Journey to Spiti: Part 2
The following day, he was serious when he pointed to a mountain on the opposite side and asked me, "Can you see the dark patches there?".
We had started that morning from Kalpa and had driven for a couple of hours before stopping for tea. With a cup of tea in hand, I stare at the mountain on the other side. It was not like a regular mountain but more like a heap of mud. It was tall and fragile. As if it would collapse at the merest pretext of a loud sound.
"That mountain collapsed a couple of years back," said Amit. "A military convoy was passing that way when the incident happened. All the trucks are covered with mud; God knows how deep. Some of them were carrying petrol. Slowly the petrol from these trucks rose to the top and formed the dark patches you see now. That mountain has around 20 trucks inside its belly."
I did not wish to imagine the fate of those trapped inside.
It was a bright and sunny morning. The tea shop was a temporary structure made of wooden stilts and a tin roof. We had left behind the green mountains in Kalpa - the green of the evergreen deodar and firs; The green of Kinnaur apple trees; The green which tempered the harshness of the sun. That green was gone, and now we were entering the high altitude desert areas of Spiti, where the bare mountains were made of stone or mud, on which no trees grew and from whom the sun reflected its heat onto the passersby.
"I never tell my parents that I am going to Spiti. They get scared and start pleading, "Amithu, don't go that side. Work in Simla and Kangra areas only". Being a driver, I cannot choose my route, no?" asks Amit.
"You don't go to Spiti often?" I ask.
"I do. I make four to five trips every season. I am always scared of whether I would get back home alive or not. God only knows when there will be a landslide in these parts. Mountains cave in, rushing waters at 'naalas' sometimes even wash away large trucks. Only when I get back home do I tell my parents that I had been to Spiti."
'Naala' is where water meets the road. Bridges go over small streams in the mountains, but they cannot build a bridge in some places for engineering reasons and let the cascading mountain stream run across the road in its descent towards Sutlej. Sometimes the stream is
narrow or almost absent. When the ice melts rapidly on the top, the streams swell and can be dangerous. The strip of road over which the stream runs is always in bad shape; the water has worn down the tar and gravel.
We have driven for more than an hour after having tea. Suddenly we see a line of stationary vehicles backed up on the road. "That must be Tinku naala," says Amit,
That is when I learn that the bigger naalas have their names. "Lot of water must be flowing now," he says and helpfully adds, "In this same
place I was once stuck for two days. One fellow sold a glass of tea for 20 rupees during that time."
I wasn't too enthusiastic about being stuck in the same place for two days. "How long do you think it will take now?" I ask.
"Who knows" replies Amit and gets down from the car. He slowly walks past the lines of vehicles and turns a bend, vanishing from my vision. I am not sure how far the naala is from where we are parked and anxiously wait for Amit to return. After some time, he appears around the corner and waves to me, indicating that I should join him.
I join Amit at the bend. Around twenty meters in front of us in 'Tinku naala.' The stream is about 10 meters wide and has a gaping hole in the middle. The hole is so large that cars can easily get stuck in it. "Once, a car was stuck while trying to cross the naala. The water swept the car away", says Amit, who always has some scary incident ready for narration.
Some earth-moving vehicles passing along were commandeered
and were asked to fill up the potholes with large stones taken from the sides of the mountain. Once the hole is filled up, the vehicles start moving. Our car, lurching like a drunkard, crosses the naala over these stones.
Just before Khab, we stop in front of the bridge, which is on our left. Straight ahead, there is no road, only the mountain from which Sutlej descends. From the left comes Spiti, which joins Sutlej under the bridge. It is hot, dry, and dusty. I walk on the bridge, stand in the middle, and stare at the mountain in front of me. Beyond that mountain, Sutlej has a different name. For beyond that mountain lies a foreign country: Tibet. "If we climb to the top of these mountains, we can see the Tibetians at work," says Amit. "The Army won't allow us there."
It is strange knowing that a different civilization lies beyond these mountains- a foreign land, a different culture, and a different universe - separated from my view by a few mountains and the respective governments.
We cross the bridge across Sutlej, and we are now driving along the Spiti river, heading towards the town of Nako. The landscape is more desolate now. The mountains are turning dark brown, almost approaching black. The undulating mountains- without a single tree on them - spread out for kilometers on all sides, illuminated brightly by the light of the angry sun. A typical Himalayan landscape of mountains behind mountains behind mountains till they blend with the sky in the distant horizon. On my right, I see a gigantic mountain, dark brown, the color of mud. In the middle of the mountain runs a thin line, the brown hair of the mountain parted at an angle.
"That's the road we will take soon," says Amit noticing me watching that line.
I now see a truck, almost toy-like against the backdrop of the giant mountain, slowly easing its way up. That truck is the only sign of humanity in that vast area, increasing my sense of isolation.
"That is Nako." Amit points to a set of houses on the peak of a gigantic mountain. The sky is high, and the settlement looks as if it is trying to touch the sky. I look fascinated at the town, whose white-colored
houses look like dollhouses from where we are.
"Beyond Nako is the most dangerous part of our trip. The Malling naala."
Amit utters 'Malling Naala' with reverence.
"I wish that we cross it without any problem."
I have gotten used to Amit's warnings now, and I am not sure how bad the actual situation at 'Maling naala' would be.
After lunch at Nako, we climbed towards 'Malling naala.' Amit stops the car in front of a temple and pays his respects. The temple, as all temples in this area, stands on a curve. Turning the bend, we can see the Malling naala. The Malling naala lies on the center of a 'U' turn. A thin stream of water is flowing down the mountain, and as usual, we have the tall mountains on one side of the road and the steep fall on the other side. Amit approaches Maling naala with trepidation, but his fears are unfounded. The naala is almost dry, the stream of water very thin providing an anticlimax after the buildup by Amit.
The real adventure of a few minutes starts after we cross the Maling naala. Immediately after crossing the naala and making the left 'U' turn, Amit accelerates the car suddenly, one hand on the wheel, the other hand outside the window clutching the top of the car. He leans his head out of the window and looks up at the mountain to his right. He is driving fast, with his eyes now darting to the road, now looking upwards, the car now turning right, now turning left, right, left, right, left. The curves are extremely tight, and the car is picking up speed. I look to my left from the passenger's seat, and a few feet away is the edge of the mountain. There is sand on the road, and for an instant, I wonder what would happen to us if we slipped. The car kept turning right and left, the depths appearing and disappearing before my eyes. I hold on to my seat tight, and my heart is in my mouth. I suddenly understand what the phrase 'life hanging by a thread' means. Things are happening too fast, and before I could even utter some words of caution, Amit slows down the car.
"We are past the danger point," he says.
I didn't see any danger, and I look at him with questioning eyes.
"That part of the mountain has a lot of loose rocks. A small gust of wind can get them tumbling down and would have damaged the car", Amit clarifies.
The car is a new white Innova, which Amit loves with the same intensity a new bridegroom loves his bride. He keeps it spotlessly clean and is always worried if some pebbles fall on it during the drive. I smile to myself, thinking that Amit's fear of falling rocks is fanciful only to learn differently during our return journey.
We stay at Tabo for the night and the following day head to Kaza, stopping en-route at the Dhankar monastery. The monastery is perched precariously on the top of a mountain, as most monasteries in Spiti and Ladakh area are. However, unlike castles built to protect a kingdom from invaders, monasteries seem to be built on mountains tops to contemplate the world spread out below.
We climb up to the terrace of the monastery, where a stiff breeze is blowing. It is a cloudy day with an ever-present threat of rain. The mountains look duller in the weak light. Looking down below, I see the
Pin river joining Spiti. Tiny flags with faded colors - strung on what looks like a cloth line - flutter in the wind. There is no sign of man or machine anywhere. Only the mountains- dark and snow-topped - the river and the breeze keep company. We reach Kaza after driving for a couple of hours and stay there for two nights.
"Can't we wait till after lunch and then start?" asks Amit. We are about to start back from Kaza, and the weather is bleak. Dark clouds fill the sky. A light drizzle is falling, and the breeze is strong. Amit is not keen on starting in this weather.
The manager of the resort is not impressed. "You never know how the weather will be after lunch. I am sure it will not rain heavily. The weather will clear soon. Why wait till lunch? If you leave now, you will be in Tabo for lunch", he urges Amit.
"I am not worried about the rain. It is the wind that worries me", says Amit. The manager laughs, "There is nothing to worry about. The wind will die down. Start now".
We start, and as the manager predicted, the weather turns better. The clouds slowly disperse, the light strengthens, and the drizzle stops. Just as I am enjoying the weather, Amit tells me, "Keep looking up. Tell me if any stones are rolling down."
I keep a vigil on the mountainside filled with stones and rocks of all sizes. Some mountains are made of a single stone; some are made up of only broken stones. Some hills are muddy, with a lot of rocks strewn all across them. It is from one such mud mountain that a small stone starts rolling down. I ask Amit to stop. The stone gathers speed and hits the road some hundred meters in front of us, raises high and like a deer jumping, it jumps down the mountain side in giant leaps, finally landing into the river flowing below. Thud.
Amit starts backing up the car quickly and brings it to a stop below a ledge. The breeze has picked up, and the next stone which tumbles down is bigger. It curves through a bigger arc, crosses the road in one leap, picks up momentum, and does the exact deer impersonation but plunges into the river with more enormous leaps. Thud.
Under the protection of the ledge, I watch fascinated as more stones follow the same routines, pushed by the wind on one side and drawn by the inexorable force of gravity on the other side. Thud. Thud. Thud.
The show stops as suddenly as it had started. The wind has stopped blowing.
Amit puts his hand out of the window to feel the breeze - to be sure that none is blowing. In front of us, stretched for a couple of kilometers, is the torturous mountain road, and on the left, utterly barren mountains with many stones on them, ready to tumble when the wind blows. Except for the overhang under which we are waiting, there is no shelter. Once you are on the road and the stones start rolling, you just pray to God that they don't crash into your car.
Amit's face has turned red, and he has a serious look as he contemplates the risks. He watches the road, puts his hand out again to check the wind, looks up to see the clouds, and then looks to the mountain. Finally deciding that the best form of defense is attack, he starts the car and, with his face near the steering wheel watching the mountain, presses
the accelerator hard. The car picks up speed, we twist and turn rapidly, and my eyes are glued to the hill, looking for signs of tumbling stones.
The mountain is kind, and we cross the two kilometers stretch without any problem, and both of us slowly relax.
We stop at Kalpa for the night and the next day head towards Kalka via Simla. Amit sees me off at the railway station. I ask him about his next trip. "A lady is coming from Delhi. I need to pick her up here and take her to Simla. So I will be going around the Simla and Kangra areas."
I bid him goodbye and head back to the drudgery of my city life. But, on the other hand, Amit would be driving his car in these mountains and praying for safe passage whenever he undertakes the drive to Spiti Valley.