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…
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.
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.
We 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…