(OFF: I started to upload some edited photos to http://balazspataki.1x.com - if you want to see some better ones. Also added some 2009 photos to my nude gallery - http://indecentexposures.blogspot.com - if you're bored by India...)
Soni suggested we leave Manali early to avoid the traffic jams up to the Rohtang pass (3980 m) . So we did, leaving at 5 AM sharp, and were quite happy with ourselves as the traffic was minimal indeed. Of course after two hours driving we ran into a row of vehicles - turned out, an idiot of a truck driver got stuck and soon there was a Himalayan gridlock. Looking back to Kullu, I realised there were worse places to get stuck because at least the landscape was gorgeous.
After a while even the most stunning vista gets boring however. We waited for five hours, and when not bitching at the hapless truck driver (all the people did, from German tourists to locals) I used the time for some casual portraits.
Maybe we'd be still there if it wasn't for the Indian army - the javans came to the rescue with a huge tractor-cum-crane (to say it the Indglish way) and towed the truck away.
And here is our hero, the officer who directed the operation:
Soni was unusually nervous and when I asked why, he told me that Manali drivers are crazy and foolish. I doubted I could see anything more foolish than I had seen before but when we approached the pass, I had to agree with him. The road is a dust track, one and a half lane wide by our standards, and it is NOT a nice feeling to see you're being overtaken by two cars left and right while dodging the traffic coming up from front.
This was the one and only moment when I was happy to have opted for Soni instead of self-driving - the behaviour of Manali drivers would scare any Western driver or, as it would be in my case, set free such an aggression to teach those monkeys some manners that would all the way end very badly.
After swallowing a few kilograms of dust (tons were yet to follow), we made it safely up to the pass. Rohtang was an infamous place, named "pass of bones" after the hundreds of thousands of travellers who perished there in earlier days, and was impressive enough to turn a young British officer called Francis Younghusband into one of the greatest explorers when he first saw it, and although I've been there twice in 1994, I still expected some magic. What I found was a winter theme park for Indian tourists who admired the first snow they saw and imitated winter sports.
The only thing reminding to earlier days were the pony drivers who, dressed up like high-altitude cowboys, were waiting for honeymoon couples and South Indian families to bring them closer to the dangerous and miraculous natural phenomenon called snow.
And then it happened - we were over the pass...
...and suddenly traffic disappeared, the crowd disappeared, oxygen disappeared and the road stretched out before us, with an inviting emptiness, leading us to Ladakh and beyond.