Not exaggerating. Each word in this photo story about my Spiti travel is true, lived in slow motion, and permanently etched in my memory.
Let me start with Hikkim, the highest post office in the world. Here I am with my best close-up smile; I have even written post cards to send to my loved ones.
This was the 8th day of our comprehensive Spiti Valley Tour for an all women group that I also decided to join and lead; date being 17th Aug.
A night before while I was writing these postcards at Langza, I did have weird feelings though. Firstly, in the world of emails and WhatsApp, I was planning to send postcards, and secondly it was as if the messages on the postcards were my last messages, the most important ones & the only things that I needed to say to Sudiip (husband) & Aashvik (son). At greater heights (this was 14500 ft), one does feel like that, I guess.
This is Langza, almost as high as heaven. Just the 10 houses, surrounded by mountains on all sides and a giant Buddha staring across the Spiti valley looking out as the patron saint of Himalyan travellers.
And here you get, a luxurious homestay (after a 50min uphill winding ride), super tasty food and a phone connection (BSNL land line) …Wow! Besides, calling home from the rooftop of this Langza homestay under a cold starry night, to talk to my loved ones was truly offbeat!
Langza was our highest stay but not the coldest. Coldest in the region is Komic (and not Comic) which boasts of the highest restaurant (see picture below). Spiti claims all the
interesting destination titles…highest post office, highest restaurant, the last village, the only house, the only Dhaba, the only souls and so on.
Anyway…from Langza, Hikkim & Komic, we were to get to Chandrataal via Kaza and then on to Manali, thereby ending our journey which started at Simla on 10 th Aug. However, by afternoon of 17 th Aug, the story, the scenes, the showstoppers, everything changed.
But that’s later. Let me introduce you to the cast and characters of this story first.
Here we are (taken at Simla Mall Road). Sapna, Bharati, Asha & I (right to left)
Sapna’s travel history is intimidating: she was traveling to Kerala when the floods happened, she was in Khardung La when the snow slide happened and now she was with us just as an orange alert was indicated throughout HP.
Bharti’s last travel was a decade back to Kashmir. She had left work, two daughters, two dogs and a worrisome husband behind to be on this women tour that too to Spiti in Himalayas.
Asha, the 3rd lady in the pic was on her 3rd women trip of the year. Particular about her food and stay, she didn’t know the adventure that awaited her.
All women tour to Spiti valley in Himachal- Some flashback
Shimla to Sangla
Sangla to Kalpa
Kalpa to Tabo
Tabo to Dhankar and Mudh
Oh ! I have to talk about Dhankar experience here.
Dhankar’s monastery – built on an elevation at the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers – is one of the world’s most spectacular settings. And the village is surrounded by lotus petals like structures which makes it feel literally like the spiritual center or a place of awakening.
I guess if we had spent just minute more meditating at Dhankar, we would have awakened to what was coming. But, we didn’t, and we remained ignorant.
To compensate under-awakening, Sapna and I decided to trek to the holy Dhankar Lake for more enlightenment. Perched even higher than the monastery, Dhankar Lake lies after a steep trek of 45 minute to 1.5 hour (depending on what goes on in your head and body).
From a distance, it did seem simple and that is the honey trap. As I had seen only 20% of the path, I was like what the heck, let me do these in my sandals – why bother sifting thru the baggage for shoes. Result? Every time I looked behind to assess the descent as I climbed up, the only thought in my head was…
“Khudi ko kar buland itna, chadha who jaise taise…itna ki Bhagwan ne khud hoker usse poocha, Gadhe, ab utrega kaise?
But, we somehow did and in one piece each, despite the odds. To treat ourselves for winning this mind boggling and physically unsurmountable challenge, we even hogged 2 extra Nutella chocolate pan cakes at lunch to keep our weight, fat and sugar levels intact. This is how a Woman is!
By that evening we were at Mudh, and this is me having tea. I think this picture should become the cover page of my book someday.
Mudh lies at the end of a motorable (not even sure what this means in the Himalayas) road in the Pin valley. As you can see, one gets totally isolated with tea in hand and views in front here. No phone no connection, only introspection!
Pin Valley views, then Mudh to Kaza
Beautiful right? Pin Valley is very scenic. I wanted to stop for pictures at every turn, but our driver didn’t really like to be left behind other vehicles on these roads with the fear of getting stranded. The meditation and introspection of yesterday may not have worked for me but the law of attraction did work at this point, and we got a flat tyre. The time we so got, I clicked these and we even reached Kaza on time.
Kaza is the biggest town and the biggest market in Spiti district. We ate (from Thenthuk to Teemo), we shopped (from all kinds of souvenirs to household stuff) and we made calls (from our family members to maids to dogs). Yes, BSNL works, and how!
Next day, from Kaza we drove to visit Key and Kibber in mind, and ended up visiting Tashigang also without any plans – courtesy our driver, the chief antagonist of the story, our personal showstopper. With a fabulous formal outdoor name of “Chaman”, he makes an entry now…
Chaman reminded me of the Monster job commercial, ‘Caught in the wrong job’. Reed thin, tall, and paranoid. Too scared for a driver’s profession and usually expected things to go wrong from puncture, to bad weather to pushing the vehicle to getting stuck in Spiti. To keep us on the well-treaded path always, he would keep chanting ,’ Jo driver ka sune to sukhi aur jo na sune to dukhi’ .
Back to Key and Kibber, and contrary to Chaman’s wish, I asked him to drive to Ghette for the killing views it provides of Key Monastery. To an already reluctant Chaman, further came rains to play spoilsport. With rains, Chaman was soon going to take a U turn.
After 30 min of driving thru a bearable drizzle, we found a vehicle on the road waiting for its trekkers to return. Instead of asking,” How far is Ghette?” Chaman just asked, “How far”? The fellow said,” 6-7 kms more”. Ironically, we had already crossed Ghette till then without realizing, and the fellow meant Tashigang village from there.
So, after countless twists and turns we finally reached Tashigang on top of the mountains to find just one small camp and 2 lost souls…Ghette…how I wish you were here!
Chaman decided to return immediately to head to Langza but the road had become wet. As we tried to move ahead, the tyres lost grip and the ground got slippery. This was too much for Chaman. He began,’ ab kar lo apna intezaam yahin par’ and stopped the car.
Before the Chauvinist in him could reach its heights, I gave him back. But ya, to make him drive, we waited until his enlightenment, when he saw other cars coming from either side on the road getting driven safely. Reached Langza by evening and we missed Ghette even on the return leg.
Langza to Chandrataal via Kaza
Camping at Chandrataal – Fancy no? This was supposedly our last night stay in our choicest list of government forsaken places, before we claw back into civilization.
Government forsaken because we are talking about the merciless Himalayas in Spiti. These places are highly landslide prone. It’s not a border area – like we heard we do not improve because that aids enemies – and yet no development, no roads & no authority around to help.
Telephone is a luxury. BRO (Border road organization) wakes up only at 11 am to start road work and that too after days of reminders (provided one can send the information). Afterall, not everyone carries a satellite phone.
We were glad, after Chandrataal we would reach Manali soon and then fly back to Bangalore.
When we reached Chandrataal, it started raining. So, instead of going to the camp first, we thought of visiting the Chandrataal lake. It was at less than 2 kms by car and then a few hundred meters by walk. To add to the spice in our life, Sapna’s stomach started to hurt. She went to mark her territory for obvious reasons near the lake and realized it was a stomach infection. With difficulty, we returned to the camps. It was damn cold, very difficult to even get out of the bed.
The drizzle turned into a downpour in sometime.
Before dinner, Chaman came with a harbinger – a driver friend called Amar – to give another bad news. ‘Manali road is closed due to cloud burst. No one can go ahead, we may have to go back via Simla from where we started’
Was it a joke? We had taken 6 days to reach Chandratal from Shimla. I said, ‘we will see tomorrow’.
I knew that the route from Chandrataal to Manali was worse and Chaman had been fearing to drive on those treacherous roads since beginning so I wanted to decide based on what other normal drivers would do in the morning.
Now was the time for some genuine praying to God. Before sleeping, I recited the Hanuman Chalisa and prayed for some divine intervention. That night I couldn’t sleep well due to cold and anxiety.
Halfway through the night, I woke up to someone's singing outside of our tents, ‘ Snowfall Snowfall.’ “Hum sab phas chuke hain, jaldi utho bhai log.” And this was the scene outside.
Some were excited to see the snow, some were worried and Chaman was shitting bricks. We didn’t know what the right thing was to do. Go towards Manali or, go back to Simla via Kaza or, stay where we were.
Within minutes, the vehicles started to empty out of Chandrataal. After a group discussion with drivers, Chaman too instructed us to get into the car. The idea was to try and reach the village of Batal on the national highway. Chandrataal is connected via a link road from the highway, so if it takes 2-3 days to clear a highway, the link road takes forever. We were also tipped that last year in Sept, within 3 days, Chandrataal got buried into feets of snow and people were rescued with great difficulty.
With increasing stress in mind and palpitating hearts, we sat in the car. Chaman made sure that our vehicle was in the middle of the convoy. We started, and hardly a few meters down, it stuttered to a stop. It won’t restart. Our vehicle was stuck.
The snowfall was increasing. The tension spread outside of our vehicle to other cars behind us. Overtaking was out of bounds. People wanted to get to the highway as soon as possible before the falling snow would completely make it impossible. They abused our vehicle and the driver first and then tried to help – pushed our vehicle aside so that others could pass.
We were requested to shift to other vehicles. Though glad that we would be leaving Chaman, it was difficult to adjust into already crowded vehicles. This time, I was in plain slippers, not even in my sandals – shoes had got wet last night at the Lake and Sandals were inside. Two heavy bags in hand, slipper on feet and confusion in mind, I fell flat on the snow.
All fine, just checked … the bag was open, and the wallet was missing. For some time, I searched in vain and then calculated my survival chances and left the idea of pursuing money. That was my true awakening:-)
After all this back and forth action, getting on a vehicle then getting down, walking on snow and in water, pushing the vehicle and then pulling it aside, we were told that it was too late now. Snow was too much, and it was risky for any vehicle to go ahead. Even the vehicles that had gone ahead were stuck. So, we had to walk back to the tent.
We were in collective delirium. Bharti was down, she decided not to enter the camp but wait outside. Asha wasn’t in great shape due to her incomplete sleep in the tent last night. The only person who could take a nap in such chaos was Sapna.
Being the organizer of this tour, I decided to walk again on the snow in my slippers to talk to the lone policeman near our camp who had a satellite phone. Asking for phone was futile. I was told, ‘wait till evening for information from Kaza, anyway the camps have enough supplies for next 30 days.’
Luckily, Sun God smiled at Chandrataal to give some respite. By noon, the snow started melting, the road cleared a bit and Chaman’s vehicle too started with some push and pull. Despite being not sure about the vehicle or Chaman, we still took our chance. My lost wallet was the last thing on my mind, I was only praying, God I surrender to your will. Chaman drove, didn’t brake anywhere and stopped the vehicle only at Batal. Hurray we were alive!
In this 30-minute F1 journey from Chandrataal to Batal, we waded 5-6 water streams, scraped through hundreds of falling stones on the road due to the snow meltdown, skipped a few heartbeats and thanked God like never before.
At Batal, we were told that Manali road was closed due to multiple landslides ahead. No one had the foggiest idea as there was no communication. Since it was already evening, none of the vehicles could take chance of driving ahead and locals suggested to stay put at Batal for the night.
This news made life worse for many sensitive travellers – in other vehicles. They all had just realized their own life’s importance for their families. This is another awakening that happens in such trips. You not only start loving your own life but also start fantasizing about how important you are for others and what they would do without you.
Though there were many who cried in Batal, the scene stealer in this act of melancholia was a Bengali woman from Kolkata – ironically, a solo traveller. She even anticipated that her father would get hospitalized and her husband would need a mental asylum without any news of her. Wow! And, She made sure that everyone on this route – travelers to locals (who face such situations time and again) – knew her painful story.
I couldn’t afford to express anything other than arrange for food and tents as the dependency in Batal was on one camp, one shabby guesthouse and two small dhabas for so many of us stuck at Batal. It was already 18th Aug there was no way we could catch our flight from Chandigarh on 19th, when Manali itself was a distant dream. Good thing, in Batal I found my lost wallet inside the suitcase. With money in hand now, I bought warm socks and gloves to survive another tented night. Thankfully the highway dhabas there, keep all this stuff too.
Next day, a JCB was supposed to come from Kaza to clear the highway. Till 11 am, there was nothing, so desperate vehicles started to move ahead to wait near the landslide (towards a place called Chatru). This route from Batal to Chatru was supposedly the worst. We asked Chaman if the vehicle would go over these roads. Chaman showed confidence for the first time, ‘I won’t stop the vehicle till Manali’. Was it Mountain Dew or Old Monk effect?
Sapna was worried that our vehicle shouldn’t be the last vehicle on road; if we were to get stuck for some reason, there would be no one behind to help. So, we did start before others but just a few meters into our mission, Sapna realized that she had forgotten her bag 🙁
We had to go back. Fears too came true. Now we became the last vehicle of the convoy. We drove and some 1.5 – 2kms ahead, our vehicle took its last breath and died.
Sapna and I immediately got down from the vehicle and started waving and screaming at anyone who noticed. There were two vehicles ahead of us but only one stopped and agreed to help. These were some boys from Delhi who were on this road trip in a rented Zoom car. We left the luggage, our vehicle and Chaman to fend for themselves and force-fitted ourselves in that vehicle and reached the landslide point where the road was blocked.
As we reached, to my luck I found one vehicle which was returning empty till Manali. It belonged to Mr. Shiv Raj Bodh, the owner of Moon lake Camps, Chandrataal. He was
coming from Kaza. He seemed God Sent, and the Hero of this scene. As Heroes do, he even agreed to come back with me to get our luggage while my 3 ladies savoured the landslide.
By noon, the road opened for the adventure ahead. Bharti and I got into the backseat of Shiv Raj Bodh’s 4X4 along with our luggage. Delhi boys kept space for Sapna and Asha.
The route from Batal to Chatru was nothing less than a dream sequence, it definitely crossed all limits of adventure driving on an unforgiving terrain. On top of that Shiv Raj Bodh was the incarnation of Michael Schumacher in Spiti. As we tossed and turned in high speed motion, I kept reiterating the famous dialogue from the movie “Jab We Met”
‘ Babaji ab to please is trip ko boring bana do ji.’
After the ride of our lives, we reached Chatru by late afternoon. Another news hit us there -two more landslides, the road itself got washed off. It will take days. By now, some 150 odd of us were stuck. Bikers, trekkers, our women group, some solo travelers, a Malayali film crew including the actress Manju Warrier and a few foreigners.
Chatru is where the Police made an entry into the scene by evening. They roared,’ Go back to Kaza and stay there till things improve’. Our Melancholy Queen, the Bong Girl said,’ we would die and not go back’.
Hours of negotiations with the police resulted in all of us getting a chance to speak through a Satellite phone for 10 seconds each informing our families that we
In the meantime, I had arranged tents for us through an India hikes base camp that luckily also happened to be there. Even in these situations, we got a place to stay the night, as you can see in the picture below.
Next morning was beautiful but none of us was in a mood to enjoy and acknowledge the beauty around. And how could we? Sapna was still battling her stomach infection and the biggest wish of her life was a comfortable toilet at this point.
By 9 am, there was an Ambulance in Chatru from Kaza with some additional officials for rescue operations. We were told, the only way out was to walk, trek and cross the landslide. In desperation, we decided to do that, but we had luggage and a lot of it. Finally, we persuaded a government vehicle to drop us along with our luggage till the landslide point.
Don’t have this picture. But it was the worst. The road itself was missing, looked like an earthquake scene. First we had to trek downhill then uphill to get to the road. Thanks to all the saviours especially Shiv Raj Bodh, his friend and our government vehicle driver among many others who helped us cross the landslide area along with our luggage.
Another government bus was waiting on the other side of the landslide to help the trapped tourists reach Manali. We took a sigh and boarded the bus. Crossed Rohtang pass and now Manali was just 3 hours away…
But, just a little further ahead of Rohtang pass another scene awaited us.
A huge landslide before Madhi got us stranded again. Thankfully, at least the phones worked here. Most of us got down from the bus to make calls. The next day, 21 st Aug was my husband’s birthday. Since there was no way I could reach Bangalore I decided to make arrangements from there itself. So, I made calls to bakers, caterers and friends for organizing the party that I had earlier thought of.
The hero of this scene was a truck driver who overheard me telling my neighbor friend,’ I might not be able to reach Bangalore so please arrange for the cake and food.’ When I finished my call, the truck driver came up to me and said ,’ Gudiya app zaroor ghar pahunchogi’.
I was touched. It felt like the most positive message sent straight from heaven. This fellow was empathetic towards me, who himself had a hard life on roads. I just happened to be in that situation by chance whereas he would have faced this many times. God never ceases to surprise me.
Let’s get back to where we were stuck. On the road where we were stranded, the nearest village Madhi was 5+ kms ahead towards Manali. In some time, it got dark and started to drizzle too. Babaji had decided not to make this trip boring at all. By 8pm all hopes to reach Manali died down as the JCB stopped working. We were to spend that cold night in the bus. No water, no food and no blankets. The only respite was that we could talk to our families in our last moments.
The Hero of this night scene was Neeratram, our bus driver, who took upon himself to trek downhill till the dhabas at Madhi to get food and water for all of us passengers. Some brave bikers too joined him as the rain subsided. They came back by midnight but what tasty food that was.
Next morning came with another challenge,’the loo challenge’. Instead of waiting for the landslide to get cleared, we decided to leave the luggage in the bus and trek downhill till Madhi and take a vehicle from there for Manali. Only Sapna came down with me. Bharti and Asha went back to the bus and decided to wait for the road to open rather than trek downhill. On the highway down, we got lift from small cattle carrier truck. I would never forget those 5kms, the surface literally created dents on my bum.
Once in Madhi, I started looking for another vehicle to take us to Manali and arranged a shared vehicle after some additional circus.
Now the story should end right? but no…at Gulaba, just before Manali there was another 4 – 5 kms of traffic jam. Sapna and I got down from the vehicle along with other locals and walked downhill taking short cuts. The locals had called another vehicle to the point where the jam released, and we tagged along with them. Finally, by 2 pm this ordeal ended when we reached Manali.
Gosh! About the other two?
As the landslide got cleared, they also took lifts in smaller vehicles as the bus wasn’t allowed to cross till evening and reached Manali by 4 pm comfortably. Neeratram our driver, was in constant touch and he kept us informed who was in which vehicle. He himself reached Manali late that evening with our luggage!
That day, we ate like there was no tomorrow and laughed at every incident like it was so much fun.
Not sure about others but if I were to ask myself:
Will this deter me from traveling or taking such trips? I would say no
Secondly, will this discourage me from organizing tours in Spiti valley?
I would still say no because no other tour can offer such high return on investment. You experience a range of things from camping, trekking, crossing streams, walking on snow, roller coaster rides on the lunar surface, scraping through falling boulders to surviving on staples of Kadhi Chawal, Rajma Chawal, Bread Anda and Maggi.
Last but not the least, free weight loss comes complimentary;-)
So..ready for the next adventure with me girls?