'The bus was now tilting towards the gorge'
HOLIDAY DISASTERS:I’VE BEEN exceptionally charmed in my years of travelling. There’s a tiny jagged scar on my forehead from where a glass lampshade ingloriously fell on my head in a hotel room in Sri Lanka, and there were the three stray dogs that circled me in a Kathmandu backstreet at night until one of them bit me. But I’ve never been robbed, I’ve never been sick, and I’ve never been assaulted. For a combination of some four-plus years backpacking, those are happy innings.
What has caused me recurring nightmares over the years, however, has been the local bus. The local bus, be it in rural regions of Colombia, Bolivia, Burma, India, Laos, Nepal, Pakistan or any of the other countries I’ve travelled to, is seldom a vehicle that inspires confidence. I’ve taken buses where drivers drove at night with the lights off, where half the engine was poking through the bonnet, where people fell off the roof where they were perched and the driver just kept going, and once, a bus that was driven by a man who had his left arm in plaster. The gears were changed for him by another man who sat alongside, and smoked grass for the entire 18-hour journey.
It’s an economic necessity in many countries to keep public transport vehicles on the road as long as possible, until they literally fall apart. But being from a western culture, I also fret about safety.
It was a local bus that I boarded one day in Gilgit, Pakistan, to take me on the 120-mile journey to Skardu in Baltistan, a region in northern Pakistan that borders Tibet and the disputed Jammu-Kashmir area. This is where a cluster of most of the world’s highest mountains soar skywards, including K2. What I had read about it told me it was a stunning, remote area with a history so fantastical it seemed fictional: a 1987 National Geographic article on Baltistan had described it as “a cultural fossil”.
My guidebook suggested I sit on the right side of the bus for spectacular views. The road runs along the mighty Indus river, which it shadows for most of the journey.
Our route, I slowly realised, once we had left the bazaars of Gilgit behind, was along the narrowest of rocky tracks carved out of the side of this gorge. Hundreds of metres below, the river. Hundreds of metres above, a narrow slit of sky. In the middle, our ancient, overloaded bus with its regulation bald tyres, dozens of sacks of rice crammed on the roof, and uncertain brakes. And I had the scenic view.
That journey was 17 years ago, and I can still recall it with utter vividness. There was, of course, no protective barrier between us and the edge of the chasm. Mostly, it appeared as if we were levitating. The scale was like nothing I’ve ever seen, before or since. The best way of describing it is by saying our bus was like a spider threading its way along the middle of a cathedral’s gable wall.