It's 8.10pm and Delhi won't let us go. Our two taxis are jostling forward in five lanes of traffic on the Mehraui Gurgaon road, a fifth of our journey down and it's been an hour since we left Sanskriti 4km away; the bus we have booked leaves at 9.15pm. It's time for a change of plan, a quick phone call to coordinate and we divert to Haus Kaus metro station, from where we can just make the 50 minute journey to the bus station at Kashmere gate. Ground to a halt again, our drivers pulls up on the free-way, point in the direction of the metro and tell us to run, any problems call us they say.
We run between the grid locked vehicles with the flowing melee of rickshaws and mopeds, looking for a way underground. Down the escalator at the station, jam our back packs through the security -just fits, forgot my travel card, no time to cue, do what the locals do and push through to the kiosk and urgently wave notes at the attendant – it works! Onto the platform and spot the others as a train comes in and it's rush hour on the Friday before Diwali so the carriages are packed solid to the doors. When they open people push on regardless and the carriage gives way and people compress and we nearly make it but not quite, try another door. No room, We're on the verge of giving in, sweating and exhausted, desperate faces in that split second pause before the doors shut on a full carriage sealing the fate of our getaway when a gap appears and Doug miraculously steps in and I step up flattening myself enough for the doors to close, cutting of the others who mouth to us to 'hold the bus'.
The next gruelling hour on that train is a trial of contorted compressed discomfort, testing stamina and physical strength just to stay upright and on the train. In rush hour on the Delhi Metro getting on a full train does not guarantee you will stay on the train until you want to get off or that you will be able to get off when your stop comes around. This is because the density of people pushing to get off becomes a powerful force that can easily sweep you away unless you push against it. The area around the doors when this force meets the push of people wanting to get in, because no one waits for people to get off, is the most tumultuous crush area. This also where you need to be to have a choice of getting off. If were to hold the bus for the others we need to physically fight to stay by the doors and on the train to stand a chance of getting off at our stop. As we hit the busy central stations I use all my strength to resist the crush of boarding passengers, clinging to the roof rail, swaying like a battered piece of drift wood in the torrents of the Himalayan valleys we so desperately want to get to tonight. Of course everyone smiles, grins and laughs with us at the absurdity of it as we all elbow, punch and forcefully rub against each others bodies. Thankfully, enough people want to disembark at Kashmere gate with us that the torrent out-forces those getting on and we are safely jettisoned onto the platform.
Five minutes before the bus leaves I'm elected to run on ahead, leaving Doug to run with the bags. Up the escalator and I'm immediately lost, no time to decipher signs I ask everyone at every turn where the bus station is. Up and out the station onto the street, I keep asking and soon people are pointing the way before I get to them. The buses are hidden under a multi storey car park so I need this help, people keep pointing shouting when I go the wrong way. I am so literally relying on there waving arms that I end up at one point jumping over a wall I am pointed at, straight into a police man. We hesitate as he calculates my offence, sees the desperation behind my sheepish grin and with a disapproving shake of the head releases me. I speed walk a few paces out of respect, then sprint to the security. Bag through and into the concourse – I look in dismay at the departure board, I cannot decipher the Hindi script but can see the time of our bus is not there. Another man wants to help me, he wants to show me the bus but I ask him to point, only 2 minutes to go. There are bus stands everywhere but I ask enough people that I find our Manali bus pulling out and manoeuvring like they do in eagerness to leave. The conductor is still on the ground and he says no problem to waiting five minutes when I ask, knowing the others will need ten at least. My Indian phone runs out of credit, so I can't direct the others. I go looking back to the escalator, concourse, departure board but nothing, it's too soon. Back to the bus plead for five more minutes, bus driver this time, angry, 'no waiting for passengers' as he climbs into the cab. I think the conductors more sympathetic, its an eleven hour journey to Manali after all, what's 15 minutes now. Even so, I doubt he can override the driver, chomping at the bit to get stuck into the traffic.
The others must be lost, I run for one last look doubting the driver will wait, then I spot them jogging along the stands, I shout and wave, there going towards the bus which is pulling out, I run back, bang on the drivers window and he stops, boot opens, our bags are on. All five of us have made it, sweating, exhausted, bruised and unprepared for an 11 hour bus ride. After beating the Delhi rush hour however, we gratefully savour every traffic jammed, pot holed, precipitous verged, blind bend overtaking moment of the journey North to Manali. I get a call, it's our taxi driving to 'thank god we made it'.