In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.
This is the longest piece I have written on a single topic yet. For ease of reading and for my own sanity, I have broken it down to 3 parts. This is the first one.
Imagine the world of Gods. They live high up in sky, a million galaxies away. 4.54 billion years ago, their council decided to manifest a planet with life. They would call it Earth. The responsibility of the creation of this planet was assigned to a promising young artist called Vincio. His method of creation was to paint vivid, meticulously detailed pictures of Earth. Once finished, Vincio would breathe out a lungful of air into them to bring them to life.
At first, Vincio created the different landscapes that would form a habitat for Earthlings. Mountains, rivers, deserts, great oceans and their meeting points. He then progressed to creating simple life forms like bacteria, viruses and weeds. As he developed his art skill, he started making more complex life forms culminating into humans. But, the true test of his skill was when he would devise a sophisticated mechanism of co-habitation of these life forms with the aforementioned geographical landscapes. This gave rise to agricultural societies, villages, towns and eventually the big, shiny cities that we now inhabit.
After a millennia he came out of his self-imposed solitude where he painted the most complicated planet ever seen by the Gods. The Council was impressed. They decided to hold an exhibition of his work for the whole Gods community to see. The critiques would be invited too, so that they can comment on this elaborate plan of bringing the first life into the Universe. All that was left for Vincio to do was to let out a gentle breath into each of his pictures to bring them to life.
Here’s what Madre, an acclaimed critic, wrote about his work.
Review - Vincio's Breath of Life, An Exhibition
It is not with regularity that one sees work of this magnitude by a single artist - both in terms of the sheer amount as well as the complex patterns and their interplay with each other. Today, we have seen a work of extraordinary brilliance from a prodigious talent. By creating the human life, Vincio has outdone himself. We see that human life will build mega colonies and call them cities. They would build modes of transportation and communication which would surpass anything ever built outside of the Colony of Gods. Their collective intelligence as a species would generate great progress. However, this would come at a cost.
Humans, even with their advancements, would feel a certain emptiness in their hearts. Cities after cities which look soulless burial grounds of dreams and contentment have been a constant theme in Vincio's work. These big cities would stifle humans. The irony of working hard to seek progress and yet feeling shallow inspite (or because) of it would not be lost on them. Thus, a small number of them would frequent out into the unexplored.
Beaches, mountains, forests - they would all serve the humans as a reservoir of peace of mind, joy, even exhaustion yet fulfilment. However, they would all lack a sense of wonder which could move the human race to contemplation. In creating these, Vincio had been predictable and seemed afraid to break his boundaries until we chanced upon his work titled Spiti.
Carefully situated in the Spiritual Heartland of Earth - India, surrounded by the Great Himalayan mountain ranges and fed by the river Spiti, it would be a view to behold. Men traveling to the valley would gape in wonder. For many years, Vincio’s breath, in the form of winds, would create intricate patterns on the mountain ranges. It would not be easy for the men to reach there. But once arrived, they would experience profound moments that most would find difficult to express.
It is in Spiti that they would first come close to Vincio. They would see the landscape as not just another geographical form. It would seem to them as if they are the brushstrokes of a masterful painting. Yes! That would be, in opinion of this humble critique, the true pinnacle of Vincio’s work. Spiti would elevate humans from merely existing as yet another life form, to being truly one with the God’s process of Earth’s creation.
We were to leave at 2 o' clock in the night. I turned in early to bed to get some sleep before the long ride ahead of us. But, it was futile. Before a trip, as you await the time of your departure, multiple thoughts run around aimlessly inside your head. Have you packed enough? Have you packed too much? How dangerous would the roads be - Did I mention this was going to be a motorbike trip? 3 riders + 3 pillion.
I had planned to write about my experience after coming back. But, writing about Travel on a blog which which professes the value of mindfulness is tricky. On one hand I preach living in the moment but on the other, I also realise that travel writing requires capturing the moments as they are lived in the form of timely notes rather than just writing about them later by recalling the incidents from memory.
As I struggled with these thoughts, eyes wide awake, mind racing from one thought to another like a distracted toddler, tossing and turning, I also had an evil thought. What if, at this moment, I decide not to go altogether? It would be easy to do so. No sleeplessness, no uncertainty about the roads, I could stay tucked inside the safe comforts of my bed. Had I not so meticulously planned the trip myself, I would have probably given those thoughts a little more weightage. I have done this kind of thing before.
If we try to look for such patterns in our life itself, it leads to a philosophical introspection. How often do we ditch the brilliant, exciting, if only a little dangerous, step we think of taking, to settle for the monotony, ordinary and the familiar. Perhaps moving out of our comfort zones, to give ourselves a jolt of adrenalin, and some vitality to our existence might be just what we need.
First leg: GURGAON TO SHIMLA
Unlike Manali, Shimla doesn’t have many bike rental companies. Thus, it is advisable to book your bikes beforehand. So did we. A word of caution: Please research your rental company thoroughly. Some of the companies out there lend bikes which are in poor condition, unserviced and might have potentially dangerous hidden flaws. It is a matter of your safety so please be careful.
We left Gurgaon on Thursday night to arrive in Shimla the next morning. We had not slept the night before. But, a healthy dosage of Red Bull, music, adrenaline and the open road kept us awake and interested.
We drove rash, we drove safe, depending upon the depth of our conversation and the tempo of the music we were streaming off the internet. The Internet. The Fucking Internet. Our hyper-active, frenemy, like a faithful dog, which because of its constant attention craving, sometimes becomes a nuisance, following us even this high up in the mountains.
Mountains ornamented with carpets of green welcomed us all the way. Trees ubiquitous to highways across India formed a natural tunnel. The casual playfulness of light and dark flora on the mountains seemed like shadows formed by a play of light and clouds. Perhaps they were shadows. Trucks, with their poisonous exhaust fumes and life-giving one-liners on their backside never left our company. Roadside cafes, with their unoriginal names but fulfilling food greeted us at every few steps. One of these is Nik Bakers, just outside of Chandigarh and to your left. They serve one of the best Cold Coffees I have ever had. In case you are looking for something more filling, Haveli, the highly popular restaurant would be your best option.
At noon, we arrived to the quiet air of Shimla. We had not yet entered the main bazaar area, so there was still scope for us to enjoy the peace away from the cacophony of noises at the Mall Road. Most part of the day was spent on checking bikes, test riding, get any repairs done and buying spare parts if needed.
Our stay was at Hotel Achman Regency. An average hotel on the highway by all means. The reception stood on what they called the 4th floor. The elevator took us down to our rooms on the 2nd floor. As we sat on our damp beds, the quiet engulfed us only to be broken by incessant spam calls offering me credit card limit enhancements.
As we looked out the window towards the erect pines craving to touch the blue sky, we felt that we could just spend the next 7 days here. Again, this is the comfort zone talking. At night, as we sat in our room, a cloud engulfed us. How did we know? Well, for one, the window shut itself. And second, we couldn’t see a damn thing beyond a few feet outside the window. It was all hazy, misty, and cloudy. We were floating high above the idiosyncrasies of daily life, if only for a few days. I wish I could have seen ourselves from a hill 500 metres away with a binocular. That would have been cool.
Second leg: SHIMLA TO KUMARSAIN
Suggested Route: SHIMLA TO RAMPUR
Pass through: Kufri - Narkanda
One thing you should set very concretely in your head is that your average speeds would be very low. It is reasonable to assume an average speed of 20km/h including the stops. If you are not riding pillion, you can probably push it to 25km/h but that’s it. The roads from Shimla to Rampur are good. But, beyond that, things get rough.
We had planned to leave early from Shimla and arrive late evening at Rampur, but because of some unforeseen bike issues, we had to halt at Kumarsain.
We spent two nights spent in Kumarsain for reasons which were out of our control. One of our bikes gave up, and for us to rearrange something else took time. Not much to report here except that the folks were super friendly and arranged a place for us to stay at the Forest Reserve Guest House, kept their shops open for us to get dinner and happily helped us repair our bikes - without expecting anything in return. There's just one single thread of conversation here that the world should know about:
The Dynamics of a Human - Pizza Relationship
Shruti: You know I read a funny news story recently. A girl in the US married a Pizza!
Mayank: Dafaq! (Laughter) Man, people are weird.
(Laughter all around)
Mayank: I have a question. Did the girl marry a single pizza or pizza-breed in general?
Shruti: Oh yeah! That's an important question. I don't know. Perhaps pizza-breed in general otherwise she'll have to keep the single pizza deep-freezed and never eat it. That defeats the purpose of falling in love with and marrying a pizza.
Mayank: Hmm. Suppose the girl is traveling on a flight. She knows she is going to be hungry once she deboards the plane. So, she had called a pizza place in advance to get her pizza ready. Then this would be called a long distance relationship.
Shruti: (Laughter) Yeah, and if she has a pizza in the flight then that's cheating.
Mayank: (Laughter) And if she has more than one, then she is just a whore.
Both Shruti and Mayank laugh uncontrollably at the brilliance of their own jokes hoping that they remember this exchange of intellect to share with the world. The world needs to know this.
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Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in