Through the previous evening, at Reckong Peo, I had tolerated a lack of hygiene and repeated attacks on my patience, and all of that paid off handsomely the next morning. At a half past six, scrubbed clean and looking sharp, I was at the bus stand. That was perhaps a bit overenthusiastic on my part as the window was still closed and there was no sign of Mr B.
In the shop selling breakfast, I sat opposite laborers from Bihar and a family headed for Spiti and a wall of luggage four feet high and five feet wide and perhaps three deep. As I gobbled the excellent Fan (savory pastry), tea, and alu-paratha, the realization dawned that all of us in this room were intending to be on the same bus. I further reckoned that given the enthusiasm of all others, perhaps the only party I could dodge would be the wall of luggage.
A mob surrounded the bus the moment doors were opened, and had it not been for the forceful and timely intervention of mr B, who showed up from nowhere, I probably would not have boarded the bus despite having a confirmed, computerized ticket. He introduced me quickly to the driver and disappeared. My seat was right by the door (on the left side of the bus) with superb legroom- that made me happy, being 6’1″ – that joy was going to be short-lived though.
We left at a half past seven and through the conversation with the man seated next to me I was told this was the amongst the first buses to Kaza this season. The result was our bus was packed with people returning home from lower reaches after completing seasonal employment as also with labourers working on road construction projects. At-least one of these, a young boy from Bihar, was nearly spilling into my lap and was experiencing severe motion sickness – it was his first time up in the Himalayas. I gave him some green cardamom and he felt greatly relieved as did the man sitting next to me as previously, the boy had to bend over both of us and out the window periodically to vomit.This video captured with great difficulty should show you just how packed like sardines (sorry cant resist the simile) we were –
I couldn’t capture much of the scenery outside (and felt a bit frustrated for that), but whatever little I could, was very good – this included waterfalls, greenery and many many hills near and far. This one had some spray coming in through the window!
With the boy’s health a little better, we journeyed pleasantly for about forty five minutes and crossed this bridge that gave us a great view.
The surrounding mountain sides were getting progressively drier, though one could spot a fair bit of green cover on some mountains. The man sitting next to me, a farmer by profession, explained that we were still in upper Kinnaur and it would be a while before we got to spiti valley.
The bus had been ascending a bit through the last hour and a half that we had traveled, and then it stopped briefly and a policeman climbed aboard asking everyone to show their ID cards. By that time, I was feeling so crushed that I considered getting off – but somehow, I just kept sitting. Doesn’t it happen to you during your travels that you’re so exhausted that you ‘think’ you’re doing something but don’t actually do it? Climbing on top of that fort’s tower? Up another staircase? Yet another church spire?
We then moved further and came to a halt for breakfast, at a half past nine, where half the bus got eating. This was the village of Spello (written Spillow).
I had had breakfast already so I looked for interesting subjects to photograph – and indeed this dog provided me the opportunity. The sun was harsher here – we were at about 2650 meters altitude – but mostly because the cloud cover seen in the morning at Reckong Peo was gone.
We then crossed the village of pooh (written ‘puh’ but pronounced the way I’ve written it earlier). One can get dedicated buses or share jeeps till here in season.
This river was not the crystal blue of yesterday, very different from the Baspa, but a dull brown in color. Spiti felt like a different world – stark and brown. The air was warmer and I took off my jacket and had a swig of water.
At a half past eleven, we were at Khab Bridge – the valley here gets quite narrow and the rocks are all jagged. The bridge marks the confluence of Sutlej river with Spiti river and is of strategic importance and is manned by ITBP, photography is prohibited while one’s on the bridge. I got a shot a little before.
After we crossed the bridge, I captured a short video.
Within a few minutes of that, I realized that the bus had taken a U-turn and was on an incline, ascending. The river was now to my right and I didn’t have a view, so I packed away my camera in the bag. After a half kilometre or so, it did the same trick again, and I had to take out the camera again. Well, it didn’t stop there I must tell you, as the bus turned yet again, and neither I nor the camera nor the farmer next to me nor the Bihari boy looking at all of this had a clue what should I do next. It was quite puzzling for me as to why the bus didn’t make up its mind and go in one direction – so we just looked at each other sheepishly and then the only one knowledgeable amongst us – the farmer – explained that these switchbacks were the way we would gain height required to access the villages in Spiti. Technically – we were already in Spiti as soon as we had crossed the Khab Bridge.
Well, that explained it and as I was no longer confused, I kept the camera in my lap waiting for the next photo opportunity. I didn’t have to wait for long as the contrast between the hills we were going up on and the hills opposite (across the river valley), couldn’t be greater. From some distance, the hill we were riding on, resembled the spare landscape of Rajasthan while the snow on the peaks opposite was decidedly Himachal. The mountains themselves reminded me most of Death Valley, California.
The river, meanwhile had all but disappeared somewhere down in the ravine.
We rose in altitude steadily every couple kilometers and the landscape got drier still, it was almost the color of ash for some parts.
By noon, the green swathes seen earlier in the morning the interspersed the brown loam were gone completely – this was sand, gravel, rock and ice country – barren and harsh – and yet it was nature’s palette at its finest – many shades of brown, dull green, deep sand, loam, white, black and chocolate all so nuanced and perfectly graded. Somewhere at a distance, across the horizon, stood the peak of Reo Purgyil (the highest mountain of Himachal Pradesh – at 6800 meters) – the view of the peak obstructed by the clouds.
At quarter past twelve, we were nearly at the top of the mountain we had started ascending an hour earlier, at Khab bridge. Here, the bus slowed down and came to a halt. The below shot shows the switchbacks we had finished ascending with the spiti river quite far down.
From here, I captured another shot, which shows a patch of green – that is the village of Leo Purgial (or purgyil) – the base from where the trek to the mountain begins (so I was told). It appears considerably lower in altitude (as seen in this photograph). It’s not on the main road from what I recall and a few people got off to go to this village at a stop.
No one was sure why we had stopped (we assumed a landslide ahead) – so we all got down and I shot this video which had a panoramic view of the valley. All the mountains on the horizon have peaks above the snow line.
It felt like being on top of the world – so commanding is the view.