There is something quite calming about sitting across from a mountain, observing her traits and character, gaining a sense of familiarity with the slopes and the landscape. Spend enough time and you develop a kinship with the form that towers over you. And if the bond is deep enough, she will throw surprises at you every once in a while to entrance you further.
Mountain gazing is a hobby. Through most of the pandemic last year, I sat by the window at home in Mumbai alongside the resident squirrel, tormented by memories of visions such as these. I would try to focus on the work at hand, only to be taken back to those magical heights by the prayer flags dancing by the window and the many mountain sketches on the walls. It was almost like the Buddha at my desk was teasing me, aware of the turmoil I was experiencing each day.
I couldn’t take it any more. I had to go, simply to stare at the mountains once again. Himachal Pradesh is a land I have crisscrossed on many occasions in the past. This time around, though, there was no return date, a generic route for an itinerary, and mountains on my mind.
Travel has changed. I, for one, have always been happy to hop on to any mode of transport, caring more for the conversation than comfort. This autumn, though, the pandemic meant I had to create a bubble in my trusted Ertiga. Besides, it allowed me to carry luxuries that wouldn’t quite fit into a haversack. Three days later, I arrive at the foothills. The following morning, I cut out the high speeds, and the air conditioning, as I hit the first slopes. Locals call the region dev bhoomi, the land of the gods. The pilgrimage has begun.
Soon, I am in apple country. The villages en route seem abandoned but the orchards, and mandis, are bustling. It’s harvest season and there isn’t a minute to lose. For locals like Navkaran Boris, an apple farmer from Kalpa, business is just beginning to revive post-pandemic. By the time I reach Kalpa, I have a collection of the freshest Kinnauri apples.
It’s dark when I wake up the next morning in the village of Saryo. It’s so early I feel guilty munching on my apple breakfast, fearing the crunch will awaken the neighbours. The forms of the Kinner-Kailash range in front take shape, the placid glaciers glowing in the first rays of the sun.
While the Kinner-Kailash peak draws the pilgrims, it is Raldang at the far right of the range that has my attention. It seems to pierce the sky as the serrated ridges glide down to the valley below. The sun stirs it from its slumber. I settle in , finally at peace, far from viruses and vaccines. For the rest of the day, I sit there, allowing Raldang to work its seductive charm.
Through all of last year, Spiti Valley was closed to outsiders owing to the pandemic. The locals felt it was the most effective way to keep the virus at bay. It was a restless time for Padma Dorjee from Shego, a short distance from the district headquarters in Kaza. Having worked in tourism all his life, he missed the tourists and trekkers; his home-stay looked abandoned. His impish grandchildren were wearing down his nerves and there was a sense of relief when the pandemic situation improved. Trekkers and tourists from the plains were eyeing the mountains once again. But things seemed to be better than they had been. The tourists were back, yes, but in fewer numbers—in numbers possibly just right for the fragile landscape Dorjee calls home.
I tell him I want to stay away from the tourist spots. On a whim, we set out for his wife’s maternal home in Demul, hiking up a peak called Palari that towers above it. The thin mountain air taxes my busted, out-of-touch lungs, and the slow trudge up a scree slope seems unending. The halt to munch on dried apples and jowar (sorghum) is welcome relief. Dorjee shows immense patience. Finally, we reach the top. A floating sea of mountain ranges unfolds in every direction. Right across is the majestic Nimo Loksa, plumes of snow rising in the air. The wind hits like a blast, the sun’s warmth offering welcome relief.
Dorjee breaks into stories of winter, when the valley enters a deep freeze. Village life comes to a standstill, with people largely staying indoors. This, he says, is when the mountains come to life. Snow leopards, Himalayan red foxes and blue sheep make their presence felt on the same slopes we have just traversed. It’s reason enough for the intrepid traveller to brave the cold.
Dorjee, a veteran of such trips, says spotting wildlife in the cold can be as challenging as starting the car. It takes hours to warm up the fuel tank and get the engine fired up. He remembers being stranded on precarious roads, his path blocked by metres of snow. Last year, there were no such adventures. Dorjee stayed busy with domestic chores.
Winter may be tough but it’s also when the mountains sit pretty, the undulating sheets of white evoking a sense of the divine. Winter is when Dorjee loves to wander the mountains, whether he has company or not, still in awe of the surreal settings he is so familiar with. His excitement is evident as he contemplates a climb up Palari this winter. For, there’s always a different view from the top each time around.
The route from Manali to Leh has drawn adventurers for years. But with immaculate roads set out by the Border Roads Organisation, these days one must turn to the Kunzum La that connects the Spiti and Lahaul valleys for a real fix of adrenaline. These aren’t really roads—more like enough space cleared of boulders to allow a vehicle to pass.
A signboard tells visitors to stay off the route for six months from 15 October. In winter, even a rescue is not possible. There is no mobile phone network beyond Losar, the last village in Spiti, until Khoksar in Lahaul. The dhabas (eateries) at Batal and Chhatru shut shop too. For the next 85km, I am on my own, banking on the generosity of fellow travellers. At first, I seem to be on track, despite a few cliffhanger moments. But then, as if on cue, a truck breaks down at a bend, a boulder by its side preventing any vehicle from crossing it. The vehicles lined up are abandoned to discuss a solution to the situation. There is no shortage of stones or hands.
There is time enough to admire this raw dreamscape. The Chandra river snakes its way calmly through the boulder-strewn valley. The sights of pandemic-stricken Mumbai counting its covid-19 cases recede further from the mind. By the time we are clear, the valley is shutting out the last rays of the sun. The peaks turn a pleasing pink. The dirt road is a slushy mess.
The tedious crawl finally comes to an end, I spot a tarred road in the headlights. The nine-hour roller-coaster ride that seemed never-ending has ended. A row of parking lights flash in the distance. I look around. Under a dreamy full moon, interrupted by travelling clouds, the glowing snow peaks are still keeping me company.
Hardships in the mountains come in many forms. Until last year, the people of Lahaul would be boxed in each winter by the snowed-out passes. Rajeev Shashni, an anaesthetist who comes from Sissu, remembers that as a child he would be carried across the Rohtang La in a basket, sitting on a pile of supplies being brought in from Manali. Most people who could afford it would move to more accessible parts before the first snowfall arrived. Helicopters were reserved for emergencies.
The Atal Tunnel, inaugurated last year, changed all that. It bypasses Rohtang La and connects Lahaul to Manali through the year. Shashni now drives to work in Kullu and makes it back for the weekend. And even when unseasonal snowfall arrives on the weekend I am there, he sits easy by the tandoor, knowing he will be able to reach the office well in time come Monday.
It rains all night in Sissu. I stand out after breakfast, watching the horizontal downpour across the valley. Then, within a matter of seconds, the sleet makes way for fluffy balls of ethereal white. Little children squeal, as do a few adults. A few hours later, the slopes that had been shrouded in clouds reappear, adorned in flowing white. Save a few local vehicles, most traffic keeps off the road. The valley returns to its silence.
The next day, that silence is broken. Hordes of messy tourists descend on Sissu. It is hard to believe that we are in the midst of a pandemic. The tunnel exit transforms into a snow zone, like a theme park of sorts, the number of visitors so large that the police do little more than turn a blind eye to the ruckus.
It’s a phenomenon the locals are just starting to come to terms with. On certain days, the roads are chock-a-block with vehicles coughing up fumes. The ubiquitous plastic dots the snow-blanketed slopes. Trash is dumped into the nullahs that empty into the Chandra river. It meets the Bhaga downstream and forms the Chenab that flows into Pakistan. Shashni quips about the toxic gifts India packs off to its neighbours.
It has been a year and Shashni has had time to understand the pros and cons of the Atal Tunnel and what it means for Lahaul. He and some others have come together to see if they can do something to save this wonderland. At present, he bundles plastic in his car and drops it off at a recycling facility beyond Manali.
The area around Manali may be synonymous with mindless tourism but it’s also a place where a few people have found new homes over the last few years.
As the pandemic ravaged the plains below, artist Vikrant Singh Rathore sat easy in his mountain home in Haripur, a short hop from Manali, a place he had moved to seven years ago, far away from the bustle of Delhi. Three distant peaks of the Pir-Panjal range and the play of light and shade have been his muse since. He has painted them through the changing seasons, chronicling the vivid hues of the resting ice cones. Tucked away on a gentle slope amid orchards of apple and plum, he has stayed cocooned from the grief and loss of the pandemic.
Yukti Mittal, however, was stuck in the plains, caught up in a corporate job in Gurugram, Haryana, and homebound by an eye ailment even before the pandemic struck. The months spent indoors were harrowing. The mountains beckoned and when it was clear that she could work remotely, she decided to move to Manali for two months.
She roamed free, soaking in the joys she had experienced sporadically in the past, and grew more and more convinced it was time to give up corporate life and pursue her passion for the outdoors. In the mountains, she found a sense of purpose and belonging.
In April, she moved into a rented space in Balsari. A peak called Prini keeps her company most days. Earlier, when she would visit, she would gaze endlessly at the mountains. Now she sees them in a different light—the lines she could possibly ski down or the gradients that will allow for a climb.
A few years ago, I had taken my mother along for our first trip together in the mountains. One morning, she asked about the plan for the day. “Today, we will sit and stare at the mountains,” I responded. She didn’t take me seriously until she saw me settling down in the post-monsoon sunshine. For the rest of the day, we sat there, eating and drinking, exchanging a few words, our eyes firmly fixed on the grandeur of Friendship Peak, which dominates Solang Valley. Time crawled, then sped by. There were no complaints during the moments of silence. By evening, my mother had been inducted into the club of mountain gazers.
This was Solang Valley long before it transformed into the touristy hub eyesore that it has become. It took me just minutes to drop plans of spending time there and continue south. By evening, the twinkling lights of Shimla were telling me the festive season had arrived.
A month had passed, I was back where I had started from. The parikrama was complete, the heart content and mind at peace.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.