Border Roads became the bro of the nation. Punjabi’s danced at Kunzum pass. Broken bridges simulated Bokaro Jail*. And gaddi shepherds fed me handmade rotis better than any restaurant. Many people have asked to see pictures and hear the stories, so here goes.
The trip started with trouble at Dehradun railway station where I disembarked at 5 a.m. along with my bike, but the bike was handed to me by Indian railways only at 9. Two days of mountain riding (some through rain) brought me to Sangla where I stayed 2 nights at Banjara before heading out for the next night halt at the Dhankar monastery guest house – a good choice. Spiti took my breath away again, even though this was my 6th visit.
The next night was a lot more fun as I camped outside Lossar village by the riverbed. Brushing my teeth in fresh snowmelt left my teeth and hands frozen. The next morning I rode up to Kunzum pass – the highest part of my ride at 15,300 feet. I remembered it as a serene, quiet place but reached there to find a Swift with a PB number plate, its doors open and the stereo blaring “Ladki beautiful kar gayi chull”. Two couples were dancing and shooting videos of each other to the loud music in front of the Buddhist Stupa’s advocating peace and oneness. I left quickly.
My next stop was Chandratal, a magical lake at an altitude of 14100 feet. Thankfully, one cannot drive upto the actual lake – a half km walk is required, which takes you to the “beach”. But a walk around the lake convinced me that the nicest part of the lake was the less accessible far end, and it was worth camping a night there. As I headed back to the bike to fetch my camping gear a bunch of 20-something bikers reminded me that I had left my keys on my bike – uncity state of mind, I guess. They also called me uncle (inward cringe).
Magical is the only word to describe Chandratal. Local Spitian women turned up and started singing folk songs and dancing. It was better than anything man could ever manufacture. For starters, where would you find a concert hall like that? To see a glimpse and hear them, click on this link : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hQIigKg2NA
Later that evening a pair of gaddi shepherds invited me to eat with them at their “dera”. It had taken them one month to walk up from Kangra and setup their dera at the lake, and would take them another month to walk back. That evening helped me appreciate the amazing skills they possess. They recognize each of the 550 sheep/goats they were herding. Their travel pattern made them fluent in three languages (hindi, gaddi, punjabi) and a smattering of some others. And they cooked everything themselves in goat butter. The food was brilliant. For a peek inside their dera, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yDEaOXWdWQ
Their dwelling in a half-underground hut made perfect sense in windy Chandratal. I also learnt not to leave my floaters outside the main door because all their dirty water and waste is thrown out that door. I walked back to my tent in wet feet smelling of goat fat.
From Chandratal I had three options for my return. I could go back via Rohtang (which I abhor), or go via Ladakh (which I find overdone and oversold). The third option was to go via Pangi valley and Saach pass, which was only a trekking route till a decade ago.
I decided on the Pangi route, and once I entered the valley I really liked it, so I started praying that the road be really bad up ahead. You see, the worse the roads, the fewer the tourists. My wish came so true that my brain was happier than my posterior.
The first night on the Pangi stretch was spent in Udaipur which was big on the map but turned out to be a one mule town where a decent room was hard to come by. The next morning I set out for Killar, the base town to the pass, and it started raining. 31 km into the ride a car coming the opposite way stopped me and told me the bridge ahead was blocked.
I turned back 11 km and found a PWD guesthouse at a village called Tindi.
I was stuck in Tindi. No control over when I could leave. No one to talk to except some friendly villagers. No connectivity. Food was basic at best – I was eating a lot of my camping food as the guest house offered nothing – not even chai.
Tindi Village was the simulation Bokaro jail* writing retreat for me. This is where I did the maximum writing. After two days I finally got news that the bridge had opened and I rushed across it – and that was scary in its own right. To see a video of the raging river this bridge was over click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kJVtmQacns
After a night at Killar I rode across the Saach pass the next morning – a gorgeously beautiful place – over a rough hewn surface (allegedly a road) in places flanked by 10 feet ice walls.
This road is often listed amongst the “most treacherous” in India. Ended the long day in a place called Banikhet, which conjured the image of playboy bunnies running around a himachali field. The return was just riding through flat boring plains, the high point being paneer toast at Prakash Coffee House in sadar bazar, Ambala cantt.
Loved every minute of it. Glad I did it (and for a wife who lets me do these crazy things)!!
*This blogger was incarcerated in Bokaro jail for a month in 2013 which is when he wrote his first book “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” which was published by Penguin. Since then he has relocated to the Kumaon Himalayas, and the fun stuff he does besides writing this blog, riding the Himalayas, running marathons and contemplating the universe now also includes hosting the Himalayan Writing Retreat https://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/ .