A rain-soake d Manali greeted one as the state transport Volvo, the Himsutva, parked itself obliquely at the bus terminus.
The inter-state bus terminus was a practicing orchestra — difficult as a collective but each “note” meaningful to the right set of ears. A ride to Leh-Ladakh, onwards to Shimla maybe or someone just trying to set you up in a nice hotel! I walked out of the terminus, turned right and proceeded to Old Manali. I stayed at Dragon Inn — a quaint place surrounded by quirky cafes with their Israeli clientele — and visited Hadimba Temple, Gatotkach-ji ka Mandir and Manu Temple.
Each site endangered with a colourful crowd, armed with a contraption called the selfie stick. The next day’s 5 am start got delayed due to landslides and one could start only by mid-day, encountering a huge traffic snarl near Rohtang after crossing Gulaba and Marhi. Shades of green wrapped the rocky brown mountains around. And mountain streams born of melting snow caps were smoky white highlights in those gorgeous frames. A sudden turn brought up the distant snowcapped peak glistening in the slant sun rays.
A fusion of colours only nature’s palette could conjure! The road was practically non-existent after Gramphoo, which is a cross-road point of sorts. The black top smooth Leh-Ladakh highway and a sharp right turn towards the treacherously beautiful road ride towards Kaza. The day slowly melted into the evening and I was still over a good 150 kms away. One has to cross over 16 to 18 streams of various intensities. Those are streams or waterfalls that occur after glaciers melt and gush over broken roads in all their fury,deep and dangerous to cross.
Arranging the rocks to ensure the car tyres do not sink or get stuck, discussing with drivers to broadly mark out the left and right of the tire track and lastly pumping each other up. “Motion mey nikalna hain”, do not stop, roll through in a single flow was the ultimate neuron firing message. Just looking up to see the water fall from a great height punctuating massive rock faces is such a humbling sight.
A clear blue sky was dulled a bit by the setting sun and bracketed all around by the Himalayas. The rapids had a thunderous presence with the sound of waterfalls being a rhythm divine. A needle prick chill in the air completed the sensational feel.
I crossed that rapid bare foot. Cars had to cross over as light as possible so their occupants were off loaded and the ustadjis (that’s how drivers are referred to) revved up their automobiles and gripped the steering to rush and tackle the nallah. I found my feet shaking involuntarily as I timidly stepped into the gushing fury. I was shivering furiously and the rock bed to the bare feet felt sharp and uncertain.
The body unsteady and unsure assumed a shape of the first parenthesis! I reached Chhatru, the half-way marker of the journey, at around 7.30 in the evening as the last traces of sunlight vanished. It was time for a round of tea, coffee and refuelling at the Chandra Dhaba for the 120 km ride ahead. One crossed the Kunzum Pass around midnight and paid homage to the Kunzum Mata on the way back but it was too late and arduous to stop then. At over 15,000 feet, Kunzum Top is supremely windy. T
he sound of wind tunneling through the terrain and fluttering a zillion colourful prayer flags were captivating. The village of Losar was around 19 kms from Kunzum and then 78 more to Kaza. I entered Kaza around 1.30 am — at over 12,500 feet, it is the main administrative centre of Spiti. It is home to the Sakya Tangyud Monastery and nodal point to visit Ki (Key) and Kibber as well as monasteries at Tabo and Dhankar. It would be home for a few days before I journeyed further up to Langza and Komik. But at two in the night outside Snow Lion, the hotel, lit up by a million stars, the town of Kaza felt welcoming, like an entry gate to a wondrous passage.
It was cold, yet standing on the hotel roof dwarfed by mountains all around, and not seeing a soul in sight, I felt the 14- hour ride was but a small price. From my first bike ride at over 15,500 feet to fossil hunting to meeting Tsering, the ten-year-old daughter of Tanpa ji, little did I know what lay ahead.
A journey had begun… It was “Juley Spiti Valley” before calling it a day!