Commander Sachin Pawar (Retd)
Commander Sachin Pawar: We always associate members of the armed forces with their valour. There is the no bigger and brighter word for our men and women of the armed forces than honour. And by honour, they stand and for honour, they die.
But have you ever heard of a Naval Officer expressing his feelings for a beautiful place?
If not then let’s hear it from Commander Sachin Pawar (Retd), an Ex-Armed Forces Officer.
Is it truly possible for a human being to be exasperated and elated simultaneously?? Medical science and logic would answer in the negative, but a road trip from Chandigarh to Kaza, Spiti would give you enough and more opportunities to experience the above mentioned impossible. After years of sighing helplessly looking at images posted by travellers, I finally found myself on the road heading for what I now describe as – the Destination for the Soul.
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Yes, roads were created by our ancestors to ease our travel woes, but they must have added the clause “Undertake at your own risk” in very small unreadable print when it came to advice for undertaking a road trip to Spiti, especially from a small village called Koksar, that lies at the North End of the recently commissioned Atal Tunnel to another small village that goes by the name of Losar, located deep in the Spiti Valley. This stretch defies all mathematical calculations of distance vs time and the 84 kilometres separating the two villages are more often than not, covered in a time frame being a part of a herd is not as bad a space as we are made to believe. that I prefer describing as eternity.
It was in this eternity that the first sentence of this travelogue was validated. Exasperation was provided by hairpin bends and the rocky road, while elation was in constant supply through the jaw-dropping vistas I saw travelling along the Chandra River. (Trivia – The Chandra River originates from Chandratal in Spiti Valley and flows westwards to join with the Bhaga River that flows down from the Lahaul Valley in the North to form Chandrabhaga, more famously known as Chenab today.)
City-dwellers are used to roads with a smattering of potholes, and travellers to Spiti are destined to travel on potholes, with a smattering of road-like stretches. But while the body takes a battering on the near non-existent road to Spiti, the eyes cannot help but marvel at the surreal beauty all around you. Watching flocks of sheep accessing impossible gradients on the mountain slopes makes you think that, far away from the maddening world of corporate rat-races.
As we continue the rickety journey eastwards towards Chatru and Bataal, the lush green slopes reluctantly give way to a more arid landscape, which interestingly captivates you even more and slowly but surely, you forget the ache of the travel (or probably get used to it) and start soaking in the marvels of nature.
The first real respite comes at a place called Bataal. If you are not a keen historian, then it would suffice to know that Bataal, since 1986 is more famous as the place where the Chacha-Chachi Dhaba is located. This dhaba is so inconspicuous that it could qualify as a blink-and-you-miss landmark. But what has made it a not-to-be-missed pitstop on the Manali-Kaza route is the warmth that you feel in the dhaba, both literally and figuratively. The literal warmth is the result of the stoves that run almost all day, whipping up simple delicacies like rajma-chawal, kadhi-chawal or the 2 minute Maggi. The figurative warmth originates from the warm smiles of Mr. Hishe Chhomo (Chacha) and Mrs. Dorje Bodh (Chachi) who have been relentlessly helping wanderlust-bitten souls in making good memories of Spiti.
Mind you, the worst of the road trip is yet to start. If bad roads and potholes were a bother, add rarity of oxygen and biting cold to the equation, and steel yourself to start the ascent to Kunzum Top. As we drive away from Bataal, we leave Lahaul Valley behind and begin the ascent to Kunzum Pass located at an altitude of 15500 feet. If the rarity of oxygen at that altitude does not take your breath away, the views from Kunzum Top certainly will. And at the top, we learn the simplicity of the local practices. Every vehicle that crosses the Kunzum Pass undertakes a clockwise pradakshina of the Kunzu Mata Mandir.
The more devout amongst us could also try our luck at sticking coins on the stone in the temple. If the coin holds, you just might get your wish granted. So be careful what you wish for. Once you have left Kunzum Top, the journey is all downhill, but you still are provided with enough opportunites to realise that there do exist 206 bones in your body.
Spiti Valley welcomes you with landscapes that you could only have dreamt of. The word Spiti is spoken as Piti in the Bhoti language and the recent version of Spiti literally means the Middle Land between Tibet and India. In my opinion, while the name might have connotations of uncertainty, there is not an iota of doubt that we are entering a land that could well be Heaven on Earth
As we descend into Spiti Valley, our travel woes reduce exponentially as we ride along the Spiti River. If you are a photographer, it would be next to impossible to refrain from stopping every ten minutes to either watch the view or to capture it forever in your camera. With a mind-boggling combination of blue, green, yellow and brown, looming large in the frame, we step into Spiti Valley, hypnotized to the core. Everything else seems irrelevant and the realization begins to set in that you are a step closer to your destination. Suddenly all that you thought you could never live without, seems to fade away into obscurity and you begin to feel your own presence, perhaps for the first time in your life. As to why I say that Spiti is a Destination for the soul, will be clearer at the end of this travelogue.
Close your eyes, says the driver and when he asks you to open them again, you, for a moment, wonder whether he has had an attack of insanity. But then it suddenly dawns on you that the vehicle is no longer tortured by potholes, and the metal road from the Losar Check post reminds you that a world full of luxury also exists parallelly. A brief halt at a roadside dhaba in Losar gives you the time to reassure yourself that you have made it thus far in one piece. It is almost time for the Sun to call it a day, and you are still about 60 kilometres from the halt for the day.
The smooth winding road from Losar takes you through small hamlets like Hansa, Khyurik and Rangrik, while the Spiti River meanders along gently on your left as you head for Kaza. Spiti has the super-power to infuse energy into the weariest of travellers and the sight of the Key Monastery illuminated in the dying daylight is just what you need to bounce back to your lively self. Take a moment, stop the vehicle and just stare into the distance. Even after almost 12 hours of travel, you will feel magical energy flowing through your veins. Now all you need is a hot shower and a hot meal, both of which await you at Kaza, the district capital of Lahaul and Spiti District.
Spiti Valley is in a rain-shadow region of North India, and you rarely wake up to overcast or grey skies in Kaza. The sight that welcomed me was one that could make a poet out of Albert Einstein. For some strange reason, clouds linger in one place in the Spiti skies for eternity. A tete-a-tete with locals who run cafes in Kaza revealed that the winters in Spiti are as extreme as the summers are pleasant.
The hardworking folk in the valley go about busily preparing for the harsh winter that sets in by the end of October. Before I even began exploring the rest of Spiti Valley, I got an insight into what the locals endure month after month. While we Mumbaikars take for granted a local train every 3 minutes, the residents of far-flung villages like Komic, Kibber, Mud and Chicham have the luxury of a State-run bus that executes only one trip in a day.
The children in Spiti grow up on a diet of hardship, yet a hike of 3-5 kms to schools run by monasteries does not wipe the 100-watt smiles from their faces. And while the local language is Bhoti, the kids converse with you in flawless Hindi or English. The Key Monastery School compound is a haven for photographers, especially if you are lucky to be there at their lunch break when the monks-in-training prove time and again that while they might be heading for a career that teaches them to propagate simple living, they will still be the kids they are when it comes to fooling around with friends during breaks at school.
The dichotomy that exists between the lives of a city dweller and that of one living in the mountains set off a debate in my new refreshed mind. What exactly is happiness? Why does the mountain dweller smile much more, and more importantly, far more genuine than his city counterpart? The answer to that perhaps lies in the fact that while both categories have high aspirations, city-dwellers have much higher expectations from life.
About Langza by Commander Sachin Pawar
Langza is a small village located at an altitude of 14.300 feet above MSL. Some villagers earn their meagre livelihood tending to farms that yield green peas, others run basic homestays for tourists who visit this village and yet others try and sell marine fossils to visitors. Read that again…Marine fossils????? Yes, most of the Spiti Valley was submerged under the ancient geological Tethys Ocean, more than 200 million years ago.
No, this is not a travelogue though it did seem to start off as one. There are umpteen modes for the reader to find out everything about Spiti, right from reaching it to where to get the best Insta-worthy selfies. This article or blog is about why I feel that Spiti is not a destination for the body. It is a destination for the soul. One search on the Internet will provide every information you seek.
The towering mountain behind this 35 foot Buddha statue is the Chau Chau Kang Nilga standing tall at 6303 metres. As one goes around Spiti, one realises (if one is observant enough) that the Chau Chau is visible from every popular tourist destination in Spiti. On finishing the regular touristy destinations, we headed to another – Chandratal Lake. Legend has it that it was once the residence of fairies. Thanks to social media platforms, it is now also a pre-wedding shoot destination for those who can brave the harsh weather. Admittedly, the photographer in me was overjoyed at the natural beauty that I managed to capture. But it was on the return journey from the lake to the parking lot that I saw a sight that convinced me – Spiti is a destination for the soul, not for the body.
As you watch the tiny humans trudging towards Chandratal, with Chau Chau towering behind them, you cannot help but get teleported back into time, and attempt to imagine this place being an ocean. The enormity of this fact (a proven geological fact) leaves you overwhelmed, and you realise that all the issues in your life that you think are beyond change are miniscule in comparison. If the ocean can become a mountain, what stops you from changing into something that you truly see yourself as, or doing something that you know, in all certainty, will bring you real joy? Food for thought.
The relevant question is – What is it that you seek?
Once you have decided with the mirror, as to what is it that you seek, you could seriously consider making the back breaking road trip to Spiti, because it certainly is a Destination for the Soul.
About the Author: Commander Sachin Pawar
Commander Sachin Pawar (Retd) is an Ex-Armed Forces Officer. He served in the Indian Navy from 1993 to 2020. He is one soldier who always believed that the pen is mightier than the sword, and hence took up writing his experiences on a small scale through a blog of his own. Having sailed the high seas for almost two decades, Cdr Sachin Pawar had his true calling for the mountains in 2014 when he undertook his first trek in the Himalayas. Since then, he has travelled extensively in the Himalayas and over the years, has developed a passion for photography as well. He now combines his passions of writing and photography to write his travel experiences and also allows his photographs to do a little more talking. He can be contacted through email at [email protected] and is active on Instagram – sachin181273