Friday, 26 September 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... 

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