'm not a fussy traveller. I'm unattached to luxury, can sleep anywhere, travel via any mode of transport, eat street food for weeks, and only complain if it gets too hot or too cold. Moving around in the UK, a wave of nostalgia hit me this month, reminiscing about the positivity that 15 August inevitably brings in India. In the year 2006, I had been working with a television channel in Mumbai as a presenter for a year; this was a time when television programming had soul, and shows were made with thought and care. For that year's Independence Day, the channel wanted to continue the tradition started the year before — one of splitting producers and presenters into three teams, handing them a minimal budget, and sending them hurtling in different directions with a brief to shoot several vignettes, filming different people and spaces while having the crew travel as the common man.
A general class ticket on a train to Delhi is what we got. On an especially rainy Saturday, we met on a slimy platform in Dadar with more bags than people. At the start of the 18-hour journey, our collective team enthusiasm was diametrically opposite to that of the six other people sharing our compartment. This was despite the roof leaking every time it rained, forcing us to (sort of) sit on our bags. After many life hacks at trying to fix the leaky roof, two really good meals of parathas and achaar, chatting with our neighbours, hanging out the door like lafangas in states where it wasn't raining, we finally made Delhi.
Delhi was hypoglycemia-inducing hot. It's easy to forget the wrath of summer when you're getting drenched standing in knee-deep sludge in Mumbai monsoons. But Delhi did a good job of reminding us. We powerwalked/sprinted towards our pre-hired car, leapt in and said "Dehradun". Our driver was a lithe young Sikh gentleman who didn't speak much and drove questionably. It was around midnight when we hit Haridwar; Har Ki Pauri — the famous ghat in Haridwar — was silent except for the steady roar of the river all around us, but we somehow managed to get some food.
We spent the night in Dehradun, waking up to a misty 6 a.m. Our destination for the day was Dhanaulti — a small hill station two hours north of Dehradun. The further north you go into India's hills, the cleaner your surroundings get. So even though Dhanaulti doesn't have the glitz and glamour of Mussourie, it is cleaner and quieter. We were to meet and film Andiji, a tall, dreadlocked, leatherpant-wearing Englishman who had been running a café in that obscure little town for over a decade. The locals all knew him well because being the only 6'3" Caucasian male with a Pomeranian on a remote hill station in India will make you stand out.
The first week went by in Mussourie, a small village in Punjab where we were so short of our daily budget that we had to find a gurdwara to eat at a langar, and McLeodganj. We'd hit three different states, shot with their people, eaten their food and generally not maimed each other. But the discomfort of eight people in an Innova only hit home at the end of the tiring first week, with two looming weeks ahead. To add to that, the budget we had exuberantly accepted was turning out to be a bother. The rules were that we couldn't use any of our personal money, and everyone wanted to play by the book. Even me (LOLJK).
After McLeodganj, we hit the road for Manala, a little village hidden in the hills of Parvati valley and known primarily for its high-grade hashish production. No TV crew had made it to Manala before us, but we had an ace up our sleeve. A gentleman by the name Vivek Mohan had spent four years with the people of Manala, working on his own documentary. He was our ticket in. It also helped that we weren't focusing on the obvious subject but rather on the people of Manala, who considered their hamlet to be separate from the rest of India.
The trek up to the Republic of Manala started at 4 a.m. with no sign of the sun, and the loud rumble of the Parvati River behind us. The climb was steep, more so for us city dwellers. Nimble elderly ladies and kids passed us several times, shaming us silently with their pace. Finally, at 10 a.m., we reached
Wooden houses, open drains, kids with no pants on, and the sun shining brightly on an open field with a small temple in the center (of Jamlu Devta, the local Deity) greeted us. Vivek had given the President and Prime Minister (no, really) of Manala a heads up about us, so there were no stones pelted, and we weren't chased out of there. Chandelal, the sole member of the greeting committee, gave us a lowdown on how the day would roll. We'd be served food at Chandelal's cottage, post which we would be allowed to interview the Prime Minister and President (!!!!) for our show. We weren't allowed to talk to anyone without permission, and we weren't to film any, erm, nefarious activities. It was during the afternoon that a 102-year-old man insisted I marry him. He was bewildered that at 26, I was unmarried.
We decided to then set course for Leh, a destination we previously had neither inclination nor finances for, but we had five days to kill, and enough money to sustain — provided we ate like vagrants.
The drive up to Leh is not something you can prepare yourself for. The roads turn to rubble every now and then, landslides take over passes, rivulets force their way wherever they want, and the day-and-a-half long drive from Manali makes you think about death and dying many times. The greenery gives way to hues of brown and grey, the vegetation thins out, the air becomes crisp enough to hurt your nostrils, the sun gets sharper, and the might of the tallest mountain range can be felt. The last solid brick-and-cement building is left behind at Keylong. After that, it's all about massive tents where travellers can stay for the night and eat (the most delicious) instant noodles and dal rice.
It's better to drive to Leh than to fly there. The acclimatisation is gradual and doesn't make everybody dizzy (Raja, the sound technician, wasn't that lucky and had to be hospitalised for the night). We checked into a small hotel right next to the city centre. Having been packed in a car like sardines for a little over two weeks was starting to tell. We were happy to have a warm bath, eat hot food and sleep on a real bed.
With no plan for the next day except to suss out any story we could, we had a team breakfast at a café at the city center. There, we met a biker gang called The Shiva Raiders. The bikers were from Norway, Japan, Israel, and the US. Some of them had been living in India for decades, and a few had only recently come to the country and weren't planning on leaving. Chopped up bikes with tridents popping up on the handle or the mudguard, these guys knew the roads of Leh well. We spent a day and a half with the Shiva Raiders, filming and riding with them, eating with them. We explored the monasteries, we talked to people on street, and we took some time out to walk the streets of Leh late at night, looking up at the stars. Leh made me believe that some places have souls. Souls that can calm you and make you embrace a stillness within yourself.
We'd had an incredibly adventurous 20 days, sleeping in the car, in strangers' houses, dodgy hotel rooms. We had eaten at langars, dhabas, and sometimes just grabbed a bag of chips for lunch. We had screamed at each other, laughed during takes, shared inside jokes, slept under mattresses because of the cold, befriended monks, had our driver walk away from us (thrice), and travelled a chunk of the country on a trip that can only be defined as an unshakable, rock solid ride. There are many ways to travel around India, but if you can make the ride uncomfortable, crammed in a car with more people than it can accommodate, and barely enough money to start a fixed deposit in a self-respecting bank, I would say choose that.