In The Van (Manali – Leh)

When the alarm sounds, I wake in a jolt to the glare of the overhead fluorescents scrambling to remember where I am.  Our bags are packed and leaning impatiently against the doorframe.  The room has the dejected air of imminent abandonment.  Night in the mountains always seems darker, deeper, a thick curtain pulled across the day.  Manali at 1.45am is wrapped in a velvety black that diffuses light into arcing haloes and gives nocturnal activity an air of mystery, a vague sense of mischief.  The bedraggled mob of backpackers turn their backs to the assault of light flooding from the bakery’s open front, throwing their features into jagged shadow.  Edging away from the exhaust fumes of the multiple twelve-seat vans jostling for position on the narrow street, those recently rudely awakened glance askance at the swaying braying clusters that wander across the lane from the closing bar.  Local men are slapping van sides and shouting back and forth in an unsettling scurry of unorganized activity.  Edgy and exhausted I turn away from the light and noise and the darkness rushes up to meet me, swallowing the cobbled street, the tress, the jagged peaks in the distance.

I surface from sleep buoyed by the awareness that we’ve been still for quite some time.  Curled into varying postures of discomfort and unconsciousness, the other passengers are washed out by the grey of the dawn.  The open eyes of the tall Frenchman ineffectively perched on the narrow rear bench are vacant, fixed on the misted window.  Our driver has disappeared.  The endless procession of vehicles ahead and behind, the sheer drop outside my window, the rocky cliff closing in on the left, all dissolve into the dome of fog nestled over the drizzly grey morning.  It’s not yet 6am.

I can feel the night’s ascent through the black in every vertebra.  Whipped around hairpin turns, jostled by constant assault of unseen potholes and muddy ruts, my shoulders feel like stone and my hips ache.  Every muscle in my body begs to move.  Curling around the tangle of knees and ankles, I slide behind the steering wheel and jump down from the drivers’ door.  My flip-flopped feet immediately disappear into the icy mud, smooth as grey silk between my toes, cold lips wrapped around my ankles.  Abandoning my shoes, I tread lightly along the semi-firm ground at the edge of the road.  The drop looms inches to my right, a rocky mud cliff that descends into an infinity of fog.  The row of silent trucks on my left seem like relics, vacant shipping vessels marooned in the mud.  The distance to the safety of the van yawns behind me.  With every step I feel more exposed, more vulnerable.  Finally the shape of our driver materializes in the gloom, a slender back in an assembly of slender backs watching the road ahead.  “What’s happened?”  He gestures into the grey.  Fifteen meters ahead the road has been slashed in two by a slide of mud and boulder sixty feet wide.  A handful of men in cropped pants and shirts tied around their heads are hacking at the stones with pickaxes and shovels, clearing a narrow lane through the debris.  I turn to our driver astounded.  “How long have they been working?”  “Three hours?  Four?  They finish soon.  We move again in 20 minutes.”  Save the clank and rustle of metal on stone and earth, the mists press a hush onto us.  The procession of traffic waits patiently in the dawn.

By mid morning the last of the haze has burnt off.  By early afternoon, we’ve passed the last checkpoint, the last cursory nods to civilization, and are driving through a high altitude mountain desert of unfathomable beauty.  The sky is endless, ethereal, other worldly.  The distant ring of jagged peaks contain us, the long string tethering us to the earth, the barrier preventing us from flying straight to the sun.  The open mouth of the mountain gapes around us, teeth bared, yawning in delight to bite into the blue.  At sunset we cross Tanglang La, 5,328 metres above sea level and the second highest pass in the world.  Dizzy and nauseous with altitude sickness we climb into the biting August cold to take our photos with the pass marker and strings of prayer flags.  Turning back to the van (16 hours down, 2 to go) pink and orange and gold fires glow on the horizon as the peaks cloak themselves in the gathering dark.

 

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