‘You will die in the cold’, say my friends. With temperatures falling to -40 degrees celsius, winter travel to Spiti is unheard of! There are no flights and hence no escape route, in case something goes wrong. It is hard enough in the summers; I know after my various long sojourns to this ‘middle land.’
In my heart, I know that the warm nature of Spitians more than makes up for the extreme chills in the long winters that last for almost six months from October to March.
I have been to Spiti earlier for some life changing slow travel trips but that was in summer. There is very little information about reaching Spiti in the snowy temperatures and all I have to do is set off from home.
I gather all my woollens, pack them in a backpack, do not bother to find anything else and arrive in Ambala in the dead of the night. The road from Shimla passing through Kinnaur is kept operational throughout the year and depending on the condition of the snow the government also runs a bus all the way to Kaza. I find a seat on the crowded Delhi-Sangla bus just before reaching Shimla. It is cloudy and when the sun finally makes an appearance it brings a welcome relief from the February cold. The road has been carved out of jagged rocky mountains and I feel perilously close to an accident on one of the sharp turns in the rickety bus.
I feel hungry and the lure of food makes me get down at Narkanda. I can’t believe my eyes to see the absence of snow in the ski town of Narkanda. Dogs rule the town centre on the main road with closed dhabas and devoid of vehicular traffic. We are slowly making our way up the gravity-defying Hindustan-Tibet Road, which follows the vertiginous gorge of the Sutlej River. There are various hydro power projects that have brought much prosperity in the valley but also cause landslides and thereby terrible roads.
It is mind numbing cold by the time I reach Reckong Peo (Dist. headquarters of Kinnaur and also the biggest town) in the night after making food stops near Tapri & Rampur. It is just past 7 and the whole town is asleep; hardly two or three hotels are lit up. Another surprise awaits with some good news – The pipes haven’t frozen and there’s hot water in the geyser. After a long and tiring day, dinner of chapati and vegetables feels divine. The hotel owner tells me I should wake up by daybreak and somehow get a seat on the usually packed bus to Kaza.
I leave for Kaza in the only bus of the day in the early hours of the morning from Peo. Aloo paranthas at Spillow taste amazing in the morning cold. It is a majestic sight to see the bounty of white plum blossoms and pink apricot blossoms line both sides of the road in the colourless landscape. The bus driver is a young chap with gusto and a sharp thud on the pothole riddled road causes the fuel tank to come out to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere. We are lucky to receive help two hours later when Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) sends us a replacement bus. Somebody has made away with my water bottle though.
We pray to the mountain Gods to let us pass through. The bus finally forks off at the thunderous confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti river and the valley soon opens up. It is a sliver of flat land lined on either side by an endless collection of serrated peaks, their snowy summits shining in the strong sunlight.
The overwhelming colour is brown, in all its variations, broken only by the inky cobalt of the sky and the bottle green of the river. Impossibly located whitewashed villages appear periodically along the margins of the river. They are clusters of adobe houses in the traditional Tibetan style – surrounded by patchworks of fragile fields that are left dry in the harsh winters. We pass the oldest-monastery-in-India town of Tabo on our left that also incidentally happens to be Dalai Lama’s favourite!
I have a feeling that I am stepping back in time. There is no outsider on the bus; only locals. They are excited to speak to me, asking what fascinates me most in this faraway land. I tell them that I’ve come to see and know more about their lives and culture that has remained the same for centuries. As we get closer to Kaza, the landscape turns to snow white with a small blue streak of the Spiti river. The sun has already gone behind the Spiti valley giving the proceedings an otherworldly feel.
Rudyard Kipling’s words ring true in my ears “At last they entered a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains. Surely the Gods live here. Beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. This place is no place for men.”
It is nail biting cold; Kaza has no electricity for the last 27 hours. Dogs howl on the street in pitch darkness. Two local boys help me in finding a homestay, it is already 8 in the night and they don’t want an outsider to die for lack of a bed. I am welcomed into a warm kitchen; the talkative owner is a nice gentleman and his wife has made very tasty food.
I fulfil one of my lifelong dreams to reach the majestic village of Losar in the winters. This year, very little snow has meant shared SUVs in the form of Sumo are precariously making their way across the white roads at over 4000 metres. My moment of the ride comes when four drunk Spitian women climb on top of the (already full) Sumo to travel and reach their homes.
There are fourteen of us crammed in the sumo and local Spitian songs play. I like it, even though I understand not one word. A lady throws away the driver’s cellphone away from the AUX-in and announces she’s going to play a song. After fiddling away and changing numerous numbers; she settles on one. The music plays, everyone stops breathing ‘Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh, kahan shuru kahan khatam…..’ A quiet tear escapes my eye.
Although it isn’t very flattering when I tell you I suffered from snow-blindness and was struck down by mild AMS even when the fact that I am the first tourist to ever reach Losar in the winter was told to me by the villagers. The owners of Samsong Guesthouse restored my faith in humanity by refusing to take money from me.
My love for the Himalayas had brought tears to their eyes; they say ‘There is a little bit of mountain in all of us.’