We moved on from Shimla relatively quickly, but not before getting stuck in snail paced traffic for an hour. We were on our way to Spiti Valley and to be honest, I had no idea what to expect; I had only seen the Valley through pictures and videos on the internet. My heart was beating wildly in my throat as we made our way on the lonely mountain roads.
Our first pit stop was at Tapri, a small town about 200 kms after Shimla, we stayed a local lodge that also doubled as a the local watering hole for the residents. Tapri was its own town, filled with its own traffic and drama. While we looked for a place to park our vehicle by the Lodge, a young woman with a toddler attached to her hip came searching for someone, her eyes raging, her lips in a deep frown. She spoke to everyone around; she was speaking the local tongue but by the tone of her, I figured she was asking questions about something or someone. And when she finally found the someone she was looking for – a drunken man who was doing a bad job of hiding from her. She put her child down and started hitting him. The crowd around her tried to restrain her. With big drops of tears running down her face, she spoke to one of the men present; maybe he was a friend or an elder of the village or just a kind stranger who lent her a ear when she needed it the most. All the while, her drunken partner sat on the side of the road, grinning quite uselessly. The man she was talking to somehow convinced the woman to take the child and leave the place; she tried once more to hurt the dunk man but finally gave up, picked up her kid and walked away.
We checked into our room quietly, gobbled down dinner and decided to call it a day. The road was long and cobbled and our bones cried for some rest.
TRAVEL TIP: Get yourself a BSNL Sim if you are going towards Spiti Valley; none of the other phone networks get signal after the town of Pooh. I am guessing this is because this area is at the border and this is exercised by the military. But we were fools, young fools in the wild and by the time we realized this, we were well past Pooh and our network was well past dead.
Fortunately, we met a couple of travelers – Hari and Sudhanshu, who – like us – were driving to Spiti Valley from Ahmadabad, Gujarat. We met them while we stopped for a late lunch near Nako and they noticed our Karnataka registered vehicle in Himachal and struck a conversation with us. They were seasoned travelers, filled with stories of their own and curious to know the stories we had to tell. And soon, they became our companions on the mountain roads.
We reached Nako and decided to make another pit stop as the day was getting darker and the temperature had started dropping.
We visited the lake at Nako village and – I know this is an overrated expression that is constantly used, maybe mostly by me, but I don’t know how else to describe it but – I felt like I was in a novel. The lake was still, surrounded by slippery snow, the houses surrounding the lake was white turned brown by the sludgey mud, furry yaks and their calves were tied to posts outside the houses and they lazily munched on their hay, grunting with annoyance as we walked past them, disturbing their peace. The blend of different smells lay thick in the air around us, the people of the village quietly did their work, only glancing at us curiously for a second or so before getting back to their business.
ANOTHER TRAVEL TIP: As you enter Nako, park your vehicle at the entrance and take a walk around the village. The roads are too small and narrow for your vehicles and you will need to maneuver it with great preciseness and the help of the whole village guiding you to make sure you don’t bump into any surrounding buildings.
Once the sun set, the temperatures dropped like it was free fall. We went from taking relaxing walks around the village to shivering and layering ourselves in the matter of, maybe, five minutes. We were out exploring a monastery right outside Nako, it had a spectacular view of the mountains and just as we watched the sun dip behind the peaks, my jaw started chattering against the rest of my skull. Everyone in the village had retired into their houses, the yaks were all huddled together and snow started to fall lightly.
The four of us sat around a small table in a small eatery right outside the lodge we found; Nako is a tourist stop when enroute to Kaza but because we were there during off season, there weren’t many options for us to choose from and we had to make do with what we had. But what we had wasn’t bad at all. We were served hot dinner by the locals, under the warmth of an emergency light (“<em>karrab mausam na, woh power kaatt de the hai</em>” – “Bad weather so the power gets cut”) but also in the company of laughter and stories. Sudhanshu and Hari entertained us with their witty stories from back home, from their travels, from when they were younger.
When you are traveling, everything feels so far away from home that you try to latch on to any warmth you find, any familiarity in a stranger’s smile feels like that of a friend’s; it felt nice to have company after having been on the road for nearly two months.
The four of us finished dinner and enjoyed a nightcap before calling it a night; we had a long day ahead of us.
YET ANOTHER TRAVEL TIP: DO NOT CONSUME A LOT OF ALCOHOL WHEN HIGH UP IN THE MOUNTAINS. The more alcohol you consume, the less oxygen your body will have and you will face difficulty in breathing. However, if you do face difficulty in breathing – just because you are so high up in the mountains – carry cloves of garlic with you. Garlic is an excellent oxidant and it will keep you warm.
Many of the locals advised us to keep garlic with us at all times and it was very helpful. It really was. CARRY GARLIC. DON’T DRINK TOO MUCH ALCOHOL. Maybe a peg (or two, max) to keep your insides warm.
The following day, enroute to Kaza, we took a detour and visited Gue village; a small remote village up in the mountains, home to the famous Mummy Lama. A small remote village with a handful of villagers, young kids were shy but curious about us. they waved to us from their homes and giggled and hid their faces when we waved back. The villagers knew why we were visiting though, they guided us kindly and without hesitation.
Mummy Lama is believed to be the body of the monk, Sangha Tenzin, who sacrificed his body to save his village from a scorpion infestation. Or so the story goes. But when we entered the shrine at the temple, there is immiediate sense of peace and calmness. You can still see the decaying teeth of the body and tiny hairs standing up on the skeletal body, even after 500 years after the monk dried himself out – I don’t know how to pinpoint this exact feeling, you have to go there. It’s a few kilometers off the Indo-China border and you will easily find your way there if you are traveling to Kaza from Nako.
Once we were done paying our respects and exploring the temple, we were back on our way to Kaza. On the way, we passed a temple where a crowd of people were gathered, one of them flagged us down. It was Ramnaami (Lord Ram’s naming day, it’s hugely celebrated across India. Basically like throwing a birthday party for Lord Ram) and the temple was offering lunch to travelers and nearby villagers. An initiative taken by the Border Security Force (BSF of India); there were many people there, travelers like us, a couple from Maharashtra, another group from Delhi, kids who attended a nearby school, families from nearby villages, soldiers running the show, directing people towards the dining area. We were first led to the temple, where the pujari (priest) was doing puja (offering prayers) to Lord Ram’s idol and from there we were led to an open field where tarpaulins were laid out and turned into a makeshift seating and dining area and we were served delicious, hot lunch. It was such a happy experience. We made small talk with people, everyone was in a good mood, not a frown for miles.We thanked the organizers for stopping us and for the hot lunch – what would have happened if we hadn’t eaten there? After we left from there, we realized there was not an eatery anywhere till we reached Kaza, if they hadn’t stopped us, we would have probably survived on basic snacks. How fortunate we were!
The hearty lunch made the bumpy ride to Kaza more tolerable, these roads are one of the most dangerous roads in India, because we are so close to the mountains, rocks and pebbles are constantly rolling down to the roads. there is a landslide constantly taking place somewhere so it is very important (Travel Tip!) to drive/ride slowly on these roads. The speeding only agitates the loose land underneath and honestly, if you lose controls of your vehicle on these roads, its deathly.
By the time we rolled into Kaza, it was twilight. There was nothing for miles and miles, just mountains and deep gorges and all a sudden, it all opens up and you see the village of Kaza, twinkling under the stars and its own light, a range of mountains running across, deep blue skies that stretch forever and ever!
Never had a human settlement looked more beautiful.