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Himalayan Roadblock

We left ourselves about 5 days to make the 30 hour trip to Manali. We started with a 6 hour trek down from the Valley of Flowers to the highway where we jumped on a bus to Joshimath. We had worked out a plan to spend the night in Joshimath and leave on the first morning bus. The Joshimath bus station consisted of a wooden shack staffed by a grumpy attendant who issued hand-written tickets. We opted for the second morning bus at 5:45 am bus so that we could make the 14-hour trip in good seats. We would be in Manali in two days and have three days of rest before James and Antonia's arrival. We were quite content with our purchase and we went to bed feeling like we might be the world's best travelers.

Our bus left the next day on time and as we were able to stretch our legs in the roomiest seats on the bus. We were brilliant. After twenty minutes on the road we hadn't crossed any oncoming traffic but we had caught up to the first morning bus. The bus was stopped and our driver pulled up behind it. It took a few minutes for us to get the news of the landslide up ahead. We spoke to fellow passengers who had been assured that the road would be cleared in a few hours. I was optimistic that we would be moving on that day, that is, until Yann returned from his visit to the sight of the landslide. He reported that a boulder the size of a house had dropped onto the road and that the current clean up crew consisted of 20 or so young, skinny men in flip-flops carrying virtually no equipment other than a few mallets and construction hats. As the hours went by, a queue of hundreds of vehicles had built up behind us. One motorcycle after another sped past us, returning a few minutes later having seen the rock pile for themselves. The original time of two hours quoted for the clean-up had been revised multiple times. Sometime in the late morning a small bulldozer arrived on scene as well as a compressor to begin dynamiting. The soldier in charge of the clean up operation yelled frantically trying to control the various workers. The bulldozer was moving one soccerball-sized rock every 10 minutes or so. Meanwhile, dozens of workers were scattered over the landslide moving hammering and heaving things, seemingly at random. At the same time a crew was setting up to begin dynamiting (also seemingly at random). My earlier cautious optimism had turned into utter disbelief. There was no way we would be moving, maybe ever. Yann had made an earlier suggestion to hike over the mountain, around the landslide which I had flat out refused. After having been shoveled into another bus and watching our driver head back to Joshimath I realised this might be our only hope of moving forward in the near future. So we picked up our bags, got a refund on our bus tickets and headed up the steep mountain side as the workers began blowing things up.

We climbed for almost two hours, through thorn bushes, sometimes on our hands and knees, trying to get as high as we possibly could to avoid the dynamiting. After much swearing, sweating and frustration we eventually reached a mountain trail connecting Joshimath to the neighbouring village. We celebrated with photos and hugs having cleared the landslide successfully. The mountain trail seemed to be used by local herders and wasn't particularly wide. We crossed a few villagers who shook our hands and seemed to emphasize the need for care, as they made gestures of falling over the side of the trail. Any hope of Yann staying calm had now been eliminated. His vertigo began to kick in as we followed the winding trail. He hugged the side of the mountain and quickened his pace leaving me out of his sight. Within a few minutes I noticed Yann in the distance now heading back to me. As he approached I could read his lips: "no way ... no way ... we're going back". Although I am usually sympathetic to Yann's cautiousness, I was now in a bad mood. We were less than a kilometre from the next village, we had been walking for hours, and I was simply not going to turn around.

What had turned Yann back on his tracks was the result of another landslide. This one having taken out the footpath. The metre wide trail had now narrowed to about a foot. The drop was most likely a deadly one. But I really didn't want to give up, we were so close. I made the suggestion of crawling across the narrow part, but we couldn't figure out how to deal with our heavy backpacks. I made another suggestion of making several trips, carrying over all of our bags, that way Yann only had to worry about himself. At this suggestion Yann completely lost it. He threw his bag to the ground, sat down, and refused to move until I promised that we would turn back. Turning back was disappointing and frustrating, but clearly the correct thing to do. During our travels there are very few times where I am the one physically supporting Yann, I tend to get sick more often, get tired more easily and generally be more affected by discomfort. So it gave me a little bit of pleasure to spend a few hours with Yann clinging onto my arm, following the trail back towards Joshimath. He was now completely rattled by the height of the trail and wouldn't really move forward without me. We arrived back at the sight of the landslide in the late afternoon and hitched a ride back to town.

We spent the next 2 days in Joshimath. We visited the bus station 3 or 4 times a day for updates on the road. We spent hours sitting on the steps of the station killing time. The road finally opened three days after our initial departure. On the advice of the bus station staff we left on an early bus to be among the first in line when the road actually opened. Other than the hundreds of motorcycles ahead of us we were among the first to finally leave Joshimath. We now had almost 30 consecutive travel hours ahead of us (all in the back seat of the bus). But we arrived in Manali a few hours before James and Antonia.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As usual...top quality travel writing and photography. I particularly liked this post.

par.

M said...

On one of the photos, why Yann stands between the two men seated?
ML