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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Travel diaries -- A lifetime pilgrimage to Spiti

October 14, 2008

Anish Joel
My Himachal

Part 1
October 10, 2008

"Sometimes in life, a simple journey becomes the journey of your
inner awakening and takes the form of a pilgrimage."

I remember 3 years back when I took a motorbike trip from Delhi to
Leh, I had started preparations almost 2 months in advance which
included arranging money, getting my Royal Enfield bike in shape,
buying spares, customized side carrier to hold my luggage along with
petrol cans, medicines etc. etc. etc. But this time, when I thought
about doing a trip to Spiti Valley, fortunately or unfortunately I
didn't do any planning, in fact I wasn't even quite sure if I was
going to Spiti Valley (don't ask me the reason for this).

This time instead of choosing my Royal Enfield, I decided to drive in
bit of a comfort and took my Mahindra Scorpio SUV. It's quite a
trusted companion and I have done almost whole of India trip and
numerous Himachal trips on my Scorpio.

I started early morning from Delhi and headed for Dharamshala, my
original thought was to spend a few days in Dharamshala and then go
to Manali from there. Now, I will not write about Delhi to Manali
travel as most of you must have done that several times, so I don't
want to bore you with descriptions of hotels and dhabas and all the
tractors and cattle crossing the express highways etc.

So, here I was in Manali with an American couple friends of mine,
they were kind to offer me stay at their nice house near Vashisht. My
friend David, who is now a Buddhist, has been to Spiti Valley a
couple of times and he shared some interesting stories and cautions
with me over drinks that night. It was raining throughout the night
and I head some local people say that it snowed at Rohtang Pass.
snowed??? Early September??? I couldn't really believe that.

Next morning around 4.30, I packed my bags, settled the entire
luggage in the boot of Scorpio (I have both back seats removed for
carrying luggage for such trips) and started off. 2 kms. Up the road,
I saw some trucks parked on the narrow road, sure a sign of road
block. So this was my 1st encounter with road situation. A truck had
broken down and the road was so narrow that not even a cycle could
cross that patch. Both sides of the road had approx. 5-6 feet deep
empty ditches. Around 10-15 vehicles were stuck there, we all got
together and started putting big boulder on one side of that ditch.
It took around 3-4 hrs. to fill that space with around 30 people
working (all voluntary) to create a very risky alternate road to
cross that patch. So, here I was a dare devil to cross over that
unstable, hand made bridge with boulders, thanks to my Scorpio and my
driving skills. I crossed that without any scratch on my car's body.

The road from there upto Rohtang pass was in bad shape, thanks to
Himachal govt. for taking the task to widen that route, the result,
all slushy, bumpy ride. As I was approaching the Pass, I started
seeing the snow peaked mountains, I started realising that all around
me was fresh snow, even at some places I was driving over 2-3 inches
of snow layer on the road. When I reached Rohtang Pass, it was
completely covered with 2-3 feet of snow and the local tea stall chap
told me that it has snowed the whole night and I might face
difficulty at certain places on that route. But in no mood to return
back, I was decided to reach Kaza on that very day, so I carried on.

As I crossed the pass, the situation worsened for about next 5-6 kms.
Heavy snow, few vehicles were stuck, but I was lucky because a few
trucks and HP road transport buses had crossed by me, so they had
already created the stable way.

I was constantly stopping and taking some of the most amazing shots
of my life. I was feeling as if this is not earth, this must be a
paradise, a heaven, fresh white snow all around, all the peaks were
full of fresh white snow. I was witnessing nature at its best, it was
really beautiful. Soon the snow view ended and I was reaching at
Gramphu crossing. It must have been around 10.00AM.

 From Gramphu you have to leave the Manali-Leh highway and take the
other route for Spiti Valley. There were a few tea stalls and a few
passengers waiting for HP transport buses for Losar and Kaza. I
passed thru Gramphu on this narrow road along a deep gorge. As I was
moving forward, I was leaving the greenery behind, most of the
mountains in this region were very rocky with very few grazing land.
Few kms. On this road, I saw a cyclist in my back mirror, I was
amazed to see this young man riding his bicycle. I stopped for a
moment to have a conversation. This young man was from Australia and
had already covered Manali-Leh and now he was heading towards Spiti.
I was amazed at his stamina and courage to ride on a bicycle, on such
inaccessible places, in an unknown country where he could not even
speak Hindi and all by himself… amazing.

As I was moving forward, I was constantly admiring this entire
terrain, very rustic, after every 1 km or so, there were some fresh
water streaks coming from mountains, I actually stopped at a few such
places, to drink the fresh water, wash my face and also fill some
bottles. I drank water from such sources for next 7-8 days.

Part II
October 11, 2008

My next stop for tea was a small place called Chattru, 2 tented tea
stalls. Even the road transport buses to Losar and Kaza also stop
here for lunch. I had a good tea there, again drank some mountain
nectar (fresh water flowing thru the mountains) and moved on.

 From Chattru, the entire drive and texture of the place started
changing. I was passing thru some of the most beautiful river beds I
had ever seen in my life. I was passing thru some of the most
gigantic rocky mountains, huge. Wilderness at its best, I could see
clearly for at least 3-4 miles and that too 360 degree views. That
was just out of this world. I had not witnessed this kind of vastness
in my life before. It felt as if I'm just nothing in front of this
huge vastness. I felt so small in comparison, just like a tiny sand particle.

As I move ahead, I started noticing peak of a possibly large glacier
behind the right mountain top. Well that was it, few kms on, I read,
I was crossing by a huge glacier peak, which is called Chotadara. I
was wondering why it is called Chotadara when it is so huge, ofcourse
I could only see it from a distance. I'm sure there must be a
Baradara (a gigantic glacier near by). I clicked some more pics of
this beautiful place. The sight of a glacier peak (when all you hear
about is global warming and melting of glaciers) was a divine relief
for my visual senses.

As I moved on, I reached a place called Batal. Batal is known as the
base camp for Chandra Tal which is off route for about 13 kms. It was
around 2-3pm, I had my lunch at the Batal dhaba and decided to go to
Chandra Tal, I had heard great things about this Tal. I checked from
Batal dhaba guy about staying at Chandra Tal, the guy informed me,
yes, there are a few camps there. I was happy and was deciding to
stay at Chandra Tal for that night. As I took the road to Chandra
Tal, I was transported into a different world all together. The path
(am not using the word road, because it will be insulting to roads)
was just good for one car. On one side, I had these slopes of granite
rocks, but unfortunately they were loose rocks and were constantly
coming down, sharp like knives. And on the other side I had a river
gorge, actually a massive river gorge about 200-250 feet deep. It was
quite an adventure on that road. It took me around 1 hr and 30 mins
to reach to Chandra Tal. But once I reached there, it was a real
treat again. An unending blue, crystal clear fresh water lake at a
height of about 4300 feet, surrounded by mountain peaks with snow. A
sight which is hard to forget, very close to the description of heavens.

There were prayer flags and a small stupa along with a Shiva-lingam;
I always love to see this aspect of religion, where one is placed by
another, completely in harmony. I guess the world needs to learn from
this. I took a walk around the lake, clicked some photographs and
then decided to plan my stay there. When I looked around,

I realized that all the camps are already packed up and were being
put on pick up vans. I check from these guys and found out that they
had been given the warnings to wind up the camps as the weather
patterns from last 2-3 days were very unpredictable and there was a
possibility of a big snow storm. I too decided to leave with them.

By this time, I was already getting quite tired, driving on that
route was quite treacherous. It was already late afternoon and I had
to reach Kaza, which was still quite far away. As I started driving
back to Batal from Chandra Tal, I thought of driving a little fast
(around 30kmph) so that I reach Kaza or atleast Losar before its
dark. Remember, this route is very lonely, you barely meet any soul
on the route, and throughout the day journey I might have passed thru
may be just 3-4 trucks. The entire region is quite safe but the
problem is of back up support, if you get stuck somewhere, it will be
very hard to get any support and moreover, the entire region is not
connected by phones as well.

As I started driving little fast, I noticed that the driving path was
quite dangerous as there were very sharp granite knife like stones
all over, I was driving very carefully when suddenly I heard a loud
noise, my left rear tubeless tyre had been cut. I stopped and saw a 5
inch cut in the tyre, of course beyond repair. The 2 jeeps behind me,
which were carrying 14 people each (don't ask me how?) had to stop.
So within 2 minutes, there were around 15-20 people around me and all
were helping in one way or the other to quickly change the tyre. Then
they request if I can give lift to 1-2 of them, which ofcourse I did.

Now, the next mission was to cross the Kunzum La at a height of 4550
ft. As I was driving thru some of the most un-motorable roads in my
life (by the way, this whole route is National /State Highway) I
suddenly realize that my front right tyre is also on very low air
pressure, so, another tyre puncture. Now, I don't even have a backup
tyre. But thankfully, I was carrying an electronic air pump, which
works well on tubeless tyres. So, we stopped 3-4 times on the way to
constantly fill up air in the tyre.

Few kms of treacherous driving took me to Kunzum La, a heaven in the
middle of nowhere. Another example of religious harmony. In the
middle of the road there was this Buddhist temple decorated with
beautiful prayer flags and just by its side was a Durga Devi temple.
It's a custom on this highway to encircle these temples and pray for
a safe journey, by doing that you get blessings of local devtas who
are your only protectors at such high altitude lands. So, I stopped
by, prayed for my safe journey without any backup tyre, clicked some
photographs and moved on.

Beyond Kunzum La, the cold desert terrain started. All the mountains
are now appearing to be full of mud and sand, the path now became
very dusty, by now my car was full of dust inside and outside both.
Few kms. down the road, I was greeted by a welcome board which reads
"Welcome to Spiti Valley", what a relief, that finally I was in
Spiti. My first major town after Kunzum La was Losar. The sight of
Losar after all the muddy & bumpy tracks was a welcome relief again.
The first sight of beautiful Tibetan monastic style houses. All with
white or mud coloured with Maroon windows and black boarder, just
awesome. It was already getting dark when I hit Losar town. Rested
for a while, few rounds of contemplation of whether to stay at Losar
or head for Kaza which was around 2 hrs. away. Since Losar had no
facility to repair the tyre or even an air pressure pump, I decided to move on.

Next 2 hrs to Kaza, I could not see anything on the way coz it was
already dark. I finally reached Kaza around 9.30PM and after
struggling thru 2-3 deserted rest houses, got a decent guest house
called Mandala, which later I got to know, was the best in town. I
can't even explain you, how I spent that night, with no food being
served after 9PM, the tiredness of a very long day and acclimatizing
of high altitude, I slept like a dead wood but not before taking a
refreshing hot water bath, there was a hot water geyser in Mandala
guest house. Thanks heavens for that.

Part III
October 12, 2008

Following morning, I had little tiredness but as soon as I looked out
of my window, wow" I was surrounded by those fascinating Tibetan
monastery style houses on one side and a huge dusty, rocky mountain
on the other side, it was so enormous and barely a kms away from my
hotel, I had to completely turn my head up 90 degrees to see it. For
a moment, I thought, if this whole thing which looks like mud and
sand mountain starts coming down?? Surely, it would have buried me.
What rubbish, I immediately stopped my thinking pattern.

Kaza is basically a stop over town for tourist coming from Tabo side
and vice versa. It has a small local market, a few guest houses, a
taxi stand, a bus stand, fuel station and basically everything else
to keep a traveller rolling.

Now, my first priority was to get the tyre repaired. After roaming in
the local Kaza market I was told that there is no mechanic to fix the
tubeless tyre and the 2nd bad news was, in the whole of Kaza town, I
would not get a tube for Scorpio tyre. Shit, I was stuck. But few
more rounds into the market and I finally discovered a mechanic near
the petrol pump who could fix the tubeless tyre, wow, I was ecstatic
like a child. Got the tyre repaired and requested a taxi union
manager to get me a Scorpio tube from Manali, he had some vehicles
coming up from there. I was told to wait for 1-2 days. However, after
waiting for 2 days, I got to know that even at Manali the tube wasn't
available. So, I had to now wear the Indian Jugadu cap, got a Tata
sumo tube as a Jugad for the time being.

While in Kaza, I visited a very impressive NGO called Spiti
Eco-Sphere, I had heard about them while in Delhi and had also spoken
to them. It's been run by a dynamic young lady called Ishita. I was
surprised to know that she is been in Spiti from last 6 years and
running this NGO. They are doing some very interesting work on
Eco-Tourism, home stays, organic farming, energy conservation, water
purification, actually the list is quite long, and they are covering
the whole of Spiti Valley. Well, my meeting with Ishita was quite
interesting and I ended up making another good friend.

So, after being stuck at Kaza for nearly 3 days, my next mission was
to reach Tabo via Dhankar monastery. Next morning I was again in my
SUV driving to Tabo. The route from Kaza to Tabo is like a road to
paradise. Mettle road, huge mountains, vast river beds, Spiti river
flowing, Tibetan style houses, goats n sheeps and ofcourse some green
farm lands, not to forget the blue vast sky, wow I was in paradise
now. After 20-25 kms on that road, there was a small turn on my left
which took me to a good height at the famous 1000+ yrs. old Dhankar
Monastery. The sight of monks in an ancient monastery in the middle
of nowhere on a mountain top, was it real or a dream, difficult to
comprehend. I met a few firangi friends there, who were staying at
the monastery guest house from last 3-4 weeks. They surely knew much
more about Spiti and Monasteries then me.

Another 20-25 kms and I reached my much awaited destination, I was at
Tabo. It's a small town, surrounded by desert mountains from all
sides. It's actually much smaller then I had anticipated. Once at
Tabo, I first lodged myself in a neat guest house, there were also
some open air cafes which served international cuisine. After I had
my stomach full, I straightaway went to the famous ancient monastery
where Dalai Lama performed Kal-chakra a few years ago. This was a
series of small, one room temples, I guess around 9 of them. Each was
an ancient architectural marvel, made of wood and mud. These monastic
temples were made for deep meditation practices, there were some of
the world's best paintings and statues on the walls. These temples
were so dark that you had to take a torch (wherever allowed) to look
at the paintings. Each temple just had one small glazed glass opening
on the roof, that was all the light one can have in those temples, of
course now they do have electric lights also but they don't switch them on.

Sitting in those temples, one can easily go into deep states of
meditation. The energy of that entire place especially within the
temples was magical. I spent quite some time sitting inside there.
The head monk was an old cute lama, though I didn't get the chance to
speak to him. On other side of the monastery, on a mountain, across
the road were some ancient caves. It is said that Buddhist lamas used
to meditate in those caves.

I really liked Tabo, which is considered as mini-Tibet, they now have
a new monastery building, a new school for local kids, special
dormitory for monks, a monastery guest house for tourists and a brand
new hospital building as well. I was told that Dalai Lama wants to
live in Tabo once he retires. Well, if that happens, Tabo will surely
get on to the world map and hopefully then, we will have better
roads, connectivity and support systems in this divine land of Buddhas.

As I was spending more time at Tabo I was contemplating what
transpired me to come here, in the middle of nowhere, 2-3 days away
from the nearest big town, dusty high altitude desert area, without
any planning, without sufficient food or even woollen cloths. Well I
think you do get the answer for such soul searching questions, but
they can't be explained.

After spending 2 days at Tabo, it was time to head back. I could have
gone ahead and reached Delhi via Recong Peo - Rampur - Shimla route,
but heard that Malling Nala was in a bad shape and could get closed
any moment. So, took a U turn.

On my way back, I did not stop at Kaza, I think I had enough of it.
By the time I was heading back, this whole trip had become a
pilgrimage for me instead of a usual adventure travel. I spotted the
beautiful and famous Kye Monastery and the kibber town from a
distance, by now I was full of Tabo energy, so decided to appreciate
this magnificent and beautiful monastery from a distance.

My next stop on my way back was Losar. Spend night at the guest house
there, made friends with the family who owns and runs this beautiful
little guest house, they have rooms with shared bath rooms (Rs.
200/-). In the evening I met Raid-De-Himalaya team from Army, they
were on their rekey trip before the Raid.

Next morning I started early, passed thru Kunzum La and within a few
hours I crossed Rohtang pass as well, but this time without any snow,
the whole pass region was a dry land. The sight just made me thinking
how a sprinkle of fresh snow had changed the entire beauty of the
landscape just a few days ago and now it's all a barren land. I was
lucky enough to get both the contrasts. This reminded me of life,
which in itself is a big contrast. My trip has helped me appreciate
all the different colors of one same life.

After 2 days of my return, I heard that an unusually massive snow
storm had stuck Lahul & Spiti valley, around 500 tourists were stuck
there for about 2 weeks including 2 dear friends of mine from USA.
The govt. airlifted a few tourists, dropped food and water packets
and later on cleared the roads.

I was lucky to have come back before the snow storm. This trip has
helped me and taught me some very deep lessons. I am sure this has
been one of the best, soul searching pilgrimages of my life.

Some Important points:
* carry enough woollens, torch lights, food packets, water and
essential medicines, its quite easy to get stuck on the way without
any support for a few hours or days
* After Manali, the next fuel station is at Kaza, you can reach there
in one tank full, depending on the performance of your vehicle and
tank capacity
* After Manali, only BSNL phone works at Kaza and then at Tabo (only
BSNL Landline)
* There are some very nice home stays on the route, get in touch with for your travel/lodging arrangements.

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