The shepherd who bought a SUV

Raghu Raman

Last week, I went on a motorcycle ride from Leh to Manali, through what most adventure travellers know to be one of the best rides in the country.

The 500 km journey began in Leh, which perhaps is the only destination in India, where official announcements at the airport tell you that you need to rest for 36 hours as soon as you land! The term ‘laid back’ is official here!

After two days of acclimatization, the ride began from Rumptse, a small hamlet just short of the second highest pass in the area - Talang La, at 17,380 feet. Rumptse has all of seven families, mostly subsistence farmers who augment their income running tea stalls, makeshift night halts and a single phone booth for motorcyclists. The food, like the accommodation, is frugal, mostly noodles, tea and biscuits, but the experience is rich.

Huddled in a small hovel, with freezing rain outside, you get to see another side of India passing by. So we met a group of soldiers posted in a forward detachment, who come to Rumptse once every few days, taking turns to speak to their families. (Digital India hasn’t arrived in most of these areas yet)

The owner of the shack shared his meagre meal with us. It had been cooked by his daughter who was back home since the disturbances in Srinagar began. He told us that their painstakingly saved money to educate her, went to waste because of the lost academic year. We realised how far the stones thrown in Srinagar travel and how many futures they destroy.

We met scores of riders from all over India, many of whom were encountering high mountains for the first time and it showed in their ill-suited clothing - sweaters and sneakers that were soaking wet. But it was amazing to watch young people from all parts of India exploring the remotest parts of their country on shoestring budgets and rented bikes. Their excited exchanges were different from the staid, cynical conversations of metros. Most of it was about the strange things they came across, the majestic landscapes they had seen only in pictures and the camaraderie of fellow travellers who happily lent fuel and helped fix broken bikes. My sense is that future generations of such travellers will have a much better understanding of the nuances of our culture and demography. Perhaps they will empathise better with what most Indians have to go through, just to make ends meet and truly appreciate luxuries like electricity and connectivity that we take for granted.

The climb to Talang La began before daylight with both the riders and their bikes gasping for scarce oxygen during the steep ascent. Twisting, frozen roads with whole portions washed away by snow avalanches and sheer drops on the side, make this pass one of the most breath taking parts of the ride. The descent from Talang La is sharp in altitude and temperature and within an hour we hit the vast plains of Debring which is home to several tribes of nomad shepherds who graze their sheep, goats and yaks in the sparse grasslands. Their homes are makeshift tents, made from Indian army parachutes, buttressed with stones and mud all around. Interestingly, while most of them did not have cell phones (there is no connectivity here remember), almost every one of them had at least one SUV parked right next to their tents! So there is something to be said about the changing face of connectivity after all.

The stretch from Debring to Pang and two more passes was through what is called a road, but in most places is terrain from another planet. Deep slushy furrows, massive boulders, pockmarked surfaces, water crossings and improvised bridges (built by the Border Road Organisation) slide the riders through mud, snow and gravel all the way down to Jispa which is the first night halt of the voyage.

Jispa is heaven in a bowl. A small hamlet, which is blessed by an oddity of nature in that, highly valued cash crops like lettuce and peas grow in abundance and that too, during what is ‘off season’ for most of India. Being a night halt for travellers from both directions, Jispa is also a melting pot of tourists from all parts of India. The hotels are noisy with surprisingly large number of families whose multilingual cacophony underscores the diversity of our country.

The ride from Jispa to Manali is a pleasurable piece of cake compared to the previous leg with imposing mountains and continual rivers accompanying either side of the road till foothills of the Rohtang pass which arguably has to be one of the touristiest passes of the region. Tourists from all over, land up in Manali and one of their tick boxes is to reach the Rohtang Pass to ‘see’ snow. That ensures traffic jams which makes you glad that you are on a bike instead of a car. While the latter may be warm and dry, there is a certain perverse pleasure in crossing hours-long traffic jams in minutes, while the car borne travellers look on enviously.

The ride ends in Manali, where you seem to meet half of Delhi, Gurgaon, Chandigarh and Punjab in buses, SUV’s and cars, sadly reminding you that wherever you have roads, you also get concrete, traffic jams, pollution and tons of plastic. But notwithstanding that, 72 hours of raw biting cold wind on your face, lungs filled with pure air, and a sky that is a mosaic of shooting stars, reminds you, that it is but one short life, full of amazing experiences, waiting just a ride away!

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