Yak Pack Theatre Project
The Yak Pack News #3
Wednesday 6th July – Journey to Spiti
The journey to Spiti from Manali takes around 10 hours, crosses 2 high mountain passes, has no settlements larger than a few roadsides shacks en route, and we’re travelling during the monsoon - this is a journey with plenty of potential for things to get interesting.
With that in mind, we spent Tuesday preparing for the trip. We’ve all got some emergency food and drinks set aside in case the journey takes longer than expected – think breaking down or the road blocked by landslides. Practicalities aside, this is also a day for invoking protection for our journey, we feel in the hand of the gods up here, dwarfed by the immense landscape and natural processes of mountain and monsoon. The day already started well, although early, with the 5am arrival of our bags from Delhi, phew!
Vashist is a small settlement about 3 miles up the valley from Manali. The temple here has at least a 4000-year-old history and is centred around natural hot springs. Its hard to comprehend humans in this place on that timescale – that puts it on a parallel with the building of the pyramids or Stonehenge. Pilgrims have come here for millennia to immerse themselves in the hot waters to cleanse and purify themselves at key moments in their lives. Today we joined them.
Penny, Izzy and I went down the worn stone steps to the ladies’ baths. Inside, 10m high walls allowed us a view of the sky but no-one a view of us. To one side was a metre deep trough with 5 pipes spaced along it, waterfalling steamy water into the trough. Ladies squatted under the pipes to wash their hair and bodies before entering the main tank, adjacent to the trough. Around the edge of the tank/trough was a narrow ledge which we balanced on, holding onto the coat hooks set into the wall at head height, to keep from falling in. We got changed on the narrow ledge – making an unspoken decision to forget the swimming costumes and just copy everyone else in a knickers only approach. Ready for cleansing we edged back round to the trough and joined lots of ladies already in there chatting and laughing together. YIKES it was hot. The tank itself was about 4 metres square and about a metre deep. No-one was in it. I dipped my leg in and nearly yelped. MONSTOROUSLY hot. Taking a deep breath, I got most of myself in for about 3 seconds. Penny managed to get in up to her neck in a slightly more decorous fashion. Izzy sat by the trough looking like she was going to faint with the heat and not knowing where to put her eyes with all the boobs going on. Penny and I retreated to the trough and sat under the pipes, letting the marginally cooler water wash over us, looking up at the sky and thinking how wonderful it would be to have something similar at home. Maybe with a cold plunge pool.
After our bath, we headed up to a café overlooking the men’s tank. Their wall was only about 2 metres high, and the café was on the second floor, so we had a great view of Arjuna actually jumping into the burning water and fully immersing himself. Awesome commitment. I figured if Arjuna was going to have a blessed journey then probably we all would, by default. The café looked out over Vashist, with the village and temple complex spread out below us. There was a beehive on the café balcony, and the owner pointed out all the other rooftops had beehives too. What a great idea.
Next stop was the Buddhist temple in Manali. Ben and Penny represented the Yak Pack as they walked around the complex clockwise, turning the prayer wheels and chanting ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ as they went. After time in the mediation hall, the nun in charge sat with Ben and Penny to recite blessings for our journey.
Penny polished her St Christopher and having done everything in our power to have a safe journey, we were ready to go!
Wednesday was dawning yellow tinged and thundery at 5am when our alarms went off to get up. Torrential rain washed down the path outside the hotel, and gushed down the corrugated iron roof, arcing out in streams over the balcony. We must walk down to the outskirts of town to meet our minibus – this driver being more sensible than the last when it came to driving up through the narrow Old Manali streets. With dismay we realised we were going to get drenched. Still, we didn’t really care because after all this time – 4 years in the planning – we were finally going to Spiti!
Our driver was a friendly faced Spitian man called Giacho. He had rubbery lime green grip tape all round his over-sized steering wheel, a yarn-bombed gearstick, and a string of prayer flags across the windscreen. We are in good hands.
Himachal Pradesh road builders love their slogans, and the painted phrases on the walls along the road out of Manali bore witness to their unsubtle passion for health and safety and a rhyming pun:
“Speed thrills but kills”
“If married divorce speed”
“Mountains are pleasure if you drive with leisure”
“Life is a journey, complete it”
And our favourite, “Be Mr Late not Late Mr”
It was still raining heavily, and muddy torrents of runoff sprinkled with rubbish gushed down the road as we wound up to the head of the valley. We realised with some excitement that instead of going over the Roatang pass (which alarmingly means ‘pile of dead bones’!), we are going through the newly completed Atal Tunnel. Connecting the Kullu and Lahaul valleys with an all-weather tunnel has cut about 2 hours of journey time and is an all-weather route when the Roatang pass closes for 6 months with snow. A sign says “Welcome to the Worlds Longest Highway Tunnel above 10,000 feet. Its about 10km long, and rather unnerving to imagine the weight of all that rock above us, but wonderful to come out into clearing sunshine in the Lahaul Valley on the other side. The high mountains create a barrier which stop much of the monsoon clouds from reaching Lahaul and Spiti - they are alpine deserts with stark barren landscapes in comparison to the lush green (and wet) Manali hills.
We stopped for breakfast at a group of roadside huts, little more than rock walls, a few poles and tarpaulins over. Paranthas are a staple breakfast here – flaky flatbreads filled with spiced potato and fried, washed down with hot sweet chai - which hit the spot after our early start.
There’s lots of road improvements going on here, with whole families from places like Bihar state coming to work on the roads for summer. Penny spotted a little girl sat on a pile of rocks having her hair brushed by her mum, in their own world, whilst just next to them a tipper truck offloaded a pile of rocks in front of a gathered crowd of workers, a water tanker blocked the road to fill 2 drums with water for cement making, and traffic built up either side. Although the road-builder shanties are a rough and ready place for children to spend their summer, its nice to see families staying together.
At first glance Lahaul is barren and there appears scarcely any vegetation. We passed about 50 beehive boxes in the elbow of a hairpin bend and wondered what on earth so many bees were living on. But we started paying more attention and realised that close to the ground there were many flowers – forget-me-nots, clover, sorrel, heather, dock, Himalayan balm of course, and many other we didn’t, dotting the patches of scrub with bright blues and pinks.
A couple of hours into the journey, we reached the junction where the road went up to the Roatang pass – how easily we have reached this point compared to previous years. The tarmac road we are on continues up to the pass. The road to Spiti is another story entirely. With a crunch and bump, we turned off the tarmac and onto a rough rutted single width track strewn with loose rock. Suddenly our top speed was 10mph, and we were all being chucked round like ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. We had just passed a sign saying Kaza 150km – and this track is not going to improve for at least 100km. Suddenly the 10-hour estimated journey time makes sense in a horrifying kind of way. Lack of investment in this very sparsely populated area helps keep the Spiti Valley very difficult to get to. That’s a double-edged sword – on one hand being so remote reduces outside interference and preserves the culture and traditions of a proudly independent people. But on the other hand, Spitians don’t appreciate being shaken to pieces on a 10-hour drive when going out for basic supplies either!
There are patches of snow right down to the road level here and a chill to the air. As we drive towards to the top of the Lahaul Valley, the clouds clear and reveal pointed peaks all around us. The rock is colourful, and the strata twisted and tortured into beautiful patterns. Ollie, obsessed by rock climbing, eyes up potential routes and mutters about ‘epic slabs’.
As we traverse the valley, there is less and less vegetation.
Incredibly we pass herd after herd of goats and sheep, blocking the road and busily trotting along to greener pastures who knows where! They were all heading in the same direction as us and squeezed to the sides as we honked our way past.
The goats are beautiful creatures with long silky hair, in every shade of white, black grey and brown. The sheep just look rather grubby, blending into the dusty landscape. It seems inconceivable that this land of rock could possibly sustain so many grazing animals. The shepherds with them were tanned deep brown, faces wrapped with cloth against the dust. There are no houses here, so where are they going with their goats? Where do they live? We passed a huge boulder with a cave underneath, and clear signs of habitation – a shepherds summer dwelling place perhaps.
Coming the other way we saw an older couple on laden bicycles. There is nothing ahead of us except the 5000m Kunzum pass which divides the Lahaul valley from Spiti valley. These cyclists must have come from Spiti. We are full of respect for the incredible challenge of their journey. We meet bikers too, traversing these roads must take all their concentration and they are all in small groups of 2 or 3 so they can look out for each other just in case. No AA rescuing here – there’s only the other people on the road if things go wrong.
We stopped in Batal for lunch. There is a roadside café – a dhaba - here, a few people selling warm knitted headbands, and a government rest house. The couple who run this dhaba are a little bit famous. They have been given awards and recognition for their service to travellers who become stricken when passing through this area. Charming certificates of excellence are proudly displayed alongside newspaper articles about when they had rescued people in floods, snow, accidents. They epitomise the mountain ethic of looking after each other.
Our lunch is rice, a ladle of beans, a ladle of dhal, and optional spicy juice. Ollie and Izzy chose to have plain rice for lunch, as they were both suffering with a tummy bug in Manali. Nothing serious thank goodness, but enough to make travelling today potentially hazardous in terms of toilet access. They are very stoical about it though and sticking to plain rice today seems to be doing the trick as they’re both feeling OK.
Back on the road, we started climbing up to the Kunzum pass with an endless series of hairpin bends taking us higher and higher above the river far below. A glacier tumbles down from a col in the cradle of black peaks on the opposite side of the valley, and the views down the Lahaul valley are breath-taking. Literally breath taking as we have climbed from 3,500m at Batal to over 5,000m at the pass in little more than an hour. We are all suddenly aware of our breath.
The Kunzum pass is very windy, and the noise of thousands and thousands of prayer flags fills the air as we walk around the shrine in thanks that our journey is going so smoothly. I have photos taken in this spot going back to 1997, and its interesting to compare the amount of snow on the mountains. Noticeably less looking back to 25 years ago but compared to 4 years ago there seems a little more this year. Perhaps like us in England they had a late cold spring this year.
We jump back in the minibus, setting off with the Spiti Valley, finally, ahead of us. The landscape looks a bit like Tatooine from Star Wars, with stunning rock formations and unforgiving peaks all around. Sweet little white houses with animal fodder stacked up on the rooves, little terraced fields just starting to green with the growing peas, welcoming smiling faces of local people on the roadside, we feel so happy and excited and blessed to be here. All of us love the adventure of travelling but having an opportunity to ‘give back’ is humbling and rewarding.
We arrived in Kaza about 3.30pm, 9 hours of bumpy dusty road and worth every second now that we’re here! Our friends Rana and Shalu come back from Ki Monastery where they’ve been helping organise teachings given by a visiting Lama and welcomed us into their hotel - The Old Monk, our home from home in Kaza. We’re here!