minutes after we were meant to leave, and by three thirty the bus had rolled up and we were away. A few hours later the adventure really began when I woke up to the find us in typical Ladakhi grassless mountain terrain, very high up in the air, on a very narrow unmade road, an so the tone was set.
It was a last chance to admire the tremendous scenery of Ladakh, as a way of distracting yourself from the massive drops below and the constant bumping that left bums involuntarily jumping off seats as the bus drew its way up the huge mountain peaks. It was slow going thanks to the rough road and the frequent stops at security checkpoints, to let trucks go the other way and more bizarre reasons such as the road being covered in rubble by a dump truck, and large herds of sheep!
Eventually the scenery began to turn greener, the signal that we had crossed into Himachal Pradesh and before long the mountains were completely covered in green forest and punctuated by waterfalls, one of which spectacularly coming straight off a glacier. We were still just as high up though which as darkness drew in caused a problem when it was accompanied by rain and low cloud, very soon we had drawn to a halt as the driver couldn’t see and the drops off the edge of the road made continuing a very scary proposition! For an hour we crawled forward with fellow passengers walking in front of the bus with torches before the cloud lifted and we crawled into Manali after a 21 hour journey.
I was left with one day to explore Manali which is something of a backpacker hub with a characteristic hippie vibe, I found a couple of nice walking trails and set of up through the orchards, taking plenty of pictures of the surrounding greenery and the great views of the series of steep valleys that make up that part of Himachal.
The next day it was time for a comparatively uneventful ten hour journey to Dharamshala, famous for being the home of the Dalai Lama. After settling down in a dirt cheap room uphill in the nearby village of Bagsu, the next day I set out for the Tibetan government compound, a one hour long downpour that forced me to take shelter in the nearest cafe followed by an afternoon spent relaxing in another cafe with fellow passengers from the previous day, and others, meant that I never quite made it. An interesting nighttime adventure followed, having decided to have dinner in the village above Bagsu and enjoyed a scenic sunset walk, I then found myself in trouble getting down again as I was trying to pick
my way through small paths in the middle of maize fields with no torch!
The last two days in Dharamsala were finally concerned with Tibetan matters as first of all I spent an afternoon in the Tibetan Museum where I learned about the appalling goings on there. I would encourage anyone to find out was has happened in the region since the Chinese invasion because it really is an on-going tragedy and quite shocking that it is allowed to happen. The next
morning though came a real exciting moment, the chance to attend a teaching from the Dalai Lama himself. Arriving at the Buddhist temple a little early, the scene was being set with monastic chanting that increased in volume as he made his entrance, passing meters away from my seat on the floor in the English language section, it was a very powerful moment. The teaching itself consisted of a breakdown of the introductory rites of a lay person to the Buddhist faith, quite hard to follow at times with references to Buddhist scripture and tantra and coming to us via a translation.
That evening it was time for my first trip on a public bus, a nine hour night journey to Shimla, Where I woke up refreshed and ready to explore the following afternoon. Shimla was built by the British in colonial times as a hill retreat and that is obvious throughout the town. On my first day I took a long walk taking photos of the great views of the surrounding valley and the many colonial era buildings that now serve as Himachal Pradesh government headquarters before heading back to the lodge I’m staying at for dinner. The next day was similar but with more purpose as accompanied by two South African girls I had met at the hotel the previous evening we took on the huge hike up the hill to the Hindu Hanuman temple, appropriately located given the number of monkeys we encountered on the way, then explored the colonial church, theatre and museum. Its shown a very different side of India and its past.