Where the views and the drive take your breath away

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I love adventures, big and small. And Spiti Valley was my biggest adventure to date. As I prepare to go on an African adventure (to some emerald mines no less) next month, I couldn’t help but reminisce and share this story. A place whose beauty I can describe, but never capture, be it in words or in photographs. 

Two trucks have toppled in front of our car, and judging by the apples that are now rolling all over the road, it is harvesting season in Himachal Pradesh. Apparently, a mishap of this proportion means a two-hour delay, which we simply can’t afford. And so we end up driving through Shimla, instead of taking the bypass as we had planned. Well, at least I can say I’ve been there now.

I’m with a friend, and we are rushing to reach Sangla, which is a little over 350 km from Chandigarh. It’s an eventful start to our Himalayan Spiti Escape 2015, organised by Mahindra Adventure. The rest of the group left a couple of days back, and we are attempting to catch up with them; we eventually do, covering a journey they undertook over two days in 13 hours of near non-stop driving by Thousife, our tireless driver. We reach Banjara Camps in Sangla close to 10 p.m., and settle next to the bonfire for a warm drink and some much-needed food.

We wake up to a sea of apple trees outside our window. It’s a sight we get used to over the next few days: fruit-laden trees are everywhere, tempting us to reach out and pluck just one ripe apple and bite into it. We resist, and get into our assigned cars, ready to set out for a 133-km drive to Nako, which lies within the restricted area, close to the Tibetan border. It’s an impressive sight: a convoy of over 20 vehicles — Scorpios and Thars, led by a Legend — driving out with headlights on. As we pass by, children and adults wave to us and some even take videos on their phones. I’m in the latest model Scorpio, with a vastly more experienced companion; he’s an off-roader too. It’s just as well: I’ve never driven a big car and I’m more than a little intimidated by the roads after the previous day’s drive.

Although it is my first time in the Himalayas, I quickly realise that distances measured through kilometres are of no consequence here. The roads are bad, or simply non-existent. They are simply paths blasted out of the side of the mountains. We cover 20 km or less in an hour. As we enter Spiti Valley, however, I don’t mind the bumpy roads so much. At every turn, the view gets better. From green, the colours slowly fade. The vegetation gets sparser and the mountains turn brown; some are grey, black or snow-capped, but are no less beautiful. Each mountain is different, with the lines of a million years of the earth’s history etched on them; as one fellow adventurer exclaims over the radio, “It’s like art!” The Sutlej, and later, the Spiti River, snake along below us, and as we drive down into the valley, the towering walls of the mountains are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.

The first time I get behind the wheel, the expedition lead Hari Singh, a five-time national rally champion and Asia zone rally championship winner, informs us that we’re going to be traversing what is billed as the ‘World’s Most Treacherous Road’. It’s quite an experience, driving with solid rock on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

For the next four days, we don’t see a single cloud, and comprehend what “sky blue” really means. We drive from Nako, at 12,010 ft above sea level, to Tabo, with its famous monastery. On the way, we stop at Giu village, to see the mummified monk of Spiti Valley. It is said to be that of a 45-year-old lama (Buddhist monk), who followed the tradition of self-mummification; he was found, and still remains, in a sitting position, with a rosary in his hand. A guide points out a nearby mountain, saying, “This side is India, the other side is China.” We then drive down to Kaza, crossing the Lahaul and Spiti Valley as we stop for the night, at 11,980 ft. Since we’re a little away from the village proper, we can see the night sky in all its brilliance; the place is a photographer’s dream, be it day or night.

The next day, we drive to Komic (one of the highest inhabited villages on earth) and Hikkim (the highest functioning post office). On the way, there’s quite a bit of opportunity to go off-roading. After lunch by the Spiti River — barbecue, followed by a meal that included the most delicious baingan dish — it was time for splashing around with some river fording, before a visit to the Kee (or Key) Monastery.

Our longest drive of the trip begins at 5.30 a.m., when the temperature is 3 degrees Celsius. A breakfast of jam sandwiches, boiled eggs, cold parathas and piping hot aloo gravy awaits us at the highest point of our journey — Kunzum La at 15,060 ft. We then take a detour to see the beautiful Chandra Taal Lake, stop at a dhaba where we have instant noodles for lunch, cross Rohtang Pass in darkness and mist; 16 hours later, we drive wearily into Johnson Hotel in Manali. After an enforced digital detox, everyone’s glued to their phones over dinner, even as a group of hippies sing Yo Yo Honey Singh in the restaurant.

Manali’s laidback vibe is addictive; after a lazy Sunday lunch of roast chicken at Martin’s, we walk around Old Manali to shop and while away time till dinner, which we have at Casa Bella Vista. It’s vegetarian, but the pizzas, bruschetta and pita bread are so good that even the most hardcore non-vegetarians among us don’t mind the unavailability of meat on the menu. The molten chocolate cake and banoffee pie for dessert are divine. In all, the adventure and food have been expertly planned and executed from beginning to end.

It’s hard to leave behind such a beautiful place, but we pile our luggage into the now-dusty cars, and head to Chandigarh. The verdant green mountains that had me staring at their lushness have lost a little bit of their sheen in my eyes, especially after the barren beauty of the Himalayan valley.

Photo by Priyanka Koijam

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