19th August 8:00am :
Got up at 6:00am but packing up took a while. The caretaker had promised us tea and I'd already paid for it the night before – but I guess it was too early for him so we left at 8:00 anyway.
The weather was clear – though there were some clouds if looked up – but felt more confident about the same roads that had put questions in our minds yesterday. The traffic – right from the point we'd left Jeori – had thinned down considerably (especially since the road had been closed for a while, I guess). We had also heard that the roadblock at Jeori had opened for light traffic the same day we took the detour through Sarahan – oh – yesterday! Road conditions were similar to what we'd been seeing since we entered Kinnaur – though felt less threatening in better weather.
And then we got to our first Sutlej crossing at Wangtu. Wangtu had been a smallish village till the huge Sutlej flood of August 2000 wiped it off the face of the earth – sparing only the suspension bridge before us. Even this said 'for light vehicles only' – and there was a shorter span bridge for heavier vehicles down below at the end of a dirt track which took off a little before the older bridge. Shubha was convinced we were not a 'light' enough vehicle – especially with the sutlej gurgling menacingly below – and with a long stretch of rickety wooden planks to cross. Not that there were too many lighter vehicles around – a couple of buses took the lower bridge which made Shubha quite sure we wanted to cross that one too. But I decided they probably wanted to avoid trucks and the like over this one – and we'd probably make it – and so off we went – our first crossing over the Sutlej – creating a massive racket as we rode over the planks – with the Sutlej gushing below and prayer flags all along the bridge for colourfully auspicious company – and once we's crossed it – the doubts felt a little stupid and the camera was out.
The road was in fantastic shape from thereon to Tapri – a small village where we had Alu Paranthas and tea for breakfast – AGAI N. The Sutlej roared along with its ravaged banks looking both beautiful and ruthless. We tried buying bottled water or Zeolin – there was a medical shop right above the dhaba (Shubha took the narrow steps next to the dhaba and completely missed the entrance to it – a liitle elevated beside the steps!) - but no luck. So we were on to natural spring water – and did quite well !
The keep-the-bills-low discussion came up again (not entirely pleasant) and we were happy the breakfast with tea set us back only by Rs40/-!
Grim scars of destruction :
There was no major climbing involved – and yet the terrain was pretty bare and rough. All along the gorges bore the scars from the multiple floods in the Sutlej. We crossed the river multiple times on shorter span brdges (these, despite the wooden planks, felt safer than the suspension bridge at Wangtu). Near one such crossing (where there were clear signs of an earlier road which had continued straight instead of crossing over to the other side before the entire mountainside must've been washed away) a little after Baspa – we saw a huge torrent of gushing water falling from the mountainside into the Sutlej. When we got closer – it turned out to be a hydroelectric project where they were letting out water through a concrete duct running over the road! The thought of that huge force passing overhead was a bit unnerving.
All along the route were loosely scattered army and BRO camps. A lot of the labourers there are migrants from faraway states and in fact – we saw a 'Birsa Munda Colony' of guys from Jharkhand – warmed the heart (we're from Jamshedpur).
We soon reached Powari – major Army campsite (no stopping, no photography, etc.) and got a petrol pump there (There probably was enough in the tank but one likes to fill up when one can – given the context). Unfortunately – because of the roadblock at Jeori – there had been no supplies for a month – and we'd probably beaten the first of the fuel supply tankers!
Recong Peo was on a fork a few kilometres off NH22 – but it was early in the day and we did not want to stop here (This is what I hate about working – you go all the way to the Deep Himalayas – and want to stick to schedules!!!). A little after Powari there was this really pretty restaurant up a slope from the road where we found restrooms, bottled water and even tanked up on spring water. This place was in the middle of nowhere – a green patch and run exclusively by women.
The landscape was starting to turn barren a little into Kinnaur – now it just turned desolate. Apparently a lot of limestone keeps cracking with moisture, difference in temperatures and the result was one long stretch of cracked, crumbling mountains with steep sides and dangerously poised overhangs. Jagged edges with huge cracks right over your head as you pass under on roads fprced to be amidst this landscape do not a comfortable feeling make. On more than one occasion – helpful BRO folks flagged us down (they have wonderful semaphoring systems) either when there was work in progress at higher altitudes (and caused a man made slide of rocks) or when loose rocks slipped down in places where they had been discovered to around that time. The grim beauty of the sights around us evoked respect, fear and the thrill of having done it! We also kept hoping we'd make it – and the company of a TATA 407 and Maruti 800 who roughly drove along with us made us feel a bit more confident. We did not stop for too many photographs – there was no saying (at least in our minds) what might come sliding down the sheer ledge right over our heads. When we did stop for a necessary break – it was with a carefully selected gradual slope (of broken, crumbled rocks and boulders of all sizes) on both sides – so as to give ourselves enough warning in case..... The air was dry and the sun strong. The Sutlej, however, was still our companion and told us where to go.
Then the first major scare of the trip happened. We found the road turn into a pile of rocks and stones – and some folks trying to clear them off . They beckoned to us to pass – but the bike – in low gear – stalled as I tried negotiating one of the heaps of loose stones and rubble. We were right under a ledge (fortunately not at its edge) when we heard crackling noises and a shout and saw the guys scamper in all directions. And suddenly loose rock fell over the ledge inches from us – nothing too huge but a lot of stones at one go. It reduced as soon as it started – and even before I had time to think or either of us had time to react – I'd moved the Pulsar into 1st gear and scooted from under the ledge to safety!!! We didn't even look back till we reached Janghi – the nect checkpoint for registration and Inner Line Permits etc.
We took a break at Janghi – had tea and some snacks. Shubha also bought apples (for lunch!) and realized her sunglasses had gone missing!
The terrain was still menacing and beautiful all along till Puh – our next stop – though the road surface improved dramatically. Tall mountains had cracked up with successive melting snow – and the pieces – of all sizes – just stayed where they were. In places they'd slid down but all around you could have seen what you would not think of as 'solid mountains'. BRO folks were busy all along wherever the road had caved in – and these stretches were just filled in with mud and rocks.
We wnted to encash some Tcs, saw an SBI sign indicating a turn off the highway and took a four km detour up some hairpins to Puh. Once there – found out that the bank was closed for Janamashtmi – and it was Tuesday! I was hungry and the guy who gave us this info ran a small shop and cooked some food – so I had it. There had been no supplies for a month (people did seem to be nonchalant about it, must say!) so lunch was basic. A lot of people came in asking if the newspaper was in – seems most people are educated around there. Turned out that our host had spent a lot of time in Kurnool and could speak Telugu (I cannot say how fluently though he gave me a sample or two of his comand over the language) – and he treated us to Kinnauri apples (smaller, sweeter) and some badams freshly plucked from trees around there! He almost felt too shy to accept money – and the lunch served with so much warmth and ghee cost me just 12/-!
We also chatted up an old Nepali gentleman sitting there – and he seemed to know a lot about the world. He assured us the road would improve after Puh – and we would come upon Khab where the quieter Spiti met the violent Sutlej. We asked about the chance of rain – and they smiled and said if that happened – they'd all be washed down to the river below – and so it wouldn't!
The road did improve – although the landscape continued to be as dramatic as earlier. Khab was way more dramatic and scenic than we had imagined or than our limited photographic skills allowed us to capture. There were signs of an older bridge a little further up – you guessed it – washed away by a flood. The newer bridge took a 90 degree turn away from the Sutlej to the less turbulent Spiti and we bid adieu to the mighty companion we'd had over the last couple of days.
After the crossing the road started dramatically enough under a overhang covering all of it – like a tunnel with the wall on the river side missing. The mountains were a bright orange-brown in the sun, and the sky a clear blue with high white clouds in the distance. After a short ride on great roads we saw a sign declaring the start of the 'Kazigs' – or the Ka Zigs. The wide flat road climbed straight ahead for a kilometre or two – zigged and climbed for another km or two – zagged and....you get the idea. At the end of these long zigs (often we could see the road right above us hidden in the hillside) we were way above the Spiti – a small stream from up there – and there was still mountains to go above us! The air had cooled considerably by now – and the hills had a more 'solid' look as compared to the Peo-Puh stretch – though there was the odd stone or two fallen off the side onto the road. The road was well marked from here with signs directing us and cautioning us. We also saw our first snow-capped peaks – amazingly after 4 days in the Himalayas! At a fork which said “Maling-Nako-alternate route' & 'Kaurik' (a village right up at the Tibetan border and since relocated near Kaza – the army has a camp there) – we took the Nako route which was a road under construction. Spoke to a Sardarji at a BRO worksite and we suggested we stay over at Nako – so we did!
Nako – Spiritual and Beautiful:
Nako is a small village – built around the deeply religious Nako Lake. There are some Chortens on a slope above the village. There are just two hotels in the village and they were all occupied! We tried finding the caretaker of the govt. guest house (250/- a night – a bit over-budget by now) – but could not. We decided to hang around the Reo Purguil Hotel's restaurant – the guys at the hotel agreed to let us set up our tent around there. There were a bunch of Army guys there on an expedition to Reo Purgill peak (about a 35 member team) – who were acclimatizing at Nako. They told us about Kaurik's status and other stories about the army in the region – a huge avalanche along the highway in Kashmir had once engulfed over 200 trucks!
A local contractor soon offered a room in the village for 50/0 for the night! Rather basic – no bathroom and just a bed on the mud floor – but the experience was something! Dumped our stuff and walked around the lake and village taking snaps. Went back to the restaurant and met people from across the world! A Dutch cyclist – Henk – who cycles through India and on occasion to India (from Europe) or vice-versa! A German family who'd put the grandmother on the ropeway meant strictly for goods for the Maling crossing! A Bunch of Israelis – and Nachiket from Bombay – ex-Wipro guy who'd quit to go backpacking all over India for months together! Of course, everyone asked about how we intended to cross Maling and smiled when we mentioned the 'Spen' (That's what the locals call the ropeway across the slide area).
Dinner was Alu-matar sabzi, dal and rotis, and tea followed. Found our way back to the room in the village in pitch darkness with the help of matchsticks and some light from some windows – and got into our sleeping bags – both on the single cot in the room! Amazingly – even remote villages in Himachal have electricity. We slept only after the guys next door (including the contractor who'd offered us the room) had switched off the radio at about 10:30 p.m. - and then again not too comfortably. At 3900 metres above sea level – I wondered if this was our first encounter with AMS ? Perhaps it was the light we left on – or the room or sleeping bag....