"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough." ~ Rabindranath Tagore


Kinnaur Spiti in Winter

Sumantra Pal of the IES is General Manager, Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority, in his working avatar. Here, as a traveller, he is simply, himself.

Kinner-Kailash I was in a dilemma to choose my winter walk in the Himalayas: Har-ki-Doon in Uttarakhand or Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. Both seemed attractive. Both were manageable in 5 days. As a solo traveler, I chose Kinnaur, since there was direct public transport. First, from ISBT Kashmere Gate in Delhi to Reckong Peo; and then, intricate routes up to Kaza in Spiti were open and accessible.

More About Himachal
At a Glance

Travel Diary - Part 2
Return to Manali
Manali to Leh
Road to Khardung La
Dharamshala Diary

Kareri Lake
Deo Tibba Trek


Closing office at 6 pm sharp I rushed to Delhi metro. How can I start a trip without relishing the mughlai delicacies at Karim's? Between 7 pm to 7.45 pm I was negotiating between fastest service at the restaurant, quicker transport by rickshaw-peddlers and numerous phone calls from well-wishers. No one was encouraging. It was in fact scary to be reminded of the temperature range at my destination. I managed to report for the direct bus for Reckong Peo marginally before the departure time of 8.10 pm. Online, I chose seat 11 after closely examining the seating pattern. But in the bus I found it was an aisle seat in a 2x2. It was uncomfortable to remain stably seated on the edge. The conductor helped me to move into a three seater.

Nothing eventful happened. I reached Shimla in the wee hours. I woke up at 6 am when the bus started for Reckong Peo, to notice that most of the passengers were new faces. At Narkanda, the bus stopped for tea. The next longer stop was at Rampur. The conductor explained we had reached earlier than scheduled and had to halt till 11.30 am. At Jiuri, I had clean and plain lunch. The road is better than expected. I slept mostly, only to wake up occasionally to see the time and the scenery. Smooth journey so far. Took a halt in the afternoon at Shangtang. Descending from the bus I found a huge chunk of rocks blockading the way, just 12 kms before Reckong Peo. Men at work assured us that they would blow it off within half an hour. They did actually. In one hour I reached Reckong Peo.

kinnaur The suite at the circuit house was too large to get warm with a single electric heater. I quickly asked for the smallest room. The caretaker was somewhat taken aback. He could not quite fathom my choice for less. The room was neat and equipped with a modern bathroom. I was tired travelling 22 hours in a rickety ordinary bus. I slept immediately after a bath. The caretaker was kind enough to wake me up at 9 pm and serve basic hot food. After several consultations I decided to travel around in Kinnaur and save further travel to Spiti for the next day. It would help me acclimatizing and would be an opportunity to closely explore the area.

At 5.00 the next morning I was ready after a clean shave, warm bath and piping hot tea. Still dark outside, kinnaur tripI walked out with a bottle of water and some extra woolens. At the bus stand I saw the bus to Kaza departing right on schedule at 6.30 am. It was reassuring for my plans for the next day. I found several placards with numerous destinations stacked. Some places I knew, some I had never heard of. Mentally visualizing the places, spotting those on a large scale map and firming on my immediate destination took about an hour. There is a route circulating around the Holy Kinnaur Kailash peak (6208 meters). It was impossible to cover the trek in winter. I was excited to spot a bus to Lambar at 8.00 am which could take me to the trekking start point, even in winters. I asked for tickets for wherever the bus would go ultimately. On the way it took me to Ribba (2745 mtrs) and Moorang (3591 mtrs). At Moorang I knew there is an ancient fort. The bus went to all the nooks en route and finally broke down just 4 kms before Thangi (2660 mtrs). The locals quickly got off and found connecting rides from plying vehicles. I had no destination in mind, so chose to fill in at a local eatery. Interesting! The price of lunch was reducing. Yesterday, my lunch was for Rs. 50, today at this altitude, it was Rs. 40 with complementary tea with added butter.

onto Kaza The driver and conductor of the bus were waiting for a mechanic to arrive from Reckong Peo. It might take at least 2 hours to get the bus repaired even if the request for help was already sent half an hour ago. I like walking the roads connecting remote villages. My instant decision was to walk the remaining 4 kms to Thangi. I made it in 50 minutes, enjoying the sun. I took several snaps on the way. The locals have invented some sort of ropeways with levers and pulleys to operate at both ends. They have connected different habitats separated by elevation and deep gorges, to this road. An iron bucket hangs on the steel ropes. The trolley moves across carrying humans, small cattle and goods. I saw one operating. It was scary to see the ropeway crossing the gorge and climbing to the opposite hill with an elevation of at least 1000 meters. I arrived back after walking 8 kms and saw the bus was ready and turning back for Reckong Peo. Reaching Reckong Peo, I could still cover Kalpa (2758 mtrs), uphill 8 kms by bus. At 5 pm, I was in Kalpa to witness the mesmerizing sunset on the Kinnaur Kailash range. With the evening setting in quickly, I discovered there would be no bus to take me down. I was not unnerved given my morning walk experience of 8 kms in less than two hours. It was a moonlit night and it was a steep downhill trek. I made it comfortably back to the circuit house.

spiti I skipped morning tea and reached the bus stand at 6.00 am. The bus for Kaza was yet to arrive. It finally started at 7.30 am. I took the front-most seat near the driver's. Though the driver cautioned me not to sleep as it might induce him to sleep, I could not keep my promise. Near Spillow, he shouted at me for sleeping. Anyways, it was time for breakfast, and I quietly shifted to the back-most window seat with unobstructed views. I was still not sure that I would be able to go to Kaza. My friends had warned me about the sub-zero temperature, no sanitation facility and complete absence of modest basic survival there. I was travelling alone, and had no fall back option. Moreover, I lacked the required clothing for sub-zero temperatures. I requested the conductor to keep a five hundred rupee note with him and not to print the ticket. He seemed not to have met a person who did not know his destination. All my explanations in broken Hindi were undeserving of my logical thought process. I wanted the option to get down at Nako or Chango or Tabo. Giani Singh, the conductor, was finally convinced by my crazy photo-shootings. He did not come back with the ticket, but kept the deposit.

riverBeyond Khab, the map says, Sutlej and Spiti rivers meet. Beyond the confluence, only the Spiti river continues. The Sutlej river comes from the Namgia,from where special permits are required to reach Shipki-La to Tibet. At places, the road was curved out in steep rock faces. The narrow National Highway 22 passes through some magnificent bends, curves and acclivity. The landscape transforms once we cross Khab. Till Khab, there were small shrubs on the hills, no dense forests. Near Leo, the hills were brown, barren and stark. There are very scanty rainfalls in this zone. On the opposite hills I could see white stripes of frozen snow. Not all are White Mountains. I took a closer look with my binoculars. It was appearing like mud, not stones nor rocks. How do these hills remain? Why does the road not slide down? No rain falls. Perhaps it is because of that. I found Giani keeping a fish in his bag. He took it from a fisherman, who bartered the fish for tickets. The bus was climbing continuously to reach Nako at the tip of a mountain. There was a helipad in Nako and a lake. I still did not get down at Nako. So Giani came to confirm my desire to move ahead on Nako. I asked him to wait till Tabo or Chango, if it so please him.

moving from nako The downhill started from Nako till Malling (3281 mtrs). Beyond Malling, there were serpentine occasional climbs. We were following Spiti river flowing in deep gorges. Amazing and unusual arid landscape; I had never seen brown and partly yellow mountains. Perhaps sandy and rocky terrain with scattered boulders. Blowing winds have curved those mountains. I was tempted to open the glass pane to take snaps. The local resisted. They seemed more susceptible to cold! A gradual ascent via several hairpin bends and the bus took us to Chango (3670 mtrs). I was told there is a Gompa up on the hill. By now I had decided to go up to Kaza. Giani came smiling, now offering me a ticket and tendered the exact change.

We now descended into the valley near the river. At Shalkhar (2550 mtrs) on the bank of the river, Giani stopped the bus and got down. He asked for apples, to be picked on our return. The exchange between the villager and Giani was to bring kerosene or money in exchange. The villager opted for money. The bus follows the river bank. I could see floating ice on the turquoise water.

frozen icicles Samdu (3050 mtrs) has a barrack of Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Foreigners need an inner line permit to go beyond. Photography at Samdu is strictly prohibited. I enquired from Giani where we would have lunch. He chuckled and replied, "At the final destination Sir". That I was hungry didn't matter. Many locals had already boarded the bus and it was now a little more crowded. I focused more on taking snaps. The picturesque surroundings were engaging enough to forget hunger. Beyond Samdu I was noticing that at places ice planks and thin snow had blocked the river surface; although water was still flowing beneath the thin ice. I guess in the next two months, either in January or in February, the Spiti river will be fit for a frozen river trek.

A small hamlet at Hurling (3509 mtrs) and the driver switched off the engine. Giani announced lunch break, that someone at the back of the bus was too hungry, therefore the stop. There were only two small eateries. One with Tibetan cuisine, the other offered usual Indian fare. Since, I can eat a limited quantity at a time I ordered half a plate of rice. They instantly served steaming rice with beans and pickles. Midway during lunch I heard there was not enough food in the shop to serve full plates anymore. The remaining passengers had to accept the half plates. I could only appreciate their gesture about sharing the limited resources by accommodating all. Even though everyone could afford to buy a full plate meal, they resisted and restricted themselves to a half meal, just to ensure everyone else got some food.

prayer flagsI boarded the bus after taking a few pictures of multi-colored Tibetan flags fluttering in the wind.The Tibetan belief is that hoisting these prayerflags with Buddhist mantras actually drives off evil. As the flags fly, the winds carry the effects of the mantras into the surroundings and this has a purifying effect. Within one hour we reached Tabo (3280 mtrs). This place has a Gompa too. Beyond Tabo, we crossed a frozen tributary of the Spiti river. It was already late in the afternoon. There was not much ascent; the bus was plying by the river. A narrow valley mostly; on the left the mountains were white with snow stripes on brown. One hill was black. We continued on the road via Needang, Poh, and Sichiling. Near Sichiling, one could take a route up above the hill to see Dhankar Gomha. Our bus followed the national highway via Lingti (4273 mtrs), Lidang and Shego (3600 mtrs). These are not insignificant places, at least not by their altitudes. After Shego, the valley widened with a panoramic vista of the valley, snow bound with the Spiti splitting into multiple branches by blocks of ice in an expanse of valley. The place was so photogenic, I had to do nothing, but click. We were approaching Kaza.

Reaching Kaza, I found most locals left the bus stand quickly. Coming out of the bus, I realized the chill. I was wearing several layers of woolens. Locals had even bound mufflers around their face, only their eyes peeping through while nose, cheeks, ears were all covered. I knew that the maximum temperature one could expect is sub-zero and there is no limit to the minimum! It can drop to any non-positive digit. A fellow traveller told me, never cry in Kaza --- your tears will form ice. Though I was to stay at the government rest house, I enquired about the alternatives. Although there were many signboards for hotels, lodges, homestays they were all declared non-operational. The rest-house remained the only option, but I found it snow covered.

spitiFirst I knocked on the door where the caretaker supposedly survives. Getting no response, I pressed the calling bell. A man came out looking agape. I asked if I could stay, as my booking here was initially for yesterday. He asked who had recommended that I stay at Kaza! This was not the appropriate time to discuss my wanderlust. Let him take me into a cozy room first. Vinod was prompt in opening up a room for me, neat and tidy, but the bathrooms was locked! I did not mind, thinking he would open it when I would need it most in the morning. My preoccupation after securing shelter was to secure food. Vinod said 'sorry, no food'. I must rush to the sweet shop on the way to the bus stand and get something before they close.

Solid frost made the road slippery; difficult to walk fast or run for the food. Reaching the sweet shop, I found they had only sweets and some snacks on offer and no meal. I asked the shop keeper what they would have for dinner! He said that food is for family only, not for guests. Promptly I bought four sweets to wolf down, and some snacks to douse night hunger.

In my room, I found an electric room heater was already in place switched on. Taking two blankets I attempted to sleep at 6.30 pm, the earliest ever in my life. Vinod came knocking soon after with a jug of warm water. He insisted that I must use two additional quilts over and above the blankets. He mentioned that electricity can go off anytime and without a heater temperature might plummet below survival level. I was not intending to come out of the blankets, and insisted he put the quilts over me.

spitiDuring the night, fortunately the electricity never went off. It was a thin sleep. My sleep broke at 0128 am, 0232 am, 0415 am. At home it is usually a struggle for me to wake up at 5 am to catch an early morning flight. Here at this altitude and sub-zero climate, sleep is perhaps an unaccustomed luxury. The room was moderately warm. But the toilet was still locked. At 5.30 am I thought I would wake Vinod for my anticipated needs. After a few rings on his door bell once he came out I gave him two 100 rupee notes sequentially and asked for a bucket of hot water. At 6 am he comes with a glass bottle of hot water. He told me to go 'behind the rocks' to respond to nature's call. I insisted he open up the locked bathroom. He came back with the keys and showed me the closet was devoid of water because of the freezing temperature. I had to go out in the snow field, in the dark. There I chose to sit 'on the rocks' and not behind the rocks. Pleasant!

It is better to reach the bus stand early than see later that the only bus left Kaza leaving me to freeze and die without food. The depot manager was busy cutting wood to make one big bucket full of fire. Next he took the flames beneath the fuel tank of the bus, probably filled with diesel. He said he was aware that diesel is highly inflammable but in a liquid state. According to him it is safe to melt frozen diesel so that the bus could start.

SpitiI opened my bottle to sip water. While closing it I found icicles in the cap. Giani and the driver were woken up by the locals. The bus was actually getting delayed. A special passenger was expected anytime. A tiff was going on between Giani and a local lad, who was insisting we wait for that special passenger. I was enjoying myself till this old lady came to displace me from my well-chosen window seat. I had to respect her age and the respect she commanded with the locals.

This bus was likely to take me to Shimla the next day. I reviewed the picturesque views of the valley, the frozen river, the White Mountains, the stripes on snowbound hills, the altitude, the kites flying in the azure sky. I was mentally prepared to take the 40 hour basic bus journey back to Delhi, foregoing usual comforts. I never like descending down from the hills. This time I observed that in the extreme chill, facial hair grows less.

Photo Credit: Sumantra Pal

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