The roads of Himalayan north India
I used to pride myself on being fearless when it came to travel. I would happily sit helmetless and jammed behind two or three others on a moped and weave through the impatient traffic of Hanoi, or whiz along potholed roads standing on the rickety wooden platform on the back of a Thai pick-up truck. Three years of living in London has turned me soft.
I have never been as terrified for my own life as when travelling the roads of North India. Not even in the car of a Russian who gave me and two travelling companions a lift from Lake Baikal to Irkutsk, tossing drained beer bottles out of the window as he merrily swerved into the path of oncoming traffic.
My first and scariest experience so far was the semi-deluxe public bus from Shimla to Manali. About half of the 10-hour journey was spent tottering along cliff-side roads barely wide enough for a Nissan Micra, let alone a bus plus oncoming traffic that usually consisted of wideboy Tata lorries, apparently with drivers unaware of their own mortality. Yet somehow they always found room whilst I clenched my eyes shut and sweated buckets through my palms.
As if the roads themselves weren’t terrifying enough, the mechanical procedures behind the vehicles expected to ply the world’s most petrifying roads don’t exactly inspire confidence. Half an hour before the bus reached Manali it pulled into a garage and we were encouraged to report any problems to the mechanics. A seat across the aisle from me had been tilting back at a most uncomfortable angle for the whole trip. The unfortunate people sitting there were told to wait outside whilst a mechanic dragged his welding kit through the window and welded the seat upright. Resulting flames were put out with a dash of bottled water and we continued as before, only accompanied by red hot metal. Naturally, I didn’t want to tell them about the rattling window that had been deafening me since Shimla – what was another 30 minutes of it compared to the nine and a half hours I’d already been through? – so who knows what other deficiencies have gone unreported.
Since then, I’ve travelled mostly by jeep. It seems jeeps can fit places where a toddler would struggle to crawl. Take yesterday’s return trip from the Nubra Valley for example. Again, the road was cut into the crumbling cliff edge, the valley floor was way below, and there were road works taking place along the inside edge of a blind bend, leaving the road about three metres wide. Our prayers to not meet a vehicle coming in the opposite direction were unanswered when a jeep flung itself around the corner towards us. Brakes were hurriedly applied and it appeared a standoff had been reached. But this was nothing! The other jeep, cocky because it was hugging the cliff face, reversed a metre, drove its passenger-side wheels up onto the two-foot high pile of loose rubble lining the inside edge of the road and edged forward alongside us. Vividly and sickeningly running through my paranoid mind was the perfectly plausible image of the other jeep uncontrollably slipping a few inches down the rubble and nudging us over the edge. The drivers, on the other had, had no such fear – they knew each other, paused to shake hands, exchange a few words and for our driver to snatch the other’s aviators off his head. It was the perfect crime - absolutely no chance of being chased.
Such enviable nonchalance! Where has my que sera sera attitude gone? I need it back if I’m going to survive India with my nerves intact. That, or trains.
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