Spiti - A world beyond Rohtang
Suparna Banerjee, Sep 23, 2010
Spiti has been hovering in our travel consciousness for a while now. We’ve been hovering near Spiti too, but somehow we never quite made it beyond Kalpa. With two kids in tow, it seemed easier to just loll around in the hotel’s garden watching the apples ripen and dig into bowlful’s of halwa dished out by the ever-smiling, ever-cooking cook at Hotel Kinner Villa than to drive through terrain that almost never drops below a low-oxygen altitude of 10,000 feet.

But, even bowlfuls of the best halwa in the world can only take you that far. This year, older and wiser (or so we hope) my husband Ajay and I decide to cash in on the surge of fitness and acclimatization running through our bodies. We’re fresh out of a trek through 4000m high mountain passes near Manali, and it seems the perfect opportunity to head for Spiti.

Our early morning departure from Manali is heralded by the usual din of Rohtang-headed people and the gush and gurgle of the Beas flowing nearby. Rohtang at noon is a bit like Karol Bagh in the evening, hoards of tourists turned out in rented faux fur coats and rubber boots, vendors shouting out their wares and locals desperately cashing in on the short tourist season. There’s practically no snow, but they’re still trying to make do with the scarce patches still around on the slopes and running snow scooters on them. Along the road, where the piles of ice spell sculptural opportunity, over-optimistic young lovers, couples on a break from the daily business of living and even Pappoos and Chunnu’s egged on by parents seem to delight in garish snow-sculptures trimmed with flowers, hearts, and blood-red lettering that read, “Mona loves Sunju.”

My kids, 11 and 6, are only interested in the snow scooters, but even they can see that it’s a pointless exercise. We collectively shudder and swing past and go on and away to the other side of Rohtang Pass, where only cars heading towards Leh and army trucks heading wherever, go.

At Gramphu, a dhaba marks the T-junction. To the left, is the road to Leh, popular and populous with tourists headed there in Qualises, Jeeps, Scorpios, buses and Indicas. To the right, is the road to Spiti, spare and silent, with only the odd Sumo or Qualis coming from Spiti towards Manali. Most tourists enter Spiti from Kinnaur and exit through Manali. We seem to be driving against this “natural” flow. Perhaps a spot of Maggi noodles here should fortify us for this exercise.

At 3220m, Gramphu is a popular bus stop, and the bus driver even works as a courier boy of sorts for the old lady who runs the dhaba. Tea and Maggi noodles it is, and we’re soon to discover that Spiti for vegetarians and those with kids, is pretty much a Maggi-megaland. We’re just soaking the sun, when a convoy consisting of a Pajero and an Innova roar up, park mid-road and a platoon of Punjabis rolls out. Within minutes, tables and chairs are loudly requisitioned, tea ordered, and a humungous quantity of food off-loaded from their cars. You name it, they have it. Paranthas, pickle, chips, cold drinks, sandwiches. Uncle-ji asks around if anyone wants Doodh-Fanta (Fanta and milk??) and explains to whoever would care to listen, "Jab mein Falkland gaya tha to mainu Fanta aur doodh ka bada shauk lag gaya tha." The Fanta-fauji digs into this strange combo, while the kids are handed out their parantha rolls. Two aunties surreptitiously stroll behind the dhaba to take a leak. I stare at the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering around the dhaba and wonder whether it counts as sacrilege to pee here.

Our Maggi arrives. The Pajero platoon sees the steaming bowls heading to our table and gives me a look that says it all, “What kind of mom feeds her growing kids Maggi?” Should I cringe? I give a weak smile, and then tuck into the watery Maggi noodles with gusto.

Having polished off most of the paranthas, and probably a gallon of Fanta and milk, the Punjab platoon heads off towards Leh. We wrap up in Gramphu and turn our noses towards the Spiti valley, to Kaza, which is 137 kms from here. Entering Lahaul-Spiti is like entering a room that resonates with silence. There’s no one here. Well, practically no one. We do a rough calculation. We’ve passed about a car an hour. Probably less, since the official figures put the population density at, hold your breath, two people per kilometre! As we drive along, along the Chandra River, the landscape gets bleaker and bleaker, and somehow stunning, in the same breath. From the browns and greens of Manali, we’ve come to reds, rusts, yellows, creams, and browns.

Pretty soon, Ajay has to undo his seat-belt so he can lean forward and get a look at the road. The road’s disappeared, replaced by a track made up of loose gravel and rocks. Pretty soon this “road” disappears too and we land up on a stream bed with rounded pebbles and boulders just waiting to say ‘hello’ to the car’s underside.

Do we go over the rock on the left and risk a dent or the rock on the right and risk being stranded. With a huff and a puff, and lots of prayers, we’re across. We soon realize that this is just the beginning. From here till Losar, where we enter the Spiti Valley, this is what works as a road: stream beds, valley beds, blocked and broken roads that have been replaced by impromptu paths cut across a river bed. Our average speed is now 10 kms per hour, given the ‘road’ and the fact that our cameras keep coming out.

Frozen noses at Battal

At Battal, a dhaba near the bridge is the only sign of habitation. Ajay gets out and a blast of ice cold air makes us scramble for our jackets. He makes a beeline for the warmth of the dhaba. After ordering tea, he tries to look through the viewfinder – the landscape is like someone melted a crayola box and swirled the colours around like fudge – but finally gives up since the intense cold is making his eyes water. I try a hand at some photographs. Five clicks and five seconds later, I’m back in the car, teeth chattering.

Battal is where we would have started our trek to Chandratal lake (it’s 13 kms from here by road) if we had followed our original, harebrained, plan to squeeze in a trek between our Beas Kund trek and the drive through Spiti. In the freezing drizzle at Battal, I’m kind of glad we gave up that idea.

Tea break over, Ajay is ready to hit the road. The wind is howling outside, it’s started drizzling, and the mountains look like a mass of crushed stone threatening to come rolling down on us at the first downpour. At the bridge at Battal, we leave behind the Chandra River, and move into the arms of the Spiti River.

Kunzum Pass at 4500 metres is cold, windy and on top of the world. Colourful Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind and a gompa crowns the top of the pass. Around us, it is 360 degrees of molten peaks soaking in the setting sun. It’s just after five in the evening and we wake the sleeping kids, hustle them out of the car for a photo-op. That done, we roll on, and roll down towards the Spiti Valley.

What a sight. I think of my mother, the retired yet never tired geography teacher. This is the stuff of her dreams. Fold mountains push up, have been pushing up for thousands of years, and it’s like watching an undulating cassata ice-cream in browns and rusts. The jagged peaks are crumbling before our very eyes, piles of stone dust forming dunes that hug the base of the rocks.

An hour later we reach Takcha, situated at the floor of the valley. There’s nothing here except prayer flags and the towering peaks all around. After miles and miles of gorgeous emptiness, we’ve all begun to feel a bit flat. Ajay is probably “flat out” doing all that driving. I miss the sight of living creatures – anything will do – goats, sheep, people. At 6.45 pm, with the light rapidly dwindling, we reach the gateway to Spiti and our first sign of habitation, the little cluster of Losar.

The gateway to Spiti

“People,” I yell, “and goats and kids, and policemen!” At the entry-point, a very Bihari looking cop wants all the gory details of our car entered in his register. Tired and hungry, we figure this is the best place to stop for a break. Kaza seems too far off. We settle in for another round of tea and more Maggi (the water level in the bowl seems to rise with the surrounding altitude). The friendly dhaba owner points our noses towards the Irrigation Department gueshouse one km away in Chichong. He even sends along the chowkidar’s granddaughter who has her son Tenzing comfortably wrapped in a shawl.

Ten minutes later, we enter a spacious compound – all newly tarred with the regulation flowers trying desperately to grow in regulation flower beds – and a smart green-roofed guesthouse complete with a drawing room, and ‘regulation’ rooms with attached bathrooms (with geysers, mind you), a study-table and even a dressing table.

At Rs 250 for a night, this is a steal. The chowkidar wonders whether we want to head back to the dhaba for dinner. We look out, at the howling winds and heading-for-sub-zero-temperature, and shake our heads numbly. Dal and chawal will do fine, thank you. For the next hour, while dinner is presumably being cooked up, we huddle on the bed, all jacketed and topi-ed just freezing our bums off, while Ajay very cheerfully, and not very convincingly says, “It’s real warm in here.”

Dinner is laid out sahib-style in the dining room on the dining table. It takes a combo of cajoling and threats plus a hefty serving of Haldiram namkeen to get my daughter to eat some. My son takes one look at the dal, asks aloud if Maggi is on offer, gets “the look” from Ajay, and then silently shovels the yellow mish-mash into his mouth. We do the same, basically in a hurry to get back into the quilt. An hour later, all I can hear is Ajay’s snores and my daughter’s whistle-like snoozes doing a duet of sorts. I tuck into a few more pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which I’ve been carrying around as travel reading. Sliding lower and lower into the quilt, I finally just pass out.

Next day I’m up at the crack of dawn, probably more out of habit than anything else. Ajay too heads out, looking for a different landscape, plus some portraits of the locals. The chowkidar takes him to a neighbour’s house where Ajay is served some mind-blowing tea with no milk. He shoots pictures of the family, and outside, people waiting for the morning bus, kids waiting to go to school, the dry mountains rising in front of the guest house, the white houses picking up the first light, and a lovely portrait of a Spiti child.

Meanwhile, I’m soaking sun in the courtyard, generally packing up, and having tea. We’re really in no hurry. Kaza is only an hour and a half from here. But, of course, we have a special talent for taking forever to go wherever.

Once Ajay’s back, all freezing cold and with a nose like Rudolph’s, we tuck into a breakfast of tea and paranthas. The kids opt for Maggi, what else? So, we head back to the dhaba and do the honours. Outside the dhaba, some locals have spread out their wares on tables. We pick up some trinkets for friends, take some pictures of the dhaba owner and we’re ready to push off. From here on, the road materialises. Not just any old stone and pebble stuff. This is the real thing, tar and all. So, in a jolly mood, we kickstart for Kaza.

The Ki to Kaza

It’s freezing cold when we leave Losar. The guest house chowkidar tells us the temperature at night is normally sub-zero. So, on that cheerful note, we leave behind Losar’s square white houses, their roofs trimmed with firewood, their windows framed in black paint or tar, and a satellite dish and a solar panel practically on every roof. Cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year, when Kunzum Pass freezes up, this dish is what links them to the outside world.

Just outside Losar, we encounter some cheerful village women, whom Ajay promptly enrolls in his model-for-me campaign. After extracting a promise that he’ll send them the photos (which he does) they smile and laugh, and chat up the kids. This area has patches of green, basically grass growing in the flat valley bed, feeding off the occasional rain, and the waters of the stream flowing nearby. There’s grass, so there are goats. And with the goats come the people. That seems to be pretty much the logic out here.

We head on, but it’s hard to floor the pedal if the scenery outside is so stunning. So we drive, say five kilometers an hour, because it’s too hard to pass up all those colours and shapes and sizes. It’s an astonishing landscape of rocky pinnacles staring down at us. The bare mountains recede downwards to slopes of rubble and dust, victims of the extreme night cold and day heat in this cold desert.

11.30 am. We stop to gape at Hansa, which lords it as 3835metres. Boulders as big as cars hang from the side of the wind-shaped pinnacles ready to let go at the first rain or rumble. Half an hour later, we stop by the side of a bridge. My daughter has been going on and on about throwing stones in the water, and Ajay figures this is as good a place as any. We get down, and our feet land in talcum-powder dust, caked. We move on, clamber over a line of rocks and climb down to the river’s edge for an undisturbed session of throwing stones in the water, trying to get the flat pebbles to skip across to the other bank.

Moving on, we suddenly come upon giant anthills sitting on the side of the mountain. Naah, no ants. Just the wind having a field day with the soft stone, chiseling away and creating these faux archaeological digs.

We’re just getting used to it being rocky and sandy and dry, when the road suddenly opens out into a huge flat green plain, with not a rock on the grass to spoil the effect. Ajay abandons the road, and takes the car onto the flat green, in search of the perfect photo. We spot a local. It turns out that he’s here collecting goat and sheep dung. Since there’s grass here, herders bring their sheep here. He figured it was a good place to stash up on some good quality fuel cum fertilizer.

It’s nearly 2 pm by the time we drive into Kaza. We’re tired, hungry and desperate for a loo. There’s a Banjara Retreat here, on the main road cutting through Kaza. We park, all hopeful and excited about staying at Banjara since we’ve heard so much about it. But one look at the dark and dim deserted corridors, smelly, musty rooms and zero view, and the decision is made. It would be better to opt for the equally smelly but cheaper HPTDC place we passed on our way here that stay here. Fortunately, I recall another hotel that is recommended around these parts, called Sakya’s Abode. We roll along, and there it is, just a little further up to the right.

We all fall in love with Sakya’s Abode the moment we troop down the stairs and step into the quadrangle that overlooks an overgrown but charming garden, complete with garden swings and chairs. And, what a view. I could sit here forever. We check out the rooms, which are neat, clean, airy, and the bathrooms look like they were minted yesterday. Added bonus: the rooms here cost a fraction of the cost of Banjara. The waiters are friendly and helpful, and the dining room has such an authentic Tibetan Buddhist feel to it, that you feel yourself soaking in it.

Freshening up, we head off to see the famous Ki Gompa, a 600-odd year old monastery that sits like a white and yellow jewel on top of a mountain. It’s a straight drive up. We land at the Gompa near evening, but it seems to be okay to visit even now. So, we walk up the steps, look into the prayer rooms, and a friendly monk escorts up to the roof where we have a fantastic 360-degree view of the mountains all around. I glance casually at the satellite dish and solar panels on top and wonder where that fits into a monk’s daily routine of prayer and practice. I guess, even at these spiritual heights you need to be clued into news.

Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we decide that we need to drop altitude. My daughter has low-grade fever kept in control with a nightly dose of paracetamol but she’s not eating much. So, no more stops in Spiti. We abandon our plan to stop in Tabo and make a beeline for Kalpa in Kinnaur.

Heading home

Fifteen minutes out of Kaza, the left bank of the road rises sharply in the form of giant anthills, rising at least 30 feet. Ajay clambers out for a photo, so does my son. I take one of both of them against the pointed columns of dust and rubble to get some perspective. Fifteen minutes later we arrive at the turn-off for Pin Valley, which is 18 kilometres from here. This home to the snow leopard and Himalayan Ibex will have to wait for some other day. We drive on, passing little habitation clusters (can’t even call them villages) with such whimsical and beautiful names like Lingti, Schilling and Poh. At noon we roll through Tabo and decide to move on.

Half an hour later, at the other end of the river bank, it looks like someone transplanted Harappa out here. The cliffs bordering the river have strange indentations, cave-like openings, pillar-like outcrops. It looks like someone excavated a city, and forgot to restore it.

Ten minutes later, more surprises in store. We’re in Hoorling. Apple trees on both sides crop up, trimming the harsh mountain sides with a line of green. The main street has its usual lineup of dhabas, STD-PCOs and guesthouses. To the right is a giant prayer wheel, large as a house, that’s fixed on a moveable base, inviting passersby to turn the wheel. (It’s to be turned clockwise, something I learned at the Ki Gompa.)

We stop here for some food, discover there’s more Maggi in store (which is now really getting my goat), eat it anyway, and move on. Ten minutes later, we cross Sumdo (which is the closest we’ll get to the China-Tibet border on this trip), then Shalkhar where we see our first patch of decent green, and then finally Chango, from where we have to get onto the new Malling road.

A taxi driver in Kaza has warned Ajay about the Malling road. It’s all spanking new and tarred, but it takes barely ten minutes on it, to figure out why it’s such a challenge. In a near-continuous 45-degree climb, the road quickly takes us from the valley floor to near the mountain’s crest. Tires squeal, rubble flies, and we’re left wondering how high we can possibly go.

After a bone-jarring ride on the new Malling road (which, by the way, has its crumbling spots as well), we land at Nako Lake. After some tea, and stocking up on chocolates and Hajmola toffees (my daughter is beginning to feel pretty queasy by now), we roll off. I turn on some of her dhin-chuk dhin-chuk Hindi film numbers, and that seems to cheer her up.

It’s just after 4.30pm when we cross Ka village and the road starts zig-zagging wildly down the side of the narrow gorge. Down, down, and before our Maggi can travel up, we’re down at the bottom, where our companion Spiti river merges into the Sutlej at Khaab.

We’re now down to 2510 metres, so it’s definitely warmer, but there is still not much green to show for the drop in altitude. At Puh, where the Border Roads Organisation has its base, we take a rough and tumble diversion because of a landslide. From here till Rekong Peo, we come across countless fallen roads, hastily created diversions, and some downright crazy routes. It’s apparently all because of the rains that lashed Himachal last summer, barely a month after we’d returned from these very parts after our Sangla trip.

Finally, at 9pm, ravenous and tired, we roll into Kinner Villa’s parking lot, hoping they won’t turn us away saying, “No empty rooms.” Fortunately, we get a room, a nice one, but I am more concerned about the cook. Is he still around? He is, and in fact, turns up at our room and is all nice and welcoming and wanting to know what he can get for my daughter. It almost feels like coming home.

Next day, we wake up to discover there is actually quite a crowd at Kinner Villa. Among the guests is a group of Americans (a middle aged couple traveling with their respective elderly parents) and a 60-plus Indian couple that is celebrating retirement with a journey from Srinagar to Leh, onto Manali, through Spiti and finally here. Wow!!! That’s the way to go grey. The pendulum swings the other way with a portly UP family from Delhi that is busy taking pictures next to Kinner Villa’s stupendous roses. They seem to have trouble digesting that we are doing all this traveling with little kids.

Our digestion is obviously going fine now. We’re happily tucking into spring rolls and malai koftas and, to top it all, halwa. Finally, my daughter is showing some signs of reviving. By evening, though, consensus is reached. We all want to get home, in one shot. No stops, no night halts, no more hotel beds. So, taking a deep breath, and a heavy breakfast, we shoot off from Kalpa in the morning, swing through crowded Shimla by evening (which is really like Karol Bagh, Chandni Chowk and Paharganj rolled into one), stop for a chai-pakora-buy wine and cider pit-stop on the outskirts of Shimla and then headed for the plains.

Crossing Ambala, the minute the highway splits into dual carriageway, I take over. Nice and quiet and 100 kmph all the way till Panipat. Here, Ajay takes over for a while, and finally at Delhi’s Kundli border I’m back at the wheel, zipping through the streets, humming to FMs non-stop music (no jarring ads in the middle of the night), till we come to a stop at 4 am. Home.
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