After two days in a mosquito and monkey-prone monastery room in rather-revolting Rewalsar, we were excited to return to Shimla. Well, not excited to return to the godawful tourist trap we’d already suffered three days in, but rather the thought of seeing Tour Guide Mushtaq and loading into the shared Kinnaur & Spiti-bound jeep he presumably had waiting for us.
As soon as we met up with him, however, he began weaving wondrous, if grammatically garbled yarns about the merits of seeing Kashmir – enormous beautiful mountains, hiking, trekking, houseboats, Sufi festivals and family weddings! We’d be the only Westerners to witness such an event, ever! And we’d stay at his house for free! And everyone there is so nice! And there is no violence anymore!
“So Mushtaq… there isn’t a jeep to Spiti tomorrow, is there?”
“…No. There [is] no jeep. Also, there was [a] landslide, so driving [to] Spiti is impossible”
Some prolonged price negotiating, trip itinerary rearranging, and soul searching later, we were prepared to bus up to Kashmir, via a 4 hour jaunt to Chandigarh and then a 9 hour sleeper bus to Jammu, where we’d catch a 7 hour jeep ride to Pahalgam. Our buns soft and pliable, our intestines Immodiumized, and our minds properly dulled for life on the road, we were ready to roll.
Shimla to Chandigarh
We boarded the AC bus after sending off our Father’s Day Picture to our respective Fathers. Not a bad journey – despite getting stuck in an hour’s worth of traffic we had bananas and paranthas to keep us fueled – fueled for what you ask? Why, watching 3/4 of Khoon Pasina – twice (on account of a DVD player error).
This film had everything a weary bus rider could ask for – Bollywoodized Kung Fu cinematography, outrageous sound effects, a stellar sitar and gong-filled soundtrack, and multiple, extremely long fights between men and animals of both carnivorous and herbivorous varieties. If you can find it, the scene where a man fights a white horse is worth watching several times, which is what we had to do.
We also had to listen to an old woman vomiting out the window for the entire duration of the ride. And we got to see a glimpse of wild boars doing what all the other animals in India seem to be doing – standing in a ditch eating garbage.
We arrived in Chandigarh with enough time to see the famous Rock Garden, which initially disappointed us – “So, this is a bunch of trash… piled up. How is that any different from the rest of India?” – but then kind-of-didn’t totally let us down. Mostly because it was creepy and we like that kind of stuff.
Chandigarh to Jammu:
After a quick, sumptuous 35 Rs dinner at the Chandigarh central bus stop (our $32/day trekking fees were really being stretched), we boarded a jeep that took us around the dust-choked highways of the city to the back entrance of an enormous construction yard – apparently the city’s future bus depot. In the manure-scented twilight we could make out the shapes of several abandoned trucks, a gigantic AC Sleeper Bus, and a cow.
While we waited for the bus to leave, Mushtaq decided to divulge with us matters most delicate and marital. He’d mentioned to us earlier that day, while showing pictures of his family, that he had “something to explain” about his marriage, and in this of all locations he felt safest telling us about how he and his mother essentially had screwed his wife out of a happy life. Well, he didn’t put it like that. He put it, in his uncanny preposition-mangling way, like this:
Thirteen years ago he’d been in love with an Italian woman, but when his mother fell seriously, possibly terminally ill, he was “pressurized” by his own culturally-informed variation of the Make Momma Happy Impulse to enter a traditional arranged marriage. He went through with this, marrying a shrill woman from a neighboring village who his mother had chosen, and even “made sex” with her, producing a (ghastly, entitled, smug piece of shit) son. Though he was pulled by his “Westerr-un” values that taught him he should be in a marriage informed by “lo-we”, he continued to procreate with the unfortunate bride and in the next half-decade the Mushtaq line extended itself to three little (horrible, smelly, obnoxious) heirs. Well, since Momma still hadn’t died (and is still alive today, toothless and grim-looking), and he wasn’t getting any younger, he decided to “teach” his toddler-burdened wife about the ways of the world, and in effect turned their traditional Kashmiri union into a hotbed of swinging, open-relationship sin. Well, for him at least. While he gets to date all the women he wants in Shimla, she has to stay at home in a traditional village with the kids. But she could date around if she wanted to!…. Though she’d probably get stoned to death. So everything worked out!
Anyway, with this ungainly, unsolicited piece of information now squatting in our consciousness, we boarded the bus. The seats were fairly comfortable (we allowed Mushtaq to take the sleeper carriage), and there was a Bollywood film, “Kites“, playing on a large screen up front that offered a glimpse into the Indian media’s bizarre, teenage boy-oriented depiction of The Glamorous Life in the West. For example, in Las Vegas casinos, anyone with a shiny shirt and slick hair and a babe around his arm can walk up to a nonspecific counter and say, “Give me $100 and a beer” and get exactly what he wants. Also, people of entirely different cultures and languages get married solely because they both like to dance. This is just how the modern world works – wake up India!
The one glaring problem with the bus was its location of air conditioning vents. Stuck in an amorphous zone above the heads of the seats, it was unclear to whom any one belonged. We reached above the heads of the men in front of us and aimed those vents in our general direction, but when these men later aimed them at themselves we did the same and blasted our scalps with the cold air. These in turn were disputed by the Sikhs behind us, who used them to cool down their sweaty beards. Steve spoke up:
“Those are ours.” The Sikh’s rebuttal came quickly:
“No, it’s not yours.”
“Well that one [above man in front of Steve] isn’t mine either!”
“But this one [above Steve’s head] doesn’t reach me.”
“Listen,” Steve started, with no apparent control over his ability to not sound like an old man, “It’s an imperfect system, but those are the rules!”
Devon rightfully scoffed, but the Sikh gave up temporarily. Within a few hours though, he had stolen the A/C back from Steve. Fortunately, despite this bold Rule-Breaking, the bus did not descend into anarchy, and the journey to Jammu continued.
Jammu to Pahalgam:
We got into the city at 5:00 AM – half an hour early, an occurrence unlikely to ever happen on Indian transport, which was somehow more annoying than being the standard several hours late. The corner of Jammu we encountered at that ungodly hour was grimy in forms of air, land, and population – both human and animal. We found a jeep to precariously strap our luggage atop, and upon settling inside our vicinity was immediately deluged by beggars of all varieties, eager to exploit the fullness of wallet that corresponds with skin whiteness in this part of the world. Instead of obliging them, we feigned sleep and were soon whisked away onto a winding, surprisingly pothole-free highway populated by mangy Rhesus troops and bored-looking Indian soldiers.
After one unfortunately-timed poo at a rest stop on Steve’s part, we got stuck behind miles of Army trucks and spent the better part of three hours trying to overtake them on the edge of giant cliffs. Nothing, apart from teaching Mushtaq how to play the classic car ride game of “Squish“, really happened the rest of the day, apart from meeting up with our trekmates Mike and Becky in the ungodly town of Anantanag. Highlights of the rest of the drive (which finally ended around 3 in the afternoon) were the views, the menacing red roadsigns erected by the Indian Army (“Respect All Suspect All”, “Never Say Die”, “Plan Your Family”, “Just Do It”)And the rhyming, cautionary signs put up by BRO (Border Roads Organization), which Mushtaq was greatly amused by, but are far more funny (read: not that funny) to read if you say, “Bro,” beforehand with a braindead surfer drawl.
As with any trip, the best part of this one was its conclusion. But whereas other car rides might end in a museum, or a theme park, or a home, or sex, when this one ended, we arrived at a guesthouse in Pahalgam named, of all the combinations of words that exist in the entire world, The Brown Palace.
So overall, not the worst trip imaginable, but one we certainly won’t be voluntarily repeating again in this or any future life cycle.