bike trip

An Elaborate Guide to Spiti Valley - Part 3

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. 

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

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.

Human flag at Kunzum Pass

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.


CHANDRATAL

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. 

On the way to Chandratal. Your camps would appear in one such flatland to your left

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.

At the camps

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. 

Approaching Gramphoo

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. 

Some dude paragliding around Rohtang

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. 


KASOL

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. 


 

AFTEREFFECTS

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. You start wondering how to travel full-time without having to beg for food and accommodation.
  4. At least once, you seriously consider quitting your job and doing something more interesting.
  5. At least once, you seriously consider moving permanently to the place you just returned from and opening up a cafe.
  6. You start dissociating yourself from all the others around you who are not doing something similar.
  7. 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.


END NOTES

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.

Hope these series of posts was helpful ( Read earlier posts: Part 1 and Part 2). Have a great trip yourself!

If you like this post, please consider sharing.

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

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An Elaborate Guide To Spiti Valley - Part 1

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.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here


INTRODUCTION

 

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.


GURGAON

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. 

 

SHIMLA

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. 

Ready to roll

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.

Apple orchard along the way. Freshly picked apples are delicious

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.

The Incident

 

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.


End of Part 1

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

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If you like this post, please consider sharing.

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