The Spiti Endeavour
It all started one evening when Nikhilesh, Aniket, Sangram and me decided to meet up for dinner & it led to us spontaneously deciding that the week after we are setting out to explore the gritty roads & hairpin bends of the Spiti Valley. With a little help from our GO WILD comrades we got a little assistance on the ground in understanding the nuisances of the road trip of the Valley.
The thing about true exploration is it doesn’t go according to any plan & so it was with us. Instead of setting out before the crack of dawn as we had planned, we set the wheels rolling towards Spiti at a little after 6 AM.
As Sangram took the wheel, he floored the gas pedal and the beast thundered away. We took our first pit-stop for breakfast at Mumbai. Soon after heading out from the urban landscape, we made our move towards the Mumbai – Ahmedabad Highway NH-48 & our beast had us cover 400 kms in the next 4 hours.
Entering into Ahmedabad, we got stopped for the customary check. At the RTO check-post we got fined for not carrying the PUC Certificate, which put a minor deflection in our schedule. After feeding ourselves to hearty amounts with an unlimited Gujarati Thali and what seemed like a jug of chaas.
We pulled into Udaipur at around twilight, and the city looked regal bathed in the artificial golden light. We reserved an OYO Room by the outskirts of the city & left to explore the suburban flavors of the princely state. Technology helped us navigate through the city efficiently almost as well as a resident. The City Palace at night, is a sight which almost takes you back in time and makes you wonder of the kind of history the stones have been witness to. A little time travel later, we decide to head out to the market but the lanes were too narrow and crowded to allow our beast to travel freely; so we skipped into an auto.
Our last stop for the day was the open terrace rooftop restaurant, atop our hotel. The view is simply amazing, overlooking the Old Palace in the distance and the Lake Pichola beside. Lip smacking, mindless gobbling was the rule of the day owing to the delicacies presented before us. Taking a momentary pause to reflect on the day, we turn in.
The next leg of the journey takes us to arguably India’s most beautiful city : Chandigarh. We set out early as we have to cover a little shy of a thousand kms by nightfall. The travel is slow at first, even punishing when having to slow down frequently for the potholes and the stray cows upon the highway. NH 58 & NH 48 are extremely scenic routes but what takes away from the beauty of the road travel is the slow pace & the speed precaution exercised since the route is almost exclusively dotted with heavy vehicles carrying huge marble rocks.
We take small pitstops along the highway to satisfy our hunger. Sonnets from P.L.Deshpande set up the much needed upbeat tempo and we are cruising along now. The lunch is at a delightful little dhaaba, which serves delicious naan and the softest paneer one could ever imagine.
As luck would have it, the car develops an electrical circuit issue and the AC as well as the horn stop working; that means next six hours a tough ride. Before the last lap of 160kms we take one last pause, to stretch our legs and then gun our way to dinner at the hotel. Its almost the stroke of 9 by the time we settle down at the table. There is a distinct sense of nerves as tomorrow we start for the real stretch of our expedition.
A lazy rise means we set out post breakfast and spend further time in getting the repairs done on our beast. It’s only by lunch time that we are all good to go, and a little frustrated by the delay we set out. The distance we have to cover is just over 200 odd kms but it takes us around five hours to get to Shimla.
It took us a bit of time to find our way to our hotel, as it was situated a bit offroad in the valley. The only entrance to the gates of the hotel was through a narrow, winding lane which needed extremely precise manoeuvring. The sights from the hotel windows were simply breathtaking, a panoramic view of the city and the serene quiet of the valley.
We left for a stroll in the city by evening, only to discover that the streets were brimming with people, resembling a crowded shopping street in Pune (viz Laxmi Road). The one truly amazing point of discovery was that the street has a strict NO SMOKING policy and smoking is a punishable offence and you can be fined upto 500 INR. The buses are quaint, small and has a maximum capacity of 20 odd passengers and it’s an absolute delight to watch one pass by.
Our group chooses a cafe with a balcony overlooking the famed Mall Road, and we can see the bustling chaos below us. The floor of cafe is deserted and we have a nice nostalgic trip in the wake of the setting Sun. The high note of the day is a late night walk in the cold, warmed by the bond of close friends.
To the Valley !
The destination is only 125 kms away and we roll out of Shimla leisurely, only to discover that the road leading to Rampur is over-crowded. The locals are helpful & guide us with a detour that allows us to dodge most of the slow moving traffic.
The state highway is a single lane, which runs parallel to the Satluj River. The hill slopes are still dotted with the pine green and as luck would have it, we were also able to spot a Himalayan Griffon perched near its nest.
Instead of heading to the hotel directly, we move towards Narsimha Temple : which is carved out of rock entirely. We also visit a nearby monastery en-route. We are staying at the erstwhile Palace of the Royal Family of the Himachal Pradesh. It is a heritage property which has been refurbished into a hotel in the past decade.
The dusk is well spent hunting for a good barkeep, followed by a review of the trip until now. We get tempted and head out for a stroll at night by the Satluj River. The experience is beyond words, cause everything has faded, it’s just you and the river of the gushing river beside.
Aniket is still a little under the weather from the climatic change. We are refreshed and set out for Sangla Valley. Enroute we take a quick stop at Bhimakali Temple, about 20 kms inside from Juri Village.
[Google Map shows the relative position right next to Juri Village but it’s a winding road serpentine around the climb and it takes over an hour to get to the top.]
We are hungry like the hippos and at the first chance we chow down some of the best momos and thukpa yet tasted in the Valley. After satisfying our rather basal desires, we proceed to nobler, divine pursuits. Permission to enter the temple can be claimed only after removing all leather items, camera, mobiles, shoes and you have to compulsorily keep the head covered at all times.
The temple has now been shifted to a new building that was constructed in 2006. The main idol of the Goddess is located on the second floor of the complex. The rest of the complex has rooms with old articles and utensils on display (cooking pans, ancient weapons, etc.) Another discovery we made was that the old temple building has huge chains lying around, which at a point in the past were used to ring the bell and make a wish.
Moving on, we start realizing the change in the landscapes : the green is reducing and the terrain soil tends to get loose and rocky. The Satluj now flows calmly beside, leashed by the hydro dams built on it. We draw to a complete halt because a landslide has occurred on the road ahead. It takes a couple of hours to clear the road and while passing over the slurry of rocks, the engine guard of our beast gets damaged.
We again are forced to take a detour and this road is not marked on Google Maps. The roadtrip adrenaline kicks in and we throttle towards Sangla. Our stay for the night is a picturesque campsite situated at the foothills of the Valley. The evening is spent over raucous laughter, huddled around the vermillion hue of a raging bonfire contrasted by the indigo twilight of the hills. The food is completely delightful.
Little do we realize that : the moment right there is going to be a memory for a lifetime.
I am an early riser by default but till date no morning has been able to rival the beauty of a rising Sun in the hills. The song of the birds and the gushing rhythm of the Satluj nearby, just compounds the scenic beauty of the place. A piping hot black coffee, steamed poha and a bowl of of sliced papayas later Nikhilesh loudly exclaims “jannat!”
We head out by 09 AM and we head towards the last village from the Indo-Chinese border (200 kms away), an entry permit needs to be obtained from the Army Checkpost. The road is barren and deserted, inter-sparsed with small heaps of rubble from landslides. The valley is strewn with a sweeping inflorescence of pink coloured flowers called “Balogra”. It is later harvested to form ground buck wheat, used to make dough for flat bread. It’s a quiet rustic village with about 40 houses and one temple.
We decide to cross Sangla & get to the road leading to Kalpa before it is noon. We are lucky enough to spot the nest of a Himalayan Griffon on the way as well, thanks to Nikhilesh. We offer lift to a veteran doctor on our way to Kalpa, and he convinces us by his stories that he is a story-teller rather than a doctor.
Our hotel is facing the Kinnar Kailash Parvat. Nikhilesh sets out for a lone walk in the evening rain, while we spend our while exploring the library on the top floor of the hotel. Oddly enough there is WiFi but no electricity tonight, but we have a good time sharing college time stories.
In the morning we squat by the small apple orchard of the hotel and they proudly claim that the apples found in the region here, are the best in India. After breakfast we shift gears and get moving Northwards and upwards towards Nako. We stop for a bit at the confluence of Spiti and Satluj Rivers, soak in the wilderness and edge ahead.
Our progress is arrested by an unique tradition of celebrating marriage. There are two whole convoy of cars that come from either side i.e. bride and groom and they meet at a pre-determined middle point, after which the bride is shifted to the convoy of the groom and the marriage is concluded. This caused major chaos in traffic on the already narrow highway.
We have a group from Holland of about 13 bikers heading in from Manali; their leader is an architect who has spent two years in Mumbai at HCL Headquarters. Giving us company is a middle aged couple, who are astride their Unicorn who have transferred their bike all the way from Thane to Chandigarh via train and are on the same route as ours. Another interesting character we met while in Tabo Monastery was a ‘Punekar’ from Kothrud area.
Dipping temperatures ensure that we can’t get any sleep, its cold and the wind makes things even frostier. The next stop is Kaza and the road is infamous for frequent landslides, we set out early in the morning to cover maximum distance in daytime. The road is narrow and is difficult to drive on owing to the slippery asphalt. Whenever there is a vehicle coming from the other side, one of the passengers has to get down and guide the vehicles to ensure safe passage.
Today for the first time in the trip, for almost an hour we remained in a trance enraptured by the beauty of the nature. We pull into the Tabo Monastery by around early noon. The Monastery is around 1000 years old and houses over a thousand paintings. The serenity of the place is perfect for meditation and we are marveled to run into a few monks who had voluntarily taken up the vow of silence.
After lunch at Tabo, we head out to Dunkar Monastery. It is 10 kms up on the hill, inside the highway but the condition of the road is surprisingly good. We feast on the spectacular views from the Monastery. Travelling toward Kaza we came across a landslide, over the period of halt we run into an Army Veteran Mr Ingale from Akola.
In Kaza we spend a little time searching for a service station to clear our airfilter, but give up the search owing to unavailability of petrol in the area (for airfilter cleaning purpose). Our stay at Kaza is another luxurious heritage property and we are just enjoying every bit of the journey.
A hearty breakfast of cheese omelettes & toasts we set out for the famed Kibber Village. Known primararily to be India’s Highest Motorable Village, it had also recently featured on the wildlife radar since Snow Leopards were spotted here. There is a huge welcome arch which greets us as we drive in. The general economy seems prosperous as the houses are relatively bigger with DTH TV dishes populating the scape, than the rest of the Valley.
Our plan of action here includes a visit to the Key Monastery, on our way back to Kaza. Perched atop the hills, it was once a refuge to Dalai Lama way back in 1979. It also boasts of being home to the statue of the Maitreya Buddha, a lot of the Buddhist scriptures and old books. The Monastery is much bigger from the inside and is a religious shelter to nearly a hundred monks. A main shrine in the Buddhist belief, it is daily visited by hordes and hordes of devotees.
Grabbing a quick bite on the way, we duck into the local market for some trivial shopping. Authentic Tibetan food is a delight that has not yet been crowned with the glory it deserves. And as luck would’ve it we run into Army man Ingale again. The surprise is to spot a Decathlon Store which also has Wildkraft items on the shelves.
The Moon Lake : Chandrataal
Our final & main destination for the Spiti Valley is Chandrataal. The path is rocky, barren and lonely. Plugging in the 4X4 power we cross over two streams before the Sun comes up & flow increases. The last human settlement on the way is Buttal, after which there is a single raw stretch of road leading directly to Chandrataal. On the turns & bends one of us takes turns to guide the driver as our beast can barely fit on the narrow trail.
On the desolate stretch from Buttal to Chandrataal, we ran into a young Aussie gentleman who had set out hiking the path to the Lake.He hitchhiked with us till the end while telling us that he is an IT professional, who had taken out three months to explore the Himalayas and the Thar Desert.
The lunch is two packs of Maggi, and subsequently we head directly to the lake shore. The beast takes up for another two kms uphill from the base camp over a slippery track, post which we decide to cover the remaining distance on foot. The single mile also feels heavy on our bodies, and in the distance we first spot the Saur Taal, a glacier fed lake which also happens to be the origin of the Chenaab River.
Chandrataal is even more beautiful in person. The dark green of the lake is a shade of peace and tranquil calm. All of us squat by the lake shore but our joy is shortlived by the presence of dark clouds. The rain comes pouring in by the time we reach our camp, dipping the temperatures into the lower single digits.
The night is restless and so are we, the wind howls and the bitter cold makes us uncomfortable. The wheels are up and rolling by 06 AM but driving is a pain cause of torrential rainfall. We reach Rohtang by 01:30 PM. En-route we manoeuvre a stretch where the landslide has occurred, dropping a big boulder right in the middle of the road. It is purely the Sangram’s spatial reasoning and judgement that helps you survive such tricky spots.
By 07:30 PM we arrive back to urban civilisation, Manali.
The last day of the twelve day long expedition and we decide to end it on a high note by driving nonstop to Pune. It takes us a little over 36 hours beginning at 06 AM and arriving home by 06:30 PM. It was the end of a road-trip with friends, an experience legendary because friends were there to experience the awesome moments by your side. Despite it being more than a fortnight since, mentally I am still there, lost somewhere in the hills.
For all the things I can say, one is the truest : Spiti is not for your average tourist, it is the land for an explorer. You can’t go for this trip with any expectations or images in mind cause whatever you get to see is beyond comparison. An escape, it is a roadtrip everyone should do atleast once in their lifetime.
Group : Nikhilesh Pawar, Aniket Pawar, Sangram, Kedar Kadam
Published by Kedar Kadam