By- Sanat Pradhan (LT Howden)
I woke up at midnight to the sound of raindrops falling on my tent. “This place was supposed to be a rain shadow region”, I said to myself before falling asleep again.
At dawn, I came out of my tent, to see it was drizzling. Summits nearby were now snow-capped with the frozen rain. We were to begin our return journey; however we had not anticipated rain in these lands. Five of us on three motorbikes were without any raincoats or gumboots. Nevertheless, we decided to ride back as planned after breakfast.
Kaza is completely different from any of other places I have been to in my life. A small village in the middle of Himalayan Mountain desert, facing the mesmerising Spiti River, its location was nothing short of epic and the Tibetan Buddhist culture coupled with simple sustainable lifestyles of the locals brought a mystic aura to it.
We rode back from Kaza, crossing the famous Key Monastery, the Losar Village, and the Kunzum Pass, which is the highest point in the route, standing as a barrier between the Rocky Lahaul and the sandier Spiti regions, towards a small settlement named ‘Battal Valley’.
At around 4600 meters, this region had caused us a fair share of trouble during our onward journey. Back then we had spent the night here. One of us had suffered from continuous vomiting, while I was unable to sleep the whole night due to breathing issues. We all suffered from some level of mountain sickness due to abrupt height change. The temperature had dipped to almost freezing range, with frosty winds flowing through the valley. Along with a lot of other important supplies, we had also missed bringing clothes for this kind of weather.
To our rescue came an old couple named Chacha and Chachi, who had a dhaba at Battal, which was one of the only three manmade structures here. They usually stocked basic supplies required for a place like that. Their Dhaba was the only place for supplies in that 80 km stretch from Losar to Chhetru. Still their motive was driven more from self-sustenance and helping the needy than to create a business opportunity. In fact they have saved more than 150 lives in the last decade, which included 112 people who were trapped in this region for weeks during an unprecedented snowfall in 2010. They were sort of protectors in the mountains.
We did not stop at Battal to spend the night this time. Not because, we were trying to avoid the chilly night, but because we needed to cross the route from Battal to Chettru, about fifty kilometres long, which was one of the most treacherous and tiring route we had ever ridden. In fact, there was no proper road; all you could find was a narrow stretch of pebbles, small rocks and sand, which because of the on-going rain had become a slippery patch of mud. The route ran parallel to the Chandra River, providing mesmerising vistas but was also accompanied by high risks as even a small slip could become fatal. It is one of the most treacherous routes around the world as listed by BBC. We wanted to cross this stretch as soon as possible, as the condition was only going to worsen due to rain.
Our bikes slipped throughout the stretch, one of my friends even fell down breaking his bike’s silencer. It took us 4 hours and a lot of cold shivers around sharp turns in between to travel 40 kilometres before reaching a settlement named Chettru in the evening, where we planned to spend the night. It was a very small settlement, with some tents and two dhabas. We were completely exhausted and wet and by now, we all were suffering from some level of cold, sore throat and fever but felt lucky to have reached here unhurt. People there told us that such rains were uncommon in these terrains, and we were certain to face more rain, while crossing Rohtang, and the menacing clouds ahead were validating this claim.
Just before sleeping, I remembered how overwhelming the journey had been till now. We had seen lush green landscape of Rohtang region suddenly transforming into dry arid zone of Lahaul, a la a poetry in transition. The conversion had also extended to the culture, which became more Tibetan as we moved east wards. People there led a simple lifestyle that seemed more fulfilling in a spiritual way. We were introduced to Sakya Buddhism in a monastery. We even accomplished a three kilometre long mountain trek from the monastery to a lake near the summit of the hill. Most of the time there were no humans around, all there was, was the mystic calmness of the Himalayas.
The drizzling continued the next morning, and the sky had not cleared even a little bit. We were tense but there was no sense of panic. We continued our journey after breakfast, towards Rohtang La or the ‘The Pile of Corpses’.
Our first obstacle was the ‘Pagal Naala’, a waterfall flowing across the route. We met some vehicles en-route returning back as they were unable to cross it. During our onward journey, it had had almost no flow, but this time, the rain had changed the whole scenario. We were about to witness the waterfall in its full glory. After thirty minutes of ride, we saw it in front of us. The flow was almost frightening. The pillions climbed off and helped to push the bikes over the rocks across the flow of freezing water. The cold water flowing through our feet made our hearts pound. A small misbalance or misstep and one would easily fall off the cliff. After almost five minutes of pushing, we succeeded in crossing the bikes across the stream. We were relieved to get our feet out of the chilly waters. In that moment of relief, we saw three more bikes stuck in the waterfall. We had a choice, either to get back onto our journey forward or jump into the torturous water again to help the guys who were struggling. We can say proudly that we chose the latter.
Next up, was the task of crossing the region to Rohtang. Travellers passing by warned us about a two km stretch, completely filled with mud and rain water ahead. One Englishman said, “Brace yourselves folks, you are going to ride through hell today”. After moving ahead we found that the whole place was completely muddy, with bikes getting stuck here and there. Again the pillions had the task of pushing and guiding the bikes through. With mud on the bikes, mud on our cloths, mud on our face, it took us an hour to cross. We finally entered the Rohtang crossing. We were to meet our greatest challenge here – heavy rain.
We rode through the rain, being extra cautious. We were drenched and feeling at this point praying that we do not to catch pneumonia at this place. Fortunately, luck favoured us as the clouds cleared enough to allow us to cross the path. We finally reached Rohtang La. At last, we saw some human activity along with dhabas and tourists. With lush green mountains, connectivity, better approach, it was a tourist place where one would like to spend quality time. However, for us, it was the place where our journey ended.
We relaxed near a dhaba, relieved and mesmerized, our minds and hearts a gamut of emotions. Alive and unhurt, we survived to see the light of another day, or maybe we survived, to experience the thrills of another Himalayan adventure in future.