20th August Real Early :
We got up without feeling too fuzzy - rushed to the hotel for the sanitary facilities they had to offer - and a morning cuppa. Later went back, packed up and got another cup of tea - gratis - from our friendly neighbours next door. Paid the man and thanked him profusely - and went back to the hotel for breakfast which was - again - aloo paranthas and tea, and an omelette thrown in for some change!
The bus towards Tabo from Nako left a little late - and a lot of people including Nachiket left on it, leaving Nako in fumes for a while - and emptier.
Over breakfast, spoke with a Canadian girl backpacking solo most people were on the road for weeks and months - not days! Also met a guy who was into 'socially responsible investing' - basically where people also look at the social responsibilty that a company they're investing in fulfills! Henk left while we were still having breakfast - we had oohed and ahed over his non-mountain bike, improvised speedo, tons of luggage and the fact he was cycling in chappals before he left - and we promised to catch up soon.
After emptying the spare fuel - about 3 litres - into the tank (we hit Full from almost the halfway mark - its surely not linear) and bidding adieu to the small group of people we'd got so friendly with in the space of an evening and morning - we left towards Maling at about 8:40am. All along Maling had brought a certain amount of doubt to our minds - and we were prepared to return in the worst case.
We took the road back to the fork (towards the 'alternate route...'), crossed Yangthang and were almost at Maling by 9:15. A little before the 'spen' the road turned to loose soil and mud and there was an active slide along the mountainside! Shubha got off and raced across (with my heart thumping and adrenaline rushing) - and I started crossing - there was a dip followed by a steep incline to make matters worse. The slipping soil and rocks along the road did not make it easier - but we made it across unharmed - got to the Maling slide - and what a sight that was!!
And finally - Maling the dreaded :
Imagine a twisty mountain road - imagine a landslide along a stream rushing down the mountain to meet a river at the base - across from the top of the hillside right down to a river way down at the base of the hill - and imagine more than a kilometre of this the road washed down over time because of successive slides - turning the entire mountainside into one huge 'slide - area'. This is Maling. Apparently the activity here is due to continuously shifting layers underneath the mountains because of a huge reservoir part of which feeds the Nako lake.
Till a while ago - the BRO bulldozers used to continuously keep clearing a path out of the slide and within a few hours - a slide happened again! A few buses and the like have tumbled down the road when caught in one of these (the passengers have managed to get off). Fortunately mid August is a better time and Maling's less active - though there's no predicting it! So the locals have put up a makeshift cable ropeway across the slide and ferry goods across on a carriage supported on a couple of pulleys. Its almost miraculuous it works without each payload crashing to the bottom - considering the distance that it needs to cover. Pedestrians (including bus and taxi passengers who trade places with those from another bus on the other side) walk down the unstable slope to the bottom of the groge through which the stream passes - and walk back up through the slide - over boulders which slipped down in the past - to the the other side.
When we got to Maling - Henk had just loaded his bike onto the ropeway, and a bunch of army guys had a lot of stuff to ferry across. I rolled the bike down the slope - and stayed there near the loading area till they got enough guys to lift the bike. We sent our bags (except one with some documents and water which I carried across along with our helmets) across on the ropeway and then loaded the bike onto the cable with steel cables going around the chassis and hooked onto the pulleys! Eight strong men (okay - seven strong men and puny me) hoisted the bike and hooked it up - and what a sight that was. The operator slammed the cable a few times with a thick stick - a message to the other side to start the operation - and off it went - flying across Maling. I took a few snaps - more to distract myself from thoughts of what would become of our great adventure were it to slip off the (what now seemed to be) narrow pulley grooves than for any photographic feats - and prayed a lot! After about the halfway mark it became a dot in the distance and disappeared from sight moments later.
We started the trek downhill with Henk who'd waited for us. The narrow 'track' going down to the bottom was rubble, and loose soil - and steep. Shubha was having a tough time negotiating the descent - and would not just balance on her feet but wanted to crawl close to the infirm ground hugging whatever support was available. I was trying to egg her onto her feet and trust them more - and Henk lent support by way of offering a hand to hold when she refused to move ahead. So I was certainly in the dock for a while. A couple of locals and army guys sped past us and we could just look at them with awe and envy. The army postman sped down with a suitcase full off mail which he swapped everyday with mail brought down by another guy who came down the other side! Adventure for some - a commute for others!!!
We got to the bottom eventually, and crossed the stream relatively easily. The climb up started easier (you have better grip when you're climbing) - and we clicked some snaps - almost in relief. However - the 'marked' dirt track soon was lost amongst the rocks and boulders from past slides - and the other end of the ropeway was nowhere in sight. In fact - we could make out the cable above us only when a car carrying luggage crossed overhead! We were not particularly fit - and for the most part - followed Henk up the slide! Soon we were high enough to see other people below us take a different route - but did not have the guts or steam to go back down over all those unstable boulders. At one point we decided we could not go up further - and then Henk - who'd gone further ahead and spotted the 'trail' again - came back to tell us which path to follow. We were now in what seemed to be the worst part of the slide - and honestly - fear was certainly one of the feelings I remember. If a stone as much as moved or creaked a bit - one could imagine the whole mountainside tumbling down into the river below. Shubha was tiring a bit - but I wanted her to keep moving ('out of here as soon as we can'). We cautiously went down the rocks a bit - found our way through a huge heap of smaller boulders (which were even less stable and those above us seemed - at least then - certain to come hurtling down towards us). To top it - one of the straps of the bag I was wearing broke and I had to maneuver that on one strap, a helmet on my head and another hitched on to the bag for the rest of the climb. But we did make it beyond the slide - and only a mud trail which went along a contour of the hill but rose sharply towards the end (with a very steep fall if you had the imagination for it). Towards the end I felt exhausted and it was only with huge effort that I hoisted myself over the last couple of inclines where I needed to hold on to a rather blunt piece of rock jutting from the ground and hope that my feet did not slip as I pushed against the ground to heave upwards.
Crossing Maling takes the average guy about 45 minutes. Our entourage took upwards of two hours! But hey - we did it! My description probably fails miserably to capture the enormity of it - youhave to do it to know what we went through. This was the big one we'd been wondering about and mentally preparing for right from the word go - and we'd done it! It was behind us!
Somehow - when you're past these 'could've easily died' situations - you feel a little giddy and make a lot of jokes. We ran into Nachiket and the rest of the bus gang from Nako who were had crossed earlier and been waiting for a bus there to continue towards Tabo with no luck so far. Most of the army guys had got across in a while - and there were a bunch of cyclists who'd come from Leh waiting to cross. We of course encouraged them and assured that if we could do it - they'd sail through. They told us the roads ahead were fine for a while up to Kaza.
Henk found his bike and was glad to see the Pulsar in decent shape. We decided to all have lunch before we carried on - the fear and effort having whipped up an appetite. Lunch was thukpa, noodles, Coke and tea - and it was Nachiket's turn to start on natural spring water instead of bottled stuff - Henk being the one to initiate him into it! By the time we had finished lunch - the bus was in and people rushed to get in.
The Maling crossing cost 30/- for all the luggage - and 500/- for the bike!
Another slide ahead 1:15p.m. :
We left a little after the bus - only to cross it and then Henk who had left earlier (he was doing awesome speeds when we crossed him - he'd said he get to 60kmph and the likes once in a while!). A few minutes later we had all been flagged down for another active slide! We could see rocks roll down the mountainside ahead and felt a little deflated. In about 10 minutes we got a go-ahead and moved on - only to get into a little bit of a traffic jam right in the middle of where the slide was!! People - mostly in closed vehicles - politely made way for the bike since we were more exposed to the risk - and BRO folks were busy clearing the road of the freshly fallen stones and boulders of all shapes and sizes!
Once past this, we found awesome road and made good progress, again crossing Henk who had slid ahead during the second slide. There was the briefest and lightest of drizzles but got over as soon as it started. The weather was absolutely marvelous and it all felt just so perfect. We crossed Chango and a little beyond that I saw this guy walking with his cycle from the other side - absolutely alone!
Hats off to the spirit of adventure !!
We got a little closer and saw a really old gentleman on a Hero Ranger with bags tied to the bike - and a old fashioned cycle pump strapped on! He had a factory worker's helmet on and looked a bit tired so I asked him if he needed water or other help. He introduced himself - a 63 year old Bengali gentleman retired from the railways - he'd started from Jammu with two other friends who had given up at Leh. He, however, intended to carry on to Shimla and eventually Arunachal Pradesh!! To say that I was impressed would be a major understatement. Meeting him somehow made us feel a little more charged up - and a little more hopeful about everything in life.
Spiti - the barren unknown :
The road was in decent shape - a few stones fallen at every turn kept us aware of the terrain we were in. Soon we reached Sumdo - the entrance to the Spiti region (and the Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh). Sumdo is mostly a BRO outpost. We had to go through the registration process again, and the chap there examined my license.
Spiti is barren. Almost zero rain and harsh weather ensures almost no growth of any kind. The mountainside was visibly unstable but yet calm. We were off NH22 - on SH30 now - the road had deteriorated but was under constant repair. Some of the hills had crumbled into sand and so had the road - so the knobbies were tested again! The starkness of the landscape made for dramatic and beautiful visuals.
As we got closer to Tabo - the road flattened out and a valley opened up ahead of us and there were signs of vegetation. Given the road I opened throttle a bit and loved the feel of of just us on a looong stretch of open road in the middle of nowhere (well - almost).
We must have got to Tabo a little after 4:00p.m. and decided to stay over for the evening. We first got to the Tabo monastic hostel - and decided to stay there itself. They had clean rooms in a beautiful building with wooden stairs and rooms on two floors around a central courtyard. The common bathrooms had hot water. People from half the globe were at the hostel - in fact we got our cheaper room only because some guy who was just vacating a room informed us in time (we had reserved a more expensive room with an attached bath moments before this guy said we could take his room).
The monastery has rather strict rules - no booze - no joints - and no sex - being prominent! We actually heard a couple who left because of the last!
Tabo has one of the oldest monasteries of the region - built of mud - in 996 A.D. There's also a horticultural department farm where they're trying to grow a variety of stuff including Spitian apples - which are supposed to be even better than Kinnauri ones! Tabo has about 800 residents in all - and the tourists are a prominent part of the landscape - though not too many of them are around.
There's a new monastery too next to the old one (like most other monasteries in the region - its white and built of more modern materials). There are really old caves up the hills across the road from the town - and a building with old paintings maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. These old caves have some really old paintings and ar a nice amble up the hill - you also get a wonderful view of Tabo and the entire valley from there.
Tabo even has a helipad built when the Dalai Lama visited during the Kalachakra ceremony a few years ago.
The old monsatery (Gonpa) is entirely built out of mud - and has stone coulur paintings inside depicting the life and various avatars of the Buddha. Its very pretty inside - but you cannot take pictures inside the monastery campus. There are various temples inside for various phases of initiation into monkhood, if I think I remember right. I was also a little surpised to discover that even Buddhism now has numerous Gods - a lot of them adopted deities from Hinduism.
Right in front of the main temple inside the old monastery, we came across this Austrian playing the 'Siraj' (I had not even heard of it) - apprently he learnt it from a Guru in Delhi during one of his longer trips to India - and he played it really well. There was also a guy from Mysore who'd moved to Manali and lived there.
Soon the guys on the bus from Maling were in Tabo too. We ran into Nachiket again! That is such a lovely experience on such roads - you make friends as you travel -and keep bumping into them as you go along. He said Henk would probably be in later in the evening or early next morning.
We walked around town some more - up to the caves - back into town. Checked with the SBI branch just in case they would encash Tcs after hours. The guy there was really friendly - the manager's wife and very young kid chatted with us for a while - but could not do it that day. We then had tea at the 'town square' and walked to the Hort. Farms - where the caretaker proudly showed us around and described how the place was being greened.
After a couple of STD calls - we had had no luck with calling home after Shimla - we ate Spitian food - Shonali (thick fried ribbons of wheat flour) and a different less blander kind of thukpa at the restaurant run by the monastery itself. Again - from a quick read of the menu - we were a little surprised to discover how much meat the Buddhists consumed. Obviously - the lack of availability of alternative food must have had increased dependency on livestock - and the local food habits would have existed way before Buddhism caught their imagination.
We got back to the hostel - enjoyed a hot bath - and rested our Maling-weary bones!