“This is a brief life, but in its brevity, it offers us some splendid moments, some meaningful adventures.”
― Rudyard Kipling
As we sat on the shore of the placid lake, a comfortable silence engulfed our beings. Just a few days ago, amidst the irascible urban chaos that ruled my life, I had caught my mind meandering in the heart of these wonderful landscapes. After my trip to Ladakh and the Zanskar valley last year, I have yearned for some more time in the mountains; to be amidst the raw beauty that is ensconced in those valleys and peaks. I have yearned to hear the rumbling voice of the springs and feel the freshness of the wind on my face. I am only happy to run away from all the diseases of my city! A 10 day road trip in Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur and Spiti valley was just what the doctor ordered and we were happy to abide by the prescription.
Our route: Chandigarh to Narkhanda, then Sangla followed by Kalpa and Tabo, and then the villages of Mudh and Kaza. Enroute, we took detours to Dhankar lake and monastery, to the Kee monastery and the quaint villages of Hikkim and Komic.
As we drove at top speed from Chandigarh towards Shimla, enroute Narkhanda, I saw the perfectly manicured lanes whizz past us. The first sight of the gorgeous mountains was evident after 3-4 hours into the journey. Initially the clouds formed a veil over the mountains, hiding its precious beauty from the eyes of a casual wanderer. It’s only when, at the peak of the day the sun made the harsh gesture of using the wind as a catalyst to drive the clouds away, that the full splendour of the beautiful mountain peaks became evident. A wonderful sight to behold, it set the tone for things we will see in the days to come.
The road to Narkhanda from Shimla bought back memories of all that I missed about the mountain views. The vertical construction of houses with bright coloured roofs, the perilously parked vehicles on their terraces, the veiled apple orchards, the curvy roads hugging the mountains while enjoying the vistas of the beautiful valleys and the sweet chaos of drivers steering their cars away from the edge of the roads. When we reached Tethys at Narkhanda that evening, the entire valley in front of us was covered in a heavy mist.
The next morning our plan was to drive from Narkhanda to Sangla.
Waking up before the sun lights a fire in the sky, is something that comes naturally as you cross your 40’s! You know the time is limited and that there are only that many sunrises and sunsets that are remaining to be seen. Everyday counts. The view from the room displayed the gorgeous ball of fire in its full glory on a patchy cloudy morning. Each cloud was lit up with the colours of passion and each welcomed the sun with utmost felicity. It was a perfect setting for some beautiful thoughts to be poured out of the well-rested brain and this blog is just a collection of those thoughts that I wrote on the way.
The silence hits you! Suddenly, you feel you are alone in this world and there is a feeling of utmost solitude; a happy one! There are no ambient sounds, no piercing shrills of ill-behaved vehicles and no one is shouting at anyone! Time moves at a glacial speed, freezing with it, these moments of bliss. It feels like the world has come to a standstill; there is only this moment to live, only this moment to cherish and only this one that I must remember. The crisp aroma of the mountains slowly percolates into my being and with its freshness, it releases the angst built up within me; bit by bit; I feel it’s worth being alive. A few days in this beneficent diorama and I am sure I will heal! Heal from all the odious malaise of my amorphous city life; heal from the constant voices in my head, asking me to be somewhere and finish something. I bask in the sweet fragrance of the fresh air as I watch the sun orchestrate another brilliant performance on the sanguine canvas of the enthralling blue sky; a sky that looks forward to unveil itself from the dense clouds of the dark night. It’s going to be a beautiful day; and I am going to live it well for this ephemeral moment!
The drive to Sangla was interspersed with several curvaceous, fervent rivers that were held on a tight leash by the dams that controlled them. Cerulean skies and the mud soaked Sutlej river made for some soothing contrasts in the landscape. We reached Kinnar Camps with good time on hand for a walk along the length of the Baspa river to the Bastar villlage. Not the one to be bogged down by the impending darkness of the imminent night, the river flowed with a youthful vim. There was so much simplicity in people there, a humbleness that is so rare to find back home. The tents at Kinnar Camps were well equipped for a comfortable night under the starry skies.
The third day we drove from Sangla to Kalpa.
There is something magically therapeutic in waking up in a valley and being surrounded 360 degrees by the mountains. The succinctly laid down fresh snow under the cover of dense clouds overnight revealed the busy schedule of nature. The white peaks, the green slope of the mountains interspersed with barren rocks on the backdrop of stark blue skies and dense grey clouds makes it a colourful way to start the day.
A visit to the last village on the Indo-Tibetan Border (Chitkul) was first on the agenda! Enroute, the Baspa river surgically divided the valley into two parts. The fiery fields flanking its sides, were interspersed with “pink farming” that added a tinge of blush to the landscape; that pink with the almost turquoise water of the robust river added a dash of unseen beauty to the environs. The monastery at Chitkul, engraved with wooden carvings and adorned with a million prayer flags was surrounded by enthralling views of the mountains.
The journey from Chitkul to Kalpa was marred by some treacherous roads but that’s not necessarily a problem. The bad roads slow you down and allow you to soak in the beauty. The views of the majestic Kinnaur-Kailash peak made the entire journey worth the effort.
The evening was well spent with a long walk down the valley along the perilous road that provided with an edge of the seat ticket to the Kinnar Kailash peaks. As the evening unfolded with intense colours in front of our eyes, we added further zing to it with some truly special conversations.
Our next day schedule was to drive from Kalpa to Tabo
The fresh morning revealed an entire valley filled with clouds. Only the sun had the power to quell the clouds out of their lethargy and come up with a bright morning that awakened all our senses. As the clouds slowly unveiled the majestic splendour of the mountains, I saluted the forces of nature that reveal their glorious incantations every single morning.
Karscham and Raksham have such a lyrical rhyme to them. And Reckong Peo has a poetic charm of olden days. These are some of the places we passed on the way to Tabo.
I don’t know what these roads are searching for. Ceaselessly moving through the landscape in search of some destination. Doesn’t it know that there is no end to its journey and there is no beginning. There is just the illusionary horizon that entices it to carry on, only to be gone further and further as it tries to get close to it.
Along the banks of the muddy Sutlej river was our journey to the stark barren beauty of Lahaul and Spiti valley. Bejewelled with poetic sounding villages like Agba, Skibba and Ribba, the entire journey was an epitome of barrenness that is interspersed with extremely treacherous roads. Beige and brown colours with nothing growing along its way; yet so beautiful. I find beauty in this stark landscape today more than any greenery I have ever seen.
Some days I want to be barren. Have nothing in me, be there just for the sake of being. In its million imperfections, nature offers so much beauty, leaving me enamoured by these glorious divine compositions.
We reached the charming Nako village at Lunch time and devoured some ambrosial Tibetan bread before we spent a lazy afternoon on the banks of the idyllic Nako lake.
Under the canopy of trees, only the determined rays of the sun percolated and reached us, creating islands of warmth on our rejuvenated bodies. I wish I had an eidetic memory that would allow me to capture these moments in the interstices of my grey cells, so that I may recall and reminisce these during the last days of my life.
Surrounded by the sublime mountains, in the arms of the limpid waters, I felt refreshingly untethered from the complexities that we call ‘life’ in the city. Parched; in body and soul, I consumed the placid lake to quench my thirst. With a deep breath, I filled a modicum of the sky in my lungs! The eyes devoured the naked scene with lust that had been unknown to me. I was fortuitously listening to the sounds, sculpted by the winds, of the immeasurable love I felt for these elements from which I was born. I had to soothe all my senses today, I had to be greedy and capture in my evanescent memory; this beauty in this one frame; that will stand as a testimony to the scene I witnessed and will keep me afloat when I sink again; deep into the dark abyss of my urban jungle.
The Sutlej river on the way all day, was a testimony to the persistence of water. Incessantly flowing along its sinuous path-way it carved its impeccable niche on the scenery and at most places it’s passionate gush is the only sound of hope in otherwise desolate surroundings. The river for me is lesson on persistence; about keeping a positive outlook in face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Its persistence paid off when it met with the Spiti river and their confluence made sounds of celebration so mellifluous that the surrounding mountains stood awe-struck, happy for these little moments of joy in their otherwise monotonous, mostly insipid existence.
We reached Tabo village just before sunset and saw a beautiful one from our balconies that overlooked the entire hamlet. Layers of mountains that beautifully arrange themselves to leave no space between them surround the village. All of them having different textures and hues, with immaculately carved out roads that make for a picturesque reflection of the journey that has been accomplished. The clear night brought with it a galaxy of glittering stars that used the entire sky as an arena for their refulgent games, and we had the best seats to watch them all play in pitch darkness.
The morning presented a serene sounds with rhythm and incantations from the group of crimson robed monks in the Tabo monastery. The 1020-year-old section of the monastery is an agglomerate of simple mud houses with exquisitely designed doors that welcome you within; for an hour of peace from your weary journey. Strategically placed windows give you a whole new perspective to this world when viewing from within them.
Enroute from Tabo we headed on the arduous but beautiful path towards the Dhankar Monastery. The trek to the lake looked easy to begin with but was a real tough one with some high gradients of slopes while climbing up. At the far end below the mighty shadow of the old Dhankar monastery was the divine confluence of the Pin and the Spiti river. The seemingly immiscible colours of the two rivers merged into one a few minutes after they met. They went ahead in their path together with a common motive of providing life to the otherwise sterile landscape.
The tranquil Dhankar lake was found lounging in the warmth of the sun. Walking along its circumference we soaked up the views of the snow peaked mountains on the horizon. The onward journey took us to the tiny village of Mudh, where we resided for the night in a comfortable place with only very basic amenities. The winter way of life of these local people is admirable. Six months with temperatures reaching up-to minus 25OC and only the white of snow to look at, can be unnerving.
The next day started with a morning walk in Mudh. After relishing the Tibetan bread we started our journey to Kaza. The mellow morning sun bathed the mountains with some warm colours. The picturesquely sinuous Pin river was our friend for the day. The rivers of Spiti valley are fascinating to say the least and when I think of them with the ones in Ladakh and Zanskar, I feel intrigued by the path that these take. There is so much history to them.
From Kaza we went to the villages of Langza, Hikkim and Komic. Our plan was to trek. An early start was planned to prevent the harsh sun from beating down hard. On the way, the criss- cross patterns created by the Spiti river as it lazily flows through the heart of the valley made for a busy albeit beautiful scene. The arid rugged terrain is a test of the travellers resilience. The only sounds that reverberate in these valleys are the songs of the winds as they shimmy round the river and kiss the mountains and playfully ruffle your hair on your journey to the ultimate landscapes.
The trek from Langza to Komic was exhilarating. Ensconced in the heart of the beautiful valley, lay the quaint village of Hikkim, nestled comfortably, in the lap of the mountains that made the horizon worth to look at.
The only two places in the world where there is supreme silence; such that you can hear your own self breathe is the top of the mountain peak and the bottom of the ocean. Everything else in between is mere noise that comes and goes; I can’t choose which one is better. While the mountains provide rare air and make you engulf themselves bit by bit, the ocean floor provides unseen beauty that can be devoured only by a few in this lifetime. While the mountains provide glorious vistas of the valleys and the snow and the sinuous roads hugging them along with circuitous rivers, the ocean floor provides the colourful school of fish that leave you mesmerised by their utopian beauty and their dignified poise. I love both these equally and I know that both provide me with a quality of silence that I have never heard of before.
One of the most impressive things in the Kinnaur and Spiti valley is the engineering marvel of road construction. Some of the roads, especially from Kalpa to Sangla are carved out of rocks. And work is still in progress to make it two way. The present roads are so narrow that of two vehicles come head to head, one must hang perilously close to the edge to let the other pass. It’s only highly experienced drivers that can accomplish the feat of driving on these roads.
The last leg of our journey was from Kaza to Manali.
First thing, we passed the Rangrik town followed by Kyato, and headed to Losar and finally to Gramphu. We passed several villages with a population of 30. Thirty people who live together, sharing the harsh winter in the blanket of snow. So much isolation, so many privations; the resilience of these people is worth a thousand salutes. As the cars traverse the tight roads leaving a trail of dust behind, I know that one day the dust will settle down when I have moved on and the memories will fade with the ravages of time.
On the way, we passed the picturesque Kunzum la (mountain pass) with the Shikrim glacier in the background and a million prayer flags in the foreground.
Bedecked in the heart of the landscape, adorning the foreground, were hundreds of colourful prayer flags. The fabric of each prayer, frantically fluttering in the strong wind; awaiting it’s turn; to be answered! Awaiting the turn to break free from the manacles of time and be liberated; fulfilled; free, happy and untethered from the complex skeins of life. Each munificent flag awaiting it’s turn, to bring a modicum of peace, a slice of love in the life of another weary soul! On this day, as I peacefully surrendered; soaking in the beautiful vista of the glaciers, I saw my prayer flag reach its destiny; I found myself at home with no more wishes left; barring one; the wish to stay in the lap of these peaceful mountains and feel the vibrations of these prayer flags as they find their eternal calling, one soul at a time!
The aroma of the mountains, the fervent flow of the clear springs, the cadenced chants of the monks, the pirouette of the wind, the golden rays of the morning sun as they kiss the peaks of the mountains, the ochre warmth of the crimson orb at the end of the day. The curvy roads that embrace my way; I will miss them all; I hope I will be back home soon! To heal again from the diseases of my banal urban life.
As I turned the wheels of prayer and walked into the illusion of the horizon with mystified eyes, I realised that life has given me everything I need to survive. My path is lit with the brightness of the sun, the lungs are full of fresh air and a bucketful of the sky showers me with the warmth I need each day. There are layers of mountains to devour, miles of the oceans to walk on, the incessant energy of the river soothes me and there is gentle wind to nuzzle my senses each day. What more does a man need, but a slice of nature?