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Ever Outward Bound
The wild Lahaul- Spiti valley by Swetha Tawker
|Posted by treks-trips-trails on July 30, 2018 at 7:15 AM|
Day 1- Chennai to Amritsar
Day 2- Amritsar to Chandigarh
Day 3- Chandigarh- Shimla- Kufri
Day 4- Kufri – Hattu Peak- Rampur- Sarahan
Day 5- Sarahan- Rampur- Rekong peo- Sangla – Rakchham
Day 6- Rakchham- Chitkul- Rakchham
Day 7- Rakchham- Sangla- Rekong Peo- Kalpa
Day 8- Kalpa- Rekong peo- Puh- Khap- Nako- Sumdo- Giu- Tabo- Dhankar
Day 9- Dhankar-Pinvalley-Kaza
Day 10- Kaza- Hikkim- Gomic- Kaza
Day 11- Kaza– Ki- Kibber- Losar- Kunzum pass- Chandratal lake
Day 12 – Chandratal lake– Batal- Chhatru- Gramphu- Rohtang pass- Manali
Day 13- Manali-kullu-Mandi- Bilaspur- Rupnagar- Chandigarh
Day 14- Chandigarh- Chennai
Finally back home and to reality after a two week travel to one of the most extraordinary places on earth- the lahaul and Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh. The eastern parts of the state close to indo Tibetan border. This was a trip planned for and booked well ahead and I had made some of my own additions to cover parts of Punjab which is a state I had not seen at all.
June 21, 2018- Day 1 Flew from Chennai to Delhi and from there to Amritsar and the sight of the shining dome of golden temple from the flight made me even more excited and forget the sweltering heat that hit me as soon as I landed. I took a cab from the airport itself which however could not take me all the way to my homestay. I had to cover the last mile in a cycle rickshaw and my homestay was from the outside in one of the most crowded, dustiest and dingiest locality. The room I was allotted was in the second floor and had to climb it through rough stairs not even completely plastered. The place was old but modernized to suit a budget conscious traveler wanting a comfortable sleep. It was a clean but old room with a clean bed and clean toilet. No complaints there. in spite of the locality I still would not mind staying there since it was a true value for money accommodation being just a stone’s throw away from both Jalianwala bagh and Golden temple. Also the homestay owner Rajdeep was an attentive man. I felt safe in his place. As soon as I reached, dumped the luggage and lunched on the best amritsari paneer kulcha, pindi chana and raita, set off to see both the places. Maybe if it was winter and I had one more day I might have included the wagah border change of guards into my itinerary. But neither was the case and I don’t particularly have any jingoistic feelings towards all these. Moreover I suspect the visit to Kargil last year during the visit to leh would stay a more fulfilling memory than wagah could be. I could be wrong.
The Jalianwala bagh was quite different from what I had imagined from the mentions in history text books. I tried hard to visualize the tragedy and horror of general dyer firing at unarmed Indians and the panic. Conjuring the image was quite tedious while gazing at the rather well manicured crowded lawn where youngsters took selfies against the bullet ridden walls. Most of the millennials there visibly had no clue about the historical significance of the place. I did not get offended at it as much as amused since this was another reflection of contradictions between expectations and reality.
The temple complex is adjacent to the garden and the square is lined with many eateries and shops selling all things Punjabi. Kirpans to bangles to lassi to phulkari to jutties. The abominable heat was managed by bowls of cold water being served at all the corners of the temple. The water felt like heaven and I managed to get into the queue to see the sanctum sanctorum. The discipline, cleanliness and the devotion was of a unique quality. The blue dress wearing huge,regal and handsome nihangs kept gently urging women to cover their head and shoulders. There were counters that give the sweet Prasad which is a flavourful wheat halwa dripping with ghee. The simple and melodious gurubani kept me company in the queue that moved fairly swiftly and the sanctum sanctorum was a marvelous and divine sight. Bought a tea and sat alone in the bench in the square watching the goings on in the surroundings. Old slouching men and women in corners, well made up women dressed in fashionable finery, mothers dragging their children away from ice cream and toy vendors, old women walking and chanting under their breath, migrant laborers in shops with a vacant look in their eyes, shopkeepers hopeful of getting the eye of every passerby, sweet and lassi stalls…Came out of the complex and headed back home sleepy and tired. The next door neighbor of my lodge was a milk and sweet vendor. Had a thick creamy lassi from him and the homestay owner paid a visit to the room my greet and to give me bank details for transfer of funds towards stay. He urged me to get back to the temple for the view of the temple at night and have the langar which is the community hall that supplies free food to whoever visits the place. I headed back again to the temple since another visit to Amritsar is doubtful albeit a bit reluctantly. One has to try to make the most of a place because I feel the human life span is too less to visit the same place twice. Same with books too…Even if you were to spend half the day every day of your life reading, there still isn’t enough time to read all the books you want to and you should read.
The temple at night time was a sight to behold. Shining brilliantly and the reflection of it in the pond surrounding the temple will stay etched in my memory and will be the mental visual I have for Amritsar. Headed to the langar hall where there is a method in the madness of food distribution. There is no finesse or leisure. It is all about a rhythm, speed and discipline when hundreds and thousands of devotees are briskly handed over the plate, bowl and spoon and made to sit on the floor awaiting the food. There are many rows like that and I was told a single session could feed more than five thousand people. The meal is a simple fare involving roti, two types of dals and a milk payasam. Food is practically thrown at your plate from above and the same treatment and hospitality awaits the multimillionaire and the begger who is eating there. It’s a lesson on importance of non wastage of food which is insisted in the place…also an immensely humbling experience. Came out of langar and my host had promised to wait for me near the Jalianwala Bagh entrance which is also adjacent to the many shops selling unique products of Punjab. The shoe crazy person I am ended up buying three exquisite leather juttis from a shop where Rajdeep took me…Came back to the room utterly satisfied with the Amritsar experience.
June 22, 2018- Day 2 The second day I was to leave for Chandigarh and had an early morning Shatabdi booked for myself. It was a last minute decision but a wise one. Buses from Amritsar take longer, get stuck in traffic snarls, are more expensive and definitely less comfortable. An elderly auto guy pre arranged by Rajdeep dropped me in station. It was a very comfortable journey through the farming and industrial innards of Punjab where I had a Punjabi sardar gentleman sitting next to me. We got talking and exchanged notes about each other and when he knew I was from kerala, he surprised me by saying he has been there and that he did not get food in Kerala. I was not sure if I was more surprised or irritated at his statement. I was amused by what he said next. He said he just got snacks like idli, dosa, vada etc and no real food that filled his stomach…like what else but Paranthas. I was quite convinced by his argument having seen the Punjabis for two days. Even more so by the two thick aloo parathas sold by the vendor in the train…and that too for just 50 rupees. I kind of understood the meaning of what a meal is for them after that.
Reached Chandigarh in just 3.5 hours where Mangal the auto guy sent by my homestay owner Suraj waited for me. Chandigarh blew my mind with the greenery it had. The roads were not littered, people stopped at signals, well placed traffic signs and clear signages, no honking and overtaking, keeping to lanes, tree lined roads and pathways, kilometers of mango farms with trees bearing down with the weight of mangoes, people plucking mangoes and transporting in horse drawn carts, pedestrian paths used by people, pet dogs and dog walkers, and most surprisingly a separate elevated cycling track. Chandigargh is one of the finest and cleanest cities I have been to. Planned city in a true sense…truly impressive.
Had a lassi at Suraj’s and Monica’s place and waited for my best friend J and her daughter and son to join me from Muscat. At the risk of offending my many close friends I dare say that she is the closest and longest friendship I have had in my 42 years. We studied in school and college together, know each other inside out, we have no pretensions towards each other and no disagreements either. She got genuinely upset when I stopped coloring my hair and I know she disapproves of my cavalier attitude towards appearing young and good. An immensely hardworking, smart wife and mother with a great career going for herself in Middle East we both differ superficially a lot but being real small town girls share the same values and hopes in life. She came by late noon and was pleasantly surprised at how frown up and mature and lovable her kids have grown upto . Ofcourse I have a special liking for kids who are into books and J’s daughter was big into books. We ordered a lunch and rested for an hour and headed to see the rock garden, the lake and probably a bit of shopping.
The rock garden was pleasant but more pleasant was the Nimbu Pani that we had outside, given the sweltering heat of the place. I am normally never really amazed at manmade wonders unless they are so beautiful to make one speechless. Yes Nek chand’s garden was creatively done. But not one of those places that I would say is a must see in one’s life. (Frankly that’s what I felt even about Tajmahal. So my opinion here is quite worthless. Again it is not motivated by some rightist leftist leanings. I genuinely felt that Tajmahal was overrarted.) What I liked though was how the interconnected maze was formed and the lovely open vastness with numerous high swings….we played on them and enjoyed it as much as children. The next stop was Sukhna lake were people were boating. Nothing mindblowing there too specially for someone from a coastal city. Headed to sector 17 for some shopping and eating. Eating happened but not shopping since most of the places were closed by the time we found the shop recommended by Suraj, it was closed. A book store however was open and me and we did some shopping for books for travel. Got an uber to take us back to the homestay where me and J chatted and watched football late into the night against better sense of sleeping early.
June 23, 2018- Day 3 The third day was when our real group journey was to happen. That was when the group of 24 of us was to meet at the pre-decided venue and embark on our 11 day adventure to Lahaul and Spiti valley. We had a sumptuous breakfast of whatelse but parathas and went to the meeting point which was a hotel in zirakpur where some of the other team members who came from other cities stayed overnight. This is the point where I have to talk about the organizer, Satish Menon. I met this unique piece of god’s creation first as an organizer of the trek to Pindari Glacier about five years ago. That still remains as the most memorable and life altering experience I have had. I have done a fair bit of travel ( not enough to have an instagram profile that says travel bug has bit me or adventourous back packer etc….travel is one of the things in my life I immensely enjoy and not ‘the only thing’ but till date nothing that matches the Pindari experience. I came to know about this trek as Satish was the relative of a childhood friend and she informed me about the program. Though she could not make it to either this or any other trips organized by him, I went with him for the trek and again last year for a road trip to Leh and Ladakh through the Srinagar- Kargil route. Satish is an adventurer mountaineer with more than three decades of experiencing climbing and discovering the beauty of the Himalayas and Sahyadris. A naturalist, minimalist, environmentalist and die hard socialist heart. Mountains are his life and knowledge is his passion. There are very few people that I have encountered in my life who can hold a conversation on anything under and above the sun as convincingly as him – be that music- Indian or western, astronomy, lifescience, chemistry, football, books, nature, botany, books….all with his own brand of wild humour. A true exponent of simple living and high thinking. So naturally I would not want to miss an opportunity to travel with the man.
He doesn’t believe in physical limitations and hence our group this time ended up being a motley group of both sexes of ages ranging from 8 to 74. The oldest being Satish’s jovial and enthusiastic uncle who we all lovingly called Harimama and youngest being j’s son Ankhit a cute curious but shy little fellow. Both of them stole everyone’s heart. Four couples, three kids, four women and nine men made our group (one of whom opted out mid way since he had to go back home urgently). The biggest age group was 50+. Wise and kind folks. One tempo traveler and two Chevrolet Taveras were our designated vehicles. Some had a specific preference for Tavera while some for the tempo but no one was inflexible in changes required on and off. The interesting thing was that the group got to know each other quickly and with in less than two days we all felt as if we had known each other for a long time. What also helped was that we had a whatsapp group running for more than two months before we started the journey to discuss many things and share information about the travel.
The last group to be picked up was in kasauli and after having started from chandigargh, kasauli was our first break to pick them up and have our lunch too. The first night stay was in kufri as shimla was felt to be too commercial, crowded and was in the throes of a severe water shortage. We reached quite late into the night to see the place well or enjoy the beauty. However a nice stroll near the hotel perked us up and helped in building an appetite for a good dinner.
June 24, 2018- Day 4 The next day’s drive was from Kufri to Sarahan. Both the Taveras would have been best suited for 5 passengers plus driver however since we were 24 of us each of the vehicle had to accommodate 6 and it was not easy being in the back seat, with head hitting against the roof and the need to pull the front seat up so that back seaters can get out every single time. However with in less than one hour of having started the vehicle suffered a serious snag with smoke coming out of front. A major part had to be changed and there was no option but take the vehicle back to Shimla. Our vehicle was stuck near a wedding hall kind of place and there was a small time set up inside which could give us tea and when hunger pangs worsened, some aloo parathas too. The other Tavera too waited for us and in all, about half the crowd was stuck and the rest of them moved on to the next destination which was the Hattu peak and temple. We finally caught up with them after a 3.5 hour break. The short journey from Narkand to Hattu involves driving through extremely narrow roads where you are bound to lose minimum 15 minutes to adjust your vehicle and let pass a vehicle coming from the opposite side. We did not have a lunch to speak of that day and went on with our jouney to Sarahan. There was however a steady streak of snacks distributed through out from local non perishable foods brought in by each one of us. The sights enroute to Sarahan was beautiful with hundreds and thousands of apple tree orchards lining each side of the road and green raw apples flourishing in each one of them in bunches…mouth watering but no chance of eating them since they would take good two months more to ripen. We had carried ripe and sweet litchis from chandigarh and also got to taste some wild figs from trees by the road given to us some Nepali workers plucking them for themselves and the taste was delicate.
The ride upto Rampur was pleasant and we still had daylight. Being mountainous areas and also on the eastern side of the country in summer, daylight through out our journey held on till about 7.45 pm every day. The roads from Rampur to Sarahan however got progressively worse and gave a taste of the road conditions for days to come. After dark, such roads offer no thrill since we don’t get to see the scenery but end up concentrating on the bumpy ride alone. That and no adequate food kept most of us irritable. Finally by the time we ended up in our hotel for the night it was more than 10 pm and all of us gorged on the food and went to bed soon. J had a bad stomach and was immediately put on medicines which took two more days to settle fully and only with a dose of antibiotic. Over the full journey S was to be my room mate, who is a friend and class mate of Satish and became my friend during our trek to Pindari. The friendships made in mountains stayed and so she was more of family in spite of having known for a very short while initially. We had set into a pattern where I have my daily bath at night before sleeping and she in the morning. This made our waits for hot water less and the schedule of each person non intrusive into other’s.
It is amusing how when we are away from home with its demands as well as luxuries, our focus shifts into the mundane so easily. That is to say we literally start watching each other’s back and was seriously concerned of only the ‘Fuelling and flushing’ systems like S says. As a lady making her living being an entrepreneur in the automobile business- traditionally a man’s forte- the choice of words was understandable. We were quite concerned and aware of patterns of each other’s bowel movements and rightfully so because a clogged system can be quite an irritant during long drives. So even before we could open our eyes and wish each other good morning the question to each other used to be ‘did you’ and an ‘yes’ made us joyful and a ‘no’ made us agitated. Such simple worries. Same thing with peeing. The complicated plumbing lines made we women have difficulty peeing when there was no available bathrooms and often had to resort to peeing by the roadside. Over time, we developed a thick skin and became totally unconcerned about people watching or associated shame. Like dogs our eyes sparkled at the site of good sized rocks. A big lesson in travel is never to miss an opportunity to pee. You never know how long you have to wait for the next stop. Really, why should we be ashamed too, men have been doing it for centuries. True equality also involves equality in open peeing. This is just the most basic body mechanism which every human and animal has and it’s as natural as the sun rising in the east. We were told a story by one in the group about his three british colleagues coming to India to experience the happiness of peeing in open. I did not enquire if it was in the city or in wild. In city such behavior would not be tolerated but in the wild among trees and rocks it’s not so much of a crime. Water to trees, dust to dust…
June 25, 2018- Day 5 The next morning had a solo short walk to get the first sight of the snow clad Himalayan peaks at a distance. Having seen them up close and personal in previous visits I had goosebumps at the promise of what awaited us over the next few days and was also excited for the first timers who were to be thrilled out of their wits. Bags and baggage packed, we started on our next leg. Before we boarded the vehicles we made a quick trek to the Bhimkali temple and then headed towards sangla. Enroute at Wangtoo we get to take a quick break to see the mega hydro electric power station and dam across Spiti and Baspa rivers and marvel at the mammoth engineering wonder of Jindal Steel works. We reached Sangla quite early and after a tea break and shopping for basics some in the market headed to our night halt for the day at Rakchham about ten kilometers away. We are to have this place as our base for two nights. The rooms allotted were out of a dream and our small balconies opened to apple orchards and the beautiful river flowing in front of majestic mountains. It was a dream view with Cows and Sheep grazing, beautiful Himachali women and handsome sharp featured men, pink cheeked chubby babies, huge fields full of yellow flowered mustard plants and white flowered tender green peas. The village was having a festival were gods of other villages and people from those villages was visiting rakchham. So we had some drunk and happy men and women in fineries on the road. They said the small town was crowded because of the festival and when they say crowd it means about 100 to 200 people…A different perspective of crowd compared to the towns folk…The food in this place was significantly more flavourful than rest of the places. Since we reached earlier than normal there was enough time for our favourite quiz master Aravind to make us wrack our brains with his housie based on our two epics and went on till dinner time. After realizing that I knew and remembered so little of both, made a mental note to read up the Malayalam version of both before end of the year. I found some time to quickly rinse off some of my clothes and leave it for drying since there was two nights for us in the same place.
June 26, 2018- Day 6 A good deep night sleep followed by a rather cloudy. But managed a short trek to the camp site by the river side, were some of the group had been accommodated the previous night. The day was meant for a short trip to Chitkul, the last village in the indo-tibetan border. J decided to stay back the day to recuperate from the stomach ailment and it worked well for her too. We went on to have a picturesque ride with views of majestic pine trees, rivulets and deep gorges with a view of dense apple orchards down below and of course the Himalayas playing the majestic backdrop. There was a board at our destination that indicted presence of India’s last dhaba. So after a short trip to the monastery and idly watching the firang budget tourists, their hostels, biker groups and just wandering around the small town for a while we went down to the dhaba for a rice and dal lunch. It was a lazy day after return with no fixed plan but just walking around the place and another quiz by our beloved quizmaster.
June 27, 2018- Day 7 The next day was to be a short tip to Kalpa, which was to be reached via a small town called Rekong peo, which ended up being our lunch stop too…small but fairly self sufficient place where some of us stocked up on some essential medicines and much essential fruits. The route to Kalpa too was very scenic with apple trees and pines intermittently. Enroute we visited a small monastery and temple and saw a very precariously perched suicide point which led to a small village which we explored on foot and later headed to the hotel for night cap. A room that opened to apple trees, had hot water and good food…what more could we ask for. As it turned out, yes we could ask for more. And that was a beautiful half hour of Mandolin renditions by our most talented but self taught team mate Shyam. The nip in the air, warm after a good bath and fresh clothes, smell of food wafting from the kitchen and a full moon glowing through the dark clouds playing hide and seek with the mighty Kinner Kailash peak was so surreal and immensely sensational an experience. I was moved to tears by his soul stirring strings. Dinner was good, followed by some old Hindi melodies played through Bluetooth filling the air. What a night and what more could a girl ask out of life…?
June 28, 2018- Day 8 The next day dawned with the biggest disappointment of being a cloudy, foggy rainy morning. It would have been a welcome change if not for the fact that it completely obliterated our chance to see the Kinner Kailash range comprising also of a peak similar in shape to a shivling. The sun and rain played hide and seek throughtout moning hours till we started off after our breakfast. The journey for the day was supposed to be long and tedious and comprising of rough terrains, bad roads and multiple stops. I was in Tavera but the tempo traveler developed a major snag and was stuck in repair at Rekong peo for more than 3 hours. The other tavera too stayed back with them. So the stuck crowd included all except the 5 including me in the lead tavera. In spite of some serious landslide related road block near Pooh, we still were many hours ahead and had a very scenic lunch break near khap where roads were tunneled through the mountains and made them overhand above the road. Khap reminded me of a small hamlet called Setenil in south of Spain which we visited. The topography had changed drastically the moment we had left Rekong Peo in the morning. Tree lines stopped, it was barren and mammoth mountains with scree and shining mica. The river sometimes thin sometimes broad due to many small streams and tributaries joining it on its path snaked down the valley. As we progressed in distance and height the tapestry was bleaker, desolate and inhospitable looking…so very Alistair McLane and wild west …only bigger in scale. Some bikers, military vehicles, repair trucks and migrant labourers repairing the roads dotted our passage while we inched away through what is categorized as the world’s most treacherous motorable roads. The next stop was Nako, but it was too late for the monastery to be open. So just walked down to the Nako lake which was a rather small but beautiful manmade water body meant to feed the sparse apple trees of the area. Vegetation grew sparser. From there we headed to see the Giu Mummy in Giu village, a monk mummified about 500 years ago sitting in a crouched position and found by the villagers after an earth quake. To go to Giu we have to take a small deviation with a very road after Sumdo and after the visit join back the main road to head back to Tabo. The mummy was kept badly in a room inside a glass enclosure broken at the top. Could not help but lament at the condition in which we Indians maintain important archeological sites. An equally sad parallel is the dismal condition in which the museum and Saraswati Mahal library attached to Brahadeeswara Temple is kept in Thanjavur where cobwebs, dust, spit adorn the 9th century bronzes. Garlands in the hands of monkeys is the apt metaphor here.
We joined back the main road while it was still bright. The road was impossibly scenic with yellow, blue and white flowers dotting both sides and we even saw a patch of lavender fields. Five of us lamented at the thought that the rest of the crowd will not be able to enjoy the scenery due to lack of daylight and delay.
Once back on the main road headed to Tabo which boasts of, a thousand plus year old monastery. There we saw the Old monastery with a mud courtyard and mud Gompas and the newer slick one adjacent to the old. A short distance away was a hill with caves full of frescoes, but after the tiring ride and aching bodies we decided to not go for the climb. Also some youngsters coming back from the place said that the caves were closed and the fun of just the climb was not incentive enough for us at the fag end of the day. In the initial days of planning our stop was to be the Tabo but the later decision was to head to the next village which too boasts of a 1200 year old monastery called Dhankar. The accommodation was split in three places close to each other and since we were the first group to reach, we occupied one of them and had our dinner. We waited on for the rest of the group to arrive. They came nearly three hours tired, hungry and some of them with a case of badly frayed nerves. Rightly so, because a night drive in a risky road with a driver driving in breakneck speed is not what one looks forward or enjoys in unfamiliar terrain. Settling for the night and transferring luggages to respective rooms went on till wee hours in the night and early morning. The full moon had a soothing effect and kind of reflected the madness we felt in our hearts. The huge mammoth anthill shaped structures attached to the mountains created by wind and erosion looked eerie against moonlight and strangely bewitching.
June 29, 2018- Day 9 Next day dawned bright and sunny and we had a short trek to an old house perched on a hillock and the adjacent monastery. The same scenery of last night looked quietly huge and gigantic in day light. Another two little treks in the morning made me feel refreshed the tight muscles felt stretched. The next travel was to pin valley and an adjacent monastery and we ended the day in Kaza which was to be our halt for two days.
Ignoring protests from Satish, some of us washed a couple of small clothes since the Sun was blazing hard and it was a scorching hot day, so much so that I had the beginnings of a headache. In fact most day time temperature was quite high and we did not even a require a light jacket till late in the evening. Interestingly however, the temperature in shaded areas as well as times when sun went under clouds was always significantly lesser. Since ours was predominantly a road trip and we were protected against gusts of wind by the security of the vehicle such variations did not demand frequent covering up or removal. Though we had reached Kaza by late afternoon, after the medicine and heat I did not want to venture with the rest of the group to a proper restaurant. Me and a few others stuckt to the restaurant attached to the hotel we stayed and settled for Maggi and tea. A maggi that cost a whopping 100 rupees. But in their defence they had added a tomato and small bits of carrot to it. Went back to the room for a bit of reading and there was an evening gathering in the terrace for some spirits and spirited conversations.
Satish wanted us all to introduce ourselves. By then we all have been riding together for over a week and the introductions were nothing more of a conversation starter and fun than really getting to know each other. I am a strong believer of the thought that there is nothing better than travelling with a person to understand them than many years of living together or working together. It is the ultimate test of compatibility. And frankly I would not mind travelling again with any of the remaining 22 alone or together. Everyone has their own viewpoints, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and goodness. It is always possible to ignore what you prefer to and embrace the good and meet midway. If you really can’t live one more moment with him then strangle him and throw him in the apple orchard as a nice lunch for the Tibetan mastiff or snow leopard. Just kidding! Or am I?
The evening progressed to some more singing by our dear Mandolin player Shyam. The settings were different. The effect of music on you differs with the environment, company and your state of mind. After downing two glasses of Chenin Blanc that Aravind had reserved for me I was in a mildly floaty state of mind and the dark clouds against mountains and open spaces around made me want to hold on to the music and not let it dissolve away into the rarified air. The place had enough music of itself. He was playing for us and I did not want Kaza ingesting it. A good dinner later, I borrowed a writing pad from Hari mama to write a letter to my husband and son to be posted from the highest post office in Hikkim that we were to visit the next day. Distance does make the heart grow fonder, and two letters took me an hour and read myself to sleep.
June 30, 2018- Day 10 Next day dawned with clothes all crispy dry and me with no shortage for clothes. We went to the Kaza monastery next door. Saw the insides, sat for a while, walked around the campus and met some peaceful looking monks going about their daily work and proceeded to the shop attached which sold envelopes to send the letters in. Post breakfast we set off for the days travels. From this day till end of journey me and S opted for the tempo traveler. I felt equally comfortable in both. The advantage of tempo travller is that unlike tavera there was no misery of head hitting the roof and hurting everytime the driver hit a bump or brake. Permanently but willingly relegated to the back seat I had by then developed a small lump in the crown. I had become a unicorn.
The first stop was hikkim. The world’s highest postoffice was in that tiny village. The vehicle was parked and we had a short trek down to the Postoffice and the single postman there deligently and slowly went about his work of selling us postage stamps and affixing the seal. Came out and posted the letters, but even as I write this account after more than a week of return the letters hasn’t reached home. I would give it two months before considering them MIA. Next stop was the Gomic monastery and some of the group climbed a short hill close by where Harimama rendered a beautiful bhajan. Saw the video but I chose not to go for I did not have confidence in my shoes for the descend. It was stupid of me to have chosen a used and slippery shoe handed down by a marathoner friend for a travel like this. It worked well in plains for my walks but not on slippery scree kind of surface.
Again a monastery visit where the monks prayed and blew the long trumpet kind of instrument sending loud booms into the air and ears. A stuffed snow leopard was hung inside and stared vacantly into space. Came out to see a group of Malayalee boys from my hometown Palakkad and went on for a lovely lunch of Thukpa and Momos after making some stale mallu jokes. In august Malayalee company that is a must. There was a brief stop to see a Buddha statue on the top of a hillock but I did not bother to get off the vehicle because the view was as good from there. Straight back to the hotel and me, J and S headed off by foot to explore Kaza town. We had some work to be done with internet and were told we could do it there. However the efforts were in vain since there was neither power nor connectivity that evening. Kaza town was quite similar to Leh markets but the narrow downs had too many ups and downs and were not motorable although tiny cars of the locality managed to drive around. We went to the lovely German bakery for cups of very soothing hot chocolate, yak cheese sandwiches and almond and peanut cookies. There was an old and sickly dog laying about looking for scraps of food. The youngsters in the next table had left a full bun behind and I took that fed the fellow. I assumed he must be in a lot of misery because he could not translate the gratitude in his eyes to a wag of tail. I sent some wishes to the heaven for his recovery or quick passing. Dogs are the best creation of god and they don’t deserve pain of any kind. I missed my Maya badly then.
Then some trinket and souvenir shopping later slowly treaded back to our hotel through the village. The clear sky with millions of stars shining bright, a nice nip in the air and mountains in the background made my heart sing and feel a rush of gratefulness at everything I am blessed with at that moment. I felt I really must be a very dear child of god for him to let me have it. The evening progressed to some mild tension with little Ankhit down with vomiting and headache. But a quick run to the nearby restaurant for some curd and some curd rice later the champion was back to his spirits. It was lack of sleep and tiredness probably that led to it and a good sleep worked wonders for him. We had J’s older kid sleep in my room with S and I slept in J’s room for the night. But that was only after settling the money dealings for the day. When women shop together in any corner of the world, there is always this settlement that forms the crux of affairs of the sisterhood. “I paid for the bracelets, and you for the incense so you need to give me 100 and I need to give you 110”. If you have not done this in a travel, then you have not travelled or they were not women.
July 1, 2018- Day 11 Morning got up with the sun, all packed, set and loaded for the highlight of the travel. We were heading to Chandrataal camp site for the night. This night was supposed to be the coldest night and I had packed a bit of extra warm clothing for my day backpack than usual and included the gloves, an extra shawl and wore my woolen socks. The first stop for the day was the Ki/Key monastery. It had a short climb and it was the last monastery visit for the travel. The monk in one of the living quarters showed us ancient scriptures written in tree bark and offered us a fragrant tea. He was 31 and had been inducted into the monastery when he was nine. His education included very few years of mainstream education and then it was the spiritual path of the monastery. He had a mobile and Whatsapp however. But if one cannot post pictures of travel abroad, good mornings with coffee cups, sexist jokes or photos of kids getting A grades in school uniform, what use is of Whatsapp? Headed back on our trail and saw Kibber village enroute and a brief lunch break later headed toward kunzum la (la means pass in English and tso means river) Satish showed us a hanging glacier and mountains with scree and moraines and explained what switch back mounatins were. A beautiful stop with some gorgeous photo ops later we were in our vehicles. It was quite cold at 15000+ feet in kunzum la and had to wear the jacket for the first time in the day. The road started to get bad steadily. The melting glaciers started to end up as bigger rivulets in the stony roads making it tough for the vehicle to cross with people and the luggage. More than two times some of us had to get down from the vehicle and cross the ice cold water on foot while other drivers helped our driver by removing boulders and making way for the vehicle. There was a sense of rush since we had to hit Chandratal well before night fall. Unlike Pangong Tso there is no permission for vehicles to head or camps to be made all the way near the lake and our camp was quite far from the lake. So we hurriedly dropped our bags in our allotted camps and rushed back to the parking only to be told that the tempo can’t take us to the point where the trek to lake starts and all of us had to manage in the two Taveras with probably two trips to the lake. In a while we managed to get to the starting point of trek. A batch had headed before us too. A nice and pleasant trek of ups and downs takes you to a short plateau from where we get the first view of the turquoise blue Chandratal lake…a much smaller lake than Pangong Tso but I felt it to be more secretive and peaceful tucked away quietly among the mountains and reflecting the snow caps and the sky on its surface. We had some enchanting moments by its side watching the myriad hues the sky took while the dusk quickly edged towards night fall and the lake changed its colours with changing reflections. Closer to the edges the lake was peaceful to gaze into but from high above the view was ethereal. I was too caught up with it that I forgot to even take a picture of the same. The next batch of our group came later but they too had their share of fun at the lake and to avoid the congestion in the return vehicles with just two taveras at our disposal to take 20 odd us back to the camp, me and Satish decided to walk half way back to the first level camps. From there we decided to take the vehicle back to our camp about 2 kms away. Had the return been a little earlier with enough day light we would have loved to walk back that distance too. Had we been a bit early we would have loved to do the Parikrama (circumambulation) of the lake with just a 3 km circumference. It was tiny compared to Pangong which was 130+ kms in circumference.
That walk turned out to be for me the highlight of my travel. Satish always had his one foot in the mountains and his familiarity with any such terrain is great. It was a downhill trek of less than 3 kms but as time was nearly 7 pm and cloudy the chill was biting, but the good speed at which we walked down kept me warm enough. Earlier in the lake I had borrowed a thermal top from J and wore it under my jacket and with that my upper half of the body had five layers of clothing. There was also a woolen cap on the head and a scarf around my neck. But bottom half had only a yoga pant and shoes with woolen socks.
Everything around us had a brown tinge, the mountains and the air. It was a stony and rough mountain road and the vehicles to whom we gave way to pass took as much time to reach to the first camp site as we did by foot. My body and soul was floating exactly like my red scarf. No sound whatsoever – of birds or people or rivers…just the howling of the wind trapped between mountains and our breathing. I felt so light and gloriously happy that I had a doubt if I was awake, asleep in a dream or dead. It was a surreal experience because all the experiences of the body were not experienced by the body but felt as emotions and weightlessness. I wanted the moment to last forever and wanted my body to dissolve into the atmosphere around. Perhaps this is how being with God feels. It took us nearly an hour to reach the first camp site from the lake and I started to feel like I was back in reality only once we were back in the vehicle and small talk and banter started. Slowly the hardships like cold, stiffness and soreness in joints started to be felt. Feet and fingers had got unbelievably swollen due to the cold and lack of blood flow to the extremities. But they were less than minor inconveniences compared to the euphoria I had experienced. We came back to the camp and me into my room where s had already reached and covered under multiple blankets shivering in cold. I too had started to shiver in cold by then.
The niggling irritation that only women feel when they had to pee multiple times in the open and the feeling of being unclean however was more than the discomfort of cold. So a good cleaning session in the bathroom( which by the way lacks a bucket, mug or tap. The only available water is the freezing cold water in the wash basin and what is sprayed by the bidet in the seat…but we Indians are ingenious and resourceful) later methodically got into the six layers of clothing. I finally got a chance to take out and wear the grey overcoat that was an unplanned buy in Sydney because the cold there in the month of May took us by surprise while we visited. Of course I was an absolute travel greenhorn then. Much travel later I have learnt some valuable lessons. To layer, to carry toilet paper on your body always, never missing an opportunity to pee or poop, to always carry medicines and water on you, to covering ears and feet well in cold weather even if you wear shorts,to always steal airport toilet paper and hotel toiletries…follow these rules and thank me later.
There is something called a pee buddy which I had carried with me for my previous travel to Ladakh but I did not carry it now. It’s a contraption for women which is to be held close to your body and since its shaped like a funnel, once you pee into it, the pee lands into the toilet bowl like it does for the other sex of our species. Its made of disposable paper and quite clean and efficient. The lop side however is that with the multiple layers of clothing it is difficult to be pulled and held down for the job to be done right. Too much multitasking involved. And you just cannot afford mishaps while travelling with just two pants. So just better your squat and do it was motto for this travel.
The camp had a good dinner with even a dessert. Warm gulabjamuns. Since there was no space in the big dinner table me and Bharath ended up sharing our table with two cyclists. One was a man from Bangalore and another a Swedish guy who he met in a similar cycling expedition to Leh and Ladakh. This time around they have cycled all the way from Shimla and has followed our exact same path to reach the camp. However the weather was getting rainy and the roads were so bad that they could do only about 5 kms of cycling in an hour in the stretch between Kaza and Chandratal. So their decision was to pack up the cycles and take them back in a truck to Manali itself. S hardly slept due to the cold and the thin air with her already bad lung issue. I was expecting for a long wakeful night exactly like the one I had at the campsite in Pangong tso last year. But surprisingly I slept like a baby with six layers of clothing and two blankets over my head.
July 2, 2018- Day 12 In the morning there were stories of many who did not sleep, many who heard strange noises and neighing of horses and kept awake. Thank fully the night sleep kept me in good spirits in the morning and ready for the long ride from Chandrataal to Manali. The day started wet and rainy. We started quite early at 7 itself considering the long drive and bad weather. We expected the flow in all rivers and waterfalls crossing the roads to be quite heavy and as expected so was the case. Again some getting out of the vehicle and walking was warranted. With just a bread omelette for breakfast, hunger pangs stuck early. Past the small hamlet of Batal, in a small dhaba in a place called chhatru we had a lovely lunch of rice, dhal, rajma, kadhi and omeltte and left satiated for the rest of the journey. There were patches of heavy rain too in places. The slush in road made it impossible for vehicles to ride up. A tempo traveler ahead of us slipped down the slush eight times before being able to accelerate and take the vehicle up the road. After a fairly long wait and loss of time, some military trucks came the opposite way and the heaviness of the vehicles settled the slush a bit, enough to give a grip and drive the vehicle. The scenery enroute was spellbinding. We always drove adjacent to some river or the other all of them in furious spate due to rains and by the side of them were beautiful flower beds and small wooden briges. There were patches with eight different coloured flowers even. Lilac, lavender ,purple, blue, light blue, white to yellow. A riot of colours from the tiny little flowers that covered the meadows kept our hearts warm. In places it reminded me of the country side mentioned in Thomas Hardy’s old England and in places it looked like the wet and flowery romantic landscape from D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
The weather being quite bleak, and observing the teeming hundreds of bikers and tourists we skipped the customary stop in Rohtang pass and headed to Manali for nightcap. We sadly did not even stop of our dear friend Suhasini’s fervent plea for bhuttas. A good clean and comparatively more luxurious hotel in Manali, gave the comfort of a long hot bath and I could afford a change of clothes. But most of our belongings had got wet since the tarpaulin sheet covering our luggage on top of the vehicles was leaky. Collateral damage. A decent dinner followed by goodbyes since next day early mornig the group was to split giving into different routes and destinations ahead.
July 3, 2018- Day 13 One group had to break away hiring their separate vehicle since there were some unexpected changes in flight plans back to Bahrain were they were headed. Another group headed in a Tavera to board the late evening train from Ambala to Mumbai. Our Tavera had me , J and kids and Vinod headed to Chandigarh. Except me all others were heading to delhi via train from Chandigarh. Another group of people started late who had plans like me for an extra night or two in Chandigarh before heading home.
We loaded up said a second round of farewells and started at 5 am. Our craving for tea and something to eat was met well past 7 and much after kullu. The drive was scenic as we fast lost altitude but passed through rolling hills and sparse apple archards. Being in the fag end of the journey we all were eagerly awaiting for the destination to arrive. However our wise, gentleman companion Vinod would have sure felt bored as me and J yapped away all through the jouney about life, career, people in our lives, kids and myriad other things in our chance to catch up finally.
Vinod was the plan man of the group had already asked our driver to head straight to Pal’s dhaba ( one of chandigarh’s finest) for lunch albeit a late one. The hunger pangs were bad but the wait was well worth it. I had a vegetarian thali while the rest of the folks had rotis with chicken and mutton liver. While I swear by the spectacular taste of my meal they did about theirs. The vehicle dropped us at the Chandigargh railway station. Suraj our homestay owner had sent the suitcase J had left back in house with the auto driver. She had to take it back to kerala and I headed back to the homestay in the same auto. I dropped my luggage and quickly left for sector 17 for some phulkari shopping that was the last item in my tick off list. Suraj had told us to go to the Punjab govt. showroom because rates were fixed and of course I could find some good material for stitching back home. Had a juice and felt terribly alone away from a group of people who was family for nearly two weeks. Had a tiny dinner and read late into the night. The re instatement of connectivity and having to check thousand odd messages in Whatsapp was interesting and disheartening at the same time. Being untraceable gave peace, gave quiet and some time for introspection and to reevaluate priorities of life. Paying the bill of home wifi connection from my mobile banking app as one of the first things that slowly pulled me back into demands of life and comforts which are really bondages.
July 4, 2018- Day 14 Early morning took the same auto to get to Chandigargh airport. Right were chandigargh stops and Punjab starts the squalor is evident. Roads are not laid well, bumpy,with mud pools, cowdung, urchins and garbage everywhere. But one welcoming sight early morning on the ride to airport was of portly sardarjis balancing atleast 4 to 5 huge milk cans on motorbikes sprinting to their destinations. So there still people on earth who are not vegans and kids who rub their milk moustaches with the back of their hands or on shirt sleeves. Reached airport well ahead of schedule and I waited for the long day it was to be, eager to meet family, eat my mother’s idlis, but with oven fresh memories of a trip of a life time…
The deal that was…
The package cost of Rs.30000 per person included stay, transportation , breakfast and dinner. No lunch. It made sense too since through the day we were on road and people had different appetites and preferences while travelling. The trip was meant to be and understood to be a budget adventure road trip and not a resort vacation involving lounge chairs, pinacoladas, virgin mojitos and sheek kebabs. We all carried our own waterbottles and satish had specially asked us not to buy mineral water bottles since most of it end up in garbage and end up dirtying and polluting the pristine lands we visited. We stuck to the rule as much as we could and kept refilling in hotels we stayed or ate or even in streams or pipes of mountain water.
The breakfast was almost always parathas, toast with butter and jam, egg and once in a while poha or upma. I love food of all kinds and do not particularly mind anything as long it is vegetarian. Lunch was mostly Maggi, Rice and Dal or Rajma, Momos or Thukpa. We ate anything available in the small eateries on our brief breaks. Dinner was invariably Salad, Rice and Roti with a Dal and mostly a Panneer dish and maybe an extra vegetable. Some places had curd available and some made chicken dishes for non vegetarians. We got soup too in certain places. Nothing to really complain anywhere. I consider ourselves lucky to get all this in such remote places we visited were even reaching basic daily needs is tough and expensive.Â
The rooms were mostly double occupancy and triple occupancy for families with kids. With comfortable beds, fairly clean bathrooms and hot water availability, frankly all the places we stayed in, offered much more than I expected. Probably I am satisfied easy or my expectations while travelling on a budget to remote places are limited. My bench mark for mountains is the stay options we had in our trek to Pindari Glacier. Mostly tents and less than basic rooms in small village houses with no running water or water even in buckets…most often only water we used was from streams and small rivulets. And in the eleven days we spent probably just two baths and as many change of clothes. So this was five star luxury compared to that.
The travel arrangement could have been better. While initially all of us including Satish felt that the tempo traveler could be the best option, it did not prove itself to be so because of the bad roads with huge near boulder size stones, slippery slush and streams of water. It could not take the weight of people and our respective luggage. The situation was made worse by the rather adamant and inflexible driver. Many of us were irritated and rightly so at the attitude of the guy to keep repairs for the vehicle to the last moment thus eating on our valuable day light timings and refusal to ply over rough roads. Many were also irritated at the fact that being the tour organizer more than Satish having the upper hand on the drivers, drivers had on us. However in all fairness to Satish and post discussions I had with him on this, I see he had a point when he said when we are in an inhospitable terrain with possibility of getting a different vehicle next to impossible, it doesn’t make sense to antogonise the driver than he has been already. It could be detrimental to all our plans. I am reminded of a sensational Malayalam saying that translates roughly into “Fighting with water only harms your ass” (meaning it remains unclean and unwashed without water to wash it). Though you get the gist, the spirit of the saying is however is lost in translation. Also more importantly the lahaul Spiti belt was not a developed tourist location like Leh and ladakh has become now. If you are lucky you get a great deal, if you don’t then consider it a good adventure. The tourism market is still in its nascent stage there. In another 5 yrs or less you could have a better experience.
How to or how not to pack
It’s also very relevant here to discuss about the luggage we were carrying. The quantity of luggage each one carried was humungous and was totally incongruous to the terrain and style of travel. I am a strong believer of travelling light. Really really light. I learned it the hard way. I handled the luggage situation really bad in Europe three years back and it left such a lasting impression, that all travels post that I planned well and took as little as possible. I don’t plan to have a different outfit everyday. Frankly I don’t care. Though I don’t judge others who doesn’t think like me, I feel stressing on looks and clothes and spending time on it is a waste of time when experience is all that matters. Yes, if it was a resort vacation or a leisure vacation with gala dinners and dances to attend, or if it was an official travel where dressing to make an impression matters, then we need to be careful in choosing and should ideally consider style and fashion.
For my two weeks travels what I had packed was:-
One pair salwar kameez and a cotton dupatta which served as a stole in aircraft too – for just the golden temple visit ( I left this back along with my Amritsar shopping and the gifts that J got me in the homestay in Chandigarh, sicne I was to come back to the same homestay at the end of the travel and fly out of there)
Two thick cotton yoga pants from proyog ( one of which remained unused)
One thick legging for night wear
One thin cotton and one light weight synthetic short each
Two synethetic tops ( one remain unused)
Three light weight decathlon kalenji running t shirts
Two full arm body hugging t shirts
One fleece jacket ( again decathlon bought before travel on sale for Rs 300)
One full jacket
One head band
One woolen cap
Three light weight shawls (bought from leh last year. No real purpose, but good accessories to make it less boring when you repeat clothes)
Three quick dry sports bras and 2 regular bras ( one of it left back in Amritsar)
Seven panties ( one of it left back in Amritsar)
Three pairs of cotton socks and one woolen pair
One decathlon quick dry towel ( unused)
One Raincoat (poncho) unsed
One flip flop and one pair of shoes
A tissue roll
A head flash light
Pen and paper
Enough cash and id card with one ATM and one credit card in a plastic Ziploc cover in my waist pouch (excluding shopping and flight fares- which were miles redemption- my expenditure was less than Rs 8000. This includes my two nights stay, food and travel in Punjab )
A book to read
All important medicines
Toiletries (toothbrush, paste, soap, shampoo, talcum powder, sunscreen cum moisturizer, lipbalm- all in smallest possible measures just enough for the period of travel. What works best is complementary stuff taken from hotels. They will be small in size and of good quality unless you stayed in a sidey ‘decent’ hotels)
All these items comfortably fit into my longish and superlight wildcraft duffel bag. It could have fit into my back pack too. But over years I have often felt that if it’s not a trek where you have to carry your luggage or the mule carries it for you, it makes most sense to take a duffel bag since its more flexible than a suitcase. It is also easier in a duffelbag to remove and keep back stuff than in a back pack (unless you have top end back packs where there are openings midway, at the bottom etc. Even then backpack mostly means reopening fully and repacking in most occasions and searching something involves a lot of effort. However if I were to choose between a suitcase and backpack I would still go for the discomfort of the back pack.
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