CHAPTER 2 – The Guiding Light
En Route Kaza, Himachal Pradesh
5th September 2016
Monday, 20:00 hrs
“Reaching Kullu doesn’t seem feasible now…I don’t think I can make it to the bus stand before 8:30 pm!! So I guess I’ll have to catch my bus from Bhuntar now. Well, leaving that point aside, have you decided what you are going to do next? Are you going back to Dehradun or do you have some other plans?”
My girlfriend was naturally a little anxious. We had been hiking across Parvati valley for 3 days and as she was getting ready to catch her bus back to Delhi now, I had still not made up my mind what I wanted to do next. We were running almost 30 minutes behind schedule because of a massive commotion caused by Israeli travelers at Kasol, who did not let the bus leave before the entire group could find a place to fit into the already overcrowded bus!! We, however, were still on course to reach Bhuntar by 8:30 pm; in time for her to catch the bus to Delhi. But I did not want to go home yet – after all I still had 4-5 days of holidays left at my disposal. My hometown could wait till my next trip but right now I was already at the doorsteps of Manali and I surely did not want to turn back yet.
“I guess I will take the morning bus to Kaza from Kullu. From what I remember, it probably starts at 4:00 am. I can surely find a way to while my time away through the night. Don’t worry about me, I have done these unplanned night-outs under open skies before (those torrid experiences when hiking in Germany…ohh that reminds me I have yet to share them with you guys!!)”, I replied.
“Whatever….just make sure you are safe. And don’t come back without doing something exciting!!” She always does that….always makes it easier for me to let go of my inhibitions and travel with an open mind. So I saw her off at Bhunter – not before being troubled yet again by the bus running late and reaching after 9:30 pm!! Thereafter, I could only wait for a night bus to Kullu, sitting outside a solitary open restaurant amidst a quiet and almost closed market place.
“Bhaiya ek baat batao…is message ka kya karun? (Brother, tell me what to do about this message?)” Exclaimed a young boy, as he sat beside me with his mobile phone in his hand. “Ye Pooja bahut chaalu lag rahi hai. 3 din se message kar rahi hai facebook pe romantic wale…..number pucha tha uska to pata nahin kaunsa number diya hai. Call kar raha hun to bol rahi hai pehle uska 50rs ka phone recharge karaun.Ye message padho aur batao abhi kya karun?” (This girl named Pooja seems to be really clever. She has been sending romantic messages to me for the past few days and now when I asked for her number and called her, she sends me a message that first I need to recharge her account with 50 Rupees. What should I do?)
Oh poor soul!! He had just completed his primary education from a small village near Kullu, and had recently taken admission in 11th standard at a school in Kullu – experiencing some of his first encounters with technology and its perils. Needless to say, I happily spent the next 30 minutes explaining to him about these ‘sweet-talk’ call centers. But it made for a good round of conversation, by the end of which he helped my hitch a ride to Kullu on a small pickup truck, as the next bus would have taken at least half an hour more. I reached Kullu at around 11:00pm and finding the bus stand completely desolate I decided to try my luck at some lodge or a guest house nearby. Fortunately, I found a bed to crash into for a mere 100 Rupees in one of the lodges nearby, in exchange for carrying the owner’s bag of mangoes with me and handing it to a fruit vendor at Kaza!! A decent enough bargain for an appreciably cozy place to sleep for the night. The morning bus was not as disappointing as I had hoped. Firstly, I was thankful for having got a window seat for myself – I had already heard about the low probabilities of finding one in these local buses. Maybe if I had boarded the bus at Manali I might have had to squeeze some space through the aisle. Secondly, I had an Israeli girl to give my company, or so I believed before I realized she was probably not going to be one of those talking kinds. It took a lot of pestering before she became comfortable and thus ensued an interesting conversation about her travel stories from Ladakh and Kasol.
Before long, we were making our ascent towards Rohtang Paas – one of the most popular of high altitude passes in India, on eastern Pir Panjal Range. I have been to Rohtang before but the place always manage to cast a spell around my senses, making me fall in love with these mountain ranges all over again, every single time!! The patches of green grass soon disappeared and before I knew it the entire horizon was occupied by stark dry mountains with the murky waters of Chenab River cutting across the desolate landscape.
I can still remember the first time I was among these pristine landscapes – my travel to Chandrataal a few years ago. The roads back then were exactly like they were now; non-existent. The river’s rage had not subdued even a little bit over all these years. But there were surely more vehicles on the route this time around; a lot of private taxis and groups of bikers along the way, thus making the journey a bit longer. The “roads” cut along the mountain face are barely wide enough for the bus, so all the traffic coming from the other direction was making it more difficult to maneuver it through corners. Fortunately, the situation was not as bad as it was the last time I was here – when we were stuck for almost an hour in this wilderness and all we could do was to climb to a high vantage point, sit down and gaze continuously towards the vast emptiness and snow clad peaks populating our field of view!! It was such a shame that our camera got stolen on that trip, but that is a story for some other day.
Pretty soon the bus skidded to a halt at an Oasis amidst these dry lands, followed by customary handshakes and greetings with backpackers sipping hot tea outside the most iconic structure in the valley – the Chandra Dhaba in Batal.
A home away from home – Chacha Chachi’s Chandra Dhaba
(Credits – Amesh Sen)
Popular among the backpackers going towards Spiti valley, the small café run by an old couple – popularly called Chacha and Chachi, has been an oasis amidst the barren landscape for locals and backpackers alike. The popular and much revered Mr. Dorjee and his wife Mrs. Chandra run this place for 4-5 months every year, serving food and shelter to travelers in this region, before heavy snowfall makes the region inaccessible for most of the year. They are the first non-locals to help Border Road Organization in clearing the snow from the roads when the season starts. With no permanent supply point, fuel station or settlement within around 80-100kms of their café, they stock valuable essentials for people in need during the rough months. The surrounding landscapes are extremely dangerous and among the most disaster-prone areas in the world – so for many stranded backpackers Chacha-Chachi have proved to be angels sent on earth!! For all who have paid the couple a visit, their sense of humor and honesty is contagious. It was after eating the delicious Rajma-Chawal, with that god-sent Chutney of theirs, we sat outside the café sharing notes among the backpackers returning from Spiti. It was during these conversations that we were told to visit Sol Café in Kaza – which turned out to be one of my favorite hangout places come the end of my journey.
As we continued on our journey towards the town of Kaza, the landscapes and gradual ascent started taking its toll on my tired mind. Lack of oxygen is not unheard of at these altitudes, and I decided in my best interest to take frequent power naps during the entire bus ride. Soon the number of vehicles on the route had reduced dramatically and for most of the times we were the only ones driving along the gravel path across acres of barren landscape. If not for the bumpy ride, the constant sight of emptiness and arid valleys did start to exhaust my mind a little. Even then, the world around me was too starkly beautiful and enchanting to turn my gaze away from!! Rest of the journey was tiring to say the least, but not without its own spicy incidents unique to these remote civilizations – from singing Hindi songs with locals and Israeli backpackers to watching our driver get down at Losar and verbally take down a drunk villager, tearing up his currency notes while screaming he was far too rich for the humble village he was living in!! Instances like these made the 13 hour journey from Kullu to Kaza a lot more enjoyable – and definitely one I had not planned for, at all!!
It was at around 5:30 pm when I got down at Kaza bus stop. I had to dispatch the mangoes quickly, after which I moved towards Zostel hoping to find some travelers to share travel stories and coffee with – little did I know the companionship would extend through the next few days of my stay in Spiti Valley!!