the pilot’s voice streams in through the overhead speakers, announcing that we will shortly land in mumbai, where the temperature is thirty two degrees celcius. as soon as that number registers in my head, the voice seems to lose clarity. it fades away, syllable by syllable, in the end, becoming a garbled mass of disconnected sounds filling the plane.
i am transported back to kaza, losar, chandertal…shivering, watching my fingertips go blue as i step out of the tata sumo to take a pee. i am struggling for breath at kunzum, hallucinating at losar, sitting with my back to the sun in the hotel window, trying to trap as much heat as i can under my trusty blue sweater. i am not in that plane at all, which will land in the filthy furnace i have somehow managed to live in for more than thirty years, never having run out of breath except while climbing train station bridges.
i am in spiti. with my fifty stuck to the face of my camera. capturing as much as i can. taking in the views, the thin air, the faces of people, the mind-bending landscape. and i am smiling through it all.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
anand, renuka, shweta and i left for delhi from bombay on the 12th of september. the destination – kaza in the lahaul spiti valley, up in the northern himalayas. it was shweta’s first time in the rajdhani, and much to her delight, food started coming in within half an hour of us settling down in our seats. a steady stream of snacks, sandwiches and cold drinks began, and we dipped our hands into the river of eatables. soon, it was dinner time. we ate our fill and went off to sleep.
reached delhi at around eleven the next day. then began the shooing off of taxi and rickshaw drivers who hovered like flies around us. we patiently made our way to the prepaid auto stand; the flies followed. one of them expressed his disdain at our refusal and said, “yeah yeah go and stand there in the heat. there’s a long queue.” i looked at the auto stall to notice about twenty people standing with bags slung around shoulders, newly married women with bangles up to their necks guarding suitcases while the husband struggled in the sun to get an auto…the usual delhi scene. i had half a mind to call back the sneering auto guy and telling him that we are from bombay, queues do not faze us, and twenty people standing in line in the scorching sun for us bombay folks is an everyday scene of watching a cricket match on the large screen tvs from the outside of an electronics store.
took the autos to chayanika, one of shweta’s friends who lives in delhi. freshened up and lazed around her place for a while. ordered huge amounts of food for lunch, which included the famed galauti and tunday kebabs. the meal was too heavy, and the rest of us conked off for a couple of hours while shweta and chayanika chatted away.
got up, said our goodbyes, dumped the bags in the auto and went to himachal bhavan where our bus to manali was to leave from. spent some time getting bottles of water, chips and having ice-cream. the bus left a good half hour late, but picked up once we hit the highway. within an hour or so, all of us were asleep. stopped somewhere near ambala for dinner. good food. went back to our seats and dozed off.
got up for breakfast for the first glimpse of the beas river. making its way through boulders, it looked beautiful in the morning light, with the mountains filled with pine trees framing it nicely. manali was just a few hours away. stayed up till we reached our stop, watching the landscape go by. made a turn and the snow-capped mountains were in sight. and what a sight that was!
reached manali. booked a hotel right opposite the bus stand to spend a few hours before we set off to kaza. first contact with hot water! off of us had nice long baths. a good breakfast and a couple of hours’ rest, and we were ready to move ahead. that decision, like any seasoned traveller will tell you, smacked right in the face of logic. ideally, we should have spent the day there getting acclimatised. but the lords of altitude sickness were especially pleased with us and were waiting to welcome us with both arms. so, bags repacked, we left from manali in about three hours. got a tata sumo in spite of telling the guy to get us a toyota qualis. bad choice, as were soon to find out. the driver was an ex-army guy called fauji. i didn’t quite get his name but i think it was qasam or something.
after long winding roads and passing rohtang, we stopped at marhi for lunch.
had good chicken, spiced with fresh green chillies and handfuls of ginger. moved ahead. the road onward from rohtang deteriorates with every kilometer or so. kaza is about 220 kms from manali, and takes 11-12 hours. our last stop was at this turn where everyone stops to take pictures. not wanting to feel left behind, we took a few shots.
this pan is composed of 6 shots –
this was one of the three places we stopped.
the next stop was chatdu, where we had tea, stretched our legs a bit before giving ourselves entirely to the unforgiving journey in store ahead.
the road after rohtang practically disintegrates right before your eyes. the landscape starts getting sparser by the minute, and all you see around you are mountains of rubble, blue-purple mountains in the distance, mountains with sharp jagged edges, mountains that look like heaps of sand, and the river playing hide and seek between these endless mountains. not a single tree, no animals, a bird here and there. the signs of life we are accustomed to in journeys seem to have been hidden under the rubble that surrounded us. the sumo, notorious for its suspension (or the lack thereof) jumped about at every turn and every rock it went over, throwing us and our luggage a foot in the air.
anand and i got down for a while to break away from the constant tossing and turning to free our cramped legs. took a few shots before i realised just how cold it is outside in spite of the sun being out bright.
this road led us to a chatdu, a village down in the valley.
population – 150.
had nice hot tea at the stall, got back in and moved ahead.
the milestones along the way kept our hopes high. at every sighting of a run down stone, we asked fauji how much longer it would take. he would reply in hours. the equation not making sense in our heads at all. after all, how can a mere 75 kms take four hours?
i mean, in what world does that even make sense? and these godforsaken mountains, will they ever end and why is the car jumping so much all my bags are all over the place give me some water i want to puke i can’t keep my eyes open oh fuck fuck this headache my brain is being squeezed why are we stopping let’s go back screw this kaza business
that’s when the altitude sickness really hit us. an hour from chatdu, and all of our heads were reeling. the water bottles were empty, the car had become a roller coaster, looking out of the window gave an impression of being stranded on the alien planet from prometheus. renuka asked the driver to stop; she wanted to throw up. i got down to pee and the wind outside instantly froze the sweat on my back into a sheet of ice. memories of my first london winter flashed for a few seconds in front of my eyes. finishing my business, i almost ran back to the car and went off the sleep.
we reached kunzum pass in what seemed like an eternity. everyone except me got down to see the place. i opened my eyes with all the energy i could muster, glanced out of the window and closed them back. all i wanted was a place to drink a tank of water, lie down and sleep in peace. that opportunity came soon, as we reached losar. i have no recollection of what the place looked like, how i managed to go up to the room and sleep. all i can remember is the smell of fire and chants of om mani padme hum playing somewhere.
“civilisation! i smell civilisation. i want that song.” that’s what i remember saying to shweta.
got into the room, took off my shoes and crashed on the bed. woke up the next day with a splitting headache, achy eyes and a feeling that someone had siphoned off all the energy and the will to live out of me overnight. had breakfast, felt slightly better. filled up on water and moved ahead. reached kaza in three hours.
i cannot describe the ecstatic feeling of seeing a ‘town’ after a gruelling journey, after not having seen more than five people anywhere at a time, after being surrounded by dry, dusty mountains. kaza was a breath of fresh air, and much more life-affirming was the smiling face of karanbir singh bedi, the owner and manager of hotel deyzor. karan runs himalayanshepherd, where you can get your fix of everything you might need for a trip like this. warm, welcoming and reassuring – that’s karan for you. one look at our faces, and he knew we were bombay chaps whose only introduction with altitude sickness was when the lift goes up or down too fast. karan accompanied us to our rooms,showed us how the geysers worked, handed over pills to cure altitude sickness and told us to keep drinking water.
i do not remember when and how sleep came over, and within minutes, we were flat out.
the next morning saw all of us, except anand, struggling to get back on our feet. multiple glasses of piping hot ginger tea later, life seemed to come back to my drained body. still in a bit of a daze, i decided to step out for a while in the sun to see what the place looked like. and i wasn’t disappointed at all.
every room was named differently, with different keys and locks.
didn’t have too much energy to go sight-seeing, so we went back to the rooms, recuperated with hot water, awesome food and deathly sleep. the next day, we took a walk around, drove to the market and had lunch. experimented a bit with a polariser, hence the deeper blues. not that the sky there needed to be any bluer!
the closest places of interest from kaza are key monastery and kibber. we left for these places early next day. the road from a checkpoint all the way to the monastery is the only tar road in this side of the world. felt great to sit in the car and not being tossed around like chopped vegetables in a chef’s wok.
kibber has the distinction of being the highest village in the world. located at around 14,000 feet, one wonders just what in the world possesses these people to live there.
the little white dots you see at center left in the mountains are houses. i asked fauji if that was the real kibber and was it approachable by road, to which he mumbled something incoherent. i guess he wasn’t ready to drive for the 8 hours it would’ve taken us to reach there!
heard some music. walked towards the source to a small building next to the monastery, where the local women were practicing their dance for a program arranged for a group of foreign tourists.
headed to key monastery from kibber. it started out as a fort around 700 years ago. consequent attacks and an earthquake reduced it to its current form – a stack of white boxes from a distance in the middle of the mountains.
came back for lunch in kaza market. as usual, over-ordered.
and just like that, it was time to leave deyzor, karan and the lazy days we had just gotten used to. had to forgo visiting tabo and nako as we decided to go back to manali and spend anand’s birthday there. next stop – chandertal lake. got karan to fix accommodation at the lake. if you are ever there, stay at parasol camps. look for bishan thakur on facebook. he runs the camps.
stopped en route at losar, the place where i had almost passed out on the way to kaza. i looked around and had absolutely no recollection of the hotel, the rooms or whatever.
stopped at kunzum pass along the way to chandertal.
a place of faith practically in the middle of nowhere. chill winds carrying the prayers wrapped in the flags to whoever’s in charge of their fulfillment, snow-capped mountains behind standing guard, the barren landscape folding in places like a bedsheet just visited by the house cat. the stupas at kunzum pass are a reminder of the strength of human faith. every car passing by that road goes around the stupas before going ahead, a parikrama, a bow before the absolute power of nature over man.
reached chandertal and headed straight to the lake.
the lake has the power to render you speechless. the blue of the water, the sound it makes as it gushes over rocks, the absolute clarity of the lake, and the fact that such a beautiful, life-affirming thing exists in those surroundings is enough to wash away any trace of pain or fatigue you might be riddled with.
the sun had started to set, and once it did, the temperature dropped sharply. we started back for the tents. by then, shweta had gone cold. wearing just a top and a thick sweater, the cold got to her pretty quick. rushed back to the tents, had tea and rested for a while.
that smiling face soon turned distressed. having no desire to eat, shweta went off to sleep while the rest of us went to the dinner tent. had a nice big bowl of steaming hot garlic soup, followed by a full meal of rotis, vegetables, rice and dal. went back to the tent to find shweta shivering in spite of wearing four layers, gloves and socks. not having dinner was the biggest mistake she made, resulting in me giving her half my duvet, leather gloves and all. the food i had was enough to sustain me through the night.
got up, had a nice breakfast and prepared to leave. but not before playing cards in the warm morning sun with bishan, and him giving me one of the best head and shoulder massages ever! my headache disappeared within minutes, my body felt relaxed and i was ready to take another ride all the way to kaza and back.
said our thanks and left for manali.
flew back to bombay from chandigarh the next day. all in all, this had been the trip of a lifetime for all of us. we survived biting cold winds and mind-altering altitude sickness, relished every drop of ginger tea at deyzor, took in every view with an awestruck look, experienced a kind of blue that probably doesn’t exist at all in any colour palette…
and the only image that will probably stay in the mind’s eye long, long after all memory is gone, is this one –