‘Highway’ is probably being quite generous, for much of it’s length it is little more than a rough dirt track blasted out of the steep mountainsides and ravaged by landslides and rockfalls. It’s brilliant. A number of times rockfalls dropped within 200m of me… it pays to keep moving and keep your eyes open at times rather than stop and admire the views. In a couple of the most active spots soldiers were posted as spotters and only let me proceed once they thought it was safe(ish) to do so. I rode past many trickles of gravel that I felt could easily turn into something more deadly with little warning.
Shortly after leaving Kalpa, the lovely village from which I last wrote I passed the first check point of the restricted Tibet border area for which I needed the permit. The police were very friendly and offered me tea as they filled out the paperwork. The restricted area lasts for about 170km. 170km during which I wasn’t supposed to take photos. My shutter finger might have slipped, purely accidentally, a few times… possibly even a very many times.. I can’t say for sure ;-) It was a very beautiful stretch. The 72km from Kalpa up to the village of Pooh (or Puh, depending on which maps and roadsigns you’re looking at) was quite well frequented by military so I really didn’t get my camera out much, it would have been a bit silly to be standing in the road with my camera only to have an army jeep come barreling around one of the very many blind bends. I also didn’t risk pictures of anything remotely strategic.. bridges etc.
This stretch is so ravaged by landslides there are a very many semi-permanent work crews living in makeshift tents jammed between the road and cliff. They are smelly places to ride through on a hot day, the road verges each side of the encampments being the only available toilet spots…. perhaps the spelling of Pooh is appropriate after all, albeit unintentionally…
From Pooh I only rode a further 44km, albeit very steeply uphill, to the little Tibetan village of Nako. Nako was lovely. I stayed two days, I could easily have stayed longer just sitting looking at the mountains and engaging with the wonderfully friendly villagers. The village sits on a ledge on the mountainside at about 3800m altitude. There is nothing in front of the village bar an almost sheer drop to the valley floor 1000m below. It is a staggeringly beautiful spot, as if the village is hovering in the air. The evening I arrived there was a wedding… the whole village was out partying in force with, apparently 1000 guests being catered for in the huge tent that had been erected in the village center, great cauldrons of food boiling away on cooking fires outside. The dancing continued until 6am…. In Nako I also met Hugo and Bego, a lovely couple on bikes from the Basque country.. 15 months into their 5-year round the world tour. Brilliant :-)
After what feels like weeks of unbroken sunshine (and weeks of riding uphill…) the weather changed in Nako… the cloud descended around the mountains, the temperatures plummeted and a sleety rain set in. It was stunningly atmospheric with tendrils of cloud wrapping themselves around the village and surrounding peaks. During brighter moments fresh snow could be seen just above the village.
From Nako .. more climbing, but not a great deal, a steep 5km on a dirt track to the pass at just below 4000m.. followed by a cold, wet, 21km plummet to the valley floor at 3080m.. followed by more gentle climbing in drizzly rain, essentially following the Spiti river upstream to Tabo. The gompa (monastery) at Tabo has been continuously occupied since 996AD, it is a very important Buddhist site with many beautiful murals… apparently… the doors to those were locked. It’s a lovely spot however and the monastery guesthouse, run by the monks, is a terrific little place to stay. The made me tacos for dinner. I was very impressed.. properly cheesy with excellent beans and a wonderful change from the endless diet of thali :-)
From Tabo I was riding in the Spiti Valley proper. Pictures don’t do it justice.. I had goosebumps.. if I needed a reason for cycling all the way up here then that morning was it. Some early sun on the mountains, fresh snow on the peaks, no traffic (found out later a landslide had blocked the road). The weather didn’t last unfortunately… it stayed dry long enough to enjoy the fabulous fortress gomap of Dhankar, perched on a spur of rock high above the valley floor. I drank salty butter tea with one of the monks and stayed the night. I had plans from there to ride up into the Pin Valley for some exploration but the weather changed back for the worse, with heavy rain, wet snow and thunder booming around the valley I made a beeline for the town of Kaza, just 34km further west.. which is where I am writing this.
For the first time in 6 days there is electricity (mostly…), some internet and hot water. The snow is now down very low around the peaks, it is quite beautiful but I can sense the approaching winter. I could stay in the valley longer but I’m becoming quite keen to get over the final two high passes, the Kunzum La at 4500m, and the Rohtang La, lower at just 4000m, but notorious for bad weather, before they are closed for good for the winter. I’ll probably stay in Kaza another day, explore some local trails without baggage, hang out with interesting folk I met here…it’s a nice little town… and then make tracks west. My next post will likely be, al being well, from Manali or back in Kullu on the far side of the Rohtang La…. so, until then… hope you enjoy the photos!