I had been told that the trip to Bayankhongor, Mongolia, would take 12 hours, but the van had broken down three times since leaving Ulaanbaatar that morning. Sometime after sunset, the gas pedal disengaged. The driver rigged a wire to the throttle and handed it to the guy riding shotgun; he pulled, keeping us rattling over the dirt track that passed for a highway at speeds of about 15 miles an hour.
The steppes were dark but for our weak and lonely headlights. Hours passed. With no idea where we were or when we would get where we were going, I began to imagine that I’d entered the twilight zone—that the sun would never rise, the drive would never end, and I would be doomed to spend eternity exhausted but unable to sleep, crammed between two husky men who reeked of cigarettes and mutton.
But then, well after midnight, the driver began to sing. It was a ballad, rich and mournful. His wife, holding their baby in her lap, joined in. So did the other eight Mongolians in the van. The song had the effect of a gospel hymn, a soulful expression of tribulation gracefully endured. They sang song after song, and though I couldn’t understand the words, I knew what they meant. We were all in this together. Everything was all right. There was no reason to wish we were anywhere else. Suddenly, my reserves of patience felt bottomless. I was squished into a Soviet-era van for what would ultimately be a 30-hour ride through the least densely populated country on earth—and I was happy.
It wasn’t the first time I had achieved transcendence on public transportation. In developed nations, transit systems tend to be too efficient to take me anywhere other than where I’m going. But in developing countries—bouncing through Morocco’s Atlas Mountains in a cargo truck filled with people and livestock, for instance, or crossing the Guatemalan rainforest in a Toyota minivan bulging with 26 passengers—the rigors of hard travel often push me toward an unintentional spiritual breakthrough.
I recently spent a couple of months crisscrossing the states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand in northern India, where many travelers trek in the Himalayas and meditate in ashrams. I was updating a guidebook to the region, which meant a lot of time on the road. The first bus I boarded was bound for Dharamsala. Rain seeped through the roof and flowed down the walls, pooling on torn seats and the grimy metal floor. Plagued by multiple delays, a few buses heading to Dharamsala caught up with one another. Their drivers decided they didn’t all need to make the trip, so three loads of passengers packed into a single bus. I was stuffed into the back row between a heap of luggage and a few large Tibetans. The trip, scheduled for four hours, took 10. By the time I arrived, I’d been stripped of any illusion that life was meant to go according to plan.
A couple of weeks of traveling was all it took to erode my ingrained attachments to punctuality, predictability, personal space, and the power to control my own destiny. As bus drivers with Formula One fantasies careened over twisting Himalayan roads, cornering their hulking vehicles along the edges of precipitous curves, I came to accept that half an inch is a perfectly comfortable margin between life and death. As some rides stretched into stamina tests, I was opened to tiny moments of grace: The glowing afternoon light filtered through forests of slender pines or the taste of a perfect cup of sweet chai from a roadside stall was enough to fill me with gratitude. Before too long, I had reached a place of deeper tranquility, more free from expectations and desires, than if I had spent a year meditating.
Just before leaving northern India, I took a bus down from Gangotri, where the Ganges River is said to have descended from the heavens. I had trekked 12 miles that morning from the actual source of the river, beneath the soaring, snow-clad Bhagirathi Massif, and was exhausted. The impact of the previous months of traveling hit me all at once. I didn’t want to be on the bus anymore. Worse than the hassle or the hardship, I was simply bored by it. The miles unrolled painfully slowly.
The bus paused in a small village and a shepherd got on, pulling a shaggy goat by a rope. The door closed, the engine revved—and the goat sprayed the aisle with what in India is known as “loose motions.” It was even more ridiculous than it was disgusting, and I laughed, my boredom gone. I sat back, content, and enjoyed the ride out of the mountains. A
Illustration by Chris Lyons. This appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.