It was early May in Kulu/Manali, the season for cherries and roses. The cherry trees stooped to the ground with the weight of plump red cherries and every village garden had clusters and arches and boughs of roses. The mountainsides among the deodar trees were festooned with the wild white Himalayan rose.
Walking in these surroundings was an intoxicating experience. We took accommodation at the Alliance Guest House in Naggar, a village situated between Manali and Kulu on the east bank of the Beas River.
From our guest house nestled on the side of a hill we could clearly see the 500 year old Naggar Castle which commands spectacular views of the Beas River far below and the distant snow peaks.
Alliance Guest House, Naggar – our home away from home in the Kullu/Manali Valley of Himachal Pradesh. Although peaceful and comfortable, a yearning for more adventure set in and we decided to take the journey to Spiti Valley
The Rohtang Pass was a little late opening that year and we had to go south to Kulu. From Kulu we drove to Shoja, a small village just about five kilometres before entering the wondrous Jalorie Pass (3223m). The first structure that caught our eye was a small temple situated on a mound. After a long drive from Naggar that morning we needed some refreshment and had some delicious sweet milky tea and pakoras from a dhaba store. Shoja is a peaceful and serene village with dense deodar forests rich in wild life like bear (both black and brown), various deer, leopard and the state bird, the monal. We were lucky enough to witness the wild blue iris growing along the roadsides everywhere. It was just the beginning of their season and they were not in full abundance yet but certainly more than enough to delight our eyes. The houses in Shoja are made of wood, stone and mud in traditional hill style with wide spacious verandahs surrounding the top story.
Sarahan was our next destination and it was late afternoon by the time we got there. Aproaching Sarahan, the place was covered in mist and had an almost forbidding, mysterious look about it from a distance. However, on reaching our hotel we were welcomed with such warmth and and an excellent hearty meal that we immediately felt at home. Unfortunately, one of us suddenly felt very ill. The next morning the manager of our hotel personally took us to the Sarahan Hospital for treatment. The hospital did not charge us a single rupee for this kindness and the medicine worked like a charm. We stopped at a small temple just oustide Sarahan to give thanks for the doctor and the medicine. Shortly after the temple we crossed a colourful bridge which was like the exit protal from Sarahan.
We had been told that we should not miss an overnight stay in Kalpa. To reach Kalpa we first had to obtain special permits to enter the Spiti Valley from the Permit Office in Reckong Peo. After quite a wait, we were granted our permits and headed off. Kalpa is situated on the old Hindustan/Tibet Road at an altitude of 2759m. The town nestles snugly among the dense forests. Our guest house bedroom had a large verandah hanging over the mountainside. From our room we had a most wondrous view of Mount Kinner Kailash which is 6050 metres high.
It is said to be the legendary home of Lord Shiva. The weather that early evening became menacing, dark and foreboding yet the Kailash peak stood out in bright majestic clarity. We were held in thrall by the changing clouds swirling and hanging around those high mountains. This is about all we saw of Kalpa that evening but it was more than enough to satisfy our hunger for high mountains and tempestuous weather. Magnificent!
So far we had two overnight stops on our way to Spiti. Now we approached the most exciting and hair raising part of the long drive. Finally we were on the Hindustan/Tibet Highway aiming to reach Thabo by nightfall. Somewhere way outside Kalpa we came across a Kali Temple set into an immense overhanging rockface. The temple beckoned us as if it were impossible for any pilgrim to simply pass it by without request a safe journey ahead. The temple was the beginning of an awesome, arduous drive to come.
At this point we felt excited and rather frightened. By simply looking out of the car window we could see the edge of the car skirting narrow roads which made sheer drops down to incredibly deep valleys below us. This is when we took up our knitting needles and started knitting in earnest. The roads were bad and we reduced to speed of around 6 to 10 kilometers per hour. It was hair raising yet utterly awesome!
No time for stopping, though. We just huddled in the backseat and lurched around wildly. Mostly we didn't even look outside, it was too terrifying. Our full attention was focused on the knitting and to keep our mind off things, we worked hard at not dropping a single stitch! Onwards toward Nako...
After a few flat tyres and an arduous adventure, we reached our next destination Thabo late at night. The small hamlet of Thabo was busy due to some intrepid bikers passing through to make their way down to Shimla. The host graciously made us a hot meal of omelettes and toast, which we finished off with a half bottle of Old Monk Rum, we crawled into a bed smothered in heavy duvets, all of which was needed on that chilly night.
Next morning time for exploring. The air crisp and clear. Directly across the road from our guest house are a series of Buddhist meditation caves. We walked up leisurely taking in the beauty of the sky and the surroundings. The caves were old and intriguing.
Thabo Monastery founded 996AD with its original decorations and art images intact. It is considered to be the oldest continuously functioning monastery in India. The main temple preserves a wealth of documentation of the history and culture of the period. In 1996 the Dalai Lama performed the Kala Chakra initiation here and is said to have expressed his desire to one day retire in this place. This is understandable as Thabo has a magic.
Evening came and we walked down to the home of our new found friends. It was a huge family gathering! Children playing inside and outside, laughing and shouting. Everyone welcomed us with open arms. Only about two men spoke English. After several tumblers of rum and water, non-stop dancing, fantastic food, nobody cared who spoke English or who did not. Warmth and laughter flowed. They took great pains to teach us some complex dances. Mostly the men danced and the women looked on with thorough enjoyment. What a wonderful evening we had. It was after midnight and we decided it was time to leave. The party was still in full swing and everyone came outside to see us off. Somewhat unevenly wending our way back to the guest house under a star drenched sky, we took time to stop beside a stupa and thank the Lord for such incredible natural beauty and warm hearted people.
We visited the Kye Monastery where we were served butter tea and spent time with the monks. Then onto the last leg of our journey in Spiti Valley, Kibber Village, Kaza. It is said that Kibber is the highest village to be accessed by motor vehicle in the world. A sleepy, peaceful village at an altitude of 4,270m it is a stunning and pollution free atmosphere and a haven for sky gazers and photographers.