200 kms in just 10 hours
Trip Start May 01, 2010
23Trip End Jul 15, 2010
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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
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
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
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.
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.