Tethys must have had her own charm. The shoreline on the Gondowana side was where I always wanted to be. 45 million years and Tethys chose to rise and rise. The sediments turned to rock slabs are running like straight lines and snow on them creating zebra stripes miles after miles while the car negotiates with the remains of Tethys seabed. Can’t see a sailboat anywhere or it was just an illusion as you navigate through the labyrinth of Himalayas, turn and turn and turn. And suddenly the road bifurcated, one taking a vertical leap and another almost diving into a gorge. And the wait begins; finally heaven sends an angel and he shows the path of the righteous man, and the journey resumes through her veins. Break-accelerator-clutch-accelerator-break-clutch…Tethys is rising again…the stones are coming down like hail storms and the Gong inside the head is only getting louder…
Woke up with a terrible headache and nausea on the Day 3 of the voyage to the once forbidden land, Spiti Valley. Outside it was just another dawn in Kaza, the snow is reflecting a tinge of orange in the early morning sun; the spotless blue sky in the background is arched over the town. The Gong inside the head continued meanwhile; I needed oxygen then.
It’s the primary state hospital of Kaza where I met Serine and the fellow patients. An ugly looking machine was pushing oxygen through my nostrils and I was trying hard to concentrate. Serine teaches english in a local private school, where tibetian is hardly taught seriously, she frowned. Her mother was lying sick on the bed adjacent; they have ultrasound machine here but nobody knows how to operate, looks like she will have to take her mother to Simla, a 500 kms and a strong determination away from Kaza. She had once travelled to Delhi though, her sister works as a hotel receptionist there. The Metro escalators are amongst worst inventions of the human kind; and she frowned again…it continued and the other patients joined in no time. Soon I was being invited to their homes; for tea, thukpa and country liquor ! Never felt more disappointed on leaving a hospital; was feeling better already. Affection works better than the oxygen may be…who knows !
The car was sailing through the notorious high tides of Himalaya after an overnight pitstop at Kalpa. The glaciers dried up a few weeks back, the dazzling white snow on the mountain crust and the blue sky conspire to make you dumbstruck. We started at 8:30 in the morning after a thorough investigation on the present road condition from locals. The Sun has just tilted to the West when we reached the border town Pooh and were still 150 Kms away from Kaza. On the verge of despair we met Karan Singh and the biker gang; they are riding their bullet since last 3 days and our destination was same. We said, “Ahoy sailor…the shore’s close !”
The Spiti Valley is a cold desert mountain valley located high in Himalayas in the north-eastern part of the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh. The name “Spiti” means “The Middle Land”, i.e. the land between Tibet and India. Kaza, the subdivisional headquarter of Spiti remains accessible to the rest of the world for around 4 months; late April to August. Rest of the year Glaciers take over the road. From Pooh you can reach till Sumdo where Indian Military is upgrading the border, but not beyond that. Temperature dives less than 30 degrees below the freezing point in the coldest of the months; and the world forgets Kaza.
**Back to Day 3**
Khibber village is 20 Kms drive from Kaza and one of the highest motor able and inhabited villages in the world. The 45 minutes drive wasn’t easy, specially the last few “kanchis”, the hairpins; the Gong inside the head reappeared again at 14,400 feet. By then I realised, it’s called anxiety, anxiety of losing motor sensing. Once you touch the heaven all anxiety evaporates and the Gong ceases; you win. I was hungry and looking for some food in the village market. “The nearest market is in Kaza. We ration our food round the year and come down to Kaza only when the stock ends” said Panchen Dorje with a smile. “But in the winter ?” I asked. The roads remain shut due to glacier movements. But Panchen knows another way, in the harsh winter he walks down to Chicham, which is 7 kms west from Khibber; then carefully descends onto the shore of Spiti and walk begins along the frozen shore line to get supply from Kaza. The de-route makes the journey 30 kms long and while returning it takes several hours or may be the entire day to climb Khibber with the supply. I was not feeling hungry anymore.
Panchen Dorje, 45 is an Ex Armyman, relieved from army after a problem in the eyesight 10 years ago. He is still searching for a suitable job for himself. He wants to be a teacher; hopeful to get a teaching job this year in the only government school in Kaza through Ex-army quota. He had to visit his brother’s house in Kaza and was waiting to get a lift at a place where spotting a car is purely a chance. “What if I was not travelling here ?“ I asked. “I would have waited” Panchen replied with an impish grin. He would have waited for hours to get a lift otherwise; with the altitude timezone changes too and the scale is not in minutes and seconds any more.
**Back to Day 2**
The 150 Kms from Pooh to Kaza was one of the longest we have ever driven. “You are on the most Treacherous Road of the world” the disclaimer came at the right moment when stones started coming down from the mountains. April is when glaciers start drying up making the stones inside the glaciers fragile enough for landslides. The border road organisation works round the clock to clear roads and the journey begins again. 20 Kms later at Khab we left the trail of Sutlej and journey began through the whims of Spiti. There are some road reconstruction going on in patches; only to get damaged again due to unstable mountain terrain. It took 4 hours to cover a distance of 70 kms from Khab to Sumdo.
They don’t allow to visit the Chinese border from Sumdo anymore. Indian Military is upgrading the border there. Some where on the top of a mountain their border outpost can be spotted. The sensitivity of a border town was quite clear from Military patrolling at the check post; photography was prohibited. I had learnt, due to border sensitivity the whole Sumdo village was moved a little south to clear no mans land. Chinese troops come riding horses once in a week, on the other side of the border, they inspect their positions and return to their base. In 2000 Dalai Lama came to the Kee Gompha in Kaza. Tibetians from the other side of the border came this side to listen to the “Pravchans”, the preaching; they crossed the border somewhere near Sumdo, set up their own tents to stay and went back to their villages when the Principal Lama returned. “Everyonce treated them like guests and no one reported anything.” Panchen Dorje will be telling me this next day while coming back from Khibber to Kaza. And I will be thinking, what’s a border ? A geopolitical administrative boundary or a Line of Actual Control (for a few powerful)
Final leg of the journey started from Sumdo. 65 Kms drive is through wide unending valley of the Spiti river. Setting sun on the snow capped mountains was creating a sharp contrast with the dark grey valley. Dusk was approaching fast, we were worried of reaching Kaza before it was dark. Finally it was 7:30 when we reached the town. The town in the evening looked deserted, occasional Gong was coming from the central Monastery. A few lamas were counting their beads and the houses which were supposed to be hotels were locked from either outside or inside.
Finally, mercy came from the hotel Snow Lion. Couple of rooms were ready for stay but water was frozen in the pipeline. So, with a couple of buckets of chilled water the Day 3 began to wrap up. The crescent moon remained hanging oblong behind snowcapped peaks; the stars were never so many on the black canvas before. Meanwhile, under heavy blankets of Snow Lion the Gong slowly increased inside the head.
**Back Again – Day 3**
Thousand years back Atisa Dipankar Bhowmick from Munshiganj (present Bangladesh), with his fusion Buddhisam of Tantra, Demons and Mahabodhi arrived in Tibet. Dromton, one of Atisa’s key disciples founded the Kee Gompha in Kaza 14,000 feet above the sea level to spread Buddhism and to protect his sect from invaders. In the next 1000 years there were Mongal attacks, regional in-fights, a massive fire outbreak and earth quakes; But the mud bricks remain, the prayer continues and the Thangkas flap in the rabid wind to add rhythms to their hymns; a millennium ends in the rest of the world. The murals in the inner chamber, drawn by the then students of the Nalanda university depicts Tantra, Demons, Kings and Buddha’s reincarnations. The “pothi”, preaching of Buddha preserved in the form of papyrus was translated in Tibetan from either Pali or Sanskrit by one of the reincarnations of Budhha. The messages and preachings of the monk travellers since ages are kept in small chambers which run through the wall. Have not seen so much treasures before. What does a tourist do when he falls in love with a place ? The Dalai Lama was smiling meanwhile through the photos, and the accompanying Lama offered tea, the butter salt one with lots of yak milk. And then, standing in the damp stone cold kitchen he continued on Buddhism; the route to the heart is probably via stomach…
**Bhushan Mehta and Tethys**
45 Million years back Gondwana had fallen in love with Tethys. It came closer pushing the seabed to rise. India, Africa, Australia and Americas placed themselves at their respective positions after the affair went public. But Tethys continued to rise to meet Gondwana, with 5 mm rise a year Mount Everest is breaking its own record every year since then. Tibet and Himalayan north Asia, once under Tethys seabed is a vast natural museum now. The fossils of sea creatures were casually kept in the reception of Snow Lion Hotel as showpieces on the tea table.
My concentration on the fossils was broken by the warm greetings in heavy Gujrati accent from a person in his early 40s. Bhushan Mehta is travelling with his wife, 2 kids and a rickety Santro. He had left his hometown Surat 25 days back and the family is on a great voyage. The elder one has just given his board exam, with a few days change at hand the family sailed off to one of the remotest places of the world. The wife who seemed to have come out of the kitchen for the first time was more enthusiastic than Mr. Mehta; and their stories knew no ends or probably they were excited to find someone from their earth in the unfamiliar land. Mr. and Mrs. Mehta were the only tourists other than us in Kaza at that time.
Kaza is 800 kms away from Delhi. Almost 500 of these 800 kms are through hilly terrains and 250 of those 500 kms are treacherous enough to put your driving skills on some serious tests. Me and Akaash planned nothing, thought nothing and with a vague sense of the map sailed off on a tuesday evening at 7:00 to cover the plains as early as possible. The night halt was at Chandigarh and early morning next day the journey continued through the easier hills crossing Simla, Narkanda, Rampur and finally Kalpa. The roads ceased to exist after Rampur though and the last 30 kms to reach Kalpa took four hours. The hold of the wheels was swapped in every two hours to prevent fatigue; one misstep could take the car straight into the gurgling Sutlej. And the drive continued next day through mixed emotions; breath taking Himalayas, loss of breath due to altitude, fear of crossing an almost impossible stretch, even thought of return mid way crossed minds. Finally at a barren nowhere a solitary milestone with “Kaza 8 Kms” put hope over despair.
We had halted at Tabo village for the night stay while returning back. Still 765 Kms away from home, a slow descent started at 6 am next morning. Plan A: night halt at Kalpa, Plan B: night halt at Rampur, Plan C: night halt at Narkanda, Plan D: night halt at Simla. 19 hours later sitting at a dhaba in Ambala we realised all plans failed and we started to believe in reaching Delhi in next couple of hours. A return of 23 hours non stop drive came to an end at 4:30 am; the Morning walkers had started coming out in the streets to greet the new day while Mr. Dylan had just ended his number :
“How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ‘n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”