I didn’t expect the bus ride to be fun, but had I known that the bus was supposed to take the Manali to Chandigarh Highway (blocked by landslides) and would be detouring over dark, narrow mountain passes, I’m not sure I would have gotten on.
The bus station in Manali was crowded and chaotic. I arrived early knowing I might have trouble figuring out which bus to get on. The man who sold me the ticket the day before said I should just ask him where to board. The only problem– it didn’t seem that he was working, and his replacement spoke no English. The time table was equally helpful.
I went over to the waiting area and began frantically asking around. I ran into two other backpackers there who seemed to be having varying amounts of trouble finding their buses as well. It seemed that I was at least in the right general area, and there was nothing else to do but wait until someone (hopefully) called out the bus to Dharamsala. As I went to sit down I noticed something moving under the seat; it was a small dog! It seemed that standing was a perfectly acceptable option until the bus arrived.
“Dharamsala, Dharamasala.” I followed the voice towards what I assumed was my bus. After asking everyone in sight if this was indeed the bus to Dharamsala it appeared that this was probably the correct bus, although I wouldn’t be completely sure until we reached Dharamsala.
I had been told several times by everyone from hotel owners to other travelers that I should keep my bags with me, and not allow anyone to put them on the roof of the bus. I thought my PacSafe (slash proof net that goes over a pack and then locks onto something) would be enough, but I had been told over and over not to risk it. Needless to say I wasn’t very happy when someone tried to grab my bag and put it up top. I’m still not sure who he was or how he related to my bus, My current guess is that he was expecting a fee for taking my bag. He became very hostile when I held on to my bag and told him that if the driver asked me not to bring my bag on I would listen, but otherwise I was getting on that bus bag and all.
Upon boarding the bus I discovered the difference between the deluxe and local bus. My seat was hard with no hope of reclining. It was also starting to look like keeping my pack was going to turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. The seat was simply not big enough for my pack and me. My seatmate, an Indian man about my age returning to lower Dharamsala, was very nice about the whole matter, but even after contorting myself around my pack, I’m afraid I was still partly in his seat. About five minutes into the trip all my extremities began to tingle, and I feared they were going to have to perform a quadruple amputation by the time I reached Dharamsala.
The bus was loud; even my ipod stood no chance of drowning out the constant clanking and screeching. We stopped every few minutes to cram more people in; yet it seemed no one ever got off. Towards the end of the Kullu Valley we pulled off for gas and when I looked out the window I saw a cow hanging out between the gas pumps. Little did I know this marked the end of the easy part of our trip.
The next segment of our trip was supposed to be along the Manali to Chandigarh Highway (a major highway), but landslides earlier in the day meant that we were rerouted over small mountain roads; a fact that did little to encourage the driver to slow down. The roads were barely wide enough for the bus, but the real fun came when we encountered other vehicles. In most places there simply wasn’t room for two-way traffic, so one vehicle would have to back down the road until there was room to pass. It was pitch black, and I have no idea how the driver managed to keep the wheels from sliding over the edge of the precipice. I kept thinking of the squeaky breaks and hoping there was an emergency break that worked.
I was still trying to look like an unafraid and seasoned traveler. That was until we encountered another bus on the road. We came to a standstill for a while; both drivers got out and there was lots of urgent sounding discussion and yelling in Hindi. At some point passengers started to get out. I thought the driver had ordered everyone out, so I followed. It turned out the drivers had decided that they were going to pass each other and the majority of the passengers were going for one last smoke break. I had completely given up looking calm by this point and turned to my seatmate to ask him if this was normal. It turns out this was far from normal.
The other bus pulled as far off the road as possible, and our bus started to go around it (on the cliff slide). At one point I thought I felt one of the front wheels start to slide off the road. I hoped the darkness would make the drop off look less frightening, but it just made it look like we were about to slide into a never ending abyss.
That particular ordeal ended several minutes later, but I almost cried when I looked at my watch and realized we were only about three hours into the approximately eight hour journey.
The next few hours proceeded in a similar fashion, and a few hours later we reconnected with the main highway. The driver seemed determined to make up for lost time and drove the highway like racecourse, albeit a racecourse with cows that wonder on and off. I had just started to drift off to sleep when the bus came to an abrupt halt. Downed electrical wires. Some more frantic yelling in Hindi between passengers and the driver. The driver switched off the bus and we waited; I have no idea for what. A car sped by and decided to brave the wires. It turns out this was all the incentive our driver needed and he switched the bus back on and drove through the wires.
Soon after we reached Dharamsala. Despite the detour we were almost an hour early; a frightening statement on our speed. I am taking a bus to Dehra Dun tonight, and I earnestly hope this trip is considerably less interesting.