Manali to… Manali
It’s a bit chilly, but what an awesome drive. Such blue sky, snowy peaks ahead and driving through those pine tree forests, in morning light, incredible. And it’s only been 25km when I run into a check-post. And the army guys won’t let me through.
A drive back to town; a day wasted on busy bureaucratic trivialities. And I did get the permit in the end, but I’m just so bummed. Second go is never as exciting as the first time. And I really was in my zone.
I have to pass the check-post before 6am, another dumb rule. And seven layers of warm clothing on my back but I’m freezing. Would be useful to have a winter jacket, but I parted with mine months ago in Lao to lighten my load... Come on sun, warm things up.
Such landscapes. Humbling. Unreal. And it changes behind every mountain. First those pine trees. Then the valley. Then, archetypal Himalayas. Soon enough, a vast, rocky, high-altitude desert. Some stretches it’s Middle Earth, some stretches it’s Dune.
And the road is already closed for the season. No petrol for another 350km, no people aside from an occasional army tent and a few trucks every now and then passing by. I’m stopping every 10km to hug my engine for warmth, crying in pain as my frozen fingers thaw again.
By evening, I may as well have gone a few million years back in time. My mind plays images of epic dinosaur battles in the canyon below my cliff-edge camping spot, a fruitless if subconscious attempt to distract myself from the uncontrollable cold shivers.
I have never been this cold in my entire life.
Stopped by an army check-post. Hand too frozen to hold a pen. The guy has to fill out whatever paper he needs for me.
And I cross this 5,500m high mountain pass, cold and sick from altitude, my body convulsing, my vision triple and blurry and the sun hiding behind the clouds.
And I want to tell the world: “Hey, I’m still here. I’m small and vulnerable.” In this vast, magical and mighty place, where it’s only Him and me, He seems to have forgotten...
A 500m walk to the mysterious, ancient Palace. And I take an hour, stopping every few steps like an old man, out of breath. This altitude is killing me.
Afternoon. I find a little, peaceful donkey sanctuary on the outskirts of town. Ah, such friendly, pleasant beings they are. This connection with animals, it always draws out a profound reaction in me. I’m not good with humans. I prefer the company of less violent and opinionated creatures.
After the mystical lands of Ladakh, my expectations for Kashmir are pretty high. Not that it’s not impressive, but Kashmir is more populated and the landscapes of Ladakh were simply more… ah those landscapes of Ladakh were unreal.
The summer capital of Srinagar. I’m “greeted” with posters of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and anti-American banners quoting Ayatollah Khamenei. The town and architecture here seems more like what I imagine Pakistan, Afghanistan or the other ‘Stans’ may look like. Pretty awesome, though the day and night Islamic lamentations and dark-clothed processions in the streets are a bit of a drag.
And I want to like it. But I get stuck in an awkward arrangement, invited over by a seemingly friendly family who, it’s become pretty clear, run a scam business preying on unknowing foreigners. I see through it but now am getting shunned and can’t wait till the morning to leave.
There’s an elephant outside my window. And I spend a good 15 minutes chatting with and trying to comfort him. Warts on his feet and the rough rope around his back grinding into his skin. Not that he seems mistreated, apparently cared for by a local temple, but I feel such pain for those majestic creatures being used for Man’s selfish purposes.
There’s an old Royal Palace in town, overgrown and in disrepair. And I get such a rush visiting these places. Old, luxurious, colonial 1800s architecture. Faded, peeling paint; part-collapsed, now-moss-covered staircases. Kids play cricket outside and somewhere I see a photograph of a royal ceremony taking place in this very ballroom long ago, now merely a distant memory of times long gone.
To end the day, a Hindu festival. Three tall paper effigies rise high above a huge crowd in a city square. Firecrackers go off, fireworks shoot out and one by one, the effigies of the Hindu demons are engulfed in flames, marking the victory of good over evil. Almost like Burning Man, but without the hipsters.
And I’ve completed “the loop”. And I’ve covered so much distance. And I don’t know when it passed. A day’s visit to Amritsar and its Golden Temple and with three days left on the visa, passing through Dharamsala, a hello to the Dalai Lama, I’m off to Nepal.
For more on Matt’s films and travels, check out the Etherium Sky production blog at www.EtheriumSky.com/ProdBlog