Two of the most awful car rides have brought me to the most beautiful places. Nothing is done quickly in Northern India (I think this applies for all of India but I haven’t ventured there yet) particularly modes of transportation – I’m at the point where a 10 hour bus ride sounds short and a 22 hour reasonable, providing an excess of sleeping pills and gravol. In the past two weeks I have checked off one 17 hour ride, one 11 hour ride and one 22 hour ride. Not only are these rides long but they are rough to the point of ridiculous! Pavement is a far-fetched bus drivers fantasy, instead we drove on rocky gravel at best. Other times our bus-jeep (looks like a mini-bus mated with an off-road jeep) navigated through waterfalls, fast moving streams, glaciers, dried lake beds, desert valleys and cliff ledges where our wheels spat rocks over the edges of precipices. We even sat meters away from dynamite explosions as they attempted to open the landslide that had blocked Routong Pass (and our passage for an extra 6 hours).
The buses that pull into Leh’s depot have puke streaked side panel’s; that alone should tell you something about the quality of roads that lead to this mountain top road. Northern India bus rides feel like riding a bucking bronco who is determined to dismount it’s riders (while taking hair pinned turns). I watched the deity strapped to our drivers review mirror dance a violent succession of head banging against the front window for the entire 20 odd some hours; I also saw this same driver get air from his seat as we bumped our way through pot holes. Indians describe the 479km Manlai-Leh highway as ‘bone-rattling’, but by the end of the journey there were no bones left to rattle – they had crumbled to dust and joined the desert outside.
But the roads are what save these beautifully, untouched places. The Spiti Valley is a stark and barren beautiful seat in the sky. It looks like the moon on earth with dry craggy dirt and a fine dust that burrows into pores and coats your teeth. Everything there is a contrast; brilliantly blue skies, white washed houses & stupas, red-rimmed monasteries, powdery brown sand, snow peaks and primary coloured prayer flags. Beautiful. It defines isolation being separated from Manali by a little over 200km but 7,000m high mountain peaks. The Spitian people, who are of Tibetan descendent but uniquely Spitian in their language and culture, live like they did 100’s of years ago…with the exception of satellite Bollywood TV, which they watch with the help of their inconsistent solar panels.
Leh itself (our present location) is beautiful and charming with palaces, forts and stupas straddling each ridge. Another high altitude desert, it has a beautiful irrigation system that leads gushing canals through the streets – we fall asleep each evening to the sounds of small waterfalls. There are oodles of tourists here (thank you airport!) unlike Spiti, but it still seems mellow, relaxed and removed from the ‘real India’. Actually, we liked it so much upon arrival that we booked a ticket (air ticket, I don’t think I need to do that road twice!) to Dehli for two weeks time. We leave tomorrow for 4 days of hiking and homestays & white-water rafting, followed by three days of studying Tibetan meditation and Buddhism.