Wednesday, August 19, 2009


We left Kaza and continued up the Spiti Valley. We headed past Losar, our refuge from the storm last year, and climbed Kumzum La, the 4990m pass that we had climbed twice in a blizzard. It was much less arduous with dry roads and warm temps.

At the bottom of the pass we hooked a right turn to Baikal or Moon Lake. The road to the lake was challenging with several deep water crossings, loose rock, and lots of exposure. It would be a several hundred meter tumble to the valley floor if one missed a corner.

I noticed several different camps of men raking the desert with straw brooms. Several small clumps dotted the landscape, some with full gunny sacks leaning against them. When we got to the lake trailhead, I realized that the clumps were piles of sheep and goat shit.

The small balls don’t burn as well as cow or yak dung, so they aren’t used for fuel. The herders gather it up to take back to the gardens or fields for fertilizer. Think of making a living in a place so stark that one rakes up the sheepshit in the desert for the family pea patch. Three dollar lattes sure seem silly here.

The short hike to the lake rewarded quickly. The glacier at the top of the valley fed it, so the lake had that beautiful green hue. I saw several minnow type fish from the shore so, maybe it has big fish too. We hustled back to the bikes after a quick lunch because our water crossings were snow fed and would be deeper the longer we dillydallied.

We followed the Chandar River from its birth at the lake all the way down to Chhattru or Chatru or Chattru depending on which sign one read, where we camped for the evening. The road challenged constantly with its ruts, blind hairpins (horn ablaring), loose rocks, goat herds-some of them moving above us and trundling rocks down, water crossings, and scenery.

Every valley varies from the last. The particular beauty of the Chandar Valley is the river itself. It rolls and boils at quite a clip. Not pool drop to pool drop, but just constant rapids with little or no eddy opportunity. Even when one can see the line, there is always a hole or two that would reach up, grab the raft and shake it like a dog with a rat before spitting it downstream to the next.

Alexander the Great tried to cross the Chandar to expand his territory. His troops had one look at the angry, churning mass of mud and boulders and refused to cross it. Every time I stole a peek at it, only a peek at a time will do if one wants to keep the bike on the road and out of the river, I agreed with them. I’m sure some world-class crazy paddlers would give it a go, they could have it. I was content to camp beside it, admiring the glacially-carved walls reminiscent of the Yosemite Valley in California while eating the best food of the whole trip. They kept bringing dish after wonderful dish that had been made on the kerosene two-burner they squatted beside.

The other notable aside from a gazillion stars, the Milky Way, meteors, blah, blah, blah, was that it was our first dog-free evening. It was great to have the roar of the river to sleep to instead of the usual canine symphony.

Doug’s health had been deteriorating since Kaza, and worsened by the time we got to Keylong. Each time he ate food it was so excited to leave his system that it couldn’t decide which way to go. Couple that with altitude sickness, first heart attack at 39, and implanted defribilator and it’s easy to see why he made the right decision to head back to Manali with Jeff rather than risk the affects of climbing higher the next two days.

The rest of us continued on for a night of camping in Sarchu. It is the halfway point between Manali and Leh, so is a popular stop. There are no permanent structures as life would be too harsh come winter. We had another abfab meal and an icy stream to store our beers in before drinking them.

I woke at about three to pee and was rewarded with quite the sky show. Lightning lit up the ridge two valleys to the south, the half moon lit up the north, and off to the west a meteor shower burned trail after trail across the sky. I wish I knew my astronomy better but I think it was the annual Pliedaes shower.

We rode beautiful roads out of Sarchu that begged for fifth gear, which was a rarity in a land where most of the riding was white-knuckle at 30 kph. But frost heaves soon made us ratchet our speeds back for fear of breaking the frame from catching too much air, actually catching the air was fine, it was the landings that were scary.

We climbed twenty-two delicious switchbacks (they call them loops which makes little sense so is perfect for India) on our way to the high point of our trip of 5063 meters. The land was stark with prayer flags the only thing growing. We took some pictures and a couple of deep breaths that didn’t seem to satisfy and headed down to the evening’s destination of Jispa.
Jispa wasn’t much for a town but we had comfortable accomadations and I met an interesting fellow. He and his son were on their way to Leh to install some pre-fab wood cottages that he dealt in.

Wood construction is a bit of a novelty here because if one is caught cutting a tree down, it’s fifteen years in the slammer. All construction is concrete, stone, brick, or a combination there of. His cottages are made of spruce in Russia. They are constructed, numbered, and disassembled for shipment to Delhi.

While I found the cottage industry interesting, it paled in comparison to the story of how he got to Delhi. His grandfather had a 500 mule train that he used to haul rice, tea, and sugar over the Kiber(spelling?) pass. Instead of selling all that stuff for a big o’pile of money, he traded it for guns which he smuggled to the Indian resistance. In 1919 he was caught at the border with his unusual cargo and refused entry.

It was really the best way to be caught. If he had made it into the country, his sentence would have been death or life imprisionment on one of their island jails which is the same as a death sentence only slower. As it was, he only got deported.

When the Brits were ousted in 1953, the Indian government told his family that they would honor their Indian citizenry because his grandfather had been a freedom fighter. So there he was, an Indian citizen living in Kuwait wondering as he was driving to work one day why all the Kuwaiti tanks were zooming through the traffic with him.

A couple of hours later, tanks of a different color filled the streets. He loaded up his family to flee the Iraqis. They noticed his turban (he and his family were Sikhs) and called him their brother and gave him escorted clear passage over the border.

Incidentally, one of our clients had been on a Navy vessel during Desert Shield and said that their ship had advanced warning that the U.S.S. Stark would be fired upon but did nothing. Another example of a false flag to sell a war to a people. But back to the grandson of the gun runner.

They spent several years bouncing through the tribal lands of Iran and the ‘Stans, staying with family connections. Connections that would happily hand you a rpg, uzi, ak-47, or whatever to try out as long as you paid for the cartridge first. So now he sells pre-fab cabins and maybe dabbles in other things.
Our ride down Rhotang La ended the trip on a high note. The muddy, slimy, rocky, wet roads full of Tatas, taxis, and tour buses challenged our riding ability. Especially because visibility was often less than 10 meters and even driving through a cloud, the majority of Indians leave the lights off.

Once we broke out of the cloud we had pouring rain to entertain us until we got back to the Ambassador in Manali. Oh yeah, all that traffic coming off the pass was local tourists celebrating Indian Independence. I guess I would have felt more festive if I were in a country that sold beer on holidays.

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