Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spiti.... journey through ‘The middle land’

Goa - Delhi.... the journey begins in the plains

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Chhitkul... The emerald green Valley!

Destination Pooh...

Spiti.... journey through ‘The middle land’

17 Jul 2014. Dawn breaks very early in the mountains. At 0500 hrs, it is already light and by the time we all assemble at 0530 hrs, it is bright. News reaches us that the Scorpio is still not ready and decision has been taken to let two Scorpios go ahead with maximum members (5 each) leaving two vehicles and 7 members behind. Hope is that the repairs will take not more than a couple of hours more and then the rear guard will push hard to catch up with us and reach Chandratal even if by night.

This is how our 10 strong team (6 ladies and 4 guys) in two Scorpios sets off at 0600 hrs with a very distant goal in mind; that of reaching Chandratal tonight.

The valley narrows further towards Khab which is just a dozen odd kilometres away and the confluence of the Sutlej and the Spiti rivers. In between, the mountains have a spectacular multitude of marbled patterns as if an artist has decided to paint some modern art on them! 

Colours and patterns in the mountains...

The Khab Bridge is sitting pretty over the Sutlej and gives a fabulous and close view of the confluence. The churning brown waters of the Sutlej mingling with the more sedate grey of the Spiti. Ahead of the bridge, the route along the Spiti River is through a very narrow gorge with rocky overhangs which threaten to spill over. Even the slender supports to these rocky ledges seem very flimsy and the passage does not inspire confidence! 

Khab bridge... confluence of Sutlej and Spiti rivers

The grey waters of the Spiti mingle with the brown of the Sutlej

Route along the Spiti river

Support for the rocky overhang over the roads

We have just entered the Spiti valley, though not yet the Spiti district. Spiti literally translates as ‘the middle land’, the land between India and Tibet. The change in scenery is very apparent. The road rises in a series of hairpin bends called the Kazigs (Ka – for the village nearby and zigs – for zig zag turns). It is so rocky that the word ‘rocky’ takes on a new meaning!

'Rocky' takes on a new meaning!

Bypassing such quaint villages as Yangthang, Chango and Leo, we press on for Nako. I have great hope that the cloud cover will disperse enough for Reo Purgyal, the highest peak in Himachal to be visible. Unfortunately, the peaks are all shrouded in thick clouds. We have a very long way ahead and no time to tarry. We do not even swing by Nako Lake consoling ourselves that we would see the Chandratal anyway today and hurry ahead. Far, far below us is the meandering Spiti and the beautiful Leo village is visible low down across the valley. 

Leo village in the valley

Nako... the main Nako lake is further up

The route takes us through barren, crumbling mountainsides and the presence of a BRO detachment alerts us to the proximity of the Malling Nallah stretch which is infamous for being a perpetual landslide zone. It does not disappoint. We cross the Malling Nallah and come to a halt behind two other vehicles. A JCB is busy clearing an enormous few ton boulder in the landslide while a steady rain of shooting stones continues. It is scary, to say the least. I guess the BRO knows how dangerous it is and has concluded that this is minor enough for the work to continue. Hats off to these sentinels of the roads in these remote areas! 

Landslide clearance work on near Malling Nallah

One hour wasted here. Our destination is looking very distant now. Trying to make up for the time lost, we speed up and reach Sumdo where vehicle and passenger information has to be registered. This is the entry into the Spiti district. Right ahead is the turn off for Giu village famous for the ‘Mummy’. Folk lore goes that it is of a middle aged Lama which still grows nails and hair.
We bypass Tabo and its 1000 year old monastery famous for its mud and clay construction housing an invaluable collection of scriptures, thangkas and idols. It is one of the oldest in the region.

We give Dhankar a miss too along with another 1000 year old monastery. The monastery was built to withstand snow and an otherwise dry climate. A Tibetan legend says “the Dhankar monastery was the first to be built and it would be the last to fall in Spiti region”. Weather remaining the same, it may have been proved to be true, but in the recent few years due to changing weather patterns, it has started raining in the Spiti valley much more than before. The rain water seeping into the walls of the clay and mud structure is damaging the priceless wall murals which are said to be akin to the Ajanta ones. Concerted efforts need to be made to save this heritage.

All around, the stark beauty of the landscape has us enchanted. What is amazing is that this place has so less.... less vegetation, less habitation, less water, fewer amenities and yet so much more.... more beauty, more fresh air, more humanity, more smiling faces, more peace! Less is certainly more! In these inhospitable surroundings also there is life. We see a few pretty birds which keep our spirits up. 

Black Redstart juvenile

Blue rock Thrush

Eurasian Goldfinch

Rock Bunting

We have descended enough to be almost level with the river. At this point, we spot a little path going down to the river bed and taking advantage, we drive down to the river. It is a lesson in geography to be standing here and seeing the variety of geological formations... fold mountains, patterns in the mountainsides from multiple causes of weathering and a wide river bed full of water shaped pebbles and stones of various hues. I’m sure I’ve missed out many things as a lay person but this place is certainly a geologist’s paradise! 

Geological formations from erosion

Another example of 'fold mountains'

Idyllic Spiti Valley

We do not spend much time there and arrive at Kaza around 1400 hrs. The Spiti Holiday Adventure owned by Mr Ramesh Lotey is in the heart of town and we find it easily. We have a quick lunch at a little restaurant nearby. I have managed all our bookings for Rangrik (7 Kms away from Kaza) and Chandratal through him. As things stand, we cannot stay at Rangrik and plan to go straight to Kaza. Seeing the time frame and the weather, Mr Lotey repeatedly tries to caution us against heading for Chandratal today since there are ominously dark clouds visible towards the North; towards Chandratal. This does not augur well for us since not only is it dicey driving in such conditions, but we also have an arduous 8 km trek ahead from Kunzumla to Chandratal given the altitude of 15000 feet which we are not acclimatised to. 

Sometimes one has to buckle down to peer pressure and accept what the group decides in spite of any misgivings one may have. This is exactly what happens and the majority of the group (minus the two of us) is for going ahead and taking our chances. The other two vehicles have been contacted and are found to be about 1 ¾ hour behind us insisting that we press on ahead and that they will catch up.

Very reluctantly we set off. It is 1545 hrs. The road conditions are not particularly good and only get worse as we move further away from Kaza. Kye Monastery is visible from the main road though one has to take a detour of 10 odd kms inside to reach it. The largest of all the monasteries in Spiti, it seems precariously perched on a high mountainside cliff commanding a bird’s eye view of the entire valley in both directions. Further along the same road is the village of Kibber famous as the highest permanently inhabited village in the world.

We pass the village of Hansa with a pretty Chorten on the roadside. The road nips and turns round sharply over culverts or through gorges making driving hazardous in the deteriorating visibility. There seems to be a permanent drizzle since Kaza. Even the desolate countryside wears a forlorn look as though feeling abandoned by its best friend, the mighty Sun God himself! 

To Losar

Chorten at Hansa village

As we proceed ahead towards Losar and Kunzumla, the valley is rising and the altitude at Losar is roughly 4000 mtrs. It is about 1800hrs and by now the weather is looking grim. Locals tell us that it is at least 2 hrs from here to Kunzum top and then the 8 Km trek!  A decision is taken to halt here, this being the last settlement before Kunzumla and look for somewhere to spend the night. 

Mountains around Losar

Just before one enters Losar is the new HPPWD Guesthouse visible from the road as the largest building around. After much requesting we are allowed to hang out here with the caveat that we have to leave if someone turns up with any reservations. About 2100 hrs the caretaker confirms that we can stay since he does not expect anyone to come after this time and in such inclement weather. The three rooms are not enough for us and some other guesthouses have also been booked in Losar and we are set for the night. The remaining vehicles finally reach at 2130 hrs after having gone to Kye and Kibber....! 

New Losar HPPWD Guesthouse

I think this has been the most frustrating day of my life! It has been a day of ‘I wish I could see this...’ and ‘I wish I could go there...’ Normally I am a very positive person but today is just plain wearisome! Dinner and off to bed. I hope tomorrow is a much better day...

The journey continues... 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Destination Pooh...

Driving on a road in bright daylight and driving at night is like chalk and cheese. This time, the drive from camp through Sangla to reach the main highway near Karcham doesn’t feel nearly as bad nor the roads quite as hazardous. Hitting the highway, we turn right towards Pooh. The road is superb and we are delighted! Doesn’t last for more than a couple of kilometres though. Yet again, we find ourselves on rubble paths, the road having been swept away by the slides or at places the river. 

Crumbling roads

Landslide prone stretches

The route winds along the Sutlej going upstream along its left bank. Crossing the Sutlej over the Shongtong brige, we reach Powari. Here, the road bifurcates left to Recong Peo, the administrative headquarters of Kinnaur district, some way up the mountainside and the highway (NH 22) continues along the river. Further up from Recong Peo is Kalpa (earlier called the Chini village) and the highest village further up is Roghi from where one can get stunning views of the venerated Kinner Kailash peak. I’ve heard that the route to Roghi with narrow, cliff hugging roads is one of the most amazing sights and rewarding places to visit. In fact Chini village, now Kalpa, has some more significance in independent India. The people of this village were the first to cast their votes in independent India on 25 October 1951 (since they get snowed in in winter) while the rest of India voted in Dec-Jan. Further back in history, the old Hindustan Tibet highway used to pass through this place on its way through Shipkila into Tibet.

It is said that Kinner Kailash is the abode of Lord Shiva and is thus considered sacred by the Hindus. Legend goes that Bhasmasur, after getting a boon from Lord Shiva that anybody on whose head he places his palm would be turned to ashes, tries it on the Lord himself. The Lord hides from him and prays to Lord Vishnu at this place after which Lord Vishnu comes to his aid and slays the demon. The Shivling is visible atop this Kinner Kailash peak.

Time is short and I know we do not have the luxury of taking the detour to Recong Peo from where one can see the Kinner Kailash peak. I wonder whether it would be visible from the highway itself... even if just a wee bit, without going to Recong Peo. I am finally resigned to the fact that it’ll have to keep for another time...

A JCB followed by a few vehicles in queue ahead probably means some sort of road block. We see nothing. Wondering what the matter is, we wait and within seconds it is apparent that the vehicles have been stopped due to shooting stones. Some are pretty large and cause other debris to slide down as well. BRO is everywhere and at work within minutes wherever required.The Scorpio has been an able companion through this journey especially over the more undulating and bumpy stretches. It has given me a lot of confidence that at least the vehicle is more than capable of taking any kind of road in its stride.

Shooting stones

Pangi Nallah turns out to be this enormous cascading torrent of water. Nothing could have prepared me for this... I know that a much recommended ‘waterfall’ is along this route (it turns out to be almost a river the water from which is pitching and swelling across the enormous boulders in its steep path, not a ‘waterfall’) but the sheer size and scale of this nallah! Words fail me in describing it. I’ll let the pictures do the talking! 

Pangi Nallah. The spray from it reaches well over 10 metres!

The enormity of the gushing Pangi Nallah

Our photo ops here come at a price... we are almost wet from the spray off the cascade. We cross the Sutlej again to now drive along the left bank and come upon the ‘Most treacherous road in the world’ signboard. Pictures are taken for keepsakes and we are off again. 

The greenery from the Baspa valley has all but disappeared. The vegetation is getting sparser and more stunted. There are the famous Kinnauri orchards in some places where there is a water source but otherwise it is just some scrub and Chilgoza trees.

We cross the Sutlej yet again over a quaint old wooden plank bridge near Akpa. On this entire route from Sangla, we seem to have criss-crossed the river half a dozen times.

The old wooden plank bridge at Akpa

The valley is often very narrow and there are plenty of places where it is just a gorge with straight walls on either side. To top it, the soil is very loose and quite unstable, prone to come crashing down without warning. No wonder this stretch of the NH 22 is so vulnerable to landslides 24x7, 365 days a year! It seems like a miracle that the BRO has managed to carve out a road alignment in these steep and nearly vertical mountainsides and keep it open for vehicular traffic virtually all year round. 

Roads carved out of the mountainside

We come upon a group of bicyclists after Akpa for the first time. There have been a few motorcycle riders on and off. In fact even a large group of 32 from Pune doing the Spiti, Leh, Srinagar and Jammu circuit. These are foreigners and middle aged to senior citizens. Very motivating to see people do these routes on ... a bicycle!  

A group of German cyclists giving way to the vehicular traffic

Right here while they are giving way to us, I notice the stratified rocks on the mountain side of the road which seem as if someone has cut through a puff pastry, folded and lifted it up at an angle and set it out for everyone to see. This is a good place to see why ‘fold mountains’ are called that.

Stratified rocks exposed on the NH 22

The milestone says Pooh 3 Km yet there is absolutely no sight nor sign of any habitation. And then suddenly round the corner is Pooh. A small settlement with pretty multicoloured houses halfway up the mountainsides. We take the road leading up and finally reach our destination just before dusk. Two vehicles have reached and we await the other two. The third one also comes along and I wonder why the fourth one is so behind since this group is one of the quickest on road. When they land up we come to know there has been a breakdown. It is fortuitous that the breakdown happens right at the gates of the guest house...

It is a major breakdown. The next morning one vehicle has to be despatched to Recong Peo to get the mechanics from the Mahindra service centre (also to ensure that they come without any delay). This means we have an unscheduled extra day here. No problem at all! I welcome the break since we have been travelling every single day from Goa till Pooh and most days have been very long. 

Pooh town

Ganchua Peak

Pooh Panorama... the tiny green spots on the largest mountain across are Chilgoza trees


16 Jul 2014. The enforced break is utilised in taking long walks around the place. It was clear last evening when we drove in but this morning it is very overcast. Clouds have veiled the top half of the mountains and the sky making the day very gloomy. All round our guest rooms are apple, almond and apricot trees. In fact, the only fruit that is ripe is apricot with the others still quite small. Never in my entire life have I had such juicy and sweet Apricots and Chulis (another variety of apricots)! It is a veritable feast for the senses! Wish I could bottle this sweetness and freshness and juiciness.... I wish!!

Chulis... a kind of Apricot

Leh Berries

The profusion of apples on the tree...

Late afternoon, the sun starts peeking through and we are out with our cameras in the hope of seeing some birds. We are not disappointed. A lifer for me, we see the White capped Buntings and the regular Streaked Laughingthrushes and Sparrows and the Long tailed Shrike. 

Long tailed Shrike

Streaked Laughingthrush

White capped Bunting (f)

White capped Bunting (m)
In our wanderings, we trample some grasses which let out an amazing fragrance. We wonder what the smell is since it is familiar but elusive. This makes my partner start smelling every grass and bush and plant we cross. The place is a treasure... we realise that the grass is the Shahi Jeera and a lot of the other weed-like plants are Dhoop. Almost every bit of the naturally occurring flora there is aromatic. How very amazing, a place where very little grows and is considered barren but for the orchards which are irrigated from the Tinku nallah and the Chilgoza which grow on the steep inaccessible hillsides, there is so much wealth in the plant life... 

Shahi Jeera

The mechanics have started work by late afternoon and will hopefully manage to repair the Scorpio before morning.  We are hoping that we can set off really early tomorrow for Chandratal. We have had to cut out Kaza and head straight for Chandratal to make up for the lost day. This means a marathon day of driving and an 8 Km trek at the end starting at 4550 m and ending at 4200m to the lake since the motorable route is still closed.

The journey continues... 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chhitkul... The emerald green Valley!

15 Jul 2014. Early morning... the place looks divine! The mountains look down at us from their imperious heights cloaked in wisps of ephemeral clouds as if wondering what new creatures have wandered in?? The rush of the river is heard right in the tents, so furious is the current... 

The Mountains behind the camp

The Baspa River

There are flowers blooming everywhere. There are huge swathes of beautiful yellow blooms, more captivating as they seem to be haphazardly flourishing without the predictability of a manicured garden. These are Evening Primrose I am told. They have a lovely mild fragrance... also known for their therapeutic properties. There are profusely flowering wild rose bowers and daisies and many other flowers I know not the names for! 

Our tent with the Primroses and the Apple tree in the foreground

Wild Roses

The camp is surrounded by orchards of apples, pears and apricots. In fact, the entire valley seems to be one big orchard. In these idyllic surroundings I wander down to the river to find most of the group already there taking delight in the splendorous sights!

A delicious breakfast complete with a variety of homemade preserves and relishes later, we are all off to Chhitkul, the last village in this valley towards China border. 

Banjara Camps

Diners delight!

The route to this village through the Mastrang Valley is mesmeric to put it mildly! Every few yards, we stop to marvel at a gurgling brook, some picturesque bridge, a quaint hamlet tucked away round the corner or just the unfolding panorama of snow clad peaks with lush green terraced fields in the foreground and the beautiful Baspa flowing beside it. Heaven! 

Panoramic Vistas of the Mastrang Valley

There are streams crossing the road many times and the vehicle splashes through those freezing waters. We stop at one such crossing and spend time just enjoying the gentle murmur of the crystal clear waters and the predominantly rocky landscape with a carpet of fresh green grass under it. The serenity of the place is a balm to the harried urban soul. 

The stream running across the road

Road to Chhitkul

Rocky terrain

As we near a hamlet, two women hail us for a lift. We oblige them. They are a Grandmother – granddaughter pair off to the fields. They grow Ogla which is buckwheat which will be harvested in early September. These areas have only one four month growing season in the year. Rest of the time it is too cold and snow bound. At this time, there is frenzied activity of sowing, growing and harvesting before the quiet of the cold months sets in. The women alight near their fields and we move on. 

Green terraced fields with Snowy peaks in the background

The HPPWD Guest house is on the outskirts of Chhitkul. The road meanders through the village of a few houses and some new guest houses which have come up for tourists and then into the fields beyond. 

HPPWD Guesthouse, Chhitkul

Birds are hyperactive all around. A cacophony of birdcalls is heard, each individual vying for a higher perch to call from and a louder decibel level than its rival. A vast flock of Fire fronted Serins alights at the field nearest the car. We are mesmerized! I have dreamt of seeing this beautiful bird and always dipped on it. Not only are they found in this place, they are locally very common, in their scores at any given time! But this is only near Chhitkul, not lower in the valley near say Raksham or Sangla. I guess altitude has a lot to do with it. Chhitkul is at 3450 meters and Sangla at 2680 metres though only 24 kms away. A big difference! 

Fire fronted Serin foraging

Fire fronted Serin in nest building mode

There are the ubiquitous Rosefinches calling from the tree tops with nothing but procreation on their minds! The Yellow billed Choughs are gliding and catching the wind currents to circle the fields from high up. The White Wagtails are numerous. A Vareigated Laughingthrush peeps out of an apricot tree and there are Rock Buntings everywhere. And all this without moving an inch! 

Common Rosefinch

Rock Bunting

Vareigated Laughingthrush

White Wagtail

Yellow billed Chough

The drive down to the river is a very steep path full of loose stones making driving difficult. The breathtaking vistas though make up for any other inconveniences many times over! 

The steep path running down towards the river bed at Chhitkul

Near the Baspa at Chhitkul

We realise that time is flying and we need to head back. Pooh is our destination for today. We have to leave Banjara camps post an early lunch so we can enjoy the ride to Pooh without having to go tearing round corners and zipping all the way there.

We turn back but not before I promise to come back to Kinnaur and Sangla - Chhitkul with definite time for bird watching too. This is just a recce trip and we’ll be back for a more leisurely stay sometime soon.

The drive back is quick. The valley widens out substantially as we cross Raksham and towards Sangla. The Baspa snaking along surrounded by orchards and small dwellings is one charming picture. 

The valley widens towards Sangla and is full of Orchards
Back at the camp, lunch is served. The cool fresh mountain air and the jaunts of the morning have whetted our appetites and everybody tucks in with gusto. Not only has the location of this setup been fabulous, but the food has been marvellous. A place one can just relax in without any requirement for stepping out of the premises.

The wheel barrows are out and the staff comes around collecting the larger pieces of luggage. We troop out to the parking and settle into the designated vehicles. Before departure, Doc calls all the help and some from the other camp nearby and does a proper half hour presentation of the dos and don’ts for AIDS prevention. Hopefully it is of some value to them.

And then we are off... destination Pooh!

The journey continues...