One of the many things I learned during the months I spent backpacking in South America was how to turn off my brain during long bus journeys. This is essential as bus travel tends to be a unbearably long, incredibly uncomfortable, and at times downright terrifying.
I come from a privileged place where the roads are wide and mostly straight, where rules are enforced by cops in mirrored sunglasses and bad attitudes, and where plunging off of a cliff into a deep ravine is generally frowned upon. I once spent ten hours on a bus with no heat on a sub zero night, sans any sort of bathroom, that hit and butchered a goat which shattered the windshield and blew out the back tire and left us standing in the middle of the road for a hour, and which ended with myself and my two Irish mates being unceremoniously evicted onto a freezing early morning dust swept road near the Bolivian border.
I figured I was ready for anything bus related.
India, once again, humbled me shattering that particular illusion during a ten hour trip between monsoon drenched McLeod Ganj and the high hills of Manali.
The bus itself turned out to be a dingy, oily, tin can on wheels. Pretty much par for the course thus far in India. This particular archaic machine lacked power steereing and possessed a set of equistely squelching breaks. Alright, I told myself, that’s fine. Don’t judge. Maybe this old sucker has a few moves left in it. I sat down in my seat and tried to make myself comfortable. Sadly, the seat was not designed with comfort in mind. Browned by age, more metal frame than cushion, beaten down by decades of countless human asses. An iron bar cleverly positioned to palpate both kidneys at once ran in the seat back, reshaping the curve of my lumbar spine. No amount of turning, twisting, leaning, or reclining spared me from the discomfort. Fine, I thought again, this is fine. It’s only 10 hours…
The seats turned out to be the least of our concerns. Our driver revealed himself to be a fucking lunatic. This dusky sleep deprived chain smoking individual, who shall remain nameless, seemed to have zero regard for his own life, and even less for the lives of those stuck in the back of his rolling death trap. Hairpin turns taken at ridiculous speeds at night in the rain, ancient breaks squealing in agony. The bus rocked back and forth like a ship at stormy sea, tires inches away from cliff edge and certain death. Every hole in the “road” (at times asphalt, mostly mud and rock and dirt) sent us flinging up out of our seats, shocks absorbing absolutely nothing. Twice I slammed my temple into an iron bar positioned over the window, it’s sole purpose seemingly to punish me for sitting next to it. A passanger behind me started sobbing, expressing with unabashed honesty what we were all feeling. “Holy fucking shit, I’m going to die.”
Hours crawled by this way. We pretended to sleep, closing our eyes to avoid looking out the windows and seeing death run parallel to the worn tires. To avert our gaze from the sight of our lunatic captain passing other vehicles. To try and remain sane. Some time around four in the morning, six hours into this harrowing journey I came to a couple of conclusions. For one – I had, up until that time, valued my life too highly, held on to the need to LIVE too dearly, was far too impressed with my own existence. In order to not freak out that very moment I needed to learn how to let go. No way to hit the brakes and no hope of escape. Much like life. Maybe you get to where you’re trying to go, or maybe you expire along the way. Either way, you’re on the bus. A tickle rose up inside of me and forced it’s way from my belly to my throat. I couldn’t contain it. I burst out laughing. Things got easier after that. Hysterical laughter has a way of soothing over extreme stress.
Seemingly against all odds we arrived in Manali sometime near dawn. The first light of false sunrise cast shadows upon the high hills as we stumbled out of the torture device that had passed for our transportation, bleary eyed and ever so grateful to be alive. I looked back at the bus one last time, silently thanking it for not falling apart. And for the lesson it thought me. We took a taxi up the hill to Old Manali and took a room in the first hotel we found. Utter exhausted we finally slept.
Waking up in Manali was a glorious revelation of blue skies and sunshine. The air crisp and clean, the sun’s rays warm, the lush green hills embracing the town in all directions. Almost immediately upon waking i was offered hash by some kindly Irish backpackers and the day rolled into a peaceful invigorating affair. We sampled the local lassi (a curd drink mixed with fruit that is quite delicious) over breakfast, lounged taking in the views sipping tea, and spent hours talking with our new friends.
Two days passed in this manner but we still had a ton of ground to cover to ensure we made it to Leh in time for our flight. Leh was some 500 kilometers north of us, and the passes were at risk of being snowed under. We had to make moves, and as much as I wanted to stay and hang out for a few more idle days, we didn’t have the luxery of doing so.
How do you follow up a bus ride from hell? Take another one, of course. I won’t go into the excruciating details of the journey from Manali to Leh lest i am forced to rename this blog “Travels of the Discontented”. Let me just say that Rhotung Pass translates roughly into “pile of dead bodies pass” and with good reason. It was a mud thickened strip winding up a cliff side, too narrow by far. Terror has a face and that face is the edge of a ravine in a bouncing minibus. Never again I thought to myself after the arduous trip ended. Never again shall my ass touch a bus seat in India.
Terror and discomfort aside the trip exposed us to stunning views of the Himalayas rising out of the foothills we were leaving behind. Snow capped peaks loomed in the distance against the brightest of blue skies. Our road wove through dusty dessert and up brown stone into the heavens. At the greatest altitude we were cliff side at 5,300 meters where the oxygen exchange between air and lung is at some 50% that we sea level dwellers are accustomed too. In other words your head swims with dizziness and it is fucking hard to breathe. Day turned to night and we slowly inched our way into Leh. Arrival was a brisk 19 hours from departure.
Leh is positioned some 3,700 meters above sea level, so the acclimation process takes a couple of days. Just walking up the stairs at the Oriental Hotel where we met up with Monet (who had left a day before us) was difficult. The town is called the Switzerland of India, and with good reason. It is ringed in all directions by some of the most impressive snow caps I have seen. The views are astounding, and to be as cliched and trite as possible, breathtaking.
We hung out acclimating for a couple of days and then decided to explore a bit. Waking up early one morning we traveled to Thiksay Gompa, a Buddhist monastery 13 kilometers outside of town. We arrived in time for morning prayer and were treated to the amazing experience of the monks chanting mantras and playing instruments. The mantras were momentarily interrupted by a controlled cacophony of cymbal, horn and drum. The former two were played by elder monks, the latter by the young. (I took a few videos of the prayers that i hope to post when I get back home.) I was surprised by the amount of boys under the age of 10 living and studying there. In retrospect I should have expected it but the sight of twenty or so young boys in red robes took me aback momentarily. These little monks in training were not all quiet wisdom and reflection tho. They were children as well, poking one another during prayers, laughing at the toursists, and recieving semi reproachful looks from their elders. The youngest distributed chai tea and cornmeal soup to the rest as prayer progressed. I wondered at the old saying about the observer changing the observed by virtue of simply watching. I felt a bit like an intruder but the entire experience was incredible.
Our next stop was to be Pangong Lake, some 5 hours out of Leh. Journey to the lake, which lays on the border of China requires a special permit and anyone traveling on a diplomatic visa is denied entry. We had a rented SUV and a driver for the day and were all set to go but were stopped a few kilometers from Thiksay by the Indian Army. Apparently the pass to the lake had received heavy snowfall the night before and the road was unsafe for travel. Reluctantly we turned back around, losing our chance at seeing the amazing lake.
Later that day we climbed a hundred or so meters to Shanti Stupa, which was conveniently located near our hotel. The amazing monument to Buddha was built in the 80’s by a group of Japanese Buddhists and boasts some of the best panoramic views available in Leh. The reliefs on the circular monument depict the life of Buddha, from birth to his battle and subsequent defeat of demons and mahanirvana, his death. The entire structure is amazing and the views just add to the awe I felt when spending time up there. Completely worth the breath stealing climb to reach its heights.
Our time in Leh comes to an end on Monday morning. We are catching a flight from here to Kathmandu Nepal, via Delhi. I’ll try to post my final impressions on my relatively short time in India next time I post. Till then, be well all.