Spiti Valley: A road trip like no other
The highest village in the world, the highest motorable village and a reserve for snow leopards were reasons enough to undertake the trip
The destination is Kaza.
Where is it?
Yes, I have heard of it…err, where is it?
It is not really surprising to come across such reactions because the area was opened to the public as recently as in 1996. It is far too far from anywhere and needed a long and arduous road journey to reach. But once undertaken, as we realised in the first week of June, it becomes the road journey of a lifetime.
One of the many reasons to make this road trip memorable is that in these remote areas Google navigation is deceptive. Manali to Kaza on Google, for example,showed a breezy drive for just 4 hours, whereas it turned out to be a day- long and back-breaking grind for both man and machine.
The coordinates on the map for Kaza offered two routes for reaching the place. One was via Shimla and Kalpa, the other being through Manali. Though the jury is still out, we opted to take the former. The approach via Kalpa turned out to be kinder with a gradual accent and better road. It also allows more time for acclimatisation before one reaches the icy heights.
From Shimla we set course due east through the settlements of Kufri and Theog to turn northward to climb the hill to Narkanda at 2700 metre. The road is smooth and wide, the curves are gentle and the scenery breathtaking as the road meanders through pine forests and orchards of apples, apricots and plums.
Beyond Narkanda, the road descends on the northern slope towards Kumarsain where it turns east along the banks of the mighty Sutlej river. Sutlej courses through a very narrow valley. On occasions it appeared like a blind end on the mountain face. During the last 10 years, however, it has been widened enough to shed its tag of being dangerous. The mountain side as well as the valley is so enchantingly beautiful that one often wondered whether heaven is in another world or if it was right here.
By the time we reached Recong Peo, the Tibetan and Buddhist influence were becoming pronounced though Kinnaur district remains predominantly Hindu. The climb to Kalpa is a short but steep detour. The effort was rewarded by the breathtaking beauty of snow-capped Mount Kinnaur Kailash.
As we admired the peak on the southern sky, a local helped us identify the Shivling in profile on a prominent V between two peaks. Parikrama of the Shivling at 6,000 metre of Kinnaur Kailash is a pilgrimage for Hindus and Buddhists alike. My travel companion, Rakesh, an avid birder, had his hands full with the Himalayan flora-fauna.
The morning after a halt in Kalpa, we follow the Sutlej eastwards through the military camp at Pooh up to Khab towards the mouth of Spiti river draining into the Sutlej. The tall Pir Panjal range and the moisture laden air and clouds make the area north of it a rain shadow. In a sudden change of scenery, we find ourselves in The Great Himalayan Desert.
Spiti river is the lifeline of the sparsely populated valley that bears the same name. Spiti in the local language (very similar to Tibetan) means ‘middle’ and it is possibly called so for being between Tibet and India. Seen from above, it is a thin strip of green in a brown monochrome of the desert.
The terrain defied description and would be a challenge to wordsmiths. It is uniformly barren but still varied. Bereft of vegetation, the soil is sandy; the mountains are either monoliths of brown or look like mounds of rubble.
Kaza is located at the confluence of Spiti with Pin river and this is where Pin Valley National Park, home to Snow Leopards and Mountain Ibex, is.
The small town is a sleepy place with narrow alleys and a small bazaar. The Indian Oil outlet is the only petrol pump for 200 kms on either direction. The market sells the bare essentials and a sprinkle of touristy souvenirs. There has clearly been considerable increase in tourist traffic, as all villages sported welcome signage for a home stay.
Our pit stop at Kaza is the Circuit house. During our stay there, two officials were given a ceremonial send off. The feast included various meats and khumb with drinks. The feast was followed by dance in traditional costume and then the retiree was escorted to his village in a ‘dancing’ procession.
The otherwise harsh life is tempered by religion and monasteries are a source of inspiration. The Kye and Dhankar monasteries are worth a visit. Komic (at 15,500 feet) holds the claim of being the highest village in the world while Kibber at 14,200 feet is the highest motorable village in the world.
Google lured us to drive back through Manali with the promise of a four-hour drive for the 200 km. Having survived the daylong ordeal, it was the longest 200 kms that I have ever driven. The road gradually degenerated into a dirt track through the boulders, with every turn producing a new challenge. There were climbs through the soft earth that would frustrate most drivers and their machine as wheels would spin for lack of traction.
It was the human spirit and kinship that sustained us and kept hope alive. Complete strangers volunteered to extricate bogged down vehicles. A convoy of sorts formed for the better part of the journey and familiarity develops through exchange of glances, smiles and thumbs up signs. Frustration turned into a spirit of adventure.
After the tachometer clocked 150 km from the start of the day at Kaza, patches of green started appearing; soon there were meadows and suddenly we found ourselves hitting a shiny, black highway descending from the Rohtang pass towards Keylong. A few miles down the road was the cavernous north opening of Atal tunnel. We cross the 9-km tunnel in as many minutes and the light at the end of the tunnel was the bracing sight of the familiar and lush green Manali valley. The spell was over.
(The writer is an avid traveller both in and out of India)
(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)