I was accompanied by Leo the Lion and The Swede, whom I had met on my way to Leh. The Swede and I paid 1000 roops for a middle seat, with The Lion preferring to rough it in the back for 200 less. Comfortably in position, we set off surprisingly promptly into the darkness. Stretching out my legs, I remarked to my friends that this might not be so bad after all. But I hadn’t reckoned for Leh’s urban sprawl, for apparitions standing on street-corners in the twilight, patiently waiting for a ride south.
There were four stops in all. First, the front two seats were taken. Second, two men joined Leo in the back. Third, a moustached Ladakhi joined The Swede and I. When I purchased the tickets, the driver promised me there would be only three on the middle seat. Three I could tolerate. But then, with the lights of civilisation about to vanish for the next 400km, a final, soul-crushing stop.
The introduction of a fourth man meant that us middle-seaters were transported into a peculiar version of Whose line is it anyway, namely the Standing, Sitting, Bending game. It wasn’t possible for us all to lean back at the same time, so we had to improvise to find comfort. At the start, I was wedged between the now-regrettably tall Swede and the moustached-Ladakhi, awkwardly twisted like trapped in some medieval torture instrument, the only consolation being the heat that was provided. During the first stop, I reprimanded the driver – via a makeshift interpreter – for lying to me about the maximum number of people on the middle-seat. He deflected my criticism without a care, as did the two Indians sitting pretty in the front, rejecting my plea for an occasional swap on the false grounds that they had paid more for their seats. There could be no avoid it – I would be travelling to Leh cattle-car style.
By now dawn was slowly breaking, and the first mountain pass was upon us. 5000m above sea level, the seasons were changing, with the melting snow turning the road to sludge, a brilliant white giving way to an unedifying brown. I gave a knowing shrug, having seen it all before on the Srinigar-Leh road. It couldn’t phase me now. Breakfast was two miles down the road, a bundle of big-top tents in an otherwise deserted landscape, its proprietors distributing much-appreciated noddles as we tried to keep our toes warm.
Rocky mountain passes soon gave way to flowing rivers; harsh ascents gave way to endless flats, any semblance of road disappearing. Colours changed rapidly, the perilous views reminding us that we somehow weren’t meant to be here, or at least not in a vehicle. The dust churned up by the jeeps in front of us made us choke, so we sealed the windows, as if in a travelling tomb. I then replaced The Lion in the back, holding on for dear life, as we headed off-road in search of short-cuts, where I was lifted into the air like on some fun-fair simulator, only without a seat-belt. We appreciated every minute of every break, lying still or slurping chocolate, cursing every time the drive summoned us back.
Our driver deserves a few lines. With a brooding, wounded look on his face, he went about his task like he was steering some great warship through enemy fire. Every turn was over-amplified, every acceleration dramatised. He did this for eighteen hours, with only the occasional break for regeneration. Despite this, he never seemed to waver. On the final leg of the journey, up some highland peak, The Swede drew my attention to the red in his retinas, but it only seemed to spur him on further. It was a most impressively-driven journey, and I regret the agitation I caused him earlier in the morning.
Eventually, we arrived safely in Manali, aching but alive. The grandeur of the vistas, and the thrills of the plummets, will not convince me to take the Leh-Manali road again. “Next time you fly, eh?” quipped a Kashmiri man to me on the Zhoji-La pass separating Kashmir and Kadakh. Yes sir, I do.