Today certainly felt like the road less travelled – the majority of the 180 or so km to Kaza, in the Spiti valley, was on unmade roads, so it was a long and bumpy day. Hotam wanted an early start this morning because, rather ominously, he’d been told there was water on the road – it turns out that the later in the day you leave it, the more glacial meltwater is flowing across the road. Our early start meant we met several herds of sheep, goats and cows being taken along the road to their pastures. They seem completely oblivious to their shepherd’s shouting and stick-waving and to car horns beeping…
Our route takes us first along the Bhaga river until its confluence with the Chandra, then we head up the Chandra itself. Glaciers nestle in many of the high mountains around us, feeding dramatic waterfalls and streams.
Every inch of land lower down has been terraced and healthy crops of potatoes and peas flourish. It’s easy to see why the ‘Potato Growers Association of Lahaul’ were sponsors of yesterday’s festival. I’m enjoying the greenery after the brown palate of Ladakh, but John is worried about what it’s obscuring! There are still some dramatic meta-sediments to see though.
We follow the Chandra all the way to Grampchu, where the road to Manali heads up towards the Rohtang pass. First we have to stop at the police checkpoint at Khoksar. Hotam wants a cup of tea but we take the chance to wander down the road and look at rocks and plants. Himalayan balsam is starting to appear, in its natural habit, along with a new catmint, mallow and something that looks remarkably like Bird’s foot trefoil.
Yet again, my map deceives – it looks like we just follow the river along from Khoksat but, in reality, we climb high above it. The bonus is looking at the alpine-type grassland by the road, studded with tiny flowers. Eyebrights seem to predominate, but there is catmint and geraniums very like our Meadow Cranesbill too.
John says something like, ‘well the road can’t get any bumpier, just narrower’, just before we turn onto the Spiti road. However we soon see what Hotam means by water on the road. The steep track is a muddy morass and Hotam has to drive the car through impossibly deep ruts, whilst trying to avoid skidding.
The mud doesn’t last too long, but the water on the road does.
Glacial meltwater flowing across the road, with John for scale
A stop to look at the waterfall creating the problem does give me a chance for a quick photo of the white flower clothing so much of the slopes at the moment – Anaphalis nepalensis (also called Anaphalis triplinervis) – Nepal Pearly Everlasting.
We stopped for our second tea break at Chhatru, beside the river. Hotam picked up a friend here, which pleased us. His English is so limited that it’s impossible to converse without distracting him so at least he has someone to talk to now.
Himalayan balsam was cascading down the hillside here, following the damp ground beside water courses just as it does at home. There was pretty pink Sedum ewersii and wild strawberry plants nestling among the rocks too.
Himalyan balsam (left) and Sedum ewersii (right)
The road from here to Batal, at the base of Kunzum La pass, climbed gently along the river so there were no scary drops but no surface either – we were driving through the boulder field left behind by a glacier and huge piles of moraine line the valley sides.
Lateral moraine lining the ‘road’
We drove past one car with a European guy helping change a tyre and soon it was our turn – he waved regally as they sailed past whilst Hotam and his friend changed ours. It was drizzling by this time and quite cold, so we were glad they have changing tyres down to a fine art.
Our lunch stop at Batal was clean, snug and obviously popular and the tasty ‘curries of the day’ helped warm us up – vegetable curry, dal, beans and rice for two, two teas and two small bars of Dairy Milk came to 240 rupees – a little under £3.
These dhabas have tarpaulin roofs stretched over stone walls, I suspect because they are seasonal. The pass is shut from November to June so I don’t suppose there is much passing trade in winter and spring.
From Batal the road climbs in a long series of loops to the top of the pass, at 4550 m. The old road snakes up the other side of the valley – it’s easy to see why it is no longer in use. Maintaining a road through such unstable sediments must be a nightmare.
The old road up Kunzum La pass
The views from the top across to the glaciers on the Chandrabhaga mountains on the far side of the Chandra valley are spectacular.
There are three stupas and a small temple on top and tin can prayer wheels cleverly constructed with propeller blades to catch the breeze.
We get our first glimpse into the Spiti valley from the top and are amazed by the beautiful colours of the sedimentary rocks on the opposite side of the river flood plain as we descend to Losar.
I remark that these are the first nearly-horizontal sediments we’ve seen in a while but John points out that they only look horizontal because of the way the river has cut through a dome of sediment. Sure enough, when we get a side-on view, I can see the slope.
We have a final tea stop at Losar and I spot the distinctive fruits of Chenopodium foliosum on waste ground.
The houses in Losar look very much like those in Ladakh, with flat roofs piled up with drying fodder, so we feel quite at home. From Losar it’s around 60 km down the Spiti river to Kaza – more of a road now, so we make quicker progress, though we still have to cross the river and its tributaries several times and see more dramatically-coloured, folded and faulted sediments.
Cappuchin monk-like sediments line the river in places
In one stream we pick out what look like huge bivalve fossils in dark limestone.
Dark limestone with fossils – two rupee coin for scale
Many of the fields we pass have groups of people busy picking the peas which are the valley’s main cash crop.
We are a little disappointed to realise that our hotel, the Spiti Sarai, is about six km out of Kaza, rather in the middle of nowhere. We can’t face getting back in the car so decide to leave exploring Kaza until tomorrow, when we hope to visit the community centre which Joan Pollock helped fundraise for and maybe to walk up to Hikkim, where Chhering lives.
When we first arrive at the hotel there is no-one else around and it seems a bit like the Marie Celeste. We are put in adjacent rooms on the top (fourth) floor, having to face yet more queries about wanting two rooms. A girl we saw in the dhaba in Batal soon turns up to fill the third room on our floor, though she doesn’t emerge to talk. John describes the place as being half way between camping and a hotel, which is maybe a bit unfair, though a crack in my window has been repaired with Sellotape and there are wires poking out of the wall where you might expect a bedside lamp. John has no functioning shower so borrows mine and we both feel better for having washed off some of today’s dust. The bathroom is a wet room but the drainage is very slow so it’s like a paddling pool for a couple of hours after a shower. Pigeons crashing around on the tin roof take me straight back to vultures in Nigeria. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is no internet here.
No-one else is around when we turn up for dinner at 7.30 and its cold in the dining room so we don’t hang around. The food is much better than yesterday though – fried okra makes a nice addition to the usual dal and mixed vegetable curry. We again end up playing Bananagrams with our feet tucked up in duvets after dinner. I go to bed in leggings and T-shirt and my bed socks and am soon quite toasty.