I’d been in Manali for a little over two weeks, absorbing all the tall stories which painted Spiti valley as quite a remote and serious undertaking. Landslides and river crossings so high they swallowed up the tires of a bus (tires that coincidentally are about the same height as my shoulders when sat on the bike…) stood like monoliths to bragging rights, over which I’d ride my ballooning narcissistic sense of adventure. Nothing easy is ever worth doing, right?
While the rain fell pellet thick for three days, driving all but the most resilient travellers into the snuggly confines of coffee shops or hostel beds, the Rhotang Pass road (3978m) was busy being chewed up into a coffee brown slurry run, but with a date already enshrined on the permit I had to leave. Alongside an Australian and Dutch couple riding to Leh, I weaved through deep trenches, skating my feet along the squelching surface with knees up near my elbows. It was such an absorbing ride that I missed my turning, assuming that Gramphu (as a named place on the map) would be a little more evolved than a hidden tin hut dhaba and a scrawl of white paint on a rock. I wished my co-adventurers good luck for their journey and headed back up the slip-n-slide to find my route.
On little more than a goat track, in the driving rain and through gushing streams, entombed on all sides by snow capped himalayan peaks which glint in a far away sunlight, I remembered all the daydreaming I’d done at my desk during my final days of work. Alone – picking past sharp rocks and sump grinding drops, smooth eroded rocks spinning like ball bearings as I kicked and thrashed down steep slopes and water crossings. It was wild and committing, difficult to retreat and punctures were likely.
The afternoon sun was cooking the glaciers way above and along with the rain in the valley it was washing out river crossings into knee deep, jaw clenching grit-matches before driving down to meet the Chenab river below.
The secret ingredients for adventure – uncertainty and apprehension – were bubbling away madly as I wondered just how fucked I’d be if I blew out a tire in this remote neverland. At best it would be a fitting initiation for my creaky, newly liberated left wrist.
The lone wolf streak that cuts through me, something I felt necessary to indulge while in the comfort of others, was whimpering as I pushed further and further into the wilds, stoic but intimidated.
After too long I spotted three lonely figures walking the road in the distance. It was nothing, but I felt the spark of encouragement strike up inside my chest and drive me forwards. They didn’t look nearly prepared enough to be out here hiking and around the next corner I saw why. A flock of jeeps, busses, bikes and seven seater people carriers were all hemmed into a wide corrugation of the valley wall, overshadowed by a thundering waterfall.
The little spark lit a fire in my heart.
I wasn’t alone.
Assuming they were parked up to admire the falls (and under the callow glow of someone who’d just rediscovered humanity) I overtook the cars on my side and cut into the flooded ford with only a cursory glance ahead.
It was the mother flood. The bus eater. And my exhaust was already deep underwater by the time I realised. There was only one way through.
I threw my weight around behind the bars and thumped my feet into the wash, clawing past an abandoned, part submerged car – a spectacle for everyone who’d been standing postulating. With only a few feet remaining, the rear wheel jammed in behind a rock and locked me into position, revving to fight the water pressure. Two men on the banks waded into the water and, grabbing my luggage rack on either side, wiggled and lifted until I gained traction and could rise, beaming, up the silty ramp on the other side.
Arms went up from the crowed, a whoop escaped from me and I flashed a thumbs up to the two gentlemen standing in the river. Cars began to siphon themselves into the crossing.
Victorious and emboldened, the next few kilometers flew by until the road improved and I teamed up with some friendly brother bikers, Amarinderjit and Jagjeet, at a roadside food tent. Together we crunched, through less daunting but still challenging obstacles, all the way to Batal (~4000m), a handful of tents and stone huts with corrugated steel roofs and tarpaulin linings to keep out the sharp, whistling winds. The last of the day had retreated behind the mountain peaks and the barren valley chilled uncomfortably quickly. The three of us fought off the cold with rice, dahl and probably too many glasses of old monk rum, considering we’d gained 2000m in a single push.
Waking up early, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by the convoluted white spires of some of the worlds highest mountains, was glorious – albeit marred by having to pull on boots full of cold water, scrape the ice off my bike and holding the throttle part-open for 15 minutes to build some heat up in the engine.
We made a quick detour to Chander Tal lake (4300m) but the rum from the night before and the altitude had made me a little dizzy hiking around. We turned back after only half an hour or so of admiring the view and saddled up to scale Kunzum pass (4590m). Descending down into the valley beyond, the first signs of civilization re-emerged.
With a helpful tip from an army checkpoint officer our team departed the normal road, all crap gravel, and soared along a pristine trickle of fresh, flat, black tarmac and into a stunning mountain corridor that’s shouldered by intricate cathedrals of soft, wind weathered rock. Chicham bridge had been completed only weeks before, so it was virgin territory all the way to Kibber, Key Monastery and, with plenty of daylight to spare, Kaza – the heart town of the Spiti valley.
After a night sharing a room in a fancy guesthouse, Amarinderjit and Jagjit headed out back towards Manali while I checked into the only hostel in town to chill out for a day and get my Inner Line Permits sorted.
They’d been a blessing, and not just for some good company. The storm before leaving Manali had softened the earth under my bike and an early-bird had found it lying on its side. I hadn’t noticed that a good quarter of the fuel had managed to drain from the tank, and I’d have never made it to Kaza without a top up or two from my comrades.
As I ran a finger over the tough, dry scar on my left arm, thankful that it had stayed strong through some pretty hairy riding, I spotted a shitty travel cliché that made me laugh out loud to an empty hostel kitchen:
‘Adventuring may hurt, but monotony will kill you’
Best of luck to Ineke (The Dutch pillion) and Adrian (Australian Rider) after a bad accident near Pangong Lake that resulted in injuries. I wish you guys a speedy recovery!