Solitary, as the shimmery moon in a starless sky, I walked across the road and into the cozy havens of the homestay. It was the first day of 2018, and with temperatures as low as -25°C, I was on a journey of a lifetime.
Known to be a biker’s paradise in the conventional summer months, Spiti Valley remains virtually disconnected from the rest of the world in the white winters. Landslide prone stretches, heaps of heavy snow and arctic like temperatures make it an improbable commute on the otherwise all-weather road. I, however, was fortunate to have found my through to the nirvana of white Spiti, an experience as out-worldly and as sublime, as any can ever be.
On the last Friday of 2017, I made my way to the suburbs of Delhi after my routine office hours. All I had running in my head was the road map to my destination and the expectation of getting a ride to start with. Fortunately, I soon found a series of rides without having to wait for long. Delhi to Zirakpur, Zirakpur to Solan, Solan to Theog, Theog to Rampur & Rampur to Rekong Peo; I hopped on motor bikes, cars, trucks and even an occasional tractor to reach Kinnaur by the next evening. Exhausted by the first outing of my first hitchhiking experience, I took refuge in a homestay and called it a night.
The next day began with a 5:30 a.m. alarm bell, and the unwillingness to get out of the cozy quilt. The room had been freezing! I soon realized I had to make a move, as the only bus from Rekong Peo to Kaza leaves at 7a.m., and in order to get a seat for myself, I had to make it to the bus-stand as early as possible. Today was a 12 hour / 200km bus ride through a shooting-stones and landslide-prone road. The biggest challenge, however, came from a gradual 12° temperature drop through the day. I loaded myself with warm layers and made it to the bus stand in perfect time, winning myself a front seat in the HRTC bus to enjoy the panoramic view. Soon after the engines started, I couldn’t help but notice the pile of rolled newspapers kept next to the driver’s seat. On asking, I was informed that these were back-dated news-papers from the previous day, and the HRTC buses on this route are entrusted with the job of supplying one paper for each village along the course of the journey. This custom instigated a vivid thought in my head, about how different life in the mountains is. I was already loving the feeling of disconnect with the everyday world that I live in.
By 7:30 in the evening, I hopped off the bus in a moderately snow-clad Kaza. It was dark, cold and the barely-visible ice on the inclined road made it a very difficult walk to a nearby homestay. In the homestay, I was greeted by the owner and a group of cheerful lads sitting by the bonfire. All strange faces who were about to get a mention in my memory book. Thank you for the most amazing party boys, and for driving me around in Spiti too.
My new friends had discovered that I had no planned itinerary for my vacation, so they asked me to join them in their plans to visit Koumik, Hikkim & Langza. I gladly obliged! We drove around the majestic whites of Spiti Valley in their hired Force Traveller before we finally reached Langza village.
In Langza, the boys had reservations to stay the night. I bid them farewell and started the long walk back to Kaza.
Walking down from Langza was not as easy as I thought it might be. I was told that it’s a 2 hour descent which obviously did not include getting lost in the way. I chased trail after trail, just to realize that I had been walking on cattle tracks leading to nowhere.
After 3 hours of wandering in complete seclusion, I somehow got back on the road and decided to seek no further adventures as it was almost dark. From there it took me an hour to get back to my base in Kaza. An eventful day came to a hush end.
The next day started with an early breakfast under the warm sun. Unlike the previous day where I had some company to go with, today was mostly about spending some alone time. I grabbed my camera and set foot towards Key monastery.
Expecting to get a ride, for hours I walked on the desolate road besides a shimmering Spiti River. No wonder it was such a solitary setting! Spiti valley in winters can (thankfully) be a hostile place for the everyday tourist; I, however, was glad about all that I had around me.
Having the landscape all to myself, I danced and sang to the music of the hush valley; I soliloquized how life has turned out to be and how I intend to take it through. To say the least, I had forgotten about all of the brain-made troubles, and also about the delusional ride coming my way. I was just happy to be walking there!
Rapt in boundless thoughts, I was finally distracted by the sight of three humans sitting by the road. I continued along my course until being stopped by one of them, “How long have you been walking on the road my friend?” Conspicuously, they were surprised to see a southerner in the wilderness, and instantly invited me to join them for a cup of tea. I, tired of talking to myself, obliged without hesitation!
Sitting under the comforting sun, we talked for an hour about life in the Himalayas, about their profession of cleaning the roads of the valley, and about my love for the mountains that keeps bringing be back. We shared a human bond of respect and sentiment, something which is unlikely in the metropolitans we come from. Oh, it was the finest hour of my journey in the secluded valley, something I will take with me wherever I go!
Soon after the fine interaction had ended, and the locals had made their way back to their village, I got a ride to Key Monastery, and thereafter to Kibber village and back to Kaza.
While on the return journey for the day, I met Kesang, a taxi driver from Rangrik Village. Kesang told me about his plan to drive to Losar in the evening & return to Kaza the following afternoon. Losar was as far as the road could take me in Spiti Valley. I instantly got intrigued by the plan and dropped a message at my homestay in Kaza that I won’t be staying the night but will probably be back by the next day.
At 5 in the evening, I boarded Kesang’s Tata Sumo and soon realized that I will be sharing my ride with 15 others. Yes, there were 16 people in that Tata Sumo, and everyone except me was a local from the valley. Now, winters in Spiti can be so hard and so unsuitable for tourism, that even the locals get surprised on seeing someone from the south. For most part of my ride to Losar, I was the topic of discussion for everyone in the overpopulated car. Everybody was so happy blabbering about me, giving me stares and smiles until the lady sitting next to me spoke something in a language I was familiar with.
‘Where are you headed?’, she asked in a noble tone.
‘Losar’, I said with a smile.
She looked around the car and again started talking in the local language. Before I could get back to being lost in the darkness outside the door glass, she returned to me and said, ‘There are a couple of homestays in Losar, one of which is closed and the other might not have room for you. I believe you haven’t made reservations for your stay, how are you planning to manage?’.
Honestly, I had no answer to her question. I just blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.
‘I believe that the villagers won’t just let me be out in the open and die of the cold, would they?’
On hearing this, she broke into laughter and told me that I can stay at her place. They are a family of 5 but can make some room for me nonetheless. Oh, I was so glad to be reintroduced to humanity!
We reached Losar at around 8, and as promised, I was taken in by the old lady, I sat with the family as they prepared dinner. We ate together and I was later shown my place to sleep. I was happy to have lived this beautiful day. It was the 1st of January, 2018, a happy new year indeed!
The next day began with bed tea and lots of smiles from my new family members. I then took off for a walk in the village, returned for breakfast, and at around 12 noon, Kesang was back to pick me up for the return journey to Kaza. Thankfully, unlike last day’s ride from Kaza to Losar, today we were on the road in broad daylight. A good chance to soak in the scenery and capture some landscape.
We reached Kaza by 3 p.m. and instead of heading to the homestay, I took to the market streets to make to most of the available sunlight. I also wanted to gather information about the road to Pin valley, which was sadly closed due to excess snowfall. The informant, however, told me about a car driving to Reckon Peo on the following day. Conspicuously, I did not want my vacation to end so early, but on the contrary, I wondered if I could use the rest of the day to see a bit of Sangla & Banjar Valley. I returned back to my homestay and to what was going to be my last night in white Spiti.
Right from walking besides a mesmerizing, semi-frozen Spiti river for hours, to being offered a place with the family by the old lady in Losar, I had experienced more than I ever anticipated. My hitch to Spiti had been so perfect that it actually left its repercussions on me. After this one, I’m afraid I might not want to travel with anybody except myself. I had found a comfort zone, and its going to be hard to push myself out of it!
The rest of the journey was spent reading books and having some good conversations with myself. I reached Karcham after a day long drive from Kaza, and from there I got a ride to Chitkul. This was going to be my last major destination for the vacation, as I later found out that the road to Jalori Pass and Banjar Valley was closed due to persistent snowfall. I spent a day in Chitkul, before heading back to Delhi. Will sign off with some picture of the beautiful Sangla Valley.
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