‘My college routine is making me insane. I need a break,’ said Specky. This one simple sentence led us into the heart of Spiti that we fondly remember now as being twelve hours away from insanity!
Yes, we did a fair degree of research before we decided on Kaza as the place which would quite literally catapult us into a terrain, a geography that seems treacherous but accepts you with a smile. This smile, let me tell you, is quite devoid of lush colours and abundance of facilities that city folk are so accustomed to… but the charm you come face to face with here is undeniably unique.
Specky asked, ‘Kaza? Where is this? What is it known for?’
I read out her what the Wikipedia had to say about Kaza in response to the first part of her query: ‘Kaza is among the coldest place in India. The temperature varies greatly in different seasons and during a day. January is the coldest period of a year with an average temperature of -37°C, while July is the hottest month with an average temperature of 13°C.’ I also added that we would make Kaza our base town and go into the wilderness of the Spiti Valley and discover the charm of small villages like Hikkim where they have the highest post office in the world and Demul which is a village with the highest motorable road connection. There would be monasteries like the ones at Tabo, Dhankar, and Kee to see and so many monks to interact with. Yes, Specky wasquite excited at the prospect of a driving vacation to a territory that had adventure written all over it in bold letters!
We then went about talking to people and trying to get as many details about this area as possible. However, we were luckier than usual this time… and during this period that we were making our queries, I happened to take part in a blogging contest and won a trip for two to Spiti! I was informed that our driving adventure would begin from Manali.
Information on the net told us that the road route starts from Manali and after crossing the 13,090-foot (3,990 m) high Rohtang Pass to reach Gramphoo, it joins the road from Keylong and goes south along Chandra River till Batal then climbs up again to cross the 14,928-foot (4,550 m) high Kunzum pass, enters the Spiti valley to reach Kaza. We also found out that we would be climbing up to 15,000 feet above sea level in certain areas… and were more than just excited about this trip.
The drive up from Manali to Rohtang was fairly smooth and I wondered why everyone ever called this place ‘treacherous’ or full of roads that were just tracks! I could see the poetry of tree-lined slopes against a sky that had the most attractive hues I have ever seen. There were tin-roof shacks that had a rustic charm exuding out of them and delightful promises of momos and tea announced! However, we stopped at Marhi for our breakfast before driving on to the top of the Rohtang Pass. Yes, we still remember the simply delicious parathas we had here…
It was at Rohtang that we had a rather interesting revelation made to us by one of the Pony-walas there. He said, ‘You can hire a pony which will take you to the icy peaks on the other side. You will enjoy going there on a pony. Don’t opt for the ATVs here. These All Terrain Vehicles will simply take the joy out of slow-paced discovery!’
‘Yes, I do agree with you,’ I said, ‘But we are anyway going beyond this part to Kaza.’
He looked at me and said with a smile, ‘Then look at the road carefully now. It will suddenly disappear and all you will have for miles is a rock-strewn track that poses as a road. The ponies will disappear. The ATVs will not be there. There will be no one for miles. No grass. No greenery.’
‘Exciting,’ I muttered and smiled at my wife.
The journey from Rohtang took us to Chatru through a terrain that was bent upon mesmerizing us… yes, it was gradually becoming barren and we had stopped being noticed by civilization any more.
‘There is only one bus daily from Kaza to Manali… and one from Manali to Kaza. There are very few people who opt to go to these parts of our country,’ said our driver.
Chatru had just a couple of tented eateries… and we noticed that they also had arrangement for sleeping, if one opted to. So I asked, ‘Just two small eateries here?’
‘Yes, we have Maggi and biscuits and other snacks. We can also serve you rice with curry. What will you order?’
He was obviously not interested in answering my question… and I did notice that his tented shop had walking sticks and many other equipment that trekkers would generally need. We had boiled eggs, played with the shy mountain goats, walked up to the fast flowing Beas, clicked pictures… and were also told later by the happy owner of another tented dhaba that they leased out camping sites in the area… and the summer months did see a few groups coming here to spend a night or two.
The terrain from this point became harsher and rockier and started looking less and less like a road! But the terrain was also changing its complexion, its structure quite fast… in just a few hours we had been through mountains that were full of tall upright trees and lots of greenery around and then had gone headlong into ranges that had nothing else but precariously perched large boulders! This terrain was to change into vast tracts of barren land with land-slide prone slopes on either side and then into mountains that had muddy ravine like structures built into them. There were literally just too many changing terrains flung at us on one single day… and we were, to be frank, quite over-whelmed by nature! I could see Specky looking out of the window all the time as if even one second of diversion would make her miss something vital! Yes, this is the sort of effect that the magical terrain of this part of of our own country has on just about anyone!
‘Look there,’ shouted Specky suddenly, ‘a yellow beaked bird.’
The driver calmly added, ‘These are crows. You will find orange-beaked ones too as we go deeper into the Spiti Valley. These crows seem to love the harsh weather here and don’t leave even when the locals are also either huddled in their homes or have left for warmer places to return again later when the temperatures are better.’
We stopped at a small place just before the diversion for Chandratal, a lake surrounded by mountains and a short trek away from the road. Yes, we did trek to Chandratal on our way back… and I’ll talk about that trek in a later post.
But then, after the shockingly attractive yellow-beaked crows, we went on a slow tortuous climb towards the Kunjum Pass where all I could hear were howling winds carrying currents of shivering cold. I noticed here that our driver went off road and around a Buddist structure. I asked, ‘Why did we go off road here?’
‘To respect the dead. These are Buddist structures where people place stones with messages for the departed souls and we never go past them leaving them on our right.’
Well, this was to be just the beginning of our encounter with facts that we were quite unaware of as yet. ‘Isn’t it strange that we know so little about our own country and countrymen?’ I asked to no one and did not expect any reply. But Specky said, ‘When you look beyond the complexities of the present, you are always rewarded with sights that are heavenly!’
‘Look ahead and see the snow clad peaks waving at you.’
These were the sort of charming sights we saw during our entire journey. There were not just the mountains and the peaks or the precariously balanced boulders or the roaring rivers or the meandering roads or the changing terrain or our hypnotised looks… there were yellow-beaked crows, friendly Yaks, ads staring out from glass panes, relaxed mountain folk, delicious momos, surreal surroundings, and breathlessness as we slowly accelerated towards Kaza!
I remember how the twelve hour journey ended… we zipped into Kaza and in no time went by a huge monastery and suddenly came to a stop.
‘We stay in the monastery?’ I asked.
The driver smiled and said, ‘No, look to your right and you’ll see the hotel down the flight of stairs. We meet tomorrow morning and leave for Tabo and Dhankar.’
This is why we love travelling… the sheer surprises it just flings at you at every turn… the forceful way it asks you to follow its directions… the bends and twists and the turns that are just waiting to happen all the time. I have seen all this happen and experienced a lot of it. The paradox of travel is that the more you travel, the more you want to… I’ve travelled from London to Sydney, from Singapore to Seoul, from Leh to Havelock, from the temples of Orcha to the scintillating sculptures of Khajuraho… and yet the craving hasn’t gone weak!
Other interesting pictures from our road trip…