Bhim struck a conversation with the boys sitting next to him. All Mallu boys studying engineering and from Telichery- Northern part of Kerala. One of them was singing the songs blasting in the vehicle.
It turned out he was a good singer and even did an open jam session in one of the cafes in Kaza. The boys were good natured and easy going, making fun of each other, telling us stories, adventures, sharing funny videos of themselves. Then we coaxed him to sing some songs, the driver tuned out the volume, and so he began. Beautifully singing Hindi numbers while the driver took us through hair raising narrow hairpin bends that got your gut.
After some time, the musician guy at the back also joined in, and together they sang. It was a wonderful moment. The rough journey notwithstanding, it was pleasing to see such energy in the group.
We had already crossed the first ‘Nalla’ glacier water that was storming down and one could imagine how the full force would be. The driver said by evening it would completely block the route flooding it, hence no one started from Kaza post noon.
The landscape was ever changing with the Spiti river flowing, the massive valley opening on and off with the rocks filled road. I didn’t see grimace or tension in our driver’s face. Cool, smiling, talking now and then.
His skills were extraordinary navigating the vehicle over flooded water, really bad paths that one wrong step meant fatal. We had already crossed a diversion where one way was directed towards Chandratal while the other continued to Manali.
Enroute we saw shepherds, horses grazing with the magnificent mountains behind them. Honestly I don’t have the right words to describe what we experienced.. We were open mouthed, star struck seeing it unfold in front of us. The driver rightly said ‘If you want to see the real wild Spiti, it is this route’. We saw a group of foreigners trekking with a guide in the middle of nowhere going towards Chandratal.
We crossed Batal, where we passed by the famous Chacha Chachi dhaba, I remember seeing this in my friend Bunny’s post. But the driver wisely went ahead of all the dhabas that was super crowded and stopped at another place for lunch. Our bones were rattling when we got down from the jeep.
After quickly finishing up lunch, we were on our way again. We were counting the number of Nallas we crossed. Some of the man made stone bridges were damaged with glacier water and landslides. One could imagine how it would be when it snowed. By October the routes were closed off. Even now buses were not allowed to go on this route.
At one point, the route was really bad filled with rocks, mud, slush and flooding water. Bikes were stuck with the bikers falling off their bikes. And let me tell you this was a narrow on the edge route.There was one path I remember that was jammed with big rocks and gushing water and the driver had to reverse and rev up the engine repeatedly to go over it. We all became silent, hoping it won’t crack down. It was the sheer skill of the man that we made it through. Spiti tells you how thin the line is between life and death..
We saw the landscape now slowly moving away from Spiti. From the raw wild landscape with browns and stark barrenness, we could see patches of green then slowly the mountains were turning green, with this it was clear that we were leaving Spiti behind us.
As I saw the changes, I felt a pang in my heart, like a wound, I was leaving Spiti. Will I ever come back here? For almost two weeks we were in Spiti experiencing it’s magnificence, unpredictability and challenges, it felt more than bitter sweet, I felt a lump in my throat, a deep well of pain. Life is like that, everything is in motion and the only thing constant is change.
We briefly saw a good wide road for 15 minutes. The driver also said it would have been good if the entire route was like this but then one wouldn’t face the raw wilderness either. We saw loads of bikers and vehicles going from Manali to Kaza and vice versa. The mountains now were a luscious green with the fog enveloping them and even clouding the roads. This was a different landscape altogether.
Then we crossed Rohtang Pass – more like a fucking ‘Mela’(festival) I tell you. We were shocked when we saw people crowding the road, traffic jams like in the city. People renting jumpsuits to go near the snow, vendors and street hawkers it was crazy! It was more like Chowpatty in Bombay than a pass! The driver wisely didn’t stop telling us stopping here even for 5 minutes meant an hour late into reaching our destination.
But Murphy’s law prevails and how! On a narrow crossing because of the rains there was lot of soft mud and slush and a couple of big vehicles got stuck. The entire traffic was jammed. There was no option but to wait and we did for more than a hour and half. And that’s when you see people in their true colours. The bikers were the worst. Trying to overtake a traffic jam, one bike fell right in front of us because of his over smart moves.
One truck was stuck so bad that they were not able to move ahead. Bhim, the other boys, the driver, people from other vehicles helped pushing the truck. But not one and I mean not one single biker moved. With their fancy bikes and fancy gear, they were only fretting and fuming about getting delayed. And their registration plate? Delhi, Punjab and Haryana. Never breaking the stereotype.
The couple spoke to Bhim. The girl suggested some lovely places to hangout in Manali that evening. We were looking at cheap hostel options so they told us to stay in Old Manali side. They were digital content creators living in Bangalore.
We were finally on our way with the traffic clearing up and it looked beautiful as we moved ahead, the entire landscape turned lush dark green. It was raining hard and fast and the slopes were a sight to behold.
Spiti was gone and we were in the green landscapes of Manali. There was fog, there was rain and there was dangerous driving by the vehicles and bikers. Our driver was cool personified, navigating wet slippery slopes calmly.
We were crossing villages, amidst heavy rains reaching Manali. I remember one guy cycling on the road with his backpack, an Indian guy. The slopes were steep with hairpin bends. Finally we entered into Manali and got swamped by noise, pollution, roads and shops. We were back to civilisation or were we? Leaving the silent landscape of Spiti, we were in a different world.
The vehicle stopped near the new bus stand. It was 6.30 pm and we were on the road for 11 hours. The body took a solid toll. We could feel our bodies screaming, How much more? The route and the ride is definitely not for the faint hearted. One has to have balls of steel.
We wished the boys all the best, they were going to Kullu and doing the Kheerganga trek. The couple would stay in Manali for a couple of days. The guy gave us precise directions to go to the hostel with the amount to be paid to the auto guy, he was very helpful. He asked if we could meet them tomorrow for a drink but we were heading off to Dharamsala in the morning.
We thanked the driver profusely and tipped him. It was our way of thanking him in a small way. He gave a big smile and asked So will you guys visit Spiti again? What do we say? We smiled and said our goodbyes. The man would go back to Kaza early morning tomorrow.
We enquired at the bus stand about buses going to Dharamsala in the morning. There was one at 8.30 am so we had time. We were relieved we didn’t have to rush early.
We reached the beautiful hostel in Old Manali. The dorm beds were really cheap, very comfortable and no one was there in the room. We just dumped our backpacks, a quick fresh up and asked the guy managing the place for a cafe. It was 100 metres from the hostel.
In fact there were lots of options as we walked. As it was Old Manali, it retained its colonial charm with lovely eclectic cafes. We walked into a cafe called 1947. The best part about it was one could sit outside with the view of the river next to it. We settled in and immediately ordered chilled beers. I remember when we took that first sip, we went Aaah! 😊 After two weeks of roughing it, this was heaven!
Over pizzas and beer, we chatted, spoke about our sojourn in Spiti and the journey it was. We were now entering into a new journey, a new beginning. Tomorrow would be another long ride to Dharamsala.