Bus travel through India’s mountainous regions involves dramatic scenery, remote villages, fresh air and colorful passengers. The only thing missing sometimes is the road itself.
An overly squeaky, yet oddly enjoyable, Hindi pop song blared from the crackly speakers as the decrepit bus chugged along through India’s remote Spiti Valley. The wooden-planked floor rattled constantly, adding a unique beat to the tune along with the hypnotic vibrations of the many broken window frames. The bouncing up and down of the passengers, in response to the cracks, potholes and rocks on this semi-paved ‘highway’, resembled a choreographed piece of modern dance.
The bus was full, every bench holding up to four colorfully dressed locals crammed together. The bags of rice, sacks of vegetables, and bulky boxes of unknown goods packed into the aisles acted as seats for more than a dozen others. I sat in the back row of the bus, where the five seats held eight people and legs overlapped in an intricate and intimate pattern.
I was headed from the mountaintop village of Dhankar to the riverside village of Tabo, home to the most revered and ancient Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. Having been pre-warned that this journey usually covered the not-too-great distance of approximately 30 miles in around 2.5 hours, I had no choice but to accept this episode of bone-fracturing Indian travel.
All seemed perfectly on schedule as our bus moved along at its incredibly slow pace for the first hour, quite a feat considering that, during long stretches of straight road, our maximum cruising speed still never exceeded 15 miles per hour.
However, the leisurely meandering through these massive 15,000-foot Himalayan mountains, only a short distance from the mysterious Tibetan border, left me mesmerized by the awe-inspiring views at all times. Tiny Tibetan villages, recognizable by the scores of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the wind, appeared in the most unexpected of places, impossibly high up on the slopes or far down below along the banks of the Chandra River.
Every now and then the bus would come to a stop at some unmarked location, with no human activity anywhere in sight. But sure enough, a passenger would disembark and vanish along a barely visible path that provided no indication of a destination. Looking around in all directions at the completely uninhabited landscape, I was often left to use my imagination in determining where this person could possibly be headed.
At moments such as these, being subjected to another slice of India’s wonder, I would glance down at the small sticker I had placed on the front of my backpack earlier in the day and I would repeat its simple words, “I love India!”, over and over again, fully appreciating every minute of my journey.
Of course, despite the happiness of being in such a unique part of the world, when the bus suddenly came to a halt and the driver turned off the engine, I was thrilled to observe all of the other passengers begin to collect their belongings and exit the bus. I definitely welcomed what appeared to be an early arrival at Tabo.
Unfortunately, this thrill was short-lived as I quickly discovered that we had not in fact reached Tabo one hour earlier than scheduled. Instead, we had stopped behind another bus, one completely empty of passengers and with its driver taking an afternoon nap on the roof. Our own driver climbed the ladder to the roof of this other bus, shook awake its driver and offered him a cigarette. While they shared a smoke, I chose to investigate.
The situation soon revealed itself – the road was gone.
I asked the young man who had been sitting next to me on the bus for an explanation. After introducing himself as Tenzin, asking about the salaries in my country and providing a detailed account of the lives of his two children, he finally explained that a major landslide had taken place a few days earlier.
Due to heavy monsoon rains, a ¼-mile stretch of road had loosened and plunged five hundred feet to the bottom of the valley floor. Where there should have been pavement there was instead a fragile and very alive terrain of dirt and mud and rocks, with the unsteady earth still tumbling avalanche-style to the bottom every few seconds.
Some of the other passengers immediately began walking along a narrow switchback trail that criss-crossed down the mountainside next to the road. Tenzin noticed my confusion and began to point repeatedly, straight across the wide gap in front of us, to our “new bus there”. I glanced across and after a good scan of the horizon located our destination, where the road started once again. But it took a second for the situation to sink in as I began noticing tiny specks moving in a line along the bottom of the valley floor and then straight up what appeared to be a sheer cliff on the other side.
These barely visible dots proved to be the passengers from the bus ahead of us, and while my initial reaction to the unexpected challenge that now lay ahead involved a good deal of rock-throwing and head-shaking, it did not take long for me to remember that, in India, you’ll be left behind if you don’t keep up with the non-stop pace of life. I needed to stop whining and start hiking.
THE GRUELING TREK
The difficult path rapidly descended several hundred feet to the bottom of the valley where it led to a vast field of thousands of recently fallen boulders, a field that I needed to navigate.
After a couple of minutes of hiking across this landscape in my sturdy New Balance cross-trainers, and despite considering myself to be in good physical condition, I noticed that I was constantly being passed by the locals. On a normal day this would not have bothered me, but when a 90-year old Tibetan woman with a basket full of vegetables on her head, wearing mangled, plastic flip-flops skipped past me without hesitation, I felt pathetic. Her two-toothed smile seemed to be a mocking gesture, a sense that intensified with each smiling, waving person that continued to fly by me, hopping from rock to unsteady rock with effortless ease.
Nobody at all seemed the least bit disturbed that their peaceful bus journey home was suddenly interrupted by the need to carry their belongings on a strenuous two-mile hike through an inhospitable and unchartered mountain valley.
Eventually, I reached the waist-deep raging stream, on the banks of which I stood for some time, unable to determine how the two dozen people in front of me had reached the other side. Only when I turned around and realized that I was the last passenger to cross did I inhale deeply and start jumping along a scattered collection of slippery rocks, semi-submerged in the frigid water. Upon reaching the other side, I was delighted that I had managed to only soak one pant leg up to the thigh.
So proud was I! That is until I looked in front of me.
What had earlier appeared off in the distance as a sheer cliff face of mud and rock turned out to be exactly what I now faced. As I watched my fellow passengers, hoping to find some clever local guidance, I instead discovered that the several hundred-foot climb was of the “anything goes” type of adventure. Some people followed a four-inch wide path that zig-zagged its way up, others just tried to bolt straight up the mountainside and a few people pulled each other up step by step. Regardless of what they were doing, they were moving and I was not.
I slowly began climbing, clinging to any rock, shrub or chunk of mud that I could grab onto. My sweaty clothes stuck to my body, dirt covered most of my face and my back painfully ached under the weight of my backpack. At several points I wanted to quit, convincing myself that a small hut in this valley would actually not be such a terrible ‘starter home’. But every time I looked straight up to the top, observed yet another Tibetan great-grandmother reaching the road without breaking a sweat, I forced myself to plod along.
The moment when I grabbed onto flat land and pulled myself over the final ledge gave me such joy that I immediately fell to the ground and smiled in victory, with my lungs inflating and deflating at the speed of light.
I was an adventurer! A warrior! A god of the mountains! I was….about to miss the bus.
THE NEW BUS
I heard the unmistakable, migraine-inducing honking of an Indian bus horn. Glancing up, I found Tenzin two-hundred feet away waving furiously for me to hurry. Stumbling off on the final stretch, I dragged my backpack next to me and tried to clear the chunks of mud out of my nostrils.
Just before I reached the bus I passed a group of 3 middle-aged Indian couples who were about to embark on this hike in the reverse direction. They took one glance at me and seemed to become quite concerned about what lay ahead. I looked at them, the ladies in their clean pastel-colored saris and high-heeled shoes and the men in their pressed trousers and dress shirts, each person carrying a piece of luggage. “Very easy,” I said, “No problem.” They thanked me for this good piece of news and I hobbled on.
As the final passenger to arrive, I received not only a hearty round of applause from my fellow bus mates but my repulsive appearance also induced a solid bout of uproarious laughter. And as I fell into my seat in the back row of the bus, once again next to Tenzin, I admitted that I deserved this humiliation. Everyone else looked as if they had just walked out of the day spa at a Four Seasons in Hawaii.
The torture had now ended and as the bus drove off I wasted no time in closing my eyes and entering the deepest of sleeps. My body needed to relax and even the mesmerizing Himalayan scenery could no longer attract my attention.
I slept for what felt like an hour, until I was awaken by Tenzin shaking my arm. I opened my eyes, let out a big yawn, and seeing the smile on Tenzin’s face, began anticipating a nice comfortable hotel room with mountain views and a hot cup of chai.
“Tabo!” I shouted.
Tenzin just patted my leg, let out a small chuckle and said, “No Tabo. No road. New bus.”
And off we went again to cross another landslide.
Have you ever been to the Spiti Valley? Or been stuck in a landslide? Any adventures to share?