It had been decided that Key and Dhankar were the two monasteries we would visit on this beautiful Sunday. There was a small twist in the tale – the owner of the hotel had put in our heads the name of a third monastery – Lalung. He said it was more off the beaten path and had a fascinating 900-year-old collection of gold plated Buddha statues. The directions were in our back pocket as we started towards the breathtaking Key Gompa.
It is about a 45-minute drive further upstream along the Spiti river and right before the turn for the drive up the hill there is a majestic view that people come all the way to see. The white Monastery sits atop its hill like it was the snow-covered peak with many mountains forming a brown protective cover like the petals of a flower. Unbelievable! It is a living Monastery, so you can walk in, see the monks praying and going about their lives. You can also get invited into the dark kitchen and be served this amazing herbal tea. The remoteness of the place means it gets only a handful of visitors at any time. It’s a wonderful place to walk around and soak in its amazing tranquility and peaceful whiteness. However, the view from a distance remains a photographer’s dream come true.
Very close to Key is the village of Kibber, which till fairly recently was the highest motorable village of India, till a new road was built somewhere else to a higher village. At over 14500 feet, it is quite an experience to be able to just drive into Kibber. Once you soak in the fabulous scenery and take a picture of the board that shows its altitude, you realize how normal life seems. Children are playing, dogs are running around and people going about their jobs, all ignoring the handful of visitors like us. It is an amazing place for people photography as there is a stunning backdrop to everything.
As we drove out of Key, we stopped again to get a last glimpse of the amazing white peak. We drove back to Kaza for an early lunch and some tinkering with the car’s coolant. It was during this stop that a split-second decision was made to stop by the lesser-known Lalung before making our way to Dhankar – it was ‘on the way’. The definition of that phrase will need to be stretched quite a bit for it to hold. The path to Lalung was a complete dirt track on the ends of a mountain, at points dangerous and mostly barely traversable. It took us a while, but we got there. At the outset, it was a very ordinary-looking place with small huts surrounding a tree we knew to be holy and historic – one of the saplings of the tree under which Buddha was enlightened. There was not a soul to be seen. We were about to head back when we spotted a monk and spoke very nicely and told us about the place. He spoke of the gold plated buddhas but mentioned that there was a ticket to see them. We paid 100 bucks apiece and he produced a key and opened the lock to a small dark room lit by a single electric bulb. The light showed over numerous Buddha statues that rested over platforms in multiple levels all along the wall. A couple of larger statues were in the center of the room but the magic of the room lay in the smaller statues and the aura they formed all around. It was almost too dark to click and flash wasn’t allowed, but we clicked whatever we could at max ISO and aperture and hoped for the best. The crazy adventure had proven to be worth the dust and sweat.
If the path from Kaza to Lalung was hard, a different level of adventure awaited us on the drive to Dhankar. The road climbed up tirelessly and got even dustier with sharp turns and a very low grip for the tires in the gravel. The legend goes that the significance of a monastery was directly proportional to how hard it was to get it. Dhankar would easily win that contest and the road did full justice to that majestic shot of a cliff overlooking the Spiti river with a small looking monastery on top. The monastery is larger than it seems from the ground, just because the cliff hides most of it. I don’t have a good shot of the monastery from the river level but I did get a wonderful shot of the river from the roof of the monastery. The monastery itself is quite simple and looks more like a large house spread across some large rocks on top of a cliff.
We got back to Kaza late evening and then had time for some rare relaxation and a walk around the city. We walked over to the local BRO (Border Roads Organization) office to check if the road ahead was motorable, they said it was. Dinner was in the same place that we had first found light in Kaza. This was possibly our last day away from the crowd. The day after we planned to rise early and cross Kunzum pass to end up in Manali by evening – usually a very crowded hill station.
We started early in the hope of making it to Manali by early evening, there was always a risk of not finding a hotel in Manali because of peak season and then we would have to drive further to Kullu. We were basically retracing the path to Key from the day prior for the first 30 minutes but then we carried on next to the Spiti river The pass itself was a majestic drive with snow-covered mountains all along and the traditional decoration of multi-colored paper frills. We did the symbolic circumambulation of the spirit of the pass to signify good luck. Then began a treacherous downhill drive with terrible road conditions. Once we hit the better road we decided to stop for a much delayed breakfast at a roadside place where we hoped to get some Parathas and Maggi. Instead, we got some terrible news – a glacier had slid down and blocked the road ahead and they expected it would take 2/3 days to open up.
That would upset all plans. We had a quick breakfast and decided to still go ahead to check it out and see if the 4×4 would help. A short drive later we got the clear answer – NO. The glacier was massive and fully buried the road. We probably would need snowmobiles to cross it. Our SUV was standing against a 6 feet tall wall of snow and there was no way we could cross it. There was no cell signal there and so staying there was also not viable. We decided to make a dash back towards Shimla and cover whatever we could today. We started back and came across some of the same people we had seen every other day – all in the same precarious situation. The climb up the broken road to Kunzum seemed a little easier and soon we were in Kaza having a fabulous lunch. That is when my friend decided to top up the coolant in the SUV. That made for an adventure in itself with scalding hot coolant almost rushing out on his body – missed by a second. We probably spent a few hours outside of the highest altitude petrol pump in India sorting this out before we got back on the road. We drove past the lovely Nako and down all those switchbacks in the hurry to get as close to Shimla as we could, keeping in mind the bypass we had to manage. Little did we know that our adventures weren’t over. Just as we approached Pooh, there was a fresh landslide blocking the road. This one was of large boulders and the BRO officials weren’t sure how long it would take to clear them. One said it could take days – they had to blast away the rocks as they were too big to be moved.
We were stuck between two landslides about 300 km apart and we didn’t know which one would open first. Those were the only two roads home. Once cab driver happily told anyone who would listen, stories about being stuck behind a landslide in the area for 26 days. We realized there was no cellphone signal there but the locals said that across the landslide was a village where we could call home from. Then began one of the most dangerous things I have ever done. We walked across the landslide – about 50 meters on a one-foot wide rocky track with a 100-meter drop into Sutlej on one side and the large boulders on the other. One wrong step and you would be news. We did survive and it was getting dark by the time we made it back to the car. We had an option to stay in the village of Pooh but didn’t want to leave the car alone. We drove back up to Nako and spent the night in a beautiful room with a stunning view of the village and the mountains.
We woke up to a beautiful day, a little nervous about how long the Landslide was going to take. I hadn’t slept too well so I walked down from the hotel for a cup of tea and ended up in a long conversation with a cab driver who we had come across in various places during the journey. We found this small restaurant with a patio overlooking a stream for some amazing breakfast. At about noon we got some news that the last of the boulders may be removed soon. We got back into the car and made our way down to Pooh. It took about an hour of waiting at the site before the road was opened and we zoomed away, homeward.
We didn’t really have a target on where to get to, in mind but we did want to get to Spillo where the cell service would restore and then out of the area where the mountains were prone to landslides. That worked out well and we realized that if we made it through to the road diversion about an hour or two ahead, we could possibly make it to Rampur today. We had taken note of the opening timing for the road and it was going to be a race against time to make it or we would wait another 2 hours there. We did make it and because of the fast driving, even got quite close to Rampur by around 8. We stopped at a roadside eatery just before Rampur for dinner in an area that was completely dark, except for a small bulb that lit the outside of the Dhaba. This was the best rajma rice I have had. Maybe it was the hunger but this is the dish Himachal is most famous for.
Once well-fed and refreshed, we actually decided to make a dash all the way up to Narkanda in the night. We called ahead to the same circuit house we had stayed in and the caretaker agreed to hold a nice room for us. It is actually easier to drive up a lot of swingbacks in the night as you can see the lights of oncoming vehicles a lot ahead. We got to the circuit house by about 11:30 where a lovely suite was waiting for us. I had made it a habit to shower before I slept – the roads were very dusty, so it helped to clean up and it saved time in the morning. I slept quickly for the last time on the trip…
We got up by 5 and were on the way by 5:30, to beat the Shimla traffic. It was raining hard and the scenery on the descent was looking amazing. We stopped for a quick breakfast of parathas and then to buy some amazing locally made fruit wine at an HPMC store. The final sprint on the plains was quite uneventful, except for another round of Parathas at Sukhdev Dhaba.
Some memories are truly forever…