Saturday, 28 March 2009

The Journey from Hell

The Journey From Hell.
We left Shimla yesterday for what should have been a fairly uncomplicated journey back to Ludhiana. Supposedly we would jump onto an AC bus that would take us to Chandigarh, change buses there and then get to Ludhiana on a second bus. All in all the route should have taken about six hours. Easy peasy.
All was going well for the first hour or so, we even managed a bit of a snooze along the way. And then at Solan we pulled into a bus garage. No explanation. About fifteen minutes go by before the conductor raises his head and barks that we will need to change buses. After a great deal of commotion, of which I understood nada, it became vaguely apparent that the Police had closed of the road to Kalka due to “civil unrest” on the route. The civil unrest it would appear had been caused by the Police in the first place going in the surrounding area and razing illegal markets that had been springing up. As a result we needed to change onto a smaller bus that would be able to traverse the alternative route. It soon became apparent why. The newly plotted journey consisted of dirt roads, heavily corrugated from rain and potholed. The tarmac that interspersed the dirt road was in a similar state of repair. And the serpentine roads overlooked some pretty scary sheer drops into the valleys below. After all we were in the Himalayas. Unperturbed by any of the above our driver was eager to make good time. Overtaking on blind corners seemed to be a pretty cool idea and downhill represented an opportunity to break the record for the fastest bus in India. It was as Nipun, remarked, almost as if he was trying to beat his own previous record. All of this would not have been soooo bad if the roads hadn’t been rougher than me after a night on the beer. We bounced, trampolined and jolted around in our seats. We shook. Our ears rung with the sound of vibrating steel and glass. Being at the back was not such a good idea when we hit the larger bumps and were catapulted towards the roof. For those Zimbabweans out there, it made Kukura Kurewa look like a Hummer limo ride. And our four hour trip to Chandigarh turned into a six and a half hour bone jarring ride from the pits of the inferno itself. That was Round One out of the way.
Round Two: Chandigarh.
Chandigarh is famous for the way in which it was designed and layed out by the Belgian architect Le Corbusier. It is in many ways distinctly Un-Indian, consisting of orderly grids, large landscaped roundabouts and fairly wide roads. Think Milton Keynes (with 35 degree cee heat). On the surface the bus stop too seems to be orderly and well managed. The buses leave from clearly designated points, a cleaner swirls around your feet with a mop and the toilets are (allegedly) cleaned regularly. Regarding the latter the smell of sulphur could kill a man from a hundred yards. All in all it appeared that getting a ticket and onwards travel would be a doddle. Sadly this was not entirely the case. There were two queues, one for Women and one for the Gents. Each queue consisted on a tight fist of people at the front all scrambling to get the front and vying for attention, followed by a single civil line of resigned people who were clearly going nowhere. This was a case of the meek inheriting more meekness. Nipun’s mum joined the ladies queue and began the infinite wait for service. The attendant was clearly overwhelmed by the throng but was distinctly unstressed by the situation. He was as cool as a cucumber, as unruffled as the Fonz. He was obviously very used to be cajoled, snapped at, bombarded with punters trying to get home. And nothing in this life or the next would stress him out. If you did not have the exact money ready then you went to the back of the queue as he had no change. Le Corbusier would have turned in his grave and wept a bitter tear of regret. As for Nipun’s Mum, she displayed the patience of a Saint and awe inspiring perseverance. Finally we managed to get tickets for the next bus to Ludhiana, and I could have kissed that bus. We finally arrived back in Ludhiana at about eight thirty, having left Shimla at nine thirty that morning. Oh happy day to see a shower and a clean bed.
We are back on the road, or more accurately rail tomorrow when we go to Delhi to begin working our way South towards Kerala and Goa. More then.
Coming up: Delhi, Agra, Taj Mahal, Jaipur

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