Chandigarh is possibly the ideal place for a breakfast of butter-soaked aaloo parathas and a piping hot cup of freshly brewed chai. But given our early start, the route we’ve chosen out of the city and the fearsome grumbling from the bellies of some of the crew, we’ve settled for a more convenient McDonalds breakfast menu.
Today, we’re quite literally heading for the hills, and our real ascent towards the highest motorable road in India begins on this leg of the journey. The morning news says the Prime Minister will be visiting the area today, so we’ve tried to schedule our journey accordingly. However, it’s still quite a long drive, and who knows what the traffic will be like.
Not too bad, as it turns out, and the initial part of our journey is a piece of cake. The scenery starts to change, the mountains come into view, and coniferous trees begin to dot the countryside. The contest winners Ranganathan and Jay have taken the wheel now, and are having a blast, particularly through the long 2.8km tunnel that passes clean through a mountain.
There are a few traffic snags further on, however, as some roads are being re-paved and traffic is halted for long spells at a time. We’re still hoping to make it into Manali just after nightfall, and with the luxury of internet still in the palm of our hands, we’re even browsing around for a nice Italian restaurant to eat a lavish dinner in.
But then, on the outskirts of Manali, it’s a traffic disaster. Who knew the city would be so chock-full of people on a Friday evening? Perhaps we should have. On the road leading in itself, we’re backed up for about 40 minutes as a herd of sheep meanders down the narrow path through two-way traffic, shepherds almost helplessly in tow. It continues as we have to navigate the big, wide Q cars around a bus on a narrow patch of road that’s so broken, it’s actually testing the SUVs’ wheel articulation. Then we hit downtown, where we’re wing mirror to wing mirror with ruthless tourist vehicles barrelling down the wrong side of the road.
Progress is snail-slow, to say the least, and there’s even a traffic jam right outside our hotel! By the time we’re checked in, it’s almost 11pm, and all plans of that lavish Italian dinner have gone out the window. A quick bite and it’s off to bed with us, as we have a very significant part of the drive in store tomorrow.