One Living Life: Across the Himalayas: Part I

Monday 27 April 2015

Across the Himalayas: Part I

India never ceases to amaze you. With our diverse landscapes, we have it all. Be it a serene beach (Goa/Mandarmani), an amazing Island (A&N/Lakshadweep), a dry desert (Thar) or the highest mountains, we have it all. I have always loved travelling and spicing up an IT guy's life is the most important treat, one which I like to give myself frequently. So, this time I experienced a landscape that comes under the Genre: Travel and Adventure.

The destination initially chosen was: Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh

The route actually taken was: Delhi - Shimla (night stay) - Narkanda - Rampur - Rekong Peo(night stay) - Pooh - Khab - Pooh(night stay) - Nako - Jeori (night stay) - Narkanda - Delhi

Dates: 10th April, 2015 (evening) - 15th April, 2015 (early morning)

In the beginning, there were 8 guys ready for the trip. As it happens with most trips, people show their enthusiasm in the beginning, then that starts fading, until its almost negligible and on the maiden day you get excuses. So, in our maiden trip on the "World's Most Treacherous Road", half of them were excused. In the end, it was me(Chandu), my friend from Pune (Mota), my bestie at work(Shailu) and his brother(Adi).
Adi, Mota, Shailu, Chandu (Left to Right)

Starting from Delhi
Night Long Travel from Delhi to Shimla via Chandigarh
We started on a Friday eve at 6:00 pm and it was no surprise that we left Delhi after 10:00 pm. We had an Innova booked for 4 as 80% of the trip time would be spent in the car and getting a big one was necessary. Loaded with a crate of beer and some fine scotch, we set out in a true party mode. Dancing on our seats, clicking selfies and posing, as the driver, Manoj just focused on getting us fast to Shimla. To our amazement, we 4 finished off the whole crate, even before we reached Chandigarh. Had to stop at for some food.
Stop for food before Chandigarh
While others slept, as midnight crept on the hills

Damn yes, we had a lot of pee-breaks after a crate.

No one has such a big bladder like Adi, who took pride in his bladder capacity. LOL!! It was around 1 am amidst somewhere near the Shimla hills, when our driver said that he was not sure if the road was leading to Shimla. That was something to worry about because unless we could be on schedule, covering more than 1500 kms in 4 days amidst hills was impossible. Network did'nt favor us and Google Maps left us helpless. 1 a.m. meant there was not a single soul except us, awaken amidst the hills. Lucky enough to be an adventurer, I keep an offline maps app(Maps.Me) cause situations like these were repetitions for me. We reached Shimla at around 3 am and slept like tired pigs.

First Day: At Shimla 

Nights Sleep and head towards Kinnaur
A bad hangover was inevitable but the view from the hotel kept petty things forgotten. Undoubtedly, Shimla had a good stature as one of the best hill stations.
View from Shimla Hotel

But, the young blood craves for more. Risk,  adventure, snow, snowfall and fun were what we were looking for and Shimla could never provide it in April. It was a place for couples and mid-aged tourists who wanted to have a nice peaceful vacation. After a small breakfast and a couple of snaps, we hurriedly left Shimla, but not before 12 noon. We had covered the last 380 kms with ease due to the plains but hilly rides and Kinnaur route could never make an average of more than 40-50 kmph during the daytime. During night, its always recommended not to drive in such hilly and landslide regions. This was an warning by a local, our Shimla hotel attendant. But, Mountain Dew always reminds a good tagline. :)

On the Way: Shimla to Narkanda to Rekong Peo(Kinnaur)

First Snowfall experience at Narkanda and Layover at Rekong Peo
As we moved ahead towards Rampur, we were only wishing and praying to god to let us experience a snowfall. We were at a pretty much height above Shimla and could expect a snowfall every time our car took a turn towards the other side of a mountain. Well, luck favored us and dark clouds were seen ahead. We were excited seeing the black clouds. The excitement was kinda comparable to "Lagaan"... on seeing the dark clouds...

The dark clouds excited us... more than the expected pre-monitions

But, snowfall!!! Nah! We thought getting that would'nt be much easy. It was a steep hair-pin bend and a slope downwards where we got a diversion. We stood for a few seconds just to check the map. To our amazement, rain poured down hard and in a blink it turned into a hail storm. First, it was small stones, then they grew larger and as we never knew how snow looked like, we kept the windows closed in fear of the big hail stones hitting us hard. Just a few seconds had lapsed, when I noticed that unlike hail stones which generally make more noise on a car roof and cracked on the windshield, these hails kinda smashed into a powdery form on the windshield. I opened the door and as a  supposedly ice stone fell on my hands, it felt soft and sushy. Damn!!! Is that snow. Unable to contain my excitement, I just screamed out to others and stood outside just to experience my first snowfall. Before I knew, the pitch black tar, the brown soil, the green leaves, the windshield and almost every horizontal layer turned white. The soft snow had covered the landscape around us. There was Adi in his unique poses ready for a click, Shailu with his colorful jacket standing out of the snowfall behind and Mota who had already made his first snowball from the windshield deposits ready to throw them on others. It was a fun moment, a bliss of mother nature, an experience. The very first snowfall of my life!!!
The First Snowfall

Snow on the Windshield, On the Way, The excitement exhibited by Adi, The Snow Around (Top left to Bottom Right)

Our plan was to reach Kinnaur (224 kms) by nightfall which meant our driver had a job of 9-10 hours ahead. We heard that the road till Rampur was good and then it was only a single lane. The Satluj started flowing to our left somewhere in between and stayed absolutely with us until the end of the route. Reaching Rampur at 5 pm, it was tummy time. Had some good Mutton Cutlet and Coffee there as others filled theirs with Pahari Dal Chawal. After having a filling dinner, we started to work our brains as this restaurant guy also warned us about landslides, no roads and a very risky trip to continue in the night. While some of us favored staying back, I always wanted to stay on time and looked forward to a bit more adventure and risk!!! That's what I came for. Since, I was aware of a few villages between Rampur and Rekong Peo, we decided to move ahead. But, I was never sure of any Guest House/Hotel in between. If anything went wrong, there would have been no option other than sleeping in the car in sub-zero temperatures.
The Tar still available till Rampur
The roads were still marked as NHAI, implying we were miles away from the border. Soon, the banner came:

Shimla District ends here. Thank you for visiting.
and ahead:
Welcome to Kinnaur District. We wish you a Safe Journey Ahead 
Although, its more or less, the same written on boards across all borders in India, "Safe Ahead" struck a few chords.
Days are a bit longer on the hills during summer but as the darkness crept in, the road gradually started getting narrower. The tar started vanishing and only patches were found at places. Gradually, the tyre started treading on only rocks and stones. We left 'comfort' miles behind and now was the time to struggle on our seats to be at the same place. I took the co-driver's seat and just ensured we were on the right path. Seat belt was a necessity to hold myself at one place. It was pitch black in front with a visibility of a few meters. Sometimes, the visibility ended nowhere as it was a steep turn and sometimes the headlights were on the vertical wall to the right of us on another turn. We could only hear the Satluj flowing when the silence between two songs allowed us to. At few places, the road narrowed to just 8-9 feet. While I looked to my left, my heart skipped a few beats to see the wheel on the last rock of the  edge.

Our driver, Manoj bhai had been flowing easily till now until a big rock hit his Innova in between. He had no way but to cuss himself and us for choosing such a dangerous trip. Well, we knew that it was a no-road trip and since we were inexperienced on 4 wheels, choosing an Innova was seriously a bad idea. Innova has a wide wheel base (distance between 2 wheels), low ground clearance and has comforting shockers. As a result, even small rocks seemed to touch its base easily. It was not meant for hilly rugged terrain. Choosing a 4x4 vehicle like Thar or Endeavour would have been the best choice. Nevertheless, Manoj did drive well trying to save his ride.

The road was pretty straight forward and easy as all you have to do is stick with the Sutlej. We came across 2 power plants on the way. A 1000 MW and a 300 MW one by Jaypee group. Roads were tarred only around those two power plants and again it was the odd bad rocky terrain. In the pitch dark night we could not see much, but we were pretty sure that a lot of construction work was happening. It was all a recognizable path until an weird diversion came ahead.
The diversion towards the "Slope of Death"

One side of the road was too narrow for any 4 wheeler to pass and the other diversion seemed like a slope ending in a steep fall. With no visibility and absolutely no other vehicle or mobile network around, we were truly "In the Woods". We were stuck. We could not turn back. One, because the width of the road would never permit us and Two, because we had come far away from civilization/hotel/any village. My offline app showed the nearest village around 80 kms away. We had only one choice: Try to scout the road ahead on foot and if possible take the car to the "Slope of Death". We waited some more time discussing what to do and perhaps the Gods above were watching us. To our amazement, we saw 2 headlights coming towards us far away from the direction of the slope. We waited as the headlights seemed to crawl towards us and we literally tried to watch the terrain with eagle eyes. As the Jeep crossed us, we asked them about the situation of the road ahead.
"Ye road Kinnaur ko jaati hai naa?"
"Haan haan.. Kinnaur ko jaati hai ye raasta"
"Road kaisi hai aage??"
"badiya hai!!"

"Badiya hai" was pretty relieving and Manoj bhai was pretty happy that he would get some tar ahead. We crossed the temporary diversion which was extremely narrow and over a temporary bridge across the river. Big Hollow Tubes were placed side by side on the river and mud poured between them. It was muddy and slippery. As we enjoyed the thrill, I guess somewhere inside, we were always fearful of any incident ahead (Goa always remained at the back of my mind). We crossed the land safely and after a few Army Camps came the words.

Border Roads Organization (BRO) Welcomes you

At Rekong Peo

Nights Sleep and Head towards Shipkila Pass (Indo-China Border)
It was around 9 pm we reached the diversion where a road up towards the hills take you to Rekong Peo and the other towards Kinnaur District (NH22). It was a steep rise in altitude as we moved towards Rekong Peo. We had planned to stay for the night there. We reached a place in Rekong Peo which seemed to be the Central part. A bus stop, a statue and a few benches here and there indicated the same. But, the amazing part was there was no one around. Not a single soul, an animal or even any noise. Such awkward silence is only shown in horror movies just before the ghost strikes. But, indeed it seemed like a ghost town. As I had googled before the trip, Rekong Peo was the capital of Kinnaur district and was supposed to be a bustling place with a lot of life. Agreed, Hill Towns are sparsely populated, but this was a totally awkward silence in a place like this.

"Koi Hai???" and there was a response.. "Koi Hai... koi hai... k...h...". My voiced echoed back. We got into our car and kept driving upwards looking for any hotel. While I googled, I found so many hotels here, but now, there was not a single board/hoarding that directed to any guest house. We were either in a wrong place or something weird had happened here before we came in. It was just 9 pm and almost all houses had their lights switched off. We kept driving ahead and all of a sudden we had crossed the town and were heading into the jungles. We had no option but to drive back and either stay in the car amidst buildings or try knocking our luck for a hotel again. We stopped somewhere that looked like a hotel. As I knocked on the door, none responded and when I peeped in, it seemed to be some sort of clinic/health center. My friends tried knocking at some other doors and calling out at the top of their voice, but there was none to respond back. Again, when the night seemed to dupe us and we started considering sleeping in the car,  we spotted a hotel a few stairs downhill. That seemed to be our only hope. the last hope. We kept knocking there, shouted at the top of our voice and around 5-10 mins later a young boy responded back. After all, we were going to get some warm quilts and good food. Asking about food, he told us that he could not provide any. My stomach crunched asking for something other than alchohol, chips or bhujiya. At last, the boy agreed to give us Egg Bhurji and Roti. We were literally ready to pay whatever he wanted for giving us a room and some food. The rooms were actually reasonably charged at 800 per room and driver was also given accommodation.

We got cozy in our rooms and brought out the bottle of scotch and a pack of cards. 4 tired souls drank to their hearts content and continued playing cards until we fell dead asleep. The air around did seem to have an unnatural chill-feel. But, we had to more energy to investigate on that.
Shailu - Extra Chilling on a chilly night, Rekong Peo

Second Day: Rekong Peo to Khab

Start from Peo to Khab and back to Puh/Pooh
We planned to get out early by 9 a.m. As the alarm rang, it forced me to enter the usual captcha code and I was wide awake, ready to wake up my travelmates. As I went to the other room, it was a splendid view through the window. Shailu and Adi were awake and the snow capped mountain peaks seems to be just a few kms away. By god, never in my life have I gone so close to a snow capped Himalayan peak. The last time, it was Kausani, Uttarakhand and the view was a distant one but pleasing. This time it was ever more pleasing and wonderful and being so close, I felt that I should definitely have a day's trek to the mountain top around Rekong Peo. In fact, 360 degrees around us, we were surrounded by snow capped mountains. We were not viewing the Himalayas from the basement or view points anymore. We were amidst the lap of the Himalayas.
Panorama around the Hotel, Rekong Peo
A few panoramas, and clicks were obvious and then I wanted to enjoy my morning Tea and Toast sitting on the verandah, watching the Himalayas. Wearing no shirt, I felt the chilly wind. I loved the air around. It was chilly and pricking but the way it touched your skin was different and a few  moments amidst that snowy air are a part of the real snowy bliss I came close to.
Morning Tea @ Rekong Peo, Kinnaur
It was Sunday and our plan was to cross the Himalayas and reach Shipkila Pass (Indo-China Border), 99 kms away. I had no plans or info as to where we could get Hotels or a Guest House at such remote places. I had googled before the trip but there was almost nothing. The hotel boy at Rekong Peo informed us that we could get the last hotel at Khab. So, our refined plan was to visit Shipkila Pass and layover for the night at Puh. We started at 11:00 am, packed up some food and eggs on the way.
Ummm!!! Only food... Eggs on the way...
The road ahead after Rekong Peo was indeed the most dangerous ever I have ever faced. Last night, perhaps we had crossed such roads but in the darkness our vision was limited and so we never knew the gravity of the situations we were in. Our Innova was moving barely at 15-20 kmph. The road was just wide enough to fit in that car.

The Road
Sorry!! It was no road. It was just rocks, stones, broken rocks, boulders from the side, small waterfalls and wet slippery mud at places. We asked some passers-by who seemed to be locals and they assured us "Badiya road hai ek-do kilometer ke baad.." We crossed 3-4 kms and then again asked the same to some locals and they gave the same answer. This incident repeated at least 2-3 times ahead and we were 100% sure that these people have never seen good tar on roads.

Well, the places where our Delhi driver slowed down and tried to maneuver his way into steep turns honking repeatedly, the local truck drivers pulled on at speeds of at least 30-40 kmph.
Respect for the Truck Drivers
They were well used to these terrains. Ever since this journey, I have nurtured a respect for drivers from Himachal Pradesh due to their skills.

At some point, we saw the board put up by BRO which said, 'You are travelling on the world's most treacherous road.' which made us breath proudly for a moment. Hell yeah!! These are adventures and trips I look forward to eagerly. Had a few clicks there by the roadside as our driver took a breath. Well, more than us, it was Manoj who deserved an applause for being a driver from the plains and driving an Innova on the world's most treacherous road. I had known scores of drivers in the past who never would have dared travelling on much easier terrains.
Travelling on the Worlds most Treacherous Road

We crossed a wooden bridge with no pillars, where only one vehicle was allowed at a time. As our car moved forward, the wood underneath creaked and rattled making monstrous noises. Overall, it was a hard ride. Extremely adventurous and deadly as well. We had many breaks in between, crossed Spillow, Puh and then reached Khab. Mobile network had left us long before. Of course, none of us had BSNL which is mostly the only connection available in remote places. On the way it was only between snow capped peaks that we traveled. Every mountain we crossed had soft snowy layers of cushion covering its peak. It was the best valley I ever traveled across. The road and Satluj went side by side, as snow capped mountains stood on both sides. before we entered Puh, the board clearly suggested that it was an Army area we were entering into belonging to the Tri-Peak Eagles.
The Tri-Peak Eagles - The Battalion that protects us 365 days irrespective of weather conditions

We crossed Puh and were trying hard to cover our journey till Khab since, there was no way we could have reached Ship Ki La Pass that day. Also, we needed to give Manoj bhai some rest. To err is Human. Driving on the hills is a strenuous job and a single mistake meant the end of 5 lives. Pretty sure, that was one way to get your name on a National daily.

The way to Khab is a steep uphill from NH5 just before the Sangam of Spiti and Sutlej rivers. Its around 4 kms from NH 5 but its a rapid ascent in height.

We halted for a photo shoot on the 1 km Khab Milestone and the Green Archway of Khab was visible from there.
Milestone @ 1 km from Khab
The Green Archway of Khab
 I had a nice little run of around 100-200 mts breathing the thin mountain air. But, damn it left me hyper-exhausted and i was literally trying to breath in more and more. It felt like I was getting asphyxiated after the run.


Zero Point @ Khab

We entered Khab and the first thing we wanted to do was check-into a hotel just to be sure that we would not have to fear spending another night in the car. Khab shocked us completely. It was a damn small village with less than 10 small wooden cottages. There was no hotel/guest house/dharamshala or any available shelter in Khab, as informed by the Rekong Peo hotel boy. Well, I did not have much fears because if I wanted to go ahead, I was ready to take the risk of sleeping in the car in sub-zero temperatures. Deep inside, I knew that getting a hotel was 99% impossible then as we were far away from any known town/village that had a hotel/guest house. So, I suggested my travel mates to continue ahead towards Ship Kila Pass as we might get a hotel ahead. They agreed. But, judging the situation then, I did not want to go back to Rekong Peo and put an end to the unexplored Himalayan territory ahead. We had only 4 days in hand. I had less in mind about safety and risks and every other necessary things. All I thought was how to cover more territory and get to see newer places. Sleeping, resting and food were 2nd priorities in my mind.

We headed back from Khab and towards the Indo-China border. I still don't know how my travel mates agreed on my explanation of finding a hotel in that direction. However, a few Army guys stopped us midway before we were entering Namgia and interrogated us.
"Ruk!! Ruk!!"
We stopped.
Army Guy: "Kahan jaa rhe ho"
We: "Aage... Hotel dhundne" (I bet he would have laughed hard on these words later)
"Aaage kuch nhi hai.. Jaana maana hai. Kya karne aaye ho?" (This broke my heart as I had much wishes to visit the end of the road.)
"Kahan se!!!!"
"Yahan kahan ghumne aaye!!"
"Aise hi.. Baraf dekhne... Indo-China border..."
"Aage to aap nhi jaa sakte." (in a pleasant but authoritative tone)
"Ok.. bhaiyya.. Thank you. Hotel kahan milega??"
"Idhar koi hotel to nhi hai. Aapko aage Nako jaana padega yato Pooh. Nako mein paata nhi khule honge yaa nhi. Khul jaana chahiye lekin Pooh mein jarur hoga."
"Puri Baraf kahan milegi aas paas??" (I came back to my original question of interest)
"Aaage Nako chale jao... ya to Kaza. baraf hi baraf hai..."


We thanked him once again for all the info and this time my travelmates decided to ignore my vote for moving ahead to Nako. they decided to play safe and we headed back to Pooh. We had heard that Pooh had one PWD Guest House and 2-3 hotels. Well, the 2-3 hotels were all closed. We headed to the end of Pooh where on the top of a moutain, the PWD Guest house is located. It was truly a scenic spot. There was a wide unhindered view of the landscape, valley and mountains from the PWD RH terrace.
View from PWD Rest House Terrace @ Puh/Pooh

We had no chance to bargain regarding the room price and already knew that we would have to give him whatever he asked. Lucky enough, it was a government establishment and rents were only 500/day. Rooms were pretty good with geysers and room heaters. But, the best part was its wide terrace area. I did not go into the room but just pulled up a nearby chair and sat alone staring at the mountains. The sun was setting fast and the last rays were just lighting up the mountain peaks. It was a bliss to spend those few moments. The silence of the mountains all around, a chilly breeze caressing you and the snow capped peaks still glowing in the darkness. Slowly, a few moments later, darkness tried to engulf the mountains completely but failed. The snow caps still voiced their existence. The sky was clear and I have rarely seen so many stars together. Took out my Google Sky Maps to identify them, as I was thrilled to find out Jupiter perfectly above me.

Shailu and Adi changed and came back by that time and we had some hot tea which was getting cold extremely fast. A few long shutter exposed photo trials and when the chilly breeze turned into adamant piercing winds, we had no choice but to head into our rooms.
Hot Tea that turns Cold fast @ PWD Rest House, Puh/Pooh
Some Photo Trials:

Shailu and Adi  posing for the shutter play...

The night was same as Rekong Peo but drinks and playing cards were short in tenure. It was a government rest house and they did not serve food in your own rooms. We had to go to the common dining room. But, the food was awesome. It was simple veg but it was served hot and tasted great. We were full before we knew. A round of cards at night and off we went to sleep for another adventurous day ahead. But, just before that we finalized our trip ahead. I guess my travel mates feared I would take them to another thrilling pitfall yet again. LOL

From locals and the PWD Rest House guard, we had learnt that the Kaza Valley leads after Nako. So, in fact we could have even planned a round trip via Delhi-Shimla-Relong Peo-Puh-Nako-Kaza-Lahaul-Spiti-Manali and back to Delhi. That would have been a totally new road throughout the trip. But, we had just 4 days in hand. And, covering those roads would be impossible. I had in my mind to take 1 extra holiday and come back via Kaza-Puh-Delhi. But, my travel mates had votes for a safe way and I agreed with that, because what they said was reasonable. So, the next part of our trip, next morning continued from Pooh to Nako, back to Jeori, back to Narkanda and another way to Hatu Peak and at last reached Home after 2 days..........

Travelogue to be continued...
Ahead: More thrill and fun we had....

The 360 Selfie inspired by Alex Chako, covering a gyst of the whole trip:

Part 2 -

1 comment :

  1. :-o Holy Shit. Some trip, guys! You guys had the time of your lives.
    I will disown you if you don't plan something like this with me in it.
    The travelogue is brilliant! More trips, more blog posts! :D