Backpacking is certainly not a high class way to travel and in the past few weeks we’ve been discovering how low can we go. Bus rides. Himalaya Mountains. Days and days of jam packed public buses swerving up and down the steepest, most dangerous roads in the world.
Surprisingly we weren’t the only people deranged enough to travel for over 76 cumulative hours in cramped, claustrophobic vehicles with crash-prone, slightly stoned drivers. On one particularly grueling, disaster-prone ride there were 7 other countries represented on our bus. It was like the mini-UN with three security council members on board – this helped delude me into thinking that we were safe. After all, what has ever gone wrong at the UN?
Here, today, presented for your amusement and our overwhelming relief that this part of our trip is complete, a run down of our Himalayan bus ride adventures.
Rishikesh to Manali – 19.5 hours of public bus battering
One would think that after viewing our chariot that we would turn around and head back to Delhi. Instead we boarded early, sliding across the cracked, oil-stained bench seat to grab a spot by the window. When the three-person bench seats were stuffed full and people were standing in the aisle, the bus lurched out of the station.
It was difficult to breathe; diesel and dust mixed with the fresh air that managed to flow through the small window opening. The whole bus was oddly silent; everyone seemed to be concentrating on the driver, silently supporting him to continue on through the night.
Across from us was a bench packed with four adults and a diaper-less, naked baby who peed out of the window. Occasionally young kids would board the bus, sing at the top of their lungs and beg for change. At one point in the voyage a young woman leaned across several seatmates and began throwing up out of the window. We slid shut our only source of fresh oxygen to avoid the run off.
The bus got stuck in hours of traffic. We did not sleep that night.
Left at 1:45PM: Arrived at 8:30AM: 18 hours
Manali to Leh – Breakdowwn! The 14 hour journey that took 2 days.
We hoped never to repeat the above scenario ever again so instead of taking the much cheaper public bus, we grabbed a minibus to Leh. A caravan of minibuses depart Manali at 3AM and they tend to stick together for the entire 14-hour journey. Our caravan was especially colorful, it included drivers under the influence of mind altering substances, a passenger who nearly died from altitude sickness and lots of momos. (Any trip involving dumplings can’t be THAT bad.)
One of the drivers showed reeking of booze and breath mints – he was absolutely dead drunk. The mini-UN of international passengers rioted, cops were called and after several hours the driver was replaced. This did not ease our mind that the journey over some of the highest mountain passes in the world would be a safe one. Especially when we began to notice the drivers take quick charras breaks…
But the drunk, stoned drivers weren’t the real problem- those men can drive! The problem was rain. The mountain paths are 98% dirt and gravel, a monsoon quality downpour can bring traffic to a halt and keep it there for days. Our minibus caravan ran into a three-hour traffic jam at the Rohtang pass where the mud was knee deep. In the misty morning fog with visibility at exactly 0.06% and the single lane pass covered in mud, I was pretty certain that we weren’t going to make it to Leh. This suspicion was confirmed ten hours later when we ran into the next major roadblock- two trucks stuck in a roadside waterfall.
So with little else to do, the driver turned around and dropped us off at a tent on the side of the road. The inside of the tent was lined with cushions where you could sit down and enjoy a meal or a chai. These cushions also doubled as beds for the displaced.
That night in the snowy Himalayan mountains at 4,000 meters above sea level, we slept in a circus tent beside 60 other travelers.
Left at 3:00AM:Arrived at 5:30 PM the next day. Total time in van=26 hours, total time traveling 40.5 hours
Leh to Srinagar: OMG! It’s love!
One thing that I did not mention about the minibus is that it’s very, very uncomfortable. The narrow dirt roads are severely pockmarked, causing vans swerve to left and right to avoid the holes. There isn’t much room to swerve on a one way road 3,500 meters above sea level therefore not only do you NOT miss the potholes, you actively hit them – hard. Your ass is blue upon arrival and your head is spinning from the combination of lack of oxygen and being thrown against the glass window several hundred times.
Faced with these conditions, we upgraded once more. With a packed public bus out of the question and the prospect of another minibus ride causing night tremors, we spent big bucks on a miniVAN!
Sure, it was slightly less jarring. And yes, we had space to stretch our legs a bit. But this may have been the worst ride of all.
Our young English van-mates had commandeered the radio and choose to play their new purchace, a 51-track bootleg CD titled, “OMG! It’s love” with such classics as ‘Missing you now’ by Kenny G and Michael Bolton, ‘My Love’, Westlife and ‘Home’ by Daughtery. I wasn’t sure what made me more nauseous, the twisting switchbacks on the road or having to listen to John Mayer – twice.
Clearly the driver was equally enthused about 3 hours of music from Jason Mraz and Savage Garden. As soon as the CD began to play the driver drove straight into a motorcyclist.
Left at 4;00PM: Arrived at 8:00AM – only 12 hours!
Srinagar to Jammu to Dharamsala: The horror
Public buses are bad. Sitting in the very back seat of a public bus is worse. Sitting on the back of a 100 degree public bus traveling through Kashmir where the military stops you every 5 minutes and highly-trained snipers wait in the bushes with machine guns is worser-then-worse. During this 22 hour trip a child peed on me and Vinnie was showered in vomit.
That’s all I can talk about, the memories are still too painful.
Left 5AM: Arrived 4:30AM the next day
Final Leg of the trip – Dharamsala to Amritsar: Laughable
Public bus. Five hours. Piece of cake. We are PROFESSIONALS!
76 hours later: Denoument
Emerson may be right that life is about the journey not the destination. But Ralph Waldo Emerson never traveled in India. If he had taken the trip we just survived, he may been quoted for saying something like, “Are we there YET?”
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