“You will find people everywhere from all over the world. This is peak season,” taxi driver M Javed tells us, as we look at the train of cars behind us - a traffic jam in the middle of Manali. Now, how’s that for a vacation?
Tired after an eight-hour ride from Chandigarh, we stagger into the Apple Country Hotel’s lobby. Since all the deluxe rooms are occupied by tourists from Punjab and Delhi, we’re offered the honeymoon suite at Rs. 5,500 a night which provides a cosy bed and a fantastic view of deodar and pine forests on the Himalayan slopes.
With a mild summer and an altitude of 2050 metres, Manali is Himachal Pradesh’s adventure sports’ capital and sees throngs of tourists come here for paragliding, rock-climbing, rapelling, trekking, white-water rafting on the rapids of the River Beas, and even skiing. These sports are expensive and we have to bargain hard to pay Rs. 1,800 per head for a 20-minute paragliding trip down the Solang Nullah and Rs. 3,500 a couple for the rafting.
To get away from the hustle-bustle of Manali, we plan a two-day trip to Keylong in the Lahaul and Spiti district about 120 km from the Indo-Tibet border. The hotel receptionist suggests we leave early. “Since the Rohtang pass is closed every Tuesday, all tourists will be going there on Wednesday morning to enjoy the snow. The earlier you leave, the better will be your chance to avoid the traffic-jam,” he says. We stumble to the car at 4 am, groggy, both because of the lack of sleep and oxygen. To our dismay, we aren’t the only ones up early. Convoys of jeeps, Toyotas, four-wheel drives, Scorpios, private cars, and motorbikes race against each other on the Manali-Leh National Highway 21. Some stop at roadside shacks to hire snow-gear and skis.
We wind our way up the Pir Panjal Mountains to find ourselves at the rear of a 3 km-traffic jam all the way up to the Rohtang La, which in Tibetan means ‘a pile of corpses’. It is 6 am and the temperature outside is 10°C. We leave our bags in the taxi and start to walk past the gleaming mica schist and snow walls. Glacial melt has turned the mud-track into sludge, making it difficult for cars to pass through. Some trucks have been waiting here for eight hours. Were it not for the breathtaking views of the snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, and the coniferous forests below, this would have been an ordeal. It takes us three hours to cover 5 km, after which the 64 km winding road from Rohtang to Keylong is bumpy but free of traffic. Lahaul and Spiti lie on the leeward slopes of the mountains, their tundra meadows broken only by waterfalls.
We take a break at Koksar for some mutton momos and chai. Our next stop is Tandi where we refuel, for the next petrol pump is 365 km away. About 8 km from Keylong, Tandi is also the point where the rivers Chandra and Bhaga meet to form the Chandrabhaga and later, the Chenab. From there, we make our way to Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation’s (HPTDC) The Chandrabhaga Hotel, which overlooks Keylong town. At Rs. 1,800 a night, it offers basic accomodation and a restaurant with a limited range of North Indian cuisine and is 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 administrative centre of the district, Keylong has a Hanuman Temple, a post office, a State Bank of India ATM, a German Bakery that sells croissants and yak cheese, and shops which stock biscuits, dry fruits and bottled water. There is also a mechanic who keeps bikes for hire – Bajaj Pulsar for Rs. 1,500 a day, and a Royal Enfield for Rs. 2,500 upwards. There is also the Cafe Nordaling, which overlooks the mountains and where you can have a delicious steaming veg and chicken momos for Rs.100 a plate.
There are three Buddhist monasteries near Keylong. The largest is Shasur Monastery, just 4 km away. Then there is Kardang Monastery of the Drukpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism on a slope across the Bhaga River and the remote Thayul monastery, which is a 3 km hike up the mountain from the helipad at Stingiri, 3 km away.
After a two-hour hike up the steep slope from Stingiri village, our sunburned faces light up at the sight of the beautiful Thayul Gompa that houses a huge statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the Lotus Born, who introduced Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet in the eighth century; and behgan the library of Kangyur (the actual words of the Buddha) with literature in the local Boti language. Few locals come here. Caretaker Chomo Ang-moh says, “Our Rinpoche from Bhutan came here only once, a few years ago. Lamas from Dharamsala have not yet come here since there is no road.”
Sitting there on the Gompa’s steps amidst snow-capped mountains, basking in the sun, we find an opportunity to introspect, to meditate, and to be one with nature. Here, we finally find peace.
What you must know:
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Pix: Rachit Mankad