Part III of 11 short stories on the journey to Spiti valley
The Only Way is to Make Yourself Tough →
Grave miscalculation on previous two days had surprised us, and I wanted to leave early for Kaza today. But after seeing the snow capped Himalayas, I rolled my fingers around the cup and went back to sipping my tea leisurely again, oblivious of the time.
We momentarily forgot about the next part of our journey, trying to slow ourselves down. I woke up at 6 am, and the next thing I remember is seeing the clock showing 10 am. We tied up the bags frantically on bike not wanting to be late – yet again. We felt more energetic today because of the snow kissed mountain air, and had fun puffing on our imaginary pipes. I purposely drove slowly along the Beas river on the way to Rohtang Pass, as I had not seen such ferocity in a river before. Water from Beas kund in the Himalayans came down crashing onto the rocks with such brute force that it threw sprays of cold water high up in the air, and occasionally on the road itself.
Our difficulties had only started for the day. We forgot about the permit required to cross Rohtang pass and got stalled at the checkpoint. A faded notice on the glass window announced that one could get permit online. But now we didn’t have any signals in phone. We walked around climbing rocks, raising phone above our heads and descending a bit into the valley in hopes of finding mobille signal. On the edge of the valley at one point, the signal was just strong enough to open the website at a snails pace and apply for the permit.
There was a commotion of people at the check-point. Newly wed couples lost in each other more than anything else, big Gujarati families drowning in their own noise while constantly nibbling something, and few other bike riders going to either Ladakh or Spiti. The steep road after checkpoint was deserted and passed through thick pine trees on one side and meadows on the other where we were gaining 15-20 meters with every hairpin turn. There was a queue of vehicles as we approached Rohtang pass. The driver of a Mercedes G-Class 4*4 truck was having difficulty maneuvering downhill in the opposite direction. I noticed its German license plates and felt goosebumps rising on my neck. Two men and one woman were driving all the way from Europe. Suddenly, my expedition to Spiti seemed so small.
We were now near the 4000 meter high summit when a small red car came from other side and slowed down. The driver was leaning half out of the window saluting the Indian flag we had on our bike as he crossed us. The proud moment for which we had put the flag had just arrived. The sun was on its way west, and bone chilling winds were blowing at the summit of Rohtang pass. Buddhist prayer flags blew in the wind and many families ran helter-skelter to click photographs and rush back into their warm vehicles. Behind us was the lush green Kullu valley. I turned my head to the other side, shaded my eyes from the cold wind, and for the first time in my life had an overwhelming experience of seeing the barren cold Himalayan desert. ‘Welcome to Spiti valley’, a small yellow iron board braved the winds to welcome us.
I wanted to quickly descend on the other side and shelter ourselves from numbing cold. But we had hardly moved 100 meters when snowflakes started to fall. “Stop! I have never seen snow in my life before”, Nikita shouted in her excitement. “I may or may not come here again in my life. Let me make the most of it now”, she said while climbing down from the bike even before I had stopped completely.
Due to lack of oxygen, her skin was turning pale and she had difficulty breathing. It didn’t stop her from managing to climb uphill a bit and satisfying her desire of being in the snow. She had symptoms of mild hypothermia, so I was eager to reach a warmer place soon. But in terrains like these, one can only go as fast as the nature allows you to. Even my body needed warmth. But I tend to have an unfathomable mental endurance that often goes beyond physical strength, which keeps me going on long and tough journeys. It is when I reach the destination that my body shows side effects of prolonged mental endurance. I eventually experienced those symptoms once we reached Kaza, but I will come to that later.
The sun was gone and so was the road. With only 2-3 hours of daylight remaining, we were driving in slush and mud at not more than 10 kmph. Often Nikita had to get off the bike and walk on foot while I tried to steer it across. There was a constant physical agony of keeping the heavy bike steady. The tires were slipping sideways and sometimes rolling freely in deep wet mud. The cold blizzard of Rohtang pass was behind us and we were now descending into Lahaul valley. We could already see the pretty white houses with colourful wooden doors far away. Such is the diversity of India. Just across a mountain pass, the terrain, people, language, religion, food and biodiversity has completely changed. As if we had come to a different country. Far below us, Chenab river gently flowed from Zanskar all the way down to the plains of Punjab in Pakistan.
Only an hour of daylight was remaining when we realised that we had missed the turn to Kaza and kept on driving for 30 min. towards Keylong on Leh road. I suddenly felt exhausted and irritated at myself. “We haven’t come far. We can go back.” Nikita’s words were easier said than done. Since the bike wasn’t going any faster than a person on foot, she decided to walk a bit and follow me as we retraced our path back towards Kaza. After half an hour we reached the turn we had missed and descended further into Lahaul valley. The sun could set anytime now. Once again we were driving at night. And this time in one of the most hostile terrains I had been to.
Two enfields with a pillion each whizzed past us followed by a white van which carried their luggage and other friends. The bikers slowed down for a while and waved at us before moving on. We were now guiding ourselves only by the dazzling white light of moon and that of our headlamp. The road had rocks jutting out of the ground, pebbles, sparse grass and mud. Nikita held an additional powerful torch in her hands to show the way. Twice we had to cross big rocks with cold water rapids flowing through them. Neither could we put our feet down to prevent them from getting soaked, nor could we just race above the rocks. I had to slowly move inch after inch over the rocks without putting my feet down. At times both Nikita and I had to get off the bike to push it over the dry rocks while giving it the throttle.
After what seemed like hours, we saw a single yellow light. But we didn’t know how far it was, and it didn’t appear to come any closer. Still there was a ray of hope that we were going towards human habitat. We were driving through unusually cold crosswinds. Flat tyre or engine breakdown would have left us screwed or even dead by morning. We saw a lone biker coming towards us from the opposite direction. There was nothing around us for miles and we had no idea where he could be going at this hour. We waved him to stop. He was an Australian riding a white enfield. “I am going back to Manali”, he said in a frustrated tone as if the rugged Himalayan terrain was too much for him to handle. Our eyes grew as big as saucers because it was insane to think of crossing Rohtang pass at night. We bid goodbye and soon forgot about him as we had another serious problem to deal with.
I knew Nikita didn’t fall off the bike, but I hadn’t heard anything from her in a long time. It was unusual. I tapped on her leg and asked her to remain awake. “I am awake. Keep driving. Don’t stop the bike now”, she replied. Her voice was weak. I asked her to bend down a little to shade herself from the wind, cover her nostrils with scarf, and cross her palms under armpits. We hadn’t eaten anything since the last 5 hours. I stopped the bike to quickly eat the dates we were carrying, hoping that it would start metabolism process and produce some body heat. “Let’s reach somewhere fast”, she kept saying. Her core body temperature was falling fast and she was moving towards moderate Hypothermia. She had stopped shivering and showed signs of mental numbness.
We were riding on the Road to El Dorado, in search of a mythical human dwelling where we could find shelter for the night. The last thing I remember before reaching Chhatru, a small makeshift village was climbing back on the bike and deciding to not stop again till we find a place to stay. The group of friends who had crossed us on two enfields and a white van were already bundled up in the shack when we reached. They had come from Bangalore, and were on a whirlwind short duration trip to Spiti. We created a space for Nikita beside the earthen stove and gave her warm water to sip. She was now shivering violently, but those were signs of her body getting back to normal again. Temperature inside the shack was far warmer. Human voices, sound of tea brewing over the stove, food and laughter of the friends from the other group gave us more warmth.
The Australian whom we had met on the way also came rushing back to Chhatru after some time. He was riding on a wave of luck but would have soon realized how crazy his idea was.
Part IV will be published on Monday 07 Nov’16
The Only Way is to Make Yourself Tough →
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