A thrill runs down his spine. Is it excitement or anxiousness?Perhaps a bit of both. These long journeys are never not arduous, but Dorjee can’t wait to taste the mountain air of his home. It's too late to change his mind anyway, the worn and rickety bus is waiting for him, full of passengers who will travel the next many hours with him.
Dorjee hands his bag to the bus driver’s helper, and it is immediately and mercilessly squashed into the luggage rack with countless others. He shows the helper his bus ticket and lets loose a sigh. His seat is near the window. A pleasant surprise for the long ride ahead.
The bus driver bellows his final call for boarding. Passengers throw back hot tea and hurry inside in a less than orderly fashion. With great effort, the bus’s engine rumbles to life and the journey to Mustang, one of the most beautiful mountain districts in the country, begins.
As the bus maneuvers the hills to get out of the Kathmandu Valley, many passengers are already wishing the bus would stop. It’s just a taste of what’s to come, Dorjee remembers. The seat is too small and his knees keep hitting the back of the seat in front of him. But as the bus crests the valley, the scenery outside the dusty glass makes everything worth it. The road follows the river surrounded by endless hills. Dorjee gets lost in the unmelodic bumps of the drive and stares at the hills. He notices the tin-walled houses perched impossibly close to the edges of the hills.“How is that even possible?” he wonders to himself.
He is surprised that he notices something new every time. Dorjee makes this trip back to Mustang from Kathmandu Valley every spring. The winters are harsh in the mountains and with barren lands, there’s little cultivation to sustain familiesin the cold season and schools are closed due to the extreme weather. So like most of the villagers, Dorjee packs his bags and heads toward the valley to wait out the winter.
But they yearn for the months to pass quickly. Because even though it’s warmer, nothing is quite like home.
The bus continues its journey. The initial excitement begins to die down and the passengers turn to each other, bonding over mutual bus pains and eagerness to return home. They laugh about the journey and chat about their families and lives back in Mustang.They pass around snacks,chewing gum, and water bottles, along with uncooked and spicy instant noodles.And there’s always at least one passenger that requests his own music. English, Nepali, Hindi, new and old songs pump through the bus’s speakers the entire way. Often at volumes way too loud to sleep to.
When the bus stops after a few hours, everyone tumbles out and toward the line for lunch. Dorjee steps down and walks with his new friends towards the rest stop. The shop bustles with hoards of people going in different directions.Strands of hot steam from freshly cooked rice float through the air.Waiters zoom around people and through tables to take orders and before Dorjee knows it, there’s a plate of daalbhaat and tarkari in front of him. Within an hour, everyone is back in their seats, a little drowsy and a bit too full. The journey continues.
The highways are unpredictable in these Nepali hills. From his coveted window seat, Dorjee sees everything from shepherds whistling to sheep to get out of the road to foreign hikers to rough and rugged construction sites. He isn’t surprised a bit when the bus comes to a screeching halt after rounding a bend a little too fast. The mess from a recent landslide sets their arrival time back a few hours while the drivers and other passengers help clear a path for the bus and piling traffic.
The roads are always dangerous. You never know when the roads on the young mountains will give away. Dorjee falls asleep in the stillness, dreaming of the expensive airplanes that would get him home so much quicker.
Three hours later the bus rocks, jolting Dorjee up. He had dozed off waiting. The long roads carry on, passing through the hills, the plains, and then meeting the rivers again. The real challenge begins when the bus crosses the Beni-Jomsom highway. The 76 km road connects the Mustang district via the northern belt of Myagdi, and it's a rough road the entire way. The perpetual bumpy roads throw everyone around and the tires of the bus drive only a few inches away from the edge of the cliff with the Kali Gangdaki river. The drivers are confident though, they have been driving these roads for years.
And after sixteen hours in a loud, bumpy, crowded bus, the landscape suddenly changes. The rain clouds shadow the rocky valleys, the mountains beam against the clear blue sky. The terrain is dry with massive brown mountains, and reptiles crossing the muddy dry path. There are logs on top of the houses and the temperature has dropped. Dorjee feels it again: the thrill in his spine.He wonders again, anxiousness or excitement?But whatever it was, it didn’t matter.