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 3rd and final part in the series.
All pictures in this post can be clicked on to open an expanded version.
6TH LEG: KAZA TO CHANDRATAL
After a slow, elaborate breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes and left for Chandratal lake. Upto this point, the roads weren't great but manageable. The scenery was what you would come to expect of Spiti - huge, barren mountains highlighted by a single snow capped peak and wide open fields all the way with the river lining the side.
Our first stop was at Losar. There, you should halt for lunch at the first shop on your left as you enter the small town. They serve delicious home made food. As we were chilling outside the cafe, soaking in the warm sun, we chit-chatted with a biker returning from Chandratal. He said that Losar was the first sign of a road he had found since Gramphoo (which is on the way to Manali). This should have been our first hint of what kind of route lay ahead of us.
It was a difficult ride up to the Kunzum pass which stands at a height of 4551 metres. The wind will be quite strong, so more layers are recommended, even in the scorching sun. In our exhausted state, it seemed like a non event to cross one of the most sought after bikers' milestone in India. We clicked a few mandatory pictures and rode our way down the trail.
After a long, gruelling and the toughest ride thus far, we reached here at the last stroke of sunlight. At an altitude of 4300 metres, life here can get difficult. Chandratal Lake isn’t exactly where you would pitch tents. But, there is a vast sprawl of flatland 3 kms away where you would see a small tent-town which would serve as your resting place for the night.
We stayed at Parasol Camps which is the most reputed and popular tent around. The people at Deyzor can help you get a place there so you don’t need to worry about it once you get there. The caretakers are jovial folks, much like most of the locals we found on our way. When questioned that whether 6 in the evening (which is when we had arrived) was a good time to go see the lake, Bishan (the chief over there), answered that the sun dried up the lake yesterday. Some of us weren’t attuned to that kind of humour. Suffice to say, the lake wasn’t dry, it is never dry, it will never be, and we now have one less joke to fall victim to.
There would be a lot of bikers and car-riders at the camp. You would chill with them at the common tent area where you would all huddle together for hours around a heat source since it would be so cold outside. There would be booze, music, good food, nice stories and stuff from all over Himachal that people have brought along with them. It would be fun.
Having traveled so far, and only a 3km hike away, next morning, we decided not to see Chandratal against our wishes. Don’t raise your brows, our schedule (damn you schedule), didn’t allow us that. I still have a little regret left from it. Additionally, the high altitude wasn’t helping. At any time, at least 2 amongst us had headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness and a general sense of discomfort.
Breakfast is served, you bid goodbye to the nice folks and they wish you smooth journey ahead as if they meant that we might need it (or was it just me who understood it that way?). Those few words from them should have been our second hint.
7th Leg: Chandratal to Kasol
Via: Kunzum, Gramphoo, Rohtang, Manali, Kullu
THE MOST HORRENDOUS JOURNEY RESUMES
Leave early in the morning from Chandratal. It would be a long ride to Manali and beyond. The roads ahead are the worst you would have ever set a wheel upon. Hold on. Allow me to rephrase. There are no roads. All that you would find is a narrow trail of stones, boulders, nallahs climbing down and up all the way to Gramphoo. The scenery around you will be surreal but you would hardly have enough spare attention to look at it.
On this route, we covered about 60kms in 6 hours. You could go for a run and outpace the bikes. It’s not just that the roads were bad. They were also unpredictable, constantly rising and falling, twisting and turning, and we had to be extremely alert while riding. It was miserable. We don’t often hear people acknowledging that a part of their trip was less than perfect. Personally, I think there is no shame in accepting that this route was bad. In hindsight, like all things, I look at only the positives - how it tested our riding skills, the adventure it presented, the immense feeling of solitude. But, in those moments, we really were on the edge. Luckily Chandra Dhaba came soon enough on our left where we halted for refreshments, some shopping and to relax our nerves.
As you approach Gramphoo, the scenery would change drastically. The bare, rocky mountains would be replaced by lush green peaks with signs of life in the form of shepherds, sheep, goats and sheep-dogs. A massive traffic jam caused by these cute creatures would make you chuckle and irritate at the same time.
Gramphoo is a non-existent signboard of a town where we couldn’t even find a place to eat. Not that we tried very hard. We were in rush to move on. A gang of 15 American bikers, who had ridden along side us thus far, bade us goodbye here as they turned right for Ladakh and we took a left towards Manali.
Unlike yesteryears, the traffic on Gramphoo to Manali route is minimal. Once you get closer to Rohtang pass, you would find dirty snow hanging over the ledges of the roads. The pass itself is unremarkable (or perhaps this judgement was caused by exhaustion). I mean there is a vantage point but we passed through it without stopping. I am told that a few years back it used to be alive with tea stalls and various shops, but now it’s blank save for a few parked vehicles and people clicking pictures. The roads were finally strong, reliable concrete and we made good speed to a highway eating joint. My feet were wet to the core on account of having traversed many nallahs and balancing the bike on my feet across them. Shivering and teeth chattering, I took the shoes off and laid them out in the feeble sunlight in hopes of drying them. It didn’t work too well.
Resuming our journey, we crossed the pine-tree rich mountains that overlooked the Manali Valley. I had not been to Manali earlier, so I was thoroughly surprised by the massive commercialisation that had eaten up the valley in the form of endless hotels and cafes on both sides of the roads. Perhaps it was just me, but there was a distinguishable, even if faint, smell of marijuana in the air. This is Himachal after all. So, don’t be surprised to find Marijuana plants on your way all along the route.
Next stop was a cool bike repair workshop in Kullu. We refilled our food supplies and headed to Kasol. It was a day before full moon. The moonlight bathed the streets in gentle white light. The small huts we saw along the roads resembled a ghostly town. It was a good ride.
Entering the Parvati Valley, the loud roar of the flowing river to the left of us, a smile crept out of me under my helmet. We still couldn’t see it, but the feeling of finally approaching our destination late at night was brewing inside.
I had fantasised about reaching Kasol all day long. Two of our friends (not on this trip), planned to visit Kasol around the same time we did. I imagined entering Kasol, roaring on our bikes, and our friends welcoming us outside Evergreen Cafe. Hugs, smiles and happiness. I imagined going into the cafe to chill before checking into a hotel. And that’s exactly what happened.
This was my second visit to Kasol. The first one happened at a very different time in my life. Luckily, I had written a post about my trip. Here’s where you can read it.
FINAL leg: KASOL to SHIMLA TO GURGAON - SIGH!
Nothing remarkable to report here except that driving back from Kasol to Shimla late at night was a little spooky. I wouldn't recommend it - way too many trucks ply on this route, much safer to leave early from Kasol and arrive at Shimla in the late evening.
Traveling, going on adventures, seeing new things, meeting interesting people - all this is fine. But, few people talk about what happens when you come back to the reality of everyday life in the big city. The fixed schedule with 5 days of work and a weekend of drinking. Well, I’ll tell you - life becomes boring.
Boring, not in your regular definition of the word. But, boring in a way that constantly nags you to do something extraordinary again. The comfort of your bed becomes suffocating, the monotony of daily grind becomes a veiled attempt at living life. This is what I call Travel Withdrawal Syndrome or TWS.
Common symptoms of TWS:
- Soon after your return, even before the expenses of the trip have been detailed out and money owed returned, plans of a new trip begin taking shape.
- The number of work related tabs on your browser shrink to a small percentage, the majority being taken up by blogs of people describing beautiful new places and experiences.
- You start wondering how to travel full-time without having to beg for food and accommodation.
- At least once, you seriously consider quitting your job and doing something more interesting.
- At least once, you seriously consider moving permanently to the place you just returned from and opening up a cafe.
- You start dissociating yourself from all the others around you who are not doing something similar.
- You think of taking up another activity along with your work seriously - biking, photography, travel blogging.
How to cure TWS?
The answer lies in the last symptom. After a rush of adrenalin on your trip, there is a lot of residual energy in you. Channel it in learning something new. Acquire new skills by investing time in not just doing them but studying their deep lying concepts. Immerse yourself in it as you did with your travel. Say, for example, you were to take up photography. Watch some YouTube lessons, join a common class, do a small day photography trip.
This allows you to not only grow intellectually, but also, gives you a reality check on how passionate you are about something. Especially if you considering an alternate vocation, this helps to answer the question of whether it is just a passing fad or something that you could seriously consider.
And write. Seriously. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, just noting those experiences down in your private diary helps.
There’s not a lot to do in Spiti if you don’t count chilling as something. You see beautiful places, get a lot of time to be on your own. Read a book, look at the scenery, talk to friends, talk to the locals. Meet fellow traveler, share stories. Your travel would be often and taxing. So, be prepared to be very tired throughout the trip unless you take proper rest. Drink lots of water, it’ll help with acclimatisation. The novelty of the scenery might fade off just a little bit, the adventure will not. Don’t go there with a constricted schedule. Go with some time on your hands.
Finally, here are some vanity pictures. And Spiti in 10 bullet points.
Spiti in 10 bullets:
1. Landscape is surreal. Looks like a painting.
2. Altitude sickness is a real thing.
3. Roads are tough. Horrible even.
4. Food is slow but delicious.
5. You’d be constantly amazed by how fit the locals are.
6. There are bikers all around you and you share a genuine feeling of being in a community.
7. The locals are funny people.
8. With time, the landscape becomes so common that you stop noticing it.
9. Your plans will go haywire on account of unexpected changes in the road condition.
10. Many times, there will be no one around you for hours. Absolute solitude.
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