Rohit Bhalla, 43, a garment exporter, hits the mountains every summer. Last year, he took the road less travelled—to the cold deserts of Lahaul-Spiti, through the lush valleys of Himachal. Road-tripping with his best friend of 33 years, and their two families, is an experience he would like to repeat again and again.
You drove to Lahaul-Spiti from Gurgaon last June. What possessed you?
We’ve been doing road trips every year for the past eight years. My family had orchards in Himachal, so I am basically a hill person. At the first opportunity, I take off for the mountains—we’ve done Gushaini, near Kullu, and the Ranikhet-Binsar-Ramgarh-Kausani trail in the Kumaon. But the drive to Lahaul-Spiti was breathtakingly different. Each day was unique in what we saw, from the terrain to the mountains. Of course, it helps that I love driving!
How did you break up the holiday?
We were two families travelling together, including four kids and a driver. I was driving an Innova, while my closest friend, Harsaran —we’ve known each other since our days at Doon School —was in a Santro. We stayed in Banjara Camp resorts at Thanedar, Sangla Valley, Tabo and Kaza, and in Himachal Tourism’s accommodation at Kalpa, which is highly avoidable, and in the Himachal Tourism log huts in Manali. We drove between 140km and 170km a day. The longest halts were at Sangla, two days, and Kaza—three days.
What were the roads and traffic like?
Like I said, each day was different, but overall, the roads were pretty decent. For long stretches, ours were the only two vehicles on the road. Driving along the Sutlej, from Thanedar to Sangla Valley, we’d stop to chill our bottles of beer in the river. There were hairy moments, too, when we’d spot trucks careening down the narrow roads. The most beautiful drive—and the scariest—was from Kalpa to Tabo. We were driving on the Upper Malang road, along the Rispa river, as the Lower Malang road had been washed away during the floods in 2005. The roads were really narrow, the turns sharp and the drops so steep that even I—a veteran of the mountains—found it impossible to look down.
Was acclimatization easier because you were driving?
We never had any problem at all, I guess because we never climbed more than 2,000ft in a day. Initially, at Kaza—where we spent days 10, 11 and 12 of our 16-day holiday—Harsaran and I developed breathing problems, and we almost packed our bags for Manali. But I’m glad we stuck it out. The discomfort passed away soon enough.
So was it all about driving from point A to B?
Not at all. The journey was part of the destination. At Thanedar, there were lovely walks all around, as this is apple orchard country. We walked down to Kotgarh, famous for its Kipling associations. From Sangla, we drove alongside the Baspa river to Chitkul. It’s the last village on the old Hindustan-Tibet road. We stopped for a picnic lunch under shady trees, surrounded by small streams. It was paradise. Post-lunch, we walked 3km through the forest to the BSF post, where the jawans offered us tea. The Tibet border is just a few kilometres away.
Was that the highlight of the trip?
No way. The Kalpa-Tabo drive, 170km long, was the best part of the holiday for me—indeed, it’s the best drive I’ve done. The scenery was amazing. As soon as we crossed from the Kinnaur Valley to the Spiti Valley at Sumdo, the terrain changed from lush greenery to stark, bare mountains. There was one part, though, which I wouldn’t like to repeat—we had to stop in the middle of nowhere as man-made landslides were under way for road-broadening work. That made for a few hair-raising moments.
Since we were on the less-frequented Upper Malang Road, we had to climb 2,000ft to find a dhaba that would give us lunch. The dhaba guy at this village, called Nako, was drunk and mixed up all the veg and dal—but we discovered a beautiful lake that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
And then finally, you were in the cold deserts.
They’re quite strange actually. At 15,000ft, the sun was so strong during the day that I actually got sunburnt since I was wearing half-sleeves. The evenings
were freezing, though there was no snow.
Tabo also has the oldest monastery in the Tibetan monastic tradition. It’s still in use—we managed to see the interiors just before it closed for the day. It was beautiful and the serenity was awe-inspiring.
The next stop was Kaza, 50km away as the Spiti flows. The valley’s so dry that the mountains look as fragile as anthills—you get the idea they’ll fall apart if you touch them. Basing ourselves at Kaza—the petrol pump here is the highest retail outlet in the world—we drove to Kibber, the highest village in the world. Besides the monastery, which seemed to be falling apart, there’s some amount of farming there. And there’s also an Internet café.
How was the return journey?
We drove from Kaza to Manali, rested there for a couple of days and made it back to Gurgaon in just a day. No one felt like lingering in the lower heights after that amazing break.
What’s next on the road-trip agenda?
Chakouri and Munsyari, in North Kumaon, in June. This is a short trip because our kids have board exams next year. But I’m more excited about the Leh-Ladakh trip I’m planning for the summer of 2008.