There stood the bus. Just as the agent had promised, a “luxury, air-conditioned video bus”!
My son, who had been in India for some months, compared with my own few days, had been wary. He had warned me that, when travelling in India, things did not as always turn out as one expected. But I had wanted, indeed needed, to be positive.
I had had only two weeks available for my visit to India. The first week had been packed with new sights and sounds and had included a visit to the sublime Taj Mahal as a highlight. Unfortunately I had also developed a case of that universal travellers’ curse, known locally as Delhi belly. Despite this, I was determined to see the Himalayas before I had to leave.
To my surprise Easter is celebrated as a four day weekend holiday in India and, in the year I was visiting, it was immediately after Holi, the boisterous Hindu spring festival when everyone and everything gets covered in colour. Much of the Indian population was on the move. There was absolutely no chance of seats on either a train or a plane from Delhi to Nepal. But the agent did come up with two seats on the bus to Kashmir, a seventeen hour trip. Mindful of the delicate state of my stomach, I had questioned him closely.
I felt a little smug as we boarded. It was right to be trusting. The seventeen hours might bring me some internal discomfort but the externals looked to be well catered for. It was early evening as the bus pulled out into the dense, noisy Delhi traffic. All being well, we should arrive in Srinagar before lunch next day.
The plan changed quickly. As darkness fell we turned into a back street in the outer reaches of Delhi. The crush of people and vehicles had to be seen to be believed. Our bus – my bus - was only the pick up vehicle. Our actual transport stood in the crowded street having a wheel changed. It wasn’t quite the bus of the pictures.
“Luxury” apparently meant that the wooden seats had upright backrests. When we eventually got going, “air conditioned” proved to mean that the windows could open. What was true was that it was undoubtedly a “video bus”. Colourful Hindi musical dramas played night and day. If I couldn’t sleep, at least inventing a story line distracted me from a rumbling tummy.
A long, uncomfortable night was interrupted after midnight for supper and a tyre change, making a welcome break.
Morning found us crossing the Punjab. Near Pathankot we saw our first snow covered mountains in the distance and our allotted seventeen hours found us in Jammu, well on our way but several hours short of our destination.
Soon we heard that it might take more than that several hours before we saw Srinagar - landslides had closed the road! This gave us a chance to see the sights of Jammu’s Old Town with intricately carved overhanging balconies. It also gave us the opportunity of a room and sleep as rain poured down. By now I was hungry, so a vegetable curry was welcome, although it proved unwise .
The morning was wet but we followed a road which wound up through the dripping pines to two thousand metres before descending in the rain to a valley where a traffic jam held us up for an hour or so. The Hindi videos played throughout.
Landslides caused a diversion for our convoy. Rocks rolled unpredictably down precipitous slopes and a road sign warned “Don’t nag, let him drive”! Was it directed at wives generally, or at anxious bus passengers? Perhaps both. Traffic flow was controlled by hand signals from a man high on the sodden slopes who kept an eye both on the traffic and the moving mountainside. Stops were a relief. Last night’s curry was causing trouble, so out into the rain I went, to the barren hospitality of a Himalayan mountain slope.
The day passed slowly. It was dark and snowing when we emerged from a tunnel into a valley which showed promise of beauty. By the time we bedded down on a houseboat, our scheduled seventeen hours had stretched beyond fifty. I wondered whether I would have boarded that bus had I known.
But the spirit is ever willing. Sunrise over Dal Lake and the Vale of Kashmir made a soothing balm for soul and body.