The next stage of the road trip was a little less intense, thank heavens. Only 500km to cover this time, and with lovely company. Poppy and Michael were great, but something about the combination of myself, Ricky, Tali and John really kicked out sparks. Together they reminded me of some of my favourite people from Berlin. Tali was from Paris and wore floaty dresses that made it seem as if her feet didn’t touch the ground, and she would sing along to old French songs she put on the radio. John was from Vancouver and the same height as me and took nothing seriously. He spoke perfect French with Tali, and to my absolute delight we shared the same surreal anecdotal humour.
We drove only a few hours in the morning, and man, leaving is an addictive feeling. It’s such a joy chucking your shit in the boot of a car, loading up with food and drink and good music, twisting out of the city onto the motorways, windows down, wind hammering in. The sensation is so addictive because no matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been, when you’re moving forward and you’re moving at pace, it doesn’t matter if you’re this great grown up business type or world weary cynic, you can’t stop the giddy little sensation in the pit of your stomach that you might just be heading somewhere better.
We stopped for lunch at a Punjabi restaurant in Dehradun, which I found to be a very pretty city packed with young people and, bizarrely, a giant Statue of Liberty replica. After lunch Ricky asked if we fancied popping over to Mussoorie, a small mountain town sitting at 2000 feet. He told us it’d be a two hour detour, and we were set to arrive in Dharamsala at 2am anyway, so we figured 2am or 4am, it was all the same. We pirouetted up a steep mountain road that would have been horrifying were it not for the fact that it was astoundingly well maintained. The road in the mountains are wider and cleaner than the roads in any town or village, somehow.
Mussoorie was beautiful. We were the only western folks in the whole town, and the lack of western tourism seemed to mean that we were not stared at or hounded by local people at all. It was so refreshing to wander the town at our own gentle pace, testing food stalls and playing 100 rupee hoop toss and BB gun games that were all rigged but fun anyway. We passed a shop selling Halloween masks, and for a while we discussed the idea of nicking off with four masks and four BB guns and tearing across India as outlaws, but we decided that we probably wouldn’t do so well when you consider the fact that nobody in the rural towns has any money and everybody in the rural towns has guns.
I was hoping to get moving then, and be in Dharamsala by that evening. After 6 weeks apart – the longest we’ve been separated since we first met on the sofas of Come Backpackers hostel a year and a half ago – Dave was waiting for me in Dharamsala, and we would be reunited at last and meet the Dalai Lama together. However, Ricky and Tali and John had other ideas, and when I tried to protest our spending a night in Mussoorie I was swiftly overruled, which I didn’t mind too much because it was very pretty.
So we booked into a cheap hostel on the mountainside which had nobody in but us. We bought a bottle of rum and a few beers and about four packs of cheap horrible cigarettes which the owners let us smoke in the dorm, we ordered in some Punjabi butter chicken thing that came in what can only be described as a vat, and we whacked music on Ricky’s speaker and played games and danced and my god, I was happy that night. I won’t lie, I’ve been low key homesick at multiple times during this trip, despite all the wonderful things I’ve seen. But in our cosy, soon-to-be-trashed dorm, I felt as though I was truly among friends.
Ricky fell asleep on the cold floor for some reason, and Tali hit the hay, and so John and I sat up together into the night watching the Bond flick Spectre which, although I like Daniel Craig, is spectacularly cheesy and wank, and I sat there quaffing rum and laughing at the nonsense onscreen until the early hours. It was a really beautiful day.
Next morning we were meant to leave at 8am but woke up at 10, and after a quick breakfast from a street food stall and a quartet of chais , we piled back into the great white Ford and zipped back down the mountain, through the tree-lined avenues of Dehradun, and on towards the Himalayas, and once again, ah, that rush of morning dew optimism. I felt lucky.
We drove for ten hours, making stops in small towns for meals and supplies, and took breaks by the roadside to admire the scenery; dry riverbeds that swept broad across entire valleys – it’ll be breathtaking in the monsoon season – and jungle palms leaning out over the road like an invitation to take a dip in the shade. Ricky offered us a chance to drive, but we were way too scared to take on an Indian road, even a quiet one. Hazards come from everywhere; they scream out from side alleys and leap down from treetops. Nobody but an Indian can drive a car in this country.
We stopped off for a chai at a deserted roadside café two hours outside Dharamsala, for one final caffeine injection before the winding mountain roads. I was amazed to find that outside the café and in every surrounding field there were wild marijuana plants growing, all the way to the horizon. Ricky laughed at my amazement. A little further down the road I was feeling drowsy and feverish after a spicy meal, Ricky called out ‘TIGER!’
I didn’t see anything, but Ricky was adamant he’d seen a stripy orange behind disappearing into the bushes by the roadside. In my delirium I suggested we stop the car to have a look, but I was unanimously over-ruled and fair play, really. This place is full of surprises, every day. Adventure adventure and wonder and wonder for weeks unending in India.
We reached Dharamsala in the dark with me shitting myself both figuratively and literally; the road up to our hostel in Bhagsu, some 5 miles higher up the mountain than Dharamsala, was without barriers and rife with hairpin corners than Ricky cleared like he was trying out for Tokyo fucking Drift, and to add to my troubles I’d had another dodgy meal and once more the little man in my stomach was throwing a house party.
We found our hostel after getting lost for 15 minutes, during which time Ricky took a shit behind a parked car and instantly soiled the pristine mountain home of the Dalai Lama, despite the fact that there was a public toilet 500m away which we could literally see with our bare eyeballs. He’s a peculiar one, to say the least. We checked into our two double rooms and all piled onto one bed to watch some big cricket game between Delhi and Punjab, which Punjab won to Ricky’s yammering delight.
I text Dave that I’d arrived and arranged to meet him the next day, and as I fell asleep I felt proud of what we’d accomplished. 1600 kilometres, tigers in the bushes, elephants on the highway, emergency stops and screeching tyres, weddings and glittering chariots and waistband revolvers, soldiers and sparkling rivers and nibbling bastard fishies, sweeping valley views and white water rapids, pitch-black mountain pass daredevil booze runs, and throughout everything without a scratch. India has been so kind to me. I have been very, very lucky here.