--- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
The road was a mere track of crushed stones and mud. A tiny stream cut its way on the mountain slope on the left, zig zagging its way, gushing like a teenage girl, making its way to a giggling little brook on the other end. The ice was still frozen over it, forming a cave, from within which it flowed endlessly. In the process, it also cut through the road as the bus jolted over the rocky stream and made its way into the valley. Inside the bus, the atmosphere was tense. Local Spiti men and women wanted to reach their villages quickly. The sun had already set and the landscape of the valley, like a moving picture had already changed a million shots per second, a documentary of millenniums of geographical evolution over a few hours. For the travellers inside, Indians like me and Anjali, or the foreigners - a British, three Americans, one French and one Danish, it was travel for travel’s sake. For this was not an easy ride. Every curve of the road spelt a bottomless rocky end with one mistake by the driver of the bus. By daylight, we sat mesmerised by our surroundings. Lofty peaks, rain kissed meadows of green, wildflowers of every hue in abundance, the last remains of the winter ice letting water through to flow into the speedy and mighty Spiti. As the river cut its way into the deep gorge of the Spiti valley, we followed its tracks on the edge of the mountains, round about-ing, rising and dropping altitude, over the two passes - Rohtang-la and Kunzam-la.
Time should cease to become important while travelling anywhere in India. Nobody appreciated that more, than the Danish girl. Stuck at Rohtang for over six hours due to a landslide, we munched on Manali Lichis on the roadside, trekking to precarious edges to take leaks, and making fun of Indian tourists in snow suits making their way to the pass to ski and click photographs. (I do not want to sound like a high-nosed “backpacking traveller” looking down at “tourism”. But the sight is really comical. Besides they cause loggerjams on the pass with their vehicles from the plains.) I think she said, “It is the inconsistencies of travel that make the experience annoying and beautiful at the same time.” or maybe she said, “Time is not a controllable commodity.” or maybe I’m making this up as I write. It doesn’t matter what she said. Moments like these, of endless wait, make me feel that time does not exist.
The non-existent time translated itself into a fearful, surreal bus ride into an altogether different aspect of nature itself. We crossed Kunzam-la, after a very late lunch at 5pm in Batal. There lies a small cosy mud house that serves the most precious food anywhere in the world. From here you can see the entire valley traversed from Manali onwards, only to leave it behind, to climb higher. Kunzam was crossed at 7pm, amongst raging howling winds. The darkness offset the white snow on the ranges, as prayer flags fluttered abuzz, their bright colors subdued in the decreasing light. Everyone on the bus prayed for a safe journey at the Kunzam gompa and the driver kicked in the gas at full speed. Or almost. The lack of shock absorbers on the “ordinary” HRTC roadways bus was never felt fully until now. The lights were switched off, leaving only the blue and red bulbs over pictures of sundry Gods and Goddesses towering above the driver’s seat.
The mind had already become numb over ten hours of travel and the landscape turned pitch black. If one pressed one’s face to the window, only dark outlines of the mountains were visible. The silhouettes moved with the pace of the bus, like ghostly shadows as the red-blue lighted interiors of the bus played bhajans. And we sang along. For a moment, I could not differentiate between the brown river and the muddy road. How was the driver maneuvering over water? He wasn’t of course. But he was magically jumping over stony interruptions caused by the many streams, described more romantically in the beginning of this piece. No, they were menacing. One tilt of the tyre on a stone in the stream could topple our bus on our heads. But that was not the last of my un-doped fantasies. Small lights crop up in the distance from time to time. Maybe that’s Kaza, the capital of Spiti. We are close, aren’t we? No. We cross thousands of these villages (of course they a few in number in daytime) as their lights loom close floating in mid-air surrounded by black like glow worms. I hallucinate beautiful bokehs. I give up. I’m going to sleep. I cannot imagine what I’m travelling through, what’s under or over me. I need static. But sleep is not easy, with a local lad stretched and sleeping over my shoulder from behind my seat.
I don’t exactly remember now, how long it took to reach Kaza. It was nearly 11pm. We had started at 5am from Manali. Like the other travellers, we had no place to live. The town was shut. The dogs were sleeping. We were rescued by the owner of Tashi-delek guest house. Crashing the night, the altitude kicked in the next morning with splitting headache and dizziness. But I opened the curtains of my room to a landscape - so unreal, unfamiliar, mystical, so brown and so green, so desolate and so charming, so lofty and so humble, so earthy and yet sacred....where the water of the Spiti river flowed, only to pull me away with it.