The smog in the Capital carried a strong sulfur-like pungent odour. The visibility was around twenty metres. And the citizens moved around with masks over their faces. I stayed indoors for most of my time in Delhi – the time designated to prep my bike and luggage for the journey ahead.
A good old friend Devender Bijania and new friends – Yuvan, Avi and Ana
The day’s ride to Narkanda in Himachal Pradesh was supposed to be relatively short – four hundred kilometres and a ride time of nine hours. The first half of the ride demanded throttling across four-lane highways till the mountains arrived. This was the first time I had clad my bike with dual-purpose tyres – the Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR and was worried about the performance on the canyons. I was amazed to see that they broke my insecurities by clinging onto the tarmac much better than most road tyres while leaned over.
I had ridden into the Last village on the Indo – Tibetan road Chitkul very late the previous night. I’d managed to find a decent hotel, one of the very few open. And woke up to some more snow-capped mountains. “Riding around in the Himalayas can never get boring,” I said to myself.
‘Overlanding’ has many meanings. One of them is “a self – reliant journey” – one that involves camping. I had never travelled in that fashion before and it became one of the goals of this ride. Hence the name – Overlanding in the Himalayas. I had rented a Quechua 3-person tent from a store called X-DOG Trekking in Bangalore along with my decent sleeping bag and other camping equipment. I didn’t have the tent with me in Ladakh and I’d been eager to use ’em. Spiti would be colder than Ladakh and I wouldn’t be able to use it there either. Reckong Peo in Kinnaur district of Himachal would be the perfect place. The weather on the day was forecasted to be cool at 8°C – the best conditions I could hope for.
The town is perched almost on the top of a big mountain in the Sutlej River Valley. I had heard that finding a spot to camp here was quite easy. Which I found to be untrue. The town reminded me of many other growing towns throughout India with reducing open spaces – ones not occupied already or not having a dry apple orchard. The two hours spent searching for a spot was a bitter reminder of the need for Humanity to ever expand. Notwithstanding I had to find a place to camp.
I wandered upwards into a smaller town with a sweet name – Kalpa. I came across a young boy who worked in a homestay nearby. He turned around and pointed higher up the mountain towards the alpine forests. Saying there’d be ample space for me to pitch my tent there. Ample free space. Along the way, almost everyone I enquired about a place to camp had pointed towards only one direction – Up! I was quite unsure if the teen’s suggestion was reliable.
Venturing up, I took a left turn onto a mud road. The kid had told me about this. The sun which was shining bright when I began the ascent a few hours earlier was now running into the horizon. The path turned dark. The evening breeze grew strong. A while after chugging through the loose soil, I found one flat spot. Eight by eight feet. Enough for me to set up camp. Not enough to light a fire and walk around. Covered by trees on either side, a cliff in the front and the road behind, it wasn’t the most tempting spot. But the only one I’d seen all afternoon.
A thin old man, who I’d passed earlier on the path caught up with my stalled bike. I asked him if the spot was safe. The question seemed to make him wonder why I’d wanted to sleep there. Alone. He gave me the same suggestion that I’d got all day long – “go higher up!”. He stopped my eyes midway, which had begun rolling by telling me that he’d show me the place.
The spot was at the very next turn up the dirt road. It was a big patch of absolutely flat land about half the size of a badminton court. The rear side was the mountain, the left was the road, the right was an orchard and in front was an uninterrupted view of magnificent snow-capped mountains – which the day’s last rays of light painted gold. One can try to imagine a better spot. But cannot. The generous man walked me further up to the house he lived in, to get me a 5 litre can of water and half a dozen apples – freshly plucked from the orchard. On my way down to the spot, I borrowed some firewood from their pile.
I had a warm fire started. My ‘ready to eat’ food cooked slowly on the butane stove. I sipped on my hot cup of water and gazed at the slightly cloudy, star-studded night sky. I am fortunate to have my first moto-camping experience high up in the Himalayas.
The night was supposed to be cool. Not cold. At around three in the morning, it started to drizzle. At around seven, the drizzle seemed to become lighter. But the ground grew colder. From atop the mountain, there was a voice. A man yelling “Tent wale babu, utho, baraf padh rahi hai ” which translates to “Tent man, wake up, it’s snowing”. I’d never experienced snowfall before, and I was tempted to get out and admire the phenomena. But the chill from the night had kept me mostly awake. I wanted to get some more sleep. But failed to. A little later the enthusiastic voice came closer. Next to my tent. He asked me to open up. He had chai, he told me. That always gets me right up. I unzipped my tent, and it was indeed snowing. Pure wonder. The mountains in front had disappeared behind the precipitating clouds.
The view from my tent
It was the first time I saw this stranger’s face and I let him in my tent. He had two cups into which he poured his hot tea. He told me that his twelve-year-old granddaughter had asked him to bring me the tea. His name was Mani Lal. A proud Kinnauri Himachal man with an old brown checkered blazer and a traditional ‘pahadi’ cap. As he left he handed me a dozen apples from his orchard. Of which I kindly accepted only a few.
Worried that it would get difficult to pack up if it snowed more, I started getting ready. I heard another voice coming towards my tent. It was the old man I had met the previous evening. The one who showed me the camping spot. He had come down with another flask in his hand. Some more chai. I stopped my work and invited him in. He told me he was a daily wage worker. When I’d met him, I’d assumed he was the owner of one of these apple orchards.
He had come down from Nepal in search of work. To put his son through school to see him become a local doctor in his village. The man’s name was Amar. He was probably in his fifties. And I would consider him ‘old’ to be working as a daily wage labourer. But such is the reality of life.
Amar helped me pack up my tent. Mani Lal came down too to lend a hand. Two people I had never met before, showered me with love and generosity. Both of whom had no reason to do that. But such is the beauty of life.
It snowed till I descended to Reckong Peo, the big town below. Where the snow turned into the bitterly cold rain. The rain lasted for four more hours all the way till Spillow. My jacket and pants held up very well against the downpour. But my gloves and shoes did not. Two hours in, my hands and feet became wet. With the cold wind, they soon became numb. And riding became a task. I fell short of my destination of Tabo by sixty kilometres. With the weather getting worse again, I halted at the small village of Nako. It snowed all night long. I snuggled into my sleeping bag, under two blankets.
Friends made at the Dhaba in Nako – (from right) Karan, PK, Chacha, Kamal and gang
Spiti and Lahaul District begins at the check post at Sumdo. I took a right after the yellow coloured steel bridge to the village of Gue. A place that came under the spotlight many years ago for housing a naturally mummified body of a Buddhist monk. At noon, the place looked deserted. With not a human insight. And spectacular. With all the snow in sight.
The chilly, overcast day got cloudier, darker and colder. My visor fogged up and my face was exposed to the prickly wind. I entered Kaza, the biggest village in Spiti. This too seemed deserted. I went from street to street in search of a hotel to stay the night. All but a handful were closed. The only open shop at seven in the evening, in the market, directed me to a Hotel Mandala.
To be continued…