The bus was due to leave New Manali at 6am yesterday morning, so oversleeping my alarm and waking up at 5.20 almost sentenced me to another day in the Himalayas' most touristy of tourist villages. It was only because I waved across the river to a rickshaw driver relaxing with his early morning chai and bundled my stuff into his vehicle (losing my trainers in the process) that I made it in time. Then the bus was utter chaos. The Manali-Spiti bus had been cancelled and merged with the Kullu-Spiti bus, so now we had two sets of passengers and two sets of reservations but only one set of seats. It emerged that the ticket office, knowing of the cancellation, had decided to double book the seats and make a bit of extra money. I, on the other hand, didn't have a ticket at all. An Indian passenger sold me his absent friend's ticket for the seat next to him, but that was already occupied by a woman from Kullu and her ill looking child. I was standing and squashed and the journey to Spiti, over a couple of mountain passes and round bend after bend after bend, lasts 11 hours. But such is the Indian experience, I reasoned.
Yet, by any evaluation, the journey turned out hugely enjoyable. Once we were over the freezing, cloud-covered Rhotang Pass we descended onto the spectacular Spiti side. We snaked between towering valley walls and alongside the ever present, cheap coffee-coloured river. The clouds couldn't get over the mountains, so the sky turned clear and blue. After we stopped for lunch I joined the Indian guy who'd sold me the ticket and the other westerners - an Israeli girl, a Spanish couple and a German boy - on the roof. We lay or sat on the bed of backpacks and soft cases, let the sun beat down and enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery I've seen.
We arrived in Spiti's main town, Kaza, at 6pm. I say town, but it's still very quiet with hardly any foreign tourists. From every point in town you can see the gargantuan rocky hills and ravines.
It's 3,600 metres above sea level, so the Spanish, the Israeli and I all had headaches last night. The air felt lighter and I kept feeling dizzy. It was like my awareness was blocked and I felt like doing nothing. I did manage to get my guidebook out and read it takes about 24 hours for the body to adjust to the height. I've taken it easy today and sure enough I'm feeling almost back to normal. We've been gathering our strength to set off early tomorrow. We'll be getting a jeep further into the valley, where we'll stop at a lake and numerous Tibetan Buddhist gompas and monasteries.
In Manali I felt I wanted something more remote, harder, more solitary. Well I've got it. That I've attached myself to a group of tourists waters that down a bit. But Saturday, when they plan to move on from Tabo, the next town, and I want to rest for Shabbat, I may find myself more convincingly alone.