India 1998: Down

As we continued our tour bus descent out of Ladakh, following the shelf-like, dirt roads and stopping to wait for repairs en route, the temperature warmed a little and the mountainsides became greener, whilst also gaining humidity. Pockets of cloud hugged the hillsides and hung in the air. But there were also remnants of snow clinging to shady rock faces, grimy with road dirt and fume deposits.

In a valley with a gushing river tumbling over rocks was the De Lai Llama’s residence, allegedly, modest, elegant and spare. Opportunistic sellers of warm socks and prayer flags were dotted around the villa, their stalls canvas tents.

One spot had become a shrine dedicated to lovers, where couples came to be photographed having taken marriage vows, framed in front of an elaborate heart.

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We came to Manali and the ‘Highland’ hotel-an unappealing travelodge-style building made from white concrete, but with views down the misty valley. Manali was damply humid and thronged with backpackers, its shopping areas bustling, its streets and entrances occupied by stray dogs. There were myriad ‘health’ shops touting remedial medicines for all kinds of ailments, the town having a reputation as a health spa. We took advantage of the ‘hot baths’, donning our swimming gear and piling into a steaming pool with fellow tour members.

In a back street we encountered a hairy, white yak, and extraordinary beast with alarming curved horns and long, flowing white hair, looking like a creature from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale. But while the yak was saddled and available for rides we declined the offer.

Next day our bus continued on downwards until the steeply plunging sides of the valleys petered out into hillsides. Husband had been missing coffee, a beverage that had been lacking from our diet for many days, so at our morning rest stop we asked for a cup each, a request that was met with a glass of hot, sweet milk. Several attempts and glasses later we gave up and had tea.

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For our last night’s stop before returning to Delhi we got to stay in unaccustomed luxury in a beautiful hotel called ‘Timbertrail’, which boasted magnificent views over the surrounding, wooded hills and a sun terrace with a swimming pool. The sun emerged and by now the temperatures were warm enough for a dip, plus some relaxing on a sun-lounger.

The next day’s travel was by train, on down to Delhi. Trains in India are a delight, with a gentile, 50s ambience. Uniformed staff walked the carriages, serving meals on trays. No sawdust sandwiches and plastic-wrapped flapjacks here-but pristine crockery and cutlery and a freshly prepared curry.

And so back to Delhi, to our original hotel.

We planned to go out for a meal together, our entire group with Adrian, who’d been our excellent guide and good-natured companion throughout the adventure, coaxing, explaining, planning and keeping everyone on track and happy.

This was India’s national day, their Independence Day. Delhi was closed. In our hotel, quiet as the grave, there were no bar facilities, no leisure facilities, no facilities. The swimming pool had been drained.

We had a day to kill before our flight back to the UK. We had a desultory walk in the nearby streets, which were deserted. Our fellow tourers lolled around in the lounge area, although when one or two began to play cards they were prohibited from such a frivolous activity by members of staff.

This, then was the mother of all anti-climaxes. Adrian succeeded in finding a restaurant that was open. We went there. We ate a meal [alcohol-free]. We slept, rose, got our flights. A strange ending. But the entire escapade made memories to last a lifetime.

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