Spiti Travelogue: Day 4

Des­ti­na­tion Spi­ti: We trav­el 214 kilo­me­ters from Man­ali (6724 ft) to Kaza (11,808 ft)

This was the kind of jour­ney nobody, not even Mad­hukar, had antic­i­pat­ed. We had start­ed at 8:00 AM and hoped to reach Kaza in the evening, around 6:00 to 7:00 PM. We were to cross the Rohtang Pass and the Kun­zam Pass on our way.

I did not know what a ‘pass’ exact­ly means. I then learnt that a pass is the road through which you enter or leave a val­ley. In the grand Himalayan val­leys, the road with­in a val­ley is built at a low­er alti­tude towards the base of the val­ley.

How­ev­er, to trav­el from one val­ley to anoth­er, the road has to climb up and ‘pass’ over the moun­tains in order to enter the oth­er val­ley. The high­est point where the road cross­es over is called a ‘Pass’. Thus, you cross Rohtang Pass from Kul­lu val­ley to Lahaul val­ley, and Kun­zam from Lahaul to Spi­ti.

Though I had heard a lot about Rohtang, Kun­zam fas­ci­nat­ed me more, most­ly because it is much high­er. Rohtang is at 3980M (13055 feet), while Kun­zam is at 4551M (14928 feet). Kun­zam is the high­est pass in this part of the world. Before our trip, we were con­cerned if the snow­fall would have closed these pass­es. In Man­ali, I had even dreamt of this mis­for­tune hap­pen­ing!

We began ascend­ing the moun­tain slopes towards the Rohtang Pass. Our first stop was the Nehru Kund, from where Jawa­har­lal Nehru had his water sup­ply when he stayed for soli­tude in Man­ali. Then we reached Mad­hi, the last point where we could have break­fast.

I was curi­ous about the so-called tree line. Trees do not grow above this alti­tude. As we con­tin­ued our trip upwards, just below Mad­hi, I could see the tree line. It was a sub­lime moment. I began feel­ing that we were about to ven­ture into an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent land­scape, and slow­ly began to fath­om the depth of the alti­tude fac­tor…Breakfast at Madhi

Mad­hi was an extreme­ly windy place and Mad­hukar was excit­ed­ly announc­ing that we were already over 10,000 ft. We had excel­lent break­fast there, with chick­en soup, alu/gobi pran­tha and hot cof­fee topped with choco­late-pow­der. The cold was bit­ing because of the wind. It was about 9:30 AM. The dri­vers were get­ting con­cerned about leav­ing on time, but every­one seemed to be in a hol­i­day mood, click­ing pho­tographs of every­body else.

We drove fur­ther up towards Rohtang, and stopped near a big igloo-shaped struc­ture, that was sup­posed to be Beas Kund . The main Beas Kund is west of Man­ali; this was anoth­er one. We were above 13,000 feet. We got out of the jeeps to walk up towards the igloo tem­ple, while the jeeps car­ried on up the road to pick us up at a high­er point. We began walk­ing upwards to the tem­ple, and then began to feel the effect of alti­tude for the first time. A few quick steps made us breath­less, and left us gasp­ing for air. Few of us climbed up a huge stone, just for kicks.

Manali to Rohtang

We con­tin­ued up in the jeeps to Rohtang. Though I had heard its name sev­er­al times, I did not know what it meant. Rohtang Pass means the Pass of the Dead. They have chris­tened it in mem­o­ry of the innu­mer­able num­ber of peo­ple who died mak­ing and main­tain­ing this road.

Rohtang offers a scenic beau­ty of the Man­ali and the Kul­lu val­ley from where you ascend it. It cross­es over from the Kul­lu val­ley into the Lahaul val­ley, in which begins the Chan­dra-Bha­ga or Chenab riv­er. From Rohtang, the road to Leh runs along the Chan­dra-Bha­ga Riv­er towards the west, before turn­ing north to Key­long.

We how­ev­er trav­eled on this road only up to Gram­phoo, after which we turned east­ward, towards the Spi­ti val­ley. After we left the Leh road at Gram­phoo, the road was vir­tu­al­ly non-exis­tent. The road lat­er was an extreme­ly kuc­cha road, and we were trav­el­ing over boul­ders and rocks along the riv­er stream.

There was no veg­e­ta­tion around. Just rocks, boul­ders, more rocks and the water beside us. The moun­tains on both sides were gigan­tic. I felt adven­tur­ous for the first time. The jeeps were bounc­ing about tremen­dous­ly, and it was get­ting very uncom­fort­able. The alti­tude and the uncom­fort­able trav­el was slow­ly, unknow­ing­ly, get­ting to us. More­over, we sight­ed anoth­er vehi­cle only once in 3–4 hours.

Our next stop was to be Batal, where we planned to get ‘chai’ and munch some­thing. On the way, we passed Chhatadu (pop­u­la­tion 50) and Chho­ta Dara. By the time we reached Batal, every­one was fam­ished and in des­per­ate need of refresh­ments. How­ev­er, the sole per­son run­ning a tent with sup­plies in Batal had packed the ear­li­er day and was prepar­ing to leave for the sea­son. We had tough luck — noth­ing to eat, no chai. Our next tar­get was Losar, beyond the Kun­zam Pass, in Spi­ti.

Batal is well known as one of the windi­est places. There have been two bridges cross­ing the riv­er that the weath­er has brought down and we crossed over on the third.

The light was fad­ing as we approached Kun­zam Pass. I wait­ed expec­tant­ly. Some of us were semi-drowsy and semi-dazed. Final­ly, Kun­zam arrived. It was nowhere near as mag­nif­i­cent as Rohtang. All I could see was that we were amidst big moun­tains, on their slopes in-between, with no val­leys any­where. We were sort of on the top of the world, but it was not delight­ful at all. Amidst alti­tude sick­ness, and the dim light, we could not appre­ci­ate any­thing. This was to change on our way back, but more about that lat­er.

The jeep took a small diver­sion from the main road to a struc­ture in the midst of a plain sur­round­ed by innu­mer­able flut­ter­ing flags. The Kun­zam Devi tem­ple was at the cen­tre. All vehi­cles attempt­ing to cross the Kun­zam Pass encir­cle the tem­ple pay­ing homage to the god­dess before mov­ing on. Day­light was sparse; the jeeps did not stop. The size of the moun­tains had grown beyond imag­i­na­tion. Our jeeps were a tiny speck of dust in the titan­ic mass­es of earth all around us. I felt, yes, these are the Himalayas, the great­est moun­tain range on earth.

We con­tin­ued on our treach­er­ous route, hold­ing on to our san­i­ty and con­scious­ness while being tossed about in the jeep. What had begun as a phys­i­cal strug­gle had now also meta­mor­phosed into a psy­cho­log­i­cal one. In some mys­te­ri­ous way, our minds seemed to be in pain, and I had to gath­er courage to feel nor­mal. We were not in any con­di­tion to appre­ci­ate the dri­ving in the dwin­dling light. We were only glad that now our jour­ney was down­ward, descend­ing in alti­tude and we hoped to feel bet­ter as we got down.

Mountains near KunzamWe entered the Spi­ti val­ley after cross­ing the Kun­zam Pass on our way to Losar. Losar (4079M, 13,380 ft) is a small vil­lage with toi­let and snack ameni­ties. Few of us were already alti­tude-sick, with no appetite. Almost every­one had headache. Only egg omelets were avail­able. Even then, many of us had a few morsels along with tea.

By the time we left Losar, it was dark. Kaza was still 57 KM away. Few of us won­dered how the dri­vers were going to dri­ve in the dark­ness. How­ev­er, we did not care, since we had to reach Kaza any­how. We could not see any­thing around us, and Spi­ti remained veiled in dark­ness. The road twist­ed and turned, the lights of the jeep were insuf­fi­cient in the dark­ness and were hand­i­capped by the dust that the wheels stirred up. Dri­ving must have not only been a night­mare, but was vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble.

After a tor­tur­ous jour­ney, in which almost every­one was in a dilap­i­dat­ed state, we some­how reached Kaza at 8:30 PM at night. Some of us direct­ly dropped into the tourist lodge, while oth­ers had a few mouth­fuls of din­ner at a local eatery that was the only one open at that hour. There was dark­ness every­where; noth­ing was light­ed as in a vil­lage, so we did not see any­thing beyond the road and hous­es. We knew we were in the midst of moun­tains, but could not see any.

There was a reser­va­tion issue at the Himachal Pradesh State Tourist Lodge, where the man­ag­er was expect­ing us a few days lat­er. For­tu­nate­ly, no one occu­pied any of the four rooms at that time and hence every­thing went accord­ing to plan. We tried to relax and sleep at night, but the bit­ing cold (-10 degrees Cel­sius) left most of us awake the whole night through. Blan­kets upon blan­kets did noth­ing to alle­vi­ate the cold, and I under­stood what it meant to be cold to the bone.

After get­ting up the next morn­ing, we came out of the lodge and the beau­ty of Spi­ti lay in front of us in all its grandeur…

Next: Day 5

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  • Sachin Oberoi

    Hi..nice log. Can u tell me one thing…is Kun­zum pass open for pub­lic traf­fic in the end of June??