Spiti in Winter – the Spirit in White
This is not a trip log per se, not a day by day account of the journey as that would be too protracted to be of universal interest. Moreover, the ride to Spiti is pretty well documented over many other threads and so would only get repetitive. What I shall share here are impressions of this enchanting land that still evoke a thrill within me, despite this being my 16th sojourn into it. Winter gives Spiti an added dose of mysticism, the pristine whiteness forming a mantle of purity that not just enchants and enthralls but also triggers an inward journey. You see, feel and revere nature at its harshest and yet at its finest. It is not passion or determination that gets you there but humility and curiosity. You respect the weather and are curious of the artwork it leaves in its aftermath. And true as it is for such high places, what you get to see doesn't disappoint.
Hitting snow big time near Kaza!
The Kinner Kailash peak as seen from Puh
We three left Delhi in rain on the 24th of March (your’s truly on his Duke 200, Avinash @The Monk on xBhp’s official Duke 200 and Anshul Uniyal @anshul uniyal on his ZMA) knowing this was going to be a long trip going by the unpredictable prevailing weather. Mountain Weather Forecasts turned out to be uncannily accurate though that didn't stop the rain and snow even a day early than predicted! So we waited. Apart from the usual itinerary day count, a day was used up waiting at Sarahan for the road to clear just past Recong Peo (more on this man-made mess a little later) and two got used up waiting at Puh for the rain and snow (at Kaza) to abate. But then who regrets time spend amidst beautiful snow-capped mountains, even if it is about waiting to proceed further. Familiar names started popping up on the phone or in person, other biker friends who too were sharing the road with us. Rohit Upadhyay @beruoist appeared out of rain and mist at Puh on his Duke 390 looking for a place to spend the night and rode off again in rain the next morning, a tiny speck on the slushy road below but an imposing modern-day gladiator in armour, heading higher in inclement weather. A day before, Nitin KD traveling with friends in a Mahindra Thar and a Safari virtually ran into me while stepping out of the police check-post at Akpa. And the phone rang the same evening to announce Dhairya @dhairya waiting in the wings at Kalpa with friends, also headed out to Kaza on their set of four wheels. It sure is a small world.
Just past the Khab bridge
An army surveillance helicopter near Puh almost blends in with the rocks in the background.
A small monastery near Puh
The weather cleared on the morning of the 29th of March, the dripping grey overcast giving way to azure blue skies. And so we saddled up and rode to the waiting high places. Care was needed on the shaded portions of the road as the ice was still sticking to the tarmac. Elsewhere, it was all clear. Nako was frozen pretty as was the Maling Nullah, the crisp and chill wind at 14,000ft invigorating us to the core. The road is not bad beyond Puh and so the ride was not just about riding but also looking around. Hoorling has a small dhaba serving great paranthas with dal and a curd-garlic chutney that is out of this world. See a dhaba with a small prayer wheel outside and that’s it. The road beyond Schilling has deteriorated beyond the usual this winter. The ruts and the potholes are deeper and more numerous. And we two on the Dukes were taking a beating on our behinds – the hard rear suspension is merciless.
Somewhere between Tabo and Schilling
Passing Lingti close to Kaza
On the road to Langza past Kaza
Kaza meant a place to stay and also to turn back since there was no going further. Ki and kibber were sort of accessible, the latter to brave-hearts like Rohit ‘Biru’ while Rangrik across the river was the furthest one could get on two wheels or four. The whiteness was beautiful as was the blue of the sky. Click blindfolded and you’d get a picture postcard shot. It was cold, windchill being well below zero even in bright sunshine. We spend the bright hours roaming around on the bikes and made a tame exit as the sun went down. The chill creeps up quicker than you can imagine when the sun sets. Toilets were frozen as were the taps and I don’t need to elaborate on what we had to do to do the needful each morning! Don’t ask – please! Dinesh, the caretaker at the Circuit House was generous with food and warm drinking water and sleep meant a couple of blankets above and below the quilt with the homo sapien sandwiched in between wearing 3- layers of clothing. The skies remained clear as we made an exit homewards from Kaza on the 31st. It snowed again there on the 2nd while it rained in the foothills and the adjoining plains. I was a mute witness to uncountable 20 mile long flashes of sheet lightening over and across the Shimla hills seen from my room’s window at Naldehra. A 5 AM exit for Delhi the next morning in rain had me labeled insane till dawn broke, placed me above ordinary till the sun came up and thereon I was an ordinary biker again. Home a little after noon was a mix of somber nostalgia and relief. I am getting old I guess.
Inscribed stone tablets at Nako Lake
Sheet lightening lits up the Shimla hills (seen from Naldehra)
Man ravaged Kinnaur
I have returned a sorely disappointed man from Spiti this winter. No, it has nothing to do with the freakish weather conditions this year that have effectively extended winter well into what should have been spring. Two and a half decades of being in love with the hills doesn’t let you hold a grudge against Mother Nature. It is man I am disgusted with this once. My first ride to Spiti in 1998-99 still remains etched in my memory – the road from Jeori till Yangthang (near Nako on the old road) used to be swept clean with brooms! It used to be a world a million miles away from the present crap of a path they insist on calling a road and that too a national highway. There was a flash flood in the Sutlej in the year 2000. It did a load of damage both to the road and the habitation/army establishments next to the river as the water level rose by as much as 70 feet in a matter of seconds at places. The damage was terrible but what followed was many times worse. They started with the Nathpa-Jhakri project, damming the river to generate power and also to ‘control’ its flow downstream. I had the chance of visiting the project beneath Bhabha Nagar while it was underway (in 2004 or 05 I think) and had come away feeling impressed yet uneasy. The mountain was criss-crossed with tunnels (main water tunnels, service tunnels, pressure balancing tunnels etc etc), so much so that the Sumo we rode in to see the project inside took twenty minutes to get to one of the sedimentation tanks deep inside the belly of the mountain! All right, the engineers do know what they are doing with the tunneling etc. But what came later has turned tragic. A series of similar hydel projects were sanctioned along the same river upstream of the Nathpa-Jhakri one. The Baspa river project at Sangla, the Karcham-Wangtu confluence project and another one further upstream towards Recong Peo.
Such projects need heavy machines and vehicles to move around and so it was ‘natural’ that they needed to widen the present road. And that’s where the craziness hit the ceiling. Rampant blasting of the mountainsides to widen the road ensued at a sickening pace. Over the years I saw scores of labourers carrying cartons of explosives around as if they were apples and an equal number hammering away into the rock faces with pneumatic drills preparing holes to plant the explosives in. There didn't even appear a method to the madness. No one cared about fixing a blast site by removing the debris properly (just shoving it into the river below), stabilizing the mountainside destabilized and loosed by the blasts and building a retaining wall to prevent more materiel from tumbling down before blasting more on the road ahead. What started with a 19 km stretch between Karcham and towards Bhabha Nagar was switched around towards Recong Peo and then beyond. The menace has reached Puh now and is steadily creeping beyond. No attempt is being made to repair what has been blasted earlier except for a couple of stretches of ‘sample tarmac’ between Akpa and Jangi which too are deteriorating at a rapid pace. The worst hit is the region of multiple hydro-projects and road widening antics – the Powari - Recong Peo – Akpa stretch. There were a couple of places post the 2000 flood that had become vulnerable in respect of landslides especially in the rainy season. The road widening madness has totally destabilized large swaths of the mountainsides there and they let loose debris down at the drop of a hat now. All pretty convenient for PWD, GREF and BRO who make emergency purchases (bypassing the usual minimum price tag tendering) and let loose any number of earth moving and clearing machinery day in and day out to clear their self-created mess. Money on the move. The benefits come in the form of loosely accounted fuel stores (entire fuel tankers are reportedly sold off), emergency purchasing at exorbitant purchase prices, a reason to constantly keep the road-clearing crews and contractors on hire and paid and innumerable other ‘benefits’ that come as an advantage in such conditions.
Each day the ‘highway’ teeters between barely passable to impassable and to realize that this road is the only all-weather life-line for hundreds of thousands of people residing in the upper reaches of Kinnaur and the Spiti valley makes the situation not just pathetic for those who live there but downright life threatening for them and disgusting for the likes of us who visit it occasionally. Last year the road was ‘closed’ for almost a month in June. This year will probably be worse if the scenario in March is anything to go by. We are not even having proper monsoon rains yet. Rohtang Pass had been witnessing similar fracas till a couple of years ago, your’s truly having spent a night at Rani Nullah in June 2010 just because of such stupidity on the part of the ‘road-builders’ of the area. This was until the Supreme Court intervened and imposed a procedural condition on the contractors and officials that made it mandatory for them to fix a 500 meter stretch of the road first before blasting any further distance up. I wonder when we will see this happening here in Kinnaur. The projects with their touted benefits to the locals have also fallen flat on that count. Himachal was never short of electricity but since the past 2 years both Kinnaur and Spiti have been seeing repeated and progressively longer power outages. We were without power in Puh for 3 days and there was no power in Kaza for over 4 days while we were there. Crazy. And that happening in a region that is supposedly producing more electricity than any other in the entire country!
I have come away a saddened man this once. Kinaur has been the prettiest of the accessible Himalayan regions and it has been ravaged mercilessly in the guise of making it ‘better’. To add to the mess, the debris that comes rolling down is ‘swept’ off the road by earth-moving machinery and pushed down into the river below thoroughly destabilizing the river-bed. A flash flood now will mean thousands of tons of loose rock getting uprooted by the rushing water and taking away anything in its path. Traveling through the region by road leaves you wondering who defined ‘better’ in such grotesque and diabolical a manner. And also who has really benefited from the entire ball-game. It is sadism at the administrative level and probably worse at the political one. And making it worse is the feeling that the crap is here to stay for a long time to come.