Remembering past travels: On the world's most dangerous road to the Spiti Valley.
While we're unable to travel, I'm remembering some of my favourite trips of the past. This one to the Spiti Valley in Northeast India in 2015 really stands out. I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for some adventure well off the beaten path.
Large stones spat angrily from under our tyres and plunged over the edge of the narrow, dusty track. I hoped we wouldn’t follow — it was at least 800m straight down, and there was no barrier. On the other side of the car, there were just a few centimetres between our wheels and the overhanging cliff face from which the road had been carved. We inched forward slowly in our Toyota Fortuner SUV. I thought I was going to be sick.
If conventional self-drive holidays — California’s Highway One, Australia’s Great Ocean Road — seem a little tame, this may be the answer. Since 2014, Delhi-based tour operator Mercury Himalayan Explorations has been supplementing its offering of treks, climbs and white-water rafting expeditions with supported, self-drive road trips to the remote Spiti Valley, some 700km north of the capital. Tourists were not allowed to visit the valley at all until 1992, and it remains far from the beaten track, “like Ladakh 30 years ago,” says Akshay Kumar, the company’s chief executive. The region is predominantly Buddhist and the valley, culturally, is an extended slice of Tibet. Even now an Inner Line Permit is needed for non-Indians — a bureaucratic pain to get but at least it provides a good souvenir at the end of the stay.
Google Maps advised that the journey from Delhi would take 14 hours. Not with my driving — Kumar advised it would be more like three days, each with nine hours at the wheel. More confident clients can choose to travel independently — picking up the car in Delhi with maps and information packs to find the pre-booked hotel each night, then picking up local guides at key destinations en route. Back-up is always available at the end of a local mobile phone, although if there’s a big problem with the vehicle or a landslide, help may be 24 hours away. Alternatively, there’s the option to take a driver-escort who’ll share the time behind the wheel and help if any problems arise.
I opted for the latter, and Kumar was to accompany me. A keen white-water rafter, ice hockey player and ski fanatic — he missed out on a place at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary because of a broken leg, but his sister went — he must certainly like a challenge, I thought, as I eased gingerly out into traffic. We chatted en route about what to expect. Spiti is a high-altitude desert lying above 3,000m; in winter temperatures plummet to minus 30C, although a few hardy tourists still come to try to spot snow leopards. Our plan for a full circuit of the 4,551m-high Kunzum Pass, returning via the Lahaul Valley, was thwarted, as the road out was still snowed under in mid-June.
Driving in India is not for the timorous and requires concentration and no small amount of patience. Indicating appears to be a largely alien concept and stopping dead without reason quite the norm, while the confident cows are supremely aware of their elevated status. There’s constant honking — “horn OK please”, as it says on the back of lorries — and a gung-ho approach to overtaking on blind corners. “When you drive here, you always have to assume the other guy is going to screw up,” cautioned Kumar cheerfully, “but it’s also a lot of fun.”
We left the dusty plains near Chandigarh, which basked in the upper 40Cs, and climbed slowly up into pine-cloaked hills behind snaking traffic. We stopped for cobs of corn roasted by the roadside over smoking logs, and for punnets of cheap, ripe, local cherries. We arrived in Shimla, summer capital of pre-independence India, as dusk was falling. The town’s lights flickered and twinkled across the steep hillsides.
After a night at the colonial Oberoi Cecil hotel (where Mohan Singh Oberoi got his first job, before rising through the ranks to build his eponymous hotel group), I took an early-morning stroll along Shimla’s historic, pedestrianised Mall. Avoiding the mean-looking monkeys, I paused to observe a group of imposing, Ray-Ban-wearing Sikhs having their photo taken on white horses beside the Anglican church. Then we set off again, ploughing on until the tarmac ran out and the road ran alongside the mighty Sutlej river, roaring out of Tibet.
We spent the next night at Thanadar, in a valley green with apple trees. An American Quaker, Samuel Evans Stokes, who later converted to Hinduism, introduced the crop a hundred years ago. We slept well at the simple Banjara Orchard Retreat, then followed the Sutlej east, stopping for photos of men and women in distinctive grey and green Kinnauri hats, and for coffee brewed over a kerosene stove. Here we saw the first snow-capped peaks and took a detour to rest for a night in the Sangla valley so we could go hiking along the Baspa river.
Heading north once more, traffic thinned out. (No bad thing, since on the single-track roads each encounter would mean one driver having to make a treacherous reverse to find a safe passing space — usually me. Indian army trucks always seemed particularly reluctant to give ground.) There was a physical transformation, too. Near the village of Pooh — yes, of course we stopped for photos — the pine trees vanished and the hills gave up their battle for any pretence of verdancy. A sign proudly told us in English and Hindi: “You are travelling on the world’s most treacherous road.”
From here on, bridges were festooned with prayer flags that flapped furiously in the constant wind. The air became thinner as we climbed into the Spiti Valley itself, the views more desolate. My lips were constantly dry. Small armies of roadside workers — mostly from the poor state of Bihar, I was told — stopped to stare at us from behind sunglasses, which shielded them from the constant glare.
We stopped at a roadside stall where the owner made noodles for thukpa soup on the floor of his kitchen and a goat, tethered to a tree outside, patiently awaited its fate.
Our bases in Spiti were the villages of Tabo and Kaza, a mix of traditional white-painted mud-and-straw buildings with flat roofs reinforced with branches and incongruous modern concrete dwellings, which the locals said did nothing to keep out the cold in winter. Here we met our local guide, easy-going Dechen Lundup, who had been a Buddhist monk for 22 years before he had been forced to leave the monastery after a fling with a local woman: his eyes filled with tears as he recounted the story.
The monastery at Tabo, he explained, dates back more than 1,000 years. We joined the monks for prayers at first light and wandered inside to see original murals and frescoes that were as old as the building, still colourful and preserved by the darkness and dry atmosphere. It’s said that this is where the Dalai Lama will settle one day, though the monks giggled at the notion he’d ever actually retire.
Ki Gompa was our ultimate destination, marvellously isolated on top of its own hill, 4,166m above sea level. Craggy paths led to its whitewashed buildings and we walked through a maze of dimly lit passages until we burst into a courtyard bathed in sunlight, where some of the 350 monks who live here were being taught. Their hands slapped together emphatically after each point of learning. They were too busy to notice us, or perhaps just didn’t care. Their hum drifted on the wind, hypnotising and soothing.
Ki was a fitting turning point and we thought about our journey back. In our connected, crowded world, three bone-rattling days battling rickshaws, buses, cliffs and goats to reach a place of such peace seemed a price worth paying.
I called my parents once we were safely back in Delhi later that week. Four-and-a-half time zones away, my father prised himself away from television coverage of Royal Ascot to answer the phone. “The 3.30’s about to start. I’ll get your mother. She’ll be glad you’re back. You know she worries.”
I took this trip in 2015, booked with Delhi-based MHE Adventures. The road to Spiti is passable generally only June to October.
All photos are by Will Hide, except the fourth-from-top which is by Vivek Kumar. Copyright Will Hide.