Spiti has been hovering in our travel consciousness for a while now. We’ve been hovering near Spiti too, but somehow we’ve never quite made it. Last year we reached as close as Kalpa, about 12 kilometres up from Rekong Peo in Kinnaur. Instead of heading further north, we had to turn back. A landslide in Malling, combined with my daughter’s clogged nose pretty much put an end to that trip. So, we came back to hot and dry Delhi, and to make up went on a quick-zip trip to Chopta, recommended by some friends who make an annual pilgrimage to the place.
This year was a new beginning, so we thought, what the heck, let’s give Spiti a shot. We planned to head there after a trek to Beas Kund. We were already in Manali, acclimatized to an altitude of near 4000m after our trek to Beas Kund, so might as well go on. And so we did.
Got up in the morning, bid goodbye to our hotel, Manali’s usual din of Rohtang-headed people and the gush and gurgle of the Beas. Rohtang at noon is a bit like Karol Bagh in the evening. Practically no snow (or ice, is it?) but desperate locals still trying to make do with the scarce patches and run snow scooters on them. Over-optimistic young lovers, couples on a break from the daily business of living and even Pappoos and Chunnu’s egged on by parents seemed to delight in garish snow-sculptures trimmed with flowers, hearts, and blood-red lettering that reads, “Mona loves Sunju.” Delightful. Rather, delightful to just swing past and go on and on and away and away to the other side, where only cars headed to Leh and army trucks headed wherever they go.
We stop for a breather at a dhaba near Gramphu. At 3220m, it’s 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 kind of mid-road and a platoon of Punjabis rolls out. Within minutes, tables and chairs are requisitioned, tea ordered, and a humungous quantity of food is off-loaded from their cars. You name it, they have it. Paranthas, achaar, 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, er, take a leak. I’m staring at the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering around the dhaba and on top of the hilly mound and wondering whether it counts as sacrilege to pee here.
Our Maggi arrives, but such is the presence of the Punjab platoon that the dhaba boy takes it over to their table. The ladies rear back in horror, “Yeh kya hai?” I yell out ownership and am rewarded not just with the Maggi but also with 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 Maggi with gusto.
Amidst the noise, the bus arrives. Stops and practically parks in the middle of the road while locals get off, get on, packages are dropped and picked up, and a foreigner quietly steps out with his backpack and crouches on the corner in the front of the dhaba.
Having polished off most of the paranthas, and probably a gallon of Fanta and milk, the Punjab platoon heads off with a passing question about the Thule sitting on top of our Innova. “Is it a sled,” the auntie asks. “No, just a storage thing,” Ajay replies, used to the strange looks the Thule gets. It’s basically this stylish Swedish box that sits on the top of the car’s rack, all aerodynamic and lockable and weatherproof, which we bummed off my brother for the trip. This was definitely a winner, considering the amount of rain, wind, snow and dirt we passed through.
We wrap up in Gramphu and head off too. The Punjab platoon went left, to Leh. We turn right, towards Kaza, which is 137 kms from here. (If you’re wondering where I’m getting all these exact distances and altitudes from, please stop and pat me on the back. I’ve been maintaining what I call a “trip-tych”, a tiny notebook that notes down distances from milestones, altitude from Ajay’s cool watch-cum-everything plus odd notes and comments from what I see on the way.)
Entering Lahaul-Spiti is like entering a room so silent that it seems noisy. There’s no one here. Well, practically no one. We did a rough calculation. We’ve passed barely a car an hour. Probably less actually. We drive along. 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, yes, browns. It’s hot in the car, so we’re all in T-shirts. Pretty soon, Ajay undoes his seat-belt so he can lean forward and get a look at the road. The road’s disappeared, replaced by a gravelly, rocky version. We would have started complaining, but before we can even warm up, this “road” disappears too and we are on a stream bed with nice 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. Only too soon we realize that this is just the beginning. From here till the Spiti Valley, this is what works as a road. Stream beds, valley beds, roads blocked or broken and replaced by impromptu paths cut across a river bed. Our average speed, 10 kms per hour, given the road and the fact that the cameras keep coming out.
At Battal, Ajay gets out, and then makes a beeline for the warmth of the dhaba. It’s so cold and windy that his eyes start streaming tears.
He tries to look through the viewfinder and get a grip on the colours around – like someone melted a crayola box and swirled the colours around like fudge – but finally gives up since everything is covered in a watery film which is basically his tears. I try a hand at some photographs. Five clicks and five seconds later, I’m back in the car. Chicken!
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 plan. Somehow, in the freezing drizzle outside, I’m kind of glad we gave up that idea.
Tea break over and 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.
Kunzum Pass at 4500 metres is cold, windy and on top of the world. It’s just after 5 in the evening and we wake the sleeping kids, hustle them out of the car for a photo-op.
Siddharth agrees, comes out all hunched up and pretty soon starts begging to go back in. Damini finally agrees to unbundle herself, and voila, we have a family picture.
That done, we roll on, and roll down towards the Spiti Valley.
What a sight. I remember mom, the retired yet never tired geography teacher. Gosh, 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’ve descended to the floor of the valley, at Takcha. 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 would do – goats, sheep, people… At 6.45, with evening closing in, we reached the gateway of Spiti, the little cluster of Losar.
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. We figure this is the best place to stop for a break. Kaza just seems too far off. Another round of tea, more Maggi (the water level in the bowl seems to rise with the surrounding altitude) and the friendly dhaba owner points our noses towards the Irrigation Department gueshouse one km away in Chichong. To further wrap things up, 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 vaguely to grow in the flower beds – and a smart green-roofed guesthouse complete with a drawing room, and rooms with attached bathrooms, study-tables and even a rather vain-looking 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 looked 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.” To reward Ajay’s 10 hours of driving, I sit on his legs, which is probably better than sitting on the cold bed. Siddharth keeps flipping open the pocket watch he’s picked up from Manali and Damini looks like she is back home, surrounded by the now-open packing of her doll-set. Sid makes a beeline for one of the doll’s dresses, and a prompt, “Mummeeeeee” pretty much puts an end to any hope that they can play together.
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 Damini to eat some. Siddharth takes one look at the dal, asks aloud if Maggi is on offer, gets THE LOOK from Ajay, and then silently shovels the stuff into his mouth. We do the same, basically in a hurry to get back into the razai. An hour later, all you can hear is Ajay’s snores and Damini’s whistle-like snores doing a duet of sorts while I tuck into a few more pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Can’t manage too many, since I keep sliding lower and lower into the razai till 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 (no milk). He shoots that, people waiting for the morning bus, kids waiting to go to school by bus, 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. Siddharth has had it with the soupy stuff being dished out in Spiti, so he turns head chef and instructs the dhaba owner to cook the Maggi with only one glass of water. Voila, the maggi that turns up is spot on and Siddharth tucks into it like it was something out of Pizza Hut (the current favourite).
Outside the dhaba, some locals have spread out their wares on tables. Ajay picks up some beaded keychains, presents me with a tassle to put on my phone (I end up putting it on my bag), we take some pictures of the dhaba owner (and promise to send copies to him), 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. Nice. So, in a jolly mood, we set off for Kaza. All about the journey there and Kaza itself in the next blog.