We started the day early, as we knew that this would be the longest distance we would cover in the hills on a single day throughout our trip. We also knew that the road post Rampur would start deteriorating and would be terrible after Jeori. Both IT and I were up by 05:00 hrs and had all intentions of leaving by 06:30 or latest 07:00. All we wanted was a nice hot cup of tea to get our engines started. However, the HPTDC staff put paid to our plans to start early. They only got us our tea post 07:00 and by that time, we had resigned ourselves to fate. Since we were already late, we decided to have a hearty breakfast (as we would skip lunch) and finally left Fagu at 09:15.
IT and I have been to Kalpa before a few times and really like the place including the HPTDC property there – The Kinner Kailash. This time however, it was meant to be just a stopover on our way to Spiti. We made good time to Nirath (just before Rampur) where we paid our respects to the mighty Sutlej by spending 15 minutes on her banks. The drive through Rampur was uneventful except for a stop at the IOC pump where we tanked up and checked our tyres. The most shocking observation for us on the drive so far was the temperature in Rampur – it was a whopping 40 degrees centigrade. Both IT and I let out a few words which I dare not reproduce here, and switched on the XUV’s aircon.
We had crossed Rampur on schedule, but we also knew that the 3rd-4th gear driving was behind us now and it would be more 2nd gear stuff from now on. Though, we had done this stretch many times before, we still stopped for some customary pictures now and then.
Pic: Entry to Kinnaur
Pic: Classic 'tunnel' roads just after entering Kinnaur
Pics: Random pics near the first JSW hydro plant on the Sutlej
As anticipated, the roads started going to pieces after Tapri and while we were driving through dust screens and wondering what the difference was between here and Delhi with the temperatures soaring and dust everywhere, a big shock hit us. Somewhere after Wangtu we drove past a few vehicles (going in the opposite direction) with the drivers gesturing that the road ahead was closed. Our hearts were in our mouths, and though we knew what their gestures meant, we did not utter the obvious and kept driving on (secretly hoping that those drivers meant something else). Soon we saw a sight that completely deflated us – just a few meters ahead, we could clearly see that the entire mountainside had collapsed into the Sutlej and the road which we had taken so many times on our way to Sangla-Chitkul-Kalpa was no where to be found. Like the diehard mountain lovers that we are, we drove right up to the wall of mud and rocks and then stopped, still hoping that there would be some motorable track which we could not see. However, there was none. We were completely devastated. Our Spiti dream was evaporating in front of our eyes.
But every cloud has a silver lining. While looking at the mountain which seemed to be our nemesis, I spotted a truck crossing the Sutlej (from the other side to our side of the river) about 500 meters ahead. Hope is such a sweet thing!! I shouted to IT that there was another road on the other side of the river to byepass the landslide. And as our eyes back tracked from the point where we had seen the truck crossing, we could follow a thin line on the mountain across the river. We were saved! We rushed back to the XUV, slammed the doors, IT turned around and slammed the pedal to the floor. Suddenly we were up to 4th gear and rushing back, looking for a bridge to cross over and reach the road on the other side. Soon enough, we found it and byepassed the landslide, crossed the Sutlej again after 500 meters and were back on the original road. Phew!
We finally, reached Kalpa at 18:15, taking 9 hours to cover 215 km. We checked-in and ordered tea with pakoras, which we demolished in minutes as we were famished. The sun was still out but waning, our tummies satiated, we nursed a few drinks till dinner at 20:30. It was lights out by 22:00 on Day 2.
Pic: Entering Kalpa
Tomorrow was another long day which started with me getting a few nice morning pictures at Kalpa. However, the day was to bring about the first change in our original plan…
I woke up quite early in the morning and went for a stroll while IT was still asleep/lazing. It gave me an opportunity to click a few pictures before leaving Kalpa.
Pics: Random early morning shots at Kalpa
Unlike Fagu, we got our tea in good time. The Kalpa HPTDC staff is certainly more efficient! We were not planning to leave very early today and so could take our time over tea, enjoying the morning sun and the beautiful vistas one only sees from Kalpa.
Pic: That's me having tea at the HPTDC Rest House
We had scrambled eggs with toast for breakfast but the highlight of our meal was not the eggs or toast but the decision to skip Nako and proceed to Tabo instead. We had originally planned to spend the night in Nako. The primary reason behind this was that we wanted to limit the number of hours on the road. However, based on our experience of driving up to Kalpa (9 hours, 215 km), we thought we would take on Tabo (160 km). Another reason was that Nako would be a ‘detour’ for us. In hindsight, we were feeling that the diversion off NH22 just to stay the night at Kalpa did not make sense and we would have been better off had we just bunked in the PWD rest house at Powari. We did not want to have a feeling of ‘deja vu’ at Nako. Moreover, Nako itself has nothing exceptional to offer except the small lake, which, according to IT was ‘piddley’.
Pic: Final photos at Kalpa before leaving - The HPTDC Resthouse
We set off from Kalpa at 09:30 with the aim to reach Tabo in 7 hours. We were not planning to stop for lunch and expected to rely on chips, wafers and Wai Wai! One problem that we had to solve was of accommodation at Tabo. We had booked to stay at Hotel Rio Purgill in Nako, though no advance was paid. We had accommodation booked at Tabo but that was on our return leg, not while going up. However, IT called up Mahi, our contact at Dewachen Retreats and enquired if he could organize a room for us. Mahi told us that his guesthouse in Tabo was sold out, but the great person that he is, he came through with an alternative – a home stay option.
Pic: Amazing waterfall on the way to Puh
Pic: More 'tunnel' roads...
Pic: XUV crossing a suspension bridge before Puh
Pic: And it begins...The world's most treacherous road as certified by the BRO
The drive from Kalpa onwards was on expected lines. However, the only thing of note that I will mention here (because it exasperated me), was the ‘crossing of the infamous Malling Nala’. The biggest problem I had with Malling Nala was that we had to climb almost a thousand meters just to cross it. And, when we eventually crossed it, I was left wondering what the big deal was. Many blogs and travelogues paint a scary picture of the nala but it really was not that bad. In fact, later on, we crossed many nala’s that were far more difficult to navigate then Malling was.
Pic: The steep climb to Malling starts after this bridge.
Pic: We climb a few 100 meters in the space of a couple of kms. The road at the bottom right corner of the picture is just after we crossed the bridge
Pic: The road was a black-top but single track right up to Malling
Pics: Kazigs continue to take us higher and higher till we cross Malling at about 4,000 meters
Pic: Just after crossing Malling Nala
After we crossed Malling, it was mostly downhill till Tabo. We saw many fabulous landscapes and stopped for pictures. Particularly noteworthy were whole mountains of ‘sand’ and sometimes black sand. The desolate ‘brown’ landscape was punctuated by tiny patches of green – like oasis in a cold desert. On one of our ‘breaks’ we met a lone Israeli biker who stopped and offered us chewing gum. We clicked a few pictures for him and he returned the favor before speeding away. The rest of our drive to Tabo was uneventful and we reached the village at around 17:30, taking an hour more than planned.
Pic: The world's most treacherous road continues to become tougher and tougher to drive on as we go deeper into the mountains - like 'stages' in video games
Pics: Some amazing landscapes on our approach to Tabo
Pic: Tabo village shot from the terrace of our home stay (terrace of Dewachen Retreat in bottom right corner)
Our friend, Mahi had arranged for a home stay right opposite the Dewachen Retreat and had allowed us full access to the retreat’s kitchen. We were tired from the day’s drive and had tea on the terrace of the retreat, overlooking the village and the Tabo Monastery. Thereafter, we retreated to the home stay, showered and had a drink. We reported back to the dining room at dinner time and had a wonderful ‘homely’ meal. Mid-way through dinner, a group of Japanese tourists arrived to join a British group who were already housed at the retreat.
Following dinner, we spent some time on the terrace again. It was past 21:00 and the village was mostly asleep. Except for the occasional bark of a dog, we enjoyed complete silence under a dark sky peppered with a million stars. Now that we were 450 km into the Himalayas and had seen the roads, we began to wonder if the plan we had put on paper, for our return leg, was sensible or not. IT broached the topic of revamping everything and put a new option on the table – return via Manali. His argument was a logical one – Kunzum La to Chandigarh via Manali was 430 km and if we went back via Kinnaur it would be 615 km. This was a big difference to consider. The other plus was that we’d have the opportunity to cover a ‘new’ route (beyond Kunzum) which neither of us had done before – and this was the leg that we’d heard was the most adventurous and challenging from a drivers perspective.
The next day, would be the first day we would be driving less than a hundred kms on the trip. Finally, we had time to spend ‘with’ the mountains. We had plans to visit the Tabo Monastery and then leave for Rangrik, covering Dhankar Monastary on the way. But more importantly, we had to find out the state of the road between Kunzum and Rohtang. The passes usually opened later in June and we were not sure if they were navigable yet.