Spiti Kaza to Manali
What compels a person to leave the comfort of their home and adventure into the wild, whether to the highest mountain or the deepest ocean? It is a call that has resonated in men and women across time immemorial. Admittedly, this call has become less wild and daring as the earth (our world) has become more mapped and civilized. However, a shadow of that call remains in us, and that shadow made me jump on the idea of a mountain biking trip across Spiti and Zanskar. Spiti, the land of lamas and monasteries with the hum of Buddhist chants in its air. And Zanskar, wild, unexplored and untrod, and until recently, not accessible to the public at large. How can one resist the chance to explore these areas, and that too on a mountain bike? I had been trekking and mountaineering for the last 12 to 13 years, but mountain biking was a different ball game. I love cycling, but my riding had been limited to in and around Pondicherry. Traipsing at sea level on a hybrid city bike is very different from tackling steep mountain passes and rugged terrain. However, what's the fun in taking on a challenge which appears very doable at the outset!
Once I had decided to seize the bull by the horns, I began my research. I had visited Spiti on treks and frozen waterfall climbing trips. But this was different. Now I needed in-depth information - which villages would I pass? Where could I camp? Would I have regular access to food and, more importantly, water? I tapped into my local contacts and got some information. Not being on the well-trodden tourist map, detailed information was hard to come by. I was determined to take the plunge anyway.
Bus Journey from Manali to Kaza
The bus ride from Manali to Kaza was uneventful, except to digest the information that I had to cycle back on this mass of rocks and boulders, which was being passed off by the road. I had done some practice runs in and around Manali, but that was on smooth tarred roads, while this route was a different beast! My cycle had seemed rugged and sturdy in Manali, but would it stand the test of these roads? Only time would tell.
Acclimatizing Time at Kaza
I spent 2-3 days in Kaza acclimatizing since I had been at sea level merely a week before. Launching off before giving my mind and body a chance to adjust would have been sheer suicide. I used the time to center myself and organize my thoughts for the trip ahead. People had been incredulous, wide-eyed, and highly skeptical at the notion that an inexperienced and amateur cyclist (and that too a girl!) were planning to cycle this newly opened route through unknown mountainous terrain. They had gone to the extent of suggesting short-cuts to the trip. How did one explain to them that if I wanted short-cuts, I would not have been here in the first place! But despite my outward confidence or bravado, the doubts had started to creep in. During the three weeks, the doubts took root, thinking about the two high-altitude passes, terrible roads (or non-roads), and carrying all our gear. I had carried up to 15 to 20kg of equipment in treks and expeditions, but that was on my two legs - those I could trust. But on a cycle- that was unknown territory. The bike would itself weigh 15 kgs plus, add to that another 15 kgs luggage and then cycle up high passes, hmm!!. In retrospect, it seems illogical; a cycle is a machine; obviously, it would have helped rather than hindered. Obvious?? Tell that to someone experimenting with a new sport.
Day 1 - Kaza to Kyato
The starting day of my expedition dawned bright and clear. I woke up early and arranged my gear on the bike - my pannier, sleeping bag, tent, mattress, etc. The bike seemed a bit wobbly to start with, but things seemed to become okay when I started cycling. The bike weight, which had felt to be on the heavier side, suddenly seemed a blessing. I was able to handle the gear volume and weight because of it.
I started my physical journey from the Kaza monastery; my spiritual journey had started the day before in Key monastery, with the blessings of the lamas there. As I cycled, I realized that the bike is an amazing companion, slow enough to let you drink in the surroundings but fast enough to let you cover greater distances in comparison to walking. It is a vehicle, a mode of transportation, but by its very nature, one which doesn't encase you in a metal box or cut you away from your surroundings. It makes you feel a part of the beauty, vibrancy, and freshness around you. I had been to Spiti and Ladakh many times before, but I saw it with different eyes this time.
The first day started on tenterhooks. Will I be able, or won't? But slowly, the fears receded. The beautiful Spiti sky, the good roads, the gradual ascents all lulled them. It was the universe taking pity on me and giving me a break, a temporary respite. Today I could revel in and marvel at the beauty around us. Since it was the first day, I decided to focus on getting my body into the rhythm of cycling. Roughly I wanted to cover enough distance to enable me to camp at the base of the pass the next day (my first pass crossing Kunzum pass at 4550m). The day was all about cycling through vast empty expanses, surrounded by stunning mountains of varying colours and set in the backdrop of a clear blue sky that defied description. The air was crisp and fresh, and I savoured the feeling of the sunlight, the wind, and just Spiti. I passed through a few villages, little cocoons of greenery in between the largely barren landscape. Being summer, most of the residents were out farming. But every once in a while, I found someone who offered me tea or some delicious fried Ladakhi bread. The simple hospitality of the people stole my heart. There was no underlying motive in their generosity, just a desire to be helpful to strangers in their land.
As I moved further away from Kaza, I started ascending, and the villages became scarcer. Around lunchtime, when I started looking for a Dhaba but was only met by lengthy empty stretches of land. The villages I passed by were deserted as its residents were out farming. As the clock inched towards 3:00 p.m., I was cycling on an empty and rumbling stomach. I carried a small stash of dehydrated food for emergencies but loathed to use it on the first day itself. However, soon it was either that or cycling hungry till evening. Eventually, my hungry stomachs won over my practical mind. Being an unplanned cook-out, I had to scrounge up my already depleted water reserves for it. That left me with barely a sip each post the meal. A rookie mistake as ever, in the excitement of the day and under the assumption that I would find plenty of villages en route, I had neglected to top up our bottles earlier. I made sure I did not repeat this mistake; come rain, hail, or sunshine. I topped up my bottle the moment I got a chance.
Our smooth road honeymoon continued till post-lunch. I started to push my limits and experimented with standing on the bike on downward slopes. Woohoo, what fun...with the adrenaline coursing and the wind rushing past me, it was like flying! I had tasted blood and discovered one of the addictive joys of cycling in the mountains. The kilometers flew by as I coasted, but the party had to end sometime. After about 30 to 40 minutes, we reached the bottom and started the painful climb up. Ask anyone, the first uphill bend after a ride down is pure torture. You begin to question all your life's decisions as you will your legs to keep pumping. To add to our woes, we were out of drinking water, and all I could see was a series of switchbacks with no village in sight. The weather gods decided to further toy with me, the wind shifted, and I began to be buffeted by headwinds. Perfect!! Finally, after an hour and a half of climbing, we reached the village of Kyato, the first I had seen since early afternoon. It was near the cliff top, so extremely windy, but I was beyond caring. All I could think of was food and then my sleeping bags. I had 30 to 35 km under our belt., not bad for Day 1.
Day 2 - Kyato to Takcha
The following day I decided to treat myself and take it easy. I had to cover about 20-25 km to reach Takcha, the base of the pass, and that did not warrant an early start. The previous day had cut my fears down to size; today, the expedition seemed less formidable. I searched for food a choice of Maggi, momos, or paranthas the bane of my life on the trip. After breakfast, I took my time and cycled leisurely to Lohsar, the last major village before the pass and the border check post. The "major" part was a misnomer; being Spiti it still was a picturesque place with Ladakhi styled houses spread all around and down to its terraced gardened fields. I had intended to make only a brief tea stop at Lohsar and then head out to Takcha. When informed about our plans, the Lohsar Dhaba owner warned me that there was no food point in Takcha. Though a little credulous, I decided to play it safe and get paranthas (again!) packed for the night. It was past 5 p.m. once I crossed the check post and cycled onwards.
I was not too worried as it was summer, and daylight stayed till 7:30 p.m. But the weather gods were not done with me yet! Within half an hour of leaving, the sky darkened, and it started to rain. If that was not enough to dampen our spirits, they sent intermittent hailstorms to keep me company. Damm! I started wishing we had camped at Lohsar only for the night. The memory of the warm Dhaba with the hot food tugged at me. Here we were wet cold, in the middle of nowhere and on our way to a campsite which may or may not exist! Why? Why had we dilly-dallied so much in the morning? Couldn't we have just reached Takcha in time? Even a wet tent was better than this! With these pleasant thoughts, I soldiered on, the bare landscape providing me with little or no shelter. No matter how glamorous and daring it looks in adventure movies, being outdoors in such weather is never fun! The one small mercy was that the cycling kept me warm, at least somewhat. The body heat generated as I toiled upwards, combined with the wind, meant that I was not soaked to the skin as long as the rain was not torrential. I soon zoned out, trying to solely focus on the road ahead and ignoring everyone and everything else around me. So, imagine my surprise when I saw the road starting to ascend steeply, and just as I was wondering if this had to be tackled today, on top of everything else, I found myself next to a sign declaring we were at Takcha. I looked around wildly for some signs of civilization; the closest I could find was some horses happily cavorting and playing in the open meadow around me. I burst out laughing, the sun had come out, and this unexpected end loosened the tension inside me. I started jumping up and dancing; I had finally lost it. This was Spiti; anything could happen! My scheduled stop (assumed village) could turn out to be a semi-marshy grassland! Never again would I make the mistake of thinking that all the stops suggested by people in my research were villages. I pitched my tent on the wetland and awaited a new day.
Day 3 - Takcha - Batal
Today was to be my first test with an ascent to 4550 meters. The last two days had just been a warm-up and teaser to today. While not as formidable as Shinku-La up ahead in Zanskar, this was a challenge enough for an amateur mountain biker. There was no easing into the ascent from Takcha; it stared steeply at me even while I camped. Thankfully, the road was still tarred and somewhat smooth on this side of the pass. I would soon have to face that challenge in due course. I started nervously, dreading the pain in my legs as I rounded the steep bends. I realized I was not huffing or straining as hard as expected on the first bend. Hmmm, beginner's luck? But I realized my body was miraculously managing to cope. The trick, I found, was to pedal till I reached the beginning of the hairpin, stop a moment to catch my breath, send a silent appeal to God, and then power through the rest. With this technique, I was able to tackle some pretty steep ascents. As I climbed higher, I could feel my body coming into its element and getting more comfortable with the ride. It was not a walk in the park, but neither was it a road to hell.
As I climbed higher, I could see the grand mountain vistas opening up. The river meandering between them broke up into small rivulets as it encapsulated tiny Islands. The bare Spiti mountains were a sight to behold in all their blue, green, and magenta splendour. All the more vivid against the piercing blue sky. The ascent was taxing but with a few flat to downward slopes in between to ease the way. Slowly my body found its rhythm. In such cases, your mind semi-tunes out; it goes in a kind of auto-pilot that numbs the pain sensors, not so much of the body as of the mind. This is not to say that I was not ecstatic at reaching the top. Just seeing the prayer flags in the distance gave me the much-needed boost to the finish line.
I reached the pass. It was here that I realized how much respect cyclists get in the mountains. Two to three groups, both bikers and in cars, stopped by while I waited, congratulated me on the ascent, and even took photos with me. Hungry, tired, and cold as I was, I still felt like a minor celebrity! I could understand their sentiment. When I used to motorbike in Ladakh, I would look in awe and with a little disbelief at the cyclists toiling away. Part of me would even wonder why? Little did I know that the glove would be soon enough on the other hand. In retrospect, to all would-be/hesitant/ or budding cyclists, I can honestly say that it's totally worth it. On a cycle, you get to feel aspects that you will never be able to in a faster-moving vehicle. It's like swimming in the sea vs watching it from a boat. No comparison!
Interestingly, the prayer flag area has a Buddhist praying site, and a temple in the same compound is a heartening glimpse of secularism in these troubled times. My prayer was one in which I did both, asked God if he was utterly crazy to even conceive of sending me on this trip and at the same time thanking him sincerely for it and for bringing me to this beautiful land again and in an unexpected way. Soon the matters of the stomach took precedence over the heart, and I greedily gobbled up the remnants of last night's cold, stale paranthas. It was remaining because I had been unable to force them down the night before. How the most unappetizing of foods at one time can seem like a gourmet at another!.
I decided to head down soon after as it was approaching evening. I planned to reach Chhatru if possible but failing that, Batal, the village right below the pass. I soon realized that the honeymoon was over. The tar road petered out and became a kaccha road with enough rocks and boulders to rattle every bone in my body. This stretch has 15 hairpin turns. (a fact I wikied rather than counted). All vehicles coming my way looked like they were on a see-saw in a cloud of dust. I again took to standing on the pedals, this time to give my bum a break! With arms aching due to the continuous braking I had to do and my head feeling like it was about to careen off, I finally spied Batal in the valley below. All thoughts of Chhatru out of the window, I attacked the first Dhaba I found. I was told that going to Chhatru would be inadvisable as the river would be in full spate by this time (the road from Batal to Chhatru crisscrosses the river bed in multiple spots). Happy to clutch at straws, I decided to camp at Batal in the evening. After three days of momos, paranthas, and Maggi, dal-chawal-roti, and sabzi seemed heaven-sent.
Day 4 - Batal - Manali
Refreshed from the food and rest, I was ready for today's battle. If yesterday was a day of high altitude passes, today was the day of negotiating the riverbed with its multiple river crossings. I decided to head early before the glacial melt started in earnest. All was going as planned when the first setback happened. I started a bit late in the day, ear;y afternoon, and the weather had started to pack up. Clouds had begun to gather on the horizon, and they looked like they were in no mood to disperse. A few drops came down to warn me; I covered my gear with a layer of plastic and put on my rain gear. It started with a soft drizzle on my back which soon increased in spate.
Amidst all these, I reached my first river crossing. All the dire warnings of people about being careful, not slipping, not falling, flooded back to me. I changed into my floaters from my shoes and gritted my teeth. I could not see the stones below the water level, so I debated between cycling or walking it through. Finally, with a to-hell-with-this mindset, I decided to bite the bullet and cycle. I cycled about halfway through and then, out of sheer nervousness and surprise at being able to do this, stopped and put my foot down. It was not that difficult! Actually, this was fun!! Why had people scared me so much!!! This feeling got reaffirmed in all the crossings that I encountered later. I would cycle as much as possible at a river crossing and then push through the parts I couldn't. A cycle was light enough to roll along without getting stuck. Yes, in a few places, the luggage tipped the weight one way or the other. But that was the fun - to negotiate the way. For me, the challenge became not just to crossover the river but to get across without putting my foot down. To date, the most fun parts of my trip were the river crossings. It was exciting to reach a river and try to figure out the way, and the rush as you pushed off and negotiated between the unseen rocks, the triumph as you crossed one without having to push. All these emotions are part of the adventure.
What was not fun, however, was the rain. It had become pretty torrential by now, and the black clouds spread to the horizon on every side. Later I found out that Spiti valley had a cloud burst that day. There were two massive landslides, one behind me blocking Kunzum pass and the other up ahead blocking the way to Zanskar. I had managed to cross the pass just in the nick of time as it remained closed for many days after. Compared to that, the rain I faced was a mere trickle. Be that as it may, the going became very tough, with the visibility dropping significantly. The rocks had become very slippery and dangerous to cycle, especially on the downhills. Although wanting to cycle ahead, I was forced to set camp at the earliest. I was nearly at the end of my ride, completing my Spiti leg.
Today, I bid goodbye to Spiti, thanking the beautiful land for its gentle hospitality. It was wonderful how Spiti welcomed me with open arms and a warm blue sky when I arrived a week earlier, and today she was bidding me adieu with tears in her eyes. It was those tears that were raining down upon me. I couldn't have found a more fitting way to bid farewell!
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