Journey to Spiti: Part 1
“The harness would break, and they would meet their death below,” says Amit, pointing downwards. “When this road was being constructed, some workers fell to their death from here. So the elders said that the only way to stop these deaths was to build a temple here. So that's how this temple got built.” Amit had stopped our car beside the temple, where a lot of other vehicles were already parked. All the drivers were paying their respects to the goddess for a safe journey. Some of the tourists joined them, while others stood on the mountain's edge to admire the scenery in front of them.
The temple stood on a curve on the mountain, and the road had been widened to accommodate the temple. A small temple, painted white, narrow at the top, with a small saffron flag on a flag pole fluttering in the ever-present breeze. The temple's interior was just wide enough to hold the marble idol and a pujari, who was distributing the prasad: small pieces of coconut. The temple stood on the very edge of that mountain, confident of itself, the vertical fall just a foot behind. “Once this temple got built, the deaths stopped, and they easily completed laying this road,” Amit concluded.
I stand beside the shrine staring at the mountain range a few kilometers away, spreading itself in front of my eyes. It was a massive range with no end in sight on either side, with many tall snow-capped dark mountains. In the Himalayas, the mountain ranges don't end.
Below my feet was a narrow valley in which Sutlej flowed. We were at such a height that the murmur of Sutlej didn't reach us. On my right was the road continuing its torturous journey over multiple mountains before it turned a corner on one of them and vanished from sight. Amit pointed to the road and said, “After a few kilometers on this road, we will cross to the other side.” Now he is pointing to the mountains on the opposite side.
“What lies beyond those mountains?” I ask Amit.
“If you cross those mountains, you will get into Rupi Bhaba sanctuary. From there, you can trek to the Rupi Bhaba pass, crossing which you will enter Mudh, one of the villages in Pin Valley. From there, Kaza is a two-hour drive," says Amit.
That was the trekking route to Pin Valley, but we took the circuitous road route, which would pass through Reakong Po, Kalpa, Khab, Nako, Tabo, and Dhankar monastery before reaching Kaza.
We are back in the car and driving towards Reokong Po. The overcast sky covers everything with a coat of gray. The dark clouds merging with the snow peaks give a menacing and unapproachable look to the whole range. Pointing to one of the snow peaks, Amit comments, “It's either raining or snowing there .” I see a foggy white sheet covering that peak. I think of trekkers caught in such weather and shudder.
After a few kilometers, we cross the bridge over Sutlej. We then turn right, and the car climbs up slowly to the place where Baspa meets Sutlej. The clarity of Sutlej and Baspa turns to milky white, the waters frothing, as the rivers embrace each other and proceed downstream as a single river, Sutlej.
We are crossing a dam site now. The air is dusty, the ground is slushy, and the noise from the heavy earth moving equipment drowns the sound of the river. There is constant din all around. Workers drill through rocks, and a gigantic machine scoops up rubble and deposits it elsewhere; diesel generators with their rhythmic thud-thud give out thick diesel fumes. Workers from South India move around with clothes and bodies entirely covered with dust. Some wear yellow colored helmets; some others cover their heads with a dirty handkerchief. We raise the windows to escape from the dust. It takes us around 20 mins to cross this site. Then, as the cacophony of the dam site recedes, we hear the silence. Slowly we start hearing the ever-present sounds of nature: The bird calls, the rustling of the leaves, the murmur of the river.
After traveling a few kilometers, Amit stops the car, gets down, and asks me to do the same. It is a lonely place, with no other vehicle in sight. As I go and stand beside him, he says, “You must not lie. You must tell the truth. If you don't see it, say so. Only if you see it must you say you saw it”.
I am puzzled.
“Now look there,” says he, pointing to the snow-clad peaks far away. “See the peak in the center? Keep looking at it. What do you see?”
I look intently but cannot make out anything. “I don't see anything special,” I say.
“Look keenly at that center peak,” urges Amit.
I look again, and then I see that strange sight. The tip of the peak has a Reddish hue, which in front of my surprised eyes turns pitch Black. Then, even before I could comprehend what is happening, it turns White, and within a few seconds, it is back to the original Red color. The cycle repeats itself. “Oh, Wow” are the only words that escape my mouth. The incredulity is reflected in my eyes, and my mouth is agape.
Amit is convinced that I have seen the strange phenomenon, and a smile lightens up his face.
“Wonderful, isn't it? That is the Kinner-Kailash range," he says.
( Later that evening, after we had checked in into a resort in Kalpa, I read that the changing colors are due to some mineral deposits on a rock at the top of that mountain. )
We reach Kalpa around four o clock, and from the HPTDC resort, Kinner-Kailash peaks seem nearer. We see the changing colors more clearly from here before clouds cover the mountains entirely.
“Let's go to a nearby village. You will love the drive”, says Amit.
Amit, the driver, is in his mid-twenties and has typical Himachali traits. He is fair, slim, energetic, and perfectly fit. He has a thick mustache and an oval face, which has a serious look most of the time. He has two characteristics that stand out: One - though he often drove these routes - he was scared of the hills. Two, he was a Kumar Sanu fan. The first one was welcome since he drove carefully (though not always). The second one was a problem since I was not too fond of the voice of Kumar Sanu, whose songs he regularly plays in the car.
The supposedly innocuous drive to the nearby village turned out to be a terrifying one. The sun is slowly descending behind the mountains far away. The road is narrow, cut along the sides of a tall mountain. To our right, the hill is leaning on us and to our left is the sheer drop. The short radius curves had to be negotiated deftly, and at each turn came the realization that one slip is all that stands between you and life.
Amit stopped at what looked like a cement platform. “This is the suicide point,” he said, getting down. I got down and gingerly walked to the edge and looked down. I feel dizzy but watch with fascination the ground below and realize how high we are up the mountains. It was like looking down from an airplane but without its covered protection. A vertical drop from the cliff had nothing to break the fall: no gradient of the mountain, no trees, no road. The fading light was adding kilometers to the depth.
The strength in my legs is slowly oozing out, and I wobble a couple of steps back. “If someone is intent on committing suicide, we must bring him here. One look and he will drop that idea.” Amit has a macabre sense of humor.
We rest that day in Kalpa and start for the Spiti Valley the following morning. Rest in Part -2