Kaza to Manali : A road less travelled

Many years ago, my wife read about a place called Lahaul-&-Spiti and somehow fancied the idea of going there. When the time came, we actually had no idea on what exactly it was. We knew that its in HP and that its far. After some digging, the fact about being far was validated and with it came another discovery that if everything falls in place, we can drive on a 200 Km odd stretch through Himalayas which only opens for 3 odd months. Wow! SRK’s dialogue in OSO validated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words around the universal conspiracy behind happening things so well used by Paulo for ‘The Alchemist’. Yeah, yeah, I am getting cryptic again. Re-Read if desired. SRK’s dialogue in OSO validated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words around the universal conspiracy behind happening things so well used by Paulo for ‘The Alchemist’.

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Kaza, the capital of district Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, was great for the 2 days we were there, a visit to couple of villages which are as up as one can go, go to Ki Monastery and if I show you a pic its difficult to believe that one day I just started from my home and rev-ved the engine and reached here. All was well but the itch to drive on that stretch was getting difficult to control. The road has just opened the day prior. My better one-3rd (the elder one) was not feeling too well because of HAS (High Altitude Sickness) and on 2nd day’s evening before dinner, we decided to call it short at Kaza and drive next morning straight to Manali. Few phone calls to convince Banjara Camp guys to get us a room at Manali, and to adjust the money for the night we didn’t stay for any future endeavour. While all this was happening, it started raining and I tried my luck to fill the tank by dashing to local fuel station, only to find it closed. It is a Sarkaari Gas station. A jugaad late evening through a local business man-cum-good-Samaritan-cum-guardian angel who was celebrating the purchase of a new JCB in the dining hall over Beer (amazingly quiet folks, though), to get fuel in the morning. Finally, packing up the hardware, the excitement for the dream-run and the anxiety it entailed we went to sleep.

We got up at around 7. I could see this large mountain at a distance from the glass wall in my room from my bed itself, then comes the river, then some greens which you can see better as you get up, and finally the parking lot that had my car; and by the time I was standing, an alert look confirmed that the passenger side rear tyre had gone flat. What an eye! Sigh!

Kaza is a small town, if you would like to call it a town. I jogged down to ground level alerting my wife on my departure and took the car to the puncture-repair guy since someone told me that he has seen the shop open about 10 minutes back. The shop was shut. I asked around, found the guy at a distance, convinced him of my need and after about 60 minutes of work I was back to our hotel with a round-enough tyre and full-enough gas – found the JCB guy there and the Sarkaari petrol pump opened in time so all done.

We started at about 9.30 from Kaza and in a while we were going past ‘Ki’ Monastery. You cross the rivulet and get on to the other side that goes to Manali.

The whole stretch can be divided into following sections:

1. Kaza – Losar
Distance – 58 Km. 2 hours

Kaza-Losar is a very special drive with large green (desert green) meadows flanking the strip of tar, the road is pretty neat. You pass many villages and most of them just come and go since they don’t inhabit too many people, 100 to 500 or even less.

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It is very scenic and pure with hardly anyone around. You can accelerate and buffer up for the rest of the day on this stretch. We were a caravan of two vehicles so one of us would stop for a pic or two while the other would carry on and then we would find the other doing some shots later. This carried on for initial 30-45 minutes before we realized that something is a miss.

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I stepped down and gathered that the rear passenger-side wheel cap was not in place; probably I didn’t put it well. Remember that the puncture fix act was a shared one. It seemed OK. By now the other car had passed by and we waved them along, sensing all were fine.

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One more furlong, and suddenly the car stopped. You push the gas paddle, nothing happens. I stepped out and couldn’t believe what had happened. The wheel was jutting out but thanks to the wheel cap, it was somehow still holding on to studs (the wheel goes to a stud and then you bolt it with a nut) but car was not really resting on that wheel.

The first reflex was to wave at the other car that we could see at a distance but no avail. It was like a help disappearing, the whistles and shouts just didn’t work. The line of sight went beyond a mile in all directions – with not a soul alive visible.

Well, what happened actually was that when I replaced the tyre (while the punctured one was being fixed), I didn’t screw the nuts well enough. I remember that I was offered a cuppa hot tea and probably I thought that I would resume the screwing later which never happened.

I raised the car up on the jack only to realize that the studs on which you fix the nut had gone ‘free’, abbraised the spiral carving In simpler worlds while the car was running and as the nuts were struggling to pop out, it gradually scraped the rings. Thankfully enough, three out of the five nuts had got stuck between the wheel and the cover. Anyway, my recently bought heavy-duty steel paana came handy and I managed to tighten two screws somehow. I also realized that if this tyre goes flat then there is no way I can unscrew it. With two nuts (pun unintended) totally worn out (pun intended), and after tightening the third one that eventually went free, I had run out of ideas. Of course, amidst all this I hurt myself as well but a man needs to do what a man needs to do.

1000 invalidated options were squashing our minds – should we just try to go back on the 3 screws. And just then, one local chap came along walking by and assured that he’s gonna help us find a screw, so we drove back on 3 screws to the last village we passed by. While struggling with that, we were being overtaken by a couple of guys in a Bolero Invader. A quick glance and they stopped, asking whether we needed help. It didn’t take long for both of us to briskly walk down to them to explain. Apparently the duo was on a recee on the same stretch towards Manali for a motor-bike expedition.

Have you ever heard about the puzzle about losing five nuts and then taking a nut each from other wheels and making it work for a short distance. That’s what the super confident champ of Bolero did, he took a nut out from the front passenger side wheel, a right nut when pushed well went in easily and we started. He was not too happy for all the time we had lost so he wanted to rush but promised that we would drive together at least till we reach Batal.

The drive till Losar was mostly uneventful (yeah ok – peaceful). A car with two young parents with a 4 year old Kid driving through some stretch of the upper Himalayas. Honestly, we were still on the edges of our seats and couldn’t even think of taking any more pictures. Trust me, it WAS picturesque enough. So with the high spirit, non-challant faith and hope we drove on.

The drive has a good mix of tall mountains, rubble, hundreds of melting glaciers, narrow streams crossing the road, good roads, off roads, no roads. We kept our focus and carried on.

The storm preceded lull – or so it seemed.

Losar – Kunzum La – Batal
Distance – Km. 1 – 1.5 hour

After Losar, you are now on a no-road zone. You also begin to gain altitude. The speed goes for a toss and your only focus is to make progress, however tiny it may be. Since the snow was cleared up just few days back, there was nothing done as yet on the ground so we were maneuvering around rocks, crests, trough and making progress.

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As you go upwards, the grey/brown scenery begins to turn into White. You pass through snow columns, you can actually take your hand out and grab
a ball of fresh snow. The surface at more than one place is full of slush.

By the time you reach Kunzum La, its all glaring white. So much so that at times it difficult to stare at one particular point for more than a moment. The air is thin, the growl of the engine increases as it tries hard to pull enough air in.

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We stopped at Kumzum La, submitted our prayers and moved on. We were now at 4590 meter, Leh is at 3500 and Khardung La is at 5602, and though it may not qualify for the highest motorable road, it certainly commands enough respect among drivers like me as the one which is probably more difficult than Manali-Leh.

As we sloped down, we got more confident. I would stop multiple times to check both the wheels, and they were as great as everything around. The photo sessions returned and we took our first break at Batal.

Batal is the point of a glimpse of civilization. It has all of the two shops selling hot tea, maggi and some beds. Thats more or less about it. We had our packed lunch, polished it with the tea and moved on.

Batal – Gramphoo – Chatru
Distance – 32 KM
Time – 1.2 – 1.5 hours

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Post Batal, you don’t go up or down too much and its more or less a flat surface drive with the river (Chenab) accompanying for most of the distance but the surface is really not a surface. You pass through a stretch where you can zip at 40 KMPH and then you encounter a stretch where it has to done slower then 10 KMPH. After Kunzum La, this section doesn’t feel like a big drain but you need to drive to get pass this.

After a while we spotted the other car (that started with us, and the one we lost when the tyre crashed) and waved to them. Later when we stopped at Chhatru, they told us that they waited for a long time and then thought that probably we stopped for pictures etc. From then we were together till Manali.

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Chhatru has a shop where you can get tea so we took another break, had some thing to eat/drink and parted our ways with the Bolero guys.

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Chhatru – Rohtang – Marhi
Distance – 60 KM
Time – 2-3 hours

Post Chhatru, you take the climb again. With many more glaciers, the color takes a change again from brown to green. The other side of Rohtang is just the opposite of this side but the effects are already begining to show. It was not much before when it started drizzling.

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In no time the drizzle became a shower to a pour and since we were gaining height quickly, it turned into a snow-fall that was now a heavy wild blizzard. By the time we found the main tar road, the weather had taken a sharp dark turn and with that rate, it was not too far from becoming a danger. We put the blinkers on, and the fog light, and the headlights and moved on. It was getting difficult to drive with all the snow, on almost no road, with those turns and since we were now at quite a height, one side mountain and one side gorge regime had started again.

The tar was getting from bad to worse. We grew patient with every oncoming vehicle, trying to guess the weather from their outer state. By now, we would spot a car or a van or a mini truck quietly standing on the shoulder, choosing to wait rather then drive this thick outburst of blizzard. The wipers were doing best as they could and when we reached Rohtang, we didn’t see a single soul.

We crossed Rohtang with the hope that road would get better but it was not to be. It went worse. Mahindra rocks and we inched along slowly. As we started to climb down, the common thought was that the snow would at least become rain at low altitudes but we were making so little progress that it took a long time.

This was the most, the fiercest, the biggest snow-down I have experienced in my life. While we could somehow manage the heavy snow, the road (if it can be called one) was simply not there. With craters as big as as a football ground, cave-ins, water logging, snow and what not, we only prayed along.

The only break in this long monotony was the ride we gave to two young riders whose rented bikes had bronken down in the fierce rage of mother nature, their other friend was accommodated in the other car and we dropped them at Marhi.

Marhi – Manali
Distance – 30 KM
Time – 40 minutes

From Marhi, the road suddenly improves. It’s almost like you’re on the plains! We survived a jam of 1 hour and reached our hotel by 8-ish. I dropped my wife and kid at the hotel gate so that they attain sanity sooner and as I parked my car, the bell boy saw this big 20 Litre water bottle and asked me, ‘bahar ki party hai kya’?. I didn’t mind being taken as a chauffeur to a foreign client, I answer patiently “main hee party hoon”.

A drive well taken.

65 Comments

  • Mahesh says:

    What a nice travelogue! Amazing explanation.
    You are a real inspiration for my future trip. Thank you for such a nice explanation.
    The best dialogue is
    “Mai hi party hun”. :-)

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