Scared and Scarred by Car over the Himalayas

This morning we said our goodbyes to Raju and his family. We felt we could have stayed a lot longer but he had other guests arriving and we still had a few more places we wanted to see. So we trudged down the steps to the taxi which had been arranged for us.

Our destination was Shimla which was about 80 km away as the crow flies. This being mountain country though meant that we weren’t going to be able to go direct. There were two ways we could have gone to Shimla from where we were. One down the valley and taking a huge circuitous route of 250km to get back to Shimla on a paved road and the other a more direct route over a pass.

We had opted for the circuitous route as even though it was longer it was going to get us there in 7 hours. Our taxi driver though argued that the road for the direct route was fine and that it would be a much shorter route. Mistake number 1 for us…trusting an Indian Man who is full of confidences and assurances.

Raju, our host took advantage of us driving past the larger village of Banjar nearby by joining us with an empty gas bottle and a shopping list (including fishing rods so he could provide them for hire for future guests). We dropped him off at the village and began our ascent.

The road wasn’t paved but it was dry and although the going was slow we made our way up the side of the valley. The smell of pine trees was wonderful and we settled back ready to enjoy the scenery of our drive. We reached the top of the valley and started our way along and I thought I would check where we were on the map. Our main goal was crossing the Jalori Pass (3223m) and I presumed we must be getting close. 

For some unknown reason though our driver had decided to take us on an 18km detour up and down the side of a mountain. Why he decided to do this we still have no idea but at the end of the detour he turned to us and smiled as to how clever he was. The alarm bells really started to ring a few kilometres further down the road when we started to climb again but this time the road was terrible. It was dirt and only wide enough for a small car and the rocks where huge! The car was a Suzuki Alto 1lt and the tires kept spinning in the dirt. We were both terrified and honestly were thinking of turning back but the road wasn’t wide enough for us to turn around so on we went.

We were so scared that we told the driver to stop to ask some questions about where we were going and why on earth we were going this way. He told us not to worry. Not helpful. There is one thing driving with an Indian when you are going 30kph in a town it’s a completely different level of fear when you are up the side of a mountain on a dirt track with certain death looming on one side. We thought we had been scared in South America but this was far worse.

Just as we thought the situation couldn’t get much worse we had to slow for a group up ahead who were busy collecting their things from around their Ute which had rolled onto its side! Thankfully everyone seemed okay but a foot the other way and they would have all been down the side of the cliff.

Once again we stopped our driver who once again assured us not to worry and that it was only 1 more kilometre then the road would be much better and safer. Mistake number 2…trusting an Indian Man who is full of confidences and assurances.

There was no chatter between us as we were both sat in a state of petrified fear but eventually made the summit with some pretty superb views. Most people would relish this arrival by stopping and taking a picture. We asked to stop but our driver shook his head and took us down the other side of the mountain a few hundred meters until we were in a dense forest where upon he stopped and asked if we wanted to take a picture. If you hadn’t already guessed this guy was a complete idiot.

A check of the map revealed that in 3 hours we had traveled about 15km as the crow flies and spent most of that time avoiding having a heart attack. The assurance that the road would improve had still turned out to be a bare faced lie and we still had a long way to go. On we went.

It was difficult to enjoy the views when we were both clutching the doors ready to jump as soon as we felt we needed to but the glimpses we got were spectacular. Thankfully the sun was shining and the rains held off because we would have been forced to stop if it started raining. 

This fear carried on for another 50 kms and we were both thankful when the tires finally touched tarmac. This feeling was pretty ridiculous as it wasn’t exactly a smooth two lane wide bit of road, no it was one lane at most with dirt either side and still a huge straight drop on one side. To ensure that our hearts kept thumping a few minutes down the road we saw our second vehicle on its side with four of its passengers ominously drinking whiskey in a group. It has to be said that Indians are without doubt the worst drivers in the world. It’s a lethal combination of terrible roads, terribly built cars (Mahindra and Tara haven’t exactly dominated the export market), awful driving ability, a seeming absence of road rules and a complete disregard for the welfare of anyone else. Put all of this in the Himalayas and you have possibly the scariest life experience.

We were very thankful when we approached Shimla and realised that we were only 15kms away. It was by now 3:30pm and we had been on the road and terrified for 6 hours (we would have been there already if we had gone the other way). We weren’t finished though. The traffic ground to a halt and we got out of the car to find out that there were roadworks and we were going to be delayed for a while. In the west we call it a counter flow where one lane of traffic is closed so vehicles have to stop and either a light system or people with flags organise the traffic so they take turns passing the obstacle. It’s slow going but does eventually work.

India does things its own way. Yes they have an obstacle and yes they have men with flags but that is where the similarities end. What happens is that the traffic stops and all the drivers get out of their cars to have a look. Then the traffic up ahead starts moving so everyone sprints to their cars to start them and get going. Obviously no one waits for each other so there is some frantic overtaking. Not only all this but the on coming lane is free of traffic at this point so many people dart down only to be halted by the oncoming traffic. Now Indians aren’t very good at driving forwards let alone reversing so it is a very slow process to clear the blockage. Eventually the road is cleared and the oncoming traffic is allowed to move so we in turn can move forwards…a little. You would have thought that people would have realised the folly of their ways but no the same people try and dart up the other lane only for the whole process to start again. It was painful and took us another hour and a half to get into town.

Obviously at this stage it would have been nice to have booked a hotel which was easy to find so we drove around getting lost, of course I wasn’t to be believed with my directions, what would a foreigner with the internet know. Anyway after 10 hours door to door we arrived at our hotel and to be fair were treated with a pretty spectacular view back over the valley towards the glittering lights of the town of Shimla. Double whiskeys all round! T

Our beast of a Suzuki Alto.  Just not what you want to be in when driving around the mountains.  It’s only redeeming feature was that it was narrow!

Now this was a good road!  At this point we were enjoying the view.

This road wasn’t too bad either…when the road got worse I was too tired to take photos.  Also when we passed the overturned vehicles I was more worried that someone was hurt than being ready to take photos.

Some of the views though were spectacular!

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