1991. We are supposed to be trekking, but we dont seem to be doing much, and I am thinking about bikes. I am thinking, if we had bikes, we wouldnt have had to cross the Rohtang Jot crammed in the aisle of a bus, one numb buttock perched on someones suitcase; we wouldnt have been holed up in Chhatru for a day and a half waiting for lost ponies to reappear, we wouldnt be stuck in desolate Batal because of snows at the Baralacha La, eyeing that road up there snake away from us instead, wed have been riding heroically up those zigzags, to four and a half thousand glorious metres, and over, and away into the vast and endless landscapes of Asia. And not waiting for a lift back in a potato lorry. Somehow, I would have to turn the unsuspecting Colin into a cyclist.
Actually we wouldnt have got far. That tantalising pass the Kunzum La takes you into Spiti, which at the time was closed to foreigners. Now Spiti is open, but the road into Tibet is still closed, which rather limits how far you can go into the vast and endless landscapes of Asia. Nevertheless the Indian roads make a natural circuit, which has to be one of the grandest rides on earth.
2003. The hills start abruptly. For mile after mile we have had the dusty sameness of plains India, a pattern of fields, low rise concrete houses and open-fronted shops, the one small piece repeated over and over again, and you begin to think the whole world must go on like this, endlessly. Then the road starts to rise, and relentlessly rise; the land is pushed up and folded into ridges and valleys, unstoppably now; you ride along a ridge, high above thousand-metre valleys, terraced with lush emerald paddies and with woods and orchards, villages of old wooden houses, verandahs looking out over the infinite vistas, and it feels like the places you had always imagined, dreamed of, as a child, when the world was so impossibly big and unknown, that out there, somewhere, were the lands youd read about, of heroes and legends, of treasure and mysterious tribes, and those beautiful idealised landscapes of paintings. And these were just the foothills; if wed had clear weather wed have seen, all the way across the far horizon, a line of snowy mountains, like a heavenly world, floating above this one.
We had started the ride in Shimla, and climbed steadily to Narkanda, the road switching from side to side of a steep ridge. From Narkanda, a deep drop of nearly 2000m into the Sutlej valley; we would have to regain all that height and more to the next pass, the Jalori Jot. The monsoon was late in clearing, and in Shimla wed heard about landslides, and trekkers rained-in in Manali. The Sutlej valley had been roasting hot, and the skies blue. We were hoping that somehow the momentum of all this blueness would counterbalance the cloud or the odd spot of rain the afternoon might bring, but up the Jalori Jot road, which set about its business purposefully (that is, it was bloody steep), obviously found clouds great company and enthusiastically made a beeline for them, and rather soon, despite our best efforts at trying not to mind the weather, it couldnt escape our attention that it was raining heavily. And the rumbles we could hardly pretend were garage doors. But even in this weather, the scenery was magnificent; and perhaps the mists veiling the mountainsides made them more even romantic, dreamlike: immense, forested slopes and glimpses of delicious little paths winding to improbably sited villages perched on ridges.
We were trying not to think very much about what we would have to do next, although that would perhaps have been a good idea; but it was rather too depressing. We knew that there werent any hotels this side of the pass and therefore had been planning to camp, though we had not yet seen even the tiniest flat piece of ground. We rode on, or tried as best we could, as riding was sometimes impossible the gradients were at times ridiculous and masses of rubble had been washed onto the road by the streaming rain. It got worse. Just past Khanag the only village here people walking down the road were telling us we couldnt go any further, gesturing thigh-deep water. So what now? Colin asked at some nearby houses if there was anywhere we could camp, and they directed us down a path through the houses, a kind man helped us with the bikes. In a reversal of fortune so perfect you might think it could only happen in fiction, there was more than just a flat camp ground: there was a government rest house. A bungalow with a verandah hung with clematis and roses, painted a soft and friendly blue and cream, a beautifully kept garden with a tremendous vista over the faraway hills. Even more poignant, there was a memorial to Penelope Betjeman, who had lived in these parts, exploring the hills she loved.
We had another long day ahead. We had scuppered our careful plans for the tour by forgetting to start a course of antimalarials, and so we had to ensure that every night we were above the mosquito line of 2000m. Besides, we wanted to make it to Naggar for the night because we knew the Castle hotel there is nice, and Kullu probably wasnt. The first task was to finish crossing the Jalori Jot, including tackling whatever that thigh-deep water gesture meant. It wasnt hard to guess what was coming a section of road had been completely washed away. At least with bikes, it is not impossible to get through, just very muddy. A less fortunate bus had been stranded on the other side.
Although it was dry, it was cloudy over the mountain tops, and again, we didnt have the expected views from the pass. But the valley down was gorgeous, with immensely tall pine trees and fabulous villages of beautifully carved wooden houses. We were held up with punctures frustrating on what was to be a long day and, worryingly, both were tube failures near the valves. Indian inner tubes all have Woods valves, so it would be impossible for us to get more spares.
The valley meets the main Kullu valley, wide and flanked with high mountains, fertile, populous and busy. The ride from now on had very little pleasure, and it was late as we approached Naggar and also approached the realisation that the road had saved up right to the end, the last 250m of those all-important mosquito-free 2000m. At least the killer day had a fine conclusion though it would have been finer had there been beer at the hotel and it was good to be in the Castle, to sit out on the balcony in the evening, with the view of uncountable stars above, and twinkling homely lights of all the valley below.
We should have had an easy ride to Manali, but I insisted we visit the Roerich Gallery, a long walk up the hill. Top tip: cycle there instead. Nicholas Roerich was a Russian painter, anthropologist and mystic, who painted the mountains in abstracted shapes and intense colours, distilling the spiritual essence of the Himalaya. Mostly the paintings are of mountains alone, but some of temples, looking upwards and out into infinity, or with lone figures on some tremendous heroic journey. The gallery had a map showing Roerichs own journeys through central Asia: a revelation to our Western biased view, showing that these places, Russia, Central Asia and the Himalaya, all so far away to us, are close and culturally related.
Manali is the last real stop before the Rohtang Jot, and the long journey to Leh or to Spiti. For a base camp for our mountain adventure it is disappointingly unlike serene Naggar, let alone Roerich's vision. It is a raucous, chaotic and muddy place: it has lingering monsoon and too many half-built hotels that are already fallling to pieces, and buses, and overenthusiastic vendors of Kashmiri silk (polyester), though in its favour, it has a good cake shop and an endearing bunch of friendly schoolboys. I found I quite liked Manali but my value-system is rather skewed when it comes to cakes. But we didnt stay long. You are supposed to take two days to cross the 3800m Rohtang Jot, to allow for acclimatisation, stopping to camp roughly halfway at Marrhi. But we didn't entirely trust the weather and yes, we would rather do the full 2000m climb at altitude than spend a wet night in a tent. The crucial fact about the Rohtang Jot is it crosses the first range of big mountains, the barrier to the monsoon clouds, and once over it, we would have escaped the horrid weather, into lovely, sunny Lahaul.
Manali is a popular resort for Indians, and the trip up the Rohtang Jot the obvious excursion. For people from the hot, flat plains, it must be an amazing trip. The scenery is alpine the road snakes up through pine forests, there are little wild flowers, high waterfalls, spectacular rock outcrops. The climb is well graded and there are cafes and fur coat rentals. A series of hairpins and a gentle traverse across a valley lead to Marrhi, a mad place, where dhabas compete for custom by trying to play music louder than the others. A pity, because the food here is rather good. Above Marrhi, predictably, the vegetation sparser, the air colder and thinner, the cyclists more weary and slower.
The Rohtang pass is a divide between worlds if ever there was one. Behind you, below, is the Kullu Valley: lush, peopled, even homely, and the mountains softened by grass, trees and cloud. Now all you see ahead are stark, jagged peaks in the searing clear light. Sculptures made by the air and the earth and the gods. A perfect snow cone, a sheer cliff of gleaming rock, like polished metal; a hanging snowfield with a delicate lace pattern; spires and towers and twists; a crest of shattered rocks. The air is so clear that you imagine the crazy, impossible thoughts of actually being up there on that untouched snow, among those terrifying rocks.
We rolled down uncountable many hairpins, and camped a little further up the road. The valley here is not so barren as it first seems, there is grazing and a few houses and fields, and there are three dhabas at Chhatru. But as you go up, the thin grass gives way to boulder fields, the road surface deteriorates, there are many washouts. At Chotra Drara, the boarded-up rest house underlines the desolation. But round the next corner is the huddle of a solitary dhaba. Outside, a strange trio, surely hippies, intermittently mumbling to each other. We asked where were they going. Oh, just staying here Where had they been? Oh, you know ... just around.
Now the landscape has been abstracted to minimal elements: shades of grey-brown rock below, snowy peaks above. One line, the road, stretches along for ever. There is the occasional jeep or truck, but most of the time were alone in this immense and silent valley. Across we can see the Bara Shigri glacier, one of the largest in the Himalaya. At last we reach Batal, and its not homely. A couple of dhabas by the bridge, and a windswept dustbowl campsite. To the west, a scratch across the scree is the road climbing the Kunzum La, and twelve years of drooling will be satisfied tomorrow.
A Himalayan morning. The sky has lightened, the air is still and silent and the cold thin air takes your breath away like the feeling of anticipation of what might come. We climb the lip of the campground, stumbling over uneven rocks. The mountains close by are still dark but we can see the light from the sun from below the horizon, split into rays by the jagged skyline. And to the south, framed by spare grey-brown slopes, are the snow peaks of slender Tiger tooth, Dharamsura and Papsura, glowing pink and gold in the warming sun, like a fragment of the song the gods sing.
The Kunzum La road climbs the bare slopes in steady hairpins, and to the west a cluster of unnamed snow peaks change their aspect slowly; and slowly the flank were climbing rounds, and on the skyline we can see something, the chortens that mark the pass, now like friends waiting. Golden prayer flags flutter and local people pay their respects. This is the high point of the circuit, but the ridge is more rounded than the Rohtang Jot which makes the pass less of a climax. Nor are we that close to high peaks. Instead, we see reddish ranges, going on forever. It feels a lonely, empty, and dauntingly infinite.
We descend into the Spiti valley, very different from the Chandra valley. Here the rock is red and stratified, the mountains more monumental, like the ruined forts and cathedrals of giants. At the valley floor, theres a meadow and a field of willows, green-gold leaves glittering in the sunshine. Whereas the Chandra river was angry, forceful, urgent, the Spiti is calm and blue. It seems an idyllic place, but its deserted of people.
Out of nowhere, a Tibetan gateway across the road announces Losar. Losar came as quite a culture shock. After Hindu India, with wood-and-slate houses, wed spent two days in nothingness, where the only buildings were huts, and now we were in Spiti, ethnically and culturally Tibetan. The people are east-asian rather than indo-european and looked foreign, the buildings are low, whitewashed cuboids, the food is thupka and momos. We had a long and enjoyable lunch. But if wed thought that Losar marked the start of civilisation, we were wrong. The oasis vanished as abruptly as it had appeared, and we were back on Mars again.
The valley floor appears broad and flat. It is made of ancient glacial debris, and as the river grows and strengthens, it cuts a deep channel through this stuff. Occasionally, the road crosses it, climbing steeply down and up again. The steep sides of the river cutting reveal treacherous, crumbly cack, looking barely more substantial than sand, and home to some of the most evil specimens of geology on the planet. Huge car-sized boulders, half-embedded, teeter malevolently; some rocks lurk, knowingly, on the road. The wind and rain have carved out witchy towers capped with rocks: strange and sinister shapes, the talons and teeth of some enormous buried thing.
Kaza is Spitis main town. The old town is not much more than an village, the new town a small square grid of ugly government buildings. Here you have to extract the Inner Line Permit if you want to go further; the few foreign travellers that pass through are forced to stay for a day or two and hence it is what passes for a travellers hangout. But even if the town is charmless and drab, the people are friendly, and the menu at the Echi-Wan deserves a work-through. As for the permits, it is important to approach the procurement of the permits in the right spirit. It is not a chore but a game, a treasure hunt, even a highlight of the trip. The guidebooks breezily say that you get permits; but where to start? You have to start at the district magistrates office, and we found the building and waited for a couple of hours outside an empty office that to the best of the information available, was the correct one. It was an interesting wait. A handful of local women had turned up at another office, and a few more arrived, then more, until the corridor and the stairs were crowded with animated, chattering Tibetan women. We hadnt the faintest idea what was going on, but it was clearly important to them.
We had, of course, been waiting outside the wrong office. A couple of Europeans appeared, and we followed them. I hope this did not constitute cheating. We had conquered the first level.
Ki gompa, a few km out of town, is a cluster of buildings on a conical hill, looking just like a little Italian hilltown. Dankhar, to the south, is another gompa, but this is evan more spectacularly sited up among fearsome crags of treacherous substance. The buildings are perched vertiginously, connected by narrow parapets of mud and twig and prayers; winds rush from the mountains and birds wheel around.
Beyond Dankhar, the Spiti valley becomes narrower, more of a gorge, and there are tantalising views of mountain peaks up side valleys. Now the river makes a bend, and there is a wide plain, walled by huge red cliffs. Here is Tabo, a very ancient and important gompa. Unlike Ki or Dankhar, this is in the village, on the plain, amongst fields. The buildings are unwhitewashed mud, eroded into soft shapes. In the morning, bells and gongs ring. Its a serene and gentle place. If outside is the vast openness of sky and mountain, inside the gompa is a dark, interior world. In the dim light are rich frescoes of manifestations of the Buddha, demons dancing with skulls in dark shadows, the intense colour of silk flags, a butter lamp like a bowl of gleaming gold. High above, the light and the breeze from the mountains filter through the skylight, a breath of the other world.
Below Tabo the gorge narrows and becomes rather enclosed and oppressive, the river sullen and impatient. Its close to the border and there are army camps and a checkpost. We stop, briefly, at the junction with the forbidden road into Tibet, but its an unfriendly place. But a few miles later, round a corner, theres a lovely sight a village of brightly painted houses with gardens of flowers, set in green terraces. This more or less set the pattern for the next few days: a deepening gorge, and occasional, surprising, delightful villages.
Somewhere along here was the infamous landslide zone of Mailing. Wed read a couple of accounts from cyclists whod more or less traversed the road here, and had encountered rockfalls. It hadnt sounded terribly nice. Wed heard all along that the road was actually closed now, but that either you could cross the valley, carrying the bikes down and up again, or put them in the cable car. Indian cable cars didnt sound terribly nice either, but European tourists wed met had said it was all right, which maybe it is if youre used to ski lifts, which we are not.
And there it was. The road is some 300m (1000ft sounds better) above the main river, on a steep mountainside. There is a side valley, and the road contours round into and back out of the valley. Or rather, it did, until the entire sides of the valley had fallen down, taking half of Mailing with them. Now a couple of fragile cables stretched across the chasm. Our bikes were loaded half hanging out into a flimsy-looking crate, and were launched into space. We asked the operators where the path was; they laughed and pointed at the returning car, which was bearing three grinning locals. We fled. We do not trust cablecars in countries where they believe in reincarnation.
The road has to make its best way through this terrain, sometimes it is high above the river, sometimes low down. Rarely are the nicest villages on the road; inevitably our planned stop for the night was some enormous height above the main road. But they were lovely places, all the more welcome for the contrast between the bare rocks of the gorge and the cosy green terraces. Our first stop here, Nako, is a village by the side of a circular pool, a jumble of houses all one on top of the other. A tiny wooden door at floor level, stone steps leading to another little door above, three chortens crammed into a corner, a yard for the family cow.
The residents of Nako have realised their village is on the tourist circuit, and there are couple of guesthouses next to the half-constructed shell of guesthouse no.3. We suspected they were rather unsatisfactory, and so camped just outside. Not so much for the enjoyment of camping, though it was refreshing to be able to camp somewhere pleasant instead of our usual desperate holes; it was really because we wanted to cook the packet of Knorr Haricots au Lard that we had luggged over two 4000m passes and about which Id been fantasising for days. We caught up with Evelyne and Gaspard, the couple of Swiss cyclists wed met in Kaza. They were on a trip of several months, and had started in Leh. We rather envied the time they had. We could have easily spent twice our time here, exploring side valleys and lazing around. We showed them our packet of Haricots au Lard, and they were envious too.
As you go down the gorge, more trees appear on the hillsides. It has turned out that the valley is well suited to apples, and the people have turned to apple growing like gold prospectors; its impressive how theyve managed to terrace such unpromising land, but it must be a risky business: witness what happened at Mailing.
It was hard riding. We were losing height but the wind was against us, and although we werent doing great distances, we were tired. It was also hard to find a camp spot for the night after Nako. Any decent flat piece of ground had been turned into a village long ago and anything else was taken by the road workers camps. There are a lot of road workers. Everwhere the road is subject to small landslides and rockfalls, and its a continual effort for the Border Roads Organisation to keep the road open, and most of the clearance work is done by workers brought in from poorer states.
Although the Sutlej gorge wasnt high up among the mountain tops, I think it held the greatest surprises for us. Since wed never seen satisfactory photographs of it, and had only read descriptions, which never seemed satisfactory either (people lie and exaggerate, you know), we didnt know what it would look like and we didnt know it would be as nice as it turned out. We knew that here, we were approaching the great mountains of Kinner Kailash, but didnt have a mental picture of them. So it was a surprise when the river, now walled in by the steep gorge sides, turns a corner, and suddenly there before you is an immense and magnificent mass of rock and snow. The best views are said to be from Kalpa, the old capital of Kinnaur. We had a feeling that we knew what this entailed. There is a pleasant well-graded climb to the town Recong Peo, beyond which the maps seem to suggest the road climbs 700m in the 7km to Kalpa. This appears to be accurate. It is worth the pain, because Kalpa itself is a match for its glorious view. It is an old town, high on the steep mountainside, facing that great pile of Kinner Kailash. Its a cluster of wooden temples and houses with cusped roofs and painted carved gargoyles crocodiles stalking pigeons set in fields of golden grasses, and orchards heavy with ripe red fruit. Quiet lanes lead through the fields, overhung by apple trees.
And there were yet more lovely side valleys with hidden surprises. A little further down the main valley, the Bapsa river flows into the Sutlej. This, the Sangla valley, is said to be one of the most beautiful in these parts. What the Sangla tourist board fails to make much of is the road. The valley started as one might expect. A deep trench, the road slowly climbing up one side and giving a good view over the lovely mountainside opposite: terraced fields and attractive villages. Your side of the valley is steep, and, insidiously, becomes steeper, and before you know it, it is really quite precipitous. And it continues to get worse, until to your utter horror, you realise you are riding along in a narrow scratch in a sheer cliff, the valley floor 1000ft vertically below. At its most vertigious point, there is small shrine right on the edge, dedicated, perhaps unreassuringly, to Shiva the destroyer.
Things are more sane when the road reaches what must be the ancient moraine. The gateway into the beautiful Sangla valley is a large gravel extraction. Sangla town itself was also disappointing, but further up is Batseri village, and the comfortable tents of the Banjari camp. Batseri is a lovely, traditionally-built village. Not long ago the temple and some houses were burnt down in a fire, but the village is being rebuilt with care and devotion. The temple has wonderful, intricate carving, and its roof an extraordinary construction, like a puzzle of interlocking roofs.
The road continues up the valley as far as Chtikul, and it really is alpine here, with pine forests presided over by immense rocky peaks. A very doable looking valley sneaks off temptingly to the south: the Shinka pass into Garhwal. The paved road ends at Chitkul, set in a broad plain ringed with peaks, some snowcapped. Chitkul is yet another traditional village with a fair sprinkling of tourists hoping that they are the only tourists in the place. There is a small fortified tower, and wonky cute little barns, like something out of Hansel and Gretel.
We were slowly leaving the high mountains. A long ride took us down the Sutlej gorge. Now, at last, the valley suddenly opens out, the mountains recede and theres a long descent into noticeably warmer temperatures. There are tropical flowers everywhere, and it feels like a final modulation into a warm home key.
But we have a long climb up again to Sarahan. I wanted beer and I also wanted a lime soda but not both at once though I didnt know which I wanted first despite having the long climb to think about it, the climb also being 300m higher than the lying maps would admit to. Colin wanted 10 teas but knew he wanted them all now. An army camp on the way up competes with the BRO with its own collection of inspiring sentiments and useful proverbs: A man is judged by the company he keeps, Honesty is the best policy, Photography is forbidden.
Something that pervades, even defines, the Himalaya are the monuments its people have made in the landscape: mani walls, chortens, and the cairns and prayer flags that mark passes, overall imbuing the land with spirituality. The Buddhist gompas seem an organic part of the mountains perched impossibly on cliffs and pinnacles, they reach out, yearning for the sky and the mountains. Unlike the deliberate, sophisticated high architecture of the west, these have no great architectural merit but almost naively, haphazardly, have achieved a perfect synthesis of building and landscape. The Hindu temples are less well known than the great gompas of Ladakh, but the Bhimikali temple at Sarahan is one of the evocative and defining images of the Himalaya, a building in perfect harmony with its surroundings. High on the mountainside, looking over to the mountain ranges across the valley which now in the evening light are darkening to an abstraction, a dreamscape the temple, set in orchards, is a low, spacious quadrangle, of wood and stone, with silver doors, marigolds, and within are two high towers, the lower, slender storeys stone, the upper storeys of carved wood, overhanging, with pitched roofs, cusped like Chinese pagodas. We climbed narrow wooden stairs, to the parapet, suspended in intricate latticework, between the ancient gods half-hidden in their ornate shrines, and the vast, pure, timeless air of the mountains.