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2 January 2014

Take a Bus (get off the beaten path)

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If you head north from Delhi for any appreciable distance, you’d be wise to take a bus with the requisite Indian quorum of humanity. You would leave the teeming city like I did: in the heat of the afternoon after spending several hours squatting in the stippled shade of a tree, dusty like everything else in the bus yard. It’s a pleasure then to board the bus, to get underway, to join the traffic clotting the streets. On the way out of town the bus is alive with the sounds of conversation as seat mates get to know one another. In traffic, fruits, snacks and water are purchased through windows from wandering children, one of whom boards the bus holding a tambourine and fills the vehicle with a trembling tenor, a voice sweet and vulnerable, he’s singing who knows what, but it sounds wonderful, exotic to western ears yet not unfamiliar. It becomes the soundtrack of the journey for the half hour or so that he accompanies the bus, jumping off when the traffic clears on the outskirts of the city. It’s no sacrifice to scrounge up a few rupees for his tambourine.

Indian Boy

For a long time there’s not much of consequence to look at, but the foreign eye finds all kinds of details to highlight and muse over: the vertical white and black stripes of the curbs, the domes of haystacks, the weathered pale colors of cracking buildings, the trees, the fields baking in the dust, and the bright colors of saris fading the same landscape into obsolescence. The bus passes through town after town, places that surely have names and stories, but these histories remain a mystery to the foreigner. We are all experts in the histories and geographies of our homes, they become integral to our memories and to who we are, and this is never more evident when we are taken out of our familiar surroundings and put into a new environment. Travel is, in essence, a transformation of who we are from an expert who is a part of his surroundings to a naif hopelessly estranged from them. The closer we get to our surroundings when travelling, the more we interact with them, the more pronounced this effect becomes. This is why the most authentic experiences are often to be had on buses like this one to Srinagar, Kashmir.

The Indian Countryside

This bus is no luxury cruiser. It is a spartan affair of threadbare seats and exposed metal, though not altogether uncomfortable. It is split between a lower level of non-reclining seats and an upper level of bunks. Tickets are sold for one option only, such that the rider is either to spend the 24 hour duration of the ride sitting upright, or laying down behind a thin curtain. There is, unfortunately, no bathroom, so nobody is exactly chugging any of the water they have brought with them. There is a period of time when everyone aboard is getting settled, shuffling bags and possessions from here to there, shifting in their seats. After the distraction of the city has passed, and there is nothing more inside or outside of the bus to distract the passengers, conversations spring up in a variety of languages: Hindi, Urdu and English are easily identifiable in the noise of the bus cabin. Accordingly, by the time the bus pulls in to its first stop, a battered roadside dhaba selling a limited cryptic menu of curries and rice, alliances and enemies along the riders have already begun to form and manifest themselves in the groups gathered around the plastic furniture in the hard concrete shade.

Roadside Dhaba

The stop isn’t long, a half hour at most, before the bus engine rumbles to life in the parking lot and honks its horn. Those who ordered food bolt it down, others take a last trip to the bathroom. Everyone piles on to the bus, and the driver, either somehow magically knowing when all are aboard or not caring, pulls back onto the road. The following hours are a blur. There is no time on the bus, no keeping track of distance, for the fields roll soon into the darkness of the hills, and the bus is just a half lit island hurtling through an unknown landscape. The conversations on the bus have fallen silent. There is nothing to look at and not enough light to read. Most of the passengers are just snoozing or staring through the windshield at empty road.

All of a sudden the noises of the road stop, who knows how long it’s been, and a dull, distant light is tainting the darkness. When the engine cycles to a lolling halt, sputtering, firing, then ceasing, there are voices in the air, distant engines rumbling, and when the door opens, the smell of food. Groggy eyes can barely discern the bus steps and thus are completely blown away by the scene at their terminus. There is sand on the ground and bare trees laden with white shimmering tubes of florescent light, burning cold and naked in the warm air. They illuminate a giant red Coca-Cola sign, a weathered wooden menu mounted on a corrugated tin ramble belching foodsmoke into the air. An oasis of light and activity in what by all accounts appears to be a desert wasteland. This place is busy, positively humming with people getting in and out of battered vehicles, jeeps, trucks, little plastic cars and mopeds. People are leaning on long plastic tables, eating heaps of rice and fried objects.

There are a surprising number of places to wander in this shimmering ramshackle, bordered on all side by impenetrable darkness. There are abandoned vehicles, outbuildings and paths that lead off into the inky distance. There is also, fortunately, a bar, surprisingly the most vertical building of the bunch. It is manned by a man who professes to love Americans, who, with exaggerated hand gestures, explains that he cooked for American soldiers in the first Gulf War. “Good people, Americans,” he says, “have a drink on the house.” So there is a tumbler of whiskey on the bar to be drained and a bladder to be drained before rushing back to the bus which resumes its hurtle through the night.

It’s a fitful night of half sleep through bumps and darkness punctuated at indeterminate intervals by sodium lights and bizarre visions of guard towers and razor wire fences. Daylight reveals the terrain has risen and lost its soft dusty edges. There are no longer curves on the sweep of the horizon but jagged lines of rock. The bus winds up the valleys, the window seats requiring more constitution than the isle seats, but the reward is an expansive view of mountainous desolation, precipitous drops, and wildly painted trucks exclaiming “THIS TRUCK IS OWNED BY ALLAH, OPERATED BY AMIR”. There are soldiers too, in little groups huddled against recesses in the cliff walls to let vehicles pass. This is Indian frontier country, and it is rugged and wild from the razor-edged view outside to the eroding roadway below.

With the slow and steady gain in elevation comes vegetation. Shrubland gives way to forests, which grow thicker and greener, providing cool, verdant relief from the dull dryness of the city, from the dryness of the plains, the desert and the hills below. The bus is shaded now as it winds up switchback after switchback, miraculously making tight turns while other vehicles make suicidal passes, and in the bus a silent but tangible reverence for the skills of the driver grows. There is another stop, at a building carved into a cliff, the parking lot barely wide enough for traffic. Here the snack shop features tight, wide bags of chips about to burst, inflated by the higher pressure under which they were packaged at far lower altitude. The mountain air is cool and thin, fresh and welcome to smog and dust choked lungs.

When the bus stops again it is at a military checkpoint and papers are presented and duly recorded by a bored looking soldier into a massive, weathered logbook. Its occupants registered, the bus is then permitted to enter a narrow hole in the side of the mountain, a tunnel which seems to continue for miles of pitch black engine noise. The bored, travel beaten mood on the bus mysteriously improves, conversation begins again, at a higher volume and pace than ever before. Soon the darkness begins to lift and the bus suddenly erupts into a valley, long and wide into the haze of distance, deeply green and rolling with hills, rivers and lakes, a lush paradise of trees of blue clear water: Kashmir.

Srinagar from Above

There are farms laid out below and smooth lakes fed by crystal streams beside which rest nomadic families in burlap and fur tents. Flowers burst from the gutters and cracks in tumbled down rocks. The trucks passing are colorfully laden with mounds of fresh vegetables and grains. There is also a military presence everywhere: razor wire and traffic barriers line the side roads, sandbags are piled into walls in the distance. It is incongruous, to say the least, to see so much organic beauty so meticulously militarized, so hardened, as if such a land was too miraculous to be unprotected. To a certain extent, this is true, and even the novice to local politics can understand why this place is such a flashpoint, why battles have been fought over this valley.

Kashmir

By the time the bus has descended to the grassy plains of the valley floor, villages appear in clumps along the road built of mud bricks and timber homes, small and simply adorned. More roads begin to split off of the main trunk, the fields and villages give way to the density of a low built city, sprawling in a modest, almost lazy way along the shores of houseboat laden lakes. This is Srinagar, and it is far from the bustling megacities so often associated with modern India. This is a city of a single strip airport, no rail, no mass transit, a place where even British influence is limited. It is unique but not uniquely in an Indian way. It is uniquely Kashmiri, the capitol of a long suffering people, mind you not the capitol of decision making, but the capitol of sacrifice in the name of those decisions. The sacrifice at hand: an ageless normality, a fierce individuality, a way of life that begins in the valley floor and extends into the reaches of the highest Himalayas. It is a land beyond politics, embroiled in politics. It is the start of an adventure.

The City of Srnagar