Some, but it’s the road from Manali to Leh and it’s magic stays undiminished no matter how often I travel it. There are more people on it, at Gramphoo the chai shop has got left up above the road and Koksar is almost merged, there are a few more dhabas. The meat curry was just as good and the overheard biker conversations just as lurid! The Lahaul valley is greener and more prosperous and utterly beautiful. Jispa is almost a township of many more camps and small hotels. The Padma lodge was nicely located and quite comfortable, though the camp across the road by the river looked much more inviting! Bara Lacha Pass brings back so many amazing memories, not least being of chocolate pudding and cream! The plains of Sarchu and the sculpted rocks beyond are timeless. The Gata loops and the spot where we crawled out from trekking the Tsarap gorge to be discovered by the nice Military policeman, oh so many moons ago. All so familiar, well remembered and so very relivable.The road to Ksokar is paved and what was an abandoned village is a thriving homestay enterprise, though I doubt any of the original owners are there. The lakes themselves have diminished, but the bird life still seems to thrive. Didn’t see the ubiquitous marmots – nor heard the whistles, but there were a lot more Kiangs than in the nearer past.Met some young people doing studies and comparisons – intense and interesting, sure we must have been so too at the stage…..now it was just nice to sit and stare, remember and build a new memory.The intention to go to Tso moriri was canned as some of the team was not feeling upto the altitude, but we drove to Leh via Mahe and enjoyed the drive. The Indus, that grand river, that always gives a thrill…the name evokes tales of travel, romance and adventure! I have never seen it like this – blue and green, such low water levels for this time of year. Lovely to look at but a harbinger of not nice things. Leh is a changed town that I am getting lost in, but it seems a lot of good, positive things are happening and so many young people doing interesting homestays, cafes and trips. The one’s that made it happen for us were Hajra and Mayas friend Jigmet of Mantra Himalaya with his happy cafe and interesting concepts. Behzad with his photography tours and super homestay in Nubra.A lovely meal at a really rather special restaurant called Bon appetite – Jigmet walked us up and up tiny alleys to emerge out into a lovely garden and quaint restaurant. It was dark but I am certain the views were spectacular. The food was excellent – lasagna, Mediterranean Nan was my favourite. Chocolate momos for desert.Driven over the Khardungla into one of my favourite valleys, Nubra. It is a gentle space of vastness. Cross the highest motor able pass into this Shangrila of spreading silver waters and sand. Striated and screed mountains and beautiful vegetation. It’s like land before time, a garden of Eden where all the so called super foods grow in wild abundance. Thorny thickets of ———-abound, Alfa Alfa is fed to cattle, hillsides of springing lavender scent the air. Wild garlic gets crushed underfoot as you walk. It’s an uncanny mix of sere brown mountains and this lush abundance. Clean, clear water and vividly blue skies. I cant get enough of it.We walked slowly up to the monastery where the Dalai Lama is coming next week to hold teachings. The burbling stream ran alongside, the myricaria and roses blushed pink and the lavender sprayed up in beautiful bushels of….I guess..lavender. Spires of poplars spear the blue, blue sky and the willow woven fences make most interesting dividers. You can fill your water bottle from the stream like in the old days. There doesnt seem to be the usual plastic blocking every water way and tree stump. I think I fell in love with a perfect spot. Dinner al fresco surrounded by wild garlic, swaying trees and lanterns, life does not get much better. I say that so often and how blessed it is to be able to do so.A drive across a river bed, a walk up a rocky outcrop in the middle of the river just short of Panamik and found a lovely lake in the middle. Came back to a marvellous picnic laid out by Sajjan and forgot his name. Perfect day – then the dunes at Hundar and hordes of people to see the camels and the dunes , but it is organised and clean most impressive. An evening around the bonfire with excellently crafted Rob Roy’s and a ‘Gajjar Chillum’! Most interesting and utterly hilarious. This is Behzad and Voygr hospitality and it was brilliant.The drive back from Nubra was very quick and we were back at our hotel in record time. The fatigue is setting in and I slept. Dinner at bon appetite again – Behzad invited Kendrup who is the warden at hemis national park and a snow leopard tracker cum conservationist. It was a tremendous honour to meet him and hear of all the work that is now happening in these amazing mountains with both the people and the other life that still manages to co exist. Good to know all these great people that add to the experience. Had an uneventful if beautiful drive to spend the night at the plains of Sarchu in a windy tent. I must say I do not fancy tent living any longer unless it is my own. Woke to rain on the roof and the thought of the Baralacha nalas made for a swift departure. Rained all the way but thankfully we crossed Bara lacha with just a smattering of slippery snow. The icing on the cake was an empty Rohtang it being Tuesday – pure bliss to not have to ask men, women, children in deep winter overalls, sweltering in the hot sun up high, avidly looking for non existent snow! Home by 4 with no crowds at all. Blessed that everything went so right.
I love this drive and have done it myriad times. Am doing it again this June with some friends – if there are others that would like to join us please call 9810184360 or mail :
I have copied below the descriptions I wrote years ago – this land stays the same and still touches the soul. This will be our itinerary:
22 June 2018: Arrive at Manali and stay with me at The Lama House.
23 June 2018: Day in Manali for acclimitization – a short hike through temple woods or a picnic and a relaxed day.
24 June 2018: We drive across the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul and stop for the night at Jispa on the banks of the Bhaga river.
25 June 2018: Drive on over the grand Baralacha la – and a wholly changing landscape to camp at Tsokar Lake.
26 June 2018: Tsokar to Tso Moriri – a lovely back trail through meadows filled with Yak herders to the beautiful lake. Both these lakes are breeding grounds for myriad birds and high mountain creatures.
27 June 2018: Tso Moriri to Leh. Hotels and hot baths and wander the shops.
28 June 2018: A day to visit some of the famous monastries, explore the town.
29 June 2018: We drive over one of the highest roads crossing into the Nubra Valley – where the terrain changes again and we see another aspect of these amazing mountains.
30 June 2018: In Nubra – exploring.
01 July 2018: Drive back to Leh.
02 July 2018: Fly out of Leh. ( If you are even thinking of coming book this flight – it can be cancelled but gets harder and more expensive as it gets closer)
|No of persons on the trip||3||4||6|
|Costs per person||96870||89720||89780|
I will send the details of what the costs include if you decide to come. Most of us don’t read so much in one go.
SEASON: JUNE THROUGH SEPTEMBER
This spectacular road through the highest mountains in the world is open for only 3 or 4 months in the year – from mid June through September – crossing the Pir Panjal, the Greater Himalaya and the Zanskar ranges, it reaches a maximum elevation of 5304m. Calling this a road, maybe conferring more than it’s due, that it is a drivable route: a grand testament of human endeavor is the truth. The 476 km journey over four high passes and some of the most awe inspiring terrain in the world starts from Manali, along the green valley of the Beas river, up the steep switchbacks of the Rohtang Pass at 3978m. The Rohtang forms the divide between the verdant Kullu valley and the stark expanse of rock and glacier, in the rain shadow of the Pir Panjal range.
From Rohtang, the road descends to the Chandra River and follows it to Tandi where the Chandra meets the Bhaga River, little villages with groves of poplar, willow, and potato fields irrigated by glacial streams dot the landscape. The road continues past Keylong (district headquarters of Lahaul) and the last town till Leh, 360 kms beyond. Following the Bhaga River through Darcha and past the pastures of Zingzingbar, starts the ascent to the Baralacha Pass (4892m). “The Pass with the crossroads on its summit” – this grand pass straddles the meeting point of gigantic ranges, offering passage down four different routes, along the valleys of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers and into Ladakh and Spiti.
A rough stretch of road descends to the pastures of Sarchu 107 kms from Keylong. Now begin the wide-open spaces, dotted with the amazing textures and colours of craggy mountain faces, the gash of the Tsarap river, with it’s mud sculpted sides. The awesome world of nature’s timelessness dwarfing Man.
Once across the Tsarap river starts the grueling ascent to LachulangLa Pass (5059m), 54 kms from Sarchu. The amazing shapes and colours as you reach the top compensate the hard drive, descend along a little stream to Pang. Beyond Pang, the road crosses the Sumskyal, a deep gash marking the edge of the great Kyangshuthang plains – a massive plateau at an altitude of 4500m. Across the vast expanses of this plain are chances to see the Kyang (Tibetan wild ass), the Nabu (Blue Sheep), lots of marmot, as well as the Pashmina sheep of the Shepherds of Rupshu.
We take an interesting diversion at this point, short of the Tanglangla Pass – at 5325m, the highest point on the highway. 136 kms short of Leh a dirt road east leads to the Tso Kar Lake. We camp at this lake and see the breeding Brahmini ducks, Grebes and Black necked cranes. From Tso Kar we take a little used dirt road past hot springs and meadows where yak herders and goat herds have their summer pastures and taking a circuit north meet the highway in the Indus valley, and onto Leh and the comforts of hotels and hot baths.
(Along the regular route, once across the plain, at Dibring, the road starts climbing across the snowy reaches of the Tanglangla and descends into more inhabited Ladakh, meeting the Indus river at Upshi. Passing the Monastries of Hemis, Thikse and Shey, The road reaches the Bazaar of Leh.)
Leh is located in the Indus river valley at a crossroads of the old trading routes from Kashgar, Tibet, and Kashmir. Its importance as a trading town slowed down with the partition of British India, and ended with the closure of the border in 1962 during the Sino-Indian war. Since the 1999 war with Pakistan, and the consequent development of the Manali-Leh highway, it has become a bustling tourist town, the sights to visit are the Palace and the monasteries, and a wander through the bazaar is essential.
We can do two trips out of Leh: to the Nubra Valley and the Pangong tso lake.
For Nubra we cross the highest motorable pass at Khardungla (elevation 5359 m or 17,582 feet). Khardong La is historically important as it lies on the major caravan route from Leh to Kashgar in Chinese Central Asia. About 10,000 horses and camels used to take the route annually, and a small population of Bactrian camels can still be seen at Hundar, in the area north of the pass. It is an area that has only recently opened to the world. Still only about 45 kms of the valley are accessible. It is a tiny bit of paradise, orchards and wild flowers, the bactrian camels, wide meandering river. A discovery, leading to the highest battleground of the world – the Siachin glacier.
Pangong tso lake: situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India to Tibet. Pangong Tso can be reached in a five-hour drive from Leh, most of it on a rough and dramatic mountain road. The road traverses the Changla pass, where army sentries and a small teahouse greet visitors. The lake is spectacular, we spend the night in a camp on the banks, you get to see breeding Bar-headed geese and Brahmini ducks. If you are lucky enough to be there on a moonlit night and brave enough to weather the cold, there is magic there too, as there is all over these mountains.
Kashmir, always evocative of romance. The last time I drove through on my way to the Zanskar, I found the magic of the houseboats. This time was closer to the childhood Kashmir of cottages in Gulmarg – picnics in the meadows et al.
Dilshad said, ‘you have to come on this trek.’ There are no have to’s for me when you offer me a walk in the mountains – I would live my whole life out of a tent opening to incredible vistas every morning. That I manage to do it more often than not, is the greatest blessing.
The first time I ever flew into Kashmir, the airport was the beginning of the enchantment – there were fields of red poppies nodding in the jetstream of landing aircraft all along the runway. I don’t know if that still happens in summer, but there were certainly no poppies this October day. It was cold out and nice to anticipate the, brisk weather, walking. We had what was meant to be a quick car ride to our trek start point in Tangmarg – unfortunately – it was delayed by a traffic jam at road works blockaded by trucks. Just the usual fare. We started our trek from Tangmarg rather late, down to cross the river where the bridge has been swept away by the floods last year. The bridge still not fixed, but the large pipes that carry the water from the small power house were all in order. We scrambled over pipes and slippery boulders to the village of Drung. There was produce being dried in fields and on rooftops, corn and vegetables, getting set for the winter. We moved on through, being greeted by so very polite school children, all rosy cheeked and clean.
Our first stop was in a meadow surrounded by pine and fir, close to a now abandoned Gujjar hut. The family and buffaloes having moved down for the winter.
We stopped to eat our lunch. The air was crisp and clean with the smells of pine and fir. There were remnants of daisies and buttercups reminiscent of the passing of summer. Our trek continued crossing burbling brooks and through forest and meadow – we passed an ancient Hindu temple, built by the Mughals apparently, now in ruin
s and shelter for cows it seemed. It was beautiful with fall colours on the few Chinar and wild Walnut trees. Carpet of green, gold and red. I was also imagining it in summer, the riot of wild flowers and colour that we could see remnants of would be in full bloom and make for an element completely different to the one we were experiencing. It never ceases to amaze – how well nature clads herself with impeccable style, colour and taste – perfectly suited to the seasons!!
We did a two day route in one and were rather hurriedly clambering up hills and down dale to get to camp before dark, which took away some of the enjoyment of stand and stare time, which is what I savour most when on a walk like this. However our guide Wali Mohammed would saunter off way ahead of us and then lie on a rock meditating, while we scrambled to catch up. He would look pityingly and ask if we were ‘ok’ or needing a rest? We did not dare need a rest so on we would trudge – him with his easy loping stride and us with our ‘Nepali shuffle’ slowly up the mountain. We did make it well in time, coming up below the high Gondola wires and through a large Gujjar and ‘Ghorha wala’ settlement to descend down into a charming meadow surrounded by firs and bordering a stream.Our camp was set and waiting and the fire was lit to warm our frozen selves. A new moon appeared in the twilight blue sky and all was oh so good with the world. It’s that moment that one breathes a sigh for the magic and gives thanks to whatever has led you to be here now.
To wake to the sun gilding the mountains and emerge into this brightening world out of a warm cocooned tent – it is one of those special joys of the trekker along with sweetly sore muscles. We were going up and over the ridge to the Frozen Lake. Crossing the tree line and up into the barrenness of browning meadow and giant scattered boulders, is not so exciting in biting cold. Then the clouds came and blocked out the light making for more ‘Drear’! Totally joyless walking when it’s meant for pleasure is no one’s idea of fun. We diverted through an enchanting forest of Bhojpatra, bone white tree trunks with flaking, paper thin bark.
Myriad coloured leaves that crunched underfoot, we stopped for our picnic lunch in this wonderland. Continued traversing the ridge and climbed down to the Cable car – which zoomed us up to the ridge we would have been walking across. Short cutting totally. By the time we reached the top it was hailing and raining and an absolute white out. The frozen lake would have to wait for another time, when perhaps the meadows would be a burst of interesting wild flowers to make that trudge more palatable.
That night as we lay snug in our marvellous tents it rained and rained and rained. I woke to the call of nature, which went unanswered because I kept waiting for the rain to abate. It didn’t at all and I finally put on my rain jacket and emerged into a breaking dawn – the toilet pit was flooded making for a natural water closet – no details here. The dining tent had stuff piled up on the table and water channels crisscrossing the floor. We had a makeshift breakfast and decided to abandon a further trek to Ningal nalla and just clamber down into Gulmarg. It turned into another enchanting walk through the rain with the mist enshrouded trees and the streams bursting their banks.
I must admit I could have walked some more – it was so beautiful. Unfortunately we very shortly reached the roadhead where a car and driver awaited us – he surreally appeared out of the mist holding a placard. We transfered to the posh Khyber hotel – where admittedly the bathrooms and the rain showers were a very acceptable luxury as was their spa. A steam and deep tissue massage were very welcome to cramping, cold muscles.
We then wandered into a lovely old village near Tangmarg to visit an old home where carpet weaving was taught. All handicrafts are essentially winter activities in most hill areas – the short summers being used to grow a crop or do outdoor work as required. The kashmiris along with having the most spectacular scenery to dwell amidst, also seem to have the most beautiful crafts and artisan work. From their fabulous carpets to the gossammer woven, intricately embroidered shawls. Beautifully carved and crafted wood work and furntiture. Papier mache art with it’s skilled painting – they truly are a talented people. Watching those spinnners and weavers sit in that old room with the misty daylight that barely penetrated the dusty windows was a fascination. Their strips of pattern strung in the threads above, their nimble fingers didn’t seem to pause and obviously they made no mistake to the intricate pattern they wove. In turn we also seemed to fascinate the whole family who came to peek at the strangers peeking at them.
Our day ended with hot chocolate at the Highland Park bar, I needed to go check out an old haunt – it was much the same and it was nice to see that though Gulmarg is unrecognizable from when I knew, all the new structures have the same old architectural style – it is still the large meadow of memory and has not been high rised and built into oblivion.
This is what I would term the perfect short trek, – it is utterly beautiful country, comfortable walking terrain, great campsites and ends with an option of opulent luxury.
That describes the fact that there were plenty of them and all with plenty as I soon gathered.
I am leading an offroad driving trip into my favourite mountains, this time the group comprises of 19 gentlemen, and I do mean gentlemen. They are a group who travel to various parts of the world together and they are pleased to be pleased, unhassled, unhurried and really very charming and I have the privelege of driving the car in front and making sure they do not stray too far!
I met them for breakfast in Amritsar, they came with me to the Golden Temple in pouring rain – wading through mud and puddles, awe struck by the gleaming gold reflecting in the gunmetal grey water, even more awed by the ‘langar’ and the hordes, eating, cleaning, chopping, cooking. All of this in still pouring rain. The fact that they were the only people wearing water proofs, while all of the masses seemed to not only, not feel the rain, they did not even look particularly bed raggled, amazed them.
The rather horrendous, loud and unceremonious Wagah border ceremony they totally loved – with it’s noise, colour and cheering hordes. They had the enthusiasm to go back to the Har Mandir Sahib again after dinner and they had only arrived very early that morning. To pack in so much in that day was what amazed me about them.
The next day we started our drive on the highway to Dharamsala. I, being used to the ‘Queens’ (large groups of Israeli women who did a series of driving trips in India), was prepared to drive at a snails pace, talk them through every truck overtaking and such like, was so pleasantly surprised to find myself being followed at a merry clip. They very competently overtook trucks, quickly followed my lead of driving on whichever side was convenient – all in all it was a great ride and their tour leader Zev is a large, easy, unruffled man to work with.
I am receiving pendants, chains and rings, caps, keychains and myriad little gifts. I drop a key and don’t need to bend – they treat me like a precious thing and I am pretty much walking on air with so much positively delicious attention.
We have driven many roads and seen much and are now in my favouritist holiday destination – Raju’s home in Goshaini. Zev, and even I, had a vague doubt as to how these rather posh gentlemen were going to adjust to Goshaini. They are so enchanted with it, that they don’t want to leave. I am so very happy – some have even expressed the desire to stay here for a month.
We have some characters in the group and the largest of them is Dr.B. He is a tall, lanky man who wears pink shorts with a red t- shirt and a blue shirt over it – his wispy white hair blows in different directions, he walks like a camel and gets lost every time we stop. He wants to talk to every person on the street. He joins the village children at their assembly and he tells long, disjointed and purely hilarious stories. He is also a brilliant cardiologist.
Then there is the delightful, tough man with such a gentle heart and a desire for peace and time to stare. He makes jewellery. How strange is it that in my life I have met two men who are hard core soldiers, tough and strong and they both make jewellery? One was in the French Foreign Legion and this one was a SEAL in the Israeli army.
A, is the man that puts his group of friends together and they travel, he has energy, zest, the charm of a hundred and the ability to win people – obviously that is why they travel with him.
There is A2, the brother of A, a magnetic person with a big aura – he does many things, enjoys diverse interests and wants all of life. A man of intense thought and passion. I have to say he draws me, there is so much I find akin to myself in him.
There are the other Doctors, lovely, lovely men – one left Argentina to live in Israel, the other, is a doctor and a lawyer – how long did the man study to achieve both? and what amazing minds does it take to not only want to do both, but to actually do so.
There are myriad others, who I am unable to list because of the exhausting day we had today. But each one of them is smart, erudite, successful and so very likeable. That they are a group that enjoys each other is evident, that they like to have fun combined with discovery is rather wonderful.
We stop for a pee at least twenty times a day and when we do, their bottles of booze come out, with these tiny shot glasses to cheer being together, seeing a double rainbow or just for the fact that they are on holiday. Then the singing starts – so every pee stop is a long halt and we spend double the time on the road, half of it moving and the other half standing still. Every interesting village needs a halt, every rainbow needs a photo – their travel is the way travel should be.
Now, I get to our drive today – up to Jalori from Raju’s, through Banjaar quite easily – up on Jalori with fog, tea and vodka – then starts a drizzle – obviously we are taking the Shuad road, since we haven’t given them any real off roading so far – so down we turn, and for an instant, it is in my mind to say – lets just take the basic route, it is bad enough. But I don’t and we go on. Then the rain comes in a deluge, the road starts to flow exposing rocks and creating little rivers, this adds up to stone stairways, mud and long, slippery stretches of following the ruts, maybe grazing your bottom, or going all over in slushy slides – thinking the edge is far to close.
All in all, I think the concentration of that road and then driving more small roads ahead exhausted everyone today. So we are rethinking the rest of this tour – lets see what develops to conclude this very interesting journey.
All we did today was that hair raising drive up Hatu Peak, which all the little Maruti’s do with complete aplomb! It was superb, the temple is complete and quite beautiful, the Pandit is a knowledgeable young man and actually said the prayers while I sat there – before all the men came in and took photographs. It is a beautiful drive to a spectacular spot and I was too busy to take a photograph.
Then we drove the highway to Kufri and took the road through the woods to the stately, decrepit, Palace of Chail. It is such a marvellously, beautiful old building, the manager is a delightful lady who tries to make it most comfortable and does, at least for me. But it is such a travesty of a palace. As A2, very rightly said, ‘this is meant to be a royal dining hall, and it feels like a staff mess!’ The highlight of the place is the monkeys, who try and get into the rooms, certainly get into your car if you leave the door open even for a bit. Are bold enough to jump onto your table, steal your food and run. The other highlight was the discovery of A3’s magic hands – he gives the most amazing massage and I was the happy benefactor of it. He is a gentle man with a lovely smile and though we are probably as akin as chalk and cheese, I like him very much.
Today was my last day with what I am now calling my gang of men. The drive from Chail to Chandigarh was uneventful, we forded the river at Sadhupul to add a little excitement, stopped to check out the small train at Kandaghat
– had lunch at Gyani’s dhaba and drove in a convoy of cars and trucks – slowly to Chandigarh. The hotel was a disaster – no twin rooms, mattresses on the floor – so much rubbish at the end of a great trip. But these are really people who know what the important things in life are, certainly not worth losing your equilibrium over a shared bed or some such, and so it was all sorted and I have had my last dinner surrounded by all my most favourite guys of the moment.
This morning I have received a heartwarming farewell – the catch to which was: though they enjoyed having me on the trip and I showed them all the lovely roads – these are meant to be all male trips and they do not want to have to explain what a woman was doing on it!! I think they should delete all evidence of me immediately, though I would be more than happy to join their gang of men. Also why they are alphabets and serial numbers.
It has been for me a marvellous trip, with so much enjoyment in meeting people who are my age and older – fit, well, smart, learning all the time – so much to discuss and talk about. The travels that they put together, the explorations they plan and enjoy – I could relate so very well. It was for me like a new discovery – so many people who like to do the things I do – the catch is – the man thing. The wonder is they are friends and do these amazing trips together. I love being a woman, but, I would like to join this gang.
An age has passed since I drove with the man that taught me how to manage the brake and accelerator together while releasing the clutch. My Uncle Teddy or Teddy Sahib as he is rather universally called, is a bit of a legend on mountain roads and trekking routes in Lahaul & other parts of Himachal. Those, who rally, drive off road and live the good life salute him.
A man larger than life, who explored every new road through the mountains the moment it opened. He had many times trekked it before. He taught us how to camp and cook out, to fish, to hunt and to make pickle.
His son, my brother Hari, follows in his father’s footsteps and has been India’s rally champion – he now tests cars, organises rallies, leads off road trips, does driving stunts for movies too. Generally a chip off the old block with additives.
Add to the mix two old friends visiting from England, Dave and Myra – Dave has just retired from being a well loved teacher. He is planning a cycling trip through Europe as soon as he goes home from visiting with us. Dave & Myra came trekking with Teddy Sahib in the early 80’s – they have four children (now grown) all conceived in India. Also two young men a friend and a young accolite of Hari’s; Bantu and Samar.
We are on a recce of a much travelled route, just not recently, so needs must check what new it offers.
So our day starts with fixing the radios in the cars, checking that we have all the gear that we need, tow chains, umbrellas, winches are working – those large red jacks that pull you out of ditches are serviceable. Two bicycles are loaded onto the bike carriers – who knows when we might need to cycle for help or just cycle out, and our journey begins.
We are going back to Spiti, via Narkanda, Sarahan, Sangla into Kaza and out over the Kunzom and Rohtang into Manali.
3 Aug 2014
Dave, Myra and I drove from Gurgaon to Chandigarh. 0900 from Gurgaon, 1300 in Chandigarh. Uneventful and fast.
4 Aug 2104
When you drive with Teddy Sahib and Hari, it’s all about the journey – so from Chandigarh to Thanedar we have come. 1000 hrs at Chandigarh – 1900 hrs at Thanedar (199 km). Coffee and stretch your legs, attend a ‘bhog’ in Simla, stop for lunch at a newly discovered dhaba, check out an orchard for sale enroute at Fagu, stop to see if an old hotel said to be renovated is actually so. It is, by the way, the Tethys hotel near Narkanda is much improved and stay able – with spectacular views.
Now we are sitting by a fire at the Banjara Orchard Resort in Thanedar, it is a place I recently discovered and very much like – so this is my introduction to the tour. We have met a couple cycling the route we are driving, and shall perhaps show them a new route tomorrow – a back orchard trail to Sarahan.
5 August 2014
We discovered a lovely home stay this morning – 5 kms short of the Banjara Orchard retreat a little road goes steeply downhill and winds around, take a sharp left into a gate and like all worthwhile hill places to get to, drive steeply down through the orchard, take a few hairy hairpin bends and arrive at this charming little home stay – all local himachali architecture, beautiful interiors – wood and slate, 7 nicely appointed rooms and bathrooms and the views. A real find, they have a quaint cottage for families too, and a tiny little cottage all on it’s own in a corner for all on your ownsome chilling.
We drove that lovely route which takes off just after Rampur Via Gaura and Mashnoor to Sarahan. It is a village road, great in bits and nothing in bits, but the views are lovely and you drive through the forests and villages, get stuck behind trucks loading apples and generally take twice as long as normal. With Teddy Sahib’s commentary which ranges from pro or against depending on his state of well being – which deteriorates if he is still in the car when the whisky hour approaches.
We had lunch and visited the Bhimakali temple at Sarahan, it is huge and beautiful – the goddess is said to grant wishes – so I made them as usual, we need to figure what timeline they will appear in. That they do is quite a constant.
Then we drove the amazing Sutlej gorge, watching it get deeper and deeper, with the battlements of rock and the showering waterfalls, the road that cuts right into the sheer mountainside – a marvel of engineering. The dam works have ruined a beautiful river and it’s valley, but one just has to look a little higher and it is still a spectacle. The road is a ruin after a point and it is a challenging drive. The dam work has created a huge slide on the way to Sangla, so one
has to climb a 17 km detour up the mountain and down again to avoid a 3 km stretch.
It got us in after dark so we missed the splendour of this valley of the Bhaspa – but it is spreading out my window now – orchards, pink fields of something the locals call ‘Ogla’ and they make a roti called Chilta, with the flour. Flowering beans and potatoes, wild flowers spreading a rainbow on all sides and the river running by. There is really nothing in nature that dresses itself better than the high mountains, they change colours and acccoutrements, but are beautiful in all weathers.
6 August 2014
We decided we were not going to do another long haul today, with the condition of these roads it would take us forever, so instead of going all the way to Kaza we would stop at Nako. The well laid plans of mice and men – I shall get to that a little later.
First we went up to Chitkul to see what the drive was like since we had last done it. It was beautiful, with these straight up mountains of sheer rock, stratiated in crazy patterns, in building block layers, and as you get closer to Chitkul, the Bhojpatra starts appearing and whole hillsides of thyme, scent the air. Chitkul itself was unrecognisable. It has developed hugely, there are only a few of the old wooden houses, still sprawling up the top of the village. The temple is completely new, the old Tibetan carved and painted gate that formed the entrance to Chitkul from the north is gone, in it’s place is a newly constructed cement gate, but they have put the guardians in on the sides in glass cases, even the overhead guardian is there, so the welcome and blessing is intact as is the beauty of the whole valley; flowers layered up and down every available space, the huge, steep, sheer rock mountains interspersed with trees clinging to unlikely crags.
Dave, Teddy Sahib and Hari took turns cycling down to Sangla – the road conditions actually meant that they were most often faster than the cars.
Then started the hair raising drive up the second bit of the Sutlej gorge, there is a deal of dam work all along this beautiful river, they are of a certainty destroying it. The roads are absolutely non existent – 20 kms an hour, with sections that are still slipping and dropping rocks or have slid and you have to take massive detours like yesterday. In all this, as I said before – you look up or down and that raging river, and the sheer rock faces are the same – and so far, so is that poor river – a force to reckon with – till these dams turn him into a damn lake.
So we reach the check point at Aksa and discover or rather had forgotten, that foreigners need an inner line permit for that section upto Sumdo. How flummoxed were we and what a staunch guardian of the gate was the gentleman in the booth. We have had to retrace our steps through rock falls and mud slides all the way back to Recong Peo, where obviously the offices were already shut – so a drink to learning and the patience required on all great drives in the mountains!
7th August 2014
We spent the morning sitting under a tree in the carpark outside the office of the District Magistrate at Rekong Peo waiting for him to sign the permit. Then he went off for a meeting and the little man helping us followed him. There were a french group and three motor cyclists waiting – also two or three bicyclists. Teddy Sahib, who was convinced that under Hari’s organisation we will get no food and no drink anywhere, went off around the bazaar and found samosas. Complained all the time that with all these apples growing on the trees, there are no apples to be had for love or money. Just then the boys arrived with a bag full of apples and a charger for Dave’s camera which they have borrowed from a shopkeeper. He has given it them from a new camera, on condition that they return it in Chandigarh. This can only happen in a place like this. Dave, to complete the story has left his camera charger at home.
We finally got the permits at 1200 hrs, which is when we started off. First we had to find the petrol pump, to which the Teddy Sahib took umbrage again. ‘All you young people, no organisation, we have been sitting for so long, this is when we should have done all this. Now we will reach so late and no one will stop to eat. That is why I bought the samosas.’ He was fine once we got going – the road was a nightmare, but the scenery was so spectacular. Through the rest of the Sutlej gorge, watching it change from a raging river to a spreading high mountain river and then narrowing again into a narrow, narrow gorge as it came closer to it’s confluence with the Spiti. The actual confluence is a spectacle of sheer rock, you cross the bridge over the Sutlej and suddenly the road becomes smooth and the gorge feels like you could touch the other side – and you are climbing up and up for a long time till you top out and the high mountains of Spiti spread before you in all their colour and majesty. Huge swirling rocks churned like cake mix by the forces of nature towering into a blue Spiti sky.
We stopped at what used to be little Nako village around a pretty little lake, today it is an expanding Nako village with a thriving agricultural trade – currently in peas. I have forgotten to say that what used to be sere brown, now has large pockets of green – new apple orchards, fields of blossoming potato and peas suddenly appearing around bends, nestled under where a stream or snow run off provides irrigation. The Kinner Camps in Nako is prettily located and has comfortable tents, with very good food. Lunch, that we had at 1700 hrs.
Then we decided we were heading to Kaza, it was beautiful watching the light on the mountains change, the moon came up and added a completely other magic. We drove up through dark villages meeting a few headlights en route. Hari shot ahead, not minding the bumpy road – his passengers only the boys. I on the other hand, with Teddy Sahib, Dave and Myra – went more paced. Myra was feeling the altitude – not enough water. But she held out bravely and we finally got to the Deyzor Hotel in Kaza at about 2100 hrs. Hari already had the bar open – it was a very welcome drink after a truly tremendous drive.
8th Aug 2014
I woke this morning to a sight that lifts my very soul, the amazing mountains of Spiti skirted by green poplars framed in my window. The one thing I always do in my favourite places is sleep with open windows and curtains undrawn, so the dawn and the pictures outside my window come right in to start the day. And what a day it has been. We are staying in a charming little hotel called the Deyzor – who knows what it means, but the proprietor is a lovely young man, passionate about the life he is living and working very hard to provide a service. (Any and all who happen to go here, do not ask for discounts, it is value for money.)
Then started our wild adventure – we were to drive to Hikkim, the highest post office, Kaurik monastery and Langza village to check out home stays. However, half way up – Hari saw an opportunity to go off the road and climb straight up the mountain, so of course we did just that, got spectacular views, had Dave gripping his seat in an agony of uncertainty. That both Dave and Myra just took it in their stride is kudos to them. I of course had theTeddy Sahib to guide me, he is very conservative with his advice, whether it is trust in what he has already taught or a belief that he is no longer heard, I am not sure. However, if you ask, he will offer – and it is a stupid person who does not ask when you have the master beside you – so he offered, ‘miss the stones that will hurt your car, not too fast, the rubble will get kicked up – and 1st gear low, or second will do.’ Thus we reached the zenith, took amazing photographs and then dropped down like we would have a dune in the desert, except here there is no sand that acts as an automatic braking device – never the less, we made it.
We then finally found Kaumik and visited the old, typically Spiti monastery. Entrance, long hall with rooms on either side for the monks and the main monastery directly ahead, up the stairs. It was lovely, lonely and serene. The old monastery does not allow women, so only Dave got to go see the preserved snow leopard in there.
Next we descended to Hikkim and the post office – a beautiful village with traditional homes, the landmark fields of waving crops, homes with juniper edged roofs, washed white. The postmaster is delighted, but can’t find his stamps – so his wife offers tea, while he hunts up the stamps. Dave finally posts his cards and we move onto Langza village to a charming home stay run by an old lady and her grand daughters. She gives us a great lunch of dal, rice and homemade, delicious ‘dahi’, supported by Maggi noodles. A traditional home, the rooms have the low cots with the Tibetan carpets and nothing is changed from how their home would normally be. The same central room with its stove and low seating with tables in front for eating and relaxing. The outhouse of dry pit latrines traditional to these dry, high mountain areas still works.
There is a marvellous trek to be done on this route,staying in the traditional homes and it seems many foreigners have discovered this. We met a french group staying at Langza and others in Kaza planning to go up. It is nice to see the traditional being put to a good economically viable venture.
I have not mentioned that at every step what makes this purely magical is the amazing scenery around you. This valley is easily one that I rate the highest on my places to go back to and rejuvenate your soul.
9th Aug 2014
Kaza to Manali, 199 kms on my gps – easy driving on rubbish roads. We got to the pass in record time, payed obeisance and Myra and I decided we were going to bicycle off the pass. We had no figured that these were big boy bikes. I tried riding it for a spell only to find that if I had to put my feet down in a hurry – I would probably split my body or seriously damage it. They were way to large, we could not get off the seat without hitting the bar, so caution prevailed and we let the men do the riding. It was a murderous road. I honestly don’t know when it was last fixed, we just bumped and ground our way over the boulders – through free flowing ‘nalas’ and on and on till we crossed the Rohtang and hit both the mist and a good road.
The change in terrain from Spiti to Lahaul is instant, it is greener and you start to see the shepherds with their precariously perched herds – on incredible slopes. All seeming to be quite happy where they are.
Before leaving Spiti we stopped at the Chomoling nunnery, where they recognised me as the person who came with the ‘Jehudi’ women. We had spent a day and night at the monastery, helping in whichever sphere absorbed them during the ‘Queen of the Desert’ tours.
For me entering and leaving Spiti is like a prayer – blessed to come back there and asking a blessing to come back again.
10 Aug 2014
MANALI: More family has arrived, Maya, my daughter, on a bus from Delhi. Girimere, my brother, and Karandeep, a family friend, arrived with their monster bikes that they are riding across to Leh. Lunch at Martin’s, a cafe in an apple orchard that only provides Sunday lunches and beautiful surroundings.
Teddy Sahib and I then went to inspect a camp site up the Raison road at Baira Gram, it was an hours walk up and down in this acute heat and humidity that the valley is facing. A lovely spot which would need some development.
After the hot walk, a much needed tea with Uncle Jimmy and Aunty Bala (the Johnsons) at their beautiful home. A building that I consider the most beautiful hill home of all.
We wound up with a dinner of delicious trout at Pia’s – Johnson’s Cafe.
This was to be the end of our tour, but; ‘ So, Pavane Bhen,’ says Hari, ‘ it’s a long weekend coming should we go to Dalhousie?’ ‘It’s a boring long drive,’ I say reluctant to stop at Dharamsala. ‘Over the Sach?’ Hari, with a very naughty twinkle. Obviously, how does one resist that.
11 & 12 Aug 2014
Over the Sach, has to be quite the most spectacular drive that I have ever done.
Obviously we had to climb over the Rohtang again – long delays because we were accompanying Girimere and Karandeep who are riding their monster bikes up to Leh. So their kit had to be packed properly, then some leak fixed and who knows what else – however – it was hugely worth it to see the big smile and pure joy that emanated from my brother Girimere once he got on his bike and was ready to go. This has been one of his dreams. So we saw another dream driving off and followed them over the Rohtang. The pass was totally empty for a change. No traffic jams, even the Rani Nala is not acting up. Smoothly over and we stopped at Koksar for meat curry and rice with Pandit ji. Then onto the petrol pump at Tandi where we all refuelled and parted ways. We went up into the Pangi valley and the boys continued to Ladakh.
The Pangi valley – a place of greenery and huge agricultural development. Everywhere you look are fields cut out of the mountains growing potatoes, peas and currently being harvested cauliflower. There are streams and waterfalls everywhere, the road follows the river Chenab or Chandra Bhaga all the way and is really not as bad as the section from Kunzom to Rohtang – less murderous for sure. The mountains change in every valley – these are sheer rock with tree cover and not the erosion that we were seeing earlier – spectacular and beautiful – what was great to see almost all over is the prosperity of the people due to the agricultural push. There are water channels in all directions tapped off every bitty little stream.
We drove and drove well into the dark to finally arrive at Cherry Bangla to find some hundred people had taken over our booking as well as all else including a forest of tents pitched on the lawn. It is a great comfort to be driving with Hari and Teddy Sahib on occasions such as these. Hari who was way ahead of us, obviously, drove on and found another little rest house in the village of Sach. We even got a dhaba opened up who cooked us great daal, rice and the inimitable pudina and chilli chutney. Our rest house required the spreading of all our clothes on the rather dodgy sheets, thankfully it was warm and we did not need the even more dodgy quilts. The breakfast was compensatory the next morning, great parathas and egg bhurji and we set off to climb this amazing pass.
It was 15 km to Kilar and then a little beyond you get to see this narrow slit in the rock wall across the river – it is the way up to the Sach pass. You go down and down to cross the bridge across the Chandra Bhaga (Chenab) and then start climbing this steep road up the very narrow valley of the Sach nala. Sheer rock sides, with waterfalls washing down in sprays that acted as a car wash many times.
Gravity defying villages perched on pinnacles of rock, sheep on steep meadows and a death defying trail along the other side that would make for an amazing trek. As we got closer to the top, it starts to open and the meadows begin to spread below just before the glacier starts – then you can see the piles of bald moraine between the spreading snow fields. This is the only one of the passes we crossed that still has so much snow. We stopped for lunch at the usual dhabas, just short of the final climb to the pass. Walls of snow on either side, large water crossings, the most brilliant pass crossing in a long time. A small temple at the top where we all went and offered a prayer for thanks and safe passage onward. And the climb down, once past the snow – it was a spread of meadows covered in all the hues of flowers that are found in the high Himalaya. A smorgasbord of scent and colour that we just stopped and stared at. Then it was an uneventful and regular ride to Dalhousie, via Bairagarh where there is a nice rest house, past Tissa where we used to camp in the woods as kids and then past Chamba & Khajjiar back home on the hill of Bakrota above Dalhousie.