Our two-week long sojourn in the high Himalayan mountain roads of Lahaul & Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, Sept 2009
23.09.2009 - 24.09.2009 6 °C
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Tucked away hidden in the vast expenses of the rugged Himalayas, a tiny little hamlet Chatru stands out like an oasis in the middle of this "high altitude cold desert" of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. As we moved ahead in our Himalayan odyssey, snaking through the high mountain roads, from Keylong the District Headquarter of Lahaul, that fateful morning, through barren landscapes and scaling peaks, little did we expect to see something “green” in this literal moonscape.
Some of the naked peaks were fully snow-covered while the others emanated plethora of colours as the sun rays fell on to them. It is way too difficult to perhaps describe it in words.
The drive though was thoroughly bumpy. Habitation was very sparse - practically nil as we passed by miles upon miles of unpolluted and virgin landscape without a single human in sight.
There was practically no traffic except a few hardy adventurous bikers snaking past in their enigmatic Enfield bikes.
Two Dhabas & a Guest House
By late afternoon, we saw ahead of us two dhabas and as I asked Thakur Bhai, our driver cum guide, which place this was, he informed – “this is Chatru.” I was literally taken a bit aback on hearing this. I had assumed that Chatru to be yet another small Himalayan hamlet but this was perhaps the smallest of them all.
As we halted at one of the dhabas to have a cup of tea, we chatted with the dhaba owner who informed us that Chatru comprises of a PWD Guest House, located a couple of kms ahead and these two dhabas – that’s all. Icy winds were blowing across our faces as we sat at one of the table laid outside the temporary tented dhaba.
We noticed two foreigners sitting next to our table, sipping some beer. Soon the ice broke and they inquired where we were from were heading to.
We informed that we were travelers from Mumbai on a Himalayan odyssey aiming to complete one full circle, the roué being Sundernagar-Kullu-Manali-Rohtang Pass-Gramphoo-Sissu-Koksar-Tandi-Gondla-Keylong-Trilokinath-Udaipur-Gondla-Tandi-Koksar-Sissu-Gramphoo-Chatru-Kunzum Pass-Losar-Ki-Kibber-Kaza-Tabo-Pin Valley-Kalpa-Sarahan-Narkanda and finally exiting at Shimla and that we would be halting in Chatru for the night.
On their part, one a British and the other a German, informed us that they have been in this area since a couple of months. They were basically mountaineers & rock climbers and they seek to climb challenging rock faces bare-handed without the aid of ropes.
Phil was the British guy who also informed that he had been to Hampi too and did some climbing there as well. Daring is what we all had to say and bidding them adieu, we made our way to the PWD Guest House.
Oasis in the Cold Desert
As we snaked our way ahead, suddenly, out of the blues, sprang up a few lush green patches in thorough contrast to the totally barren landscape all around. “Peas, Sirji,” that’s the only cash crop that can grows here,” Thakur Bhai spoke out seeing our dumbfounded faces as we entered the premises of the PWD Guest House. The guest house was a cute little cabin having two set of rooms.
“Hey, it looked like an oasis in this cold desolate desert,” I exclaimed out loud seeing a few hardy mountain folks plucking the pea pods and stacking it up in gunny sacks. There were many a tents inside the campus and seeing us alight, we were welcomed by a middle-aged person, accompanied by another young lad.
“Greetings, hope you’ll spend the night here?” pops the elderly gentlemen, with a well-trimmed white beard. “Yeah, we plan to stay for the night, what about you guys, are you too staying here?” “I inquired.”I’m Mr Khan. We are from the Geological Survey of India, and we have been parked here for the last 4 months. However, we will be soon closing camp, as winter is gradually setting in, and head for the plains below,” courteously replied the bearded gentleman.
“Wow, lucky guys you all are, staying in this paradise for months on end,” I enthusiastically replied. “Actually it is not so, we call it punishment posting. Cut off from civilization, the satellite phone is our only connection with the outside world,” Mr Khan replied on disgruntled tone.
Connecting with the Higher Self
The best part of trips to these high altitude regions is that there would not be any signals for mobile phones to operate. Be it Reliance, Vodafone, Airtel, Tata, Idea and the numerous other players that keep joining the Indian mobile bandwagon, every passing day.
The only operator whose signals work that too at certain patches where there is habitation, in this elevated heaven, is government-owned BSNL. For us city folks, living a totally “connected” life, this might seem little inconvenient but for me I enjoy it the most. No calls to make and no calls to attend to. Disconnected form the outside world I try connecting myself to the higher self.
As we continued our small discussion, the caretaker-cum-peon of the guest house arrived and I handed him over our stay permit that we got duly signed by the PWD Asst Executive Engineer in Koksar, earlier in the day, as we had passed through.
I asked Thakur Bhai, “Isn’t he the owner of the other dhaba from where we bought some rations?”
“Yeah, he is, but actually is a government employee in-charge of this guest house,” Thakur Bhai replied, “the dhaba is his side business”.
“Oh is it, the way he was carrying out brisk business in the dhaba some time back, it seemed to me that the dhaba is his full time business and guest house duties was his side activities,” I quipped out loud.
The 2 dhabas are closed once snow sets in and there is not a single soul who stays behind beyond late October, everyone head towards lower altitude. Thus, they clearly reap the hay when the sun shines the most.
“Sir, please occupy the front suit, should I park in your suitcases in,” the caretaker spoke as we moved inside the room. It was a fully wood-paneled room, wall to wall carpeted with nice floral curtains. I just peed into the toilet and found it neat.
To my surprise the caretaker, as he placed our suitcases said, “Sir, I have placed the candles on the table, you can use them once night sets in.” “Why candles,” I asked with a surprised look. “Sir, there is no electricity in Chatru,” was all he replied to my astonished face and made his way to the kitchen situated behind to offer us some tea.
Sitting on the portico sipping the hot tea and munching some biscuits, we just could immediately feel the serenity of this place. The last rays of the sun were getting reflected in the snow-capped jagged barren mountains. It was creating an aura of colours, as icy winds were blowing across our faces and the rumbling waters of the Spiti river, flowing across the highway, was breaking the silence.
Glaciers Melting Away
Mr Khan joined us again and he narrated about the hardships that the GSI team faces here. They are glaciologist and are studying the effect of global warming on the Himalayan glaciers. Their subject is the Hamta Glacier, which Mr Khan pointed out is about 2/3 kms uphill, across the Spiti river.
Every year the GSI team comes to study the glaciers. He emphasized how challenging it is for him and his entire team, along with the porters, to trek up the mountains and set camp amidst the glacier to carry our experiments for weeks on end. In fact, with deep sadness, he admits, “the glaciers actually are melting away. Every year, it is receding further and further.”
“For you guys it is nice to stay put for a few days and go back fresh, but for us, cut off form near and dear ones, it a different ball game altogether,” added Mr Khan and further iterated, “thus when people come and if they are like-minded, we feel like family and we talk and mingle together.” Surely, Mr Khan, we’ll all have dinner together tonight like a family,” I said to his contentment and also added, “We’re carrying a few chicken sausage and tuna cans, which we’ll all share.”
Looking at the green peas’ field just outside the guest house campus, we were tempted to try out some fresh peas from the garden, to which Mr Khan suggested that the workers wouldn’t mind sharing a few pods. In fact on inquiry it reveled that these high valued peas are mostly exported. We entered the “garden of paradise” in this desolate cold desert and mingled around with the simple mountain lasses, and also managed to capture a few camera-shy portraits.
Chefs for the Evening
As dusk set in, we moved into the kitchen, and the caretaker gave me another shocker. “There is no gas connection but a kerosene pump stove is all we have.” he said. Challenging despite it was, we asked him to step aside, to his utter delight, and offered ourselves to be the chefs for the evening. We already had purchased dal, rice & eggs from the caretaker’s dhaba along with some cooking oil, onions, potatoes, cabbage and not to forget the fresh sweet peas straight form the “Garden of Eden.”
As I write today, I recall how much my wife Mitali and I struggled to ignite the pump stove. It has to be pumped to a certain level and after that a pin has be thrust into a small hole for the kerosene to spill out and at that precise moment the match stick has to be stroked to ignite the burner.
Mr Khan, who too was with us inside the dark kitchen - only a flickering candle providing all possible light - seeing us both struggle for 10-15 minutes, clearly understood that we were using a pump stove for the first time in our lives. He volunteered to light it up to our utter relieve.
Mitali had already cut the cabbage and pealed off the onions, potatoes and the peas. I helped her wash the dal and soon the first course of our dinner was ready. This is actual adventure – camp style - I recall telling Mitali, and Mr Khan, was mentioning how “tasty kababs” his wife makes and how much he misses home, as I stirred-fried the chicken sausages and the tuna flakes.
As our cooking continued, Mr Khan narrated an experience that happened a few years back when some Bengali trekkers lost their way in the Hampta Pass and had to pay a heavy price. It was snowing heavily that cold evening as Mr Khan and his team was huddled up in their camp, high up the Hampta Glacier. "Through most part of the night we heard frail cries of help from way beyond but neither me nor any of our porters could venture out on a rescue mission as a continuous blizzard razed through, we felt so so helpless," Mr Khan sadly recollects.
"It is very important to go fully geared up while trekking in these parts of the world. Maybe the trekkers were not properly geared with warm cloths. In fact, till date, their bodies too could not be found, perhaps they still lay buried amidst the snow," he added further.
On and off, in the meantime the “rustic stove” gave in many times but Mr Khan’s persistent pumping efforts kept it burning till all the dishes planned were ready to be served. Thakur Bhai too joined us and by 7.30 pm we were over with our sumptuous “family dinner”. Temperature fell further as the night proceeded ahead and soon we tucked ourselves under the heavy quilts saying "good night".
We woke up fresh early in the morning and as the sun came out, I went out on a quiet little trek. Trotting ahead in the barren cold landscape there were not even a single soul in sight. Alone, I sat down in one of the boulders by the side of the Spiti river watching its crystal-clear water gushing by; just can't describe the peace that I felt within.
Looking up at the clear blue sky, I observed for long how an eagle, spanning its wings, was gliding around, hoping to pick up something for its breakfast or perhaps a small hungry mouth waits its nest high above the rock crevasses.
Filling my soul with the quietness of the place, I trotted back to find Mitali already in the peas field trying to capture a few quiet moments too in her lens. Different people, different strokes!
Soon, after a quick breakfast, courtesy Mr Khan, we were ready to continue our journey ahead. After bidding adios and exchanging our cell numbers & addresses, we started to our next destination – Losar via Kunzum Pass, one of the highest motorable pass of the world, perched at a height of 14,931 feet.