HimalayasJourney

Overlanding in the Himalayas #8: Winter Wonderland – Spiti: Part 2

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Day 21: Kaza – Losar – Kaza

 

The plan for the day was to ride north to a village called Losar which falls just below Kunzum pass. A hundred-odd kilometres away. And I’d return to Kaza through Kibber, Chichum and Key. A total of two hundred kilometres. An entire day’s ride. Possible. But it would be tough. And that was the first mistake of the day – underestimating the distance and also starting late. A fact that I was made aware of by the owner of the hotel Mandala – Amit. 

Nonetheless, I throttled on. But maintaining a fast pace after the first fifty kilometres proved to be quite a challenge. The scenery all around was painted white! And I could not resist stopping every few minutes to take pictures. 

And shortly after, I was slowed down by the terrain which I was itchin’ to ride on – Snow and ice! I had taken off-road training at Tribal Adventure Cafe in Bangalore specifically for this section of the ride! Although riding on ice is not something you can get coached on in a tropical city, but, riding on snow can be learnt by riding in slush. The key to which is to maintain momentum, smoothen out throttle input and to brake very carefully, only when necessary. And for riding on ice, without snow chains, it’s to follow the same procedure and to pray that the bike doesn’t slide out of control! I had these three principles etched in my mind and brought them to practice the moment the rubber hit the snow and ice. And the first few patches went much smoother than expected!

As I got closer to Losar, the amount of snow on the road was higher! I was cruising at a super fast and steady fifteen kmph on an incline and I thought to myself that I had mastered the art of riding on snow and ice! And just as the thought gave rise to a grin on my face, SWOOSH! The rear wheel slid under me and I landed on my butt! And it all happened in a split second! 

I picked up the bike. Tried and failed to gain traction midway on ice. Rode down the road, rode back up, and got stuck in deeper snow. The off-road tyres without the snow chains just could not move forward. With the time past 1 p.m., I decided it was best to turn around. Sunlight in the mountains, especially during winters is very limited. Sundown usually happens around 4 p.m. And this is where the first mistake of the day – starting late – would come back to bite me in the rear. I picked up pace wherever I could. I sped past dirt roads and cut through puddles – the second mistake of the day. 

As the plan was to make a round trip and return to Kaza via Chichum, I took that road. The first few kilometres were clear, just dirt. I was happy. Then a small patch of ice, then another, then another and then a never-ending blanket of snow lay on the road. The only vehicle track on it was mine – which meant that there wasn’t a single other vehicles that had used that road since it snowed in a few days ago. The clock struck four. The sunset behind the fifteen thousand feet high peaks. The temperature dropped. And I had my second fall. It was another uphill ascent and the bike slid under me, just like the first time. I was ever so cautious, but without snow chains, it had to happen. 

The next village – Chichum was ten kilometres away. There was no connectivity on the three SIM cards that I had with me. There was absolutely no one around. And getting stuck on the road meant spending the night outside in subzero temperatures. I turned around to connect back to the Losar – Kaza road. 

It was 5 in the evening. Twilight was all that I had. The multiple patches which I had completed with ease in the afternoon were now more difficult. The sun’s rays make the ice softer. That helped me when I was making my way up. Without the sun, the soft ice got back to being solid, glass-like ice. And I fell for the third time. 

I looked around. No one insight. I began contemplating what I would do if I wouldn’t be able to ride further. I picked up my bike. Slowly moved forward. Slipped again. And dropped the bike. But this time, I didn’t fall. The idea of abandoning my bike and walking for tens of kilometres or spending the night out in the open began to seem like a real possibility. Notwithstanding, I picked up the bike again, and prayed for some traction on the ice. And for my fortune, I got what I asked for. There were just a few more patches left. I told myself  “Maintain momentum. Smooth throttle input. No braking. And stay calm”. I was back on broken roads. 

Before I could breathe a sigh of relief, I thought I’d check on that tingly feeling that had been developing in my feet. I stopped on the side of the road. I looked at my boots and it had ice all over. I couldn’t move my toes by an inch. This is where the second mistake – cutting through puddles in the afternoon brought in a hefty fine. I had a plastic bag on my feet to keep it from getting wet. But my perforated boots would still let water inside the body of the shoe. The water which made its way inside stayed inside. As the temperature dropped, the water around my feet turned to ice. The unbearable biting cold made me feel weak and drowsy. I now had a bigger fear – of losing all my toes to frostbite! Sixty kilometres lay ahead (to Kaza). It got darker and colder. Yet, I had to ride as fast as I could to get some warmth around my feet. 

I reached the parking lot of Hotel Mandala at around 6:30 that evening. Amit and his wife Anju stepped out to get some groceries. I stopped Amit and showed him my feet. Amit, who hailed from Manali and had spent many years in Spiti, didn’t seem to be too worried. He asked me to get to the living room of his house – which also served as the ground floor of the hotel and undo my shoes. He started a fire in the ‘tandoor’ – a large, cast iron fireplace used commonly in the Himalayan villages. He brewed me a cup of hot chai. And baked a local delicacy called Siddu. 

Siddu 

Thirty minutes in front of the heat along with the chai and the food in the belly brought my feet back to life and awakened my drowsy mind. He even took the trouble of drawing me a hot bath. And later served rice with rajma (beans curry) and mutton – barley soup for dinner. An action-packed, thrilling, cold and adventurous day came to an end with hot food and warm company. 

Rice with Rajma 

Day 23: Kaza – Langza – Komic – Hikkim – Kaza 

I’d learnt very well from my earlier mistakes. I planned the day with a lot of room for delays. Started on time. And reached the Golden Buddha statue at Langza quite quickly. 

Golden Buddha Statue, Langza

I then reached the world’s highest post office at Hikkim which is at an altitude of 14567 ft.! To make sure I’d never forget that place, I picked up a postcard and mailed it home. 

Post office, Hikkim

All along, the roads were a mix of broken tarmac, dirt and snow. I slipped and dropped the bike a few times, but I handled the terrain much better than the previous day, despite the sun being under the clouds and the temperature dropping to below -15°C at Komic! The monk at one of the coldest villages in India gave me a short tour of the monastery and some hot chai later. 

Komic 

Day 24: Kaza – Kibber – Chichum – Key – Kaza

The weather was sunny. A welcome change compared to the gloom of the previous day. The day was again well planned out, comfortable. The small town of Kibber which is perched on top of a mountain looked magnificent from far. 

Kibber

The Chichum bridge which is Asia’s highest is another splendid location. But there was a little more snow on the road that day. It got a little tough. And I started losing a lot of time. 

Chichum bridge

Still, I wanted to squeeze in another location, a secluded little village – Tashigong, but that trail was entirely blanketed with snow. I maintained a whimsical average speed of five kmph for two hours and abandoned the plan midway on reaching the village Gethe. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to make my way back to Kaza that evening. 

I reached Key monastery which is at almost the same altitude as Kaza and just a few minutes away. It was twilight. And getting cold. I entered the monastery just as it was about to close. And the day was done. All the places I had on my list, except Tashigong were ticked off. 

 

Day 25: Kaza – Pin Valley – Dhanker – Tabo 

Making my way back to the plains

The five nights that I spent in Kaza were highly memorable. Purely because of my hosts – Amit and Anju. They run one of the very few hotels that are open throughout the year in the village. The night when I reached Kaza, the village looked deserted. And with no internet facilities available then, I roamed street to street to find a shelter for the night and I found Hotel Mandala. I booked a room for myself only for the first night but the way they opened up their home and cared for me when I got my feet frozen made me extend my plan. 

I stayed with them for a total of five nights. Each evening after I returned from that days’ ride, Amit would prepare tea and fill it in a blue antique-ish glass flask (the kind that I’ve seen only in the mountains) and serve it in a glass chai tumbler. Anju would get the snacks and start the fire in tandoor (fireplace). The three of us would gather in the living room to share stories all night long.

The couple who have their origins in Manali have been together for sixteen years! But with the freshness they had in their relationship, I would have never guessed that number. Amit started this hotel three years back and stays here. Anju stays in Manali to take care of their daughter and comes to Spiti once in a few months to be with her husband. In my time at Mandala, I spent a great portion of it admiring them. It was evident in the way that they looked at each other, how much they missed the other when they were away. It was evident in the way they spoke, how much the other meant to them. It was evident, that they truly loved each other. A love that radiated like sunshine and made the -10°C evenings feel warm.

I left Kaza with a heavy heart, filled with adoration, admiration and the wish to be back in their company soon.

Anju & Amit 

The first aim was to reach the last village in Pin Valley – Mud. Pin Valley is in the Spiti – Lahaul district on the way down to the lower Himalayas from Kaza. A major chunk of the road was dirt and gravel, which was an absolute joy to ride on! But I would encounter snow closer to Mud. Probably, the last day of snow riding for the entire trip. 

Pin Valley

On each of the preceding three days, my luggage remained back at the hotel. If and when I dropped the bike, picking it up was easy. On this day, the bike was fully loaded – a whopping sixty kilograms of luggage! A drop on this day would lead to a lot of heavy weight lifting workouts! 

A bulldozer and a couple of buses had traversed the road earlier in the day. The sun was also shining bright and I was making the attempt at the peak of daylight – all of which provided me with a much-needed advantage! Yet, as usual, the bike had many slides, but I did not drop the bike even once! The thought of picking up the fully loaded KTM made me drive with extreme caution and awareness. It was tiring. It was stressful. But, man – oh – man, the joy of completing the patch without a single drop? Got me high up on cloud nine! 

Mud, Pin Valley 

I checked out Dhankar, a millennia-old monastery. And put head to a pillow in a small homestay in the town of Tabo. Where I’d wake up to the other millennia-old monastery in Spiti in the morning. 

 

Day 26: Tabo – Reckong Peo 

When I’d passed by Tabo about a week ago, I had only seen the one monastery in front. I had been breaking my head all along on why people would refer to the seemingly new monastery to be over a thousand years old! It was only when I saw a postcard in Hikkim (the highest post office in the world) that I realised that I had seen the new monastery built in front. And missed the old one behind. And that prompted me to halt at Tabo. 

In the morning, I loaded up my motorcycle for the long ride back towards Reckong Peo and the plains to make my way to the next leg of the trip – Bhutan. With little time available, I rushed into the Tabo Gompa (monastery). The monastery was built of wood and mud and I was stunned to see that such a simple structure had withstood the test of time for 1023 years! 

I searched and found a monk to help me know more about the temple. He opened the locked doors and took me inside. The temple was dark. No artificial light, to prevent damage to the paintings on the walls. The monk carried a small hand-held torch to use as a pointer. In ten minutes, he showed me all the paintings which were painted by Kashmiri Artisans more than a thousand years ago. The story of the life of Buddha, among many others, is depicted on those mud walls. 

When my short tour was complete, I was back at the entrance ready to head out when a couple walked in. They inquired with the monk about the paintings. But in reality, they were confirming what they already knew about the temple and the paintings.

During the course of the tour, the handheld torch had come to my hands. When the woman started talking more about the pictures, I gave her the torch as I was ready to walk out. She invited me to stay back for a while. My interest had peaked with their knowledge. And I decided to go tag along with them for a second tour. 

The couple introduced themselves as Gita and Pradeep Khar. The duo seemed to have amassed an ocean of knowledge about Buddhism and the temple. I was grateful to be around them. They knew the story behind most of the paintings on those earthen walls and I eagerly listened to them talk passionately about them. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I had my eyes wide open with excitement and admiration for their knowledge and the synergy that they shared with each other. Listening to them talk was like listening to a song, a duet. Their love for each other lit up the dark chamber like a supernova.

Pradeep & Gita

When we stepped out after an hour and a half! We got to talking more. I learnt that they’ve been together for sixty years, since their twenties! They were high school sweethearts! I could not and did not want to stop talking to these wise souls who to me, looked like the personification of Ying and Yang – perfect balance and harmony. And when they showered their love on me, I got lost! My heart was ecstatic to have met Gita and Pradeep.

 

Day 27 & 28: Reckong Peo – Rohru – Dehradun 

And on that wonderful note, the second leg of my 5 month trip of the Himalayas, came to an end. The roads leading South were much wider and warmer. I maintained faster speeds and stayed on the saddle for long hours. I reached the big city of Dehradun, where I rested in comfort and prepared for the third leg. 

 

I hope you all enjoyed reading Spiti: Part 1 & 2. 

Until next time! 

Ride mad! Ride safe! 

Coming next: Bhutan! 

Apart from the blogs, you can follow my entire journey on my Instagram @mentlmanja

Thank you

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