Basil has always been the “mountain person”. Not that I don’t love mountains, it’s just the getting there that makes me squeamish. After our nightmarish experience with Acute Mountain Syndrome or AMS in the mountain town of Lachung, in Sikkim; it took quite a bit of convincing, coaxing, and brainwashing for me to give ‘the nod’ to one of our most adventurous trips till date. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as the period between June and early September is the best season to set foot in this often unexplored Himalayan landscape. Unlike some of our earlier trips, we hadn’t planned the whole journey and decided to choose our final destination after reaching Manali in Himachal Pradesh. In hindsight it was a good decision, for most of these rugged terrains are at the mercy of the whimsical weather gods; it’s therefore advisable to break your journey in phases and decide the next destination only after making an informed decision of the weather and road conditions.
Day 1: Mumbai to Delhi
Delhi is barely two and half hours away from Mumbai by flight. We preferred to save money on inter-state travelling and spend it on the main trip (Spiti or Leh, at this point, we didn’t know which mountain town it would be) and that’s why we chose the cheaper option, the August Kranti Express – an offshoot of the Rajdhani. Bear in mind, it’s always preferable to book your tickets in advance to save yourself the unpleasant experience of travelling in the unreserved compartment. We boarded our train, roughly at 6:00 p.m. The three tier AC sleeper class is a comfortable way to travel and beat the sweltering heat of the pre-monsoon months. Unlike most Indian long distance trains, the Rajdhani has a pantry car that supplies you with refreshments and meals through your journey. Most of my food supplies that I had carried, only added to our luggage weight and ended travelling the long distance with us. After a rather uneventful journey, we reached Nizamuddin Station at roughly 11:00 a.m. in the morning. This station is also the last stop for the Agastya Kranti Express. Once you exit the platform area and enter the taxi waiting lines, you will be hounded by agents who pester passengers for taxis or lodging. Our bus to Manali was scheduled to depart at 8:00 p.m. leaving us with a lot many hours to squander. So we hopped on a taxi, ideally which shouldn’t have been running on the road, and decided to go to the capital’s pride, The Red Fort. This part of Delhi is chaotic, crowded and simply put, a mess. After a quick meal at Mac Donald’s we headed out to get a true taste of Delhi’s hot summer.
The imposing façade of the Red Fort, across the road, was truly impressive . To save on a hotel room for a day, we decided to spend the next couple of hours in the copious gardens of the Red Fort. The cloak room at the entrance is ideal to leave your luggage behind while you explore the fort at your own pace. The Red Fort is divided into many areas and it can be quite complicated to truly figure out its various structures. The Diwan-e-Khaas, Diwaan-e-Aam, Masjid, shopping areas and the lush gardens are some of the main highlights of the Fort. We sat for three hours, under a shady tree, often washing our face with sprinkler water. Basil, who isn’t the talker took to his book and started chalking out the plan for the rest of the trip. Finally, boredom got the better of us and we exited the complex to head to the bus terminal. From there we took a rick and headed to ISB north gate.
To our misfortune, the bus terminal was undergoing major construction changes. Fortunately, it was much cooler than the fort. I chose a part of concrete rubble to sit on and wait for our bus. This place was equally chaotic, with mothers yelling for their kids and a general buzz you find in most Indian travel ports. After a wait which felt like eternity, it was time to board our HTDC bus. We had pre-booked an AC bus online and judging by the chaos at the station, it’s advisable to book your tickets in advance. The regular HTDC buses are meant for those who really want to rough it out. We boarded our bus to Manali at 8:30 p.m. from the station. These bus rides are often like a joyride gone terribly bad, with drivers mistaking the route for a Formula 1 track. To placate distraught passengers like me, a popular mind-numbing Hindi movie is played. But all I could think, between the blinks of sleep that I tried to get, was whether I would be alive the next morning. Somewhere in the night, we stopped in Chandigarh, at a diner located in a mall brimming with imported luxury items . The crescent shaped moon was a stunning sight to witness. After a quick dinner we hopped back on the bus to try and get some rest before we reached the mountain town. The next morning I was woken by retching sounds. Yes, the winding turns often create havoc in many a passenger’s ability to hold their food. After making a quick stop for a light breakfast, we passed the scenic towns of Shimla and Kullu before finally reaching Manali.