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LAHAUL AND SPITI

Introduction
Just the idea that I was riding down to Spiti valley gave me an adrenaline high for I was poised to witness for the first time in my life a high altitude cold desert of moraines and glacial erosions. Another first was me going on a 60kph ride coupling with Vivek, a riding enthusiast, 37 year old lean figure who has rode extensively in Himachal on a mobike.

Oh! Narkanda
We started at 6:00 am on April 08, 2004 from Delhi and torrential rains at Narkanda (around 410 kms from Delhi) forced us to take a night halt in a cozy PWD Rest House on a hilltop. I had vertigo that night and my head was aching to the hilt. Vivek became normal when some 'Old Monk' flowed in. Next morning, I got up early and explored the heavily forested hills of Narkanda. Narkanda being at an altitude of 2708 m (~9000 ft.) from the sea level offers a pleasant retreat for the holidayers. Particularly, the location of the PWD Rest house in Narkanda is such that it offers a panoramic view of snow peaks from the front and dense cedar forest from the back. Narkanda offers some lovely rambles and if you are an early riser then you may find numerous joggers meandering their way through the hilly trails. Narkanda is famous for its ski slopes, which can be reached after a kilometer's walk from the main town. Hattu peak nearby is a 7km 'kaccha' route which takes one to the temple of Hattu Mata on the hilltop. During one of my earlier visits in December, I trekked to the place and had a chance to the see the evening reflections of sunrays on the snow-clad peaks far-off.

In the lap of Kinner Kailash
Next day, we started at 9:00 am from the PWD Rest house, took fuel and reached comfortably at Rekong Peo (2670 m) by evening, enjoying the ride & the Sutlej view and taking brief halts for snacks, snaps or just rest. We checked-in in a hotel and then made a short-ride excursion to Kalpa town further 10 kms uphill.

Kalpa is a small town with many abandoned buildings and temples, most famous being the Narayan-Nagani temple. Vivek informed me that the State Government is in the process of converting the place into a World Heritage site. The breathtaking view of Kinner Kailash (6050 m) from Kalpa forced us to extend our stay for a few more minutes even though it started drizzling and heavy clouds built up over the area. We paid a brief visit to the Monastery, Hu-Bu-Ian-Car Gompa, said to be founded by Rinchensang-Po (950-1055AD) and which is taken care of by an old woman along with her young son. The monastery houses some of the rare 'thangkas' which have been brought here from Tibet. Around 4 km away from the main town on a steep uphill road stands a grand building fondly known as 'Chini Bungalow' (now called 'Kinner Villa'), an exquisitely located resort. We made our bikes climb to the place and enjoyed the mountain and town views from the resort. Kalpa is a nice place to check out 'Chilgoza forests'. At a height of 10,900 feet (2758 m), the town gets fairly cold in the evenings. Since it started to pour heavily by then, we rushed back to Rekong Peo. Kinnaur, having both Sutlej and Baspa valleys, is a traveller's delight. Both valleys, despite being different, offer you commonly a rich cultural tradition, rivers, steep snow-clad mountains, valleys and passes.

Timberline
Vivek got his tank filled early morning at the only filling station at Rekong Peo and we set off for Nako Lake on a 122 km long journey. Only a few kilometers after we joined NH22, the green Sutlej valley started gradually turning thin of greenery. But that's the beauty of the route. Now I knew what 'Timberline' means. It seemed like the vegetation has been scraped off from the mountains. Before Pooh, we had to stop at numerous landslide prone sites along the route waiting for the bulldozers to clear the site. Throughout the Sutlej valley, the mountains on both sides towered over us steeply, imparting the valley a narrow, gorge-like look. In this idyllic setting with a backdrop of snow-clad peaks, we came across a village school located on the riverbank, lively with around 50 students in uniform. They were quite amused by our machines and were very much camera-friendly. Pooh (2837 m), more of a cantonment township, falls in the zone of cold desert with a total annual precipitation of mere 40 cm in the form of both rain and snow. Khab (2831 m), a little further, is the confluence of Spiti and Sutlej Rivers. Spiti drains into Sutlej after a 130 km long journey from below the Kunzum La Pass. The meeting point of the two rivers is a beautiful spot with both the rivers appearing to meet from very steep gorges. Sutlej is sourced from near Mansarovar Lake in China and enters India within a Yak's spit distance from the "Spiti – Sutlej Sangam" (Khab).

Nako!
After crossing Khab bridge a steep looping climb took us to Nako (3959 m) village and Lake. I trekked for a few meters to the top to have a glimpse of the lake, village and the landscape around. Situated at a beautiful location with snow-capped peaks around and Leo village visible far towards the North-West, Nako is worth visiting. But we had high expectations and had our reservations for staying there as the village houses, though very old, were not worth a 'Dekkho'. Please don't expect Nako Lake to be wonderful in winters or just at the onset of summers. After staying for around 35 minutes at Nako we proceeded towards Sumdo, a military camp and the gateway to the Spiti valley. From Sumdo, NH22 leads one to Kaurik, the last point in Indian territory. But for visiting Kaurik a permit is required.

Hey! We are Alive
We left NH22 and proceeded on the state highway to Malling nallah (land slide area) after crossing two loops of Yangthang village. Malling is an eyesore in the whole route and can be exaggerated to be a death hole. The place has a dedicated bulldozer. Landslides are common occurrences here due to water coming out of the recesses in the adjoining mountain. Sometimes, few big or small boulders also come down rolling. HPPWD & BRO are working on an alternate road, which may take another two to three years before it is opened for traffic. We had a tough time negotiating that stretch and I was not prepared for it. I just came rolling down jumping on the rocks, pebbles and mud with my bike. After enjoying the Spiti-view point, cooling off the excessively hot engines and taking few snaps we proceeded towards Tabo.

Bang!
My bike perhaps took too much during Malling crossing and front-drum brake plate gave in. Whoosh! I was dispirited by the happening as the front wheel got jammed and refused to roll any further, quashing all my hopes for the journey. Vivek, discerning my disheartened state, observed the state of the front wheel keenly so as to come up with a suggestion or further plan in case no mending is possible. I also joined in to see if anything could be done. Finally, we decided that the only available option is to remove all the front brake assembly and proceed slowly on the rear brakes alone. Now this was risky as I had never driven in the hills without front brakes. Option-less, we proceed gradually towards Tabo (3050 m).

Spiti/Tabo/Kaza – Super Combo
Due to erosion by wind, sun and snow over thousands of years, Spiti has been a barren moonscape but apart from its geographically peculiar beauty, there are several places of archeological significance as well. Tabo is 64 km from Nako village and the hamlet is famous for a 1008-year old Chos Khor Monastery, the oldest in Spiti and one of the few remaining examples of the Golden Period of Buddhist Culture in the Himalayan Region. We decided to ride to Kaza and visit Tabo on the way back. Kaza is 47 kms from Tabo, which is quite far by hilly terrain standards, and especially when one can't exceed 30 kph. Moreover, it was already 5:30 pm. Little after Tabo, it was all dark. We struggled with our symbolic headlights to find our way to Kaza. Bad decision. It took us two and a half hours to cover a mere 47 kms. It was pitch dark and only a few shops were open. There was no electricity. At around quarter to 8 pm we knocked on the door of Shashi's shop.

Shashi – The Savior
A lean 'specsy' fellow, he was winding up the day's work along with his sister and wife. I could clearly see that he was jogging his memory while Vivek bhai was trying his best to move his memory needle to the grey area where his previous visit to Spiti and Shashi's place was recorded. After a Herculean effort he could finally but only vaguely recall the incidents. Previous visit was around four years back :-)

It was not the 'season' time and so no hotel was operational for tourists and the PWD rest house was booked for the CM of HP who was about to come on an election tour visit. Shashi lost all hopes after searching the hotels and asking few of his acquaintances. Finally, he came up with a place just across the road from his restaurant. The place was stinking due to unuse and had no toilet. It would be very difficult to get a room with an attached bath as this was an off-season time. We were quite tired, so we crashed at the unnamed place, which actually was a residence, with the owner operating a dormitory in the season. We were hungry so Shashi offered us food at his place. We could not refuse so we accompanied him along with his sister and wife to their home where we were welcomed by Shashi's mother and a younger brother. After a sumptuous free dinner, we had a good nights sleep as the wind chilled the place so much so that the 10 kilo quilts were just enough and we did not sweat under those. Next day morning, we topped up the oil, had breakfast at Shashi's place (for which he did not charge), and set out for Ki gompa and Kibber Village (4205 m).

Kibber Village – A hamlet in paradise
There is an Indian Oil petrol pump at Kaza, which boasts of being the highest altitude pump in India. As we went on for about a kilometer or two, a diversion towards Kunzum La came towards the left, but we kept proceeding towards Kibber. Officially, Kibber is still the highest permanently inhabited village in the world with a motorable road and electricity. Recently, the name of the nearby Koumic village also came up as the highest village. Old Spitian houses at Kibber, around 100 or so in numbers, with the place covered all around with snow made a picturesque sight and we were just delighted to have a glimpse of it from far. After playing with snow and taking a few snaps, we parked our bikes near the chorten at the entrance of the village. There we met with a French couple who came all the way up here on a bicycle from Kaza. Even after much effort and repeated listening, we could not pronounce their names. The village had lots of staircase fields all around but they were all empty as the season starts from May end. Mainly, villagers grow peas and few men informed us that peas grown here are very famous and are transported even to Delhi. The other main crop is barley. A trail from the village crosses Parang La pass (5578 m) to Ladakh and many trekkers use it to reach Tso Moriri Lake. We had to make a phone call and one of the householders obliged us. We were lucky to see the exquisite interiors of a typical Spitian house. A chimney placed in the center for the perpetually running traditional non-electric heater, a beautiful carpet, no chairs nor tables; only almirahs and cupboards, and a cushioned seating arrangement only a little raised from the surface. The outside chill had no effect inside. True home comforts. After spending around an hour there we headed for Ki Monastery. Vivek bhai had a cramp in his right foot as a resuly of stepping awkwardly on a stone. After a little massage, the pain temporarily subsided and we were able to travel back.

Ki Monastery – Amazing Gompa overlooking Spiti
Tibetan architecture amalgamated with a conical hill location, marred by winds and snow, Ki Gompa never fails to amaze visitors. It not only acts as a repository of ancient images/paintings, old 'thangkas', weapons, musical instruments, manuscripts, etc. but also, like Tabo Gompa, is a "kalchakra" granted Gompa, which also means that Ki has completed one thousand years of existence. Also, Ki Gompa enjoys the status of being the largest monastery in Spiti. The newly constructed main prayer hall is adorned with prayer flags, old 'thangkas', Buddha idols and has a seating arrangement for more than fifty people. Every visitor is offered tea and we were no exceptions. The kitchen was very dark but the Lama informed us that this kitchen is no longer used for the preparation of food for lamas, but only for light purposes, like hot water, tea, etc. There were several prayer and repository halls and a wooden staircase to the roof. View from the rooftop was unbelievably pleasant on that windswept sunny but chill morning. A multi-streamed river on a vast basin in the valley overlooked by an array or snowcapped mountain, glowing under the Sun. Ah ha! We observed from the top that the Lamas were engaged in a ceremony. The Lama showing us the monastery informed that this was a once in a year ceremony, which can be compared with what we do as last rites in the plains. We reached back at Kaza by noon after a short ride of 12 kms.

Pin Valley – Barfaani Cheetah and Tangroll on a Roll
We had food at Shashi's place for which we paid, bade him a hearty goodbye and set out for Pin valley after packing the bike with all the stuff which we left at our unnamed guest house, since we knew we had to come back. Almost in the middle of 43 km long Kaza and Tabo stretch, a new bridge has been built alongside an old one over the Spiti river at a place called Attargu. We intended to visit Pin Valley and Dhankar Gompa both. Since Vivek bhai had a cramped foot, we chose Pin valley out of both as we both were new to this territory. Road is unsealed and often interrupted by the streams coming down from the hilltops. Pin valley is a true paradise with heavily snowcapped peaks all around. The meeting of Pin and Spiti is more miraculous. Very large delta like basin with both the rivers in small streams. I guess they attain a terrific flow in summers when snow melts down. We reached Gulling after riding for around 16 kilometers and mending a rear tyre puncture in Vivek's bike. In a 5 km metalled road climb, there are several hairpin bends to be negotiated before we touched eighth or ninth century Nyingma Gompa of Kungri. We wanted to visit Sagnam and Mudh up to which a 'kutcha' road has been laid which is further being connected with Wangtu in Kinnaur. But Vivek's ankle was swelling more, so we dropped and headed back to Tabo.

Tabo Monastery – Ajanta of Himalayas
Tabo's ambience is inspiring. We touched down at the Gompa in the evening at around 5.30 pm. It took a while till we could convince the caretaker of the PWD rest house for a one-room one-night halt, as the CM's caravan was following us like a ghost. We made a few telephone calls, had food, had a fight over Royal Enfield v/s Modern Jap bikes and dropped like dead under the heavy quilts. Next day morning I got up early and visited the Monastery while Vivek preferred to catch some sleep as his ankle was swollen. The mud and timber box like houses throughout Spiti are a sight as they are tucked in the barren mountains. Tabo is nestled on a steep left bank of Spiti and road passes further left to the Gompa. The Old Gompa is a protected monument now and most of the temples inside remain locked unless visitor/s is/are there. A Lama student has the key and he took me around the Gompa. Even after much reconstruction work to salvage the old heritage, the place actually appears to be age-old……1008 years old. The monastery was established by Rinchen Zangpo in 996 AD when he was disseminating 'dharma' across the northwestern Himalayas. In all, the monastery contains eight temples and 24 chortens with the largest and oldest temple standing just opposite the main entrance. The Lama student showed me all the temples and I was surprised to see the painted walls of the temples. Amazing Multi-hued murals and stucco images in which the life of Buddha, tantric forms of Buddha, female Buddha, other Gods & Goddesses and 'Bodhisattvas' are depicted. Just before the entrance of Old Gompa there is a rest house and cultural center of Monastery on the right hand side. I purchased two bundles of photograph post cards from the reception and enquired about the accommodation facilities and life at Tabo. Old Gompa is not used and a new Gompa was constructed for education and residence purposed and Dalai Lama inaugurated it in 1983. Presently it houses over fifty Lamas and few 'Chomos' (nuns). We had a good breakfast at the rest house as the caretaker was all prepared to receive the CM. By 10.30 am we were all packed to again negotiate the eyesore, Malling nallah.

Malling Nallah – Retraced
We halted at Spiti-view point and cooled-off our engines. After saying 'all the best' to each other and Vivek indicating me to take the lead, I screwed the accelerator and let the clutch lever go off. There I was rolling on the pebbles and mud with the bike going haywire without balance. I kept on pulling as the small rocks were coming down from the top. I was so engaged in pulling that I couldn't see the oncoming traffic, as it was a steep incline. Suddenly, I saw a lamb coming my way after segregating from the herd. I only had rear brakes and I applied that. End of the story. Bike halted. Lamb went past and so did the sheep herd and shepherd. I was stuck. Vivek, coming behind me almost saw a repetition of the story and he was stuck too. Now howsoever hard I tried the bike to move, it didn't budge from it place. I slanted the bike on the hill as putting it on the stand was not feasible on the big pebbles. Vehicles from both the sides started honking coz' we grabbed the way and now nobody could pass unless we clear the site. I sat on Vivek's bike and Vivek pushed it from behind with the help of a local and off I was. Then I came back all the way to my bike. Meanwhile, vehicles kept honking from both sides and pebbles and rocks kept falling from the unstable hill. Vivek alone gave a push to my bike and it took some life. Finally, the way was cleared. Almost every passing driver either jeered at us or gave a peeving look. We expressed our helplessness. Oh my God! We were pardoned of our mistakes and wrongdoings and God gave us few more days to live. Off we were, towards Sarahan; a small hamlet with a great religious significance.

Sarahan – The Abode of Goddess Bhimakaali
A historic town, which had once been the summer capital of princely state of Rampur Bushahr Kings is situated after a 21 km steep climb off NH22. The roadhead leaves the highway at Jeori, which is 23 kms from Rampur. Sarahan being situated at a height of 2000 meters (7100 ft.), commands a spectacular view of Shrikhand Mahadev peak and other adjoining perennial snow-capped peaks. In fact, the hill on which the town is tucked midway is little more than 3300 meters high. We parked our bikes in the compound of Hotel Shrikhand (HPTDC Hotel). Vivek had an acquaintance in the hotel so he went to see him. I visited the temple (my second time) and paid my homage to Goddess Bhimakaali. The idol of the Goddess is approximately 200 years old with a golden face. Actually there are two towers but one tower was damaged in the earthquake of 1905 so now it is used only for keeping musical instruments, weapons, flags, etc. Both the towers are multi-tiered and both have slate-tiled sloping roofs giving them the twin look. As we approach them, the tower on the left harbors the east-facing Goddess idol. The town has a few shops and restaurant that cater to the basic needs. Hotel Shrikhand though, is a luxurious. Vivek's acquaintance, Mr. Thakur, insisted for us to stay at the Hotel and for that he discounted as low as 70%. We couldn't refuse the offer even though the discounted tariff was still crossing the 'Rs. 300' mark. We had a nice room with a balcony and with a view of Shrikhand peak. Nice pleasant stay. Next day we started early morning for Delhi but could make it up to Chandigarh only where we stayed in a dhaba room along with another of Vivek's acquaintances, Amit. Nice chap and a good Bullet mechanic. Next afternoon we reached Delhi and bade goodbye to each other with a thump.

Happy Trails,
Paraj Shukla

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