The incentive for writing this note comes from encouragement from a couple of friends and after reading a greater cycling epic written in poor taste(where the writer is so full of himself that he never sees the people, not understanding the present or the history of the places he goes through).Â The six days that I spent cycling in Spiti was a good round trip of about 350Kms, entering from Kinnaur and exiting to Manali, provided an opportunity to observe nature and a brief interaction with local people. Finally at the end of the trip, you realise that the image of Spiti being the remote roof of the India border with China is in reality well inhabited with villages every 10 Kms or so and where you find the hard labouring work force from as far as Nepal and Bihar.
I never knew it would be such a difficult mental struggle to decide and be able to go for a cycling trip alone to the Spiti valley in 2009. The mental struggle was with convincing myself that I could do it, convincing my family that doing it alone was safe and reasonable thing to do and some existentialist worries of middle age. I left Delhi carrying my cycle on a four wheeler for Rampur, telling myself and my family and friends that I will put my cycle on a bus and come back if at any time I want to return.
The doubts linger on for a very long time and vanish only when I hit the road, saddling up at a place called Poari, loading my sleeping bag, some clothes and a mattress on the cycle. I will have to learn how to tie my stuff better during the day stopping many times to ensure that it is in place and does not hinder my pedal movement.
The mental preparation of all the fears and doubts really helps. The moment you are in the pristine landscape of higher Himalayas, away from the routine traffic, just the joy of being where you have so desperately wanted to be on a cycle and dreamt about, lifts your spirits as you move the pedals.Â Its worth it you know and the small amount of physical training of doing 30 Km trips daily trips is sufficient.
Cycling on the roads of high Himalayas in Spiti with its inhabited territory and the spectacular landscape of bare mountains, the snow fed Satluj, Spiti and Chandra rivers is different from some other remote corners of India and perhaps Ladakh mountains. In Ladakh, the famous Manaliâ€Leh route over 3 high passes, I have heard is more or less a busy highway nowadays with traffic and few inhabited settlements on the way.
CyclingÂ onÂ theÂ mountainÂ roadsÂ is likeÂ trekking,Â ifÂ youÂ haveÂ aÂ good cycle. I use a â€œTrek 3700″ cycle with a wide â€œBontragerâ€ rear tyre and a narrowerÂ â€œCityÂ Rideâ€Â frontÂ tyre.Â A largeÂ threeÂ litreÂ CamelbackÂ Â Â water bottle is an absolute must in the dry climateÂ andÂ wasÂ completelyÂ empty byÂ theÂ endÂ ofÂ theÂ day.Â IÂ carriedÂ 3
extra tubes, a mini hand pump and aÂ fewÂ wires.Â OnÂ anÂ averageÂ I covered about 50 Kms a day in 4 to 5 hours with two to three hours of restÂ added.Â FortunatelyÂ IÂ hadÂ no punctureÂ onÂ theÂ entireÂ trip,Â only some adjustment of the gear system and a drying chain that tends to curl up on the front chain sprocket, that I was able to fix on my own. A back of the envelope map by my friend Mohit served as a guide.
As in a trek in the mountains, the slow cycling pace allows you to observe and listen to the sounds of nature and the stories of the local people you meet on the way and take as many photographs as you want. You are not worried about parking, simply dismount the cycle and take a standing rest, a photograph and a sip of water. Much as we learn about others, this interaction allows us to, if we are honest, to question our own understanding of the world, our assumptions and judgements. Like any other adventure, on the first day of cycling I first explore my mental comfort and physical fitness.
Starting from Poari(on the main road head of Reckong Peo about 150Kms from Simla). The trip had begun with theÂ firstÂ strappingÂ ofÂ bagsÂ onÂ theÂ cycleÂ andÂ aÂ fewÂ stopsÂ toÂ adjustÂ theÂ settingÂ ofÂ theÂ bagsÂ toÂ yourÂ pedal movements. With the couple of people asking you where you are from and why going alone, one can only shrug ones shoulders as an explanation. I would have certainly liked to have a friend as company but then in middle age you do not have friends like in college days who can come along on short notice.
The advantage of starting from Poari and not from Simla or Narkanda is that one is able to leave behind the high traffic as well as the 3 huge hydroelectricity generation tunnel dams that have been built on Satluj river at Karcham, Napthaâ€Jhakri and Sangla. The dams have added about 5000MW of electricity by taming the Satluj river at three points within a 50Kms flow, in the process made a mess of the 50Kms of road. There is dust and debris all over and even driving is not fun. Whether any environmental review was done for 3 dams to be sited so close and the disposal of huge amounts of debris from the tunnels â€“ is questionable. The impact this is having on the ecology and livelihoods of the villages(with sinking land due to tunnelling and depleting water tables) is another concern. The first day of cycling took me 60Kms from Poari to Puh. The road tracking the Satluj river from the left to the right and then again to the left bank. Cut out from the rocks like a cave in some places, the valleys are more open and vegetation still thick and green. An afternoon stop at Jangi for lunch and a nap makes you realise that the sun is very hot in July. The local people tell you that beyond Poari/Sangla you have a more arid cold desert conditions, however they tell that this year has been a very bad monsoon and even the winter snow wasÂ veryÂ poorÂ inÂ manyÂ partsÂ ofÂ HimachalÂ PradeshÂ leadingÂ toÂ severeÂ waterÂ crisisÂ andÂ appleÂ andÂ other horticulture crop failure.
Cycling up to Puh is pleasant and as I gain confidenceÂ thatÂ itÂ isÂ possibleÂ toÂ start cyclingÂ atÂ 6,000ftÂ andÂ notÂ haveÂ toÂ push theÂ bikeÂ atÂ thisÂ altitude.Â AÂ policeÂ check post ahead of Jangi on way to Puh, does not bother about registering a cycle and let me go. Further on, a black luxury car suddenly stops and a young couple kindly stopÂ andÂ askÂ meÂ ifÂ IÂ needÂ anyÂ helpÂ asÂ I have dismounted and am taking a picture. WhenÂ youÂ areÂ aloneÂ peopleÂ areÂ more helpful.Â With evening/nightÂ settingÂ inÂ I realiseÂ thatÂ theÂ lastÂ 5Â KmsÂ toÂ PuhÂ isÂ a steep ascent that I had not factored in my plans.Â HavingÂ startedÂ lateÂ fromÂ PoariÂ in the morning(I had ferried my cycle from RampurÂ toÂ PoariÂ byÂ localÂ busÂ hence starting at 11am), and having had a meal and afternoon rest at Jangi, I have to push hard for the last 5 Kms to reach Puh. On the way I see three labourers from Bihar cutting stones and a â€œno plastics driveâ€ by local officials to enforce the shopkeepers not to stock plastic bags and to burn any plastic wastes. At Puh I am able to buy a cheap pair of gloves that I badly needed and had forgotten to carry in my state of heightened anxiety, and use it throughout the trip gratefully. The hotel I stayed in cost me Rs.300 for a night and was run by Nepalese people on rent.
The names Karcham, Recong Peo, Poari, Jangi, Puh, Nako, Tabo, Kaza, Losser and Kunzum La â€“ remind you that you this territory does not share the traditional Indian names of Simla, Rampur and Narkanda that you have left behind. The culture of this region therefore tells you that the history Kinnaur and Spiti is a region that was part of the Tibetan culture. That this territory is now in India is because India and China have both claimed
parts of Tibet as their own, while blaming each other for being the aggressors.
I begin early on the second day from Puh as the â€œback of envelope iternaryâ€(that my friend had given me), tells me that today will be a 30Km steep climb. The climb is steep and it is 30 out of the 45Kms long. The vegetation is all gone and the first views of the greatÂ bareÂ multicolouredÂ mountains
of massive proportions all around you, greetÂ youÂ asÂ youÂ turnÂ leftÂ fromÂ the point where Satluj river leaves India to enter China at a place called â€œKhabâ€( SatlujÂ isÂ calledÂ KhababÂ onÂ theÂ other side of the border in China). At Khab theÂ SpitiÂ riverÂ meetsÂ withÂ SatlujÂ and youÂ leaveÂ SatlujÂ toÂ followÂ theÂ SpitiÂ river. The climb is long and sustained but the gradient is not too steep. By the time you reach Nako village, you haveÂ climbedÂ atleastÂ 2,500Â ft.Â The roadÂ isÂ goodÂ andÂ thereÂ isÂ alsoÂ aÂ tea shop mid way at a small village. The 3 litre camelback water bottle runs out at the mid way point, the cycle starts giving some trouble with the gear shifting.
Just before Nako, taking a rest after the second hair pin climbs, I meet a man waiting for a bus. Rajaalam is a civil contractor from Bihar who builds houses. From him and from several other workers and contractors in Kinnaur and Spiti valleys, I come to know that there is a major construction boom taking place. First it was the Nepali labour that had come in a few decades ago to cut the roads â€“ something that the local labour was scared to do. Now that the connectivity is there and with it has come in the orchards and lucrative summer peas farming in Kinnaur and Spiti valleys â€ more housing construction is taking place. Rajalam starts telling me the story of his life, how he has worked all his life in difficult terrains, first in Sikkim for 10 years till he fought with another contractor and had to leave, not getting decent work in the plains of UP and finally coming here.
Some other Nepali workers I later on meet close to Kaza also tell me that they have worked in far away projects in Indian Himalayas for the past two decades. There is therefore a professional category of people who work on tough construction and infrastructure jobs(dam building, road cutting). Majority of the early migrantsÂ doingÂ theÂ toughestÂ jobsÂ wereÂ NepalisÂ andÂ theirÂ contributionÂ isÂ hardlyÂ recognised.Â BesidesÂ these professional labourers, there are many now new migrants from Bihar, Jharkhand and UP, coming up seasonal odd jobs to Spiti. It is these workers that now make the economy of Spiti run, as is also the case of Punjab. I estimate that each village in the Spiti valley(there could be as many as 500 villages in Spiti district alone) having atleast 10 to 20 migrant workers who work for atleast 3 months a year. Many more work for the Army or the Border roads organisation and on the tunnel dams that are coming up.
Cycling the final 5 Kms toNako once again turnsÂ outÂ toÂ beÂ asÂ difficultÂ asÂ theÂ last stretch to Puh. In all it takes me 5 hours to cycle the 45 Kms and about 3 hours to rest in between. Having started at 7.30am from Puh,Â IÂ reachÂ NakoÂ atÂ 4pm.Â TheÂ villageÂ is small with a lake that is touted as a tourist attraction along with a monastery. The lake turns out to be a small village pond inside theÂ villageÂ andÂ anÂ overpoweringÂ smellÂ of dungÂ andÂ urine.Â IÂ preferÂ toÂ stayÂ outside where a cheaper hotel is available, again at Rs.300 a night. The hotel I stay in is run by a Nepali worker on rent, like in Puh.
HavingÂ reachedÂ NakoÂ andÂ eatingÂ Thupka( ChineseÂ foodÂ isÂ theÂ localÂ foodÂ here)Â and Momos, I convince myself that I need a rest dayÂ toÂ gatherÂ myÂ strength.Â HoweverÂ the next day by 11am I am restless and wanting to go. I decide that I will stay at the next village(Sumdo or Chango) and leave at 11am. There is a climb from Nako to the Maliag Nala(named after the village Maliang that is next to Nako but does not have any hotels), infamous for being the worst landslide on the whole route and where many a holiday makers have had to turn back.Â TheÂ tallestÂ peakÂ inÂ KinnaurÂ calledÂ ReoÂ Purguil,Â liesÂ inÂ theÂ directionÂ fromÂ whereÂ thisÂ mightyÂ rivulet emerges. Fortunately for me, this year the road to the snout of the Maliang Nala is small with no landslides and I am able to cycle through about half feet of water. What follows is a 2000ft descent towards Chango village. However all along the way and the 20Km descent, the big mountains turn into different colours withÂ theÂ changingÂ sunlightÂ asÂ itÂ happensÂ in Ladakh. Besides the violet and orange colours of rock, there are white/cream coloured sand dunesÂ thatÂ emergeÂ asÂ youÂ descendÂ to Chango. There is little traffic and as a cyclist you are held in awe, in the silent wind swept environment. Chango village with its fancy name turns out toÂ beÂ aÂ peasÂ growingÂ commercialÂ hubÂ of Kinnaur. The village is a couple of kilometres
away from the main road and I am told does roaringÂ business(itÂ soldÂ greenÂ peasÂ at Rs30/Kg at farmgate price last year). I decide to cycle on. The Dalai Lama has come to Kaza and therefore entire villages that fall onÂ myÂ wayÂ areÂ empty.Â ThereÂ areÂ families packedÂ inÂ jeepsÂ goingÂ toÂ Kaza.Â TheÂ Indian border with China at Sumdo/Kaurik holds the otherÂ policeÂ checkÂ pointÂ whereÂ theÂ Station House Officer turns out to be from Punjab and shares his hardship of life at this remote place and offers a welcome cup of tea. He tells me that he is able to visit his home in Kangra valley every month on the pretext of following up on some old police case.
TheÂ roadÂ fromÂ ChangoÂ toÂ TaboÂ movesÂ alongÂ the roaring Spiti river and you can hear the sounds of rockfallÂ fromÂ theÂ highÂ mountainsÂ aroundÂ youÂ as wellÂ asÂ hearÂ theÂ mightyÂ river.Â OnÂ thisÂ relatively trafficâ€less road, the sounds and sights make for a greatÂ feelingÂ andÂ asÂ aÂ cyclistÂ friendÂ toldÂ meÂ on return â€“ â€œvery meditativeâ€. I was only conscious of theÂ gradientÂ thatÂ IÂ foundÂ wasÂ withinÂ myÂ comfort zone and I pressed ahead of Hurling towards Tabo. On the way I meet a school teacher who is waiting for a bus in front of a small village on the other side of Spiti river. He tells me that this is a punishment postingÂ forÂ himÂ becauseÂ ofÂ hisÂ politicalÂ leanings. The high mountains remain the last refuge of the people who are either pushed out from the plains because of grinding poverty like the labourers or like this teacher for their political differences.
Five kilometres before Tabo a PWD Guest House, on a quiet road head of Lari village, with a board, â€œTourists are welcome to stayâ€ is difficult to resist. Its getting late in the evening and I decide to halt here, completing 55Kms of cycling in less than 4 hours. To be pleasantly surprised to find at the rest house three people on two motorbikes. Vivek, an ex colleague in CARE and Sam and Lincy are very kind and generous. Vivek and I quickly share an update on our lives and I certainly feel very good to have company. Going alone was out was not my preferredÂ choice.Â TheyÂ areÂ heading for Tabo to see the monastery while I rest.Â TheÂ guestÂ houseÂ isÂ very comfortable. Even at 8.30pm the sky still has some light and we sit on the terraceÂ toÂ watchÂ aÂ beautifulÂ moon riseÂ takingÂ paceÂ fromÂ theÂ north eastern horizon. This is a good quiet placeÂ toÂ beÂ withÂ friendsÂ orÂ family. OneÂ ofÂ theÂ mostÂ beautifulÂ and comfortable stops I will have on this trip.
TheÂ nextÂ morningÂ offersÂ stunning views of the mountains behind Tabo withÂ theÂ morningÂ lightÂ grazingÂ the mountainÂ topsÂ andÂ whispsÂ ofÂ clouds sticking to the snow clad peaks like a painting.Â WithÂ aÂ goodÂ rest,Â IÂ start again atÂ 7amÂ onÂ theÂ hirdÂ dayÂ and headÂ toward Kaza IÂ haveÂ my breakfastÂ atÂ TaboÂ becauseÂ the chowkidar has left for Kaza. The valley opens up and so does the Spiti river from its roaringÂ rush to its open meandering quietness. The view is spectacular. Tabo is resting in front of brown and golden mountains with snow icing. As you move ahead of Tabo, the backdrop is replaced by another set of faraway high peaks that form the grand backdrop to Kaza. The valley keeps turning and the each time there is a grand mountain behind a great wide valley with yellow and greens.
MyÂ motorbikeÂ friendsÂ areÂ visitingÂ the monasteriesÂ alongÂ theÂ wayÂ asÂ they are makingÂ theÂ circuitÂ ofÂ Simlaâ€Manali.Â We will play the catch up game all the way till Manali and it is a good feeling to hail each other nearly every day. At a tea shop in a village half way to Kaza from Tabo, I have Thupka at the only tea shop that is open. The migrant wage workers only are left in theÂ villagesÂ whileÂ theÂ residentsÂ haveÂ all flocked to Kaza. Three Nepali workers get talkingÂ toÂ meÂ inÂ theÂ teaÂ shopÂ andÂ their eyesÂ lightÂ upÂ whenÂ IÂ tellÂ thenÂ thatÂ the Nepali people have done a great thing by getting rid of their monarchy. The sense of pride and achievement is truly significant given that till a decade ago the monarchy wasÂ heldÂ inÂ greatÂ respect.Â NotÂ evenÂ in India have our people a sense of hope and The tea shop is run on behalf of a local resident by a Nepali worker who has a deformed leg and shows me a big scar on his stomach(an ulcer operation). The labour they tell me here comes from Recong Peo that has emerged as the contracting hub for all casualÂ worker requirements in Spiti andÂ Kinnaur. Here any farmer or resident goes to get workersÂ on Â contract,Â usuallyÂ for agricultureÂ workÂ onÂ makingÂ water channelsÂ fromÂ theÂ snowÂ fedÂ streams and house construction work. They tell me that work lasts 4 to 5 months a year and it is job work. Another group of 5 youngÂ menÂ onÂ theÂ roadÂ areÂ allÂ from Bihar. Coming all the way to find work in this remote and difficult area, with little medical,Â workingÂ inÂ whatÂ isÂ calledÂ the â€œinnerÂ lineÂ permitÂ areaâ€Â closeÂ toÂ the borderÂ thatÂ isÂ underÂ completeÂ army controlÂ â€“Â theseÂ migrantÂ workersÂ have little comfort of any workers rights and dispute resolution with civil authorities.
WorkÂ permitsÂ forÂ NepaliÂ workersÂ are made in Recong peo. Kaza is the district headquarter of Spiti but I am not aware ofÂ anyÂ attemptÂ madeÂ byÂ theÂ district administration of Kaza and for that matter any other district administration of India â€“ to provide for some socialÂ security,Â healthÂ andÂ otherÂ facilitiesÂ forÂ theÂ migrantÂ workers.Â SimilarlyÂ thereÂ isÂ noÂ migrantÂ labour registration or support office in Recong Peo that the migrant workers can go to. Buddhists have come from Ladakh, Dharamsala, Nepal and also some foreigners, have come to Kaza to attend the Kal Chakra and seek blessings from the Dalai Lama. The 50Kms distance from Tabo to Kaza meanders along the Spiti river and has a distinct climb, moving away from the river and then crossing it at Kaza/Ranrik. AÂ beautifulÂ grassyÂ campsiteÂ aboutÂ 5Â kmsÂ beforeÂ KazaÂ hasÂ tentsÂ andÂ perhapsÂ portendsÂ aÂ warningÂ ofÂ the crowded town ahead. I make a call home from Kaza to my family and decide to cycle on to the next village of Ranrik. The road crosses Spiti river and climbs up a bit to a small village where school boys with cricket bats look just like kids in any other town. It does not feel that you are at 11,000ft and separated from the rest of the country by a 15,000ft high Kunzum La pass two days ahead. The one guest house at Ranrik is packed with touristsÂ andÂ BuddhistsÂ attendingÂ theÂ KalÂ Chakra.Â TheÂ veryÂ generousÂ managerÂ ShamsherÂ ofÂ SpitiÂ Sarai resort/hotel has accommodated as many people as he can and asks me to wait till a family that has a spare tent to return. The Tibetan family kindly lends me their 2 man tent and I finally pitch the tent at 7pm for the night and am not charged anything for this help. Being a cyclist and alone is something that everyone admires and they go out of their way to help you. The hotel has a good kitchen offering good meals and tea.
TheÂ adventureÂ andÂ emotionÂ ofÂ notÂ knowingÂ whatÂ comesÂ nextÂ day,Â onÂ aÂ newÂ trail,Â isÂ somethingÂ thatÂ you experience on a trek and a cycling trip like this. The road from Ranrik to Losser(my destination) on the fifth day passes through green fields with peas and villages scattered all along. The road kept meandering, heading away from the Spiti river, towards the higher reaches of Kunzum La. The extensive scale of cultivation, of bringing water from melting snows by constructing water channels sometimes tens of kilometres long, has transformedÂ theÂ area.Â TheÂ viewsÂ areÂ dramatic,Â wideÂ greenÂ valleysÂ withÂ bigÂ snowÂ cladÂ mountainsÂ inÂ the backdrop.Â AÂ greatÂ unspoiltÂ trekkingÂ andÂ climbingÂ areaÂ withÂ enchantingÂ valleysÂ invitingÂ youÂ toÂ stepÂ inÂ and explore. The road keeps you guessing where the Kunzum La pass lies, as you keep moving leftwards from one valley to another, from one inhabited village to another.
FinallyÂ climbingÂ towardsÂ someÂ of the highest inhabited villages, you reachÂ theÂ villagesÂ ofÂ HansaÂ and Losser. Not having had anything to eatÂ sinceÂ theÂ morning,Â atÂ Hansa village,Â IÂ findÂ aÂ manÂ crossingÂ the road and ask him if a tea shop in theÂ villageÂ isÂ open.Â MohanÂ Singh BodhÂ tellsÂ meÂ thatÂ everyoneÂ has gone to Kaza and offers to take me to his hope for a cup of tea that I gratefullyÂ accept.Â HisÂ homeÂ isÂ a typicalÂ SpitiÂ homeÂ withÂ spaceÂ for animalsÂ onÂ theÂ groundÂ floorÂ and residenceÂ onÂ theÂ firstÂ andÂ second floors. The 20ft by 30 ft room has carpetsÂ onÂ theÂ floorÂ toÂ sitÂ down and eat from small tables. My host tellsÂ meÂ thatÂ heÂ hasÂ peaÂ farming that provides him with as much as Rs.1 to Rs.2 lakh net cash income a year. His son studies in Solan and he stays with his wife and daughter. Very kindly he first makes tea and then also offers me food. As a farmer he is aware of the changes taking place, the movement of apple orchards from Kinnaur into Spiti valley he says is a result of warming of temperature in the past 2 decades. The snowfall is less than what it used to be. He is grateful of the services and welfare programmes of the government including an emergency health evacuation by helicopter. Besides subsidies for fuelwood(that is a lifeblood need for winter) and other schemes for repairing of houses.
Thanking my host for a great lunch, I head off to Losser village and am confronted with a frontal wind in the afternoon coming down from the high mountain pass. Losser is the last village before the Kunzum La pass, situated at the height of 13,500 feet. It is difficult to have both wind and the mild ascent to cycle against. The rest and calories that the lunch secured are soon lost. Finally it is comforting to find another beautifully located comfortable PWD guest house at Losser. The young chowkidar warns me that I would have to vacate if anyone withÂ aÂ permitÂ cameÂ in.Â HoweverÂ noneÂ arriveÂ exceptÂ twoÂ PWDÂ officersÂ whoÂ discussÂ withÂ meÂ inÂ detailÂ the ongoing development works in Himachal Pradesh and how they have to cope with political pressure on one hand to employ more and more local people on the public works and the demands of the difficult labour works thatÂ requireÂ ableÂ bodiedÂ andÂ youngerÂ peopleÂ toÂ workÂ onÂ toÂ keepÂ theÂ roadsÂ andÂ bridgesÂ functional.Â As Engineers they are happy with the thrust of the Himachal Pradesh government for more tunnel dams for power generation and private contractors like JP Associates being employed.
They also admit that the dams are depleting ground water in villages and that this year was the first one in their living memory when schools had to be shut down in June for no drinking water availability in many districts in Himachal. My friends that I met on the way at Lari however told me that highly technical work like tunnel dams in the sensitive Himalyan landscape need scientific assessments as is done in Europe where they are harvesting tidal energy from high seas. However in India civil contractors like JP Associates who have been government contractors and have worked on Tehri dam â€“ are given the sole charge of making 10 to 20 kms long tunnel dams without any form of publicÂ disclosureÂ ofÂ environmentalÂ assessmentÂ andÂ localÂ consultations,Â toÂ informÂ localÂ peopleÂ asÂ wellÂ as citizens at large on the risks and damage that tunnel dam technology may bring.
More and more tunnel dams are being sanctioned at great speed by the Himacahal Pradesh government to private contractors. In the years to come the fragile ecology as well as the pristine beauty of the Spiti valley is likelyÂ toÂ beÂ spoiltÂ forever.Â TheÂ hills mined and the rivers tamed, with ugly and unplanned mining and disposal of tunnelÂ debrisÂ allÂ alongÂ withÂ way,Â as has happened at Karcham and Sangla. TheÂ chowkidarÂ sharesÂ withÂ meÂ the eveningÂ mealÂ heÂ hasÂ madeÂ andÂ the culture and current practises of Spiti.
He has been on a few mountaineering expeditions to the inviting mountains all around. He tells me that the elder sonÂ continuesÂ toÂ inheritÂ allÂ family propertyÂ inÂ Spiti.Â ThisÂ needsÂ toÂ be verified. It is true that the under thelongÂ yearsÂ ofÂ medievalÂ era,Â with limited land and agriculture produce, the monasteries set the cultural and economic order of the Buddhist Spiti valley. It is another matter that the monasteries themselves were institutions of extraction of surplus wealth as well as labour form the villages with each family having to give one child or more to the monastery and the institution of polyandry too seemed to have prevailed. When I asked him how the other brothers then get married be tells me that things have become better and they find wage labour and do get married.
The night while I rest with a good sleep and discussions at Losser, it rains. In the morning I get up feeling uncomfortable seeing fresh snow on the big mountains and large black clouds in the sky. Wondering if it is worth taking the risk of cycling up to 15,000ft Kunzum La pass in this weather with a potential threat of snow and blizzards.
The Kal chakra has ended in Kaza and the morning busses are coming jam packed. Even if I want to pack up my trip and take a bus, there is no seat. I ask a tuck driver to take me across the pass and he agrees.
Coming all the way and not doing the pass, however haunts me and with the weather clearing up a bit, I decide to cycle on. In a beautiful meadow ahead of Losser where yaks and goats are grazing, I find a group of young men with their horses. They are having their morning meal and invite me. Not having eaten anything, I agree. These men are working for a trekking company and are on their way to Kibber, for a trek to Ladakh(Tso Miriri lake) with foreigners. Their kind offering of a hot meal of chapati and sabzi and talking to them is energising. I cycle on towards the pass. The first set of hairpin bends give way to longer longitudinal climbs that I keep telling myself â€“ this will be the last climb of my trip. The climbs are not tough but the altitude and the cold makes them tough. The pass is very moderate in its climb from Losser side and as you reach the crest, you are in company of many beautiful snow clad peaks all around. Yet for me it is half walking and half cycling in the last 10 Kms to reach the top of the pass.
Two chortens and a temple greet you on one side of the pass. Some of the returning Buddhists(from Kaza) take photos. A path from the pass goes to the Chandratal lake that is 8Kms away. Like the monasteries on the way, this could have been a good detour if I had company of a fellow cyclist. Just the feeling that you reached this altitude on a cycle and without support, is a good feeling. I look forward to the decent for the day to Batal 11Kms down the pass. Itâ€™s a steep descent and it does not take me more than 40 minutes. The mountain range on the other side is saddled with huge snow clad Chandra Bhaga range that has given birth to the Chandra river(that later becomes Chenab river and flows into Pakistan from Kashmir).
MyÂ cyclingÂ tripÂ endsÂ whenÂ IÂ reach Batal, a desolate and windy place with 3 dhabas offering food and shelter to touristsÂ andÂ trekkingÂ groups.Â IÂ am undecided on what to do next, having spent a tierd day cycling over the pass. My head is numb, there is a headache to add to the confusion. I do not know whatÂ toÂ do.Â EatingÂ lunch,Â seeingÂ a foreignÂ cyclingÂ partyÂ comeÂ upÂ withÂ a back up support van, I decide that I will notÂ cycleÂ theÂ nextÂ 50KmsÂ thatÂ would takeÂ meÂ toÂ Gramphu,Â atÂ theÂ baseÂ of RohtangÂ Pass.Â IÂ feelÂ IÂ haveÂ hadÂ my shareÂ ofÂ adventureÂ andÂ wouldÂ rather takeÂ aÂ busÂ andÂ returnÂ home,Â than cyclongÂ forÂ oneÂ moreÂ day.
NoÂ tyre puncture and no accident on the way, this was a relatively good trip. I had no intention to cross the Rohtang Pass to ManaliÂ anyway.Â TheÂ busÂ journeyÂ to Manali is uneventful. With rainfall starting as we cross Rohtang, I see my friends that I made in Lari waiting at Marhi with sudden rain interrupting their descent. Its back to where we left. Breaks like this are great and we cycling trips like treks offer the pleasure of movement and time to soak in the place, culture and interaction with people. With age you understand your body better, take more rests and are mentally at peace with the challenging terrain. In youth you are impatient and wanting to test your physical strength against the mountains. The only risk that I could identify at the end of this solo trip was of falling off the bike and breaking a few bones and then having to come back with a cast or a sling! All other risks of fatal stone fall or landslide could happen to anyone and remain objective risks of any adventure.
The feeling that you are out on a holiday(even when cycling is no luxury cruise, while so many migrant people are perhaps more brave than you to come so far and so ill equipped to make a hard living), remains the saddest part of the adventure. Ladakh and Spiti were opened to foreigners in the early 1980s. Till then these wereÂ remoteÂ areasÂ whereÂ onlyÂ mountaineersÂ andÂ trekkersÂ usedÂ toÂ go.Â NowÂ withÂ roadsÂ andÂ tourism,Â the average middle class families are venturing to these remote areas or a holiday. The local culture and economy in the meantime has been transformed from the traditional peasant to the commercial and petty trading one. The kids play cricket and the local farmers are sending their children to college in the plains. Whether the tourists of tomorrow will see Spiti and Ladakh as consumable tourism locations to be visited and pictured or will the tourists be able to see in the changing landscape the change in their own history and culture â€“ and a desire to preserve the good and resist the bad(tunnel dams and feel empathy for the migrant labour), remains to be seen. It is likely that the middle class tourists will identify with issues like global warming and protecting theÂ riversÂ ifÂ thereÂ isÂ someÂ awareness,Â butÂ notÂ theÂ peopleÂ whoÂ resideÂ hereÂ andÂ whoÂ migrateÂ here.Â Our dominantÂ cultureÂ tellsÂ usÂ toÂ consumeÂ andÂ notÂ think,Â seekÂ personalÂ atonementÂ andÂ notÂ expectÂ anyÂ larger change. Global warming will not be solved with this mentality, nor will we be able to save our selves from delusion into believing that nothing can change.