Indian Government Busses: a Must to Try
Snow-peak views and apple orchards of Manali are fourteen-bus-hours away from soaked in dust and fried by heat Delhi. How you will manage those fourteen hours does not really matter – Manali is worth it anyway. Yet, some reckon government busses are too high price to pay for it. Let’s see.
I should confess, it was me insisting on a government bus. 350 Rs (what it costs) seemed much a more attractive offer than 550 (minimum price for a private bus, non a/c one). Roel demonstrated outstanding tolerance and agreed: later on I felt really sorry for this long-leg one – the seats were obviously meant for somewhat more compact creatures.
A great thing about a government bus is that you do not need to book it in advance. All you have to do is to show up at ISBT with your backpack and get a ticket. Yet, finding the respective ticket counter and the platform the bus leaves from is quite a task in itself: I remember the first time I was orientating at ISBT with Kanak and it took us a while to reach Himachal Pradesh ticket counter: as often in India everyone you ask about directions would immediately form an opinion about one without much clue. This way you find yourself at a crossroad with 15 guide signs “right direction” pointing every way.
But even when you find the counter you are still to figure out how you get your ticket. Because…there are might be different counters for the state buses and Delhi buses….and each of them would be directing you to another…or there would be a long mess-like queue and your bus, as you got to know just now, would be leaving in half a minute. Proactive approach is a key to success here even if it has to realize in addressing the same person with the same question a number of times, jumping the queue and resort to some elbowing: means would justify the end.
Once weaponed with the ticket you enter a government bus – be prepared to be the focal point of attention as you (and your co-journeys) are most likely to be the only foreigners in the bus. Whenever I travel by bus I really wonder what people would think – they would obviously never believe I just do not have sufficient means to afford a more comfortable means of transportation. Anyway – “which country” comes with astonishing frequency and amazed gazes speak for themselves.
Most probably a government bus would be fairly packed, so do not hope for more than one seat per person. Well, you might get luckier at some parts of the trip (most likely Delhi to Chandigarh) and get the whole three seats at your disposal, so you can fairly comfortably lay down with you knees bended. Yet, once the bus gets full there is a major skill to master – sleeping when sitting straight and you have got the whole night ahead to practice. And you’d better learn. Shoulder of a person sitting next (better be your friend) works good, but looks like you winning a zero-sum game: your head is hardy as comfortable to lean on as his (her) shoulder. Roel and I were using a rolled up blanket as a common pillow between our heads. Yet, it appears a bit tricky considering the road is rather meandering, so once the bus declines on one side the whole construction of two heads and a pillow in between has to shift. Managing your legs is another trick to figure out. For that reason the best three seats seem to be the ones right behind the driver – the space for legs is fair.
It is not only a congested bus that makes sleeping a very doubtful perspective, but the mode of driving and sort of roads. Imagine for a minute, you managed to take a fairly comfortable position. Happy? Wham! You get tossed about. Forward-backward tossing happens due to sudden braking that the daring drivers keen on fast driving have to resort to now and then. Right-left side tossing happens due to sudden turns that are invariable feature of mountain meandering roads. Sleep has never been such a remote perspective.
Another thing that ensures comfortable ride (forget the sleep) is being a man. In that case you do not have to worry about strangers sitting or standing next to you. As a girl I am constantly horrified…or I choose to travel with Roel who is very sensitive to the issue. For that reason it was him who took the seat right next to the passage: yes, people standing in the passage and leaning over him were really disturbing, but this way Roel really saved us from those ribbing against us.
And do not forget to keep windows open to ensure fresh air comes in…and even if it does only along with dust and sounds of horns it is still better than oppressive heat.
A government bus makes a lot of stops on the way. Many of them are just to pick up those waiting on the road and basically traveling short distances passengers. Yet, there are longer stops at proper bus stations at the major towns. The trick with the latter is that you never know how long the stop is. Asking is useless as the driver might reply typical “5 minutes” (normal answer whenever you ask Indian people how long something would take) or “the bus leaves at 7-30” types while it is already 7-35 pm. So, whether you need to get some snacks and water or (better avoided, but how?) to use toilet – you’d better keep an eye on the bus that might be leaving anytime. Using toilet on bus trips (shall I clarify or it is needless that there is no toilet on a government bus?) is a trick in itself. Not if you are a man, obviously. Yet, as a women once more you feel screwed just by the virtue of being one. Well, at all the major bus-stops there would be some sort of place to ensure privacy – toilet they call it – no much there reminds the latter though. For 2 rupies paid to some nonchalant laid-back didi or grinning baysab you get access to a tiny cubicle with a hole in the floor and water tap somewhere outside if you are lucky.
Some stops are made at road-side dhabas to get some cooked food. Hygiene freaks should obviously stay away from those places as samosas picked up by hands, chapattis and dalh eaten with your fingers, water of the origin you would never get to know for sure about, steel plates rinsed with some cold water after the previous use and glass chai glasses would definitely threaten their ideal of this bacteria-free world.
When leaving the bus during a stop you should carefully preserve your seat – leave some stuff (yet making sure you do not leave anything valuable) so to indicate the seat is taken. That way you make sure you do not find someone else sitting there once you get back happy after satisfying your basic needs.
One third of the trip to Manali takes place in the morning, so for some hours you will in the condition of anxious anticipation: when is Manali?… when is Manali?… Mandir… Kullu… Kullu again.. WHEN IS MANALI? Scarce road signs would tell you 64… 24…. 10 kms ahead, but it is still cumbersome to make out how long it would take to cover those – providing the stops and traffic jams that happen on the narrow streets of towns now and then. Yet, if you think of it you get to see a lot: global brands ensured their presence even in the remote villages, tailors working in the roadside shops, folk shopping for vegetables, people in the passing by vehicles watching you.
After all, one may wonder – Is it worth it? Does saving in terms of money when taking a government bus pay off or put you through a number of mental and physical hardships next to impossible to handle? I reckon, some adventurous spirit should be there. If government busses exists it means those are needed…and one cannot claim she had been traveling in India and got a clue about the country unless she tried a government bus. At least once.