Mostly recovered from our respective ailments (this one and that one), a blog up and running, and bored of Vashisht’s same old tremendously-nippled stray dogs and saffron sellers, we caught the Government Bus out to the high, Buddhist, Tibetan-border-straddling, desert-like Himalayan reaches of Spiti.
We’d wanted to get here a month before, but natural disasters and the snakelike charms of a certain Kashmiri tour guide had diverted us elsewhere. Now, with a flight to Kyrgyzstan awaiting us in Amritsar, we had about seven days to traverse the remote and infamously landslide-stricken route described in guide books as one of the scariest and barfiest highways on Earth.
What follows are some bullet-pointed highlights — the usual near-catastrophes, brushes with death, occasional pleasant moments — and a whole lotta purdy pitchers (a corresponding full photo gallery awaits you below!).
Landslide #1: Over Rohtang La to Kaza
- Ever seen a photo of your parents skiing in 1985? Ever wonder what happened to their slick, form-hugging, neon-colored one-piece skisuits? Somehow, along with everyone else’s on the planet, they wound up in Manali. Climbing out of town, just before the road turned to mud, we counted no less than fifty shops selling the offensively hued relics. Or renting them to Indian tourists for the day.
- Waging cell phone music war with the other passengers. Unfortunately, our Boney M’s “Rasputin” was no match for the annoyingly modified boombox speakers in the other Indian phones.
- Getting stuck for 5 hours on a landslide- and traffic-clogged Rohtang La, consequently drinking bad whiskey on top of the bus. (Read about it here.)
- Thoughtlessly leaping from the moving bus’ roof to a gravel truck, then sprinting an awfully long way to catch it again.
- Seeing a giant herd of something enormous sprinting across a meadow, then realizing it was yaks
- Tibetan kids singing annoying songs for the hours we were hauled out across the seats trying to sleep
Ki Gompa and Kibber
- In Kaza, dark as a yak’s anus when we arrived, we had no idea what we’d wake up to. Looking beyond the whitewashed village, out onto the massive rounded mountains of barren red earth circling it all, we thought we were on whatever part of Mars it is where you can order momos and thukpa.
- Headed to the small but 4205-meter-high village of Kibber, by way of Ki Gompa where a monk served us free chai in hacked-up plastic bottles and an Israeli guy walked up wearing a Two Girls One Cup t-shirt.
- Stayed for 150 RS at Serkong Guest House, a nice place where proprietor Dorje cooked us Tuna Dal and sold Steve a pair of locally-knit women’s gloves decorated with swastikas (for his mom).
- Wandered around the terrifyingly deep gorge and hurled boulders down into it, listening for their muted thuds — an activity that never stops being awesome.
- Marveled at the brand new way to cross the gorge to Chichum: not the bridge (they built the foundation for that and quit), but the “cable cars” — two rusty iron Radio Flyer-sized baskets suspended on long steel wires over a tremendous river canyon. Fits one to three comfortably, or over six frequently.
- Back in Kaza the power was out, but the guy at the broken VCRs and car stereos store had a generator. There we charged our phone and camera battery; everyone in town was doing the same.
Kaza to Tabo
- Tried to take the government bus to Sichiling so we could hitch the 12 km up to Dhankar Gompa. The conductor had other plans. “No. You get off [somewhere]. Better to Dhankar. Closer. I tell you.” An hour later we stopped in front of a river, one house, and a giant mountain, and he made sure we took his advice. Off we got. Where the hell’s Dhankar then, we wondered? A local man pointed up, way up, to the top of a 4000-meter mountain. And so we hiked.
- Watched a road crew dump a trailer full of boulders down a mountain slope, possibly with the aim of buttressing a road.
- Hiked to the fabled Dhankar Tso, which turned out to be Dhankar Turgid Pond; so we nipped Royal Challenge and tried to dip some Snuff. Perhaps out of spite. Perhaps because we’re just disgusting.
- Hitched the 12 km down from Dhankar with some Italians, one of whom spoke weirdly middle-American English, thanks to years spent studying in Minnesota.
- Hitched with an empty gravel truck, bouncing and sliding and going deaf the rest of the way towards Tabo. Or at least up until Landslide #2. Steve was smart and walked around it. Devon was manly and climbed right over it. The result: Steve crossed safely while Devon sank to his shins in mud, enticing and Indian guy to film his ordeal.
- In Tabo: ate fine thantuk, stayed at the monestary, climbed around some ancient caves (still inhabited), walked through a human shit field, got stranded due to landlides.
Tabo to Nako
- Landslides kept the government buses out of Tabo in both directions. Joined forces with an Italian dude and Israeli chick — a pleasant couple whose only common language is English — to hire a jeep as far as it could go.
- As far as it could go was the tremendous Landslide #3, a series of giant boulders, rocks and mud completely blocking the little dirt cliff-clinging road. Jeep stopped, we walked. Fast, too, as an Indian passenger suggested, as they’d stopped blasting for us — massive piles of dynamite that shook the mountain, as if they were the Chinese building the railroads — but who knew if they’d make sure we made it to the other side?
- Swapped lipfuls of chewing tobacco with that Indian guy. His fruity scorpion-decalled strips for Devon’s Cope Snuff. (He didn’t want to put it in his nose.) He thought Devon’s was too fine. Devon thought his was way too goddamn strong; gave him the shakes for the rest of the walk into town.
- At Nako, shot the shit with and showed semi-provocative pictures of Devon’s girlfriend Margie (by Indian standards) to a crazy old Border Patrol soldier while we waited for a miraculously timed government bus to arrive at the landslide, turn around, pick us up and take us to Reckong Peo.
- Was a mean, foul, unfairly expensive shithole with a river of garbage, piss and shit streaming down a main pedestrian path, best summed up in this poem:
From craggy Kinnaur cliffs you’ve come
Through landslides, bus rides you’ve slogged
Now in fetid streets of Rekong Peo
You’ll be bitten by a dog
It’s overpriced, the smells aren’t nice whether outside your room or in
At night the beasts within your sheets suck lustily on your skin
And you’ll climb a hill to catch a bus, rivers of shit up to your shins
And as the streets are sledgehammered
By new mothers and their young
You’ll watch your guesthouse walls expunge
Sweet mold into your lungs
— Ruddyturd Kipling, 1887
Onward to Amritsar
- Took the government night bus 10 hours or so to Shimla, stopping for a tolerable delay at Landslide #4
- At Shimla, nearly missed the Chandigarh bus thanks to Steve trying and failing to shit in the busstand public shower stall.
- Walked off that bus and right onto one piloted by an enormous man who wouldn’t close the door, bound for Amritsar. Sikh Country, baby.