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Spiti Valley, India: A Land Of Missing Roads

Spiti Valley, India

Bus travel through India’s mountainous regions involves dramatic scenery, remote villages, fresh air and colorful passengers. The only thing missing sometimes is the road itself.

An overly squeaky, yet oddly enjoyable, Hindi pop song blared from the crackly speakers as the decrepit bus chugged along through India’s remote Spiti Valley. The wooden-planked floor rattled constantly, adding a unique beat to the tune along with the hypnotic vibrations of the many broken window frames. The bouncing up and down of the passengers, in response to the cracks, potholes and rocks on this semi-paved ‘highway’, resembled a choreographed piece of modern dance.

The bus was full, every bench holding up to four colorfully dressed locals crammed together. The bags of rice, sacks of vegetables, and bulky boxes of unknown goods packed into the aisles acted as seats for more than a dozen others. I sat in the back row of the bus, where the five seats held eight people and legs overlapped in an intricate and intimate pattern.

I was headed from the mountaintop village of Dhankar to the riverside village of Tabo, home to the most revered and ancient Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. Having been pre-warned that this journey usually covered the not-too-great distance of approximately 30 miles in around 2.5 hours, I had no choice but to accept this episode of bone-fracturing Indian travel.

Spiti Valley, India

All seemed perfectly on schedule as our bus moved along at its incredibly slow pace for the first hour, quite a feat considering that, during long stretches of straight road, our maximum cruising speed still never exceeded 15 miles per hour.

However, the leisurely meandering through these massive 15,000-foot Himalayan mountains, only a short distance from the mysterious Tibetan border, left me mesmerized by the awe-inspiring views at all times. Tiny Tibetan villages, recognizable by the scores of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the wind, appeared in the most unexpected of places, impossibly high up on the slopes or far down below along the banks of the Chandra River.

Every now and then the bus would come to a stop at some unmarked location, with no human activity anywhere in sight. But sure enough, a passenger would disembark and vanish along a barely visible path that provided no indication of a destination. Looking around in all directions at the completely uninhabited landscape, I was often left to use my imagination in determining where this person could possibly be headed.

At moments such as these, being subjected to another slice of India’s wonder, I would glance down at the small sticker I had placed on the front of my backpack earlier in the day and I would repeat its simple words, “I love India!”, over and over again, fully appreciating every minute of my journey.

THE DETOUR

Of course, despite the happiness of being in such a unique part of the world, when the bus suddenly came to a halt and the driver turned off the engine, I was thrilled to observe all of the other passengers begin to collect their belongings and exit the bus. I definitely welcomed what appeared to be an early arrival at Tabo.

Unfortunately, this thrill was short-lived as I quickly discovered that we had not in fact reached Tabo one hour earlier than scheduled. Instead, we had stopped behind another bus, one completely empty of passengers and with its driver taking an afternoon nap on the roof. Our own driver climbed the ladder to the roof of this other bus, shook awake its driver and offered him a cigarette. While they shared a smoke, I chose to investigate.

The situation soon revealed itself – the road was gone.

I asked the young man who had been sitting next to me on the bus for an explanation. After introducing himself as Tenzin, asking about the salaries in my country and providing a detailed account of the lives of his two children, he finally explained that a major landslide had taken place a few days earlier.

Due to heavy monsoon rains, a ¼-mile stretch of road had loosened and plunged five hundred feet to the bottom of the valley floor. Where there should have been pavement there was instead a fragile and very alive terrain of dirt and mud and rocks, with the unsteady earth still tumbling avalanche-style to the bottom every few seconds.

Some of the other passengers immediately began walking along a narrow switchback trail that criss-crossed down the mountainside next to the road. Tenzin noticed my confusion and began to point repeatedly, straight across the wide gap in front of us, to our “new bus there”. I glanced across and after a good scan of the horizon located our destination, where the road started once again. But it took a second for the situation to sink in as I began noticing tiny specks moving in a line along the bottom of the valley floor and then straight up what appeared to be a sheer cliff on the other side.

These barely visible dots proved to be the passengers from the bus ahead of us, and while my initial reaction to the unexpected challenge that now lay ahead involved a good deal of rock-throwing and head-shaking, it did not take long for me to remember that, in India, you’ll be left behind if you don’t keep up with the non-stop pace of life. I needed to stop whining and start hiking.

Spiti Valley-India

THE GRUELING TREK

The difficult path rapidly descended several hundred feet to the bottom of the valley where it led to a vast field of thousands of recently fallen boulders, a field that I needed to navigate.

After a couple of minutes of hiking across this landscape in my sturdy New Balance cross-trainers, and despite considering myself to be in good physical condition, I noticed that I was constantly being passed by the locals. On a normal day this would not have bothered me, but when a 90-year old Tibetan woman with a basket full of vegetables on her head, wearing mangled, plastic flip-flops skipped past me without hesitation, I felt pathetic. Her two-toothed smile seemed to be a mocking gesture, a sense that intensified with each smiling, waving person that continued to fly by me, hopping from rock to unsteady rock with effortless ease.

Nobody at all seemed the least bit disturbed that their peaceful bus journey home was suddenly interrupted by the need to carry their belongings on a strenuous two-mile hike through an inhospitable and unchartered mountain valley.

Eventually, I reached the waist-deep raging stream, on the banks of which I stood for some time, unable to determine how the two dozen people in front of me had reached the other side. Only when I turned around and realized that I was the last passenger to cross did I inhale deeply and start jumping along a scattered collection of slippery rocks, semi-submerged in the frigid water. Upon reaching the other side, I was delighted that I had managed to only soak one pant leg up to the thigh.

So proud was I! That is until I looked in front of me.

What had earlier appeared off in the distance as a sheer cliff face of mud and rock turned out to be exactly what I now faced. As I watched my fellow passengers, hoping to find some clever local guidance, I instead discovered that the several hundred-foot climb was of the “anything goes” type of adventure. Some people followed a four-inch wide path that zig-zagged its way up, others just tried to bolt straight up the mountainside and a few people pulled each other up step by step. Regardless of what they were doing, they were moving and I was not.

I slowly began climbing, clinging to any rock, shrub or chunk of mud that I could grab onto. My sweaty clothes stuck to my body, dirt covered most of my face and my back painfully ached under the weight of my backpack. At several points I wanted to quit, convincing myself that a small hut in this valley would actually not be such a terrible ‘starter home’. But every time I looked straight up to the top, observed yet another Tibetan great-grandmother reaching the road without breaking a sweat, I forced myself to plod along.

The moment when I grabbed onto flat land and pulled myself over the final ledge gave me such joy that I immediately fell to the ground and smiled in victory, with my lungs inflating and deflating at the speed of light.

I was an adventurer! A warrior! A god of the mountains! I was….about to miss the bus.

Kalpa, India

THE NEW BUS

I heard the unmistakable, migraine-inducing honking of an Indian bus horn. Glancing up, I found Tenzin two-hundred feet away waving furiously for me to hurry. Stumbling off on the final stretch, I dragged my backpack next to me and tried to clear the chunks of mud out of my nostrils.

Just before I reached the bus I passed a group of 3 middle-aged Indian couples who were about to embark on this hike in the reverse direction. They took one glance at me and seemed to become quite concerned about what lay ahead. I looked at them, the ladies in their clean pastel-colored saris and high-heeled shoes and the men in their pressed trousers and dress shirts, each person carrying a piece of luggage. “Very easy,” I said, “No problem.” They thanked me for this good piece of news and I hobbled on.

As the final passenger to arrive, I received not only a hearty round of applause from my fellow bus mates but my repulsive appearance also induced a solid bout of uproarious laughter. And as I fell into my seat in the back row of the bus, once again next to Tenzin, I admitted that I deserved this humiliation. Everyone else looked as if they had just walked out of the day spa at a Four Seasons in Hawaii.

The torture had now ended and as the bus drove off I wasted no time in closing my eyes and entering the deepest of sleeps. My body needed to relax and even the mesmerizing Himalayan scenery could no longer attract my attention.

I slept for what felt like an hour, until I was awaken by Tenzin shaking my arm. I opened my eyes, let out a big yawn, and seeing the smile on Tenzin’s face, began anticipating a nice comfortable hotel room with mountain views and a hot cup of chai.

“Tabo!” I shouted.

Tenzin just patted my leg, let out a small chuckle and said, “No Tabo. No road. New bus.”

And off we went again to cross another landslide.


Have you ever been to the Spiti Valley? Or been stuck in a landslide? Any adventures to share?

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35 Responses to Spiti Valley, India: A Land Of Missing Roads

  1. Sneha says:

    Hello earl!

    The roads are something nae? I got caught in 2 landslides each (both ways)
    and had diarrhoea on the way back. Blame the spitians local alcohol XD

    Seems to me like we were in spiti at the same time last year!

    I was volunteering for an organization called ecosphere there in june ’11.
    That place is magic. I ache to go back to the mountains, that’s
    the plan for this summer :D

    I just came across your website, and you’re an inspiration for someone like me
    whose only motive to earn would be travelling and ofcourse, cake.

    I’m about to go read the rest of your traveltales!
    Make it to india soon.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Sneha – Welcome to the site and yes, I do plan to make it back to India this year at some point! I can’t seem to stay away from that country for very long :)

      And you’re braver than me…I didn’t try the local alcohol up there in Spiti. But maybe it’s a good way to deal with the long bus journeys!

  2. I’ve been there…. I travelled by motorbike to Spiti Valley – a Royal Enfield over the Manali / Rohtang Pass and then over the Khunzum onwards into the Spiti Valley in September 2009. Managed to get stuck in Kaza for about 3 weeks when the road got blocked by landslides in both directions. Probably 150 travellers stuck in Kaza ! What other tales….oh yes… running out of cash in Kaza. No ATM so 12 hour taxi to Manali to get money out and 12 hours back… All in all Spiti is amazing, fairly inaccessable, the scenery is breathtaking, and the locals are so genuine and hospitable.

  3. Shashank says:

    Hi Earl, I Just went close to the road you mentioned, couldn’t risk our journey. But considering the said road is open only from June to Nov, you can imagine the problems that exist. Yes, the scenery is breathtaking and the journey satisfactory, but never possible in your own vehicle. As you said, NEW BUS is the only solution!!!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Shashank – I miss that region so much and I hope you had a good time even if you didn’t make it onto that exact road. The conditions would be a little questionable this time of year and so I think you made the best decision in the end :)

  4. Priyank says:

    I grew up ina Mumbai suburb

  5. Priyank says:

    Hello Earl,
    I’ll be honest with you. Your post made my eyes moist and I miss India terribly now. For sure I’ve experienced landslides, bus failures, near-death ride while sitting on top of a bus, and even emergency diarrhea situations in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayan belt. It’s remarkable how one feels scared, embarrassed or inadequate while dealing with such situations but for the locals its just another day. In any case, Himalayas were always exotic to me, I can tell you better stories of floods and torrential rain since I grew up in that zone. Thank you for this beautifully written post, I like reading personal experiences above anything else.
    Priyank

    • Earl says:

      Hey Priyank – I’m sure you have endless stories to tell from growing up in that region. I’d be curious to know where exactly you did grow up. You don’t have to share that information of course but I was just curious. And that’s exactly what it is…just another day for the locals. It’s hard to imagine but just as going to work in an office building every day can become routine, so can dealing with landslides for people in other parts of the world.

    • Earl says:

      And also, I miss India often as well. Of course, I didn’t grow up there but no other country has had such a powerful effect on me over the years than India has and does every time I visit.

  6. Angela says:

    I’ve been to the Uttarakhand, the other side of the Indian Himalayas, no trace of roads there either, I went by car, unbelievable how they manage to drive..

    • Earl says:

      Namaste Angela – It is unbelievable how drivers navigate those roads in India and it’s even more unbelievable that us passengers don’t jump out and refuse to continue the journey considering the dangers!

  7. Matthew Cheyne says:

    I feel for you Earl! I’m just glad you made it to the bus in one piece:)!

  8. Phil says:

    Wow. I love it was just an every man for him/herself free for all to get to the other bus. And you did this twice?!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Phil – Actually, the second landslide was a little different. Instead of hiking down into a valley, we had to run across an active landslide where the dirt and rocks were still tumbling down. There were porters available who would carry people or their belongings but it was even more dangerous than the first one!

  9. Kristen says:

    Amazing storytelling for an amazing story. After traveling in rural Africa, I can appreciate the leaps and bounds your patience will grow when confronted with transportation in developing countries. It’s amazing what people will put up with there (accompanied by a good-natured chuckle), while the same situation would end in a violent riot in America followed by a hundred lawsuits.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Kristen – I appreciate the comment. And you’re right, imagine that scenario taking place anywhere in America and it would be all over the news. In India, as I’m sure is the case in Africa as well, it’s just another day!

  10. When traveling you have to be flexible! Thank you for sharing your story–and what a fantastic view!

  11. Usha says:

    Sounds awesome! The pictures look amazing too. Never been to Spiti, but now that I have heard your story. Gotta pay a visit.

    Talking about old ladies climbing uphill, the same thing happened when I was in Guilin. Except these older ladies were actually working as porters for the climbers. It was crazy. They would insist on carrying not one but several people’s baggage.

    There was one who was carrying a couple of massive sized luggage boxes, the kind that would probably hold up to 30kilos or more each, on her back and climbing right next to me while I thought the 15kilos on my back was killing me already. These old women were smaller than 5 feet but wayyyy stronger. I wouldn’t give them my bag cos I’m like “you look like my granny, I can’t possibly put the weight on you”. The next thing you know they are running uphill and I’m still trying to find my footing. :s

    These guys are just amazing! And so are you for making it in time for your subsequent bus rides. ;-)

    Cheers

    • Earl says:

      Hey Usha – Great story you shared! I think it’s hard for us non-mountain people to understand what those who live in these remote, inhospitable regions of the world are able to do. In a way, in makes sense. They live in the thin air, constantly have to hike around, must deal with harsh conditions and landscapes all the time. But for us, it is impossible for us to think that a 5-foot, 80-year old person could be stronger and in better condition that we are!

  12. Odysseus says:

    This is my favourite story (so far) I’ve read of yours, Earl! Adventure, humor, triumph, and . . . repeat. Really, it’s an awesome story, and very well told.

  13. Nice to see a post about this remote part of India. We traveled the in 1995 and I remember the roads…or lack thereof, very well. The pass up and into the valley with its never-ending switchbacks was particularly horrifying. We were perched on the roof of the bus ready to leap as it seemed as if we were sure to drop 1,000s of feet numerous times.

    • Earl says:

      @Trans-Americas Journey: How more vehicles don’t drop over the edge of these roads is beyond me. I’m sure you remember that when two buses or trucks are trying to pass each other, often there is only room for one vehicle. They have to backup, right to the edge of road, forcing the passengers to do nothing but put their faith in their bus driver!

      I guess it makes sense given it’s extremely remote location and the height of those mountains. And of course, the rewards of making the journey are infinite with all of the villages to visit along the way.

  14. I actually met two travelers that did get left behind by their bus in Central America. Luckily, a woman they had sat near made enough of a stink that the bus driver actually turned around and came back for them!

    • Earl says:

      @The Travel Chica: That’s not common at all (the part about a driver turning around). Luckily, in such situations in India, the driver will usually wait until everyone is there, especially if they know they’re not too far behind. But, if the bus does leave without you, you can easily hail the next bus, truck, car, motorcycle or mule cart that passes by!

  15. Dang! Are those colored spots in the third picture people? If so, they look like bodies strewn about at the bottom of the cliff like you might see on CSI.

    • Earl says:

      @cashflowmantra: Haha…no, I actually wasn’t able to capture the people walking across the valley floor. At that moment my camera was buried in my backpack and I had no time to waste so I had to skip the photo-taking that I would have loved to do!

  16. Maria says:

    Great read full of details – nice to hear the personal story w/in the travel.

    • Earl says:

      Thank you Maria! I love writing about personal stories that made such a big impression on me. It’s as if I have an opportunity to experience them all over again.

  17. Dean says:

    Only in India. What a great story, this is what travel is all about!

    • Earl says:

      Hey Dean – Only in India is right. And this is just one of about a billion examples over there when travelers are left with nothing else to say but those three words.

  18. scott says:

    What a great story and fantastic memory. Just when we think we can’t do something, drive and determination takes over.

    • Earl says:

      Hey Scott – And watching others do something helps us believe we can do it as well, especially when the other people are 90 years old!

  19. flip says:

    oh man… the road seemed to be a bit scary for someone who has a fear of heights like me but im excited to try it… what an awesome adventure man…. though its tiring to walk all thru that just to get to the other bus… this kind of adventures is definitely something that is hard to forget…

    • Earl says:

      Hey Flip – That would definitely be an even more challenging journey for someone with a fear of heights! There are times where the bus is only a foot away from the edge of the road and after that it just drops straight down 500 or even 1000 feet in some places :)

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