“ For the bus to Spiti, you have to go to the new bus stand. You will get everything there, food and room to stay,’’ the helpful taxi driver said.
He delivered me to an impressive building with bus bay on first floor and a hotel, couple of floors up. I had just reached Shimla from Delhi; that bus dropping me on a road some five kilometres away and above the new bus depot. The bus to Spiti was at 6PM. Ticket booked, I took the elevator to the hotel and alighted onto a swanky lobby that contrasted the general affordability level of the transport bus-using population below, including me. The receptionist assessed me as I sought a room. The assessment was justified. It was peak tourist season. A room cost Rs 4000. I was shocked. Between airports, railway stations and bus stations, bus stations have traditionally been the most plebeian. Maybe this was a hotel meant for those hiring entire buses to travel and not a mere half or third of a seat? Or maybe the hotel catered to families – the standard unit of Indian existence – and I was too single for the economics to make sense. Or maybe I just missed the bus to riches, which everyone took in the last two decades. That’s quite possible. To live is to find one’s own time warp. I am in mine.
At the only other hotel in the neighbourhood, the sole available room was pegged at Rs 2000. I didn’t want my brief rest to cost that much. I made my way back uphill to the city’s crowd and congestion, where I had spotted a dharmshala. The dharmshala was fully occupied. It was now raining. “ Looking for a room?’’ a tout asked, extending his umbrella over my head. I followed him to a promised reasonably-priced room, down a steep, narrow path to a narrow, tall building. My request for the cheapest room yielded a space best described as the tapering end of a triangle with three walls built tightly around a cot. I wondered how they would take the cot out. Break down the walls? I settled for the second cheapest room, rested and then walked around a bit. The bus to Spiti was crowded. As we exited Shimla, I saw the city from various tiers. Hill towns have become thick with matchbox-buildings. Shimla amazed for the number of vehicles it packed in. All that steel – moving, parked and caught in traffic snarls – made it resemble a junkyard. Probably why I liked my time on the city’s Mall Road, closed to traffic. In 1972, Shimla had been the first hill station up north, I visited. I thought I saw the hotel we had stayed in then; from its balcony, on a cold, snowy morning with my parents savouring the heat from a tray of hot coals, I had seen Shimla’s railway station in the distance. I found an old hotel with an old shop selling coal nearby and if I erased some new buildings, a line of sight to the railway station. That’s why the junkyard look saddened me. It was like fungus to an old photo.
I reached Manali from Spiti via Kunzum La. At this pass, the mountains seem parked in your front yard. The small town of Reckong Peo, passed earlier on the approach to Kaza (in Spiti) from Shimla (you change buses at Reckong Peo), had hosted similar views. In the immediacy and dimension of their mountain scenery, both Kunzum La and Reckong Peo reminded me of another town from far away – Kumaon’s Munsyari. The deeply engaging parts of the Shimla-Kaza route are the portions before and after Reckong Peo. It is particularly so when done in the regular state transport bus; no frills, a seat in a metal box on wheels, jets of cold air shot in through gaps in the glass window, sleepy people sitting and standing, every pothole an orchestra of rattling vehicle parts, much ache in the butt. Ahead of Reckong Peo and just past the Kharcham Wangtoo hydro-electric project, the road, perched on steep hill sides, is stingy on space to manoeuvre and with segments eroded by the most recent spate of natural phenomena. Several u-turns couldn’t be negotiated at one go entailing manoeuvres on tricky slopes; all this at midnight and early morning (it was a night bus) with the passengers, mostly locals, utterly calm through it all.
I thought of our passage as a pair of headlights, high up on a mountain face enveloped in inky blackness. As if that wasn’t enough, periodically through the night, passengers got off at their stops and walked with a torch – sometimes none – to their houses, identifiable in the distance by a single electric light somebody had left on as GPS for the late night navigation on foot. Next morning the section past Reckong Peo, debuted as a muddy, bumpy road above the river Sutlej in its early stage past the Indo-Tibet border, easily one of the most furious flows I have seen. The river barrelled on churning up mud and crashing against rocks. Crumbs of earth from the road-edge occasionally rolled off into the turbulent waters below. By the time I reached Kaza, I had developed considerable respect for the driver and conductor of the state transport buses I took. It is one thing being responsible for just oneself on a bicycle or a motorcycle or a car, on these roads. It is another, ferrying people safely. I also remember Tabo. When the driver turned off the bus engine at this settlement, the afternoon silence was inviting. You felt away from everything.
Manali was bursting with tourists. I sipped coffee in the security of a first floor-restaurant, seated by the window, watching the crowds in the street below. If you seek the mountains to be away from people, this was its very antithesis. I wanted to run away. “ Two more days and the schools will reopen. Then you will see less people,’’ a hotel manager assured. I bought the last available seat on a bus and fled to Delhi the very next day. I had to be back in Manali, in a week’s time. On the return trip to Manali from Delhi, my unassertive self was quiet. Not so a foreigner lady who faced the same predicament as I did. Both of us had booked seats originally shown as on the penultimate row of the bus. The seats we got matched the numbers on our reservation slips, except we were in the last row. In the transition from diagram in cyber space to reality, the bus had shrunk! We got thrown around and as the journey progressed, the heat from the rear-engine cast us and everyone else on that row into a sauna of sorts. “ Incredible India,’’ one of them quipped. We reached a Manali that was less crowded. With schools reopened and tourists thereby less, the taxi cost from Manali to Leh had also corrected. That was a pleasant surprise.
Ongoing construction schemes took the sheen off walking in Leh’s main market. A hoarding announced it as a beautification scheme in progress. “ The work has been going on for a while and the state of the market road affects business. Fewer people drop by,’’ a shopkeeper in the main market said. Away from the town centre, despite rising tourism, Leh has managed to keep an architectural idiom in place – at least its hotels and guesthouses have subscribed to a minimum code. As yet, you see little of the garish steel and glass structures resembling giant sunglasses stuck in the ground, which is how buildings are in India’s cities and increasingly so, in its hill towns. Mark the expression – as yet. Who knows what the future will bring to the hills? Now four or five visits old, I must confess I have an emergent problem with Leh – noise. It and vehicle emissions are registered strongly in the town’s narrow roads set in the clean air of 10,000ft. Loud, thumping four strokes are music to two wheeler riders. It is noise to others; literally bullets shredding peace and conversation.
On July 21, the final phase of our journey commenced. The flight out from Leh to Delhi got cancelled. It was attributed to bad weather, except – our airline was the only one cancelling; others operated. Maybe bad weather loves this airline? Worse was the experience of cancellation. It was several announcements of continued delay leading to eventual cancellation, a junior officer assigned to face the passengers’ ire and her superior, the local airline manager, conveniently disappeared. The dumped passengers received tea and biscuits at the airport’s canteen. There was no assurance of an extra flight the next day to accommodate us. For several hours the cancellation did not register on the airline’s computer system. “ What cancellation? The flight left on schedule,’’ the airline’s call centre replied.
Getting seats on other airlines is better said than done amid Leh’s tourist season. Many years ago, in the days preceding Internet-based reservation at Indian Railways, as a journalist working in Delhi, I used to think that Kerala was the worst-treated in terms of access. Trains to Kerala were few, heavily booked and airline tickets to India’s southern tip were expensive. Leh is perhaps a quarter of the distance from Delhi as Kerala is. But in tourist season, airline tickets from Leh to Delhi can cost as much as Rs 20,000, sometimes more. It is cheaper to fly overseas! The market lauds it as ` dynamic pricing’ (so fashionable is it that even the Indian Railways wants to try it). I asked my guest house owner in Leh whether he got any relief being a local. “ If we plan ahead, we manage to get tickets at lower price. Else we are in the same boat as you,’’ he said. On previous visits, I learnt, this was partly the handiwork of package-tourism blocking seats in bulk. At one point, the trade’s motive was so clear that a now defunct airline used to fly in just for Leh’s tourist season and stay off the cold desert for the rest of the year.
That night the airline computer system at last acknowledged flight cancellation and promised an extra flight. Next day, Leh was due for a taxi strike from 6AM. The air travellers of the day rented wheels to the airport early in the morning, landing up in front of a still shut airport at 4AM. At least one tourist tucked into a sleeping bag at the gate. We imagined a rock concert and the faithful camped for guaranteed entry. After the inevitable Indian mess that followed, we waited patiently post-security check, boarded the aircraft and clapped when the plane commenced taxiing.
An hour later, we were in Delhi, the self absorbed capital imagining Incredible India.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)