How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven!

22nd Jun 2019

It was raining consistently in the evening in Kalpa and we were getting ready for our toughest road to be traversed from the next day. We were going to travel up in the mighty Himalayas in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh at an altitude which was going to be at and above 9000 ft for whole day. All of us were set for Kalpa (9710 ft) - Spello (38 km)- Pooh (28 km) - Khab (12 km) - Nako (12000 ft) (35 km) -Chango (25 km) - Sumdo (12014 ft) (14 km) -Tipta (17 km) - Lari (7 km) - Tabo (10760 ft) (4.5 km) route. We were told by Vikas - our Force Traveller driver that we would be starting our journey at around 6 next morning. It was quite early for all of us as each of our 3 RE bikes hardly had fuel left. I and Vikram were wondering how would we get a fuel station open so early.

Vikas partied hard each night with fellow drivers of other groups. Along with Vikram, I gate crashed the one happening inside the traveller to talk about the things to be done next morning. First thing both came to know was the news about deaths of 2 bike riders which happened just a day before somewhere between Kalpa and Pooh! Huge boulders had crushed both the riders to death on the spot. All the drivers were talking about how stone shooting and land sliding occurs throughout one of the most dangerous roads in India, which we were about to ride on. On top of this, 3 hours mountain blasting time meant that we had to cross Spello before 10 in the morning.

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 1/7 by Kunal Diwakar

The day arrived when our 3 RE bikes and a Force Traveller were about to enter Spiti after enjoying our last leg of internet and phone accessibility. We left Kalpa hotel by 6.30 in the morning without having breakfast with the knowledge that the day was going to be tough. Fortunately, the fuel station was open. But soon, we encountered the first hurdle of the potential long day when there was some issue with the Traveller. Mechanic was difficult to find early in the morning and all of us were left disappointed that we couldn't start on time even after waking up so early. It took almost one and a half hour to have the traveller ready which allowed the time for breakfast. Finally at around 9 am, we were ready to move on. The big news came in. As we were about to start, all other cabs and riders who had left early in the morning were coming back to Kalpa. Overnight landslide just after Reckong Peo had closed the road and there was huge traffic jam on both the sides. The mood of all of us was dampened to the core. We were supposed to cross the dangerous patch by 10 and at 10, we didn't move a bit from our base even after waking up at 5 in the morning! We were left clueless about how much time it was going to take to clear the road. We started sketching plans A, B,...,Z ! The situation was not in our control and we started moving around the Kalpa town, with the feelings of 'in Kalpa ki galiyon me...! :-D 1 PM it was, when the news came in that all roads were clear for the traffic. It was very late to start the tough road but it was still going to be manageable to reach somewhere near Tabo in late evening. Knowing that not starting the journey at that point would have cascading effect to all our upcoming days' planning, we left Kalpa at 2 PM with the same energy we had early in the morning. It was drizzling for whole morning. The road was dusty and in bad condition, tarred in patches. I guess the blasting of mountains for a which a board had 11.30-2.30 pm timing written on it,was postponed for a day due to earlier landslides even though road work was in progress. We could see stones on our path which would have come on the road very recently. Looking at the mountains overhead on one side, aggressively rolling Sutlej river water on another side and horrible narrow road to ride on could make someone's blood run cold. We saw loose soil drifting down taking stones along with it on many occasions. All the riders - Vikram, Vijay and I were padded from top to bottom with all kind of gears. I had Ashish (Ashya) and Vijay had Another Ashish (Golya) as pillions whereas Vikram had made his wife Sayali sit in the Traveller anticipating the road, stone shooting and rain. Sam was sitting in the Traveller along with other fellows. Vikas' driving and the roads were driving all the travellers crazy. All were so frightened by the circumstances that Sam was weighing the option of backing out of the tour.

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 2/7 by Kunal Diwakar

Our bikes and the Traveller managed to pass the blasting and stone shooting area with only mental bruises to the passengers. We had our lunch at Spello at around 3 pm when it started raining heavily. We drove non stop for another one and a half hour to take a very short break at Pooh so that all the riders assemble. Two women asked us not to proceed for Tabo and stay in Pooh itself as it had been raining heavily and we would not reach there before 9 at night. They cautioned us about stone shooting on the upcoming route which increases during the dark. But we conveniently neglected their advice to proceed further! As greenery started waning, barren mountains started appearing and rain also started subsiding. Slowly we started clicking the photographs of the enormous deserted mountains, accounting for our first breaks for photographs. Finally, we took a long break at 5.15 for photographs at Khab sangam of Sutlej and Spiti rivers. The start of Spiti ringed the inner senses and one couldn't keep an eye away from the views on offer.

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 3/7 by Kunal Diwakar

This is what I have been waiting for years and at last, I was in Spiti valley! As I was driving, I couldn't capture the beauty of Spiti in my own camera. So I handed over my iPhone my pillion. I was driving slow as if strolling in the park capturing everything in the eyes. This is when the tragedy struck!! It was the start of the turn of events of a long unforgettable evening and night for me! This was roughly 10 kms before Nako and 85 kms away from Tabo. At 6.30 in the evening, my bike met with an accident after it went too far left of the road where stones were lying by the road. Fortunately for me, I didn't fall down on the right side where I would have fallen in 300 feet gorge! My strategy of riding every time by the side of mountain instead of valley saved me from major mishap, as riding by the valley would have diminished any chances of survival. Riding shoes avoided major dislocation, bruising left foot. Raincoat pant's left side was left ripped and knee guard saved from major injury to the left knee. Riding jacket rescued the left elbow and hand glove left me with just a gentle pain to my palm. Ultimately, the riding accessories saved me from any serious physical suffering. I was left broken from inside about the fact that accident happened on relatively such a simple road! I took no time to be on feet to lift my bike only to see my pillion on the ground. Vikram, Vijay and Golya came to the immediate rescue of me, Ashya and the fallen bike. There were few travellers travelling in the cars who also ran immediately for help. Ashya was hit on the helmet by falling on the stones. He was so fortunate to escape without any major harm as he was wearing the helmet. I was feeling extremely guilty about Ashya's fall that I kept asking about his condition again and again. Ashya kept responding, "I have saved your iPhone!"

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 4/7 by Kunal Diwakar

It was the turn of the bike to see if any damage was done to the rented RE. The bike was left with broken gear spindle which caused gearbox stuck at the first gear. The footrest was broken in two parts. After the accident, bike looked in shambles. But the REs are renowned for being rough and tough and I myself had prior experience of driving REs on difficult terrains. It was my luck that the bike started with auto start on first attempt itself. But one couldn't change the gear to second or more and was at first gear only. The rescuers asked me to try riding the bike on first gear by keeping left leg on leg guard supposed to be for the pillion. This is when the lone battle of mine started for that night. Onlookers kept looking as I drove away the bike on his way. I realised that we didn't have a mechanic and a backup vehicle with us. My only aim was to take the bike to first service centre. I knew the Traveller was driving in front of the bikes and I found it in Nako after riding for 40 minutes on the first gear. The co travellers were busy with short tea break and were planning to visit some spots in Nako. I thought it wouldn't make sense to let them know the actual gravity of difficulty I was facing while driving. So I told them how the things unfolded in very casual manner so as not to dampen their spirits. It was the turn of 'jugadu' Vikas to get the contact number of the nearby mechanic. Only BSNL phone network was working. He dialled the lone mechanic in Nako to find him out of town to attend someone's marriage. Only option I had was to go to Chango to visit only mechanic there. It was already 7.30 in the evening and barely 15-20 mins were left for the light to disappear. The temperature was decreasing as the night darkened. It was around 8 deg C and wind was blowing in full swing. Breathing started taking conscious effort as oxygen levels were lowering on high altitude. Vikas advised me to go ahead and reach Chango somehow to see a mechanic to find any temporary solution for the bike's breakdown. Chango was 25 kms and one and half hours from Nako. There was no Royal Enfield service centre until Kaza which was almost impossible to reach that night. It's extremely dangerous to ride at night in such a difficult terrain with the rise in stone shooting as night progresses. There was uphill for around one hour with dwindling roads. I didn't have any BSNL number. I noted down 2 working phone numbers of the fellow travellers and Vikas' number. Ashya instructed me to wait for all at Chango and not to proceed further at all. It was already dark and Sam was contemplating on staying at Nako itself. After thinking enough and taking a deep breath, I started my solo journey of a lifetime! I went uphill to diminish from the sight of my friends worried at my condition. I was driving at a speed not more than 15 km an hour in pitch black. I was finding it grinding to accelerate uphill and decelerate downhill. I could see only light and hear only sound from his bike. However, at that point of time, I was enjoying riding absolute solo with no one near whatsoever. I saw light coming up from the mountain from only vehicle far away from my position. That was an Alto coming from the opposite side and was approaching me slowly. After some 20 minutes it came close to bike when I waved at the car to stop it to confirm if I was on the right path to go to Chango. As I got a nod from the car driver, I continued riding. Meanwhile, remaining 2 bikes and Traveller left Nako for Chango. All were riding anxiously because of the road and my situation. The next sight made everyone's blood run cold! What they saw was a cub of a leopard crossing the road. Vikram and Vijay were left stunned who were riding in front of the Traveller. Vikram thought if a cub is wandering then there must be a group of leopards somewhere near. He knew I was on the same route. He was on tenterhooks thinking about what I would have faced. All this time, Vikram was thinking about what to tell and how to face my mother after reaching Pune. They raised their speeds to rush to Chango where I had agreed to meet. As I was approaching Chango, I found first place after at least 1 hour, where there were some humans. It was a hotel 'The Yellow Leaves' where I found some REs parked. I asked if there was any mechanic with the group. The group had a guy who knew few things about repairing and he checked the broken bike. He realised and informed me that the broken part needed to be replaced and they themselves didn't have any spare part with them. The guys offered me to stay with them and advised not to proceed for Tabo as it was unsafe to do so. The place was so inviting for me but I knew there was a job to be done. So, I kindly denied their offer assuring them to come back if I don't get any help ahead. Chango was 10 minutes away where I was going to supposedly meet the only mechanic before Tabo. I resumed my solo journey again for Chango. I arrived at the mechanic's place to know the information that it wasn't mechanic's cup of tea to repair the bike. Mechanic didn't ever worked on that part before and he asked me to take the bike to Kaza only where it was sure to be repaired. Kaza was 90 km away and I would have reached there only after mid night if driven non stop. I remembered to call my friends and requested the mechanic to lend mobile to call. I tried calling 3 numbers but to fail. I then tried calling Vikas who was also not in the network area. It was important for me to be ahead of rest of my group as my bike was the slowest and by driving the bike along with others would have slowed the speed of entire group. I was also thinking about all were behind the schedule and it was necessary to reach Tabo as per the itinerary for the sake of the success of upcoming days. Mechanic assured that the road till Tabo from Chango was good and it would take me not more than 2 hours to reach there. Hearing confidence from the mechanic, I decided to move ahead alone, at around 9 pm by keeping the message for the group at mechanic. This was against what was earlier decided - to reunite at Chango. The group arrived at Chango half an hour later hoping to meet me. They received a message that "mere 3 dost mujhe dhundte hue aaenge, unhe bata dena ki mai aage Tabo ke liye nikala hu". The group had almost decided to stay in Chango as they had seen enough of adventure for that night. But Chango being very small village, there was no good accommodation available. Vikram was firm on the decision of going ahead to search for me even if others were staying in Chango. Vikas also voiced his opinion to go ahead to look for me as I was alone riding on a broken bike. After a brief debate, all decided to move ahead.

I was told about encountering a check post around Sumdo. It required a licence and an RC book of the bike of which RC copy was with Ashya and it was not with me. As I was going to approach Sumdo, I saw three donkeys walking in the middle of my path. Watching them I blew the horn repeatedly. To my total disbelief, two

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 5/7 by Kunal Diwakar

donkeys moved aside whereas one of the donkeys attacked my bike. The donkey ran at me only to give head on collision to the bike! This took me totally off guard, the collision almost causing second fall for the day. I somehow managed to keep the bike balanced and rushed my bike ahead of the donkeys. This was another instance when I had averted a major disaster. My heart beats became fast and saw an unmanned check post. As I wasn't having the RC copy, he decided not to stop there and race ahead. I remembered mechanic's word to keep left during the diversions and drive by the Spiti river being on left for the whole route. I identified first diversion to keep riding towards Tabo. Continuous sound of flowing river during night for a lonely person felt frightening, to say the least. Other than river's and bike's sound, I heard some uproar of movements somewhere. I was terrified to the bone and thought if it was sound of some animal, perhaps a snow leopard! After a fraction of a second some stones came down from the mountains in front of his bike on the road. In the meantime, the group reached the check post only to see none of the entries for me in the register. They asked the men there if they saw anyone with the broken bike only to hear nothing. This left all the group members deeply baffled about my whereabouts. They had no choice but to recommence their drive. The moment of my journey was right there when my confidence started degrading rapidly. I constantly kept feeling something unforeseen is going to struck me sooner or later. I was broken and my eyes started becoming teary. Thoughts about my mother, father and nephew kept gathering in my mind. I started reciting "Shree Ganeshay Namah" although myself being atheist! I arrived at another diversion where the directions were not visible. Fortunately for me, I saw a Tata Sumo with a man using his mobile phone. I blew horn continuously to have that man notice me. The man directed me to take left for Tabo whereas right would have taken me to Geu village which is famous for ancient mummy. I resumed again. All had woken up at 5 on that morning and I felt as if I was riding for ages. I was physically and mentally drained and was started to think about halting for that night at the first place I see next. Just near Tipta I arrived at my next hair raising point. All this while, a mountain was at my right, river to left. I arrived where I could not see any road ahead. I stopped my bike, made ignition off. It was a kind of a river bed and I thought as if there is no road ahead. For a second, I decided to take the bike back to the road from where I had came. It was not worth backing out after going through so much all day. I tried to gather composure, parked the bike and walked ahead for a few steps to locate the road. After walking for around 20-25 steps, I saw the road, ran towards my bike and started for onward journey.

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 6/7 by Kunal Diwakar

I was not confident whether I was on the right path to Tabo or not. I had decided to stay at some or the other place coming first on the way. I also realised that I didn't have anything in my backpack for camping anywhere on the path. I kept riding thinking about encountering an army check post if I reach Indo-Tibetian border. It was 11 at night when I saw a sign board stating village Lari. The population of the village was 200 souls, but none was visible to me. I could see some houses with lights on in few of them. The dogs were strolling on the streets. I decided to check for any stay option available in that village. I saw two houses with some of the lights in their rooms illuminated. I parked the bike and decided to go to one of the houses where a car was also parked in the parking. I had arrived at another blood curdling moment. I tried knocking the door of the house. By the force of knocking, the door opened with spooky sound only to find darkness inside the house. Even though I was a non believer about

the presence of ghosts, the circumstances made me think about the ghostly things in the house. It was a heart in my mouth moment. I rushed back to my bike to see a dog standing by my bike. I moved towards the road to see another house with lights on, on other side of the road. I was afraid this time to go into another house or to go to the bike seeing a dog by bike. I waited for a minute for a dog to move away from the bike but the dog was adamant to move. Luckily, I saw a Maruti 800 approaching from opposite side of the road. I waved at the car and asked the road for Tabo. They directed me to go for another 4-5 kms for Tabo. I then requested them to help me get my bike start which was being guarded by the dog! I told them how I was struggling with my broken bike and driving alone far from my group searching for Tabo and some accommodation to stay for a night. I asked them for help to get the bike going. One of the gentlemen got out of the car and carried the bike towards me. The man also tried his hand on the gear and by good luck, the gear changed to second after almost 4.5 hours! I thanked all of them for their help and started towards Tabo again. Now, I was able to ride my bike at 35-40 km/hr instead 10-15. It was a good straight road towards Tabo without any twists or turns. I noticed the stars above shining brightly in the night sky. After riding for some 10 minutes, I was followed by some 4 wheeler for the first time in my entire journey, which was not honking its horn asking for a side. I thought it could be my group following me for last few minutes otherwise someone else would surely have overtaken me. For the first time in the entire journey, Vikas didn't try to overtake someone. I turned around to see Dinesh first, sitting besides the driver on the front seat. I was so relieved now and I stopped to see Vikram, Vijay and Golya coming down from their bikes. I couldn't hold my emotions and I bear hugged Vikram for a long duration. I was successful to hold my tears though! All others including Vijay, Golya, Dinesh and Sam came to hug me turn by turn. Everybody was screaming and telling me how worried all of them were and what kind of misadventures, risks and dangers all had gone through. Vikas didn't believe what KD had done on that night and he kept telling everyone until the end of our whole tour how brave I was to see the light at the end of the tunnel. After riding on an unfit bike for almost 5 hours, solo, in pinch dark cold night, on stone shooting and unpaved road for most of the time with maximum speed of 15 kms an hour with left leg on rear footrest for the whole time, I was united with my group again! I was alone, worried, puzzled, unsure, broken, frightened but determined and resolved for most part of my voyage. This story of survival and victory of overcoming the odds won't be forgotten by me for the eternity!!!

Photo of How Heavenly Spiti Almost Pushed Me to The Heaven! 7/7 by Kunal Diwakar