The Long Winding Road to Spiti
On reaching Kasol we went straight to the travel agent to figure out the route to Spiti. Kunzum Pass, which is the gateway to Spiti, was closed since the road was blocked by snow and it would take another 3-4 days to clear up. It generally opens up by early to mid-June. Due to time constraints we couldn’t wait, so we embarked on an adventure to reach Spiti from Kinnaur.
With no booking done, we traveled by local transport, changed several buses, to reach Spiti. Well its a very long distance to cover, but after the trek in Parvati we were up for it. This is the route we took –
Kasol to Bhuntar – 25 kms, around an hour journey.
Bhuntar to Mandi – 57 kms, took us 2 hours to reach
Mandi to Karcham (Kinnaur) – long journey, takes around 13 hours
Karcham to Reckong Peo (by taxi) – 20 to 30 minutes
Are you up for it?
We missed the bus to Bhuntar, but there is one every 30 minutes, so we went to Rainbow Cafe in Kasol to have a quick bite. They serve delicious food, and its facing the river so good location to chill. Don’t be surprised if you bump into many Israelis smoking spliffs, a rather common site.
There was a direct bus from Bhuntar to Reckong Peo at around 2.30 pm or 3.30 pm, I am not sure of the timing at present, which is the last bus. Since everything got delayed, we were hoping to get another bus from Bhuntar. The ride to Bhuntar is really bumpy, it will cost you around Rs 45, and lot of locals travel on this route, so the buses are crowded.
Somehow we managed to get a seat, and Clyde was kind enough to hold a child till his stop arrived. One thing that worked for me on this trip was that I could easily doze off in the bus, no matter how hard my head hit the roof, I would still be sleeping, thats how this short journey to Bhuntar passed by. That’s the domestic airport at Bhuntar (Kullu-Manali), it has a single runway with handful of flights operating to Delhi, Shimla, Dharamsala, Pathankot and Chandigarh. Guess what, there were no buses to Reckong Peo after 3 pm, so really harrowed we asked the bus drivers, ticket collector for the next option. One guy suggested we go to Mandi, around 57 kms from Bhuntar, to catch the 6 pm bus to Reckong Peo. We had to be quick, we jumped in a bus and crossed our fingers to reach Mandi on time. Mountain roads are uneven and uphill, so you can never predict the exact duration of the journey.
But luck was on our side as we made it to Mandi bus depot on time to book our tickets to Karcham, quite close to Reckong Peo, for Rs 295. It was state transport, so the buses are decent, no reclining seats or anything and less leg room. Mandi is a main hub to Kullu Manali, Lahual and Spiti. Its also a place of religious importance for the Hindus and Sikhs. It was some respite for us, as we made it on time and that very soon we will be in Spiti. There was a huge forest fire on the way, it nearly covered half the mountain. The driver stopped for dinner around 10 pm at a dhaba located in an isolated spot, we freshened up and had a bowl of tomato soup to fill our stomach. The ticket collector told us that the bus would stop at Rampur in Shimla at 2 am for two hours, what would we do in Rampur in the middle of the night? I was sleeping when we reached Rampur Bushar Bus stand, Clyde and his friend got off the bus, so I had no choice but to do the same. We had tea and went for a short walk on the deserted road in Rampur. It didn’t look very impressive, its more of a business center and a busy market place. But the empty roads allowed us to entertain ourselves by taking pictures.
This hoarding below was amusing, it read – Influx of monkeys or monkey terror. Monkeys only come when you litter, so to be free from monkey attacks we all should cooperate.:) There was an old Buddhist temple at the side of the bus station, with Pagoda-style roof and colorful entrance, we see much more of these in Spiti. The side view of the Buddhist temple. We were back in the bus now and the journey was going to be another 2-3 hours long, we were just 120 odd kms away from Karcham. At the break of dawn we were in Kinnaur, as I opened my eyes I saw a shepherd guiding his herd of sheep to the side of the road for the bus to move on. I felt a sudden shiver, it was colder than Parvati, so I put on my jacket and was looking around.
The road begins to get dusty as a huge hydro-electric project is underway. The 1000 MW Karcham Wangtoo hydro-electric project started in controversial circumstances. When we got off at Karcham in the middle of no where, we got a taxi to Reckong Peo, the local driver told us the sad situation facing the surrounding villages. He said that the dam was of no use to the locals, since they were not employed for the construction work and neither will the electricity generated be given to the villages. Lot of villagers have lost their land due to this project and are displaced without any compensation. Where ever you go, situations like these are quite prevalent. It seemed like a massive project, because the work was on for several kilometres. We halted at a small village to have a cup of tea. Kinnaur is in the northeast corner of Himachal Pradesh and surrounded by Tibet to the east. The locals have very peculiar features, different then the rest of Himachal. Some have Mongoloid looks and others have Tibetan features.
The driver pointed out at the famous Kinnaur Kailash range, believed to be abode of Lord Shiva and it has a huge rock formation that resembles shivling and changes colour as the day passes. As we moved higher we felt closer to the snow-capped mountains. The view was amazing, the place is surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides and is 2,670 metres above sea level. Reckong Peo is the administrative headquarter for Kinnaur district, so there wasn’t much we could do. There are limited hotels, since its not a tourist spot. The next option would be Kalpa, around 20 kms odd away but its on a higher side.
There were very few decent ones in the main market area. Most of them were packed, and at one place the hotel owner was quite rude with us too. We paid Rs 50 to the taxi driver and began our search. We were tired after the long journey, so we took few rounds and settled for whatever was available. We got a room at Hotel Fairyland, decent room for Rs 300, although the hotel owner wasn’t friendly.
We had breakfast and were off to bed for a while. We soon ventured out to find out the bus timings to Spiti, it was a long, cold walk to the bus depot, but we got the feel of the place. Lot of government offices, military quarters, in fact we witnessed a simulation attack as well while passing by.
There was only one bus to Kaza, the main city of Spiti, at 7 am in the morning, no evening buses because the roads are too risky to drive at night. The guy at the ticket counter asked us to reach at 6 am to book the tickets. For that we would have to wake up at nearly 5 am to check out and walk with our backpacks to the depot. Here’s the bus schedule from Reckong Peo. It is worth it, I said to myself, and walked back to the hotel. We sat at the Cafeteria Roof in the Main Bazaar to eat some Tibetan delicacy, Momos and a veg and non-veg soup, the bill came up to only Rs 90, food was cheap in Reckong Peo, the only good thing about the place. It was an early night for us, as something marvelous was going to unfold tomorrow.
The Road to Spiti
On a chilly morning we were up and ready to start our beautiful journey. We reached Reckong Peo bus depot by 6.15 am and bought our tickets to Tabo for Rs 145. Tabo is around 46 kms before Kaza, and it suppose to be surreal. Waiting for the journey to begin. Unfortunately there was double booking for one of our seats, so we had only two seats to be shared among three people. The bus was overpacked, people were seated everywhere, on cartons, in the alley, next to the driver, behind the driver, it was a wake up call for all of us. But no complains, because they all were friendly and cooperative people. We took turns to share the seat, as the bus wriggled its way on the narrow road. No wonder there are no evening buses, the path is too narrow and uneven, a slight miss and you would be in the Sutlej river. But I was enjoying every moment of it, looking out of the window with eager eyes to see the landscape transform from greenery to aridness. We were still in Kinnaur, said the talkative man next to us. He narrated instances from his life when he was in Maharashtra, and how he was so fluent in Marathi, which he had not spoken for a long time until he met us. He gave us an interesting piece of information as well, few villages in Kinnaur follow the practice of having one wife for a family of brothers. Why do brothers marry the same woman, was our next question. He replied in order to avoid land disputes in the family. I noticed that the tribes and locals of Himachal adapt to the social environment they are living in, its like what works for them they practice.
The rocky terrain took its toll on the bus and the back tyre got punctured. Luckily a service station was close by in a small town called, Pooh. We burst out laughing when we read the sign board. Passengers waiting for the bus to get fixed. The topography had certainly changed, barren mountains with snow at its peak and patches of green fields and Satluj river flowing by, made a lovely picture. In a short while we were back in the packed bus only to be stopped by a natural calamity, landslide few kms from Nako. The landslide had completely blocked the way, it would take a day or two to clear that up. The deal was that we empty the bus, cross the landslide and another bus coming from Kaza would pick us up. It took some time for the bus to arrive, so we sat on top of the rock awestruck by the magnificence unfolding in front of our eyes.
The cold desert, I had never seen something like this before. We sat patiently there at peace with ourselves, the time had come to a standstill. Suddenly we see people shouting that the bus had arrived, the moment of solidarity came to an end, but just for a short time. A Kinnauri woman holding her cute kid on the back. It was almost 1 – 1.30 pm, so the driver made a stop at a village called Hurling for lunch. It was small dhaba serving basic rice, dal and vegetable. We ate little bit, and waited outside to board the bus. A furry and cute donkey was waiting outside in the cold, he had so much fur we couldn’t even see his eyes. Spiti starts from a village called Samdho, close to the Indo-Tibetan border, we were just few mountain ranges away from the border. The terrain gets even more treacherous, narrow road passing below the overhanging cliffs, it looked like a landslide prone area.
Just under an hour away from there was Tabo, at an altitude of 3,050 metres. The place appeared so quiet and isolated. The cold wave that hit us after that was crazy, shivering and throbbing we moved around looking for a guest house. Another guy who got off at Tabo runs two hotels, and he asked us to check those out. We didn’t like the first one close to the bus stop, so we moved ahead to the second one walking through a helipad. An open area, cold desert, snow-covered peaks, you can imagine our state. His second hotel called Tashi Khangser was quite decent and in a secluded spot. The tariff was Rs 200 a night, we happily took the room and didn’t step out until dinner.