Oh dear, where to start? Brand new sheets of corrugated iron placed on the road for passing traffic to drive over creating a flat sheet, because in fine Indian style, we all know a flat sheet will go further than a corrugated sheet! Or the filling station gantry being welded high above with sparks flying while we fill with fuel below! Further, the boys will surely be blind by thirty because of the two welding sets running one man is using a pair of cheap sun-glasses for protection and the other is just closing his eyes and hoping he gets it pretty much in the right spot; welding by ‘feel’. I’ve spotted more than one automotive bodyshop advertising ‘Denting and Painting’ and from the outside I’d say they are experts at the former but perhaps with less finesse for the later. All classic stuff!
As Europeans, we are familiar with the ‘Nazi’ Swastika but I have only recently learnt of the beginnings of this well-known symbol. The earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates back to the Indus Valley civilization and it remains widely used in Indian religions, specifically in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, primarily as a tantric symbol of auspiciousness. The word ‘swastika’ comes from the Sanskrit and literally translated means, ‘It is good’. Unfortunately, the swastika has become strongly associated with Nazism and related concepts such as anti-Semitism, hatred, violence, and death; it is now largely stigmatized due to the changed connotations of the symbol. Indeed, it has been outlawed in Germany and other countries if used as a symbol of Nazism but its true beginnings are here in northern India where its use goes hand-in-hand with everything that is good.
The approach to the Himalayan region is gradual with the only noticeable change that of the over laden trucks creeping even more slowly over the hills and descending into the Drass Valley we came across a truck, back axle removed, sitting forlornly in an isolated spot awaiting some kind of repair. I have no doubt it will be massively over laden hauling goods again in due course; the resourcefulness of the natives along with their ingenuity is truly inspiring.
Basgo gompa lies amongst the ruins of an old palace and city; it’s realistic and atmospheric although you’ll need a little imagination to complete the scene because sadly it appears a little rundown and shabby these days. There are only so many temples a man can take and I’m beginning to become ‘all templed out’ although the temple at Alchi is undeniably distinctive with some fine old murals covering the walls; once you get passed the hawkers selling cheap trinkets to the innocent. The parking too is a very Indian affair!
Some roads of the Ladakh region are ridiculously pretty; simply stunning and certainly this section could be considered the highlight of the journey for some. We stopped at the meeting of two roads high on the Altiplano where basic ‘Parachute Cafes’ offer meals and coffee. The temperature was a comfortable 4 or 5 degrees Centigrade, it was sunny and peaceful, a lovely spot to imbibe the experience. On the flipside, I must also report the very poor condition of some roads, one section of 100km with badly washed-out and potholed tarmac. Another high altitude section of 85km took us more than four hours to cover but we cannot possibly tell exactly what the conditions may be like in a year’s time because of the extremes of weather. On the whole, you should leave thoughts of smooth, wide-open roads behind because they don’t exist out here. However, we found an outstanding road down into one of the valleys on an ‘off the beaten track’ segment which the RATBAGS of our group will enjoy. The RATBAGS (Rough And Tumble Boys And GirlS) are a newly formed faction whose pleasure it is to explore those places less visited.
The sections we have surveyed for days 16, 17 and 18 are outstanding in the extreme, adjectives are hard to muster describing the scale and beauty of these mountains; imagine the Swiss Alps on steroids! We stopped at one particular spot and gawked in wonder at the confluence of two rivers tight between sheer ravines with our tiny road clinging to the side. We then spent several days thrashing back and forth on the infamous Hindustan – Tibet road trying to break the journey in two. Lally didn’t actually call me a bastard, as such, but simply brought into question my ancestry; she is convinced there must be an Indian truck driver amongst my forebears! Anyway, we came away empty-handed not being able to find even half-decent accommodation for our clients and although we now have a long day into Shimla it’s a real driver’s day with some spectacular scenery. Alas, on these sections landslides are common and ‘Shooting Stones’ can pepper from above, for this reason we shall build an extra day into the schedule to make allowance for possible road interruptions. As we descend from the Himalayas proper the terrain becomes less abrupt, the temperatures rise slowly and we begin to see small pockets of green amid the foreboding, barren land. Descending still further, the ground becomes fertile with lush growth filling every crevice, indeed the district produces 80% of the countries apples which are harvested throughout July, August and September. Another noticeable change is the return of India’s trumpeting Tatas’ as well as the ceaseless crush of humanity.
Arriving at the Wildflower Hall nestled into the hills behind Shimla is in such contrast to the preceding days as to feel like some kind of dreamy fantasy. Greeted with hot-towels and welcome drinks before being ushered to our sumptuous room reminded us that tranquillity does exist and is, in fact, important to ones sanity. We were glad to spend a day attending to administrative details and to take stock before embarking on the next section of the route.
This video gives a snap-shot of the scenery as we return to more reasonable altitudes.