When I told my girlfriend that I was going on a bike trip to a place known neither to her nor to me at that time, she thought I had gone mad. That was the time when I had not heard of a term called off-roading, neither I had driven any bike more than 50 kms at a stretch on a straight road, let alone driving in one of the most challenging conditions. I didn’t even know where the place was. The plan had been stirring in the minds on Sanjay, Shreshth and their group for quite a time. They were five guys but only Sanjay had some experience in riding the bike. It was Shreshth who had asked me to come along on the trip and I had said yes without much thought. There is a fine line between stupidity and bravery and I didn’t know which side I was on.
Lahaul-Spiti valley is located in the eastern part of Himachal Pradesh and is one of the most remote district of the state. The more popular route to the valley is through Rohtang pass but in February rohtang is covered with snow. Another route goes though eastern side via Shimla and Kinnaur districts. We rented 1 pulsar 150, 1 pulsar 180 and an avenger from Rishikesh. The combined rent of bikes was less than 2000 per day (Good old days). We were carrying our own sleeping bags, tents and rucksack.
Normally people go to Shimla via Chandigarh but since our starting point was Rishikesh we planned to take a shorter and more adventurous route.
Due to some hiccups (including a brake fail), we only managed to reach Chakrata on our first day. Originally a British cantonment, it is a small town lying in the northern part of Dehradun district. We had our tents which we had to put up in a garage for there was no camping site nearby and it was getting dark to search for one. To make up for delays we headed out early next day. We encountered icy roads early on but it was harmless ice stacked on the sides. The terrain was rugged with hardly any proper roads to reach high speeds. Rohan’s bike slipped twice on slippery mud and first aid kits came into use early on. We reached Rohru in the afternoon where we refreshed ourselves with a bath (in the river) and lunch (in the local dhaba) before heading for Jeori.
Jeori is a small and quiet village lying in the northern Shimla on NH-22. If you see Google maps, you won’t see any road connecting Rohru and Jeori but if you are in the mood for off-roading, there is a route connecting Rohru to NH-22. This two-hour ride will shake you to your bones and pump enough adrenaline to last for the whole trip. After the adventurous ride, when your tires touch the smooth asphalt of NH-22, you feel ecstatic. NH-22 runs in level with Sutlej and at any point you feel like stopping for a while, you can sit on the banks and marvel the beauty of river. Crossing Rampur, NH-22 takes you to Jeori. After dinner, we anchored our tents on a terrace farm of a local who quite humbly allowed us to spend the night.
Next day was Holi, and as we headed for Puh, it started drizzling. Now we were moving towards Kinnaur district which is easternmost region in Himachal. As we were going, there was a gradual change in demographics, local ways and mannerisms. People of highly commercialized places like Shimla district were more devious and crafty as compared to those of Kinnaur who had less exposure to the world. The journey became quite colorful as we met people celebrating Holi with full zeal and color. Locals halted us at many places and colored our faces with colors, which got us into the festive mood. Bhang and chillam are quite common in Himachal especially on festivals like Holi. Due to several hydroelectric projects on Sutlej, the roads were muddy and more so during the rains. The road to Puh is beautifully carved out of rocks due to which the mountains make a roof like structure on the top. Puh is also an army cantonment.
Puh made us shiver hard for as we reached, it started pouring. It was chilly rain, nothing like I had experienced before. For the first time on the trip, we rested our tents and booked a hotel and, after a good meal, got comfy in our quilts. The evening passed in the discussion whether to move further or not, in the wake of weather conditions. Four of us, including me were definitely in the mood for adventure. In the morning, nature looked as though it had taken a bath. The green mountain tops had turned too white. The bright sunshine gave us hope to continue our journey and despite locals advising against it, we moved forward.
It took 4 days to reach Spiti on a trip, which we thought was going to finish in 5 days. It tells you how insignificant your plans can turn out in front of forces of nature. Moving towards Spiti the culture gradually transforms to Tibetan flavor, which can be seen in the villages of Chango and Nako. Before Nako there is a pass and the roadsides are covered with snow. Out of the blue, my bike slipped on what appeared like water. In the mornings, the water on the road freezes to form a very thin layer of ice, which appears like water. The fall was sudden and severe but no damage was done, thanks to the layers of clothing we were wrapped in. A few meters ahead thick slippery ice formed a patch of 10 meters. These treacherous roads took us to Nako, a beautiful village adorned by a lake surrounded by willow and popular trees. Four Buddhist temples situated near the place gave it a divine touch. The lake was completely frozen during that season.
For lunch we stopped at a small shop at Chango and ordered some Thukpa which is a Tibetan noodle soup containing vegetables or meat. I never spent 20 bucks in a better way for it was the most delicious soup I had ever had and I am yet to taste something better. It was evening until we reached Tabo, a thousand years old monastery situated on the banks of Spiti river. His holiness, Dalai Lama has claimed Tabo monastery to be the holiest one and has expressed his desire to retire to Tabo. When we reached Tabo it felt like an alien world to us, the city , people. At six in the evening there was complete silence which was broken only by chilly breeze and gushing river. It was too windy to light a match or a lighter. The only restaurant near the monastery had closed so we grabbed some chips and biscuit from nearby grocery. It was run by a lady having two kids and a dog. In a place so remote to find a shop like this made us wonder that how far distribution channels of modern age have spread. That’s not all that amazed us. The elder son who was about 7 years old, spoke perfect English and was well versed in history and mathematics. Maybe it was our prejudice, but we didn’t expect such a good level of education in a rural and remote part of India.
We asked some monks to let us stay in the monastery for the night. They gave us a little space in what seemed like a storage room. The mercury dropped to sub-zero in the night but we had our sleeping bags to keep us warm. After having some food and chatter, we fell asleep in that 1000-year-old monastery.
The Journey back
Initially we had planned to go till Chandratal Lake in Kaza. It is a beautiful lake, which shines like a pearl amidst the white snow in the moonlight. But we were short of time so we had to return because of time shortage. Village kids were playing cricket in a small ground where our bikes were parked. Bidding them adieu, we got on our way to Puh. Little did we know about the treacherous plans nature had in store for us.
Before moving on, I must mention something about the folks in this part of the world. Here we observed, the time moved slow, there was no hurry. In that setting, we were the queer ones. People here were fond of an unadventurous, bucolic and simple life unaware of the devious ways of the outside world. Content and happy with their farms and small shops, some were playing cards, leaving their shops wide open in the daytime. So when our bike got punctured near Chango, we had to wander for 2 hours before we could find the mechanic, smoking and gambling in an apple orchard. All this time we had forgotten our backpacks lying on the side of the road. It was not luck that we found them lying at the same spot.
The daylight was lost so there was no point in moving forward. The tranquility of the place had slowed us down too as we sat chatting with the local people in a small teashop. We were out of network area for past three days, completely cut-off from the world we came from, but this new world enchanted us so much that we forgot what day it was. A guy joined us in the tea shop, telling us about his experiences. He owned some apple farms and in summer, he worked as a tourist guide for foreign travelers. Wintertime was off-season in these areas so they spent most of time relaxing, drinking local booze and playing cards. It reminded me of life of Hobbits in the Shire. The owner of the teashop gave us some locally brewed wine and a room to stay. We insisted on paying but he would not take money. Was there something wrong with these people -helping us selflessly in this cutthroat world? It was just that they had not been corrupted by endless desire of man.
Next morning we resumed on our journey and within half hour we found ourselves in midst of snowfall. With no place to hide our heads, we kept moving on. Slippery and treacherous roads dwindling around the barren mountains poised a great challenge. That combined with freezing cold weather made us pray for our lives. Several times, we took shelter of some rocks and warmed our hands from the heat of bike’s silencer. But that wasn’t enough for the warmth was getting drained out of our bodies just as we reached a small shop. What a lifesaver, we thought while warming our feet besides the burning coal and eating parathas. That small dhaba gave more happiness to me than any fancy restaurant ever can give. Driving slowly in that mad weather, we could only reach Puh where we again spent the night, at a small teashop, snuggled in our sleeping bags. At night, I overheard some theological discussions over the drinks, between the shop owner, a truck driver and some of my friends.
It took us two days more to reach Rishikesh after taking a longer route than the one we had come from. From Jeori we reached Shimla passing through Narkanda on seventh day. Making our way through Solan, Nahan and Paonta Saheb we finally reached Rishikesh at dawn of ninth day after driving whole night. Our eyes were drooping due to sleep but our spirits were awake. After eight days of exposure to sun, snow and dust, our faces had completely transformed. It took a few days to reverse the physical damage but there had been a more severe transformation. One that of my soul and one which was irreversible. I had brought back in my heart a piece of Spiti – a place I will always remember for its unprocessed beauty and the simplicity of its people.
Contributed By: Vishant Goel
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