A 1,200-year-old Dhankar, Spiti Valley
 How is it that we found ourselves in the heart of a cloud, running barefoot along a track of wet mud? Everything was misty white except for the five metres of muddy road ahead, but we knew, somewhere, further up the mountainside, our vehicle awaited us. 
We were attempting to cross the Rohtang Pass and had found a lift with a local driver and his wife. We had been crawling up the road for hours and, at a particularly muddy patch, had had to get out to lighten the load. We eventually found our van, the wife, who had also had to pick her way through the mud and cloud, had somehow arrived minutes before us, despite her advanced age and the fact that she was suffering from typhoid. We lowland folk are simply not built for such altitude (the road we were on would cross a pass nearly as high as Europe's highest peak.) Because of the mist and rain and the quagmired roads, what should have been a three-hour journey took us ten. When we eventually reached the summit we watched  Indian tourists in hired fur coats taking bleak pictures of each other in the mist. We warmed ourselves in a chai shop constructed from stone and canvas. With the chaiwallah hunched over the flame and the mist drifting smoke-like under the low canopy, we could have been in another time, another world. The following days would be equally unworldly but the roads to be taken would make the Rohtang Pass seem like a Sunday drive. 
This was our 'road'. The men are reorganising the boulders so our bus could cross this rather watery stretch.
We were headed for the Spiti Valley in the State of Himachal Pradesh, a place more Tibetan than Indian, where arid landscapes hide thousand-year-old monasteries in their craggy contours. For the next stretch  of the journey, we had seats at the back of a rickety local bus. Bundles, limbs, and crinkly old ladies pressed from all sides as we began the ascent of a craggy mountain pass. The road was unsurfaced and narrow and the bus swung the hairpins at a rattling speed, at times we were hurled half a foot out of our seats. As we took the bends, the rear of the bus left the road and, looking down, we could see nothing but a sickening drop to the rocks below. There was no mist here, nothing to mask the certain death one envisioned at every downward glance (or the occasional wrecked car many fathoms beneath). After a few hours, we reached the top of the next pass where Buddhist prayer flags streamed around a stupa and we climbed down to calm our nerves, ease our cramped limbs and rub colour back into our whitened knuckles. Above, jagged 6000m peaks were plated with vast glaciers, and hung with strings of meltwater that fell glittering down to the valley floor. 
We fell in with a group of fellow travellers, Israelis trailing dreadlocks and crochet wool, a Spaniard on the run from his travel buddies, a profoundly deaf French writer, a German-Mexican on a Buddhist pilgrimage. We were all brought together by the narrow valley of snow peaks and scree, and continued the journey as a motley crew. At Ki, we saw an ancient monastery piled up on top of a hill and enjoyed a chai in its darkened interior. Many of the monks had been there since their mid-teens and would spend the remainder of their days amongst hypnotic chants and curling incense smoke, gazing  out at the wheeling eagles, the icy peaks and the pink-faced foreigners huffing it up the hill.

In the winter, the valley is completely inaccessible and the roofs of the whitewashed houses were already being piled high with firewood and straw for the animals. It must be a bleak existence for many and the alcohol on the breaths of many locals seemed to testify to this. The most difficult section of the journey involved walking up to a mountain lake. We were over 4200m above sea-level and entering a strange zone of airlessness. The sun was so strong that our skins were glowing pink in minutes, the air so absent that we had to stop every twenty metres to gasp back our breath. Others complained of headaches or rapid heart rates. It is a truly inhuman environment. Still, we reached the top and me and the Spaniard, let's call him Alan (for that is indeed his name), ran and jumped into the lake. We'd forgotten that such excessive activity wasn't wise at such altitude and were soon gasping and spluttering. Once we stopped however, the sound drained from the landscape and nothing, bar the faint rustle of water, could be heard, just blissful silence. The one advantage of walking at altitude is that it doesn't seem to effect me as much as it does others, so, for a short but glorious time, I appear to be the fittest man around. It's a shame we had not brought a football, for once I may not have been last to be picked (even with the absence of one-legged Graham from school).

* Note: One-legged Graham does actually exist- one glorious sports day, I even managed to beat him into fifth place in the 100m.

Anyway, I appear to be wittering on and on. In short, Spiti was quite wonderful and I shall not forget those soaring landscapes, atmospheric monasteries and thrill-ride buses. It was certainly a highlight of our increasingly epic journey.
A rather beautiful Hindu temple in Sarahan - you can see the influence of nearby Tibet
We slowly worked our way south, greenery rushing up the valleys to meet us, while the monsoon once again darkened our skies. In this soggy atmosphere of mist and rain we eventually reached the city of Shimla. Shimla was built by the British as their summer capital, nestled on a ridge that enjoys a similar climate to our own damp  isle. The architecture gazes dreamily back to a romanticised Britain, half-timbered cottages still clinging to the idealised notion of the motherland, churches with the illusion that they are in Bury-St-Edmunds rather than clinging to a Himalayan foothill surrounded by monkeys and turbaned Punjabis. We visited the wonderful little Gaiety Theatre, the boards of which were once trodden by a young Rudyard Kipling and Lord Baden-Powell. Again, we got the sense that modern Indian history is also our history. Oddly enough, most Indians talk with some affection for the days of the Britishers and feel it was positive time no matter how much we try to convince them otherwise.

Well, I think you've been reading for quite long enough now and, for the moment, will leave you in that strange corner of the British Empire, watching the church spires and scout huts disappear into the mist.
Nako, a typical Spiti village