The Rohru we woke up to that morning was unlike any we had seen before. The entire valley was white. The mountainsides, the houses, the roads, the electric lines, the rocks out of water, all of them covered in snow. Though I have seen landscapes transformed by snow this was the first time I saw a riverine valley so transformed. Even the wildlife seemed transformed. We saw a few sparrows picking between snow to find food. Then there was a white dog who had taken on himself the role of entertainer of the day. He was blending into the terrain when playing in the snow and was going around all of us getting loved and well treated. The most curious thing we observed about him was that he was taking the food received to various parts of the snowed ground, digging holes and burying it.
As for us we mainly wanted to know what the plan was. The original plan for Spiti Valley was obviously scuttled. Shibu Sir, Puneet and Sam were making their enquiries and found that the severe inclement weather had rendered most areas in the region impassable. Himachal itself was about to declare red alert. Forget Spiti, even the roads to Shimla had become closed as of that day morning. The expedition was to continue driving around nearby areas but we decided to call it a day.
I was grossly inexperienced in basic off roading techniques, my wheels which had run 45 thousand kilometres did not have the grip for the terrain and I was worried about my 4High not engaging. I was too much of a novice and too middle class to risk my vehicle and our safety too much. My Jeep was my only four wheeler and likely to be my only vehicle for the next decade. Besides for us the trip was not only about Snow – we still had a lot of India to drive through. So call it cowardice, call it early retreat, but we decided this was enough Snow Drive for us for some time. We wanted some terra firma to drive on.
We were told that there was a road to Dehradun which is the only way out of Himachal right now. It is a 180 kilometre drive along the Pabbar River which would take at least 8 hours. It was noon by now and we bid adieu to our fellow expeditioners. It was a truly wonderful mix, adventurers from all parts of India who exemplified camaraderie and boisterousness. I felt proud to be a Jeeper amidst them. But before we parted our ways we were to pray at Hatkoti Devi Temple outside of Rohru.
The convoy pulled into the vast parking area of the temple complex and we were faced with yet another crisis of Titanic proportions. We had to remove our boots and socks and walk barefoot through the stony grounds of the temple. Stones that were covered in snow and in warmer areas with water. For a moment I considered reverting to atheism but this was the mountains. Even the staunchest of atheists call out to Gods in the mountains. So off the shoes and socks went and I touched my hitherto well protected feet on the grounds. First there was no sensation. Then excruciation pain. Then numbness broken by sharp bursts of pain when I lifted and put down my feet. The earnestness with which I prayed that day had more to do with the effect on my feet than any true piety.
Finally we parted ways with the expedition, said our byes and resumed our own trip across India. After driving in disciplined convoy formation for the past several days it felt invigorating to hit the open roads again. While I see the great value and safety in being part of a convoy I guess the Loner’s Wanderlust has no comparison. The phone was back on its cradle and the Vaunted Lady of Misdirections was at her work again, navigating us to Dehradun.
The NH707 from Hatkoti to Paonta Sahib road is 150 kilometres long and ran along the either banks of the mighty Pabbar river as it made its way to join Yamuna. This was a narrow road with sharp valleys to one side and vertical walls of rock on the other side. The way people drove on this road was the other maddening thing with neither horn nor lane discipline. Every blind curve was an accident waiting to happen. Another interesting observation was that it was very easy to know as we moved across the Himachal and Uttarakhand roads. The difference in quality of tarmac in both states were quite evident on the vertebrae.
By afternoon we reached Tiuni and had basically become the centre of attraction for all the kids in the area. Several hours of driving in warmer climes had started to melt the several inches of snow on the roof of my jeep and this was getting kids excited who are not used to seeing snow in the region. At Tiuni we had noodles in a tiny eatery and bought some Himachali hats for our family. The snow would not finish melting for several more hours.
Just before we passed through the town of Shillai we had to cross another mountain peak where there was snow on the north side. After driving on dry tarmac for several hours this was like a flashback to the horrors of the previous day. But the real horror started a few kilometres after we passed Shillai.
While taking a curve I heard a screeching sound coming from my wheels. This ominous screech was happening every time I was taking a turn to the Left. Not a small sound, this was a terrifyingly loud screech. Sun had already set and I could already see the shadows covering the mountains in darkness and here I was in the middle of absolute nowhere with my vehicle giving sounds akin to my wheel getting torn off. Fair to say I was panicking. Forget the curves the sound was becoming deafening when I tried to brake. And I still had 80 more kilometres to go in these mountain roads. I started to make worst case scenario preparations of what I had to do if I had to drive without brakes.
I tried to wave stop some oncoming vehicles unsuccessfully and then I saw a Mahindra pickup jeep parked ahead. I thought I might as well ask the driver of the vehicle if he could help me out. After all these taxi drivers are fair mechanics themselves.
The guy heard me out, heard the sound and told me he could fix it. He jacked up the vehicle, removed the left wheel, cleaned out a tiny stone lodged amidst the disc brake plates and refitted the wheel and the issue was fixed. Five minutes flat.
Now who could imagine that in the middle of nowhere, at dusk, when I am in absolute trouble and panicking a mechanic would show up. Not just any mechanic, an Automobile Engineer who worked for five years in a Mahindra plant building vehicles and now owns his own garage in Shillai. What are the odds for such a thing to happen? The last atheistic neurons in my brain committed harakiri at that time.
We profusely thanked our saviour and carried on. This divine intervention and the onset of night boosted my confidence. During daytime I had to drive fearing a crash at every blind corner but at night mountains are the safest to drive on. After all every vehicle makes its presence known through the headlights. This meant I could increase my speed by at least 15 kmph.
Shortly after 8 we left the mountains and entered the plains at Paonta Sahib. We stopped for a sumptuous dinner at a restaurant in the town and sped off for our destination for the night – Dehradun. Since this was a last minute plan we did not have the luxury of research for booking accommodations that we had till now. Aadi was doing her magic while on the road using whatever 4G coverage we managed to steal in the mountains.
Finally at about 1030 we arrived at our hotel in Dehradun. The deceptively titled Hotel Ambassador was about as shabby and unprofessional as you would expect of an old Ambassador taxi in Mumbai. But we were too tired and relieved to care so we crashed for the night.
My dreams of driving in snow had turned to a nightmare after a few days of reality. But I knew that the scars of the horrors would fade soon and the romance of the snow would draw me again to the mountains. Not in the immediate future but not too distant either. After all there is no beauty without mortal danger.