Since I read some beatnik author ten years ago, I have loved the idea of hitchhiking. Flying over pavement with a kinetic energy fueled only by random human generosity- it’s a good way to move as long as you’re 1.) not in a hurry and 2.) prepared to brush up against whoever ambles up that road.
I have found that hitchhiking is easiest on islands and straight roads. And the Manali-Leh Highway is a straight road. It may twist and turn, winding its way over 4 giant mountain passes along the 260 mile stretch of desolate mountains to the high plateau of Ladakh, but it is straight. Nowhere to go but up the series of valleys to Tibet.
So despite the extreme environment of this highest mountain range on earth, the Manali-Leh highway seemed like a good candidate for hitchhiking. Almost every driver on that road was headed to Ladakh. And who is more friendly than the Indians! I figured we’d have no problem getting rides.
We started north on foot from Manali, Himachel Pradesh, in the Kullu Valley of the low, green Himalayas. It felt funny to start on foot, shouldering our 40-lb packs and eyeing the beginning of an impossible distance of road disappearing into snowcaps above. But we figured that most trucks north of Manali would be more likely to be heading north to Ladakh than the traffic around Manali, so we walked north.
We found a truck driver parked on the side of the road and Nat used google translate to ask for a ride northward. The broken conversation wasn’t exactly conclusive and we determined that the truck might leave in a few hours and we might be permitted onboard.
We kept trying to flag down drivers and eventually a five seater truck packed with fruits and piloted by a tradesman and a soldier stopped for us. We ran up to the passenger side door and said we were heading north to Leh. The army man said they could take us as far as Tandi so we squeezed our bags and our bodies in the back seat and screamed up the road.
I was very happy to have found a ride, and it was comfortable in the backseat watching the beautiful mountain country pass by. The two men in the front chatted in Hindi and me and Nat watched the green mountains roll by.
We drove up the Kullu Valley for hours. The scenery was steep mountains covered in green trees with torrents of water gushing down from the mountains all around us to the roaring river below. The roads were well paved and peppered with signs from the Indian Border Roads Organization “BRO” telling us to drive safe, not to drive drunk, that they cared about us, that we are loved, etc.
We drove up the valley and passed beneath the Pir Pajal range of the Himalayas through the Atal Tunnel, the world’s longest highway tunnel above 10,000 ft. We emerged from that 9 km tunnel to a totally desolate and alien landscape, one of dry dirt soil and steely jagged peaks.
Some hours after the Atal Tunnel, the army man hopped out. We reached Tandi around early afternoon, where our driver, Govind, would turn to the south and leave us behind. He was heading to the remote village of Pangi to deliver his shipment of fruits. According to Govind, Pangi is a place where few merchants dared to go due to the treacherousness of the roads.
We had a simple thali lunch in Tandi with Govind and told him all about our trip and our plans for the future.
Nat was filling a little bit ill with stomach problems, so we were delayed at the restaurant in Tandi for around four hours. I sat at the table for a long time and met with the Indian motorcyclists passing up, or down, the highway.
My anxiety grew as the sun passed overhead and towards the mountains in the west. Finally Nat came out of the bathroom and we prepared to flag down a truck.
I felt the eyes of the locals upon us as we walked a minute up the road to start thumbing. They were definitely entertained by our efforts; I saw a group of them sitting on a roof in chairs drinking chai and watching us, probably making bets about whether we would catch a ride.
After 45 minutes, some of the locals ambled down and offered us rides to the nearby town of Jispa for the exorbitant sum of 3,000 rupees, an offer to which we scoffed and proudly refused.
So we waited for an hour with anxiety growing as many trucks passed by without stopping.
Eventually a truck with two young guys in it pulled to the side of the road and asked where we were going. I said “Jispa,” because I had learned that if you said Leh people might be less likely to pick you up because then they’d have to put up with you for a 260 mile ride.
The guy in the passenger seat said they were headed to Leh so we were welcome to grab a ride.
Extremely relieved, we threw our bags on the roof and hopped in the cramped cockpit.
The passenger, Ansch, was an energetic 21 year old kid who was thrilled to have some new faces in the cockpit. The driver, Wilshaw, was a 28 year old guy who spoke little English. He piloted our ponderous semi with deadly serious focus for hours upon hours as we lumbered up the mountainous road.
Ansch told us they were entrepreneurs and truck drivers from Delhi bringing soaps and other convenience products to Leh. They would drive 10-14 hours a day, complete the trip in 3 days, and then immediately drive back down to Delhi to do it again.
When Ansch heard we were also headed to Leh, he said,
“Don’t worry, you’re with us now.”
Ansch told us his biggest dream was to be a truck drive in the USA or in Canada, where the trucks were “so nice you could live in them full time” and drivers only had to drive “eight hours per day.” He wanted to find a foreign girl to marry and thought maybe Nat could hook him up with one of her friends.
Eventually I understood why Ansch never hesitated to pick us up and bring us over 200 miles to our destination. Here was a young kid who spent every waking and sleeping hour in the cockpit of a long haul truck with his one guy. Of course he jumped at the opportunity to meet some new people! It was his only chance to have a unique social interaction. Plus, we were westerners and embodied his dream of salvation from this life of toil- immigration to the USA.
Natalie, Ansch, and I talked and talked and talked as our truck crawled up the mountain roads. There was nothing else to do. Ansch peppered us with questions about life in the USA and we asked about life as a truck driver in India. Wilshaw kept his laser focus on the road, occasionally grunting and making comments to Ansch in Hindi.
All four of us were crammed in the cockpit very tight. Nat and I constantly shifted positions to free up our pained legs or aching backs. Ansch sat straight backed and unmoving in the corner of the cockpit for hours. A driver since he was eleven years old, Ansch had the muscle control of a Buddhist monk.
We drove onwards through the hours-long twilight of the mountains, and we drove on as brilliant stars peppered the sky and a purple milky way cut across the sky. Long after blackness had filled the valley did we finally stop at a small, weird dhaba for a simple dinner of rajma thali.
There were all sorts of strange characters in that roadside place in the remote Himalayas; I looked around uneasily in between ravenous swallows of the simple food. There was a big group of men sitting on cushions beside us, drinking whiskey and playing cards. A dark-eyed Indian man sat in the corner of the room staring at us. Many of the patrons inside chatted about Nat and I in their language; even in another language sometimes its very obvious. A big beast of a Mongol-looking woman ran the dhaba, rushing around with chapati, rajma, and rice for the patrons. She stood near seven feet tall and was quick to laugh in a big, booming voice. She brought immense cheer and easiness to the strange place.
After dinner, Ansch and Wilshaw smoked some hash on the cushions in the dhaba. I asked Wilshaw if ganja inhibited his driving skills; Ansch translated my question and they both kind of scoffed and laughed. Ansch said that it only improved both of their focus. I considered this for a few moments and accepted it. Hey, Wilshaw said he’d been doing this route 16 years (yes that means he was 12 when he started).
We set out from the dhaba to drive further into the mountains in the dead of night. The road was rocky and unpaved, and we wound up sharp switchbacks with the vacuous black cliffside beside us.
In Wilshaw we all trusted and Wilshaw delivered; he kept his laser eye on the road and negotiated each blind switchback turn in the darkness perfectly. We drove late into the night, reaching the 14,700 ft high Baralacha Pass around midnight.
Somewhere on our way down from the pass we were on a one lane stretch of unpaved road with a cliff to the right side, when we came to another semi traveling in the opposite direction. The drivers argued for 30 minutes in Hindi about who would accept the treacherous task of backing up to allow the other to pass. It was cold and quiet but for the whipping wind. Off the cliff beside me all I could see was a black void, but I could sense the gargantuan scale of the valley below. In those tense moments, I felt as though I were in outer space.
Eventually the others moved back and we squeezed by them. I felt immensely relieved that the cliff was on our right side, thus the other truck had to pass against the cliff while we were hemmed against the mountain. Still, in the darkness of night the imagination is sharpened, and I had visions of our semi-truck tumbling down the mountainside…
Around 1 am we finally gave up on driving, still short of our goal of Sarchu by quite a bit. Wilshaw pulled to the side of the road beside a few dhabas lining a nondescript stretch of road. Ansch and Wilshaw passed out where they sat.
Nat and I entered one of the dhabas and promptly fell asleep on the cushions they had.
We woke around 6 am in the freezing darkness. The owners of the dhaba greeted us and made some bread omelettes and black tea for breakfast. I exited the dhaba in the brisk morning air to pee and was shocked by the new environment.
I was surrounded by grim dirt peaks with no trees; a line of snowcapped mountains loomed south and east of me. A icy river ran through the middle of the valley and emptied into a glassy alpine pond next to the dhaba. I had the distinct feeling of being on a desolate alien planet.
Soon our friends awoke and we headed up the road with no time wasted.
We drove and drove and drove for hours. Nat and I twisted in the cockpit trying to get comfortable, Ansch perched in his seat like a straightbacked statue, and Wilshaw hunched over the wheel with his eyes trained on the road. We passed the little lake called Deepak Tal. We passed through Sarchu, the border town between Himachel Pradesh and Ladakh. We stopped for lunch at a small roadside settlement with some Tibetan-looking people serving dal bhat.
Ansch and Wilshaw often stopped on the road to chat with other drivers, trade blocks of hashish, or stand by the side of the road and smoke. Twice they pulled over to help random people change their tire.
They were in no hurry. This was their life- their friends were the other drivers, their social hangouts were the dhabas and particularly beautiful viewpoints along the road. We were headed to Leh but that wasn’t their destination, because as soon as they reached they would turn right around and head back to Delhi. They lived on this road, never arriving.
We drove on, through a blissfully wide expanse of flat valley surrounded by snowcapped mountain peaks.
Darkness fell and we stopped at another dhaba just three hours shy of Leh, in the “town” of Upshi. Most of the road had been remote, but here there were lots of Indian motorcyclists resting and drinking tea. These guys were all males in their twenties and thirties, all having come on the same legendary road from Manali.
It was a great atmosphere in that dhaba; everyone sat around one table in the yellow warmth swapping stories from their journeys and sharing in the excitement of almost reaching Leh, Ladakh. In that moment, everyone there was on their own epic adventure; they had the bruises and exhaustion and tribulations fresh in their mind to prove it.
One guy from Mumbai sat white-faced in the corner, exhausted and sick from altitude. Another two guys from Delhi and Haryana happily traded chunks of hashish to try each others’ stuff.
There was an Indian guy from Tamil Nadu, on the far southern tip of the subcontinent. Over the past several months he had ridden his motorcycle over two thousand miles from the southern tip of india up to Ladakh. He was a tattoo artist and paid his way by doing guest spots in tattoo parlours around India. He offered to give Nat and I a pro-bono tattoo once we reached Leh.
The chai flowed and the dhaba filled with smoke as we all prepared for the home-stretch. Nat and I were desperate to arrive in Leh; we were each feeling our own intense exhaustion from so many hours spent cramped in the truck’s cockpit.
Sometimes Nat and I joke that, when given two options for traveling, we always choose “hard” mode. For example, when deciding between taking an 18-hour bus or a ??-hour hitchhiking journey to the Tibetan plateau the answer seemed almost obvious. Sometimes these self-imposed tribulations seem a little bit goofy and unnecessary, but after the fact we are always glad to have chosen the “hard” option. We are glad because it is our choice, and we can always choose to take it easy when we want to.
We did eventually arrive- but not that night. Our truck stopped shy of Leh by around 30 miles so we found a nondescript hotel by the side of the road to sleep.
In the golden light of morning we completed that glorious homestretch to Leh. In the light we laid our eyes on the Indus Valley, with its snakes of green poplar trees hugging each glacial stream that dumped into the Indus. We beheld the white palace of Leh perched above the ancient city, facing off against the Zanskar peaks to the south.
I felt glad to have arrived, but I felt sad to think of Ansch and Wilshaw who probably were already on their way back to Delhi. A life on the road… that would be a hard thing.