Thursday, October 18, 2012

(From my journal): Manali to the Spiti Valley.

It was pitch when we left the small, beautiful Manali, but the slow, cold blue transition of dawn was not far off.  We (Roy, and Shlomit, Israeli friends I’d met and were heading in the same direction) were climbing nearly immediately, switchback, straight, switchback.  Soon, the dim outline of trees appeared, and the valley we had climbed out of became visible… we were hundreds, a thousand feet up.  Still the craggy peaks above – now glowing in the sun – were a long way off. 

On the climb, I only remember feeling fear once.  The road was paved for most of it, and only once did I see the bus roll to the left – Cliffside – during a particularly sharp turn,  and I commented to R and S, “Yeah, if we went over, we’d be dead.” The cliffs were steep! And in many places, sheer.  The long roll to the bottom and the sudden stop would have been mashing. 

1000+ feet below the pass, we stopped for tea and breakfast.  I took the chance to explore the temple covered in prayer flags.  A large dish of incense was smoking heavily, carried away quickly by the wind, and a monk was chanting soothingly.  Parantha (Hash browns squished between two tortillas) and chai for breakfast, and then we were back on the road. 

The paved road gave way to long sections of rock and powdery dusty dirt.  It rose in billows from the front tires and caught up to us as we slowed for turns, clouded our vision, gritted our lips and turned our bags grey. 

Rohtang La pass (3978m… multiply by 3.3 to get feet), literally “Pile of Dead Bodies” climaxed on a thin strip of road wide enough for one vehicle only.  We stopped to wait our turn as a large backhoe crept towards us leading 2 jeeps.  As we moved forward cautiously, I tried to capture the perilous section on camera, but the images were bumped and blurred.  We had cleared the most dangerous section! The rest was easy.  Slow to the top, slow over and then a nerve-wracking descent.

Descending into the valley was… exciting.  Hair-raising really… because it was one of the first times we had heard the tremendous grinding crunch of the brakes (“Those don’t sound good.”).  Hair-raising because through each downward turn, there was that moment where the giant bus was pointed straight off the cliff (Skiers and snowboarders refer to the point – I think – as the “fall line.”  You turn, for an instant you are pointed straight down the mountain, and you complete the turn to one side or the other.  I refer to it as the “Oh shit”-point, as you either make the turn or it’s “OH SHIT I’M GONNA CRASH!”)… and those brakes! Would they stop us? Could they? It was all quite exciting as well, for I began to understand what driving with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy) in Kerouac’s “On the Road” must have felt like: Waste no momentum! Use the brakes only when our lives depend on it! Hug those turns in exactly the right spot! And most importantly: COAST TO SAVE ON GAS!


I decided to trust the driver and his gods he prayed to on the pass, and to sit back and enjoy it.

A shimmering ribbon lay below us, a river that appeared thin and frozen.  At the bottom, it was 50ft across and moving quickly, the water teal-grey from sediment. 

The valley, tight at first, opened, and soon we were in an enormous boulder-field.  Around bends, I could see where old sections of road had been rushed over by rock slides. The new section cleared by tractor will be crushed over in the future. 

The enormity of all that surrounded me gave me great hope for the earth.  The wilderness remains! (Joe, if you’re reading this, it really exists!) Man is a colony of ants: we can build and demolish all we want, but the slow groan of nature’s forward progress continues, with or without us.  Mammals survived the asteroid-earth collision that annihilated the dinosaurs.  Man may not survive the human-earth collision currently in progress.  But life… LIFE!... it will find a way.

I’ve never felt so small.  I’ve never felt so free.

Our next big pass before descending into the Spiti valley was Kunzum La, a 4551m viewpoint topped with a temple, the ever-present prayer flags and fantastic views of snowcaps in the distance.  Every now and then during the prayer break, the wind would die completely, the flags would settle and only an occasional *ding* of a bell was heard.

As the hours passed, the grind of the rocky road, the dust and my inability to drink from my wide-mouth nalgene began to erode my ability to keep my eyes open.  I would dose, balanced with the motions of the vehicle, drop a bit to far into sleep, jolt awake to keep from falling from my seat, dose, balance and then get rocked into the air, spine compressed, from a horrendous jut in the road.  Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

The final hour of the trip was an anxious one.  I kept seeing views I wanted pictures of.  I was tired of the dust.  I was hungry.  After a few more bends in the road, (the river was a thousand feet below having cut an enormous valley for itself) the frequency of villages increased.  Fields and cattle and a few yaks appeared.  Every now and then a man would give a whistle for a stop.  But where were we? Where were they headed? To that pile of rocks over there? Oh, to that solitary tent?

…After finding my guest house in Kaza, I ventured out to find food… momos (veggies dumplings).  There, I met Jampu – well-dressed, even stylish in his jeans and black motor-cycle jacket - an exiled Tibetan - he left in 1993 - who now lives in McLeod Ganj (The headquarters of the exiled Tibetan government).  He was passing through Kaza on his yearly travels to the surrounding monasteries to teach Tibetan language and grammar to the monks.  I asked him how Himachel Pradesh compared to Tibet:

“The Indian Himalayas are far more harsh than Tibet.  There is less water here, and the wind always blows.  In Tibet, we have beautiful grasslands.”

In between long pauses to joke and play with the kids, showing them videos on his semi-smart phone, he talked about the Tibetan populations in this area (around 75%), recalls his meeting with His Holiness, The Dali Lama in 2010 (“He pulled me aside and said ‘Jampu, let us take a moment together,”) and tells me how important it is to visit Tibet “to see what the Chinese government is doing… so horrible (grabbing his throat as if to choke himself).”

After dinner, I left for further exploration of Kaza but not before I had him write a few phrases in Tibetan in my journal.  “Good luck.” “Good morning.” “Good afternoon.” “Good night.” “How are you?”

And on a separate page:

”Go and enjoy good travels.”

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


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