200 kms in just 10 hours

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 15, 2010

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Flag of India  , Himachal Pradesh,
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Posted by Genevieve

Looking at a map, the distances between Himalayan towns is not great. In fact, most places are very near as the crow flies.  But we are not crows.  We are humans lacking a car, and our only option for getting around is by bus.  This is not a problem, but in planning our recent journeys, we were confused about one thing: why does it take 10 hours to travel 200kms?  During our ride from Rishikesh to Shimla and then again from Shimla to Dharamshala, we learned some of the reasons for this mind-boggling phenomenon. 

1.  The Roads.  This first fact we were expecting.  This is the the highest mountain range in the world, after all.  The roads are extremely narrow, extremely winding, and extremely terrifying.  Hairpin corners look out over cliffs that plunge into bottomless valleys, so steep the trees seem to be growing horizontally from the sides.  Luckily our drivers were (unexpectedly) cautious and drove slowly.  They even waited until after the blind corners to overtake people.  So, at the risky speed of 20kms/hour, we trundled along the confined route to our destination. 

2.  The Buses.  We watched a film today set in the 1950s and I am pretty sure I saw our first bus in one of the scenes.  Although in other parts of the country there are deluxe bus options, here in the mountains the main mode of transportation is the local bus - a thin metal shell encasing as many passengers as is possible according the laws of physics, with a rail around the roof to accommodate luggage, more people, bicycles, and animals.  The sound of the people scrambling across the roof is frightening yet also strangely reassuring - if they are surviving the ride up there, what am I worried about?  We sat on a three-seater bench which, amazingly, we only ever shared with one other person at a time.  (Our Israeli friend in front of us was not so lucky and found himself squished next to the window with a determined family of three filling every centimetre of space next to him).  These buses, perhaps thankfully, simply don't have the power to go much faster than 20kms/hour.  When they idle, they sound like the wheezing of a dying elephant.  (Or what I would imagine that to sound like).  On our second mountain journey, we managed to book a seat on a semi-deluxe coach.  This bus looked more like it was from the 1970s.  We had individual seats (that in itself justified the "deluxe" label!) and we were able to put our luggage in a dirty storage compartment with some oil cans and a spare tire.  It still wheezed uncontrollably when idling, and it still slowed to a crawl on the slightest incline, but there was no-one on the roof, and we didn't have to share our seats with anyone else.  How very civilized. 

3.  The Tires.  In Canada, as far as I am aware, we have pretty strict regulations about the conditions tires should be in to be considered road-worthy.  Although I do not own a car, and I am certainly no trucker, I am fairly certain that tires should at least have some semblance of treads before heading out on a long journey.  These tires had a silky smooth surface that would be better suited to gliding on ice than gripping any kind of road surface.  This could explain the inexplicable number of times we stopped to rotate the tires on the trip to Shimla.  The first time was only 30 minutes into our drive.  We stopped at a bus stand to pick up more passengers.  Kian and I, along with the other passengers, waited patiently on the bus for our journey to continue.  Suddenly we felt a large THUD as one corner of the bus dropped a metre or so towards the earth.  Getting off the bus, I saw they were taking the tire off.  I thought there must be a problem and they would change it.  Instead, they simply rotated it.  This happened every 40 kms or so.  Each tire was just as worn as the last, and they just moved them around the bus throughout the drive.  On our journey to Dharmashala, feeling confidant that the same mysterious habits would not be employed on our far superior semi-deluxe bus, we looked at one another with great concern in our eyes when, about 45 minutes in, we heard a loud hissing sound.  This was followed up with the sight of the driver's head leaning out the window to look back at the bus, and speaking energetically with his assistant.  We spluttered along the road for another kilometre, thankfully pulling up at an auto-repair shop.  It was then that it occurred to me that we had seen an inordinate amount of such shops along the mountain passes.  Hmmmm.  We watched as the skilled mechanics removed the tire, patched it up (even making it match all the other patches that we could now see adorned said tire) and put it back on the bus, sending us on our way.  It was hour six, during a Chai Break (see below), that we had Burst Tire #2.  Kian and I were calmly sipping our Maaza (a fantastic sugary mango drink made by coca-cola) on the shady side of the bus when we heard a loud explosion.  Some men had been standing near the back tire, and they jumped up with a shriek.  For an unknown reason, the back tire had burst.  No-one had touched it, and the bus was not idling - it was simply sitting, parked, in the bus station.  We all packed back into the bus and drove with a flat tire to the next auto-repair shop, about a kilometre down the road.  I should mention an interesting phenomenon that took place each time the bus stopped to change a tire: every man, whether businessman, scholar, ascetic, or labourer, got off the bus to observe the activity.  Kian was among them, "supervising" the event.  This motley crew would hover near the tire in question, peering over the shoulder of the one man actually doing the job, never speaking, but making approving noises and periodically nodding his support.  Meanwhile the women stayed on the bus, equally quiet throughout, presumably (or so Kian likes to think) mentally preparing the next meal to be made for her husband.  I joined the men the first couple times, but clearly caused an unwanted distraction from their important task, so decided to stay on the bus with the women and nap. 

4.  The Chai Breaks.  Presumably the number of chai breaks caused the driver to need the toilet fairly regularly, which led to more chai breaks.  A vicious circle.  We would arrive in a place, be told we had 5 or 10 minutes to use the toilet/get a chai, and 30 minutes later we would finally roll out of there.  Strangely enough, on the break that was called "lunch break" we barely had enough time to scarf down a hastily-prepared thali, throw some money at the waiter, and sprint back onto the bus as it pulled into the road. 

5.  The Vomit.  I don't know if this aspect of the journeys actually had any affect on the amount of time it took us to get from one place to another, but I have to say, I have never seen so many people vomit out the open windows of a bus before.  Kian and I have been taking motion sickness tablets diligently at the start of every long journey which, in addition to being fairly good travellers anyway, has meant that we have felt pretty well on these trips.  Others have clearly not been taking necessary precautions.  Luckily most of the victims made it to the window before the inevitable took place ... most of them, anyway.  I will spare you the chunky details. 

6.  The View.  This, I am fairly certain, doesn't have any bearing on the travel time, but it has certainly been the most important and impressive part of the journeys for me.  All the other discomforts and annoyances listed above are overruled by the stunning scenery of the Himalaya Range.  Each corner produces ever greater expanses of valleys shadowed by breathtaking mountain peaks.  Deodar forests descend the cliffs and encapsulate cozy villages that seem to be clinging to the mountains with a spider-like grip.  The blue-gray mountains blend in with the clear blue sky, making it hard to see where one ends and the next begins.  On our way to Dharamshala we dipped into a lush valley filled with fruit tree orchards before climbing the steep mountainside once again.  As we began our next ascent, we glimpsed snow-capped peaks for the first time.  They seemed to be carved out of the sky with a sharp knife, and they were a striking difference to the soft heat of the valley floor.  The sun went down behind the mountains blazing brilliantly, washing the sky with a deep red ink that flooded the lowlands below.  Driving through the Himalayas is an unforgettable and unmissable experience. 
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Jan on

Point 5 - Eewwwww!

Simon on

I want more details on Point #5. Nothing funnier than a good vomit story, come on!

Rachel on

hahaha! This brings back memories of bus trip I took through the mountains in Morocco...very similar story...including the vomit. Good times :)

Erin Sterling on

Oh my god how harrowing - yet hilarious! Good job bringing the two together Genevieve. You're a great writer! On to the next story (I am falling behind!)

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