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Published: July 31st 2008
Breakfast and temple offering...
Shimla was waking up, as were the folks on the benches in the waiting area of Shimla’s shabby Rivoli bus stand. The man at the ticket booth was ready at his post by six fifteen, but not willing to issue me a ticket until a quarter hour later. I have learned not to ask why anymore; he was printing out tickets for others. I am doing my utmost not to resist India, as confusing at it is at times. “Come back in fifteen minutes.” He firmly asserted. I saw my bus scrunched in between others. It wasn’t going to leave without me.
“OK, thank you.” Killing the man with kindness and a smile had no impact. I went back to a steel bench, hugged my pack, and watched the rest of the residents of the bus stand quietly awaken. They have straw-stuffed sacks for pillows and industrial tarps to use as mattresses. In little time a mother combs her long hair and grooms her two children, who are still rubbing their eyes from their overnight rest. The boy and girl help their mother stuff their belongings into a burlap sack, which she tosses over her shoulder. They make their way out
You Can't Eat Just One!
But it's easier if you puncture the bag with a pin! The altitude does this with most packaged snacks...
of the shelter of the waiting area, most likely to find a private area to use as a toilet and then to go to a public fountain to wash up. From that point, I cannot venture a guess as to how their day will continue.
Ticket now in hand and prepared this time with several pieces of fruit plus a chicken sandwich, my body has given me the green light for the jolting ride. More than once I have had to cancel my own journey when my body has signaled that it is not ready. There are no facilities aboard any of the buses. I have been taking antibiotics to combat the microscopic enemy within for an extended period. But I am rearing to go. I step up to the entrance of the bus with my burdensome pack. “Inside, or up top?” There is a rack on the roof of the bus with plastic to keep all luggage dry. One of the assistants cleaning the uncracked windshield with yesterday’s newspaper hems and haws. He delays further without any sort of firm reply. He wants me to go away or load the pack myself on top. So I hop aboard and
Pretty clear...we are very far from Rajasthan...
shove it between the back of the driver’s seat and my bench. Anyone sitting next to me, and there may be many, will have little room to extend his or her legs. With little fanfare or calling out to others to board, we pull out of bus stand several minutes before seven in the morning. The driver started the ignition, honked the horn, and took to the road. By my estimation, I figure to be settled into Kalpa, wherever that is, later in the afternoon.
A thick line on a map in India is often inversely proportional to the quality of the road it represents. Such is the case for National Highway 22, which connects Shimla with the outlying Himachal districts of Kinnaur and Spiti. The bus ride from the capital to the mountain village of Kalpa is full of twists, hairpin turns, and shoulderless roadside cliffs that fall into river-carved valleys.
Most of us in the States regard a signpost for falling rock as a part of the landscape; we pay it very little attention. Only a scant few times over the years can I recall even the slightest pebble crashing onto the asphalt when I was driving
A Temple With A View
And this was not all that dramatic...
by. Moreover, municipal or highway crews quickly remove any debris blocking the road. Conversely, NH 22 is a veritable obstacle course of landslides and rockslides that wait for vehicles to approach before letting loose. The driver, for whom I now have everlasting admiration, deftly avoids the massive hazards, some of them boulders the size of small recreational vehicles. Without the means to remove them, road crews simply cover the boulders in white fluorescent paint for those brave enough to tackle the road at night. We pass well maintained but silent ski resorts and lodges no more than an hour outside of Shimla. The vistas open up to terrific terraced orchards and tiny cottages uncomfortably perched on hillsides with no apparent approaches but by foot.
The bus swerves dangerously close to the cliffside. As I look down from my window, I see no asphalt, just glacial moraines leading hundreds of feet down. The driver rarely slows down unless it is a necessity. In addition to the boulders, nature has ripped away the road on some of the sharp turns. A dozen men or so donning red vests at various positions a few kilometers apart team up to repair the damage caused
There's No Stopping It Now
Jaypee is reshaping the valley...
by water erosion. All the work is manual. They stack cinder blocks against the cliffside to catch some of the rubble that punctures the road surface on impact. Some men lift stones and use them as protective barriers, taking advantage of the materials on hand. Others fit pipes along the ditches to divert the flow of rain water away from the road to flow into a harmless tributary. They work at a steady pace. Once one section of road is fixed, there is always another in more need. In the battle between man and nature, bet on nature every time.
The bus labors its way up the foothills and continues east. Porters lug cargo on their backs roadside. The load is heavy enough where it is not only carried on their backs, but must also be supported by a strap around their foreheads. The cargo must easily exceed their own weight. Their pace, like that of the buses, is steady. None stop for a break. They trudge uphill without complaint, their faces fixed to the tiny individual stones embedded in the pavement. At Narkanda, we stop for breakfast. It is a hill town whose economy is primarily dependent on being
Drivers must be alert at all times...
a rest stop for bus traffic and truckers. Before the morning meal, most passengers walk over to the town temple and deliver an offering. It is the only point of the journey where I encounter another Westerner, a single middle-aged woman. We silently acknowledge each other with a smile. There is no need to speak, so we don’t. She probably came this way to be away from foreigners, as did I.
At about 8,000 feet, I have observed an amusing result of the change in altitude. In most Indian shops, merchants suspend bags of unhealthy snacks from the ceiling or lock them up in small cages. Thankfully, but unfortunately for me, Indians adore potato chips, and Lay’s has the market pretty well locked up. If Lay’s ever exported the Tangy Masala variety to the United States, I’d have to consider buying stock in the company just to save money. As breakfast ends for those dining on chapatti and chickpeas in oil, I buy one fifty-cent bag for the next leg of the trip. The shop owner hands me the bag, inflated more tightly than a helium balloon at a child’s birthday party. The chips are packaged and sealed at a
Oh, wait...no one wears seat belts here...
lower altitude, therefore at a higher level of air pressure. In Narkanda, the packaging has expanded to the verge of bursting. Opening the bag is a chore since the glued seams are already being stretch to their limits. I grabbed my pocket knife from my day pack and prick a small hole in the top of the bag. Pop! The explosion almost sends me back a step and a half.
The bus company assigns two men to each route (a driver and his partner) to collect fares from boarding passengers. The helper tends to keep to the rear of the vehicle and carries around his neck a whistle, which he uses as liberally as the driver honks his horn. At first, I am convinced he blew the toy as a power trip. As the trip progresses, I grasp that this is how attendant and driver communicate. A sharp whistle and the driver stops to collect passengers even if they are out of his sight. Once securely inside the bus, the next whistle tells the driver to move on. The driver’s partner is his eyes and ears when in reverse. To avoid any confusion, the driver listens to a series of understood cadences of the whistle to know when to turn right, left, slowly move back or stop. Passengers can talk, yell, and carry on. The driver focuses solely on the whistle. Given the dangers of NH 22, it is a clever and effective system. The only another noise he is willing to pay attention to is the tedious yodeling from the stereo speakers. Every half hour or so, he subconsciously changes the side of the cassette or fishes out a new one. Initially annoyed with the constant tweets, I feel more and more confident that these two know what they are doing.
The farther east we travel, the more Asiatic the people become. You can see it in their facial features. They are more wrinkled around the eyelids and their eyes are a more closed oval in shape. The Aryan, Indo-European populace of the lower river plains is fewer. In little time it is easy to question whether this is India, or have we crossed an international border? Except for the Bindis and Hindu roadside temples this could be a few kilometers outside of Lhasa.
The eastward route becomes more dramatic. Without warning I catch my first glimpse of the Satluj River valley, an easy two thousand feet below bus level. My eyes follow the path of the road ahead of us, and in order to continue we will have to join the river on its terms and leave the mountains for the time being. The higher reaches of the valley are impassable; no roads can safely be built at these heights. In the next thirty minutes, we descend about three kilometers from the tall pines of the hilltops, through deciduous trees and down to banana orchards. We pass through a series of biomes faster than a ninth grader could flip through the pages of an earth science textbook. Breaks screech incessantly, but they work. A women two seats behind me is ill with motion sickness. There is nothing to contain her vomiting but her coat, which she wraps around her mouth to keep the discharge from plopping onto the floor. We join the torrid, opaque flow of the Satluj and rumble on to Rampur. I remove my windbreaker and open the sliding window in front of me. When the bus stops to let another vehicle pass or collect more passengers and freight, the cabin heats up and I begin to perspire. Within that half hour, the temperature has risen an easy twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
How UNESCO did not beat the hydroelectric developers to declare the Satluj Valley as its own is a riddle to me. Indians who travel the area insist that there are regions of Himachal far more enthralling than this segment of the river. But I cannot come up with too many over-the-road journeys as dramatic and memorable than this one. As the mercury-colored Satluj rushes downstream forming some Category Four rapids, our driver maneuvers through a route whittled into the side of the mossy mountains. Guardrails are, in many places, a birthday wish for next year. There are many concave turns into small nooks and crannies on the mountains. Waterfalls gush under a bridge. Where the waterfall meets with a turn, a crossing is formed, which provides a space for peasants to build homes of stone and plastic, just a few feet from the asphalt. Five or six unsanctioned dwellings have gone up, miles from any other established communities. At one turn, one newly-founded hamlet of corrugated metal and timber rods has a shop. In all cases, the nomadic communities grow for one reason only: the waterfall. In this case, families have started anew miles from contact with others. Women wash clothes. Boys bring empty buckets to the cascades, and most likely the fathers are off on daily labor assignments. These new communities on NH 22, with perhaps a dozen or so inhabitants each, have sewn the seeds of human settlement where before there was none. It is no different from the Nile, Indus, and Yellow River Valley civilizations of ancient history, or the expansion of the American West in the nineteenth century. Where there is water, there is life. No matter how dire the situation was beforehand, humans can always start anew.
The bus continues to cut through scenery unmatched anywhere I have been in India. Nameless waterfalls splash and tumble on the other side of the mercury Satluj, many more than five football fields in length and all of absurd beauty. The sunshine makes the trip even more superb but during the rains, the Kinnaur district of NH 22 must be one museum of towering falls and cascades. I resist all urges to jump off the bus so I can see more of it.
The entire valley is undergoing irrevocable change. The nation’s energy needs far outweigh my selfish desire for the valley not to be touched. Within three years, the Satluj will be a castrated body of water in slow motion. The water levels will have risen and consumed some of the canyon. Like the Three Gorges in miniature, the price for the modern demands of society are high. No one will be displaced, but this stretch of the river will never be the same. Already Jaypee, the contracting firm in charge of the development project several miles before Recong Peo, has made its presence known. The massive concrete dam has already begun to enclose the canyon. Under construction from one side, it makes its way from one slope slowly across the river until it is joined by its associate on the other. Hundreds of migrant workers tunnel out immense intake and outtake pipes a few hundred yards into the mountain as part of siphoning off the Satluj. The work is foul and often manual, and the air is permanently polluted with drifting grey dust. It coats everything. Water trucks perpetually douse the road surface, whether that surface is of sand, pebbles, or pavement, to combat the floating powder. When the workers surface from the earth through tunnels several yards in diameter, they appear to have gone to war and lost. They look beaten. But they come to Himachal willingly; there is work here. They earn about five dollars a day, double what many of the Nepalis, Biharis, and Bengalis could ever earn back home. They, like the small homes near the waterfalls farther downstream, have built homes of dubious sturdiness. Their own communities of stores, barbers shops, and schools have popped up. The dam is more than a three-year project, and the manpower will be needed. I wonder what forethought anyone has put to when the work is complete and they have been here for all this time. Will they want to leave the valley? Will they flee the bitterly cold winters? If there is no work, survival would be next to impossible.
Reckong Peo. Most everyone files out of the bus, but I stay aboard for the last leg. The town is the administrative center for Kinnaur. I stick my face out the window and peer up and down the main bazaar. Locals congregate but take no particular interest in me even though I am an outsider though I have seen no others. They don a kinnauri topee on the head, the customary round, flat topped hat. Both men and women wear them. Styles vary slightly. Most have green or red flap that fold up on the front and back. The headwear is a reminder that Delhi, Agra, and Jodhpur are light years away.
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