We left our base at the Sun Park hotel in Manali to head off to Dharamsala but things started a little slowly. Our poor driver, Mr Singh, was late arriving because he’d been staying in a drivers’ hostel where there was no hot water in the morning because the cold night had frozen everything. We were due to leave at about 8.30 but finally hit the road closer to 9 o’clock. There’s no point stressing about such things when you’re surrounded by giant mountains and it’s the done thing to take your time.
The first couple of hours of the journey were simply retracing our route from a few days earlier, heading back along Route 21 towards Mandi. Although we’d been there before, the route felt fresh as we’d been half (or fully) asleep when going the other way. After about two hours we stopped at a roadside dhaba for lime sodas and some interesting local toilet facilities and for Mr Singh to get tea and something to eat and then got back in the car and carried on along the rough roads, heading to lower altitudes than those we’d left behind.
The lower altitude areas were characterised by quite different scenery. This is a big fruit growing area and we passed lots of orchards and juice processing plants. Mandi seemed to be the biggest city in the area, with a wide, rock-strewn river passing through the centre of the city. I’d have liked to stop and have a look but we still had a long way to go and had to press one.
In the early afternoon whilst driving through some orchards, the car got a puncture and we had to stop. Fortunately there was plenty of shade so we weren’t too exposed to the hot mid-day sun. Mr Singh must have had many punctures in his driving career but he clearly didn’t really know what he was doing. Tony, my husband was torn about what to do and held back until Mr Singh realised it wasn’t going to work before getting involved and helping him to put the jack in the right place. The spare tyre had even less tread than the now punctured one and we had to hope that it wouldn’t rain for the rest of the journey. When they finished fixing the tyre, Mr Singh declared "You sir, very good man sir".
We then drove on, back up the mountainsides and into the higher Himalaya. The scenery was as good as it can be but after a few hours it becomes hard to really take it all in any more.
Twice along the route the car was stopped and our bags were searched. Elections were due to take place soon after and police were checking cars for smuggled alcohol, although quite why they might think two very obviously foreign tourists would have decided to subsidise their holiday with illicit liquor activities was a mystery. My bag was opened and examined in the middle of the road whilst I sat in the car and glared as menacingly as I could manage.
Eventually we arrived at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Approaching Dharamsala we started to see a change in the people we passed. More were wearing the robes of Buddhist monks and the people were looking more Tibetan and less Indian. Increasing numbers of foreign tourists were wandering around, and as we passed through Dharamsala and up to McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama and his followers it was clear that this was going to be a very different type of Himalayan town than we’d visited before.