Noisy, jammed with cars and reeking of diesel is how Manali seemed when we entered it post a three kilometer long jam. The hour long trudge had taxed us far more than the three hundred kilometer long ride did. The evening was spent recuperating at a cafe on the riverside in Old Manali. Dawn had me clambering to the bike after rousing my mates so we could beat the serpentine trail of Taxis filled with tourists ready to invade the Rohtang pass like hornets.
I met the first volley at Marhi, but was fortunate enough to pass them by quickly as they were busy clicking pictures of a waterfall at the turn. My happiness was short lived. I saw a huge caravan near the crest. I drove past them, dodging, swerving, slipping and sliding in the slush that abounds the top of the pass. Fifteen minutes later I broke through the last bit and drove through the pass. A moment later a howling chilly gale blew through and I smelled fresh, clean air after a long time! Freedom! I was finally away from those smoke belching cars. I started moving towards Gramphoo, a small settlement at the Spiti-Lahaul fork so I could wait for the others. I saw TJ and the others drive down the pass towards me but somehow they missed the turn to Spiti and took the road to Ladakh instead. I caught up with them at the police checkpost at Khoksar where they were about to turn back to meet me at Gramphoo. We decided to eat before we moved ahead and had eggs and noodles for breakfast.
The road down the Rohtang pass is mostly a dirt track with loose gravel and fine dust that make driving a little difficult but that is compensated by the lack of traffic and ethereal views that are unparalled.
Chhatru is a small village enroute the Kunzum pass that connects Lahaul to Spiti. We met the dhaba owner popularly known as “Chachu” and sat around drinking Seabuckthorn tea with him when it suddenly started hailing. Drat! We huddled inside his makeshift “restaurant” and waited whilst the hailstorm abated. It soon
started raining and it kept drizzling until late afternoon. I ventured out around four to check the weather and it was freezing outside! I bolted back, donned a warm cap, zipped up the jacket and walked out again. The watch showed -2 degrees. This was late June when the temperature in my city is a scorching 44 degrees in the afternoon. The seat of my bike had a layer of frost on it. I saw a motorcycle flash its lights at me in the distance. I waved and they drove up to me asking if I were the caretaker of the guest house in the distance. I checked with Chachu and he said that the guest house was closed. After a bit of discussion he agreed to let the couple stay with us. We had all decided that it was not feasibe to go out in the cold at this time, especially when there were dark clouds all over the place.
An hour later everyone had befriended each other and stories were being exchanged before, during and post dinner. We were seven people on four makeshift beds. We shared and tried our best to sleep in the cold tent. I woke around six to check the weather and saw that the valley was bathed in sunlight.
Glistening white peaks covered with fresh snow and glaciers bathed in early morning light were a sight to behold. I woke the others and we decided to step out. The temperature was still sub zero. We repacked and decided to move ahead. An hour and many photos into the drive we saw a small dhaba at a place called Batal. This was the place where the road branches into two-one leading to the mighty Kunzum pass and the other to the emerald green crescent shaped Chandra Taal-the Moon Lake.
We decided to have tea and then move on. One of our riders suddenly announced that he had left his wallet at the last dhaba. I told him that I’d wait for him while the others decided to move on to Spiti. He drove back but reappeared in ten minutes saying that he felt a little jittery going alone as it was his first ride. I asked him to ride ahead while I drove slowly behind him taking pictures so that I’d catch up with him midway. He sauntered off and I drove along slowly, taking photos where I could. The drive from Chhatru to Batal is dotted with glaciers, lofty snow clad peaks and water crossings. Two hours later I reached the old Dhaba only to find that my co-rider had driven back to Manali as his bike had some problems. I was annoyed yet concerned. I started to ride back to catch up with the others after the Dhaba owner told me that he went with the couple we shared the dhaba with.
It was mid noon and dark clouds loomed overhead as I moved on. Few minutes later it got dark all of a sudden as I drove directly into a blizzard. With near zero visibility I somehow managed to sight and reach the Dhaba we were at earlier and took sheleter there.
The blizzard subsided in an hour and I decided to move on. All thoughts of Chandratal had skipped my mind as I ascended the road to Kunzum La. Three small blizzards, dozens of slips, slides and curses later I emerged at the top of the pass which was sunny! I took some photos and decided to drive on towards Losar and then onwards to Kaza where TJ and the others would be waiting.
Spiti is the exact opposite of the lush green yet snow covered Lahaul valley. Dry, barren, stony and rugged, the Spiti valley is a desert akin the Changthang region in Ladakh. As one drives down the road from the Kunzum pass, the Spiti valley looms ahead in all its rugged glory!
Snow covered sky high mountains in dozens of colours are hewn through by the mighty Spiti river in its bright blue hue as it meanders along the valley. The mountains change colour as I drive along, enchanted until I reach a signpost titled “Most Welcome to the Spiti Valley”. A bright sun and winds unscathed by its heat welcomed me as I drove towards Kaza, the largest town and the district headquarters of the region.
Having driven twice through the unforgiving bumpy roads of Lahaul and Spiti, I was dead tired when I reached Kaza and headed for the Petrol Pump, our rendezvous for the day though I wasnt sure if I would meet anyone there. I was six hours behind schedule. The pump operator had no information about anyone who had waited for me or had given any information about where I was to stay. Crestfallen, I drove through the town hoping to see the bikes of my friends parked somewhere, but they were nowhere to be found. Exhausted to the core, I took a room in the Sakya Monastery’s guest house and decided to call it a day.
After a quick dinner of noodles in piping hot tomato gravy, I fell asleep and woke a little later than usual the next day. At over 12,000ft, Kaza is a quiet, pretty little town dotted with small houses, shops and traditional spitian houses. I decided to have breakfast at a traditional eatery. They had Tsampa(roasted barley porridge made with butter tea) and Tingmo(Steamed Bread) for breakfast. I ate my fill and drove onwards, hoping to find my co-riders somewhere on the way. I reached Tabo an hour later. I checked out the famous monastery and inquired at the little police pen about my friends. “They just enquired about a red bike and moved on fifteen minutes ago” the guard said. “My bike is the red bike they enquired about!” I said. He told me that a red bike had passed through without signing the register and my friends thought that it was me so they drove off in pirsuit of that bike.
I kicked my bike again and drove off quickly. I reached Nako a while later and found that I was just half an hour behind my friends. I rode furiously until I reached a small village called “Chandigarh”, the name of my hometown. I was ravenous! It seemed as if the road had gobbled up the food I had eaten. I enquired and was guided to a small eatery. I ate Thentuk(watery gravy with meat and flat dough noodles) and MoMo(dumplings) for lunch. They were fiery and were served with a chutney that was near-venemous! I ate my fill, thanked and paid up and drove off again. Winding roads, dusty paths, many Kagiz and some lofty mountains later I heard my phone ring.
Unusual, I thought. I picked up and it turned out to be my friends who thought they were following me and had caught up with another fellow on a red motorcycle! They were over two hours ahead by now so I asked them to move on while I drove slowly towards my city! Half sad because I wasn’t able to capture the beauty of the valley and visit all the sights and monasteries I had planned but happy that I finally drove through the Spiti Valley, no matter how quick it had been. Spiti still calls, and this year I shall visit again. Until next time!