The Rohtang pass almost seems like a gate to Narnia, because the worlds on either side of it are completely different. The green, almost soft valley of Kullu suddenly becomes the angry, arid and brown Lahaul and Spiti. As we got out of Rohtang, just as suddenly, we also saw a shift in the mood of our driver, who seemed both uncomfortable and anxious about the drive. He said that in his many years (35) of driving experience, this was the first time he was going to Lahaul in November, because Rohtang normally closed in October. He told us that Lahaul Spiti was better known as Kala-paani, and gave us horror stories about the possibility of our getting snowed in for the next 7 months (Apparently Spiti is cut-off from Kullu for 7 months between November to May, once it starts snowing). I was definitely horrified at the thought of being holed in and was slightly apprehensive about the journey that lay ahead. As much as I love the mountains and snow, I was less than willing to take up the chance of a 7 month exile.
Rohtang onward, the road mostly went downhill, as Rohtang is a high pass. Unlike on the way up to the pass, this time we rarely met another vehicle on the road, which made our driver a little more scared and us a little more thrilled. On the way, after an hour’s journey, we stopped at a village called Khoksar which was really just a bunch of dhabhas and a police station put together. It was here that we tried to hunt for a loo and got very amused responses. With a mocking grin (and I do not understand what is so funny about three girls wanting to answer the call!), people told us that there was no toilet nearby. Even the police station did not have a toilet, and we were aghast. I do not even want to take a guess as to where the whole village relieves themselves – I thought our country had moved on from the open-air loos! And the Himalyas are so pretty! Sheesh!
It is after Khoksar that the best part of the journey begins. It is here that we enter the Chandra valley and the rest of the path circuits along the river Chandra (Part of the river Chenab). The valley is completely barren, flanked by dry, snow-capped mountains on either side. I don’t think that the area ever receives any rain, because the land seems as disintegrated as a desert and the road is laden with dust. On the sides of the road, you can see hills covered with masses of snow – it is almost that a gush of water was flowing down the mountain in its full glory, when someone lifted a finger and said: Statue. And the water froze midway, without getting a chance to settle down.
We went through the lonely journey for three hours before we reached Keylong. A good part of the journey was made in dim lights, and as the day descended, we could sense the increasing unease in our driver as he continued to step up the accelerator. It was, therefore a huge relief when we finally reached Chandrabhaga, our halt in Keylong. The relief was short-lived as we were greeted only by the hotel caretaker who told us that the hotel closes down in October end and will reopen in May, that the entire staff has left for Manali and that there is no water supply to the rooms as all pipes have burst with frozen water! The guy was clearly taken aback when we showed him the internet booking – he said this booking was not supposed to be done! So here we were, freezing in the night, and near homeless. Of course the caretaker could not send us back, but the thought of living without water was intimidating to say the least. He opened our room, which of course had no water supply, whatsoever, but he put his son to the task of carrying up the buckets for us. He also put his wife to the task of cooking food for us (which was delicious and we devoured it!), and we were floored with this guy’s hospitality.
In the morning, we woke up to a nice glorious morning of Keylong. The hotel is located right at the edge of a curve looking down to the valley where the river Chandrabhaga flows (which also lent the hotel its name). It is a rather pretty looking hotel, though it had seemed rather creepy in the night, especially with only the five of us living there. Could be a great spot for any haunting movie! For the area that we had been seeing, Keylong seemed like a rather big place. There were a lot of hotels and eating joints, perhaps to cater to the Leh travelers. Maggi had found its way here too. (And we are told it goes all the way up to Ladhakh – some marketing done by Nestle!)
However, I found it amazing that the people of Keylong (and Spiti in general) bear their 7 months of their exile without a complaint. They stock up the reserves, fill up water which they melt for use, and carry on with a regular life, not even closing their schools!
Keylong is famous for its monasteries, especially one about 6 km away. However, by that time we were well aware of the nervousness of our driver and decided to head back without watching any. The journey back too was rather lonely as we were the only people on road except a few local vehicles around the villages on the way. However, this time we made quite a few stops on the way, enjoying the delightful scenery. Almost 45 min from Keylong, there is the tourist village of Sissu, which boasts of its own helipad. However I would be surprised if the place had a decent restaurant – that’s how small it was!
We also stopped on the banks of Chandra. I wished again that I could go up to the source of this river, which is the Chandratal, but again, I will have to save it for a later journey. The Chandra water is furiously cold, and the quiet in its valley is disconcerting. We spent some time idling at the shore, when the overcast sky egged us to move on. Even till then, we had no idea how close we were courting with danger, but were determined to enjoy every bit of this adventure.
We stopped again just a few KM before Rohtang, and stepped into an awfully cold air. I am pretty sure that the temperature was circling around the freezing levels, as every bit of our body chilled to the core. Of course, part of this was the effect of the breath-taking sight in front. For it seemed like we were amidst the snow peaks that we had been admiring for so long, and I was really prepared now to get holed in here for sometime – in this place which was actually the middle of nowhere.
Closer to Rohtang, this time I fulfilled my wish to visit the lake. It was more of a strip of water actually, but is beautifully carved out in the perfect surrounding. I am sure Panong and Chandratal would be incomparable, but a lake in the middle of mountains is the most idyllic site anywhere. I wished I could spend a few hours there, but the overcast suddenly seemed to lurking larger, so we thought it better to leave.
We drove on further, and stopped at Madhi for food. Oh the food at those dhabhas! I think one should never make this journey without having food at Madhi dhabhas, looking out to the valley. Barely had we sat down for lunch, that the clouds covered the horizon. From where we were, we could clearly see that the weather at Rohtang had worsened terribly. We were lucky to have escaped in good time, for getting stuck in Rohtang could be fatal. If stuck in the snow, we would have at least been stripped of our vehicle even if we had managed to come down. For there is no way that a driver can skill through those dangerous curves when they are covered with the slippery sheet of ice.
We reached back Manali in good time and after that enjoyed a great evening at the Jhonson’s Bar. But I think I can dedicate another piece on the eating joints of Manali, which I hope to do soon.