Stuck in the snow in Spiti

27 Jun

Kaza is the district headquarters of Spiti and the little town where you stop for supplies before you head for one of Spiti's more remote villages or the mountains. Or, if you were there in June this year, where you were simply stuck.

With one petrol pump, even if it is the highest in the world, a bus stand, a few restaurants and hotels, as well as a monastery, Kaza was not a place we intended to stay for a week. Even less so when it turned out that the floods further south had washed away the power lines, leaving Kaza without heating and electricity.

(Before I continue, I’d like to stress to the ones back home who might have followed Indian news and know that flooding devastated the Himalayan region in June that we were in the northeast of Himachal Pradesh. It was in the state of Uttarakhand that swollen rivers took down entire towns and killed an estimated 1,000 people – with the figure likely to rise.

We were unaware of this while in Himachal Pradesh – as we were cut off both literally and communicationwise. We only knew of the landslides isolating people in the hill state we were in. For us, the “evacation” was a matter of getting people back to work and their families, not away from gushing waters.)

The route back south to Shimla was blocked by landslides in four places, which the ones in the know said would take weeks to clear, and the road northwest to Manali had yet to open for the year. A menacing glacier was blocking the way just by Kunzum Pass at 4551 metres.

But there was adrenalin in the air (as well as snow, sleet, fog and the smell of unwashed tourists). Every morning, a new impatient jeep would set out, its driver hopeful the information that had reached Kaza was inaccurate and the road in either direction would turn out to be open. Though, as the eight, ninth and then eventually also the tenth Indian came back for the night, day after day, someone brightly pointed out, “This has become Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!”.

Huddled together in the common room, the only room warm thanks to the sheer number of Indians inside with woolen hats and mittens, we spent the next few days “doing time pass” and learning other Hinglish phrases.

It's not like we had a bad time in Kaza. After the first two days with sleet, the fog lifted and the sun came out over snow-capped peaks in one of the most spectacular valleys on earth. And, “downtown”, as I once happened to call Kaza's main one street and which caught on among laughing Indians, was Babu, a cheerful Nepalese man who every day got up at 3am to make cinnamon buns and apple pies in candle light for his German Bakery.

But, people's vacation times were running out. Erratic bosses, concerned Indian mothers and frustrated colleagues were on the lines, whenever the phone connections worked (“I get no connection. We're back and beyond!”). Some had children they needed to get back home to. Domestic tourists from southern India kept postponing and cancelling their flights from Delhi and home, running up higher and higher costs for their vacations. Rented jeep drivers, paid by the day, were playing cards in the garden. (It wasn't all bad though; for many Indians, it was their first snow fall. Though by the time the snow turned to sleet and then eventually rained away, most of them had been cured of their initial obsession).

For us, it was a different story. Our plane tickets out of India were two weeks away (one week by the time we managed to leave). We would have prefered to explore the area around Kaza, but with uncertain rumours about coming bad weather and when the roads would open, we decided to stay put in the big smoke of Spiti and not end up stranded in one of the remote mountain villages. And, in many respects, being stuck in Kaza turned out to be one of our highlights in India.

Consider, for instance, a room full of extremely bored Indians and two extremely curious tourists. Name the question and we had at any time a handful of friendly and interesting people ready to explain and answer. Consider the opportunities to discuss Indian politics and society; among the just under twenty people we met, there were Catholics from the south, Bengali Hindus, Sikhs from Punjab, atheists and muslims from Delhi and Indians living in England. Later, thanks to the helpful and insisting tourist information they also provided, we ended up seeing the pythonesque border ceremony with Pakistan, had the super and original Moti Mahal's butter chicken in Delhi, and we had wonderful new friends to meet up with when we all eventually made it to Delhi.

Indeed, we were having a really great time. When we each got a bucket of hot water on day five in Kaza (day eight with no hot water in hotel rooms we could see our own breath in), we were even close to ecstatic.

 

The Indians were less happy with being stuck. As the days passed, the pressure mounted to get people out, or more accurately, to get the voting booths in. A local by-election was only a little week away and the electronic voting machines had to be brought in and set up in the villages.

With no roads, the only option was by helicopter. After offloading the voting machines, the helicopter was able to bring a few people out. And for the rest of us, it was a day of exciting time pass.

So, there we were again, sipping hot chocolate in the common room of our hotel. But then, one euphoric day later, there was one who triumphed. The Sikh family of four who had persistently tried for days to drive over the mountains sent a text message. This time they were not coming back. They were through; Manali, no wool and lots of electricity next!

And, by that time, German Bakery in town or not, we were ready to wake up without being fully clothed under three thick woolen blankets, to shower in hot water and not with wet napkins, and to not order cups upon cups of tea to have something warm to hold on to.

We were lucky enough to get a lift with one of the Indian couples we met in the hotel, who adopted us for the week and made sure we were updated with information about our evacuation routes (as well as regional and national tourist information, restaurant recommendations, recipes, invitations for dinners in Delhi, and the Indian political situation… to name but a few.).

So, thank you Debbie and Ashok for getting us out of Kaza! And to the rest of the tour group that made our frosty stay in Kaza well worth the wait, thank you for a great week.

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2 Responses to “Stuck in the snow in Spiti”

  1. David Robinson 28. Jun, 2013 at 23:03 #

    Beautiful photos! We thought you had escaped in a helicopter! You will miss Tibet and its breathtaking views, the prayers with the Buddhist monks and the hot cups of tea! How did you manage being at such a high altitude? Danielle and David

    • Kari 05. Jul, 2013 at 14:21 #

      Hi – apologies for the late reply. For some reason, your comment ended up in spam. We hardly had any problems with the altitude (beyond panting and puffing!), but we were very cautious and travelled gradually. Stunning mountains – also for a blase Norwegian & a half-Frenchie! 🙂

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