Thursday, May 1, 2008

Greetings from: the roads through Uttar Pradesh & Himachal Pradesh

Even when I plan ahead, things go awry. I had my wake-up call for 4:30 in the morning in order to catch the 5:55 train to Kolka and Shimla from there. I had packed and was fresh, ready to seize the day. The silence that infuses the early morning Delhi air seems to be from another place entirely, and you wish it could be like this always. Men in sweatsuits go jogging. The street people start to stir. Traffic has all but disappeared, just a few cars here and there. I made my way to Nizammudin station, as advised by Lonely Planet. But one shouldn’t put too much faith in a book. As it turns out, that was the wrong station for me -- from Nizammudin, the Himalayan Queen leaves at 5:25 in the morning, and it then comes to the New Delhi station at 5:55. That being the case, I figured I’d go back to bed and do more touristy things around Delhi.

No. The hotel manager berated me. I see you going out every day without asking for help, he said. I thought, That’s kind of the way I like it, but in this case, perhaps he had a point. I could take a taxi to Shimla, an 8-hour ride. Taxi? Yes, he said, I can get you a good price. Only 6200 Rs. And you come back the 30th. Okay, I said, let’s do it. The tour operator (who was keen on selling me a 5-day drive to Varanasi; no thanks, a private car to Shimla is indulgent enough) set me up with a personal driver, and we started off, Delhi traffic back to its normal congestion. I had saved a whole 1000 Rs. by not going for the A/C car, but I hoped that the day wouldn’t turn hot so quickly. No such luck. The sun burned a hole right into the city.

As we got further away from Delhi, the landscape grew more desolate. Delhi is a city of dust, and if it should ever run out, just beyond the city limits, more dust is ready to enter. But even in these, there was a strange schizophrenia: plots of seeming unarable land abut new industrial parks, the developments touted by metal banners overhead. Futuristic planned communities appeared with surprising regularity. We’d pass for-rent gardens with carefully groomed trees and green lawns, part of India’s ridiculously huge marriage industry. And, in a more comforting touch, dhabas, roadside restaurants for travelers and passers-by, so that no matter how bad traffic gets, you can always get a bite to eat.

Driving in India: a game of chicken that never ends. The road to Shimla quickly became a two-lane highway, shared by trucks, bicycles, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, and goat herds alike. The trucks have BLOW HORN painted on their back -- as if anyone needed reminding. But once the road wound up into the hill country, it became more of a white knuckle experience. The road never stopped twisting for its entire length; the curves were blind, and the drop-off promised an unpleasant death. God help those without power steering. My driver -- even if he was unsure of which direction to go -- seemed fearless, passing cars even when the signs clearly read NO OVERTAKING. But as soon as we began our ascent into hill country, you could feel the difference in the atmosphere. Pine trees filled the landscape, and the hills, one after another, were spotted with houses, little outposts of life. The dhabas continued upwards; even where there were none, there seemed to be construction underway. Along the road, I saw the railroad tracks for the toy train, my original intention that morning. It had tiny tunnels into which it could hide, each one numbered with a small circle. There’d be no white-knuckle moments on the train, I figured. No diesel fumes blowing in your face, no slow-crawl tour buses, windows colored by saris. And no rhesus monkeys running across the road, their young clinging, upside-down, to their bellies. Did these make the trip by car better or worse? Perhaps the question is useless -- no matter what the approach, the beauty of the hills comes in waves of green and tan, the farther layers increasingly blurred and indistinct, shapes in the mist. But on the road, you get to hold your breath for what might be coming around the next bend.

1 comment:

sophie said...

i like content but the back ground is terrible