Saturday, July 4, 2015

Driving in the Hills of the Himalayas

The roads of the hill country of the Himalayas look like extreme S-curves when viewed from above. But when you’re driving on them, you feel like you’ve been dropped into a giant bowl of spaghetti, with clumps that are twisted and knotted. You swear that you’ve passed that same overpass or cut-through at least twice before. And maybe you have.

On all but the sharpest of curves, experienced drivers don’t brake; they just ease off the accelerator. If you see brake lights ahead, you can be pretty sure the driver is an inexperienced wuss and that your driver will put him in the rear view soon. The good part of having a veteran at the wheel is that he knows the roads and isn’t afraid to pass. The downside is that he's fearless, perhaps even reckless by U.S. standards. Hang on to that handle over the window and expect to close your eyes more than occasionally.

There’s a technique to passing on those curves. You pull out into the opposite lane as you approach a curve, but don’t begin to pass yet. If someone comes the other way, you quickly pop back into your spot. As you round the curve and get a view up the road, if no one is coming, you accelerate out of the curve, using centrifugal force to propel you like a slingshot past the vehicle (and sometimes vehicles) in front of you.

Clustered along the mountainous slopes are hillside villages for which the phrase “explosion of color” was concocted. It’s not uncommon to see houses painted lilac with purple; red with pink; and varied hues of orange, salmon and bittersweet or citrus/lemon. Shades of teal and red are ubiquitous colors for the tin rooftops.

Considering how narrow and winding the roads are, trucks and tour buses abound. The travel coaches have company names like “Lovely,” “Royal” and “Delightful.” Commercial vehicles are brightly painted. Even the garbage trucks and small tractors, probably from family farms, are decorated. The message on the rear of all these vehicles—Blow Horn—is not just a suggestion. It’s an exhortation to be taken seriously, and most drivers do. Less common is “Use Dipper At Night.” (Not “dimmer,” mind you.)

During the eight-hour drive from Delhi to Shimla you notice the states represented on the license plates you see. You begin with a preponderance of DL for Delhi. That loses popularity to HR (Haryana) and PB (Punjab) as you proceed toward Chandigarh. That city seems to be the joint capital of both states, as well as a territory with its own plate (CH). There’s an occasional UP (Uttar Pradesh). The mountain climb is populated with HP—Himachal Pradesh, where Shimla (formerly Simla) is the capital.
Speaking of Chandigarh, it has an airport where those who blanche at a day-long car trip can fly in to have a shorter, three-hour bus ride up to Shimla. That drive is still not for the faint of heart;  there’s simply no escaping the spaghetti bowl.

An hour or so north of Chandigarh, diesel trains from Kalka to Shimla make the journey in about four and a half hours. Not long ago, that trip took eight hours and there was just one train per day in each direction. The train remains a rare enough sight that both locals and tourists run to see it and take photos at village crossings. It says something about the terrain that the train still takes longer than the bus.

Where the ground is relatively flat for a mile or so, small towns and villages have sprung up along the route. Here you’ll find merchants with the necessities of life, which of course means a lot of shops with local produce. We stopped to get some provisions on the way up and on the way down. The older women generally had on sensible shoes, but the young ladies wore sandals or other attractive (read: non-sturdy) footwear. It must have been treacherous walking home.

It was midday on the return trip, so the street (no sidewalks) was a bustling marketplace. We idled in front of the vendors’ stands while my sister-in-law shopped. The Daikon radishes looked superb. They weren’t in season yet back in Delhi, so we brought some home for mooli paratha (bread stuffed with the vegetable), slathered in butter, of course.

Across from the produce stalls, girls who appeared to be tourists were laughing and taking selfies, oblivious to the begging children. Some local lads checked themselves out in our side view mirror as they walked by. They tidied their hair, intent on making the best impression on the young ladies in the sexy shoes. Young people, it seems, are the same all over the world.

Expect to read more about my recent India trip in future posts.

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