2007 #18: Sprung with a Secret Cellphone – In Which a Local Snaps the Westerners

Leaving Chitkul was a very hard thing to do. We’d fallen in love with this village and didn’t want to leave it. I’d never been to a place where the locals crowd a around the pole on the side of the gorge to use the village telephone. Or where I’ve played on a one-man cable car over a broiling river or stacked river rocks beside grazing donkeys. In no other village have I drunk ice-distilled Angori with a toffee in it to kill the tequila taste (personal dislike of mine, tequila – and no, I’m not telling you that story.), or eaten salty, hacked-off bits of mutton specially brought to the village and cooked for us by an important local. Nor have I sat sipping on ‘Nature-Simulated Apple Juice’ looking at the sun going down over the higher peaks of the Himalayas. It’s a pretty hard act to follow.

We’ve been very lucky to visit Chitkul. Up until 1992, foreigners weren’t allowed past the Wangtu bridge which crosses the Satluj river, further back down the Kinnaur District before Sangla. So we’ve been staying in a village that has only been seen by foreign (Westerners) eyes from 14 years ago. What a privilege.

Sadly, we bid Raj and Suk goodbye, and they us. My partner gave Raj a cap he had carried all the way from Waihi, New Zealand, specially to give to someone he took a liking to. I gave some almond mosturizer and vanilla perfume to Suk. I left my sandshoes in the room for anyone who wanted them (not a lot of shoe-shops in a village this small). And Raj got up at 5am to cook us breakfast and chai. What a lovely man.

We had to catch the 6.30am bus, so off we trekked, remembering when we climbed between mud and rocks that we never did get round to telling Raj that it might be a good idea to put some steps there.

The bus was just a little one and lots of people were waiting at the side of the gorge to get in it. We opened the bus door to swing in and found that it was already full. Many of the locals catch this bus to go and work in the fields, etc, every day. So we squeezed in as best we could, my partner finding a seat at the back and me finding a window seat next to a local man who a hard plastic 70’s retro suitcase wedged into the gap between the seat and the one in front, so I had to sit with my knees almost up to my ears. But I was fine with that for a while. So what if my left leg was going numb? I wasn’t going to be using it for a few hours anyway. At least I had a seat.

Come departure time and more and more people squeezed onto the bus. We took off when there was about 3 quarters of a cubic inch of space left inside and rumbled our way back down the mountain road. My seat happened to be on the left-hand side, so I got to gaze down at the very deep gorge we were driving along the side of. We stopped frequently to pick up more people from the areas further down and many of them went up on the roof. A very dangerous thing, (we were told by an Israeli couple that rode up there), if you weren’t looking ahead. There were several times when the bus drove under solid rock overhangs, and if you weren’t watching for them you’d just get swatted like a fly. And end up about as healthy.

Somewhere along the line we drove past a truck that had just gone over the side. Fortunately the truck had caught on a ledge on the way down and the driver survived. They were helping him into another vehicle with a rag applied to his bleeding head as we turned up. As my partner said, accidents happen very slowly in these parts. Your vehicle gets too close to the edge and you gradually topple over. I really, really don’t ever want to feel that sensation!

There were parts of the road where I kept myself distracted by watching the plastic fishes, mounted up the front of the bus, light up every time the brakes were applied. This was mainly when we had to pass other large vehicles coming up the mountain. That’s where the edge of the road gets really scary. Gradually the bus started emptying of people again and finally we landed in Sangla. There, we had to wait about four hours for the next bus going down, so we had breakfast in a dhaba on the side of the road. That was rather cosy and fun. We chatted with the Israeli couple, then she got some wool out to do some knitting. A local lady turned up with a big woolly dog on a leash and the two of them starting rewinding and organising the wool together on the floor. I got chatting with a young woman outside and took photos of her and her baby. Women from a wedding party walked past, surrounding the bride who had a beautiful blanket on and bristled with jewellry. Another Israeli couple that we had spent time with at Kalka Railway Station turned up, who had spotted us from up the hill and specially come down to tell us they had gotten engaged in a glade, under a tree that he had decorated with colourful things. All in all, it was rather a lovely morning.

As it turned out, the wedding party attached to the jewellry-laden lady was on our next bus. So we got to see the groom also, with rupees pinned to his front as wedding donations, an old lady in the seat in front of us with about seven earrings in her ears who spat out the window at least ten times before we had even moved anywhere, and various and assorted other people dressed in their finery. This journey took us back through Rampur, where there’s a beautiful new Tibetan Gompa (temple) and I took a few shots of it, courtesy of the dhaba wallah, who showed me how to get up to the next storey for a better view. Bless his heart. We had chai there (of course) and bought sweet cakes for the journey and I sprung a local guy trying to sneak a photo of us on his cellphone. I nudged my partner and we both posed like crazy. The guy actually blushed. It was really funny to be the ones being photographed for a change, after filling our own camera cards with photos of the locals.

Soon after, back on the bus, we continued on to Jaori. We leapt off that bus, crossed the road, climbed onto another bus and were then on our way to Sarahan.

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