What’s so special about a jeep? Especially an open top version that vibrates so much that your teeth might work themselves loose, that gathers so much dust that insides soon begin to look like a poor imitation of the Sahara desert? Well, unless you’re a bit of a Crocodile Dundee with a sense of adventure, you wouldn’t really figure that one out. You’d rather be ensconced in the comfort of the leather seats of your luxury car. I, on the other hand, along with a score of jeep enthusiasts, would rather be eating dust and bouncing along on trails in an attempt to get to places where those luxury cars won’t dare to tread.
So indeed it was a dream come true when one morning my editor called me into his cabin, handed me the keys to the Mahindra Thar and said, “Here is your working vacation...” What made things even more exciting was the fact that the car was not being given for just another test drive but for a special drive to Asia’s highest continuously inhabited village – Komic, from the national capital.
At over 14,000ft above sea level Komic is as removed from the clamour and din of the world we inhabit down in the plains as one can ever imagine. It’s remote and desolate, exuding an aura that borders on the mournful. But at the same time it is beautiful in a way that is totally breathtaking. These twin aspects combine to create that sense of heady mysticism that we had mentioned before. But to be able to see all that I had found out from my own research about the place, I had to get there first.
From Delhi there are two routes that one can choose to travel on to get to Komic. One is via Shimla, which takes you to Rampur in the Kinnaur Valley, Reckong Peo, Nako and then to Kaza in the Lahaul-Spiti Valley. From Kaza it’s just about 30km to Komic. The other route will take you to Manali from where you cross the treacherous Rohtang La before you get to the tiny village of Koksar. At Koksar the road bifurcates, one going to Keylong, Jispa and then onwards to Leh. The other heads towards Kunzum La, Losar, Key Monastery and then Kaza. Rather than take the same route on the way up as well as down, we decided, all in the name of adventure, to explore both routes. So, on the way up we would take the Manali route, while on the way down we would return via Shimla.
There’s a choice even in the road to Manali. One can take the longer route, which will see you pass through the heart of Chandigarh and on to the hill station. On this route the roads are good and one can make quick time. But we weren’t there to make a quick time. Rather we were in search of adventure. So we decided to head towards Kalka and then turn off on to NH21A from Pinjore, just a few kilometres before Kalka. Though a national highway, the 66km on NH21A between Pinjore and Swarghat is poorly surfaced and for the better part is one bumpy, potholed stretch. So by the time we had hit good roads again at Swarghat, we were already achy all over. We reached Manali sometime in the evening, in part thanks to our having taken a shorter and much slower and painfully badly surfaced route.
Setting off early in the morning is a norm when touring in the hills but as I’m more of a nocturnal person to ‘rise and shine’ was the last thing on my mind. But anticipation for adventure ensured that I too was up early and ready to steer the Thar through the high passes of Rohtang, at 13,054ft, and Kunzum, which at over 15,000ft is not only the highest pass in this region but is also the gateway to the Spiti Valley, en route to Kaza.
The route from Manali to Kaza, via Rohtang, Koksar and Losar is far from a smooth drive. In fact from the amount of tarmac one actually encounters, one could easily brand the route as an off-road section! Nonetheless, the almost non-stop views of snow capped peaks kept our mind away from the bumpy earth below.
In fact there seemed to be little maintenance work having been done on the 157km stretch of road (if it can be called that) connecting Koksar with Kaza. Further ahead we realised that not all of the winter ice and snow had been cleared off and soon we found ourselves steering the jeep through treacherously slippery ice and snow.
No sooner had we cleared the snow and breathed a sigh of relief we saw the road ahead blocked by a pile of rocks! This is when we discovered how invaluable a go-anywhere jeep can be in these terrains. We slotted the Thar into 4WD and rumbled forward bypassing the rocky pile and into slush. Ahead we saw clear flowing water and it was only then that it dawned on us that the stone road block was there because the bridge across the stream ahead had been washed away! Again, we make it across safely, albeit gingerly.
There were many more such worrying moments as the road was virtually non-existent till Losar. Not to mention sudden sharp turns that elicited gasps and sometimes even shrieks from some of the co-passengers. To be fair, there were some stretches of tarmac but they soon disappeared as we steadily progressed towards Kunzum La.
Kunzum itself was sheer majesty. If Rohtang La had awed us with its treacherous mud and slush and towering walls of ice, Kunzum La was magnificent, surrounded as it was by giant mountains that dwarfed even the most fearsome mountain that our imaginations had led us to expect.
In this terrain the Thar, with us in it, felt like a mere speck. It is at places like these that one realises the sheer power of Mother Nature over us, despite all our advances in technology.
Across the Kunzum, we were finally into the Spiti Valley - a long valley, walled in by sky-scraping crests, its language, landscape and culture are more Tibetan than Indian. At Losar we took a quick pit stop and filled ourselves with some light snacks that would also double up as lunch and steaming cups of tea. Our next stop would be Key monastery.
Established over a millennium ago in circa 1000AD, the Key Gompa, or monastery, is not only the oldest but also the largest monastery of Spiti. It is also a reputed training centre for lamas, Buddhist monks. Indeed the monastery can house nearly 250 lamas throughout the year. The fortress like monastery itself is a sight to behold, perched on a high mount overlooking the winding Spiti river below.
But our destination was Kaza and so the torturous journey continued for another 12 odd kilometres. Weary though we were our exhaustion quickly gave way to exhilaration at Kaza for it is from here that you can enjoy the best views of the Spiti Valley.
As nightfall approached the air got colder and soon after darkness fell it became freezing. Chilled to the bone from the biting cold, we all sought the warmth of many blankets as we settled in for the night.
The following morning the excitement in the air was palpable. After all the adventure and hardships of the past two days, today we would drive to Komic – our final destination on this journey before we head back down. Like in the days past, the road to Komic turned out to be no road at all but more of a gravel trail full of debris. Further ahead even the trail disappeared but we continued on our adventure and made our own road forward, a freedom that the Thar’s rugged construction and go-anywhere ability allows us to do.
It was like being on the moon, our mobile phones had lost signal (only BSNL works here, that too sporadically) and there wasn’t another human being in sight for as far as the eyes could see. In fact we didn’t see any signs of inhabitation till we reached a fenced village called Langza. Fenced, we were told by the weather beaten people of Langza, to keep at bay snow leopards that often came prowling. Wonderful though the village was, Kaza beckoned to the adventurer in us and we responded with full ardour.
Though breathtakingly beautiful in its starkness, things can get taxing at Komic. At such high altitudes and situated in a landscape devoid of any substantial vegetation the air was rarefied. As a result breathing was laboured and the sun seemed to shine brighter with less air to absorb it.
Despite the hostile natural environment the inhabitants of Komic seemed to find solace in their isolation from the rest of world below.
On the return leg, our next destination was Tabo, which was around 45km from Kaza. At Kaza we refuelled the Thar at what is the world’s highest fuel pump at 12,270ft above sea level before heading off to ancient Tabo.
The village is famous for its 1,012-year-old monastery, which is a seat of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1996, the Tabo monastery celebrated its thousand years with a Kalachakra ceremony, presided over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
For those with a sense of history, Tabo, with its numerous temples is a veritable treat. Having explored the monastery to our heart’s content we got back behind the wheel of the able Thar and threaded our way along the mountains to Gue.
Gue was of special significance, for not only was it an ancient and important site of Tibetan Buddhism but also the location of a 500-year-old mummy of a monk! For the last half a millennium this monk has been sitting, perfectly preserved in death, in meditation and in search of nirvana. But here luck ran out.
Just 100 metres from the entrance to Gue Village a lanadslide had wiped out the road and with it our chances of gazing upon the mummified monk’s sightless eyes.
More than a little dejected we continued our journey downwards through Nako – the largest village in the desolate Hangrang Valley. After driving non-stop for quite a while, we reached the tiny village of Khab, situated on the confluence of the Spiti and Sutlej rivers.
As we crossed the lone bridge that stretches over confluence the landscape around us began to transform itself for we had left the moonscape of Spiti behind and ahead lay the lush greenery of Kinnaur.
The road meanwhile continued to be dangerous but we were enjoying the beautiful scenery around far too much for the dangers to really bother us.
Our blissful journey though came to a dead halt at a point where the road had been constructed over a shelf that was blocked thanks to a fresh rock slide. We waited for a while for help to arrive but pretty soon it became clear that there would be no one to help really. So we got our own backs into it and started clearing the road.
By the end we had been driven to exhaustion but to our joy we realised we had managed to open a gap that was just about wide enough for the Thar to pass through. The roads did get better as we neared a village called Puh but we could only sigh with relief after we reached Kanam.
The sole purpose of Kanam’s existence seemed to be scriptural learning for this ancient village was a complete monastic village. Established in the 11th century when Rin Chen Bzang Po founded a centre for scholastic learning here, Kanam is a storehouse of ancient knowledge and its monasteries are revered far inside Western Tibet too.
From Kanam we headed to another 1,000-year-old monastery in Kalpa where we had also called it a day the evening before. Set against the backdrop of the majestic Mount Kailash, the holy abode of lord Shiva according to Hindu mythology, Kalpa with its ancient monastery and myriad waterfalls wove its own magic around our collective senses.
The rest of the route became progressively less adventurous as we headed to Narkanda, on to Barog and finally back to Delhi. Looking back, the journey into little Tibet was fraught with danger, bad roads and a total removal from my regular world. No Facebook, no calls, nor SMS-es. It should have been frightening, but it wasn’t. In fact it was strangely liberating.
Indeed this had been a very special trip. Special because I had done it in a special vehicle - the Mahindra Thar. Special, because I am a woman who had dared to tread where many a brave man may have cowered and have come back to tell you, our reader, all about the beauty of those magical places high up in lands that rise above the clouds and the wonderful memories that I will have of them forever.