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Mon: Hanse – Kaza (44km, 400m of ascent)

Kiato

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.

Spiti valley

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. Sakya’s 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 SDM’s 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 you’ll 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 we’d met in case we needed to fill it in (which we didn’t).

Finally you return to the SDM’s 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.

Weds: Kaza – Tabo (65km, 820m of ascent)

Dhankar

We buy biscuits at the baker’s and ride down the valley to the turn for Dhankar Gompa. The climb is tarmac: 400m in 8km and 14 hairpins. The higher you get, the better views you get of the gompa – it’s impressively sited on pinnacles of treacherous rock. You get to the modern gompa first, then contour round a rough track to the ancient buildings. It’s a scary place if you don’t like heights, exhilarating if you do. Young monks pounce for a go on the bikes, or a ride on the carriers for the smaller ones.

Manirang

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 there’s 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.

Tabo

Tabo gompa

The ancient gompa is quite unlike any other we’ve seen. Instead of being perched high on inaccessible, fearsome crags, it is a gentle, rustic-looking set of mud buildings set amongst fields in the valley, on the edge of the town. Tabo itself is relaxed and peaceful. The gompa’s Millennium guesthouse – the gompa is over 1000 years old – looks characterful but true to our nature we stayed in the Banjara luxury retreat, which was well worth it.

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 hadn’t 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.

Lower Spiti valley

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. We’re 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 it’s 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 hasn’t yet been completed.

We see our own road snaking up the hillside. The kilometre posts count down towards Mailing and our imagination has plenty of time to brew up horrors. It might be round the next corner! The road climbs to 3130m, and round the corner Aaaargh, there it is. The side valley has been completely scoured away.

Cableway

Across the 300m deep chasm dangle some slender cables. A wire crate rattles along them. The bikes are loaded in, half hanging out, and we wave goodbye. We ask for directions to the way down; the cable operators grin and point at the returning crate, crammed with three (grinning) locals. We walk. An hour later we watch the French couple happily sail across. Maybe it’s ok if you’re used to ski lifts.

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 there’s fresh, smooth tarmac.

Nako

Nako is a lovely place. There are new guesthouses at the edge of the village but we’d rather camp – we ask in the shop at the yellow guesthouse, are directed to a small grassy spot amongst the fields. We’re 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 hadn’t been sliding into the valley the mountain above had been sliding onto it.

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