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Post-COVID travel : Warming the cockles

Do an ‘Unlock 3’ trip from Delhi to Himachal soon. You can be assured that Monday in early-September Delhi, back to ‘work from home’, will be a really bleary and depressing day. But the trip will be an eye-opener

Post-COVID travel : Warming the cockles
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Last week, I wrote a depressing story, yet another one, on the prospect of rising non-performing assets (NPAs) after the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) made a startling announcement that no other publication seemed to want to talk about. The RBI's revelation indicated that Indian banks were going to lose Rs 20 lakh crore in this financial year alone. Ouch. And hurtful.

Anyhow, finishing that article, I promised to myself that my next write-up would be pleasant and happy, something that is particularly needed in these times, to divest our tensions and warm the cockles of our hearts.

And here we are. I was locked down for months in Delhi. But somehow, that damn mountain bug found me. It bit me. It bit me long and hard.

History of roaming

To quote history, this little bug first bit me 35 years back. And when this devious creature bites, its fangs inject a slow-working potion that courses through the veins for a while, and then some. It was this bite that got me my first glimpse of mist-covered hills, winding roads, lush greens and towering rock-faces. That was Mussoorie, after my tenth standard board exams. I also had my first drink on this trip — a spoonful of whiskey from a quarter bottle shared by four teenage friends in a nondescript hotel. I hated it. My christening with Bacchus was anything but chaste. And I hated the taste.

I was young. Today, I am older. By age. But I still drive like a bat out of hell.

And in me learning how to drive, happened Auli, Ranikhet, Almora, Munsiyari. I discovered a whole new world. A better world. As time permitted, I graduated to the higher Himalayas. It purposed me to drive deeper into the mountains. Thus happened Mashobra. Narkanda. Tattapani. Jalori and Rohtang Las. Khoksar. Keylong. Kaza. Tabo. The Lahaul and Spiti valleys. Also Reykong Peo. Khardung La. Nathu La. Leh. Pretty much all of it. Tis a long and happy list. Life was cool and comfy. My eyes were orgasmic and my soul ravenous — nature's feast fit for the gods.

Then happened COVID-19. And the world's most stringent lockdown. Meaningless. What a sham. Along with all of India, I hated it too. I didn't like being tied down. Being rendered choice-less. Compassionless. Bitter. Scared.

So last week, I decided not to be, anymore.

Born free. Drive free

Who can tame a raging bull, old though that bull may be? Me. My garage is still full of raw muscle, engine-wise, and I use my beautiful animals to and beyond optimal efficiency. I have driven rallies in the Himalayas, won them. But now I drive safe. I did last week too. Please do note. For those who love the mountains, Delhi is a great place to live in, for we can drive in any direction and reach the foothills within 5-6 hours.

Thus it was that in Unlock 3 when some modicum of sensibility returned to Himachal Pradesh, the Yeti was brought to life and revved up. Friday morning to Sunday evening saw Delhi-Manali-Delhi happen. Sure, it was hectic, somewhat chaotic too, given the administrative red tape, an eye-opener too in terms of what has happened to the mountains and the people living there. But it was wonderful.

Lots of pictures were clicked, soon as we hit the highway at 6 am after months of sitting at home – those visuals accompany this story. The road to Kiratpur flew beneath the racing Yeti and a train chugging along to the left, parallel to the highway. What has to happen in a situation like this happened; the Yeti and the train had a go at one another. The Yeti won, but not before we had hooting from those on the train, as COVID-19-tired people laughed, cheered, applauded and waved. What a nice family. We still are.

Rocking food at ROKY

It was getting on 10.30 am when we decided to stop for breakfast. While scrumptious 'aloo paranthas' were ordered at a ramshackle roadside eatery quirkily named 'ROKY Dhaba', the Yeti got some rest and we stretched our legs, devouring the lush green and still-fertile fields on both sides of the road. What a beautiful sight, after being cooped up at home for months.

An insight here. I am a bad person to travel with, for I hate stopping the car. Driving is a passion and so long as the car is moving, that's most of my holiday for me; the journey is more important than the destination. But stop we did, for the lady and gent with me had been screaming 'hunger, hunger' for over an hour and any further movement of the car could have been dangerous for me. So stop we did.

Immediately after this stop, we stopped at a fuel station to top up. It was just as well. We were still in Punjab, and the attendant informed us that all fuel pumps in Himachal Pradesh were on a bender of sorts and we were unlikely to get diesel anywhere before Manali, and perhaps not even there. The effect of the extended lockdowns was still being felt. We topped up on gas, used the wash-room and prepared for the remaining half of the drive. We took off with screeching and smoking tyres from the fuel pump. Manali, here we come. Only to come to a grinding halt in under a minute. For a traffic jam awaited us at the border toll collection booth!

Police on social media

Soon after, we saw the Mandi Police Force's attempts to reach out to people through social media, advertising its presence using hoardings by winding, rustic hill roads. We were rather pleased to see HP police putting up this signage around bends, listing their Facebook details and seeking followers. Kudos to them for embracing the future, and using all possible means to keep our roads and brethren safe.

Some brisk driving soon brought us to the approach road to Pandoh Dam. I have been to Manali numerous times and have a house there, but nonetheless, it is when you reach this spot that the feeling really sinks in; the hill drive begins. This is where the road and terrain begin to change shape and contours, and the mountain vistas begin to take on a variegated hue. Sure, it is nothing compared to the dramatic changes that happen in Lahaul and Spiti, but it is pleasing nonetheless.

The drive after Pandoh Dam is where the journey gets scary, for a bit. The roads, except for the first 15-odd km, are great, the curves are sweeping, while gurgling stems of the reservoir to your right keep blinking and winking at you from some 100-odd-feet below. Rock-faces start to shed foliage and the crisp air raises within you a youthful thrill. But little did we know that we were soon about to get up our spine a numbing chill.

Jolted back to reality

Out of the blue, we were jolted back to reality. A big bad meanie was snapping at our tails, with a front-end that looked like the snarl of the devil. A privately-owned bus was hurtling down this bad stretch behind us and I saw him all but tail-end the two cars that separated him and me. All of us have seen the 'Might is Right' equation at play. We were seeing it too, as the pink-coloured private bus, on a potholed road just about as wide as the bus, was all but tail-ending car after car, with me right up-front!

Twenty seconds later, both panicked drivers behind me moved aside or stopped to let him pass, with one almost scraping the rock face to his left. So, what's the score now? Well, the Pink Meanie was behind me; about 8 inches astern, with both of us doing about 60 km an hour on a road with bends, where it was not safe to do over 30 km per hour. Given a choice, I would have quietly moved out of the bus's way and let it pass. I had no flight to catch or airport to reach (he certainly did, it seemed!). I reduced my speed to 30 km per hour to stay safe, but he continued to hurtle towards me at over 50 km an hour. If I hadn't increased my speed to 45-km-plus, he would have rammed me from behind. This went on for long, it seemed, and we lurched up and down the curvy road, bumper to bumper.

On every turn I took on that dangerous road, through my right foot whenever it touched the brake pedal, I could feel every one of the Yeti's safety features come into play — ABS, EBD, HHC, HBA, MBA… It was mind-numbing. Finally, the fabled 'divina ex machina' maxim kicked into play and a wider stretch of road appeared around a bend, and I slid the Yeti into a spot where, to side-swipe me out of spite, he would have to perforce miss the driving line and risk going straight into the wall. He passed by, as better sense prevailed in our bus-man. What was most shameful was when he passed, all three of us in the Yeti could see him laughing out loud.

But my Yeti had come through like a shining star, with all of its modern mechanicals saving the day. By the way, I earlier had a Pajero, and with all respect to my former vehicle, I couldn't have pulled off that drive in the Pajero. For old times' sake, one picture of my erstwhile ride is also enclosed. Okay. Enough. A happy trip we were out for, and this was but a skirmish, at least that's what we told ourselves and set off again.

Toll? No toll?

Just after crossing Bhuntar Airport and Kulu town, we came to a toll booth, and the experience here was hilarious. Whatever apprehensions we had left in us, post our encounter with the bus had been forgotten. Here, the 'toll-man' was sleeping. The Yeti honked. No reply. The Yeti honked again. No reply. The man at the wheel honked "Bhai saahib, toll nahin chaaiye kya?" No reply. My better half leaned and squawked; "Main dekhti hoon. Jaag jaayenge. Bhaiya, toll le leejiye. Bhaiya. BHAIYA…" No reply.

The consensus was clear amongst all three of us. When a pretty lady calls a man bhaiya, he will never wake up. Even if he is awake. Next step, our official photographer friend honked; "Let me take a picture of him." That did the trick, for some unexplainable reason. Mr toll man sprang to his feet. Took Rs 10 from us. And we were on our way. Sadly, we got no pictures of him snoozing.

Just a kilometre up from there, we scratched our head on why the toll was charged, for there was no road; only potholes and little mountains. I kid you not, many a time when the vehicle in front of us went into a few of these, we could barely see even a bit of it. It is pathetic that this till-recently beautiful and smooth-as-a-baby's-behind road has been allowed to reach this plight of distress.

Castle in the air

Almost 30 years back, I drove my first car, a Maruti 800, up a curvaceous road and reached a castle. We were three friends on that trip as well, and we were much younger, thus our impulsiveness quotient was many notches higher. Then, all that was needed for a complete overhaul of the tour itinerary was road signage that said 'Naggar Castle, 1 km'. And up the blacktop tarmac we went. As we did on that Friday afternoon as well.

Rewind 25 years; the insides were mesmerising, the views enchanting. There were 20-odd artistes at work there, all foreigners in my here India, churning out alluring charcoal drawings on white drawing paper, about the size of a regular magazine cover. As we sauntered in and mingled, we learnt that these drawings were to be auctioned to tourists and other visitors, with the proceeds being used to finance the stay of these artistes in rooms at the castle itself.

In short, the artistes got a 'tariff-free' holiday for two months each year, visitors and tourists got to acquire exquisite free-hand drawings and sketches from budding international artistes for a pittance, while art and culture received a boost that cut across man-made boundaries and barriers. Enclosed are some views of and from Naggar Castle, and nothing has changed in decades. Nature's beauty at its most mesmerizing. Inside the premises of the Castle is also a nice little temple, and one just outside. We visited both. And we partook our blessings and were on our way soon enough.

In and around Manali

Barely 45 minutes and 20 km later, we entered Manali. The Yeti has HP license plates and we had both proof of personal residence in the city and a COVID-19-negative status, and we were waved through the barrier. As is the ritual on all our road trips, the first port of call was to find a filling station to feed the Yeti. After all, it had got us 600 km to Manali in comfort and style, fresh as the daisies and orchids that line the many, many nurseries in and around town (pictures enclosed), which are supplied to nations worldwide

each day. Yes, it is my India's flowers that adorn many, many star hotels around the world.

At the back of my mind while headed to a filling station in Manali was the guidance of the fuel pump attendant near Kiratpur, that all fuel pumps in Himachal Pradesh were closed. Either his information was wrong, or the said unrest had been resolved. The fuel pump was open. We topped up the tank and made the customary call to Chhatrapal, the caretaker of our house in Manali, to tell him we would arrive in a few minutes.

Arrive we did in minutes and began settling in. That's when my wife asked me a question that had been nagging me too — where were all the people? If they are around, how are they surviving?

Virtual ghost town

As much as is Delhi, Manali is home too. In each of the last ten years, we have been to Manali seven to eight times. But prior to this trip, whenever we have entered Manali, we have been confronted by two eye-sores — lots and lots of cars and loads of people. This time around, even though we were expecting it, the sheer lack of people and vehicles and people on the roads was nevertheless disturbing. And a grim reminder of the pandemic and what it has done to India and Indians, not just in our larger cities and metropolises.

As our caretaker Chhatrapal explained, where the pandemic has not managed to impact and devastate lives, as in Manali, its absence has nonetheless been felt. And felt severely. Hotels and other businesses across Himachal Pradesh have been all but obliterated. And what an irony — because Devbhoomi, as it is called, beckons and welcomes unconditionally. And today, it is at its most beautiful.

Until next time then, for this is to be continued, and the story told… till the truth cometh out.

The writer is a business analyst and communications specialist. He can be reached at narayanrajeev2006@gmail.com

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