The alarm went off as set for three in the morning. I got off the bed with a bounce and proceeded to get ready. By a half past I was at the hotel lobby with the rest of the luggage. George was up too – I really felt bad having disturbed him over the past three days. Mishra turned up at a quarter to four with a posse of CRPF men with their latest fancy machine guns. Mustafa refocused the lamp that shone on the hotel from his house. The certification was done by Mishra and Tashi and it was time for the flag off. It was an emotional moment. Over the past 72 hours I had become close to those I had met for the first time like Tashi, Mishra, Avinav, Mustafa and the CRPF men. And I got closer to George. Photographs were taken, hands were shaken and the four flags beckoned me to leave. Waving those present I eased on the throttle and moved out of the gates of the hotel. Mishra had promised to inform the Upshi check post to facilitate the certification and it proved effective. I was through the check post by a quarter to five. Once I paid the excise toll at the exit to Upshi all mobiles went dead. I mentally prepared to stay incommunicado till I reached Darcha.
After day broke well before 6 am I had clear and unhindered view of the road and made haste. However, I was not looking forward to the dirt tracks on the Upshi-Pang route. The lack of directions when to get off the beaten track and when to get on to it made driving difficult. But, fortunately today I had a lorry speeding along in front. I decided to stay firmly on its tail at a distance to avoid the dust and dirt but enough to keep it in sight. This strategy helped and I made good time. I travelled almost 50 kms like this. Just when we were negotiating what turned out to be the final bad patch the lorry got bogged down in the dirt. I bye passed it and moved on to the final stretch to Pang. Thanks to the truck piloting me most of the way I had reached Pang ahead of the penciled time. This time I lost little time at Pang getting the entries certified by Major Atul Srivatsava. After a cup of tea with him he asked if he could help me in any way on the roads ahead. I requested him to pass on a signal to Sarchu for certification. Between Pang and Sarchu I passed a lot of bikers going towards Leh. I fathomed that they were more driven than I given that the conditions on a 2 wheeler are definitely more challenging.
I had planned to halt at Tandi to facilitate the ‘assault’ on Rohtang Pass early the next morning. But when I passed the police check post after certification immediately after noon I thought it prudent to revise the night halt location. However, I had to wait till Darcha to make the necessary arrangements. When I passed Tandi by 4 pm I rang up the Chief Freight Transportation Manager of Northern Railway, Mr. Manoj Srivatsava, with a request for accommodation in the Railway Holiday Home in Manali. As usual, without a demur, he did the needful.
As I negotiated a sharp curve much ahead of the Rohtang Pass I caught sight of the driver of an SUV coming in the opposite direction waving at me to stop. As we neared each other I stopped the car, rolled down the window and shook hands. Sanjay Madan said that he had followed my drive on Facebook and had anticipated meeting me today. He wished me luck and told me that he was with a person who had driven from London to Delhi over land. Wow! My heart thumped and I felt in my mind the shaping of another dream. I even named it “From God’s Own Country to the United Kingdom”. I have to dream more and freeze plans to do that some time in the near future, I logged in my mind.
By 5 pm the weather turned. A light drizzle preceded the darkening of the skies and as if by magic thick fog enveloped the mountains, the roads and all that moved on them. I had not fitted any special lights on the car and hence, found the going tough. I kept on saying in my mind that I have to reach Manali in time for a good nights’ rest. I focused more on the road. There was nothing to disturb me. I normally switch off phones and music when I do difficult stretches. It helped. I passed many markers I had mentally noted when I had driven from Manali to Rohtang Pass on the 6th. The road felt a bit better ‘underfoot’, so to say. In a trice I was through the location that had almost stalled my plans on the 6th. I remembered the supervisor who was my guardian angel on the day. I then tailed on to a car in front of me to guide me through the fog. When I passed Gulaba I said a prayer loudly in thanks. I reached Manali in 16 hours; normally even taxi drivers take 18 hours to complete 480 kms of the Leh-Manali stretch. It felt as if a divine power was guiding me to achieve something extraordinary. After certification and fuelling I rested in the Holiday Home. An excellent veg meal preceded a good night in bed.