Driving on the breathtaking yet treacherous roads of Himachal Pradesh is a dramatic experience, not only for its spectacles but also the insights it provides into the lives of local residents.
As backpacking and road trips gain popularity in India, self-driving options are also becoming more common among travellers. Offering the luxury of exploring at your own pace and immersing yourself in local cultures, road trips offer a fantastic experience for anyone bitten by wanderlust. I finally decided to join the road trip bandwagon on a recent trip to Himachal Pradesh (HP).
Driving in Himachal, with its tall deodar, oak and pines trees, valleys and streams, lush meadows and magnificent mountains, is an experience like no other. Driving on the narrow mountain roads, one can literally see the road run and draw lines on the picture-perfect scene ahead. But driving in Himachal is much more than just scenic routes. The roads are scenic and beautiful, shaded and offering great vistas, but also treacherous and extremely narrow.
Driving through the steep inclines requires its own set of tricks, and knowledge of local quirks. Here are a few discoveries from my recent trip.
While driving on winding roads, it is impossible to see what is ahead, especially while tailing a large truck or a bus. Now imagine, in a “to overtake or not to” conundrum, you slightly swerve your car to the right. Suddenly, the truck ahead starts blinking its right indicator. You hurriedly scurry to the left, cursing and wondering where he might turn. Equally annoyed, he settles back and you take another shot, only to have the same chain of events repeat. Scared out of your wits, you now need somebody to decode this behaviour for you.
In the mountainous roads of HP, where there is no right turn, the right indicator is used to signal “road all clear” to the poor mortals struggling behind. It implies “trust me and overtake”, not “watch me dive”.
Smaller is better
While driving on these roads, a Maruti 800 will go gunning in front of you, and a WagonR will overtake with the attitude of an Innova. But the big guns, like SUVs, are surprisingly scarce in the inner parts of this region. Where narrow mountainous routes reign supreme, the locals vouch by small cars. Why get an elephant and be stuck, when you can scurry like mice?
If you are driving with a local and buckle up for safety, be prepared for a roguish grin. As the saying goes, “Jab pahadiyon me chalo, to seat belt na lagao. (Do not use seat belts when driving in the mountains.)” If you dig deeper, your local companion will explain that the most likely case for an accident in these parts is not head-on collision, but a tumble down the valley. If buckled in, you and the car are certain companions for the abyss. Unbuckled, you could just be thrown out of the car. Take your pick – the rock or the hard place.
Danger – we are with you?!
When it comes to creative reuse of resources, Indians are light-years ahead of everyone else. For instance, take the example of hazard lights. Some use it when going through a tunnel, others use it to indicate they are going straight. In parts of HP, you may come across a troupe of cars blinking their hazard lights urgently. Do not be alarmed. The only disaster these lights are possibly spelling is the upcoming nuptials of two poor souls. The cars are heading to a wedding party, and flashing hazard lights to indicate they are together “for better or worse”.
Come tourist season, and loads of novice drivers can be seen driving up the unbarricaded, winding paths barely wide enough for one vehicle. At each turn they skirt the edge of the gravelly path, descending into steep ravines, and soon the beautiful view ceases to be the focus of the journey.
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Picture an oncoming vehicle on this road. Experienced drivers and locals have a tacit understanding here: they back their cars quickly, revving up the accelerator to climb on the rough mounds within a hair’s breadth of the rugged cliffs. With first-timers, their frantic attempts is comic as well as hair-raising to watch. New cars back dangerously, and suddenly the smell of something burning fills the interiors. The locals might smile and inform you, “It is just the clutch plate on your new car. Don’t worry jee. Abhi naram hain. (It is still soft.)”
The stunning beauty of Himachal Pradesh cloaks the destructive capacity of the landscape, its power to humble and to subjugate. The locals, experiencing this around the year, have an intimate and respectful relationship with this terrain. It is visible clearly in their driving etiquette. From truck drivers to cars and buses to bikes, there is an implicit understanding – give way and back up to ensure that the one in the more precarious position stays put.
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The next time you see the rundown Himachal Pradesh State Transport buses, groaning and moaning along, pause a minute and applaud. Their beat-up appearance masks immense grit and bears testimony to the daily grind in ‘Devbhoomi Himachal’. Do drive into the ‘Land of Gods’ and prepare to be awed by a dramatic travel experience.