On her second trip to Spiti Valley, the writer gets imprisoned by a landslide, but realises why she will go back yet again.
There is little merit in retelling a journey done before, but there is great joy in retracing one. The first time that I went to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh was over three years ago. That was for a work assignment with no one but a photographer, but this one was with a bunch of fellow travellers, some of whom had signed up for the tryst late, and others who were clueless about what lay in store.
My first visit to the valley had left an indelible mark on me with its unmatched landscapes, supremely bad roads, and lovely people. As we left Manali well before dawn, I wondered why I was willingly doing this again. In a place as remote as Spiti, there was slim chance of change in a matter of a few years. As we hit the turn from Gramphu after crossing the Rohtang Pass, I knew I was right; the passing valleys were as beautiful, the roads as bad. Thrice, we had to get off and help our driver Panna Lal take the Innova across whimsical streams that made their own paths. It was only later that I got to know (to my slight horror) that it was only his second trip.
We stopped for lunch at the lone Chandra dhaba at Batal before we began the ascent to Kunzum La, Spiti’s highest pass. The dhaba still had one couple serving simple but delicious fare to passing trekkers, army jawans, travellers and truck drivers. As we were mid-way up the narrow Kunzum pass road (if it may be called that), we saw a truck tilted precariously on its left wheels. It seemed to stay there purely by the grace of a boon, and would fall if you blinked. We had to manoeuvre our way around it, and in that heart-stopping moment that I had experienced before and had knowingly engaged in again, I turned around to look at the others. It was Paul and Anais’s first time in India. They had probably had in mind visions of dancing peacocks, forts and palaces, men in turbans and bejewelled women. Clearly, this was something else. Their shorts and tees were pretty useless at 14,000 ft, their loo breaks were behind giant boulders, and life depended on Panna Lal. But as we hit Losar and officially entered Spiti, the overwhelming beauty of the valley replaced their jitters with squeals of ‘C’est magnifique!’
After nearly 12 hours on the road, we reached Kaza, the unofficial capital and ‘modern’ hub of Spiti. Other than being the gateway to all the mini destinations around, Kaza is also the place to make last phone calls (no signals after this), recharge batteries, buy energy bars and toilet paper, and enjoy the last baked goodies. My friends in Kaza suggested a change in itinerary and we landed up in Dhankar the following day. I walked around the lovely monastic settlement, the landscape of which is straight out of a sci-fi set — tall boulders like Obelix’s menhirs and bizarrely beautiful rock formations dotted with sheep and yak. We had earlier visited Tabo, one of the most ancient monasteries of the region housing some very old and interesting frescoes.
From Dhankar, we left for Pin valley with its spellbinding views and unpredictability. True to nature, we were briefly imprisoned there by a landslide! Chimmet Dorje’s lone guesthouse in Phukchung village became our home.
The guesthouse is used by guests for meditative retreats and ironically I had been more or less forced into it, cosmic payback for dismissing retreats as an activity for senior citizens.
By the end of my stay there, the long walks on the bed of the Pin tributary and the purples and browns of the stark mountains had instilled in me the universal lesson of humility, and I remembered why I return to such places.
We finally left the car in Pin valley, trekked across a frightening stretch of trail, crossed the landslide rubble in an earthmover and hitched a ride back to Kaza with a bunch of PWD engineers who had come to inspect the damage. I muttered expletives through the tribulation, but once back home, I changed my mind. I missed being jostled uncontrollably, my bones rattled even as my eyes feasted on a visual banquet.
I might well return a third time.