Call of the Mountains – [3]

Read the previous part in Part 2.

[5]

Kaza. Temperature 10 degrees. From mountains we had now descended to plain valleys, though we would go through mountains again soon, but for now the day was growing old and we needed to rest, for sleepy and tired we were and much in need of food. Kaza is the biggest settlement you’ll encounter in this empty corner of the planet. At a height of 3650 meters (11980 feet), this is the largest township and commercial center of the valley. Kaza is beautiful. I really do not have any other word for it, because it is just that. Beautiful. It feels a bit like a small frontier town with an easygoing pace. Jagged mountains rise on either side while the river coils across the valley floor like twisted locks of Medusa’s hair. The colourful new Sakya Gompa stands just above the main road in New Kaza (south of the Kaza Nullah), while the ramshackle bazaar and whitewashed buildings of Old Kaza spread out on the north side of the stream. We stayed here overnight, at a half-hotel half-home, and the manager was the chef as well, allowing us to have proper food after a very long time. Dinner consisted of chapatis (unleavened flatbreads), as well as pulses, chicken and some vegetables. We almost welcomed it akin to a feast. After a sumptuous dinner that seemed to go on forever, we finally retired to our rooms, to make plans for the next day.

Here we were divided. We had two options to pursue with. While three of us wished for one of them, the other three wanted to continue with the opposite option. The first option was this. We had come all the way from Shimla to Kalpa to Kaza, and we could retrace our paths and go back home. This seemed viable, because now we knew the way and though the road wasn’t much of a road as it was a muddy lane, we could still make-do with it. The other option was to complete a full circle, that is, go along straight and come out through Chandigarh. This road was mostly much better than the first option, but for several hours in the beginning, the path was going to be unbearable, with stones and rocks and waterfalls crossing through our paths. It would be difficult to pursue, but again it would take lesser time than its opponent. And therefore we were now divided in our opinion.

After hours of discussion and coaxing each other, we finally decided to continue with the second option. So tomorrow we would leave Kaza and move north ahead and we would spend a day at Chandratal, after which we would continue our trip back home. After gulping down a cup of hot tea, I made my way back inside my blankets. I had called up home in between, after almost a day. It is reassuring to see how much our parents care for us. Though this is really personal, I thought I should share it out here. My mother was so tensed for the fact that I had not called her up, because she did not know I was out of network, so she just assumed something horrible could have had happened with me. When I finally got a chance to call her up from the phone of the hotel’s manager, she burst into tears. It took me a while to get her back on her nerves, but that was one moment I realized how much really they love us, albeit the fact that they do not really try much hard elsewise to profess it, and do not frequently show enough gestures, so that we take them for granted, but then these small things happen, and the love comes oozing out, much like water out of a nozzle that has been kept pressed for long. I did not realize when I fell asleep.

I was again amongst my school friends. We were walking up a hill. The grass was tall, almost of our height, so that we could hide amongst them. But we held hands, lest we got lost. The going was tough, the incline was rough. The sun glimmered through the grass. When we finally reached the top of the hill, we saw a couple of dwarves hanging out. They had a barbeque in front of them, and were eating huge chunks of chicken with both their hands, smacking their lips, for the pieces were so huge the sauce splattered on their faces as well. They wore strange hats, huge and conical towards the top. One of them kept his beard in a strange fashion, tying it up under his chin, so that it looked almost as if it were an elephant’s tail. The other had no beard, but the left half of his face had a painting, more like a tattoo, which was an intricate design showing a dwarf fighting against a mammoth. Now we came close to them and they looked up towards us and smiled. We smiled back at them. They invited us to sit and have some food. But we had only taken a step forward when suddenly their faces went white; they looked aghast. Suddenly there was a bright streak followed by a roaring thunder. The fire went out. Looking behind me, I saw a huge falcon now making its way towards me. I ducked in time, and the falcon’s claws thrust into the first dwarf. Now it bled profusely, and the other dwarf looked at us and spat, clearly angry. And then he stood. Out of the blue, he started growing. Now he was a man. Now a giant. Now he loomed over all of us, his shadow covering miles. He raised his foot. One step forward and we would all be under his feet. As his foot came trampling down on the ground, my eyes opened. It was morning. The night had faded out and the sun was now gleaming on the mountains of Kaza. It was time to make our next move.

[6]

Early in the morning it was and it was a Saturday when we left for the last segment of our trip. Soon this would all be over. Soon we would be back home and these drives would be etched in memory forever. But for now, it was not the end that made me emotional, but the scenery around. The vegetation had grown scanty again, and very stony was the road too. Atop a hill to the east stood the Key Monastery. Called Kye Gompa by the local people, this 11th century creation stands at an altitude of 4166 meters (13668 feet). Though this monastery has been attacked time and again, by the Mongols and by the Dogras and by the Sikhs as well, it still stands proudly. The walls of the monastery are covered with paintings and murals, an example of the 14th century monastic architecture, which developed as the result of Chinese influence. Key monastery has a collection of ancient murals and books, including Buddha images. But running out of time we were, and so we turned west, towards our destination.

We now crossed the village of Rangrik, a scantily populated village but beautiful all the same. I pulled down the windows a bit, to feel the fresh morning air muffled by the scent of autumn. A huge twenty-five feet statue of Lord Buddha overlooked us. Now I saw men-in-arms slowly creeping out from behind the statue. I rubbed my eyes. They had all vanished. Perhaps it was just a figment of my imagination. A couple of people here and there, who smiled gleefully at all the passers-by, but other than that, the village was pretty scarcely populated. We had now reached the outskirts of the city. In a while, I would be seeing my first mountain-pass ever. We were coming close and I was excited about it. Above us loomed lofty mountains. And somewhere in between hid the Kunzum Pass.

We had still time to reach the eastern Kunzum Range of the Himalayas. Already I was hungry, but these roads weren’t ones where one could find a morsel to chew. I sat back for a while, listening to songs, introspecting how much this journey has had an effect on me. For one thing I was sure of, that I had become more patient and tolerant than I was a couple of days back. And the other thing I knew was that I had made some good friends. Sometimes, you do not realize the value of people who are around you, unless they are the only ones who are there. Though there hardly was a chance of us not surviving this trip and getting back safely, just in case we met with a landslide or an accident or anything, they would be the last faces I’d see in my life. And that thought was a mixture of comfort and anguish, of solace and grief. This was a new experience, one I had never felt before; probably would never feel again as well, well, unless I undertook another trip like this which had so much to give back yet in such a short while. Looking out into the skies, loomed with lofty mountains, some covered in ice, some in grass, some only rocks, some jet-black while others had a muddy tint to them, some shining, some silent and overwhelming, there were so many kinds of them, all crammed up in this small uninhabited corner of the world. Perhaps the best things are the most difficult to find, and perhaps we can never know what all good things exist unless we really try hard to find them, and it held true for stuff deep within our hearts too, but now was not the time to think about hearts and emotions, because I did not want to get upset in the midst of such a blissful day. We were now driving at a pretty slow pace, because the road did not allow much speed, and if we sped, our heads bumped against the roof of the car. But soon enough we would reach the Kunzum.

Kunzum Pass. Separating Spiti and Lahaul valleys, it is situated at a higher altitude than Rohtang Pass, which is at an elevation of 13,054 ft and also serves as another gateway to Lahaul and Spiti. Kunzum Pass offers spectacular views of Bara-Sigri, the second longest glacier in the world.  Also visible from the top of the pass are the Chandra-Bhaga mountain and Spiti valley. The presence of chortens and prayer flags signify a strong Buddhist influence in the area. Also popular, is the Kunzum Devi Temple where all vehicles must stop to pay respects to the goddess. And so did we stop. We now saw the Chandra-Bhaga mountain, in the cradle of which lied our destination for the day, Chandra-tal. We met another band of tourists, who were headed towards Spiti. A group of youngsters out on a road-trip. Perhaps we should have made this trip back when we were in college. But then I had no idea of such a place. And even if I had, it would be too far. The pass was serene. On the other side lay the Lahaul valley, but we would not be going there until tomorrow. For now, we needed to keep pace, and reach Chandratal on time. Our driver had finished his prayers to Kunzum Devi, and we now sped forward towards Losar, where we would stop to have breakfast, for now we were all desperately in need for food. We sped now. The road was easy-going and our car was making good time. In a short while, the vegetation increased, as did the population and we knew we were about to reach inhabited grounds again. The Losar village is located adjacent to the Indo Chinese border, and lays claim to being the last habitable land before one crosses over to China. Much similar to Ladakh in appearance, the cold desert offers its visitors magnificent views, mountains draped in multiple colours, and breath-taking vistas, with the beauty of the place almost unparalleled anywhere else. We stopped here for a while and had a meagre breakfast, which was all that they could offer, but even so I was happy for after many hours my stomach finally heaved a sigh of relief. And then we happily chirped our way ahead, talking a lot, singing songs and eagerly looking forward to reach the Moon Lake as soon as possible.

Read the final part in Part 4.

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