To blow off the Covid blues, the author and friends take a motor trek trip to the mesmerizing mountains and valleys of Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti-Lahaul district.
We were a bunch of four young people in the 49-62 age group. Two married couples from Kerala, tired of several months of work-from-home, mask-wearing and keeping humans at two arms’ length. We were raring to go to the brutally beautiful Spiti Valley– the vast, cold, desert mountain valley in Himachal Pradesh that lies close to the India-China (Tibet) border.
A long trek lasting several days in the vegetation-free high-mountain folds and along the rocky banks of the Spiti river and its tributaries is sure to detox the post-Covid mind. But, we bravely opted for a ten-day trek on four wheels–trekking on two feet is for lesser mortals, you know!
We were into our third day when we decided to call off the trip and head back to Chandigarh, from where we had started off. The previous night we had stayed in a beautiful homestay located in a rich orchard of apples, pears and apricots in a remote village near Narkanda, some 60 km from Shimla. The homestay overlooked a deep and narrow valley lined with silvery streams and gurgling waterfalls. Above the valley were folds of mountains covered with deodar forests. Snow-haired peaks topped the mountains.
The morning was glorious—comfortably cold and misty and scented by wild, lustrous flowers. I stepped out of the homestay to check out the deodar forest and the waterfalls and the flowers. The calm and charm of the morning was achingly joyful.
By the time I returned from the outing, the morning was in full swing. The half-snowy mountain peaks, which were dress-rehearsing for the frigid winter, glittered in the rays of the baby sun. But, there was bad news awaiting me. One of my co-travellers, who had got a stent installed in one of her arteries two years before, had developed severe chest pain overnight. She hadn’t slept the whole night. I sensed danger; she feared the worst. A heart attack was on the way, we needed to get her to a medical facility at once. The nearest hospital was at Theog, 30-plus km and 90-plus minutes away, on the winding road back to Shimla. But, since she was a coronary heart patient, we thought she needed the care and attention of a senior cardiologist in a major hospital, either at Chandigarh or at least at Shimla.
We packed up in a few minutes and hit the road to Shimla. Our detailed Spiti Valley travel plan was down in the dumps. On the way, we decided that she needed medical attention quickly and hence we drove up to Theog Civil Hospital. After an ECG and other tests, the doctor declared that the patient’s heart was in a fairly good condition and there was no immediate threat of a heart attack. Her problem was `gas’-induced and was probably caused by the spicy and oily food she had eaten over the previous two days. The heart attack scare up in smoke, the patient gave the clarion call: Chalo Spiti. We hit the Spiti trail in half an hour.
For the uninitiated, Spiti Valley, located high in western Himalaya, is part of the Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh and is one of the least populated regions in the country. Let me quote Wikipedia: “Spiti Valley is surrounded by high mountain ranges. Spiti Valley is separated from Lahaul Valley by the high Kunzum (pronounced: Kunjom) Pass, at 15,059 feet (4,590 m). A road connects these two divisions of the Lahaul-Spiti district but is cut off frequently in winter and spring due to heavy snow. A southern route to India proper, via the Sutlej in the Kinnaur district and Shimla, is periodically closed for brief periods in the winter storms of November through June, but road access is usually restored a few days after the storm ends.”
If you have been to Ladakh, then you would get an idea of what a `cold mountain desert’ is. Ladakh, Spiti Valley and Tibet share a lot of geographical similarities. The quaint city of Kaza, located on the Spiti river at an elevation of 12,500 feet, is the sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti Valley. Like in Tibet and Ladakh, the quiet, peace-loving people of the region follow Vajrayana Buddhism. They may not be very warm and friendly with you, but they look content, and happy with their way of life. Their wants and needs are limited and are least bothered about your lifestyle. The people living in these remote, tiny communities in the mountain folds in sub-zero temperatures in winter–with their yaks, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys and horses– could make you feel jealous and inferior.
Sitting in the patients’ waiting area, we stitched back our travel itinerary. Then, starting from Theog Civil Hospital, we went on a long drive that took us to Sangla Valley. Ten hours and more than 200 km later, we arrived, late in the evening, at Rakcham, a small Tibetan-type village that sits on the banks of the Baspa river. Sangla Valley is also known as Baspa Valley. Sumdo, the village that welcomes you to Spiti Valley, is still around 200 km away.
By the way, ladies and gentlemen, I am not going to give you a running commentary of all the places we visited in Spiti Valley or the attractions in the Kullu and Kinnaur districts en route. But, I am sure you would like to know what route we took and what places we passed through. Fair enough.
Chandigarh was our base (if you ever go to Chandigarh, be sure to spend a couple of hours in the famed Rock Garden spread over 40 acres). Your Spiti journey can start either from Shimla or from Manali. From Manali (in Kullu district), you can enter the Spiti-Lahaul district either through the 9-km-long Atal Tunnel built under the Rohtang Pass or on the tougher road over the Rohtang Pass proper (elevation: 13,051 feet). We opted for the Shimla route which is ideal for those coming from hot climes–because of the gradual ascent, acclimatization is easier.
Shimla, as you know, was the summer capital of the British Raj. For the historically minded, a visit to the Indian Institute of Advanced Study could be illuminating. The huge mansion, built in the Indo-Gothic style, was the Vice-Regal Lodge during the Raj, and many viceroys and governors-general lived there. The 1945 Simla Conference that discussed India’s Independence and the subsequent decisions, in 1947, to split India into two countries were held there.
The five-hour 115-km drive along the mountain highway from Chandigarh to Shimla showed us the thrills and perils of life in the Himalayas. From Shimla, the distance to Sumdo, the entry point to Spiti Valley, is 350 km. But the route is one of the most treacherous mountain routes in the world. And, dangerously beautiful too.
(To be continued)