A hard day’s drive

When our flight was canceled we took a taxi as quickly as possible. The day’s drive was through the plains just before the land rises into the Himalayas, the hottest part of the country. The heat was already bad enough that the air conditioning in the car laboured to keep the temperature bearable. From Dehra Dun it is just a short while to Haridwar.

Haridwar was hosting the Kumbh Mela during this time. If I’d passed so close to it in a normal year I would have spent time photographing pilgrims, but this year I thought it prudent to avoid it. As our car sped past Haridwar we saw the tent cities that had been erected on both sides of the Ganga to accommodate pilgrims. It wasn’t a particularly holy day, so they were mostly empty. But there were people coming for a dip in the holy river anyway. Farmers had come here with their tractors, family in open trailers with mattresses and changes of clothes. Other groups had elected to come in minibuses, which normally hold about 15-25 people. Some walked. Others looked for taxis and autos. It was a hot day, notice how that family trying to flag down an auto stands in the shade of an enormous gate which welcomes travelers to the Mela. As our car sped by I had a pang that any photographer will feel at missing a wonderful opportunity for people watching.

Soon after we moved off into narrow country roads. The continuous stream of traffic sped past many little villages, each with its little market square. Now and then we would pass a large walled off property. In these plains fired brick was the building material of choice. The heat hid the fact that it was still just around the middle of astronomical spring, so trees were still flowering and putting out new leaf buds. For a large part of the day we drove through the state of UP, where the local body elections were about to happen: the evidence was posters on walls, and large hoardings lining the roads. But most of the time we just drove past agricultural fields. This is India’s heartland, mostly farming.

Then, in the golden hours of the day, we passed a country market. If we had more time I would certainly have stopped the car and walked along the margins of the market with my camera (the crowd without masks was too daunting to wade into). But I got a few shots with my phone as we speeded past this enormous, but completely unremarkable, market. So many human stories there, I thought, it only I could have stopped. India’s plains are like that: more stories per square kilometer than almost any other rural part of the planet.

Then the landscape began to change. The plain had segued into broken land, the mountains closer. We’d crossed from Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand: UP to UK. Before I knew it I realized that we had gained more than half a kilometer in altitude. We began to pass mixed forests of sal and pine, and rivers which originate in the mountains. I was glad to catch the story that you see above: ephemeral, but repeated endlessly across the globe. Even in a non-stop six hour journey in a taxi I was able to take an ambush photo! I call something an ambush photo if it is a photo of someone taking a selfie, or a photo of a photographer taking a portrait. Soon we were in Haldwani and had exchanged our airport-to-airport taxi for the car that we were to take for the next few days.

Our hotel in Almora had agreed to keep a late dinner for us, but we hadn’t eaten since we left the airport munching a couple of wraps. We stopped in Haldwani for a quick snack, and drove on. A climb, a brief stop next to Bhim Tal to take photos of the lights at night. “Crystal clear,” The Family said, a phrase I would remember in the next week of smoky air higher up. I love these night drives in the mountains, and now sitting in the seat next to the driver I could get to take shots which tell you something of the charm of passing through this liminal space: well-lit towns empty of people, streams of trucks beached next to the road for the night, cars parked outside houses blazing with light. I was dog-tired when we reached the hotel after 11 at night. The charming staff brought us hot food in our room, and I must have eaten something before sleeping, because when I woke the next morning there were used plates on the balcony.

Haldwani to Bhimtal

The terrain changes around Haldwani. The endless plains of Uttar Pradesh begin to crinkle and rise. We travelled through the plains in the heat of the day. As we climbed, the afternoon lengthened into evening. We stopped at a bakery in Haldwani for tea. Two schoolgirls discussed their new young physics teacher. A couple drank tea with their heads so close that their cups were in danger of clinking against each other. Three young men carrying their biking helmets chatted over a large plate of cakes.

The Family selected cakes. It took little thought to choose tea over instant coffee. I was impatient to start: we were going to miss the golden hour, that couple of hours before sunrise when the light is so beautiful that you can make a great photo out of a garbage heap. The remainder of the drive took longer than I had estimated, because we had to leave the main Haldwani-Nainital road very soon for a smaller road to Naukuchital, where we planned to spend the night. Then, just before sunset we arrived at Bhimtal.

The lake district of Kumaon is almost 2 kilometers above sea level. Bhimtal is the biggest of the famous lakes in this region. I’d flicked through images of Bhimtal before leaving, so I recognized it immediately from the little island which houses an aquarium. We never managed to visit this, unfortunately. That’s one thing we must work into our next trip.

I grew up on stories of Kumaon’s lake district. A grand-uncle had a bungalow there for many years, and would make a yearly trip alone up to the mountains. On his return we would spend dinners mesmerized by stories of him meeting Nilgai on walks from Sattal to Bhimtal, and what to do if you ever meet a leopard (shine a torch at his eyes; not something I plan to do), and how green chilis, which he crunched with his dinner, were much better in the hills. The quiet and nearly deserted lakeside of Bhimtal brought back echoes of those memories. But times have changed, the boatman rowing nearby had reminders of modernity on his boat.