I have been trying to sleep now for a couple of hours. My warm fuzzy hat is pulled down over my eyes to keep out any light even though it was three in the morning when I boarded this bus. I am wearing the same clothing I wear snow boarding and yet I am still cold. The bumps on the road and the freezing cold are keeping me from sleeping but I continue to close my eyes and try. Finally I give up. I can sense something different and my curiosity leads me to figure out what has changed. We have definitely begun to descend as the engine is not straining the same way it was for the first two hours of the journey. I open my eyes but everything is dark. My hat is still pulled down over my eyes. As I roll the soft edge of my hat back I find it is still night time but light is beginning to appear in the sky. Everything is white. There is a thick blanket of snow covering everything that surrounds me. Suddenly I realize how dangerous this is, driving in a small bus over a mountain in the snow and I sit up in my seat to take a closer look.
I had crossed the highest and the third highest mountain passes that were just down the road from where we were now and neither looked like this. One had bits of snow here and there and was tucked in between a few glaciers while the other was engulfed in a blizzard while I was there causing me to nearly freeze to death on the motorcycle I was riding. Seeing as how I was trapped in that snow storm just a few hours back, that is most likely the same snow storm that caused all the snow to cover the ground here. As I look out the window and observe the skills of the bus driver, I begin to relax as there are tire tracks embedded in the road from other vehicles that have passed before us. We are driving slow and the road doesn't seem to be covered in ice so I begin to relax.
The sun never rises but the sky begins to lighten. We take a break by stopping the vehicle in the middle of the snow on this one lane winding mountain road. I am grateful as I have been staring out the window at one of the most photographic opportunities I have ever seen. There are snow covered mountains everywhere and down the valley in the direction we are heading, you can see the snow line on a mountain with the blackness of the unlit portion of it's base supporting a graceful transition to the snow covered top. There is enough light to see everything clearly and the cloudy sky is lit by the early morning light. I jump out of the bus and take one of my favorite photos from my entire trip. Even though I am nervous about the twenty hour bus drive I have ahead of me, it looks like the endless scenery provided by the Himalayas is going to make up for the difficulty of the journey.
We transition from snow back down into a valley where the stark desert scenery of the Northern Himalayas returns. The road winds back and forth for hours at a time and actual sections of pavement are rare. We cross streams, mud, fields of boulders and road construction sites yet we do not break down. Not only can I not believe the condition of the roads but I can't believe that this is the most popular journey to do by motorcycle in the area. It takes three to four bone crushing days to make the journey on motorcycle and I had actually considered doing it. After learning that the cost to rent one for the journey was almost the same as buying a bike, I thankfully elected to travel by bus. There isn't much for roads here and we are averaging about twenty kilometers an hour. I don't sleep for the entire journey as the road is so rocky and bumpy that my whole body is being tossed around in my seat. Thank God I am not on a motorcycle!
The day winds on and the scenery continues to be as incredible as ever. I can't even believe the things I am seeing out of my window. How can there be so many enormous mountains and endless valleys with no one living in them and it not be named some sort of National Park. This is one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen and could possibly exist in the world and yet so few people outside of India even know about it. I think about how lucky I am to be here, smile and open my window fighting the bitter cold wind every chance I get trying to take just one photograph that will come close to telling the story of the epic journey I am making on the highway from Leh to Manali.
We are getting closer to Manali, I can feel it. The desert environment is gone and grass and trees are beginning to cover the hillside. There is a small river flowing through the valley we are in now and the air isn't as cold or dry anymore. I can't imagine that we have any more mountain passes to cross before I arrive and then I realize I am wrong. We begin going up the hill on a rocky and muddy stretch of road. The bus continues to climb and I continue to hang my head out the window to photograph the snowy peaks that the clouds are slowly exposing on the opposite side of the valley. Up and up we continue to climb and I can't see the top of the mountain, only the craziness of the winding road that lurks beneath us. Some parts of the road are washed out by the streams that flow over them and there is barely enough room for our bus to cross over yet we continue to press on. Our climb continues toward yet another pass. Two hours after we begin our ascent from the valley floor, the road levels out and we accelerate up to at least forty kilometers an hour. This lasts for about four minutes before we get to the other side of the ridge and I look down to see an endless snake of road ahead coiling around itself trying to keep it's grip on the near vertical cliffs that tumble far down below to Manali.
This seems to be the worst stretch of road yet and to make matters worse, there is an endless stream of trucks, buses and jeeps making their way up the hill. Uphill traffic has the right away on this single lane mountain road and we are continually tucking onto the edge of the cliff with the wheels nearly falling off the side to let the traffic pass. We are traveling slow, as slow as we have been traveling for the entire journey. I can see Manali up ahead and the last sign I saw put us only thirty five kilometers away. It is now dark again and our headlight barely light up the road ahead. Fortunately the lights of the endless stream of vehicles ahead continues to light the way for us. Down we continue for another two hours. Again I am looking at the road and feeling every bump and the bus slip and slide through the mud and wondering why anyone would want to make this journey on a motorcycle which is made to travel on smooth pavement.
Buildings begin to appear on the sides of the road and I can tell we are close. The last sign I saw put us just a five kilometers away from Manali. The journey is almost over and while I am happy that it is nearly over, I am sad that it is ending. It has been one of the most amazing trips I have taken, crossing the Himalayan mountain range on a slow bus over some of the worst roads I have ever seen. I am tired and stiff from the journey. It is nearly nine o' clock at night and I have not had dinner. A warm meal before crawling into my sleeping bag is the only plans I retain for the evening followed by a deep deep sleep. I am here, I am in Manali.