Leaving Spiti Valley, India: apologies for the oohs, aahs and ouches!

29 Jun

The upper reaches of the Indian Himalayas are among the most remote places on the planet and also the most disaster-prone. The hostile terrain, unpredictable weather and the dirt track that passes as the national highway to Spiti are a dangerous mix and many tourists end up getting stranded. This year we were two of those tourists.

For 10 long days in June, all roads out of Spiti were gone. The road southbound was washed away in four places by landslides and the road northbound was still blocked by moving glaciers. The winter had been particularly long and dreary, and the road north through Kunzum pass (4,551m) was still stubbornly white.

Spiti is spectacular, mind you, but the prospect of not being able to leave one of this planet's most remote inhabited places was daunting to say the least.

Our journey to the Indian Himalayas had come to an abrupt halt. When the snow and landslides started, we had barely made it to Kaza, Spiti's largest village. The snow had come as a surprise while we were still in Dhankar, a mountain top village where boulders had by then appeared on the road. Local drivers preferred to stay in their safe homes and we only made it out by hitching a lift with the Congress Party who were out electioneering.

Our original plan had been to go walking in the surrounding mountains when we reached Kaza. But when rumours started floating around of more incoming bad weather we decided to stay put.

We were already without electricity and water, but there was a German Bakery in the village, Kaza was likely to hear any news about the roads first, and above all, it would be dangerous to move about on Spiti's roads if the rain/sleet/snow started again. Even a small amount of rain could set off new rockslides.

So, like everyone else, we opted for shorter day-trips from Kaza while we waited and hungrily lapped up any news about the roads.

This is Kibber, a small village at 4,270m that used to be highest habitation in Asia connected by road. The distinction is now passed on to a nearby village – surely a rather unpopular one in Kibber..

With views on 5000 metre peaks, even a day-trip to Kibber was rewarding. Pity we were only left to imagine what it would be like to walk in these mountains.

The houses are traditional Spiti houses, with thick walls made of mud and often also cow dung to keep in as much heating as possible.

The road returns

We had decided to not take any chances, and only try the 4,500m mountain passes northbound after someone else had made it past the glaciers and all the way to Manali. On 21 June, the first jeep this year chugged along Spiti valley and across Kunzum Pass. The day after, we were in a jeep out of Spiti.

For the first dark hour of that morning, we kept to the left bank of the river Spiti. We averaged 30 km/h on dilapidated roads (which was rather fast, we would soon discover), with rocky inclines to our right and snow-capped mountains both ahead and behind us. Key gompa, mounted on a crest, was visible from miles around.

Before long, we rattled over a bridge made of wooden planks, nothing else in sight than mountains. As we ducked under a particularly menacing overhang next to a ghostly canyon, one of my fellow (Indian) travellers shook her head. “Why would anyone want to live here? On the edge of the world?”.

Then there was the check point at Losar. Although meant to record any travellers going up into the mountains in case anyone has any problems, our convoy of four jeeps were waved through. The mountain pass we were headed for was not yet officially declared open, so in the Wonderland of India the check point was rendered invalid. Spiti may have been the land of the officially missing roads at the time, I remember thinking, but bugger me if they were going to have any recorded missing tourists on their hands. Reassuring.

As we climbed higher and the air became crisper, the number of messages to drivers painted on the mountainsides increased. Yet, none of the “Life is short, do not make shorter” or “Please honk!” could compete with the sign just ahead of Nako further south in the valley: “For the oohs, aahs and ouches. Sorry, we regret the inconvenience”.

After Losar, a carpet of green appeared on the valley bottom and on the lower edges of the mountains. Like Kashmir, the Indians in our car said. We passed a yak, mesmerised. By this point in our Indian trip, my boyfriend and I had become blase to holy cows. But yaks?!

At 4551 metres, the Kunzum pass was the highest point we were to reach that day. As everyone else passing through this part of the Indian Himalayas, we got out of the cars to walk around the small temple on the mountain top. Believers or not, we needed all the luck or blessing we could get to ensure a safe journey.

Blessed by the deity, we continued downwards from Kunzum. As we winded our way down the narrow road taking us down the steep mountainside, we passed mountainsides still frozen in thick, solid ice.

In India, you see, they cut through the glaciers to bring out the road during summer.

“Do you do this with your glaciers in Norway?”, one of my Indian travel companions asked.

I slowly shook my head, while I pondered how to phrase diplomatically that no, that would be insane.

“No, I think we let them be”, I replied matter of factly. “I don’t think we travel through them”.

But my emphasis gave me away, making everyone laugh.

“That is the difference between Norway and India! We travel through moving glaciers – they travel around them”.

But to be fair to wacky Indians, it's not only down to engineering bravery. In the Himalayas, building roads is tricky. One of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas are not yet stable. Porous mountainsides also means landslides and, in severe rain, the roads themselves may very well plunge to the bottom of the valley. Add to that massive glaciers pressing on the terrain, and it's easy to cut Indian engineers and construction workers some slack.

The road rapidly descended to the valley bottom, where a few stone houses with canvas roofs came into sight next to the blue Chandra river. After hours on remote roads traversing several thousand metre high mountains and with the closest permanent human habitation 100 km away, the Chandra dhaba (small eatery) seemed like a magical place appearing out of nowhere.

And for many travellers, Chandra dhaba has been a godsend. Leaned against the inside of the stone walls, framed newspaper stories tell dramatic stories of how Bodh Dorjee and his wife Chandra have rescued tourists who have been helplessly stuck after a sudden dramatic shift in weather. For us, the Tibetan dhaba owners served up masala instant noodles and hot tea before we headed for new glaciers.

We continued on a dirt road that made us wince to the beat that only very expensive car parts hitting rocks can make.

“How can they even call this a road?! They should say the track is open!” my backseat neighbour exclaimed.

“In our countries, this is not a road!” my boyfriend laughed.

The reply came quickly:

“I don't think it is in our country either!”

After crossing another few patches of glacial ice and small thoroughfares cut out in the snow by JCBs, the road improved (everything is relative – check the first photo below!) and we found ourselves in a green valley packed with sheep.

But soon, we were again driving through water falls, rivers and past patches of snow and ice. And eventually, the three came together in a dangerous mix.

Holding our breath, we drove through stretches of road with waterfalls running under the glacier to our left. The icy water was slowly hollowing out the ice before pouring out onto the road and then plunging down the cliff face to our right.

The climax of the journey was however the rocky road that passed through ten metre high snow walls. The thrill mixed with real anxiety when driving through was confirmed on the other side, where a JCB was waiting and would be waiting for the next few weeks, to clear up the snow when it inevitably would fall down again.

For our South Indian friend who had seen snow for the first time the week before in Kaza, Spiti and Lahaul was surely delivering:

“OOOOOH! That was exciting!”

On the way up to Rohtang pass (3,978m) past new walls of ice but also potato fields, reflecting that we were getting closer to people, the driver of another car flagged us down. There was a jam ahead, he said, they were shooting a Bollywood film on the other side of Rohtang pass.

While a cluster of Indians had pulled out their cameras by the Bollywood stars, I pulled out mine 10 km after Rhotang as we were descending for Manali. Because there, on a small stretch of snow to the left of the road, were thousands upon thousands of Indians happily rollicking about in colourful one-piece snow suits and rubber boots. Ponies and yaks (yay!) tottered around with delighted children on their backs. Snow-mobiles scooted past flapping prayer-flags. Hundreds of local vendors and parked cars brought the passing traffic to an almost halt. We had reached “Snow Point”, a legendary strip of snow visited as a day-trip from nearby Manali by honeymooners and tourists.

After our spectacular car journey from Spiti, the slushy brown snow and short slopes failed to impress. But, the smiles, wonder and excitement of thousands of people experiencing snow for the first time did.

“I didn't expect this many people!”, I exclaimed, making one of my fellow Indian travellers burst out in laughter:

“Come on guys, this is India. 1.2 billion people. If only a few turn up, we're talking thousands!”

I guess that is it. With the chaos, diversity and creativity of 1.2 billion people and a country that fits all of Western Europe, it's simply hard to know what to expect. I didn't see Snow Point coming, let alone snow in June in Spiti, and I did not expect an 11 hour car journey to become one of my highlights from our travels in India.


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