Of late, I have been travelling to Himachal Pradesh fairly frequently on account of work – four trips in the past 12 months. Prior to that, I have travelled to Himachal at least once a year, mostly on vacation. On most occasions, I have hired a local car for all travel through the state.
In my experience, there are three types of drivers in Himachal Pradesh: Contracted, Self-Owned Drivers, and Employee drivers. Contracted Drivers drive someone else’s car, get a low monthly salary and make most of their money from tips and cuts from hotels and shopping outlets they take the tourist to. They are knowledgeable, hard-working but their focus is on taking one to popular places, and providing pleasing service.
Self-Owned Drivers are client-focused and have a sense of future business through recommendations. They are reasonably self-assured and since the fare goes to them directly, they are more focused on professional service than on tips and commissions (which all drivers seem to get).
Employee Drivers are those that work for a hotel or a larger travel or transport firm, they get paid a salary and daily allowance and have a measure of security and stability. These are usually very experienced drivers with multiple bodies of knowledge and an organisation backing them apart from individual networks, and their focus is on company loyalty and a good feedback for the company and its brand.
I remember a trip that took me from Chandigarh through Bilaspur and Mandi to Kullu-Manali, and then to Shimla district. The cab driver was Jagdish, a middle-aged Himachali from Shimla district, who was driving a Tata Indica, sufficient for a single individual. I had been to most of the districts on prior visits so Jagdish struggled for the first few hours to figure out where to stop the car for views and interesting halts. But he was observing the places I requested for halts, and with a few clever questions, soon he was picking the places before I could make a request. The rest of the trip was a breeze because he saved me first-hand research. I had stumbled upon the quintessential Himachali cab driver: one who has a deep knowledge of many offbeat places, is a climber himself, can rattle off popular spots, is a good judge of what a client is looking for, and is a good yarner with a treasure of local lore and some history.
Great Himachali cab drivers can be spotted on the first phone conversation: they are confident, assured when providing information, and cordial. The next confirmation comes when they call before the reporting time to let you know they have arrived and are ready. The visual confirmation is available 20 metres before you reach them – the vehicle will be spick and span, the person will be neatly dressed, sporting an upright posture. The interior of the car will be clean and orderly. The last confirmation that you are in the presence of a Quintessential Himachali Driver is that conversation will be as much or as little as is required for an enjoyable but unobtrusive journey. I have had the good fortune to usually get drivers like Jagdish when I come to Himachal. Most of these are Self-Owned Car Drivers.
A step above this is what I call the Holistic Owner-Driver. Like Saurabh, who incidentally, is on my priority contact list. He is an Automobile Engineer with significant experience who took over his family transport business due to a family emergency a few years ago. A well educated, knowledgeable, and connected young man, he is as skilled a driver in remote mountain regions as he is an encyclopaedia of people and laws related to tourism, government, and local culture. More importantly, he combines and puts to great use all his areas of knowledge. And he employs a set of prudent drivers as well.
On my most recent trip I met Sanjay Mehta, and I had to create a new category: The Creative Climber Driver. Sanju (as he is called) hails from Rampur Bushahr, is an experienced trekker and climber (among others, he has twice climbed the 6000+ metres Kangmo Peak in Spiti), has good local connections across the state, is a very good driver in most conditions and terrain, and is a loyal spokesperson for his employer (Great Escape Routes). But what sets him apart is his photography skill. Sanju has a knack for tracking and spotting wildlife; he also has the persuasion skills to make you climb that difficult ledge to get exactly the view you came to the Himalaya for; but, he is himself a very good photographer with a natural talent for composition. Why I set him apart is because travelling with Sanjay Mehta means you’re always in exploration mode, doing stuff out of your itinerary, pushing yourself to new limits.
Like in any other destination, as a matter of best practice, I have always found it useful to trust my local travel partners and hotel partners in Himachal when it comes to matters of picking transport since it is a close-knit community and the bigger the travel firm, the wider the network and safer the travel.