Okay, the bus-up-the-mountain experience. What can I say? It’s steep, rugged and beautiful. After hearing so many scary bus ride stories, I had a great deal of trepidation about this journey. But I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of scariness once I got used to it. The roads are mostly tarsealed – apart from where the landslides have been – and there are many passing bays. And because we weren’t on the tourist route, the drivers in all vehicles were very careful and not prone to play chicken with one another due to fits of ego. For this I was most grateful.
We stopped many times for chai and snacks at roadside villages. We were only allowed about ten to fifteen minutes at a time, the driver keeping the element of surprise with this – as we found out when we nearly missed getting back on at Chumba. We kept a really good eye on the driver after that!
The villages are quite different looking from the ones further down – they use a mixture of stone and wood to build their houses, which is quite an attractive look. They also have a remarkable talent for building literally on the sides of cliffs. This must take an incredible amount of strongmindedness and tenacity. Just walking up small bits of paths in this place nearly killed me, leave along carrying a house up there bit by bit!
They have rather a good system with these buses. In each one is a driver, a conductor and of course, the mandatory crowds of locals hopping on and off. The bus stops are just wherever you want them to be. The conductor has a whistle and uses this when people indicate they want to get on or off. Also, if the driver has to back the bus up (the bit that DID give me the heebies near the landslides and narrow parts of the road), the conductor directs him with a series of whistles. It’s all quite cleverly done.
And I couldn’t believe that we could drive into a place that was this remote and there are people everywhere! Some would get off the bus and you would look around at desolate cliffs and wonder where on earth they were going? Even a goat would have a hard time in some of these places. And talking about goats, frequently we squeezed past tribal women driving goats or sheep to goodness knows where. The mind boggles at what is actually hidden from view in these mountains. Some of the houses we saw were perched so far up impossible cliffs that I doubt Hollywood could replicate such a place and make it look believable.
So sometimes you are squished, sometimes you are not, you are hot, your backside hurts and it all adds up to a very, very long ride. About six hours from Pathankot (where we disembarked from the 12 hour train journey) to Chumba, then another four hours up to Bharmour. By the time we got to Bharmour, I was beyond exhaustion and starting to feel dizzy. And no, that wasn’t from altitude. The things you do for a bit of relaxation.
We stayed in a very nice guesthouse called Chamunda, run by Mr and Mrs Sharma who are a pleasant, welcoming couple. When we got to our room, we put down our stuff and lay on the bed. Oh darn. The bed was actually harder than the bus seat. By quite a bit. So hard it would make an effective chopping block for very gnarly firewood. I guess they don’t go too much for luxury mattresses round these parts – mind you, if I had to carry one up those mountainsides, I wouldn’t bother either. However, it was somewhere to stretch out and that was the main thing.
We finally staggered over to a dhaba for some dinner, where we ate mutton, roti (flatbread) rice and vegetables. A wonderful and welcome meal, with the added bonus that we did not have to get up straight afterwards and run whilst carrying several kilos of assorted luggage. Comparisons in life bring one appreciation, do they not?
Finally, off to bed for an experience in the art of sleeping on no-softness. Okay, I slept like a log out of exhaustion, but I woke up at dawn when the birds were making a cheerful racket (horrible little creatures), and then woke up again an hour or 2 later hearing kids downstairs somewhere playing some game which involved the little girl giving bloodcurdling screams at regular intervals of about one minute each. The longer this went on, the more I contemplated giving her really good reason to scream, until I had to get up and distract my mind from such cold-blooded and murderous intentions that I could actually feel my fingers curling around her neck. Now playing is one thing, but screaming so loudly for so long was just way over the top. I couldn’t believe that the parents would allow this to go on so close to paying guests. I don’t know who the parents were, but they were damned lucky they didn’t meet up with me that morning. I doubt they would have got a very good impression of New Zealanders if they had.
About three hours later I finally recovered enough humour to be able to talk to humans again and we went for breakfast UP the hill. What is it with India and putting everything upstairs or up a hill?
Admittedly it was worth it for the view. Wow. The Himalayas are big alright. And steep. And all around you are even bigger mountains. You gaze open-mouthed up at the slopes and wonder why on earth someone would want to climb the highest mountain in the world. This concept is completely beyond me. All due respect to Sir Edmund Hillary and cohorts, but are you completely nuts??!! It looks like such idiotically hard work that insanity must be a prerequisite to such a pastime.
Anyway, we mooched around the beautiful village square for a few lazy hours taking photos and drinking chai, then wandered back down some steps towards our level of the woods. On the way down we were welcomed into a house of a man Paul had met here a couple of weeks ago and took more chai on their veranda with Kalyan and his father, and took photos at their request of the father on the big hand-loom they had. Turns out that Kalyan had studied political science. Wow – the people you find in the mountains huh?
Later, back at the guesthouse, due to the smell coming out of the shared bathroom (not unusual in India but too much for me as I was still feeling weak), not to mention the large centipede Paul reckons was residing therein, we swapped rooms and got a bigger one with private bathroom. (This meant our own centipedes and a cold shower plus a hole in the floor all to ourselves. Luxury!) Here’s one of our own private bugs.
We took chai with Mrs Sharma, and then some motorbikers turned up and took over other rooms on our floor. So much for our private veranda. Three of them were Israelis and one from Yugoslavia. As it turned out they were a very cruisy lot so they ended up being good company. To my recollection, these were the only other white people we saw in the village, and much as I love interacting with the locals, this can be tiring (with my slim Hindi and their slim or no English), so it is nice to be able to speak English with people that totally understand what you say.