The journey to this moment started rather uneventfully. My friend Rati, on the mend after a spate of bad mental health, suggested a mountain holiday. I jumped at the opportunity and suggested Spiti since I had nursed a fascination for the place after seeing it featured in a flop Hindi movie. (Yes, Bombayites unfortunately live in their own cinematic chimera, even when they think they hate Bollywood!). There was an added delight of an impossibly handsome, charming and younger visiting New Yorker, Nick who I sort of fancied (and hoped was fancied back by!). When he accepted my invitation to join us on the holiday there was all the making of a fall romance alongwith a breezy mountain adventure and Rati and I spent many giggly afternoons discussing wildly imaginary possibilities.
Also as luck would have it Rati had a friend Vishesh who had recently started a travel company arranging tours to Spiti and a flurry of emails, bank transfers and phone calls set up the entire holiday and before I knew it I was sauntering around purani dilli hitting the qilas and masjids before we all met up at Connaught Place to take our overnight bus to Manali.
The 16-hour journey was spent largely sleeping, gingerly attending calls of nature in a roadside dhaba loo and discussing Rati’s latest serious crush who she seemed convinced was the ‘perfect on paper’ guy for her. At that time it was the usual girlie dissection of a crush. I didn’t see the obsessiveness lurking around the corner.
We reached Manali and to our delight had bypassed ‘new’ Manali with its hordes of sweater-clad Punjabi tourists, kachori stalls and unimaginative motels for the winding slopes of ‘old’ Manali dotted with Israeli restaurants, German bakeries, free-spirited international tourists, internet cafes with book exchange racks and cafes with floormats and board games to be played by friends and strangers alike. It was Goa without the ocean, enough said! Our hotel Tigers Eye resort was a charming wood structure bang in the middle of Manali village and no mean challenge to find after dusk since there were no street lights of any sort as we groped our way through narrow alleys and gutters to reach back to safety.
Maybe it was the mountain air but everything tasted wholesome and looked beautiful. We wolfed down piles of buttered toast and eggs in the hotel, headed to a local restaurant for some Manali trout, shopped for locally stitched dresses and jackets and felt the warmth of the general bonhomie creep over us like a fuzzy blanket. Nick managed to score a joint from a fellow foreigner and we stood in the nippy cold outside the restaurant sharing spliffs, animated chats, and sidelong glances. It was going to be a wonderful trip!
The next morning our trusty steed the Toyota Innova was ready with our driver _________. We didn’t know then that together we would be taking the journey of a lifetime. We set off like typical cheery tourists, singing film songs, exchanging city gossip and alternately napping. The landscape in front of our eyes changed from tall verdant trees and rippling streams to vast stretches of arid mountains, studded with boulder and rocks, unsparing in its bareness, crunching below the car tyres, reminding us that with every minute we were leaving our city trappings behind for good. As if marking the transition we reached the high point of Kunzum La which marks entry and exit to Spiti Vally and has a temple where one prays for a safe journey when leaving or entering this remote mountainous area, barely hours away from the Chinese border, dwarfed by more glamorous mountainous destinations like Leh, Ladakh, Hrishikesh etc.
When we finally made it to Kaza, the main town in the Spiti valley our hotel seemed like an oasis amidst the barrenness of the terrain. Sakya Abode was basic but comfortable. Whitewashed walls, rooms set along a corridor on 2 levels with an enclosed courtyard garden, and a common dining room crammed with furniture, television, plastic flowers, and a few books – all non-English. In fact that’s where I first spotted the ubiquitous cover of Girl With A Dragon Tattoo in Swedish. And then there was my favourite occupant ever, owner and host Tsering Bodh’s barely year old son who i nicknamed ‘momo’ after one look as his cottony soft cheeks threatening to collapse under their own weight!
After a shower and a hearty meal of thukpa we were raring to go for the days ahead. There would be visits to the Kye monastery and Tao and Khibber villages, even a home stay if it could be winged from the quiet industrious local people. However sudden heavy and incessant snowfall for the next 5 days would derail all plans and set in motion new ones.
We woke up the next day to a white world!
What seemed like a cosy interlude soon turned into a lock-in. The roads had been blocked due to landslides – the arid soil had nothing to hold it together and had slid on to the roads with the force of the snow. Kaza already had no mobile reception besides BSNL but 2 days of snow shut off BSNL mobile and landline services. Except for a lone (and suddenly very busy!) internet cafe hooked up through satellite we had no contact with the outside world.
Days turned into a week and return plans had to be hastily changed and tickets rebooked. Gluey days stretched and merged into one another. There was momos for breakfast, showers on alternate days with hot water often AWOL, bundling up in umpteen layers of clothing and catching fleeting moments of sunlight on the patio, going through books ravenously accompanied by endless glasses of seabuckthorn tea – both out of boredom as well as a release from Rati’s endless recantations about the guy du jour and his vagaries. We tried little outings to a neighbouring monastery and a hilltop temple and cream rolls at the Kaza marketplace but time stretched interminably.
There was also a subtle play that had entered our three-way equation. I had pulled back on Nick, not wanting the claustrophobia of our forced inactivity to turn uncomfortable with undercurrents of unresolved attraction. However that gap suddenly sprouted hints of flirtation between Rati and Nick. Was it him? Was it her? Or was it me going mad due to inertia? What I couldn’t tell I drowned in copious amounts of Old Monk and local Godfather beer.
Our sparsely occupied hotel started filling up as well and soon resembled a refugee centres with foreign tourists from various treks and cycling trips coalescing to this oasis of warmth and food waiting for the snow to let up and regular life to be let in. And then started the rumours of food and fuel running out in Kaza. Our host, the charming and soft-spoken Tsering assured us of plentiful of both but we knew these things were not in his hands. Reports from the PWD were tardy and conflicting. A local mountain guide Robin who had come in with a couple of French cyclists had the most prized possession of the day – a satellite phone – which he used to reschedule flights and try and find updated road situations.
Finally after 10 days of nail-biting inertia i decided to take the plunge alongwith a couple of other tourists and brave the drive down to Manali the next day, a Wednesday. Rati chose to stay on a few more days till the roads had been cleared for good since she didn’t want to risk being stranded. I was getting increasingly claustrophobic, both with the inertia and the unsaid emotional subtext between her Nick and me and wanted out. I had a fitful night of sleep and woke up in the wee hours to hushed voices. Since childhood the sound of hushed voices talking things not meant for my ears had always held a special terror for me and this was no different. There was Rati and Nick outside my window and I was there as well . . . or my name at least! I didn’t want to be discussed, I didn’t want to play out a tussle, I just wanted to get out and go home. I covered my ears with the double blankets and pushed myself back into sleep.
Vishesh would tell me nearly 2 years later that they felt I had scored a round against Rati when Nick decided last minute to leave for Manali with me next morning. I didn’t see victory, I just saw Rati’s pursed-lipped disappointment as she stood in the hotel corridor in her trademark polo neck sweater and a flowing ethnic skirt, and her large feet encased in colourful Spiti socks and shoved into humungous floaters. I didn’t know then that it was the last I would see of her ever.
It was a cheery enough cavalcade of close to 12 cars that headed along a deceptively sunny morning. Our first bump was at the Lohsar check post where the jawans refused to let us through citing weather hazards. We were indignant and adamant. We would make it to civilisation, come what may. We didn’t have time or petrol to waste. After a flurry of bureaucratic phone calls and suspicious checks we were let through and proceeded to Kunzum La. The snow which had been cleared lay 6 feet high by the roadside. We photographed away with childlike amazement. Even as the cars reached a halt at Kunzum La Nick got to making ice sculptures of Ganesha and I stared spellbound at roadside icicles with deep hearts of phosphorescent blue. It was almost like the snow was emanating light and I was transfixed. And before we knew it was 4pm and daylight was threatening to retreat. There was news that the road was blocked ahead. Many cars turned back and only 5 cars remained on a dogged journey onwards. By then it was clear that we wouldnt reach Manali by nightfall. There were murmurs of a night stop at Batal and in my naiveté I imagine a rudimentary but concrete structure, maybe a basic guesthouse, anything with a bed and a bathroom. I was of course laughably off track (pun unintended!).
The descent from Kunzum to Batal was cold, tortuous and never-ending. The hairpin bends threatened to give away every moment and save for the car headlights there was no light to guide us even to hell. Presence of mind in times of adversity is a rare commodity but it kicked in for our fellow traveller, British cyclist and intrepid Indophile Tom who came over to ensure that I had adequate winter wear (barely) and very generously lent me his Gore-Tex jacket for the rest of the journey and later even his sleeping bag. I can safely say that Tom and Gore-Tex saved my life in the days and hours to come! As our car failed to clear the rut on the slopes, we left our bags in the locked Innova and piled onto another Tata Sumo to navigate our way to Batal. As luck would have it even the Sumo gave way in the snow, almost careening off the road in the process. As we trudged through ankle-deep snow in that pitch dark I came closest to despair that I had ever been, for the first time thinking that we could never be able to leave this snowscape and actually perish. Batal turned out to be a tarpaulin hut run by a local couple selling biscuits and toothpaste and serving the most delicious dal-rice, aloo parathas and homemade fern pickle ever. It would be one of the best-tasting meals of my life. We also met other stranded travellers, a group of bikers at Chandrataal lake who had been stranded for the past 10 days in a pre-fab hut at Batal, using the arid snow covered plains as drawing room, bathroom and playground rolled into one.
Sleeping crushed between these strange unwashed bodies, huddled next to my driver, peeing in the wide open without a care for cover or modesty, relying on Wet Wipes as the only semblance of cleanliness, were all unforgettable lessons in humility and the falseness of the divisions we maintain so assiduously on the plains. (Yes I had started thinking of life in the hills and on the plains as two different worlds altogether and the ignorance of the latter was revealed in its full glory!).
There were many more false starts, stalled cars, avalanches, hopelessness and the incessant biting cold but we eventually emerged out to Manali, 60 hours after we had set out of Kaza. My face had been tanned black by the winter sun, with only two white patches where my faux Jackie O sunglasses had been perched. As a result I looked like a battle-worn Mickey Mouse. I couldn’t care less as long as i had a loo, a bath and a meal with a glass of wine at the same restaurant we had dined in before leaving for Spiti. It had barely been two weeks but everything felt altered. Everything felt precious and transient. Nick and I basked in the warm yellow glow of lamplights. We planned things to do on my next NY trip, played our old Sex and the City quiz (we both claimed to be experts on the series!) and felt bonded by survival. We had stories which only we could share and understand.
As we left Manali for Delhi the next day there was hope in the air again. But a lot of things had changed forever.
A few weeks later, Nick had returned to NYC, Rati had had a brief fling with Nick and retreated into her manias and delusions and I had survived both the heartbreak and betrayal without losing my dignity though I came dangerously close. Rati and I lost our friendship and it took me two years to write this account.
But the arid beauty of Spiti remains engraved in my heart. As does the quiet dignity of the indigenous people, where even the oldest people choose to work and live on their own or in aged homes rather than burden the next generation. They eat what they grow and are an example of self reliance in a badly integrated ‘global’ world. No amount of snowfall or human vagaries can wipe out their memories.
Maybe I will return one day, maybe I won’t. But that hardly matters. It’s the journey and not the destination after all, as bumper sticker will tell you!
Deblina Chakrabarty is an entertainment industry professional by day and a writer at heart, propelled by her keen interest in human nature in all it’s glory and grime.