On travelling to Mustang, the ‘himalpariko jilla’ (district beyond the mountains) in the northern part of Nepal
The day we started our journey to Mustang also happened to be the day the clouds, an outcome of cyclone Phailin, reached western Nepal. It was one of those mornings travellers absolutely dread: dull, cold and rainy. A young lad, whose upper lip had just begun to show hints of an impending moustache, stood in front of the ticket counter in Beni, Myagdi and was quick to inform anyone who came his way that the counter was closed for the day and passengers would have to pay a different rate to get to Ghasa in Mustang. He indicated towards a bus nearby, which would be leaving as soon as there were six passengers to go, he said. So we, along with a few others, hurried in to grab seats. But even when the number of passengers had crossed six, the bus did not budge. If anyone asked about the time of departure, the young lad would just offer them a noncommittal “very soon”. But as minutes turned to hours, we realised that ‘soon’ meant enough time to relieve one’s bladder without rush, fill up on food, loiter around the rainy bazaar and go on an apple-munching spree.
A few more passengers had boarded the bus by then, including a mother with a newborn child, and they were seated right behind the driver. Though these were the best seats in the house, they were slightly tilted, the conductor informed them. Finally, exactly three hours after we had first hopped on, the bus showed signs of movement. The guy clad in the black hoodie far darker than the fuzz on his lips turned out to be the driver. And no sooner had he taken his seat than he turned on the speakers, allowing Ankit Tiwari’s Sun Raha Hai Tu to float out.
The roads were slippery owing to the rain and the driver drove cautiously. He would turn the music off altogether when the navigating got difficult—when the size of the bus equaled the width of the narrow road, for instance. Initially, I thought these occasional pauses meant we would get to hear the Kaligandaki, sometimes below and sometimes right beside the road, lashing against the rocks. But it never happened. When the music wasn’t blaring, it would be replaced by the loud whirring of the engine.
We passed quite a few waterfalls, cascading from the hills, flowing onto the road and making it even more slippery. Others were seen in the distance, like strands of white hair against the deep-green backdrop of the mountains beyond the Kaligandaki. A tourist sitting in front of me made it a point to take a photo of every waterfall we came across, but for the rest of us who didn’t whip out our cameras at their every occurrence, they were more a welcome distraction. After all, if not for them, the others too would have probably, like me, dwelled a little too morbidly on the bus’ being only a slip of the tire away from tumbling straight into the river below us. As it was, my inability to swim had already heightened these death-plunge fears. Perhaps, I mused, I would land on a tree branch midway through my fall, hands and legs flailing to maintain balance. Or if I were to be even more dramatic, I could picture myself hanging onto a fellow passenger’s shoelaces, and he or she hanging from what was hopefully a sturdy tree branch. In either scenario, I’d have to hold onto my glasses as though my life depended on them—because well, it usually does. Meanwhile, the bus drove over wood and metal bridges that would rattle under the weight of the bus.
Just when the ride seemed to be getting better, we came to a stop behind a few parked buses, one of which was stuck in the mud on its way uphill. It was drizzling when we stepped outside and all the passengers were standing around, watching. After multiple failed attempts to pull out, the driver asked the people to fill up the backseats, which would, he reasoned, help tug the back tyres out of the mud. While most people stood, unconvinced, I and several other onlookers got into the bus in question, and to our relief, this helped the vehicle move past the obstacle. Once it was in safer terrain, the conductor threw out large stones from the luggage compartment to the back of the bus. The things one has to do to make it in the mountains, I remember thinking.
Minutes later, when we were back on the road, we saw another bus come rushing at us from the opposite direction. Mister Hint of a Moustache requested the older driver to back up his vehicle as it was too dangerous for ours to do so. The hotheaded driver blatantly refused. Instead, he stepped out of his bus to urinate! Our bus had no option but to head back and allow him to pass before going forth once more. Most passengers stepped off before Ghasa, including the mother and her newborn, who—to my utter surprise—had not produced a single sound for the duration of the noisy, bumpy journey. Now, fewer people onboard meant a bumpier ride and we had to occasionally slide to the backseats to make it easier for the bus to travel uphill.
The return trip
The weather stayed much the same throughout our stay in Jomsom. Although the clouds did give way to a few patches of blue in the sky, there was absolutely no trace of the mountains. I could only assume the Nilgiri could be seen from a restaurant that was called Nilgiri View. Before I knew it, it was time to head back home and I hoped the return bus trip would prove to be eventless. But the mountain roads had a different plan. On reaching Ghasa, we had to wait for about three hours before any vehicle arrived from Beni. The road had become too wet and slicked, making the journey uphill from Beni to Ghasa extremely difficult.
When buses finally arrived, we happened to board one with many foreigners. An English-speaking woman was sitting behind me, and wondering out loud if being crammed on the bus was good for passengers in case we were to meet with an accident. As we hurtled along, she had an interesting anecdote to share with the French guy next to her. As a kid, when she was learning to swim, she would keep herself from panicking by trying to think of names of vegetables starting from each letter of the alphabet. She started playing the game on the bus too, but as soon as she’d said ‘celery’ for C, she was stumped, and right then, we learnt the bus had a flat tyre, and the game was cut short. She and the other foreigners got off the bus and chose to walk to their destination—Tatopani. The rest of us, meanwhile, had to spend almost two more hours waiting for the tyre to get fixed. And because the bus was parked right in the middle of the road—the only flat surface around—it meant vehicles coming in from either direction were stuck too.
As I waited, I decided to play the vegetable game to occupy myself, but much like my foreign friend, could not get past D. To forget my failure, I joined the other passengers to watch the driver and conductor change the tyre. A spare tyre was available, but it wasn’t filled with enough air. The duo discussed taking out one of the tyres from the back and replacing the flat one up front.
“It was the load…we were carrying too many people. And the foreigners are heavily built too,” the young driver complained. When I heard rumblings about how they’d taken out the wrong tyre, I decided it would be best to walk away for a while. I found a dry stone in an open field beside the road to sit on and stared at the apple trees next to it for an hour. Then I spent another hour staring at my shoes. It occurred to me how even the trips we make to break free from routines that bind us, demand discipline, demand a schedule. And when all does not go according to plan, the delays and detours can be enjoyed when one has time but not when one does not. We reached Beni hungry and exhausted, 12 hours after our journey first began.
It turned out to be one of those trips when the journey becomes the destination: of getting a peek into the hardships of living in the mountains and of squirming under the tyranny of transport syndicates. And a chance to experience how the mundane act of riding a bus can, for a city slicker, turn into a matter of treading that fine line between life and death.
Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, November 30, 2013 On Saturday edition.