Spiti-Gramphu-Keylong-Leh: A Long Mountain Journey: Ghost Buses and Bruised Behinds
Right now I am in Amritsar and very tired and hot. I am not in a poem writing mood. Sorry.
left from spiti
went to keylong
took a bus
then another one
After doing the things we did in Spiti, including eating several bowls of thentuk, delicious tibetan noodle soup, we left. Our destination was Keylong, where we’d stay the night before getting on the bus once more, for the final hairy leg of our journey to Leh.
We got a bus early in the morning to Gramphu, a junction where the road from Manali splits into two roads, one leading to Kaza and one to Keylong. Something you have to come to terms with when travelling in the North is that all the buses leave at ridiculously early times in the morning. You have to get used to waking up at five, feeling like death warmed up, but cold.
Charlotte bought me a red woolly hat for my birthday in Kaza. It is my best friend and I love it. I can’t wear it now that we are back in India proper, because it is so hot I already feel like I am wearing twelve woolly hats, all the time.
The bus to Gramphu was scary (one wheel was hanging off the edge of the road at one point) but we’re quite used to it now. The bus is our friend.
Herds of sheep blocked the road. We travelled with an assortment of Buddhist monks and mountain people.
When we arrived at Gramphu we sat waiting for three hours because all the buses we wanted to catch were stuck further down the valley, due to some kind of landslide apparently. It was a pretty nice place to be stuck for three hours. I drew a picture and played guitar for a curious monk, consumed several chais and had a glorious, high altitude open air mountain wee. It definitely makes the short list of best urinations of my life.
Finally, traffic started flowing past us in the direction of Keylong. A funny looking bus pulled up and as usual we got on it.
It was not like the government buses we had previously encountered. They are wide and squat with reassuringly chunky tires, and usually full of people. Charlotte and I would later come to refer to it as ‘The Ghost Bus’. It was very old and worn out, and also very tall and top heavy. This meant it swayed back and forth alarmingly as it negotiated the rocky road. Inside, all the chairs were soaking wet, and there were no other passengers before we got on. ‘Mysterious’ I thought. The driver looked about fifty but he had a mohican and cool jeans. A few of his bus buddies sat in the front with him.
As we continued along precarious twisting passes once more, swinging to and fro, we mused that perhaps the wet empty old fashioned bus was a ghostly continuation of a vehicle that had skidded off the road years ago and crashed down into a river, killing all its passengers, condemned to patrol it’s old route for all eternity. They never asked us for any money. We got off bemused after our free six hour journey.
We stopped at one point and I had a wee alongside an army man. There’s more and more of a military presence the closer you get to certain disputed areas near the border. After a while we became quite used to the sight of bored men lined up fondling their guns.
Drawing into Keylong, we drove alongside a huge foamy river. Perhaps this was where we’d meet our end, as the demon bus made its spooky recurring journey to the bottom of the riverbed (luckily and perhaps unsurprisingly for the perceptive reader, that didn’t happen).
The mountains had been changing, slowly but surely after leaving the desert of Spiti. Green and lush mountains now. Similar to China, said Lotte.
Keylong was quite a nicely placed little town, in a pleasant little valley of green. We didn’t do much due to exhaustion. I seem to remember curry was involved, and perhaps getting some money from a cash machine. We hit the hay pretty early.
At five in the morning we fell out of bed cursing once again. Another bus. ‘Yawn’ I said. ‘Shut up you idiot’ said Charlotte. She’s grumpy in the mornings.
In the gloomy early morning dark of the bus station, we found out from a preoccupied ticket man that the bus was all booked except for one free seat. After some scrapping and whinging, he agreed to let us on anyway. We took turns sitting on the metal floor in the aisle for the fourteen hour trip to Leh.
That was a challenge. The bus leapt and bucked regularly like a jolly mule and our glutei were thoroughly tenderised by the time we reached our final destination.
On the positive side, the landscape was magnificent and eclectic. Mainly mountain themed. We rolled over huge high passes, stopping to make yellow snow at one point in the most beautiful lunar wonderland, trekking some distance up to a place for Charlotte to toilet away from the prying eyes of perpetually prepubescent Indian men.
There were long ascents and descents on dusty paths in which the bus was filled with dust particles that threatened to choke us all. There were big open flat stretches of land surrounded by distant mountains that my altitude addled brain thought ‘looked like they were CGI’. There were rest stops in service stations run by nomads, congregations of food tents outside which we ate thali and horrible dried apricots. There were intricate mountain springs that looked like veins dispersing down steep slopes. There were lots of pretty things to potentially describe with pretentious prose (well done for reading this far).
At one point we stopped in the middle of a river in the middle of the road. On one side of us gaped a gigantic drop. Inexplicably, the driver took the opportunity to wash the tires with the flowing water. I am glad the handbrake behaved itself. We continued on and I am sure the tires were instantly re-coated with dirt and dust.
There were a few army checkpoints on the way at which bored looking military men checked our passports. I did big smiles at them to brighten up their days.
Fourteen hours of horrible uncomfortable beautiful terrain later we arrived in Leh. Everyone was exhausted and moody but I think shared the private knowledge that we were all very lucky. We ate dinner like vegetarian zombies with some people we met on the bus; the lovely Dutch girls, Doina and Isa, an Indian ballet dancer named Ackshay, and a Bulgarian ballroom dancer, Jimmy.
After dinner, we slept like logs.
Thank you for reading this. The next blog post will be about our time in and around Leh and I’ll write it soon.