Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 03:36:26 PM
|River Chandrabhaga at Tandi|
"Keylong mein kuchh nahin hai, Leh chaliye," M Javed, our taxi driver, suggests. Leh is fascinating, but we want to go to Keylong, we tell him. The tiny administrative town in the remote Lahaul and Spiti district just 120 km from the Himachal Pradesh-Tibet border offers us the solitude that we cannot afford in the tourist hotspot, Manali. Of course, the 115 km journey to Keylong isn't going to be easy. We will have to leave Manali at 3 am for Rohtang La (the 3,978 metre high pass that is open only from June to September) to avoid what is probably the world's worst high-altitude traffic jam.
|Landslides and accidents are common on the road to Rohtang La|
|Snow-capped Pir Panjals|
But we aren’t that lucky. At 4 am, convoys of tourist taxis, private vehicles and motorbikes make a dash for the Manali-Leh National Highway 21. Some tourists stop at the roadside shacks to hire snowgear, gumboots and skis. The train of cars winds its way up through the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas till it comes to a standstill. It's 6 am and we don't know how long it will take us to clear the Rohtang La, which in Tibetan means ‘a pile of corpses’. The scenery of waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, and conifer slopes is breathtaking. We leave our bags in the taxi and walk to find the cause of the jam. The temperature's 8°C and atmospheric pressure drops to 640 mmHg. We walk on the edge of the cliff, collecting shiny mica schists and chat with truck drivers, some who have been waiting here for 14 hours. We stop at the site of an overturned truck and barrels of solidified oil around it. The army is due to come here at 10 am to clear the debris and facilitate traffic. We keep walking. After another half-kilometre and we find the main cause of the jam. Glacial melt has resulted in the formation of thick sludge on the mudtrack. A Maruti 800 can’t get through. The line of cars behind it now extends to 2.5 km.
|Momo place at Koksar village|
Thankfully, the jam lasts for only three hours. The 64 km road from Rohtang to Keylong is bumpy but picturesque. The meadows and terraced pea fields on the leeward slopes are broken only by huge waterfalls. It looks like a scene straight out of a Yash Chopra film. We take a break at the village of Koksar for some mutton momos and chai, where we are joined by a British rider who is on his way to Kargil. Our next halt is Tandi, for the next petrol pump we will find is 365 km away. About 8 km from Keylong, Tandi is also the point where the blue waters of River Chandra meet the green waters of the River Bhaga to form the Chandrabhaga and later, the Chenab. We drive along the road parallel to the fast-flowing River Bhaga to the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation's (HPTDC) The Chandrabhaga Hotel. At Rs 1,800 a night rooms are basic and the restaurant offers only a few dishes of the north Indian cuisine.
Nestled in the mountains and at an altitude of 3080 metres, Keylong is sleepy small town that is used as a stopover for tourists on their way to Leh (359 km), Suraj tal and Deepak tal lakes (approximately 65 km) and Udaipur-Triloknath Temple (about 43 km) The town has Hanuman Temple, a post office, an SBI ATM and a market where we find a German Bakery that sells croissants and yak cheese and a shop-cum-restaurants which offer Indian and Tibetan cuisine and where we buy bottled water. There is also a mechanic who provides bikes for hire – Bajaj Pulsar for Rs 1,500 a day, a Royal Enfield for Rs 2,500 upwards (we bargain hard and bring it down to Rs 1,500).
There are three Buddhist monasteries near Keylong - Shasur Monastery, just 4 km away, is the largest in the area; the Kardang Monastery of the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism on a slope across the Bhaga river and the remote Thayul monastery, which is a three-kilometre hike up the mountain from the helipad at 3 km away. The drive to Shasur starts off on a metalled road that goes up the mountain. But after 2 km uphill, the track becomes too narrow for the Innova to pass. The driver's edgy and tells us this is a "no-claim road". It's 6 pm already. Navigation on such a road in darkness is impossible. We abort our mission. But it's not easy. The road's so narrow at the bend that going in the reverse is difficult. Thankfully, the driver's skilled and we have a safe ride back to the hotel.
The next morning, we make our way to Thayul Gompa. After a two-hour hike up from Stingiri village, we find a beautiful monastery building and five stupas. The monastery houses a big statue of Guru Padmasambhava, The Lotus Born, who is said to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet in the 8th century and the library of Kangyur (the actual words of the Buddha) in the Boti language. When asked about the regular visitors to the monastery, Chomo Ang-moh, the caretaker tells us, "The forest department has prevented the cutting of trees to build a road to this monastery. So only a few locals come here just a few times a month. Our Rinpoche from Bhutan came here only once, a few years ago. Lamas from Dharamsala have not yet come here."
We troop down to the base and head to Cafe Nordaling that overlooks the snow-capped mountains for a plate of momos. Sonam, who runs the restaurant, takes the orders - chicken momos and spinach-and-cheese momos - and sends a boy to buy spinach and chicken from the market below. It takes them over an hour to present before us steaming hot momos, which we polish off in a few minutes.
Keylong doesn’t offer much to the tourist searching for occupation or entertainment. It is one of those remote outposts that allow you to introspect, meditate, be one with nature and gaze at the stars. In a country of one billion people, that is luxury.
(Pix: Rachit Mankad)