A SPIN AROUND SPITI

WILLIAM McKAY AITKEN

THE SUBJECT OF motorbikes and their base exhausts polluting the virginal silence of the mountains is a sour topic currently adding to the frost level on the moustaches of icy Alpine purists. While not disputing the folly of spoiling mountain trails there is a lot to be said for using a motorbike for manoeuvrability in the traffic-less parts of the Himalaya to get a general picture of the range. (Can anyone honestly say he has enjoyed the abusive ride in the back of a truck that bounces you to the abominable roadhead ?) At least on a bike you retain some dignity and most important of all can squeeze out interesting side tracks where the elephantine expedition machine will never qo.

The aim of my circuit round Spiti was to kill two buttocks with one saddle. I had acquired a 100 cc Indo-Japanese bike for in-town running and wanted to test its rural potential. If Spiti seems an excessively rural choice I chose it because I knew it could be done on a bigger bike. Romesh Bhattacharji had done it years ago on a 250 cc and had not reported anything that seemed insuperable - unless the smaller bike fell apart. (Isn"t that what road tests are all about ? ) Frankly (and events were to prove me correct) there was more danger of me falling apart than the bike.

Comfort came in the form of reading up Harish Kapadia's accounts of his Spiti visits in the Himalayan Journal and more to the point, I latched on to the excellent maps of Arun Samant.1 The first great problem was getting permission for this Inner Line area. Everyone said I would have to hang around in Shimla for a week while the bureaucrats hoped I would get tired. Conscientious travellers have learned that babus are also human and that the sensible way to interact is to arrange a situation where your application is a welcome relief from boredom. I decided it was worth a try to apply for the permit in Keylong where the Deputy Commissioner is much less pressurised than in the frantic portals of Shimla's collectorate.

I rolled the bike into the DC’s compound after the hot dusty ride from Kulu. carefully combed my residual hair in the bike mirror and clumped up the deserted steps of the appointed office. I had taken the trouble to have the application typed in Kulu and handed this to an astonished chaprassj who was unaccustomed to taking his hands out of his pockets. Fifteen minutes later I clumped back down the echoing steps and grinned at myself in the mirror. I had beaten the system.

1. H.J. Vol. 40. p. 96and Vol. 44,p. 96, -Ed.

With my two-week permit tucked away, the next problem was spare petrol. I couldn't expect any between Manali and Rampur, a circuit of some 500 km. To add to the exacerbation, the road out via Rampur in Kinnaur was decisively broken. A new bridge, proudly declared open in June had been washed away by a flash flood within a matter of weeks of its commissioning. On top of this the orchardists of Kinnaur were agitating for better rates for their apples and traffic on the return leg from Spiti was coming in for a lot of public hammering.

But first the problem was to get to Spiti. I tooled back to Gramphoo from Keylong and sailed right past the turn-off. Gramphoo was not a village but a shop ! The road changed from bad to worse then to incredibly awful. Though 1 didn't carry luxuries like a puncture outfit (experience has taught that it's easier to heft the broken-down bike on the back of an empty truck) I had taken the precaution of seeing the tyres were in good nick. They had to be for the surface up to Batal was like traversing the ruins of the Crystal Palace with great sharpened shards of flint gaping at our progress like stakes leering out of a defensive ditch. The ride was made more excruciating by the weight of water you had to ride through in the middle of the day. It was frightening to head into a deep ford not knowing how far under the wheel would go and whether the surging submerged rocks would not mangle the outcome. I gave the course up as too desperate after 50 km and parked the bike outside the dhaba tent at Chattru. The altitude added to the strain and instead of basking in the sight of the Bara Shigri peaks I went in and lay down, not knowing whether to feel more sorry for myself or the bike.

Next morning I was off at six, again earning the bike a good beating as she gamely croaked up to Chota Dara before the serious melt began. The road here was atrocious and as we bounced crazily over the huge cobbles we were battered into a state of drunkenness by this unforgiving climb to the headwaters of the Chandra. I knew at least that my greatest fear - the Kunzum la - couldn't be worse than this. In fact it turned out to be fairly straightforward. The bike had won her laurels in Lahul and the run down the river Spiti was to be bonus points.

A day was spent in Batal dhaba trying to pluck up the energy for a visit to Chandra tal but I decided my headache (not to mention piles) did not need the aggravation of tourist heroics. The lake wasn't going to go away whereas my permit was time-bound. The climb up to the pass was a zigzag over an ugly scree mountainside and the bike dismissed its near 5000 m ceiling with hardly a hiccup. The long tool down to Losar the first village of Spiti was done with a towering sense of relief and gratefulness that the high gears no longer needed to scream for fuel. Losar appeared in the surprisingly green valley with an almost Shangrila glow. Its Tibetan - style houses were beautifully painted and the people rushed out to greet this unexpected stranger. The police were also happy to get some diversion from their dreary round of checking the sole daily bus from Kulu.

Then the 50 km ride began down the magical valley to the capital Kaza. This run was magnificent for its artistic and geological impact, the Spiti river flowing wide in diverse channels between soft hued valleys of starkly beautiful pink rocks, their contrasting stratas standing out in the lucid and vastly peaceful spread of light that is upper Spiti. Even more mind-boggling than Ladakh this valley seemed like the stuff of dreams. I made a mess of my both camera efforts but now realise it would have made no difference. Such beauty is as far from celluloid reproduction as poetry from a computer read-out. It smites deep into the soul, an unforgettable diamond in the heart of the lotus. There are few things worth getting into the clutches of bureaucracy for and this part of Spiti is one of them.

Kaza turned out to be a singularly dreadful dump with huge ungainly buildings to announce that the government was investing funds in Spiti. Fortunately the local administrator turned out to be a charming host and ready to instruct anyone who wanted to learn more about this forgotten border area. Unlike Padum the capital of Zanskar the headquarters of Spiti has had no tourism to rescue it from the scruffy indifference of unhappy officials in a punishment posting. The village was totally faceless and it was a pleasure to ride out and visit the monastery of Ki. This lay some 15 km northeast of the dingy township and happened to be on the way to. Kibber, for many years the highest village in Asia. Behind this village lay the snowy range bordering Tibet and amongst its peaks was the much-reduced Shilla which was the scene of a remarkable Survey claim when a humble camp follower had struggled up to the summit to place his pole (apparently 3000 feet long!)2
South of Kaza lay the old capital of Spiti and famous cliff hanging monastery of Dankhar. Rather foolishly I had passed both before noticing them. The point being that the road was so- bad I only had eyes for its treacherous surface. Owing to the petrol crunch I didn't feel going back would make any sense. This also decided me from taking a new alignment west along the Pin river to see another monastery up that valley. Instead I toured on to Tabo some 50 km south of Kaza and the site of Spiti's oldest and mc*t famous gompa. Unusually this was situated on level ground above the river. Indeed the whole village is on the valley bottom. The murals here are extraordinarily fine and dating back more than a thousand years are amongst the best in trans - Himalayan art.

2 This refers to the climb of Shilla by an unnamed Khalasi in 1860. The height of Shiila was computed to be 23.064 ft, almost 3000 ft hi5her than the present height of 20,120 ft - 6132 m). See H.J. Vol. 40, p. 105 for Note on Shilla. - Ed.

Tabo lay near the southern boundary of Spiti and at Hurling the metal road began. Though welcome to the bike it was the end of the challenge as far as the rider was concerned. Even so the ride down the vast and windy spiral to where the Satluj meets the Spiti at Khab was a magnificent encounter with ultimate gorge scenery. Again foolishly - thanks to the dangerous loops and the sickening drops - I don't recall seeing the actual meeting of the two great rivers. Higher up near the border with Tibet at Sumdo I had mistaken the Pare Chu for the Satluj. Because of border neurosis I didn't carry a map and it was only when I got home and consulted Arun Samant's notings that I realised my mistake. The police at the Sumdo border check were quite sticky since they were unaccustomed to receiving permits made anywhere else except in Shimla. My itinerary was closely investigated and I was grateful I had not lingered longer up those inviting valleys to see gompas. My urge to meditate might have been reinterpreted as a cover for spying or smuggling yak-dung.

Upper Spiti is hardly a security problem (unlike Kinnaur which has a running road-border with Tibet), and everyone I spoke to, official or otherwise bemoaned the apathy of the government in not allowing tourism to enter the northern portion of Spiti - well away from the southern check post. The locals feel badly discriminated against; hardly the sort of mood any sensible policy would want to encourage in these forgotten areas. Passing into Kinnaur I spent a night at Pooh the famous village which once commanded the trade route with Tibet. Today the village continues to be wealthy oh the strength of its superior variety of apples.

My footsteps were dogged by a devoted enquirer into my movements and his face fell almost as dramatically as the spill of the gorge when he learnt I was a friend of Bhattacharjee who had led expeditions to the local peaks. (He has since become a very senior and respectable government servant). My footstep-dogger admitted almost tearfully that he was local military intelligence. (Presumably he hoped by nabbing me to get promotion). Pooh was a delightfully friendly village and the rest of Kinnaur proved to be equally bountiful in human kindness. Around Kalpa (where I was held up by a apple hartal) I discovered what must be India's most prosperous hill-station, with rumours of Sven Hedin's autograph carved into the billiard table. (No wonder he lost his knighthood !)

As a climax to the bike's unfaltering performance we came to the broken bridge near Solding. Because of its light weight 1 could pay to sling the Kawasaki - Bajaj across the void on a wire rope winched by the PWD. As a final bonus to the ride the new wide road out of Shimla provided a full grown leopard appearing in front of my wheel near Kandaghat at 7"p.m. He leapt on to the hillside as I drew up ten yards away, fell off almost alongside, then with the growl of an inadequate rock climber whose ego has taken a toss he loped off blaming (like a good Alpinist) all his troubles on the advent of motorbikes in the hills.

SUMMARY

A motorbike ride across Spiti in 1990 by the author who lives in New

Delhi.