Tryst with Cliffhangers at Himalayas
Higher up in the Himalayas the roads are difficult to maintain and keep motorable. Everyday is a tug of war between man and nature. Nature usually relents for a short span of time after which armies of men & women of GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force) of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) use every available muscle and mechanised power to clear the roads in extreme conditions. The sections are frequented by landslides, brute force of water (streams, rain and snow), gales and earthquakes.
This journey of ours undertaken in the summer of 2013 travels along with the river Chenab through the remote areas of higher Himalayas covering Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. The roads we took are motorable on maps but barely motorable in reality. We crossed treacherous sections of mountains where no tarmac has ever been laid and no road roller has ever moved. Just the mountains have been blasted with explosives and cleared of debris. This journey travels through the roads of the Tandi-Udeypur-Tindi-Shour-Killar and Kishtwar.
The place of disclaimers is usually towards the end of a post and there is a reason for it being placed here. Should you get influenced by the post and decide to undertake this journey, you would do it at your own risk. We (Neha and I) indemnify ourselves from any mishap that you may face should you decide to undertake this journey. This post is not a guide or a route map but a memoir of our road trip.
The dry spell lasted this time for 4 months. Our last (short) road trip, was to Kufri with the offroading group, Terrain Tigers. Then came the end of the financial year, which for us, salaried people, is the time to indulge into compulsive savings to save tax and this translates to fewer funds to splurge.
Weekend road trips are usually impulsive, random and are done with less or no planning. But, there is at least some element of planning required for a trip lasting a week. Route plans have to be drawn in advance, halts need to be roughly kept in mind and then packing needs to be done accordingly. Neha and I had applied for leaves from office with no destination in mind, no route plan, nothing. We just knew that we are going somewhere, but where?
Till 31st May 2013, we were toying with the idea of the Rishikesh sector but thought that it will too short a trip to utilise the number of days in hand with us. The Spiti circuit was out of question as the Kunzum pass was not yet open. On Saturday afternoon, we narrowed our thoughts down to Chandra Taal trek, a lake in the Spiti valley much before Kunzum la. The next element was to assess if any gear is missing in our arsenal and voilà came the realisation that we did not have any trekking gear. A quick shopping drive followed to Satya Niketan in Delhi, where there are two shops selling trekking and adventure gear. While returning home, we chalked out the route plan which was something like this.
Day 1 – Gurgaon to Manali/Solang Valley
Day 2 Manali/Solang Valley – Rohtang Pass – Baatal – Chandra Taal
Day 3-4 Chandra Taal
Day 5 Chandra Taal – Rohtang Pass – Solang Valley
Day 6 Solang Valley – Gurgaon
This is what actually materialised
Day 1: June 02, 2013: Gurgaon to Solang Valley via Manali
We started at 1.30 am from home so that we reach well in time at Manali to apply for the permit to cross Rohtang pass next morning. Obtaining the permit was the main agenda of the day. For us, Manali or Solang valley was just a transit halt and we did not want to spend any extra time here. We entered Manali a little before 1 pm and by the time we found our way to the Mall road where the SDM office is located, it was almost 1.45 pm. Parking in crowded hill stations like Manali is always a challenge and while I struggled to find a parking space, Neha proceeded to the SDM office to procure the permit. The permit is issued free of cost after submitting an application (available at the photocopy shops in the vicinity) along with the copies of the car registration certificate and driving license. Sounds easy, isn’t it? It wasn’t. We reached Manali on a Sunday and everyone, right from travel agents to cops positioned at the Mall road believed that permit can not be obtained on a Sunday. They seemed so convinced that it was almost disheartening; a lot of people would have given up. Neha wanted to see for herself and headed alone for the office while I proceeded to park the vehicle.
She found the office empty but she did not stop looking. After a lot of searching, she ran into someone who guided her to the room in which permits were issued and by the time I joined her, the permit work was almost done. This was job half done. Hereon, we decided to check with the local adventure tour operators about the Chandra Taal. A day earlier, Neha had enquired about the route for Chandra Taal from a tour operator in Delhi and he quite convincingly said that the route was open till Batal and the lake is just 2 km away from the point road ends. Local tour operators in Manali had several versions on the status of the route.
The same people had said earlier with conviction that no way Rohtang permit can be obtained on a Sunday. Sometimes, it is best to check out things by ourselves, especially at places where man and nature are in a constant tug of war. We spent some time at the
Mall Road, had much needed lunch at a local eatery and then proceeded to Solang Valley where we had our hotel booked through HVK Facebook forum’s central helpdesk.
Enroute Solang, it suddenly struck me that we should refuel as fuel pumps may not be available after Manali. We had not gone far from the last available fuel station in Bahang. Soon, we had checked in Iceland Resorts in Solang Valley. A river stream passes close to this resort and we were attracted to it immediately. While we were walking down to the stream, we spotted two shepherd dogs in the meadow close by who were quite friendly and playful. We petted them and they followed us to the river stream. A few photographs later we were back at the hotel to have dinner and finally called it a day.
Day 2: June 03, 2013: Solang Valley – Rohtang Pass – Spiti road – Baralacha Pass – Sarchu
Rohtang pass used to be a mess when it came to traffic. It was not uncommon for cars to crawl and take 4 to 5 hours to cross this mountain pass. The permit system does not allow non-Himachal registered vehicles to go and visit the Rohtang pass. Permits are only issued to non-Himachal registered which have the intention of going to Leh, or Lahaul & Spiti valley. And then there is traffic movement restriction. From 6 am to 11 am vehicles are permitted to cross Rohtang Pass from Manali side. From 11 am to 1 pm, only cabs are permitted to enter the pass from Manali side. The road remains closed for traffic to carry out repair works from 1 pm to 3 pm and from 3 pm onwards traffic returning to Manali is allowed.
Having this information in advance was beneficial and we were at the Marhi checkpost at 5.40 am. There were about a dozen vehicles in front of us. At 6 am the checkpost allowed us to pass through. We made the best use of the power of our 4WD Scorpio and overtook all vehicles in-front of us. After that the whole section was a piece of cake. We completed the section in less than 90 minutes with many stoppages after the Rohtang top to click quick photographs. At Grumpu, we halted for breakfast and proceeded to the Spiti road. We could not resist to stop by the beautiful green meadows on the mountain side and relaxed for good 30 minutes before proceeding further. Short of 3 km on the road, we came
across an army vehicle and a volley of men clearing snow and ice from the road. The army officer shared that this was one of the three sections of road till Chota Dhara which were under snow rendering the road non-motorable. To make matters worse a snow clearing machine was stuck at one of the points. It turned out that the tour operators in Manali was fairly correct on the road being closed and Chandra Taal was now out of question.
We now decided to go and see Tso Moriri lake and thus headed towards Sarchu.We hardly would have covered 2 km and we were stuck once again due to a landslide. Fortunately for us, the road was being cleared by an earth moving machine. We refueled at Tandi, the last fuel station on the road to Leh.
The next one is 365 km away. While we were inching closer to Keylong, at a water crossing, the front right wheel started making grinding noise. We stopped and figured that some debris would have come between the brake-shoe and the disk. Since we could not see anything, we thought that removing the wheel will give us access to whatever is stuck and fix the problem. To our bad luck, while removing the wheel, the spanner slipped on one of the nuts damaging it. We had no option but to continue ahead. We would have gone a few hundred meters ahead that the noise stopped completely, but we still had one bad nut which would not unscrew should we have a flat on the way. So, we stopped over at a local road side car repair shop. In this
part of the country, a lot of Mahindra Boleros and pickups ply and finding such simple parts is easy. Twenty rupees lighter on the pocket, we got the bad part replaced and were back on the road. On the way to Sarchu we stopped to admire the beautiful Deepak Taal and Suraj Taal lakes.
Three years ago, we had got stuck at a water crossing while going towards Manali from Leh at Baralacha Pass. We were held up inside water for over 40 minutes till two passing vehicles offered their help and rescued us. We got stuck because the melting glacier had changed its course and was flowing in full force on the road instead of flowing under the bridge. Three years hence, the melting glacier had been tamed and made to flow where it was meant to. However, the place brought back difficult memories of the day.
We reached Sarchu an hour before dusk and set up camp close to a camping site. I started showing primary symptoms of altitude sickness. Afterall we ascended too fast, crossed two mountain passes in one day and were sleeping at 4290 m without acclimatisation.
Day 3: Sarchu towards Pang but back in Keylong
The symptoms of altitude sickness persisted through morning and I had a splitting headache upon waking up. The temperature inside our dome tent fell below zero and Neha’s nose had turned blue due to low temperature during the night. After the sun rose and we bathed in the warm light of our star, we felt better. Packed up and continued the journey for Tso Moriri. We were aware that an Inner Line Permit is required to visit the lake and the permit is issued from Leh; however, we wanted to take a chance and request the guards to let us pass through.
The road at Sarchu check post was closed and we learnt that a bridge had broken the previous night. A few truckers told us that we can go ahead on the route as the bridge was expected to be repaired in the next 30-40 minutes. We resumed our onward journey and we were the only car in our line of site which was travelling. A few miles on the road, we came across a bridge over a river connecting two mountains. There was no one around and we got anxious – what if, this is the bridge which is broken and if we move on this we just might go down with it. We surveyed the bridge for any visual signs of damage or any missing planks. It appeared to be in a good shape; we had crossed bridges in worse conditions earlier. We did manage to cross over and that too in the same condition that we started, it was quite a relief. Another bridge came and went. Some 20 km from the barriers, we saw a crowd of people and some cars parked just short of where the mountain ended into a run down bridge structure.
On first glance, it seemed as if someone had either stolen the metal plates of the bridge as only skeleton was hanging. Upon enquiring from the BRO officer, we learnt that the structure still standing is an old abandoned bridge and the actual bridge had washed away in a flash flood last evening. We were also told that a bulldozer had started at 5 am from Pang and was expected to reach the bridge site in a couple of hours. A day earlier on the way to Tandi, we came across two small landslides and in both instances the clearing took close to an hour. Even though we a have no knowledge in repairing bridges , we realised that even after the bulldozers reach, the repair work will take at least 2 days. We did not want to stay in Sarchu for 2 more days and decided to head back. Just when we started back for Sarchu, we were flagged down by two men, who wanted a hitch a ride back to Sarchu. It turned out that one of them was a retired colonel of Indian Army who was on a motorbike trip of the region. A night before, 2 out of the 3 bikes had crossed
over and one of their bikers could not make it in time to find the bridge. They had come down to check on their team member and found him safe. Col. Vinod Arora had some interesting information and anecdotes to share. We reached Sarchu and sat down for tea with him. A quarter of an hour later we were back on the road after biding goodbye to him and his team member. We reached Keylong around 4 pm and once again through the central registration desk of HVK Facebook Forum, we had our room booked in Hotel Tashi Delek. Upon reaching the hotel, we realised that we had stayed in the same hotel 3 years earlier when we did the Leh circuit on our Hyundai Accent. We had a lot of time on hand, so we went for a walk in the small market of Keylong and returned to the hotel after dining at a Tibetan restaurant. We called up HV Kumar and understood the route to one of the most treacherous roads in the country – Killar Kishtawar road.
Day 4: Keylong to Killar via Udeypur
The first and foremost step in the journey was fuel. Unlike the Leh Manali route where even in the absence of fuel stations, one can manage to get fuel, there is no such hope on the route we were about to undertake. It is a road less travelled by tourists and till the end of the journey we were the only non-local vehicle on the entire stretch.
Before I move ahead, I would like to share this important piece of information. While refueling at the Tandi fuel station, I happened to strike a conversation with the attendant. To my surprise, he revealed that there are days when they are out of fuel and have to wait up to 2 days for the fuel trucks to come. And most of the travelers on this route including us take the Tandi fuel station as a guaranteed refueling point before we hit Leh.
The road to Udeypur passes through lush green grasslands and plantations with little patches of the brown mountains. And to add to the marvel of the scenery, there are numerous waterfalls, several are on the roadside and others in the distance. We took our time admiring the route and photographing it. The road is rough on certain patches but nothing compared to what lies ahead of Udeypur. We had started our journey around 8 am and we reached Udeypur around 1 pm. On the way we took a 12 km round trip detour to Triloknath temple. This temple is a live example of the communal harmony of the Hindus and Buddhists of the region as both religious sects offer prayers at the same place and the same time. The temple has the statue of Triloknath or Lord Shiva and is a mix of Hindu and Buddhist architecture. We could not photograph the interior of the temple as it was prohibited but it was quite a surreal experience.
The life of the people in these sections of Himalayas is quite unique. In the village of Triloknath, while coming back from the temple, we came across a small shop on the roof of which cut brinjals were being dried in the sun. Our curiosity got the better of us and we couldn’t help but ask the women who were engaged in this task. The people of this village have to work hard during the summers, drying vegetables so that when they are cut off from the world in winters and nothing grows, they can survive on their stocked provisions. Everything is stocked for 6 months of winter, right from salt to soap. They plan each and every aspect of their lives in advance to sustain the winter. And, to beat it all, they believe in community service. Everyone works together and has a role in the small society that they have. Communication is on the mercy of the mobile service provider and nature herself. Randomly the service provider may decide to turn off the connectivity or nature would create conditions to cut off these people from the world earlier than winters. It is quite unlike the residents of big cities, who are not even aware who their neighbours are, forget about understanding their needs and rendering help when needed. With the advent of “delivered fresh in 30 minutes”, we city dwellers do not plan meticulously as these mountain dwellers do.
At Udeypur, we had lunch at a local dhabba and checked with local cops as well as local taxi drivers on the status of the road till Killar. While the taxi drivers said the road was open, two police officers expressed concern for us starting in the afternoon. They cautioned us
of the water crossings and advised us to ask for help from the GREF if we get stuck. Also, they advised us not to waste anytime and cross the major water crossings before 3.30 pm as after that they become almost impassable. HV Kumar also expressed his concern of us being late in starting from Udeypur. Had we not been so casual till Udeypur, we would have ample time in hand to reach Killar. But time was already lost and there was no point wasting time in mulling over lost time. We continued ahead. Around 2 km down the road, the surface changed from broken tarmac to a narrow dirt road and this slowed us down. We were told that to cover that 80 km distance to Killar, we would definitely need 5 to 6 hours. Four kilometers further on the road, we encountered our first water crossing which was not difficult. Six kilometers further down, we saw something that shook our confidence. No way, we could cross this one without getting towed. The water was flowing at its full force and appeared quite deep. We saw three labourers working on the crossing fighting water by filling large rocks in gaps created by the brute force of water. One of them, showed us the narrow path they had been able to fill completely from where our vehicle could cross to the other side. We were taking a big chance as the underlying rocks could get displaced from their position while we were crossing the stream. We put the vehicle in 4 wheel low ratio gear mode and proceeded. The vehicle articulated over the rocks, through the water effortlessly and we breathed a sigh of relief. While, we may have gone across the water in 2 wheel drive mode as well, but the probability of getting stuck was quite high. A wrong move or slip towards the gorge side would mean instant end of the trip. The condition of the road beyond this point had further worsened and now we were now driving on spurred roads. Half an hour later, the weather changed and dark clouds covered the region. Even though my casio watch was constantly showing weather to be on the fine side, it had started drizzling. It was a bad sign. The whole mountain range on
which we were driving is highly susceptible to landslides caused by rain and gale. Loose stones and rocks are carefully balanced on each other on the cliff side of the mountain. A small external force caused by any of the natural or manmade sources would disturb this delicate balance and gravity would do the rest. It is not uncommon for random landslides in this region. And, if we were to get stuck, expecting help at that time of the day was like expecting to run into an oasis in Thar desert. And then, worse could have happened. We could be targets of these falling rocks and a large one could push us down in the Chenab river following several hundred feet below. Earlier in the day we had seen small pebble sized stones shooting down on the road a few meters in front of us. One just needs to be in the wrong place in the wrong time.
Rain made us worry a lot and even though how much we wanted to hurry, we could not. We were covering 10 to 15 kilometers in a hour at max. Going faster would mean risking the approach angle of a blind turn and we would be sleeping with the bears and other animals in the forest below – should we survive such a fall.
Around 2 pm, we came across a third water crossing or should I say 200-300 meters long river bed crossing uphill. In fact, it was a rogue waterfall, whose flow had changed its course and was now following on the road for quite a distance. This section came upon us suddenly after a blind turn. Looking at this vast flow of water, we stopped. Up in the distance, we saw a lot of people and three trucks parked.
These were the GREF guys and they were repairing the roads. This instilled some confidence to cross this section as if we were to get stuck, we could always request/beg the truck to tow us out. Engaged 4WD low 2nd gear and started moving. At first the water was only an inch deep but with every turn of the wheel uphill, the depth increased. By the time we reached the waterfall, we were in quite deep water. Without increasing or decreasing the approach speed, we continued ahead and managed to cross over. We breathed a sigh of relief and stopped. We met the GREF guys and asked them about the road up ahead. Their leader was a guy from Haryana and seeing our Haryana registered vehicle, quickly came towards us and greeted us with humility. We reciprocated. He shared that this was the most treacherous of the crossings and many a people get stuck here. Every morning, they start their battle with the water here and by evening they returned home relenting to the force of water. And had we been here 2 hours later, they would have gone home and we would have been by ourselves. He also shared that the road till Killar was fine with no such death traps. However, he warned us that the road gets quite narrow and at places we need to be careful on our approach angle, else…, (silence)
Around 3 pm, we reached the village of Tindi and there we enquired about the road ahead. We ran into a GREF truck driver who was returning from a day long hard labour. His brought in news which we never expected. He told us that up ahead, his team is set to blast the mountain to widen the motorable path and unless we cross into Killar by 5 pm, we are likely to get stuck in the middle of nowhere in the blast zone. Clearance of debris following a blast takes anywhere between 8 to 48 hours. The leader we met earlier on the water crossing didn’t warn us about this. Did he forget? Was he messing with us? Is this guy messing with us? There was no time to waste debating; it was time to panic. No way, we wanted to get stuck in this place. We wanted to move ahead. This also meant, that there is no looking back hereon. If we cross into Killar, we must keep moving ahead into Kishtwar and further ahead to Jammu road. We drove a wee bit faster and we were now constantly running on 4 wheel high mode. This mode brings in more traction on bad surfaces and helped us articulate the spurred and rocky path with much finesse. A dozen kilometers ahead we met some more people and finally a vehicle going in our direction. We stopped and asked. The leader at the waterfall did not forget to warn us nor was he messing with us. It was the truck driver – a$$h013! Okay, so here is truth. The mountains do get blasted once a week, on a Friday or Saturday. Today, they were drilling holes into the cliff to make space for explosives. At the village of Shour, this was validated. We saw teams drilling holes in the cliff. We rechecked with them and one of them expressed concern that if we wanted to return this path after Friday, we may not be able to. Did he say, return? No, never!
Around 6 pm, we were at Killar and headed to the government rest house located near the helipad. Shocking it was, the place was booked. Turns out people from L&T Hydro electric power project were staying the night here. Next we went to the only hotel in the town, Chamunda View Palace. This palace is the town’s watering hole and was sold out as well! Now, what? There is a homestay called Chandrabhaga. This place was also sold out. Apparently, elections were close by in this town and political strata and cops were staying in the hotels. Now what! sleeping in the car, was an option. So I went to get the car to in order to find a parking space while there was still some light. The owner of the Chamunda View came up to me and asked if we managed to get a room. And then, he said that he has one room which is in shambles which is left out and he can give it to us. During our Bhutan drive, we got a similar room in Gopalganj and slept in our sleeping bags. It was better than staying in the car, at least we both can lay horizontal and not be exposed to the cold night of the himalayan hamlet. It took us an hour to set the room – a lot of room freshener was sprayed, and the bedding replaced by our own. Food also came from our luggage and we called it a day.
Day 5: Killar – Kishtwar – Batote-Gurgaon (24 hours non-stop drive back home)
At 5.30 am we were in the car, driving towards Kishtwar. We were forewarned by many about this road. Everyone had one common thing to say. Only the real adventurer dare to travel on this path. The road here becomes so narrow that there is barely space to keep all four wheels on the track. And then there are steep hairpin bends; bends where one can not turn the vehicle in one go. There is not enough space to turn the vehicle in one go. You traverse half turn and then reverse and then move ahead. All this needs to be done, with loose rocky surface which gives away without warning and then there is raging Chenab river in the valley below. This route has done no provisioning for errors. One mistake, one wrong move on these cliffhangers and it is the end of your journey and definitely, the end of life.
An hour after driving here,
we came across the Himachal Pradesh border before the Sansari Nalah. The barrier was in closed position and I walked up to the guards to fill in our details. The details are taken to inform the next of kin incase you don’t make it to across the treacherous path. They offered us tea and we chatted with them for quite some time, understanding how they work and in what conditions. We also tried to find out what to do in case there is a breakdown. Both the guards expressed grim concern over the question. The answer was quite expected and disheartening – you are stuck. They too warned us of the path up ahead and asked us to be slow and extra careful. And, they were right and so was everybody with whom we shared about this trip. The hairpin bends were extremely steep climbs on rocky surface. No way, I was going to try doing it in 2 wheel drive. I had learnt the skill of rock climbing with the offroading group – Terrain Tigers and it was time to implement it. Mahindra’s Scorpio behaved amazingly well and we kept going without any problem. Of course, we had to articulate some turns in steps, which meant reversing up to the edge of the road and here the strong team Neha and I are, displayed our best coordination skills.
This route has some of the best waterfalls we have seen in our life and that too on the side of the roads. We just couldn’t resist stopping at most of them. At Tiyari village, we had breakfast. While eating the local dhabba person shared that last year 3 vehicles with people went down into the gorge and were never retrieved. Upon enquiring about the occupants of the vehicle, he said that their identities were determined by the records maintained by Himachal and J&K checkpost people. The road becomes slightly broader till Gulabgarh from here but only in some small sections. Soon we came across a village where a railing less wooden bridge was the only way to cross the stream of water. The road leading to the bridge and following it was quite steep which translated into maintaining an optimum momentum in order to approach the bridge and then to climb to the road following it. Being railing-less and extremely narrow, the precision had to be accurate to the inch. There was simply no room for error.
The force of water flowing under it was adding to the building tension. It was just crazy. We crossed the bridge alright, but lost momentum on the ascend and stalled. Flexed the handbrake to its extreme position and yet on depression of the clutch the vehicle was slipping into the stream of water as if it had a huge magnet inside it. It seemed as if we were done for. Once again, the 4WD low gear came handy and we were out of this mess.
After Gulabgarh, tarmac can be felt on the road and it is a relief. The narrowness of the road continued on various sections especially turns. Tarmac also meant, more vehicular
traffic and thus the chances of being stuck in a bad zone increased manyfold. We somehow managed to reach Kishtwar in one piece. We refueled at Kishtwar and proceeded to Batote. Around 4 pm, we were in Batote and called up HV Kumar from a local payphone enquiring about the route plan till Pathankot. Our phones were not working in this section and thus we had no navigational aids. Neha and I decided to go home now. We were more than content with the scenic beauty since last few days and the beauty at Killar-Kishtwar route was icing on the cake and hence, regular hill stations like Patnitop had no value for us.
We started driving towards home and joined a huge traffic snarl at Patnitop. We waited for more than 30 minutes before the mess sorted out and we resumed our journey. We reached Pathankot via Udyampur , Ramkote and Lakhanpur around 9 pm. I asked Neha to sleep on the rear seat of the car and by 1 am we were at Roopnagar. She took over the driving and I rested for a while. Around 3,30 am, we had food at the dhabas in Murthal and entered Delhi around 5 am. By 5.45 am we were home. We had done it! Not only we drove through a very difficult terrain but also drove non-stop for 24 hours.
A special thanks for Kumar HV, for tracking us and guiding us throughout the trip.