Riding a country bus high in the Himalayas looks easy, but it was not as much – as I learnt the hard way. Alarmed that my bus was going to leave me stranded on the side of the road, I screamed loudly. Then, I heard my fellow passengers, some of whom had also got off at the same point, laughing at my expense.
One of them , a regular on this route, reassured me that the bus, would cross the river and then backtrack from a village to the same point that we were on and hence there was no cause to worry. The driver and conductor hadn’t decamped with my luggage. With that I calmed down and found a frame that should give you an idea of the expanse of the valley (see the bus on the bridge – the village is on the right – a further two kilometers).
We were at Hurling around quarter past ten and I realized that since we were going downhill the progress had been rapid. My hopes were a bit raised now that we can reach Recong Peo maybe earlier than 4 pm. The scenery at the bend in the river near Hurling is beautiful.
At the dhaba (country restaurant) in Hurling, there was not enough space for everyone to sit and the inside of the shop were blackened with soot – thanks to the regular supply of bus tourists that came every day, more than once. I wanted to order a stuffed paratha as my fellow passenger was eating one but there was no one at the counter. I looked for the driver and conductor but they had gone and sat inside the kitchen (a board on the door helpfully said ‘NO Entering the kitchen – by order’) and hence no one else was allowed inside. Well, that worked well for him!
I was about to panic as there would be no lunch or food stop after this till we reached Peo, and that was a good six hours away only to be reassured by my neighbor – he said, “It’s ok, I’ll make a paratha for you”.
I was genuinely stupefied and asked him if he was sure.
And he responded – “Yes, that’s how it works here – this place is always short of staff and can’t deal with an entire bus-load of people so we just help him with the cooking as we are in a hurry to eat and leave.” Not only him but three other fellow passengers by then were making the parathas – seen below (one in the middle, left, was filling the dough with the potato mix, while the one on the left turned the bread on the griddle and the third is pouring oil on the paratha).
It was the first time in my travel adventures that I had encountered a cooperative restaurant. People not only ate, but also cooked their lunch. I was therefore a bit surprised to be reminded at the end that a payment was still expected. Well, I left the amount, as advised to me by the man in the kitchen, at the counter-top – he didn’t have time to put it in the cash drawer.
We left at a quarter to eleven and continued towards Leo Purgial and then onto Khab. It progressively got drier and hotter and I was happy that unintentionally, I had picked up a seat on the left side of the bus while the right was getting baked under the direct Spiti sun. Around noon, I saw something that I could scarce believe – a solitary ibex, perched on a rock. It was an impossible setting, we were nowhere close to pin valley, altitude-wise just north of three thousand meters, but there was no snow and it was very dry. I was reminded at that moment of all the falling down on the snow I had to undergo earlier in my trip– such is life. (barely got a shot through a rapidly moving bus but the photo defines irony)
At a half past twelve, the bus stopped amidst a roaring cloud of dust – it was being kicked up by a road repair backhoe – there was a pipeline to be laid by the side of the road. I got out as well and realized we were back at ‘the top of the world’- close to reo purgial village.
I probably shouldn’t have fretted like I did. I suppose how you feel about your surroundings is in your mind as demonstrated by a fellow passenger who chose to contemplate like the Langza buddha and enjoy the view. We left after a short delay. If it hadn’t been so dusty I’d have welcomed the opportunity to stretch my legs.
At one pm, I noticed a curios ritual that the bus followed at every village we passed through. The conductor handed out a white, plastic sack, the kind one would keep currency notes in after a heist. In return they were given another bag of similar size – I felt this illicit business had gone on long enough and I must intervene. I asked my neighbor if he was aware of the nefarious activities – was any contraband inside – only to be told that these were dak (post) bags and as the buses serve as the lifeline of the district – they deliver and collect post. So much for my hopes of snagging a bag.
Shortly after this, we had to halt briefly and then go in reverse as another bus (on its way up) had to pass through – I must say the bus drivers here are quite adept at handling such situations, the drop on the left is about one and a half kilometer (that’s 4500 feet).
For the next two hours, there were only dry rocks to be viewed and the sun beat down upon us mercilessly. I took off my jacket, having given the remaining drinking water to my neighbor, there was nothing left to drink. I would have dozed off but for the discomfort of the seats and the thirst. Half the bus was sleeping anyways. Out the window, the light was so harsh that my frames were destroyed by lens flares.
I don’t remember when we crossed Khab – so I must have managed a few minutes of shut eye as well. At a bend where we crossed the Sutlej River, and got to the side that Spello and Recong Peo are, I saw another bus behind us and photographed it – how small it looked compared to the mountains we were traversing.
I then looked in the front as to why we had slowed down so much and it was thanks to traffic ahead of us, a small truck and a few cars. On the right side a Border roads organization backhoe was clearing some fresh landslide remains – hence the bus was traversing dangerously close to the edge sending a few loose boulders down to the river (below). This was the second landslide I encountered that day and I felt lucky that our bus had not been caught in one. Not that throughout our journey on the side of the road there had been no Fence of any kind to save a vehicle from a precipitous drop of a half kilometer or more – the only exceptions were bridges, three so far.
The delays got worse as the day progressed and we were still short of Reckong Peo even at five pm. Here, we came to a screeching halt on a road that was pure dirt. A third of the passengers stood up and almost everyone tried to look out the window.
It was a horrifying sight – rocks the size of a small car (subcompact) had come down the face of the mountain – one was lodged in the Sutlej River (See below). One of the passengers informed me after a few minutes that a Hyundai santro (a subcompact) car had got hit and someone in that car was most probably dead. We were lucky that our bus was delayed else we would have been caught in the same landslide.
I was dreading the possibility of spending another night in the hovel of Peo in the company of the old professor as we reached peo only at six PM and I was unlikely to get further transport. To top that it was raining and i wasn’t up for a steep seven kilometer hike to Kalpa at the end of a long day. Exasperated and saddled with my bag, I just sat down in front of the main post office near the bus stand.