Entering the state of Punjab.
Leaving Manali in the morning, with the Himalayan range in the background.

IT’S funny the details you capture during an emergency. Everything seems to slow down for you to savour them. I noticed the truck drivers’ eyes as wide as saucers. I noticed that I couldn’t see Ah Boy who should be on my right side, also braking as hard as he dare (I hope). I COULD see the rider of the light metallic blue Enfield Bullet also slewing left and right with his pillion stuck to his back like glue. And the truck was still dominating my frontal view while I tried to stop. Hopefully the cars and trucks behind had recently serviced their brakes.

That night in Manali, we came across the Tourist Police Booth but it was closed. As we walked along the shopping street, the uniformed personnel were usually in army fatigues or traffic policemen manfully trying to manage Manali’s traffic jam. So it was down to Mr Google to help us out. He didn’t have good news. The Manli-Leh Highway was closed, he said. I didn’t believe him.

Early next morning, Ah Boy and I went to the Police Booth again. This time, I heard it from the horses’ mouth that the Manali-Leh Highway was closed (I didn’t catch his name, but it definitely wasn’t Horse). Plan B was in effect. Last night, Mr Google advised us to take the Srinagar-Leh Highway which was opened only two weeks ago. In effect, we backtracked along Highway 3, back through the Aut Tunnel and the Mandi Dam. We met yet another spirited rider on another Pulsar. Even though the going was smooth, it was disheartening to be backtracking. So we took our time making videos and shooting the interesting scenes we encountered.

From the town of Mandi, we headed up a fairly small road going into the hills. Trusting the GPS, this road was almost deserted but for a number of small vehicles and trucks. Although it was small, the road was nicely paved and some way along it, we came across the road engineer’s house. Apparently, the one responsible for this road was merely an assistant engineer but he had a large sign on his driveway proclaiming that responsibility. How refreshing to know, thus. We stopped for lunch at a small house, a private concern in the middle of this paradise. No other travellers were around. He only had snacks, Maggi mee and drinks but nonetheless cooked up a satisfying Masala Maggi Goreng.

By late afternoon, we had reached Jammu, a fairly sizeable city. The GPS herded us through the city’s streets to Highway 154, which would take us en-route to the state of Punjab. A large, modern highway greeted us and prompted much twisting of the throttle. Then, a series of tunnels bored into the granite hills welcomed the roaring KTMs. It was quite exhilarating until we came to the end.

A large traffic jam welcomed us to the construction of the remainder of the highway. It seemed the beautiful road had completely disappeared and was replaced by one designed by Beelzebub himself. It was endless dust and dirt with numerous trucks, buses and vans all vying for the same inch of road we tried to occupy. Horns were pressed as hard as accelerators and brakes.

By this time, we had exited the hills and the temperature and dust increased exponentially. A light rain began to fall and the roads became quagmires, even in the many towns we passed by. A dawdling tourist in a Toyota Vios (we became quite adept at recognising out of state number plates) had his rear bumper torn right off by another car right in front of our noses. Just another day in India. We moved along, nothing to see here. At least Beelzebub’s highway was a long way behind us. Me and Ah Boy just muttered our thanks under our dusty visors.

The road took its toll on us by the time we crossed the border into Punjab. A little ways ahead lay Pathankot. We had aimed to reach Srinagar but the light was failing and Srinagar was another 400km away. I placed a call to Mr John of Perfect Holidays, who quickly rescheduled us to a hotel in Pathankot.

We stopped along the way at a workshop to oil our chains and generally check up on the bikes. I use the word ‘workshop’ loosely here as it was a shed next to the railway tracks. But the proprietor was friendly and understood what I wanted almost immediately. “Chain Lube?”, he asked and rushed into his shed to come out with an oil can full of used oil. Oh well, it’s just another day. He took no money for the “chain lube” but I still pressed a couple of rupees into his oily palms.

Pathankot loomed ahead. The one main road was dirty and dusty, with old and decaying shoplots fronting it. People were everywhere, milling around especially near the big marketplace. In the gloom of the hot evening, we saw a brightly lighted building and headed for it. It was the only modern building in Pathankot, a shining monument to consumer excess. Inside, an Apple Store beckoned you with the latest iPhone and gadgets and the Adidas and Levi’s boutiques had the latest fashions. The Domino’s Pizza across from the Apple Store provided our dinner.

Later, I bought cigarettes from the apple store outside this building. You can’t smoke a cigarette 20 feet away from the bright gilded building, but 21 feet away the dust and smoke from the vehicles plying the main road make a mockery of the ruling. Still, a rule’s a rule.

Tomorrow, we head for Srinagar. Our hotel was air-conditioned but it made a loud noise every few minutes. We slept well anyway.

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