Like most foreigners, my observation of Indian roads traditionally happens from the back seat of a car or taxi. This provides the advantage of being able to observe the great swell of life teeming on the margins and the equal and opposite disadvantage of experiencing a constant, impotent fear of death every time I look at what’s happening on the road itself, my right foot reaching for an imaginary brake pedal with pathological regularity.
Yet I had to try to make some sense of it because my days as a back-seat driver were over, at least for a week. I had been given a CR-V by Honda and told to put it through its paces among the Himalayan foothills of Uttaranchal. It was a generous assignment. I just worried that it was generous to the point of being foolhardy.
Nevertheless, I should have more confidence than most newcomers to Indian roads. Back in the UK, I spent four years working on a car magazine, driving scores of different cars, some at speeds unimaginable here. I had developed a reasonable amount of skill on racetracks and could boast of putting a car into a controlled slide and performing handbrake turns.
And yet at the outset I lost my nerve, cajoling Sanjoy, the photographer, into driving the first leg of the journey from Delhi to Haridwar.
On the single-lane carriageway to Haridwar, the automotive trial begins in earnest. Because of the enormous disparity in speeds, overtaking is constant and perilous. We might, for example, find the car flanked by three or four motorbikes, like an abbreviated motorcade, keeping pace as we close in on the panel-beaten bus looming ahead.
Assured in its imposing bulk and utilising a horn with the depth and grandeur of a trans-Atlantic cruise ship; the bus is totally indifferent to us and is pulling out to negotiate a tractor. We close in behind it, any idea of what might be approaching us in the other direction revealed only when the bus pulls back into the left hand lane.
It’s a truck, flashing its lights at us as if it’s playing some demented game of chicken. Sanjoy puts his foot down, the car accelerating quickly past the bus, his fingers flicking away at the full beam stalk like a pinball machine
It’s going to be close. I gape through the windscreen, sure it’s all about to end in a crumpled heap of metal and glass and blood. Time stretches out, offers up its cinematic slow-mo moment, and just when it’s clearly too late, we swerve back into our lane. The truck coming the other way passes by in a blur of colour, inches away, the Doppler effect from its blaring horn providing the aural equivalent of how my stomach feels at that moment.
Thanks to the attributes of the car and the fatalistic verve of Sanjoy’s driving, we make good time to Haridwar. It’s mid-afternoon and the streets are emptying as people go to lunch. We find a hotel called Har Ki Pauri, named after the ghat it sits behind. I stay in what is optimistically called an ‘Executive’ room on the third floor. I’m served coffee from a chipped plastic flask and then take a nap, the splutter and vibration of the AC following me into sleep like the sound of the river itself.
On waking, I head out in the late afternoon in the direction of Har Ki Pauri ghat. The atmosphere has transformed. It reminds me of the seaside at Bournemouth or Brighton, with children jumping from footbridges, teenage boys making windmills of their arms to splash each other, women holding their saris about their knees, tentatively dipping their legs in the water. A boy holds a small pane of glass to use as an improvised snorkelling mask and a man douses his Labrador puppy in endless jugs of Ganga water, the dog unimpressed with such a blessing, its tail firmly between its legs.
Looking out away from the ghat, where the river runs more quickly, a perforated moon sits like a ghostly ornament in the pale blue sky. People have started to gather on the edge of the ghat, sitting nine or ten rows deep as the evening draws in, to perform aarti. It feels magical now, the candles multiplying on the dark river, the full moon shot through with light, the music coming over the loudspeakers and everyone drawn in together at the waters’ edge. I move further back to watch from the distance of a footbridge, taking in the whole scene; the candle flames intensified by their reflections in the river, the new fires being lit and carried through the crowd. Faces pass by full of emotion; hope, grief, the desire for redemption, the longing for enlightenment; minds running riot with the mystery of it all. Then my eyes turn back to the flickering candles as they drift slowly away.
Morning comes and I can no longer hide from my fate. I take the car keys from Sanjoy and we head off, over one of Haridwar’s bridges in the direction of Kotdwar. The road starts to wind up into the hills almost immediately. Putting my foot down to overtake a truck, I’m relieved at how much power we have, the car picking up speed quickly. Plenty of power low down the rev range means plenty to get us out of trouble. Or in it, of course.
These mountain roads aren’t as hectic as the highway but they provide their own potential for cold sweats. Because they become increasingly narrow, drivers are inclined to take blind bends positioned in the middle of the road. I blast the horn on every bend, just to let any opposing traffic know I’m coming. Some way off is the sound of trucks doing the same, the tremolo of their horns echoing off the mountainside like prehistoric mating calls.
We stop at Kotdwar for lunch and then head on, continuing to climb, the road becoming steeper, snaking left and right, as we head in the direction of Pauri, set 5,400ft above sea level. When we stop for photographs, I take in the immensity of the mountains, the severe drops into gorges littered with fat Buddha-like boulders. The roads are becoming trickier, but the Honda has a great set of Bridgestone tyres that minimise any slide, and the handling is sharp and responsive making it fun to drive. Signs at the roadside urge me not to get carried away, employing child-like rhymes such as ‘No race, no rally, enjoy the beauty of the valley’. But the warning sign that does it for me is the direct and ominous, ‘Remember God’.
We arrive in Pauri in the late afternoon, and book into a hotel called Madhuban that looks out onto the snowbound peaks of the Himalayas. The manager, Satender Singh Negi, offers to take us on a five-minute drive up to a spot where we might get some good photographs. "People here go to bed early and get up early," he says on the way. "They are very peaceful."
On parking the car, the tranquillity is immediate. We are looking out onto a valley, mountains overlapping into the distance as if they had been stitched together, the sun setting to our right. It’s the quietest place I think I’ve ever been in India. There are moments of complete stillness, just the sound of the fern trees exhaling in the evening air. Looking down, slices have been taken out of the mountainside by farmers to grow wheat and rice, the green and golden layers cascading like draped cloth. It’s the kind of view you can look at for hours, and it’s here that the locals come to take an evening stroll, their laughter and slow, easy movements suggesting a contentment that fuels the pastoral idyll.
The final leg takes us from Pauri along a narrow, difficult road to Deoprayag, bypassing Srinagar thanks to an impressive, newly built bridge. From here we stop at the Neemrana-run Glasshouse, enroute to Rishikesh. The location is perfect, right on the edge of the Ganga, the water foaming over rocks, mountains rising on either side. The rooms are thoughtfully designed, with a rustic air to them. Service is minimal, but it’s better that way, less intrusive, giving you the sense that this might be your own hillside retreat.
I drop Sanjoy back in Haridwar where he catches the train back to Delhi. I will be staying on at the Glasshouse for a few more nights. Returning, I stop off to get a proper look at Rishikesh. The place feels spoiled in some way by its reputation, reduced to kitsch by Western hippies riding rickshaws with stickers saying ‘Om sweet Om’ and wearing clothes and beads bought to suit a New Age aesthetic rather than from any religious impulse, an absurdity whose equivalent might be an Indian tourist wandering around Rome in a mitre and crucifix. And many of them are stoned, of course, their nervous, glassy eyes and rag-doll postures only adding to the air of romantic displacement that surrounds them, as they struggle to reconcile this India with the one in their heads.
As for me, I cannot say that I am as yet reconciled to India’s roads. Despite the mechanical advantages given by the Honda CR-V and clocking up over 600 kilometres behind the wheel, there’s just too much unpredictability and consequently too much danger — during the whole trip I saw a total of six accidents, half of which looked serious. The Honda itself suffered a scraped bumper and busted wing mirror. But for all that, I can think of no roads in the world more fascinating to be on, nowhere else do they so effectively capture the character, the vitality and the diversity of the country itself.
Delhi to Haridwar: Delhi-Meerut (46km)-Muzaffarnagar (54km)-Roorkee (45km)-Haridwar (31km).The single-lane road makes the going slow and accidents cause tailbacks that can last hours. Leave early and you should cover the distance in 4-5hrs. Haridwar to Pauri: Haridwar-Kotdwar (47 km)-Pauri (89km). The mountain roads make this a long drive. You can stop at Lansdowne by taking a detour of 30km.
Pauri to Rishikesh: Pauri-Srinagar (29km)-Rishikesh (75km). The short cut direct to Deoprayag is about 25km shorter.
Where to stay
In Haridwar: The Har Ki Pauri Hotel (Rs 800-1,350; 01334-265553) is functional, but well located. The stylish Ginger Hotel (www.gingerhotels.com) is a modern option.
In Pauri: The GMVN Tourist Rest House (01368-222359) is popular, so book in advance. Others include Sun ‘n’ Snow (222242) and Hotel Frontier (222270).
In Rishikesh: The Glasshouse on the Ganges (01378-269224) though 23km from Rishikesh, is beautifully located and perfect for trekking, river rafting, fishing and chilling. It also has a spa, run in conjunction with Forest Essentials.
What to see & do
In Haridwar: Most of the action is at Har ki Pauri ghat, where the aarti is at 7pm. There is also a footprint of Vishnu on a stone in a wall of the ghat. There are a number of temples, the most important of which is Gangadwara Temple. The Mansa Devi temple, on a hill above the ghat, offers panoramic views of Haridwar and the Ganga. A cable car will take you there.
In Pauri: Walking is the best way to enjoy the views on offer. A 4km walk towards the Dwarikhal Forest will lead you to a ridge overlooking the Idwal Valley and Chaukhamba. The temple of Kandoliya Devta is located 2km from Pauri. Take a 17km drive from Pauri to enjoy a picnic, close to the village of Adwani.