The barley fields in the beautiful village of Kibber in Spiti valley.

It never rains in Spiti

3rd – 10th September 1995

The bus was hurtling its way down the rain and hail-washed mud road near the Kunzam pass when I realized that it was actually snowing lightly. Sitting cosily ensconced in the relative comfort of the Himachal State Transport Roadways bus, I felt a great thrill watching the lightly falling snow flakes on the windscreen of the bus, and the periodic rhythm of the wipers moving deliberately. I felt a passing sense of awe tinged with sympathy for the hardy Gaddi herdsmen walking with their never-ending white flocks of sheep and goats in the cold wet rain and wind. Only a few hours later I would be feeling more than a little sorry for myself when I too would be walking down the same muddy road with a rucksack on my back, tramping through and over ice-cold puddles and rivulets of water pouring down from the slippery mountainsides on to the road.

The Spiti river, on the road from Kaza to Manali.
The Spiti river, on the road from Kaza to Manali, on another trip, 15 years later in August 2010.

We had left Kaza in the morning after having spent a few weeks in Kibber and camped and explored the nearby areas in Langza and Komik looking for wild ungulates like blue sheep and ibex.  We had sighted several herds in different areas, and even seen a pale weasel and a dead specimen of a snow leopard.  For the first time I had gone up to 5200 m where the air was so thin.

The barley fields in the beautiful village of Kibber in Spiti valley.
The ripening barley fields in the beautiful village of Kibber in Spiti valley.

In the meantime, the bus reached the 15000 feet high Kunzam pass, and Yash Veer’s voice woke me from my dozing. I was reluctant to get wet, being content to watch the snow from the inside, but on Yash Veer’s insistence that I should have a photograph taken at the Pass, I got down gingerly from the bus shivering from the cold.

 

The Kunzam Pass on a bright sunny day in August 2010
The Kunzam Pass at a different time on a bright sunny day.

The cold was actually exhilarating especially the snowflakes settling down on my hair and clothes. The bus resumed its way, now down the pass towards the Chandra River, after people had run in to offer coins at the small temple with fluttering flags and a chorten. In the bus, we had a garrulous co-passenger with ears sticking out at right angles with a permanently d-uh expression on his face. He carried on a loud non-stop conversation interspersed with hand clapping and irritating laughter with people behind, while simultaneously listening to reggae music (a la Walkman). From time to time he would tunelessly chant ‘Buffalo soldier’ and ‘No woman, no cry’. Yash Veer had a pained expression on his face and was muttering under his breath, so we changed seats letting Charu suffer for a while. Charu, I think, promptly dozed off. The bus was making good time despite the rain and we were making plans for a sumptuous dinner at some place in Manali. Charu rubbing his hands in glee at the thought of butter chicken and Yash Veer in his more sedate way of his usual stuffed tomato paneer. I was voicing my morbid thoughts about how I imagined what would happen if the bus fell off the edge of the narrow road, with Yash Veer and Charu giving me not-very-amused looks, when the bus came to a halt. It seemed that there were rocks on the road ahead, so some passengers got off to haul them away and we were on our way again. The intensity of the drizzle had increased, and I watched the slippery wet rocks on my side of the window wondering at how horribly wet and cold they would feel. We passed some mules and horses standing under a poor shelter of rocks with resigned patience and two big mountain sheep dogs running about in the rain. I wondered how they felt about the rain.

Somewhere near the Kunzam Pass
Somewhere near the Kunzam Pass

I was feeling quite miserable about the rain; the world seemed hostile, grey and joyless. Charu kept up his incessant refrain of how wonderful the rain was; otherwise he would have been sneezing at the dust. And also about how it actually never rains in Spiti. These over-optimistic positive types really get me down at times.

Suddenly we saw some trucks on the road ahead and the bus came to a halt. This was it, the roadblock! A truck had got stuck in the quicksand and could not be pulled out. At that time, I little realized what would eventually happen, being optimistic about speedy road repairs, I assumed that we would be held up for a few hours at the most, by which time the trucks would be towed out. The worst eventuality would be that the bus would turn back to Kaza. But no sooner had this happened than within minutes our co-passengers started getting off with bag and baggage which included sacks of sweet peas. It seemed they were walking to the nearest place from here – Chhatru, that everyone said was just 2 kilometres away. I remembered Chhatru while coming into Spiti as a place consisting of two teashops, the inside being basically a cold stone structure covered on the outside with a tarpaulin. Yash Veer reassured me that the bus from Manali should be reaching soon on the other side of the roadblock and explained the concept of transmutation of passengers to me. This is a common thing in Himachal especially on these landslide-ridden roads. Essentially the idea is simple, passengers of two buses going in opposite directions change buses, and consequently the buses change their original destinations and move back where they came from keeping everyone happy. But then that’s not how things always work, as Murphy’s law puts it, when things can go wrong, they usually do!

After a few seconds, we realized that barring the conductor and the nonchalant driver, the three of us were the only ones waiting optimistically for this transmutation. Even the Austrian couple behind us were busy taking down their bicycles from the top of the bus and putting on layers of waterproof clothing. I watched with envy, thinking with dread of my cotton and woollen clothing and my flimsy cloth shoes being soaked within minutes of being in the rain. Yash Veer told us that people are so impatient that they walk ahead for the bus and therefore the bus would not come all the way to the roadblock and probably turn back before, so it would be better for us to walk too. The driver’s opinion also was that we should start walking. By this time only the Austrian couple were left, still preparing to bike it down to Chhattru. By now we had learnt that Chhattru was actually five and a half kilometres away. Yash Veer and Charu were taking the whole thing in a matter of fact way, so I tried my best not to appear upset. Our rucksacks and kit bags on top of the bus were soaking wet. Yash Veer and Charu were to carry their rucksacks along with one kit bag each, while I was to carry only my own rucksack. We also had sundry items such as the GPS bag, Yash Veer’s daypack and two carry mats. After some time, we were on our way, with the stranded truck drivers watching us with (what seemed to be in my misery) callous amusement. I tried to forget about the cold as I stepped into the rivulets, the road in most places had become like a shallow nullah with water streaming over the rocks and pebbles. The sky was invisible, a cold grey thick enveloping mist everywhere, and the mountains dark grey wet with patches of green pastures, the upper reaches covered with fresh snow. The Chandra River was rushing down over the rocks, a murky brown. The force of the river was awesome and in spite of the cold rain I couldn’t help wondering over the harsh beauty and the strangeness of this landscape. Yash Veer being weighed down with the luggage was trying to walk down as fast as possible. Charu was stopping periodically to rest because of the weight of his load. I did not feel the weight of my rucksack initially, but as I kept walking, my shoulders hurt. The bags had also become heavier due to the rain. We passed an old man bent double carrying a huge sack filled with utensils. His companion was carrying some bedding. Both seemed quite infirm and were not wearing any warm clothing. Earlier, Yash Veer had helped them to get their luggage down from the bus.

After trudging about a kilometre, we saw a bus and I thought “Wow salvation”. But the callous driver told Yash Veer to keep walking and said that he’d be going till the roadblock and that we could get on it only on its way back. He did not even allow us to keep some of the luggage. So our hopes dashed we trudged on, but at least we knew the bus was returning. A man offered to carry Charu’s kit bag.

I gave a sigh of relief as I saw another Himachal bus way ahead around the bend. I forgot the pain and dragged myself as fast as possible towards what I saw as my last hope. On reaching the bus, I realised that the over-enthusiastic passengers of this bus were hell-bent on reaching Kaza come what may. The wheels were stuck in the soggy black treacherous mud and seemed to be sinking in deeper with every heave and push. Yash Veer’s efforts at warning them were futile. I guess these passengers, most of them tourists and hikers wanted to make sure that there really was a roadblock ahead. They didn’t believe things could be so bad. So giving up all hope of getting a lift, we trudged on again. By this time, I was wondering whether the idea of these two buses returning back was a trifle too optimistic.

Anyway the milestone showed that Chhattru was only a kilometre away, so things were not too bad. I had visions of a smoky fire, dry socks, hot tea and steaming dal and rice and heavenly warmth awaiting me. The reality was that as soon as I reached I started shivering uncontrollably, since it was only then that the cold really chilled my bones.  I felt the wetness of my thick jacket, Sridhar’s wonderful but much-maligned monkey cap which I had borrowed in Dehradun and worst of all my thin socks and canvas shoes. Yash Veer and Charu herded me towards the tiny fire. In this harsh treeless landscape, fuel wood is scarce and due to the rain there were only some damp scraggly twigs and branches of some shrub (probably Juniper) available. There were already various people sitting around the wooden bench trying desperately to get warm. Many of the passengers from our bus were sitting around in various corners of the shop; the others had stopped at the second teashop. Another Himachal roadways bus was stranded there for two days. Many passengers stayed put in the bus, others had put up at the PWD rest house nearby. We decided against going to the relative comfort of the rest house since it would be too crowded.

The same stone benches in Rawat's cafe at Chattru - on a different trip, some 15 years later!
The same stone benches in which we slept for several nights in Rawat’s roadside tented ‘hotel’ at Chattru – on a different trip, some 15 years later.

After getting reasonably warm and at least smokily damp instead of wet, we staked our claim to one small section of the cold stone bench along one side of the tea-shop. The tarpaulin and mats on it were damp, barring Yash Veer’s bright red sleeping bag, everything else was soaking wet. We made ourselves comfortable with some hot tea and steaming rice and dal and kept fighting over the sleeping bag trying to keep out the chill. Everyone was unsure as to the situation further along the road. Some doomsayers insisted there would be roadblocks everywhere and we would have to trek all the way to Manali (a distance of 88 km), while others said once we reached Gramphoo (17 km), the road would be clear. It soon dawned on us that this was not a temporary halt that we would have to stay put there at least for the night.

The rain showed no signs of stopping, just an inexorable steady drumming on the tarpaulin. The sun was far away, taken over by impenetrable armies of grey clouds and mist. After a while I took notice of all the other stranded fellow passengers. We learned that one busload of passengers was stuck there since the previous night. In the course of the next two days, there would be five busloads of passengers including one or two trucks sheltered in these two tiny chai-shops, the place called Chhatru, which is even depicted on maps of the area. It had seemed funny that such a tiny inconsequential place should be worthy of mention on tourist maps of the area, but after the trip, I felt that in these harsh barren landscapes, the two chai-shops of Chhatru were probably like the Maurya Sheratons of Delhi.

Lady in Rawat's eatery making noodles for thukpa.
Lady in Rawat’s eatery making noodles for thukpa.

Throughout the day, foreigners returning from treks, and tired Gaddi herders taking a break from tending their flocks on the mountain slopes trooped in, while a few fed up with the waiting, left the first day itself on the walk to Gramphoo.

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The large flocks of sheep and goats on the road between Kaza and Manali in the Chandra valley.

We were hampered by our heavy luggage, and decided to wait till the next day, in the hope of getting some porters or horses to carry the luggage. By evening, those who were going to stay were allotted their places by Rawat, the cool owner of the chai-shop who seemed to be handling all the influx with great equanimity. The bus drivers, truck drivers seemed to be quite happy with the status quo, trooping in and out of the cold, playing cards, singing, taking swigs of whatever drink they had. We sat stiffly watching all the merry-making trying to get comfortable against the damp stone wall, all bunched up. Next to us were some local men, maybe Gaddis. Facing us were two young city chaps who were dressed like hippies, smoking ganja and generally being very friendly with the foreigners. One of them had a guitar, and throughout the next two days kept incessantly strumming ‘Dum-Maro-Dum’, which probably was apt considering their general appearance. But as far as a repertoire went, it left much to be desired. The fellow seemed to put his heart and soul into it, no matter how many times he sang it. Rawat put on the radio and all talking and singing ceased. Heavy rains were reported all over north India, the situation was reported to be very bad in most parts of Himachal, Manali was damaged, roads were blocked and so on and so forth. It’s very different to listen to this sort of news when you are away from it all, unaffected. That night passed somehow, all of us so exhausted that we slept despite the cold and cramped space. We would hear the deep rumbling sounds of rock falls outside as during avalanches. For me, the worst thought was getting out of the comparative dryness of the shelter to go out to pee in the cold wet outdoors with people swarming all over.

The next day passed somehow in a daze with periods of optimism when the watery sun made a feeble effort to shine through and phases of boredom and stiffness from sitting in the tiny space for two days on end. We could not get any willing porters or horses. Even the Gaddis or other locals did not want to go. Most also did not have their horses or mules there. We were advised by most people not to leave that day since towards mid-day, the rain got worse and there were reports of landslides and quicksand on the road ahead.

In the late evening, a young American couple had come into the shelter. They were cold and wet and had walked all the way from Chandra Tal after the weather changed. I spoke to the girl a bit and helped her find a sheltered place to change, as the place was crowded with people.

Finally, the next day, the weather cleared a bit. Everyone was fed up of waiting and there was talk of walking up to Gramphoo. The American couple had decided they would start their walk. The guy did not talk to anyone, but the girl had become friendly with me, and we advised them not to set off alone and wait a little bit and come along with the rest of us. But the guy did not listen. Soon after breakfast, they headed off on their own despite warnings from several people. After much discussion and planning, we and a motley group of several other travellers including locals from Himachal and a Forest Range officer from Himachal set off. We had nearly run out of money having spent 3-4 nights at that place. We needed to keep a bit for the journey ahead, so we traded some packets of instant noodles we had carried from Spiti, for a last meal of dal-rice at Rawat’s place before we left. We said our goodbyes and thanked our host.

 

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A bit of color and decor in Rawat’s roadside eatery, August 2010

As I walked, my thin cotton shoes were wet in a few seconds. The road was still a stream and the raging Chandra was as grey and furious as before. The skies were impenetrable.  Just after the bridge at Chhatru, there was a section, where the road was nothing but a quagmire of squelchy mud. We somehow crossed this. Further ahead, the road was no longer there, so we left the road and climbed and skirted up a slope. At one point, a black muddy stream had formed and was rushing down the hillside and had broken up the track. To continue, one had to jump over it to cross. If one slipped or missed a footing, it was a sheer drop straight down into the Chandra river. The Gaddis and their sheep were watching us from high above on the slope.

The Gaddis and their sheep and goats are a common sight in the summer months in this harsh landscape.
The Gaddis and their sheep and goats are a common sight in the summer months in this harsh landscape.

We were all carrying heavy bags and Yash Veer and Charu were even more weighed down with additional bags. Everyone else in the group crossed over. And even Charu and Yash Veer hesitated to jump and cross with their heavy loads. Then, fortunately, the Range Officer from the Forest Department at Tabo, Devi Singh who was in the group, turned back to lend a hand and help us cross. At that point, we all wondered how the young American couple had crossed this place as they were both carrying heavy rucksacks. We hoped they had made it.

After this, we reached back on the road again and it was essentially just the tiresome business of plodding along in the rain, and trying to remain oblivious to the cold. At one point, Yash Veer had stopped and was leaning against the rockface with his eyes closed. Charu was concerned that something may have happened, but Yash Veer had just stopped to meditate in the middle of that walk! The reason we were carrying so much luggage was because Yash Veer was bringing back a lot of the stuff including old utensils from his field basecamp in Pin Valley, many  sheets of pressed plants (herbaria) for identification and some fossil rocks. Charu (always practical and a minimalist) and I suggested that we could leave/throw some of the stuff behind, but it was all important and dear to Yash Veer, so they had to be carried back. We kept walking and at some point, I left them both behind as I had much less to carry and was impatient to reach a drier place. Our companions had long since gone ahead. Once in a while, someone else passed.

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The Chandra river at a more peaceful time in 2010.

I passed a lone hut and walked on. After some time, I heard a shout and Charu was calling me back. They had decided we would not push ahead to Gramphoo that day as the weather was not good and it was getting late. So we went back to the hut I had passed by. Imagine my surprise when we entered that small hut to find it sheltering what seemed to be over a hundred people. That little hut belonged to a Nepali man and the place even had a name and was called Dorni. We had come about 4-5 km from Chhatru. That night passed somehow and we all sat cramped together trying our best to sleep. We made friends with some of the fellow travellers including a big Malaysian guy called Jin who had been travelling in India for six months. We all spoke of the terrible weather and stories of various stranded groups and what the road conditions could be ahead.

Yash Veer and I at the hut in Dorni with the only dry sleeping bag. On my head is Sridhar's monkey-cap.
Yash Veer and I at the hut in Dorni with the only dry sleeping bag. On my head is Sridhar’s monkey-cap. This is the only photo I could find and scan from that trip.

Matters were made worse for me as I was among the very few women there and discovered half-way through the night, sitting amongst some 50-odd people in that cramped space, that I had my period. I was totally unprepared.

By morning, miraculously, after 3-4 days of continuous dark and pouring rain, the sun appeared and the skies were a lovely clear blue. We could not believe it. Everyone poured out of the small hut to be out in the sun, making preparations for the walk to Gramphoo. Things were upbeat and Yash Veer had also finally managed to find a couple of willing porters to help us carry our stuff.

Although the skies had cleared, the road was badly damaged and there was slush, boulders, rocks and landslides all the way. We had to traverse some pretty treacherous terrain and the memories have blurred. I will never forget one of the porters who helped me cross in many dangerous places. I would not have made it without him. I could remember his name till recently, but now after 22 years, it is hard to remember. On the way, one of the travellers we met had got caught in some quagmire and was having difficulty walking. Yash Veer gave him a pair of chappals.

One of the small glaciers in the valley.
One of the small glaciers in the valley.

Gramphoo was bustling with news and activity. It is again normally just a pit stop on the road to Spiti. The road bifurcates here, to the left is the highway to Lahaul valley and further on, all the way to Leh in Ladakh and Srinagar. To the right, is the road we had come on from Spiti valley. There was news of trekkers and tourists stranded in Baralacha La, one of the highest passes (4890 m) in the Zanskar range in that area and that rescue missions were on and the government may be sending helicopters to rescue the people. We also heard with much disappointment that this was not the end of our journey. That we may have to walk all the way to Manali, as the roads were washed away. In fact, we would have to climb up (and later, down) the many hairpin bends of the windy Rohtang Pass (3,979 m).

Many more tired travellers walked into Gramphoo. More than five bus loads of tourists and locals had been stranded. We all exchanged notes on the journey and the situation.

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All these fellow travellers had become friends and despite the dire situation, it was kind of festive and fun. There were elderly women among the travellers, several women were in saris and high heels and had trouble negotiating the terrain in their attire. They had all been on the bus expecting a hassle-free and uneventful routine ride to Manali. No one had expected such heavy and continuous rains in Spiti, a cold desert. As people straggled in, and we accounted for everyone we realized that the American couple were nowhere to be seen. We asked some people and then it turned out that the couple had fallen into the Chandrabhaga river, the previous day soon after they had left Chhatru. Apparently, some Gaddi herders had seen them from afar high up on the slope. They were alone with their heavy rucksacks trying to cross the muddy stream. This was at that same treacherous point where we had needed help to cross. The girl had slipped and the guy in trying to help had lost his footing and both fallen straight down into the river. The Gaddis could not do anything as they were far up and it all happened in seconds. We felt horrible thinking that this had happened just a while before all of us had crossed that same point. If only they had listened to us and waited to come along with the larger group, they would have been alive. We also heard of the death of another elderly traveller due to possible hypothermia and one other person who had got caught in the dal-dal (quagmire).

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The Chandra valley lies between the Kunzam Pass and Gramphoo on the Manali-Kaza road. It remains cut off and completely uninhabited for many months through the long winter. In the past, the road used to open for 3-4 months in summer when a few shops like Rawat’s at Chhatru open along the road to cater to the passing tourists and local people. Gaddi shepherds also use the area in the summer to graze their livestock.

It was afternoon and it takes a few hours to climb and cross the Rohtang pass, even if one avoids the long winding road and hairpin bends and takes the shortcut straight up through the meadows. Yash Veer wanted to go ahead to Marhi, as the porters were available only till that day. Marhi is a famous stop on the way to the pass with many roadside shops, dhabas and hotels –a tourist point where people get off to take pictures and pose in hired long fur coats and snow gear with the mountains and ride on ponies. It is the last point where you are amidst the oak, pine and fir of the Greater Himalaya, before you cross over the Pass and hit the dry cold desert of the Trans-Himalaya into the Lahaul and Spiti valley.  People said that there are usually very strong winds and the weather often turns bad high up on the pass in the late afternoons. Most travellers were staying overnight and planning to undertake the trek next morning. Charu and I decided not to go ahead that day, as I was not feeling up to tackling the pass that day. Yash Veer went ahead with the porters. We found a corner to sleep in along with many others in the small teashop by the roadside.

The next morning was bright and clear. The road distance from Gramphoo to Rohtang Pass is 15 km, but the walk is shorter as we cut straight uphill. It was a fabulous day, with blue skies and a lovely breeze and the walk up took around 2-3 hours. It was not as difficult as people had made it out to be. From Rohtang pass, it was another 16 km down to Marhi, but again all of us took short cuts down the mountain slopes. The road was blocked in places, with many stranded vehicles. The whole hillside was filled with travellers trudging, running down the slopes. It was kind of exciting and I felt wonder looking at the high mountains and forested slopes all around. After Rohtang Pass, the landscape changes dramatically to lush green alpine meadows and pine and fir forests of the Greater Himalaya.

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We finally reached Marhi and found Yash Veer. He had spent a cold and miserable night sleeping on a table at a roadside café. And in the morning, the owner, mistaking him for an uninvited road labourer had yelled at him to push off. After several days of being unwashed with no change of clothes and burnt by the sun and wind with peeling skin, the three of us looked quite a sight, but Yash Veer who usually looks so distinguished and dapper, somehow looked the most bedraggled with his unshaven and sunburnt face from the time spent in Spiti.

Despite all the news about the devastation in Manali, we had optimistically assumed that after Marhi, we would still be able to find some transport and the road would be cleared and open. But we realized that we had no choice but to walk all the way to Manali, which was around 35 km from Marhi. From Gramphu to Manali, the total distance was around 67 km.

It was quite a festive carnival kind of atmosphere as the hillside and roads were swarming with people all clambering down the slopes. Marhi’s roadside eateries are famous for their various kinds of paranthas, rajma-chawal and Maggi. After a breakfast of alu paratha with globs of homemade butter, we followed everyone who seemed to know the shortcuts through the forests down to the Beas river. Jin, the Malaysian guy, and two brothers from lower Himachal who worked at the power station in Rangrik in Spiti and several others who we had met at Chhatru/Dorni/Gramphoo were all walking with us. My knees and legs were hurting after all the non-stop walking. In one place, we had to cross the river along some rickety logs. Several local herders helped us at some difficult points. After miles and miles of walking, I remember vaguely, that we reached back on the highway near Palchan, a small roadside village where everyone stops for tea. It was a place full of ‘mahaul’ as Yash Veer likes to call it. But we could not stop to enjoy the mahaul (roughly translated to mean atmosphere) much. We quickly ate and managed to hitch a ride on a passing truck for a short distance. As we approached Vashisht, a town near Manali, it was shocking to see the devastation the floods had caused. All along the roadsides we met local people who stopped to chat and expressed concern and gave us news about the situation. At one point, there were a bunch of men with baskets of the famous Himachali apples, stopping all the weary travellers to hand over the apples and cheering us on. This gesture was so fabulous, spontaneous and heart-warming – this is what makes me love this country so much. We passed the Centre for Snow and Avalanche Studies which was heavily damaged, the river had overflown its banks here and ripped apart sections of the road and the centre. We all laughed at the irony of this particular place being so badly affected by the floods. Luckily, the floods had come in the middle of the day, so although there was severe damage to property on both banks of the river, lives had not been lost in Manali town.

As evening fell, we realised that even though we had reached Manali, it was still quite some way to the centre of the main town. And because different sections of the road had been damaged, we had to take a long-winded route through the forested slopes climbing up and down the hillside again. We had to ask many people the route many times and there were many detours. At some point, we got lost and went on a wrong route. It got completely dark and we walked without any torches. By this time, I was completely fed up and complaining. The day’s euphoria was gone. It was frustrating to have covered so much distance all through the day and bizarre to have reached what I thought was Manali in the late afternoon and yet still be walking endlessly in the dark. At one point, I slipped in the darkness and sat down on the slope and it turned out I had sat down on some human poop. That was really the worst part in the entire journey.

Finally, at around 8 pm, we reached the main centre and trudged wearily to a hotel. We said our goodbyes to all our fellow travellers, with handshakes and hugs all around – it had been wonderful walking with them and everyone had helped each other. We would never see them again but I would always remember the warmth and fun we shared on the long walk.

We had begun our day at 6 am from Gramphoo. We had probably walked around 35-40 km (though the actual road distance is 67 km). After 7-8 days of no bath, it was unbelievable to actually sit down on a bed, use a bathroom and a shower. The tiredness and stiffness in our muscles and joints hit us as we sat down to a full dinner, the first proper meal after several days – but sadly, there was no butter chicken on the menu, that Charu had been dreaming of when we had set out from Kaza so many days ago. That would have to wait till we reached Dehradun.

But the journey was not over.  We realised next morning that we did not have enough money to make the journey back to Dehradun. We had used up whatever cash we had during our enforced stay at the roadside stops and on hiring the porters/horses. These were before the days of ATMs, and mobile phones. All of us knew friends and family would be terribly worried as we were supposed to have reached almost a week before. We could not call from the STD (Standard Trunk Dialling) booths that used to be ubiquitous and a lifeline in those days. All phone lines were down due to the floods. Fortunately, Yash Veer knew of a range officer in Manali and we decided to request him for help. Next morning, we headed over to his office to borrow some money. Before we reached the Ranger’s office, Charu managed to sneak a quick shave from a roadside barber which made him more presentable. Both Yash Veer and I were limping, he, due to blisters, and I, due to stiff joints and knee pain as the exertions of the previous two days were taking effect. The ranger was shocked by our sunburnt, haggard appearance. When he offered us tea, Yash Veer had refused politely. The ranger laughed and said “Aap ko dekh ke lag raha hai ki aapko chai ki sakht zaroorat hai”.

There were no direct buses from Manali to Dehradun, so we had to get to Kullu. Even the 40 km stretch from Manali to Kullu was badly damaged in places. Autos were doing brisk business ferrying people for short distances from point to point. We hopped on and off several autos, negotiated some precariously damaged road sections on foot and finally reached a point from where we got on a very crowded bus to Kullu. As we were getting on to the bus, there were a group of Bengalis getting down with all their mountain gear and discussing their mountaineering trip into the higher reaches. We laughed at this madness of being headed in the wrong direction into the mountains when everyone else was trying to get out. Finally, we reached Kullu and there were no direct buses to Dehradun. We managed to get on a Himachal Roadways bus to Saharanpur, which would be an overnight ride. From here, we would have to take another bus to Dehradun.

As we sat down on the bus at Kullu, the conductor came for the tickets. When Charu was paying, for some reason, the conductor was surprised to learn that Yash Veer was also with us. Later when the bus had stopped somewhere and Charu had got down, he asked Charu “Acchaji, aapke saath jo dusra aadmi hai, who kahan se hai – Madrasi hai kya?”. He was surprised to learn that he was not. This is a typical reaction in north India where anyone with dark skin is automatically often assumed to be from the south and generically referred to as ‘Madrasi’. Yash Veer with his sunburnt face apparently qualified. It can be offensive most times, but this guy did not mean to be prejudiced, I guess.

At dawn, we reached Dehradun on the 10th of September, a week after we had left Kaza. Charu and I were headed to the Wildlife Institute of India campus, while Yash Veer was headed to his home which was outside the campus. Poor Yash Veer, here too, as he was waiting for a Vikram (that’s what the big shared autos were called in Dehradun) – the police caught and questioned him as they thought he looked suspicious.

Even now, we laugh when we remember how Yash Veer was questioned and treated because of his appearance. But it is also a telling comment on how appearances and the colour of your skin determine how people treat and view you.

After that time, I have done many journeys in different areas in the Himalaya, including countless ones to Spiti after Charu began his PhD studies there in 1996. There have been many other crazy long-distance walks and journeys in difficult terrain especially in parts of Arunachal, but this was the first such experience and remains the most memorable. Charu who loves the mountains and is used to them, said later that even he was pretty shaken during the journey and had wondered at times, whether we would make it back alive.

Even now, if you google, you will find many news reports and articles on the floods in September 1995. Here is one I found:

“It was in the first week of September, 1995 when the entire State had heavy rains that district Kullu witnessed heavy floods particularly between 2nd to 5th September, 1995. The intensity of floods was very high throughout the district. However, the worst affected part in Kullu sub-division was from Palchan to Bajaura where the river Beas caused substantial damage to public and private property on its right as well as left bank. The flood was caused mainly due to heavy rains in the higher mountainous region from where the river Beas emerges. During this period, the rainfall was estimated to be about 74 cm, which was abnormally high, compared to the annual average of 81 cm. “

I still remember the faces of the American couple that lost their lives. In later years, we would learn from Rawat, the hotel guy at Chhatru, that the parents and family of the American couple had come to the area and that a memorial had been put up somewhere near Manali.

Note: Although I had some photos from parts of the trip, these were all taken on some ancient cameras and are on slide/film rolls. For most of the journey after we started to walk, the incessant rain and the circumstances precluded stopping to take photographs. I will eventually make the time to find and scan some and insert them here. But for now, I have used photos from another trip in August 2010 to add some visual relief from my long-winded detailed account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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14 thoughts on “It never rains in Spiti

  1. As I have driven myself into same areas which you have walked , I can understand magnitude of the walk in this terrain and that also in bad weather!!!!, Looking forward to read more of your stories from your work from remote areas of this amazing country of ours.

    1. Thanks for reading and your comment, Kedar. Hoping that I will get to writing about those soon!:)

  2. many thanks for sharing
    brings back memories from my trip to Ladakh and Zanskar in 2008
    hope to be able to also make a returntrip ,say in 2018, and see the differences after ten years.
    kind regards,

  3. Great read and I totally walked this walk with every word you wrote…..do you know the fable behind Chandra Taal and Saraj Taal? …..

  4. I just finished reading your blog while travelling in a comfortable car from Solang. We just visited Chandratal and were complaining about nonexistent roads and treacherous roads where travelling under best weather conditions can be a nightmare. Hats off to you all for the way you faced the unprecedented fury of Nature!

  5. Thanks Aparajita for the detailed account! As I read I couldn’t resist thinking and feeling ‘fulfilled’ about the decision to accompany Dipti there against any odds. Actually it wasn’t even a decision to take. This love affair with the hills kind of implants it in to one’s system over time, I KNOW I have to.

    1. Thanks. The mountains are always special. I am always heartsick when I leave the mountains and hit the plains..something different and magical about them.

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