Part I of 11 short stories on the journey to Spiti valley
I lost my camera after I returned from Spiti. One year down the line, I still have that experience imprinted in my mind and I am painting it for you in words. I always wanted to tell you about that journey. But since I had stopped reading two years ago, I often fell short of ideas to write on. This collection of short stories from Spiti is inspired by the book I recently read by Heinrich Harrer – ‘7 Years in Tibet’. My journey to Spiti was not even close to his experience. But his storytelling reminded me of many smaller experiences that you and I often overlook. Journey to Spiti began with unexpected hiccups, but these smaller experiences made it as beautiful as the destination.
I had chosen to remain a happy solo traveller after mayhem with a travel partner with whom I went to Meghalaya. But Spiti was a different story. Riding solo all day gets boring, isn’t it? And why should I deprive some worthy one of my awesome company? I hadn’t known Nikita for very long, but at least she had good vibes when she said she wanted to join me. She booked the flight tickets to Delhi right away. That’s what decisive people do. They don’t push around till the last minute. She didn’t know how to ride, but could sing songs all the way, push the bike when we got stuck in rocks, tolerate the boredom of just sitting idle while I rode, and more. But I will come to that part later.
We meticulously planned every detail. My brother custom designed and stitched the waterproof saddle bags at home with strong nylon thread to prevent them from getting torn. We stitched many cloth flags on the saddle bags; flags that I had collected from various countries. We tested and re-tested the bags on my bike and even twined a rope at home that was extra strong to hold the bags in place and to keep them away from rubbing against the rear tyre. In a surge of patriotism, I went in search of an Indian flag. I wanted to see one flutter in the wind on my bike all the way to Spiti. But finding a flag of India was more challenging than that of any political party. Shopkeepers looked at me with queer eyes. I was the only one who had ever asked for an Indian flag. But a ram head like me is used to getting what he wants, and I did find the perfect flag eventually.
It was 5:30 AM on 26th September 2015. I had polished the bike to a sparkle. The neighbourhood was fast asleep as we loaded the bags. Light breeze was blowing but there were no birds. They have given up on humans and have long disappeared from our toxic cities for greener pastures. My sister quickly snapped an array of photographs. She will probably stash them away in her huge photo stockpile and forget all about them. I revved up the engine, and had just started when the bike swayed sideways. It seemed like we had big hearts but small brains. We had overloaded our bags with food and notebooks for children whom we expected to meet on the way. But now the arrow was out of the bow; there was no turning back.
Mr. Sukhi Ram, as his name tag said was overwhelmed to see us pull up at the petrol station on Delhi border. He asked us if we were going to Ladakh, but gave a lost gaze when Nikita, in her excited voice, told him about Spiti. It was evident that we were talking Zulu to him. Nevertheless, he was pleased to see two decked up riders in elbow and knee guards, and glossy helmets going off to a far off land. ‘आपकी यात्रा मंगलमय हो’ (Have a good journey) – Contrary to the usual stone faced Delhiites rushing for their lousy jobs every morning in a bad mood, he wished us with a pleasant smile. Our hearts swelled with pride and a sense of superiority when we saw people turning around on the road to see us and the Indian flag.
Our optimism knew no bounds. With two heavy saddle bags and an overall weight of 300 kg, we wanted to drive 500 km to Manali on the first day. After having roasted Paratha (stuffed Indian flat bread) with white butter and tea at Murthal, I decided to speed up a bit because we were running one hour late. The speed, cross-winds, vibration of engines and increasing heat of the sun took its toll on me. I was perspiring heavily and soon started feeling tired. We stopped at another petrol station before Karnal to take a break. Fortunately, Nikita checked the bags. Since I had increased the speed, one bag was charred from underneath by the heat of exhaust pipe. The bag had a gaping hole, but not yet big enough for the clothes (uhhh.. food) to start falling out. We had barely come 130 km from Delhi before being stalled. Doing 2000 km in 11 days with a charred bag definitely seemed like an easy task. But Indians are expert at makeshift solutions. We found a cardboard box, tore it off into rectangular pieces and tied them with aluminium wire around the exhaust pipe to insulate the bag. We also soaked the bottom of one bag with cold water, and had to keep doing this for the next 200 km before we reached cold mountains. People laughed when they saw us spraying water on our bags. But as I said – The arrow was now out of the bow.
Having solved one problem, we got stuck with another. Our bags started falling apart. The way we tied them wasn’t good enough and they came off loose. The sun was right over our head when we stopped at a roadside dhaba in Haryana. The cold water and cardboard were doing a good job of providing insulation to the bags. Nikita was from Mumbai, and like every other Mumbaikar she was terrified of getting kidnapped or raped in Haryana. When a shabby village guy came forth to offer help, Nikita must have been on high alert ready to kick him between his legs. But from outside she was able to be calm and confident. He had dirty grey hair, yellow teeth, clothes with holes, and wore slippers. He obviously hadn’t taken a shower recently. When we moved on, we were laughing. He must have been a vegetable seller, for he tied our saddle bags like sacks of potatoes on a donkey. If our bags were humans they would have choked to death. The bags didn’t dare move an inch for the rest of our journey that day.
“Apparently, not everyone gets kidnapped in Haryana”
We had been riding for 10 hours, but had only reached Chandigarh. We lost our way in the city and ended up riding an extra 70 km before finding the highway again. Manali was still 300 km away. The sun was setting behind the fields of mustard when we threw in the towel and stopped at a tea stall beside the highway to stretch our spine. That tea which took unusually long time to brew was by far the worst I have ever had. It was a mix of excessive water and sugar with a little milk and cheap tea leaves boiled together. We had no clue and didn’t care where we would stay for the night. We stretched out on two jute cots on roadside sipping the fucking tea, and looking at the huge banyan tree above us. Before I closed my eyes for a brief nap, I saw Nikita excitedly clicking selfies. ‘This girl seems to have taken energy booster shots’, I murmured to myself before falling into a power nap.
“When life gives you lemons, better make a good lemonade out of it”
It was now pitch dark. We were riding in the mountains. Our only guiding source were our headlights, lights of oncoming trucks and our intuition. We eventually saw a brightly lit hotel which seemed promising. I drove straight into the parking lot. But then we noticed that the hotel had an eerie aura. Few men were sitting in a car smoking weed. The men on reception were staring at us as if we were fresh meat. Nikita’s face was covered with a silk cloth and she was wearing a large dark green jacket, so they didn’t know yet that she was a woman. Her only giveaway signs were her pink shoes and painted nails which a man wouldn’t wear for obvious reasons. Damn! Even I was petrified of getting raped in that hotel. Nikita and I looked at each other and knew what to do.
We were on the road again. Hungry, dirty, sweaty and tired, we barely dragged ourselves to Swarghat, a small village on the way to Manali. Few young men who looked like travellers were gathered on the road. They seemed excited, and were calling on to their friends who were buying liquor from a dingy shop. But at least these people gave a positive vibe. The hotel in front of us seemed more busy with few families staying in as well. We had travelled almost 350 km., burnt a bag, and fell seriously short of our planned destination. Only one pair of Nikita’s socks were charred. Had she not seen the bags in time, she would have had holes in her clothes. We had forgotten all about the food and notebooks and were still tugging every piece of it. We were covered in layers of dust and a hot shower was a welcome one. It was one of the last few showers before entering the freezing Himalayan desert of Spiti. We gobbled an average meal of rice, eggs and curry. And if I remember correctly, I crashed and blacked out on the bed without even putting the plates aside.
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Software Engineer turned Travel Writer, Photographer, and Public Speaker on Responsible Travel. Entrepreneur in Responsible Rural Travel @ www.thefolktales.com