Cragged Himalayas inside Himachal Pradesh slowly faded from orange to grey, while the last few Tata jeeps splashed along the waterlogged “road”. As I lay back on my blanket, sun caressing what little hair I have left, all was well with the world. After spending a wealth of time in the Wakhi Karakorams, I was here, tent and all, part of a great company, in the heart of Spiti Valley.
Enter Himachal Pradesh
Waterfalls cascaded down the layered green himalayan watchmen as I lay back to a setting sun. Zigzagging goat trails led me on a late afternoon walk through a colourful, meadow like mountainside… the bright white of wild strawberry flowers shot out from the waving yellow and lavender strewn mountainside.
Rinsing my face in cold snowmelt, waterfalls almost thundered across the valley in sync with a river that raged towards the west of Kunzum La. Was it a gods land we were in?
The last four days of riding had taken me and my two Austrian compatriots David and Evelyn (or guardian angels should I say) through Spiti Valley, and we were now not far from exiting the exuberantly beautiful area.
David and Evelyn, as some of you already know, are the camping pioneers from We2r Abstecher. Leaving Austria in April 2016, they had completed the route which I was unable to – the Stans, into Iran and then flown into Mumbai, while I’d crossed fire hot Balochistan. With Evelyn’s constant laughter and David’s very relaxed manner, they made wonderful companions on the road.
While relaxing in the afternoon sun, chores caught up and I was soon washing all three pairs of my stinky underwear in one of the small run offs into the river. The water was cold, not quite icy, but I didn’t fancy a bath in anything cooler then a hot mug of tea… that and the aroma of the road hadn’t grown too overpowering just yet.
Two landslides ahead had ground our progress to a halt, so what better time to pitch a tent, relax with a beverage, and recap about the last few days of riding inside Himachal Pradesh.
A few days back on a recap
The landscape had done some interesting things the last few days, as had the Spiti Valley road which joins with the famous Manali-Leh highway. From dry dusty gravel roads that twisted around cliffs and under rocky overhangs to water crossings on flat rocky plains we rode. Well we mostly rode, I was busy dropping the bike every chance I got… what I meant was, Trumpet was itching for a new look.
We’d been camping the last four days – in a forest, a locals backyard, on a helipad and now on a grassy patch, next to a river, surrounded by huge grey mountains. Our group of 2 adults and 1 child lived off mashed potato, noodles, the vegetable masterpieces that Evelyn would concoct in her tiny pressure cooker, and the occasional dish of chow mein or thupka (noodle soup).
Since leaving Kaza (the last petrol stop before Tandi 160 km away, and also the highest pump in the world apparently), the scenery had turned it up a notch or two.
Leaving a dusty touristic Kaza behind, the road opened up onto ridiculous views of a thousand valleys. Switching between gravel and ashphalt, earthy hues of yellows and orange streaked across the snowcapped himalayan range.
Rich green meadows appeared out of nothing and wildflowers grew willy nilly by the gravel. Along with the scenery that was so different from India, the people of Himachal Pradesh too changed, as had the dominance of Hinduism for Buddhism.
By the time we had exited Spiti and entered Sarchu, my favourite village in Himachal, it looked like Genghis Khan’s genes had held strong all these years. Homes and hotels of corrugated tin, mud and rock sprouted from the sandy grounds surrounding the fiery orange mountains below the 4850 metre Baracha La, and the 7000 metre Himalayan watchmen.
Of course, like David and Evelyn, I had come here for the landscape, the serenity and the peacefulness. This came in surplus, even with the overwheing amount of riders on 350 Bullets and 500 Himalayans – not once did we ever see another overlander in a car or on a bike.
The fact that the way to the valley itself was so diverse was special. Indian Oil trucks grumbled up the mountain roads as pack horses munched lazily away on green grass.
Huge yaks chewed away on vegetation, creeping as close as we dared – the last encouter I’d had with a young cow in the Shyok River a few days earlier replayed in my mind. (I’d gotten on all fours and acted like I wanted to play – which had caused the young cow to buck at me like mad. Don’t worry, the video comes later).
Aside from the usual gravel, water crossings came in aplenty. Some went as long as few lazy S bends, and Davids technique of imagining it was highway worked a treat for me… until I had tumble on tiny farm creek, which you wouldn’t even mention as a water crossing.
The road reappears… sort of
With the news that the pass was open late in the afternoon, we chose to snore comfortably inside our tents. The following morning we arrived at the pass 2km down the road, which was jam packed with buses, trucks and four wheel drives all parked off to the side. What’s all this?
A group of thirty or so locals were throwing whatever rocks they could find into a deepening pool in the middle of “road” – or whatever was left. A waterfall blatantly gushed down the mountain and over the rocky field of obstacles. 4WDs bounced around like pinballs over the crossing to cheers and shouts from the watching the crowds.
Being the most experienced David was first in, where he got about a third of the way in before the bike toppled over. He recovered with a grin on his face, and as I waded in to lend a hand, the situation of the crossing appeared a little more dire then it had from the “shoreline”. I’ll never forget that crossing because that was the only time I ever saw David drop his bike.
Rather large boulders had plonked themselves into a rocky minefield, and after seeing the bike of Davids bike bouncing like a pogo stick, an easy crossing appeared to be out of the books. It was going to be a slow, get your feet wet experience (although my Sidi Adventures were holding true to their stamped waterproof label).
Our enfield friends came over to lend a hand, and after a few minutes David found smoother ground and was off into the brown muddy track.
Evelyn’s bike didn’t want to hold gear at low revs, which wasn’t surprising since everything goes a bit pear shaped when you don’t need it to. Start, engine cut out. Start, drop gear, engine cut out. Finally the 650 got going moodily before ending up on its side too, right where the air intake was – luckily we managed to save it quickly, before we had engine cut out problems again… were we too late?
It turned out no, we weren’t. Finally out of the tricky boulder section at the deepest part of the landslide, the Evelyn’s 650 was on the opposite shoreline. Now it was just me left – the master of disaster!
After watching Dave and Evelyn’s runs as well as being in the heart of our new, very bumpy road, I was able to choose a slightly different route – which still took me through the boulder trap. Picking my way slowly through, Dave and Evelyn shouted encouragement from my back just. I made it through trouble free and joined the two BMW’s on the other side. We were clear!
We celebrated exiting Spiti with a flat front tire on Trumpet, and some masala noodles. On to Ladakh!