Having based ourselves at the beautiful Banjara Camps on the banks of the Baspa river for two days, it was time we finally took on the road to the Spiti Valley. Kinnaur is a district known for its old world charm: wooden temples, friendly locals, blue waters gushing amidst forests of pine; all this with backdrops of snow clad rocky peaks. The comfortable temperatures meant that a jacket would more than suffice. This was new to me then, leaving the more touristy parts of Himachal to experience the lesser frequented.
The beauty of Kinnaur had given me something I did not expect; I had come for the barren landscapes of the Spiti Valley and to have Kinnaur throw in a few pleasantries meant a resolution to visit again had been made! The route we would happen to take on the day would also include Kalpa, the hill town above the district headquarter;Rekong Peo. Our route: Batseri-Sangla-Rekong Peo-Kalpa-Rekong Peo-Puh-Khab-Nako-Chango-Sumdo-Tabo. I felt a unique fascination and familiarity with these places, particularly the names even though I had never been to these places. This feeling has just grown since and made me experience a sense of belonging I never associate with places unknown.
The journey was to take the full day, and our original plans on doing Sangla-Kaza straight were quashed. ( I quite liked this, I feel that I feed off uncertainty in certain situations)
One of the problems that the region faces is that of dams being constructed throughout the region of Kinnaur. Though there are benefits, construction has led to heavy machinery plying on the rocky roads and resulted in terrible road conditions and occasional flood problems and landslides.
As we proceeded towards Rekong Peo for topping up our tanks, we decided that it might be worth going the few extra kilometers up to Kalpa to get better views of Mt. Kinner Kailash. We had to wait before getting fuel which was essential since the next pump would only be at Kaza, supposed to be the highest altitude fuel pump. After luckily getting enough fuel, we proceeded towards the small quaint town of Kalpa and the drive was a pleasant one, with decent roads under the shade of the large coniferous forests. Kinner Kailash was a treat to watch and I could only wonder at what the scenes would be in peak winter, which I believe is an equally fascinating time to visit Kinnaur.
The real adventure was yet to begin! The roads from Rekong Peo to Puh were out of this world, be it the surface or the landscapes. This stretch was the most challenging (on this route) for our hatch! The Punto has a terrible approach angle and ground clearance. The dusty, landslide affected rocky roads, part of which had been carved out of the rocky mountains making passages surrounded on three sides; characteristic of the Hindustan-Tibet road left us crawling at snail’s pace. We were not complaining though since this meant that we had ample of time soak in the rugged feel of the place. Some of the patches of road were so narrow that an oncoming vehicle meant that the only option was to reverse to the point that the road accommodated both the vehicles.
These roads were no easy feat to do, and are considered to be one of the toughest roads that remain a challenge to the seasoned driver. I am glad that I had a great person drive me through this!
The terrain and the roads changed completely a little after Puh. The black rocks gave way to the yellowish mountains dotted with a few green shrubs. This change was so sudden that I could even draw a distict boundary in my mind. The roads improved considerably, which was mostly due to us moving away from the landslide prone area. This patch, which included the Kah loops, was my favourite part of the journey.This stretch was just before reaching Nako and would end sadly, a little after the village. But what this tiny region packed will remain with me for a long long time. The air crisp and cool, the Spiti river gurgling below and the serpentine road a delight! No wonder we spent a few minutes taking in all the views, and this is when I kept wondering what Spiti would hold for us, and also recognizing that Kinnaur has its other side as well, nothing like the one we had seen for the past few days.
The most beautiful moment of the journey was me realizing that the decision to come to Spiti had changed me forever; my way of looking at things, and this has made me a happier person!
We soon made our way to Nako. There was hot lunch to be had (rather late) and it was a delight; it would still be sometime before we made it to Kaza (as we then thought).
A small village road turned into a trail which led to the Nako lake. The small lake had the Nako Monastery to one side and the village on the other. The views from Nako just makes one forget everything else and wonder what one would not give to stay here for a couple of months. The town is one the last in Kinnaur and the gateway to the Spiti Valley. I also happened to take a few pictures that hide my ignorance towards photography ( I intend learn this art soon), shielded by the marvels of the unreal surroundings.
As we moved towards the entrance of Spiti; at a checkpoint called Sumdo, the roads started to get worse. The dark chocolate coloured Spiti river flowed below the road and the landslide prone mountains were back. The roads were no more than rocks and loose gravel. We happened to do this patch pretty safely (apart from a few small rocks hitting us) but later heard that a Fortuner had suffered a hole in the door due to the loose rocks and gravel tumbling down. This patch was particularly low-lying with the road nearly level with the riverbed. As we did the formal entries at the checkpost at Sumdo, a feeling of accomplishment ran over us: We had finally entered Spiti!
The village of Hurling made a good place for a tea break, where we came to know that the road to Kaza was blocked due to landslide. This made fun of our reservation plans and taught us that this region is best to be traveled without concrete plans, just a rough outline and alternatives in case things don’t look up! We did eventually find decent accommodation in Tabo, which was thronged by bikers that night.
We gave the little kids in Hurling some crayons and pencils. The expression on their faces told me that their delight knew no bounds. Devil on Wheels (look up if you have no clue) has also started a library in Spiti which is a great initiative. We could not visit the mummified monk of Gue which I intend on doing in the near future. As we headed towards Tabo (via a sunken bridge), I reflected on one of the best days I had experienced to date. Little did I know what was to come; events that tested our determination and will; and experiences that would last a lifetime! ( More in the next part!!)