Longitude: 77.11 E Latitude: 32.14 N Altitude: 6,370 feet Today's audio update
This morning, we drive through a river of sheep and goats. They plug the road for 50 yards, jamming it from side to side (some goats even teeter at the edge of the switchback cliff). But after much chuffing and whistling and banging of their crooks on the pavement, the herdsmen manage to push all the sheep and goats out of harm's way. We roll by the unimpressed animals, who baa a little and slowly blink their dull eyes. One mile later, we meet another large herd and repeat the process.
Our next sight on the Leh to Manali road: bicyclists. They pedal with ease through the barely there air, hardly breaking a sweat. As the road angles up, they downshift serenely. My God, who are these people? At 16,000 feet, I'm pretty sure I'd pass out playing foosball.
As you may have deduced, altitude and I are not good friends. But after the Rohtang pass, the rest our journey is (literally) all downhill. I'm not surprised to see that the pass itself is a dystopian scene. This jibes with my current conviction that hell is an unpaved, high-altitude roadway. Thick clouds descend and mist swirls. We can't see more than 20 yards in front of us. Somber work crews emerge from the gloom, stoking a barrel of flames. (They're melting tar, thereby creating a paved, high-altitude roadway—which may be purgatory, but I haven't decided yet.)
And then at last we descend. Down and down, all the way to a very reasonable, sub-8,000 feet. We have reached Manali.
Lately, Manali is a hub of domestic tourism. Why, you ask? Because Indian tourists are way too smart to go anywhere near where we've been—where there's danger and stuff, and really, who needs that?—so they hang out here. When Kashmir's tourism wilted, Manali's bloomed. No wonder: It's got beautiful mountains for hiking and skiing right next to the middle of town, and it's quite a refreshing change if coming from Delhi. Cooler. Greener. And a bit less throat-smoldering pollution.
Your basic Indian tourist in Manali does something like this: arrive; rent fake-fur coat (they own no warm clothing); go into mountains for day to ride horseback or paraglide; return to lovely hotel and enjoy stunning view. How touristy is it? At the base of each waterfall here, there is a snack stand.
It's not at all the sort of travel we were enjoying in Ladakh. In Ladakh, we knew we'd gone somewhere. Partly it was the overwhelming presence of Tibetan Buddhism—which lends a starkly different feel to the region. (Manali is Hindu.) Partly it was the emptiness of Ladakh. (There are no empty spots in Manali—they're all filled up by well-dressed Indian tourist children nagging their parents.) Manali does still have donkeys meandering the streets. But compared to where we've been, it feels like Toronto. There are taxis here and plumbing. Our hotel has a pingpong table.