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I have not taken the second lockdown too well. The feelings of being stuck were overwhelming this time around. I had been itching to get out anyway and when Akanksha mentioned Tethys, I was in. Even though I’m not a fan of road travel within India – we barely have any proper roads – I was desperate enough to say, “Let’s do it.”
Having never been to Spiti, I was happy to go along with no plan or itinerary except, “We’re going to Tethys Himalayan Den“. Mohit Gulia of Tethys was more than kind to arrange night stop overs from Delhi to Spiti. And suitable vehicles for the portions of our route where only 4 by 4’s could ply. The e-pass permits, stay and travel were taken care of by Mohit.
We were traveling in a group of 5 people and two city cars. At some point, this became 4 people and 1 car due to unavoidable circumstances. I had music / DJ duty, so that helped a bit in keeping me distracted. I had also positioned my memory-foam neck pillow under my butt. The road from Delhi up till Mandi was mostly ok. While our route showed that we had to turn left into Mandi, traffic cops stationed at that bridge told us to take another route, which is when the “no road” experience started.
There’s a series of tunnels and a 4-lane highway being built on that route currently. At various points, only one side of traffic is allowed to pass at one time. We took 13 hours to reach our destination at Kullu. In retrospect, it was extremely tiring. But, once we got to The Kullu Kitchen ( they don’t have a website or Instagram page but you can contact Srinivas for more information and bookings : +919654641285 ), the view was refreshing enough to allow us to chill for a bit. The property is owned & run by the same people that run Cafe Lota in Delhi. Orchards, flowers, comfortable beds, great food. Even though it was just an overnight stop, I did not want to leave so soon!
KULLU TO KAZA
The city car was left parked at the home of a trusted host and we were packed into an Innova. The original plan was to be driven to Koksar, which is where we would transfer to two 4×4 vehicles. But the Himachal Pradesh Govt. had different plans. Before I get into that, Manali was a surprise! I had previously been to Manali when I was maybe 15 or 16 years old. I don’t recall much but this time around I will not forget the greenery and the sudden appearance of snow-capped peaks!
Once we crossed the Atal Tunnel, police officers were checking the documentation of all passengers in vehicles emerging from the tunnel. The e-pass and RTPCR reports. We had everything sorted. The drivers were locals from Kullu but due to what one can only assume is administrative rivalry, the Lahaul-Spiti administration does not consider Kullu locals to be “locals” and our vehicle was directed to go to a spot called Sissu, where the drivers were directed to get their RAT tests done. A slight delay thankfully. The process was quick and efficient and the cops at Sissu decided that everyone in the vehicle should get the RAT test.
It took about 40 minutes to get the all clear. We were driven back to the North Portal of the Atal tunnel, where an Isuzu, being driven by an awesome driver Stanzin Odzer, was waiting for us and our luggage.
We were then driven to Koksar, where there was another documentation and vehicle check. I have lost count of the number of times during this trip, when cops and sundry folks assumed that I was a foreigner and asked for my passport. I have a trimmer and I have bleach and I have an Indian passport for fuck’s sake.
We cleared Koksar and were warned that most of the drive that was to come would be over non-existent roads. That we would find some snow melt and some snow and lots of rocks. And my goodness was that true! A bumpy ride but thankfully, we had Stanzin! He kept us entertained and drove his Innova really well. The view was already quite spectacular. Some of it reminded me of Ladakh but wetter.
PEE, TEA AND FOOD BREAK
The Chacha-Chachi Dhaba at Batal is quite the popular stop over for travelers to and from Spiti. And they don’t serve just Maggi. We had rajma-chawal ( I asked for a full raw onion to go with it ), lovely chai and picked up some packets of chips etc. There was no proper loo, so we relieved ourselves a few minutes after we left the dhaba.
First sighting of the Alpine Chough ( the bird on the flag at left below ).
After another hour or so of driving over rocks, the road got considerably better till our next stop, Kaza, where we spent the night at Hotel Deyzor, run by Karan and Kim.
OVERNIGHT AT KAZA
For the purposes of acclimatization, it is a good idea to stop over at Kaza for a couple of nights before proceeding to Spiti, which is even higher than Kaza. We stayed the night. I even ran after a non-stop-barking stray dog at 2 a.m. to shut it up. With a chappal in my hand no less. Stupid thing kept coming back right outside our door and barking its lungs out. We were all desperate for sleep! I didn’t hit it of course – can’t possibly hit an animal.
The food at Deyzor can be great if you can find a spot – call ahead. The hotel is mostly fully booked, so you will be lucky if you get to stay there. Our bed had heated electric blankets that we lay on. Especially if you’re coming from a location like Delhi, at first, Kaza, even during the summer, can feel very cold at night. I was carrying a small heating pad for this exact reason but I didn’t really get to use it.
The hotel has a St. Bernard. PLEASE DON’T TOUCH THE DOG. It bites strangers. And if you’re standing close to it, it might just decide to shake itself thoroughly, sending spit rockets flying all around. I love dogs and cats and all sundry animals but my GAWD YUCK! Once you spend some time around the doggie, then it’ll let you pet.
CHICHAM VILLAGE & TETHYS HIMALAYAN DEN
A 45 minute drive from Kaza to Chicham and you’re in Tethys. More spectacular views. My room was with a loft-bed that has two large glass windows. This meant that I pretty much did not want to get out of bed all day and night. Blue sky and snow-capped peaks during the day and the Milky Way at night – no need to leave the room!
Hot water in the bathroom courtesy solar panels. Shit loads of sunlight at 5 a.m. will wake you up even if you have the skylight shut. Pretty much each day, I would wake up at 5 a.m., thinking that it was probably 8 or 9 a.m. Unike most other wetter hill-stations, Chicham doesn’t have a lot of bugs. It is a dry and cold desert. Don’t forget to carry super strong sun-block. That was literally the only item I forgot to carry. After two days of acclimatizing at Tethys, I decided to go along for a walk with the others. I did well on the walk despite all the huffing and puffing but by the time I got back to my room, my arms and the back of my neck were on FIRE.
Luckily I had worn a baseball cap, so my face was fine. I spent the next week wearing a jacket and applying a lot of moisturizer on my arms. Sweating was favourable over getting more burns.
Food at Tethys is home-cooked and if you ask, you will be served local delicacies. Faizu, the resident “Daddy”, is the caretaker and will cater to all your whims and fancies. How much sugar you like in your coffee, which fruit you prefer, etc. He’s the busiest of them all. House-keeping, laying out the food, teaching you how to play Monopoly and winning, selfies, he does everything.
The top-level “Baithak” is where everyone gathers for meals and generally spends their day. Tethys has six rooms, so you will not find it crowded in the baithak. And you could keep your headphones on and pass out and no one will bother you unless it’s time for lunch, which is great. I spent many mornings and afternoons and evenings just sitting and staring at the view. Sketching. Journaling. Listening to music.
If you’re not used to living in a slightly noisy home, I suggest you carry ear plugs with you for when you sleep. I would usually get to bed by 9 or 10 p.m. while other guests and residents stayed in the baithak playing board games that invariably got a bit raucous.
Faizu sleeps in the baithak, so he will kick you out when he’s ready to go to bed – that was helpful for my sleep – I can’t wear ear plugs for too long – they hurt my ears.
THE EMERALD POOL
I call it that but I’m not sure if it actually has a name. It’s a great brunch spot. You can’t lay down your picnic sheet too close to the water because the soil is damp and your sheet will get wet within minutes. It took me 30 minutes to walk to it and about 40 minutes to walk back from it. The walk is through the crop fields of the residents of Chicham Village, so there’s trails and paths.
Again, do not forget the sun-block!
About 20-30 minutes from Chicham, is a grazing spot called Ladarcha. Beautiful flat green meadows, icy breeze, birds and foxes and domesticated animals. Tethys organized a cute little sandwich and coffee picnic on one of the early evenings. It is windy as fuck, so be careful with your belongings. This applies to pretty much anywhere in Spiti, not just Ladarcha.
I decided to wear my The Blue Hour dress to try and shoot a bit at Ladarcha. I wore it with jeans and a shawl and a jacket because just the short little dress would not have been wise. Just for 4-5 minutes of the actual photos being taken, I took off everything else and posed like a pro.
EVENING VIEWS FROM MY ROOM
Our last two days at Tethys saw a turn in the weather. Clouds started to roll in, giving us some interesting skies during the day and at night. Since I’m always chasing sunsets, this was a welcome change. Had I known it would contribute to the pain-in-the-ass return drive, I would not have been so overjoyed!
DRIVE TO DEMUL, HIKIM, KOMIC, DHANKAR & TABO
On two separate days, we visited the spots around Chicham. These were more than an hours drive away from Tethys. There are also many hikes and treks that one can undertake if one is so inclined. Tethys also organizes professionally guided and serviced treks. One of the guests at Tethys has already been living there for over a month and has undertaken several expeditions while maintaining Chicham as her base.
Most of the area after Kaza does not have mobile network. Jio and BSNL towers exist but not everywhere. In Tethys, there’s a particular spot where you can get the Jio network for long enough to see your WhatsApp messages and maybe if there aren’t too many people using the network, you could try to get in an Instagram update. Apart from that, for now, it’s not a reliable spot for a staycation, even if you have your own Jio dongle. The network comes and goes.
There is talk of a Jio tower being installed in Chicham. When that happens, I am seriously considering returning for a longer duration. To write, paint, and just stare out the window. Maybe a mini trek too – who knows.
The weather had already turned and after a couple of days of dilly-dallying and delaying our departure, we finally decided to fuck-off. The morning we departed, fresh snow had begun to fall. We had already been advised of one spot on our drive back, where the flow of water on the driving trail had disrupted traffic for a couple of days and left travelers stranded.
By the time we left, that water flow had been managed and traffic was passing smoothly.
Fresh snow all over Kunzum Pass. The enitre landscape was white.
- Make sure that your driver arrives at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time
- Make sure that the luggage on top of the vehicle is secured and entirely covered in plastic
- Make sure that the driver is known to your host and is trustworthy
- Make sure that the driver has driven this particular vehicle previously and is aware of its quirks
- Make sure that the vehicle is not a 17 year old vintage Sumo that was the first Sumo ever to ply in the town of Kaza
- Make sure that you have at least one set of waterproof garments and shoes
- Make sure that if you do get soaked, you have access to dry garments, shoes and socks to change in to
- Make sure that your vehicle has a heater
- Make sure that your host will pack you food for the road when it is highly likely that you might have to spend the night in the vehicle
If you are not able to make sure of any of the above – like we did – then be prepared to be wet, and freezing and shivering and hungry and stuck for 5 hours at a landslide.
I’m happy to ride in a vintage vehicle anytime – for a joy ride. Not when my life could be in danger being driven on the rocky trails of Spiti!
And the damn thing broke down just when volunteers had begun to create a path over the landslide for vehicles to pass. The driver asked us to push the vehicle, which we did – 3-4 times – and it refused to budge. We were completely wet by then – from head to toe.
Every single item inside all our four suitcases was drenched – not damp, DRENCHED. Including my pashminas, all my sketchbooks and journals – these are not recoverable. Ruined. The other stuff like shoes and garments, I’m still doing loads of laundry to get the stink out from them as I type this from Gurgaon today – 4 days after my return home. This includes 2 night of stops in Manali and 1 night in Mashobra and each night I was laying out everything from the suitcase and then re-packing in the morning.
I’m too old to do this shit and call it an “adventure”. Some things should just fucking work.
Once I figured that our driver was, unfortunately, entirely incompetent, I decided to try our luck with any other vehicles that were not full. If they could just drop us to the next spot, where we could get back on track with our return journey.
One Fortuner and one Isuzu sped into the landslide jam, alongwith at least a dozen professionally kitted-up bikers. It looked like a mini-rally and the two large vehicles had Raid de Himalaya stickers on them. I immediately walked up to the brawny lady that had stepped out with her umbrella and asked her for help. Without batting an eyelid – even though I looked like a tramp – she told the four of us to get into the two vehicles PRONTO. That the back of my hands were blue and purple and I was chittering and shivering like a tree in the wind, probably helped.
Very grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Handa for taking us into their Fortuner and turning up the HEAT! And to Madhavi for the samosas and brownies. A JCB showed up after 5 hours and flattened some of the troublesome rocks and both the Fortuner and the Isuzu drove over the spill like it was nothing.
They dropped us off at the North Portal of the tunnel at a tiny little solid-structure dhaba, where I changed into the one dry t-shirt that Akanksha had in her day bag – in full view of the patrons and the owners. I had a pair of dry jeans in my own day bag. I did not stop shivering for 48 hours. Despite hot showers and hot meals once we were in our hotel rooms in Kullu.
Mohit found us a ride – Prakriti drove 90 minutes to come pick us from the North Portal and then another 90 minutes to drive us back into Kullu. Our Sumo driver also made it and luckily spotted Vivek outside the dhaba and drove one half of our group to the hotel.
I’m just glad that we’re all safe. Not a scratch. Pashminas and stationery can always be acquired fresh.
That there was no phone network also made things doubly difficult. Maybe consider walkie-talkies?
The return was a complete nightmare to end a lovely and peaceful Spiti dream.
After the return ordeal, we spent two nights in a cheap hotel in Kullu and walked around and ate fast-food. The forest reserve in Manali was a surprise, as was the Johnson Lodge and Spa! What a stunning location. And beer and trout.
KULLU TO MASHOBRA
Unlike our drive up from Delhi to Kullu, this time, we decided to break the 13 hour journey and drive to Mashobra, which was supposed to be about 8 hours and then another 8 hours to Delhi.
Of course, the 8 hours drive to Mashobra ended up taking 12 hours. Narrow streets and 2-3 kilometers of reverse driving to let the others pass. I have never felt such animosity on the roads of any other state in India. Our vehicle had a Delhi number plate and people’s faces visibly changed when they spotted a Delhi number. Even though there were other cars in front of us that were probably far more egregious in their aggressive driving, our car was being picked on!
Even in Manali, when we were driving up a slope – the vehicle driving up has right-of-way – the other driver in the opposite vehicle did not give us passage and while crossing us, almost leaned into our car window and screamed, “YEH DILLI NAHIN HAI!” ( This is not Delhi! ) It was stunning. I cannot get over the rudeness and the aggression I witnessed on the roads. This was not happening on the other side of the tunnel – nothing like this in Kaza or Spiti. But on the Manali side, HOLY SHIT!
The Himachal Pradesh Govt. has removed the RTPCR mandate now, so you won’t have the same Sissu experience as we did. But you will also find far more vehicles on the road. At the Chacha-Chachi dhaba in Batal, on our way from Kullu to Kaza, we came across a vehicle full of men who were also eating at the same dhaba. The moment we entered the dhaba, they started photographing us sneakily on their phones. “Arrey photo le na! Gori hai!” Their vehicle had an Uttar Pradesh number plate.
While waiting for rescue on the North Portal of the Atal tunnel, I also encountered several vehicles – with the UP number plate – doing nonsensical things. There was an SUV standing sideways, almost in the middle of the road, next to a pile of rocks that had clearly fallen in a mini-landslide. From a distance, it looked like the vehicle had collided with the rocks and people were standing outside dazed. When we got closer, we realized that they were taking selfies with their car and the rock fall. Blocking almost the entire National Highway. It was still raining, which increased the chances of more falling rock. Stunning.
It might not be Delhi but it is still my country. And my planet.
LINKS & CREDITS
Thank you Faizu, Mohit and Ritu for making the stay feel just like home. Stanzin for being an excellent Spiti Innova host! Please get Piggy to stop barking! Especially thanks to Mohit for being the DADDY!
Thanks to Vivek for driving for hours upon hours for many days in his Honda City.
Thanks to Dhriti for ALWAYS keeping everyone’s spirits up and finding things to do even where it seemed like there was nothing to do.
Thanks to Akanksha for initiating this whole thing!
Thanks to Karan & Kim at Hotel Deyzor for their warm hospitality & delightful food.
Thanks to Tanvi for making the mountains and the flora more interesting!