Mon: Hanse Kaza (44km, 400m of ascent)
Windy overnight, but calm by morning. Kiato was a lovely village and people were busy harvesting crops and fodder. The valley floor is broad, the river cuts a deeper trench. The road is awful and we follow vehicle deviations across the plain. The road drops steeply to cross the river and climbs up again under scrutchy walls of horrid moraine debris, huge boulders embedded in soft sand, just waiting for someone to fall upon. To our delight we find road crews laying fresh tarmac. The nice new road follows a gorge up, then down, to cross a side river. We pass a number of villages which have gompas but no dhabas. There are mountains down the valley, and the attractive hilltop Ki gompa on the other side. The final climb into Kaza feels harder than it ought.
Kaza is not that nice a place. The new town is ugly government buildings, the old town a bit too busy to be nice like the villages. Sakyas Abode looks comfortable but was fully booked by tour groups, other guest houses seemed dingy, the Banjara retreat too flash and concretey. We stayed in the HPTDC rooms, comfortable enough, friendly and helpful people. For eating, the gringo hangout seems to be Echi Wan. Again, nice people. The food is cooked to order so it takes time, but they have a good menu. They also provide good cold beer not because they stock it, but because there is an English wine shop nearby.
Notes: We spent the afternoon getting inner line permits. The first step is to visit the SDMs office in the new town. We found an office to hang about upstairs with a sign announcing some sort of magistrate, but in fact this was the wrong office. For the correct office you turn hard left at the top of the stairs and ask at the small corridor at the back of the building.
The SDM will give you a form containing various easy questions (are you a drug smuggler?); but the procedure is treated pretty much as a formality. Now you need 3 passport photos and 2 photocopies of each of the info page and the relevant visa page from your passport. All of these can be obtained in the old town, but youll save a lot of trouble if you bring them with you. (We forgot the copies of the visa pages.)
The next step is to fill in the form and take everything to the police station where you need a No objection certificate. The form asks for 2 Indian referees. We left this blank, having prepared our minds with the names of 2 Indians wed met in case we needed to fill it in (which we didnt).
Finally you return to the SDMs office with your pile of paperwork and they draw up a permit full of niggling restrictions which you ignore on the authority of the Lonely Planet.
Tues: Day trip to Ki (24km, 485m of ascent)
We rode to Ki. It rained so we turned back.
Dhaba radar is tested to the full in Shichling (population 80): there is one, but hard to spot. The valley narrows and becomes a gorge, the badlands! The gorge swings left and we get a new mountain to see (presumably Manirang), but a vicious climb of 100m takes us among towers of horrid moraine stuff. The road is very quiet here. With the route to the south out of action, all motor traffic has to go northwest via the Kunzum La and the chap at the hotel has told us that even that has been temporarily blocked. Just before Poh theres a brief glimpse of a mountain up a side valley. (We think that this is Manirang from a different angle.) After Poh, some nasty overhanging stuff with a shrine to make it ok. The valley broadens again against a backdrop of an immense wall of mountains. Soon we reach Tabo.
Tabo is a magical place.
Note: the road to the Pin valley is a signposted turning between Kaza and Dhankar. It is said that the Indian roadbuilders are constructing a link over an enticingly high pass connecting the Pin valley to the spectacular Bhaba valley in Kinnaur. The Rough Guide cites a claim that it will be functioning in 2005.
Thurs: Rest day at Tabo
The riding had been hard, and we hadnt spent enough time relaxing and sightseeing; the permit treasure hunt does not count as relaxing. At dawn, bells and chimes rang softly from the gompa. We visited it, shadowy and mysterious inside, butter lamps glowing like pools of gold; a secret, inner world of contemplation.
Fri: Tabo Nako (60km, 995m of ascent, plus 300m on foot)
Landslide day. We had had plenty of time for nightmares about what this landslide might be like; how frayed and rickety the infamous cableway might be. The valley narrows again and the river is fast and urgent. Were near the border; Sumdo is the turn, a drab army camp and permit checkpost. We see snowy peaks, which we work out must be in Tibet. The valley is grey and rather oppressive here and it seems a long time before the next village, Shalkar, which is a delight for the eyes: terraces of orchards, fertile fields, bright painted houses with flowery gardens. Then its back to the gorge again.
Chango has chai stops and chatty locals. The road drops to 2915m, a nice building just out of town turns out to be a hotel. Soon after it a new unsurfaced road zigzags up high to the left. This is part of the intended bypass of the landslide area. Evidently it hasnt yet been completed.
There are dhabas and basic guesthouses at Yangtang; a kilometre or so later is a the turn for Nako. This road is the continuation of the landslide bypass, and theres fresh, smooth tarmac.
Nako is a lovely place. There are new guesthouses at the edge of the village but wed rather camp we ask in the shop at the yellow guesthouse, are directed to a small grassy spot amongst the fields. Were told the owner will turn up later for his Rs 50 (which he does).
Nako lies next to a small round lake in a hollow. Its a delightful maze of higgledypiggledy paths scuttling between the gaps in the houses, barns and little yards. Houses seem to be built on top of each other here you see a tiny wooden door at floor level, above it, steps to another miniature door.
The moutain Leo Pargial is somewhere far above us. You dont get a great view of it, but in the morning its huge pointed shadow looms over.
Notes: A hotelier told us that the bypass would be ready in 2004. Another hotelier reckoned that it would suffer as much from landslides and rockfall as the old route, which had been a problem for years. When it hadnt been sliding into the valley the mountain above had been sliding onto it.