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 oddly intimate pattern. Everyone around me was a local Tibetan traveling to or from villages, temples or markets.
I was headed from the mountain top 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 75 miles in approximately six hours, I had no choice but to accept the upcoming episode of bone-fracturing Indian travel.
All seemed perfectly on schedule as our bus moved along at its incredibly slow pace, allowing passengers to jump out, urinate on the side of the road and break into a slow jog in order to catch up with the bus again. During long stretches of straight road, we would reach our maximum cruising speed of 15 miles an hour. The term "0-60" was irrelevant here; a much more realistic "0-10" rate of acceleration seemed to be accomplished in about a minute flat. However, the leisurely meandering through these massive 15,000-foot Himalayan mountains, only fifteen miles from the mysterious Western Tibet border, did allow plenty of time to become mesmerized by the awe-inspiring natural scenery.
Tiny Tibetan villages, recognizable by the scores of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the wind, appeared in the most unexpected places high 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. I repeatedly mumbled to myself its simple statement, “I love India!”, ensuring that every passing minute was appreciated to its fullest.
When the bus came to a halt and all of the passengers suddenly began collecting their belongings and exiting the bus for no apparent reason, I certainly was not surprised to discover that we had not reached Tabo five hours 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, shook awake this sleeping man 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 quarter-mile stretch of road had loosened and plunged five hundred feet to the bottom of the valley floor. Where there should have been pavement, was instead a fragile and very alive terrain of dirt, mud and rocks, with the unsteady earth still tumbling avalanche-style to the bottom every few seconds.
The other passengers 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 to sink in as I began to notice tiny specks moving in a line along the bottom of the valley floor, continuing 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 involved a good deal of cursing, 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 walking.
The difficult path rapidly descended several hundred feet to the bottom of the valley where it ended upon reaching a vast field of thousands of recently fallen boulders. Hiking across this landscape in my sturdy sneakers, 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 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 un-chartered mountain valley. Eventually, I reached the waist-deep raging stream. But here I stood, stuck in hesitation, 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 to discover that I had managed to only soak both sneakers and 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 of mud and rock turned out to be exactly what I now faced. As I watched my fellow passengers in front of me, hoping to find some clever local guidance, I instead discovered that the several hundred-foot climb was of the “every man for them self” 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 pairs of 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, I observed yet another Tibetan great-grandmother reaching the road without breaking a sweat, I forced myself to plod along. The joyous moment when I grabbed onto flat land and pulled myself over the final edge gave me such relief that I immediately buckled over, my chest 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. I heard the unmistakable raw, 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 three 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. As I plunged down onto the back row of the bus, next to Tenzin, I admitted that I deserved this humiliation – everyone else looked as if they had just walked out of a day spa.
he nightmare had ended. The bus drove off, I wasted no time in closing my eyes and falling into a deep sleep. My body needed rejuvenation; I did not waste any energy dreaming. Even the incredible Himalayan scenery could no longer attract my attention. After what felt like a couple of hours rest, I awoke to Tenzin shaking my arm. I opened my eyes, let out a big yawn. Seeing the smile on Tenzin’s face, I began anticipating a nice comfortable room with incredible mountain views and a hot cup of chai. “Tabo!” I exclaimed. Tenzin just patted my leg and let out a small chuckle, “No Tabo. New bus.” How can you not love India!