There is one basic truth that applies to Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh: everyone who loves the Himalayas and has an affinity for riding will notice the long road from Shimla to Manali at some point in their lives . It was no surprise that I went to Kinnaur and Spiti for the fourth time.
We left Delhi early, at 4:56 am to be precise. Past experience has taught me that the earlier you start, the better your chances of escaping traffic noise. The last vestiges of slumber were dissolved by glowing hot masala chai at Sukhdev Dhaba, just one of many in the row of dhabas on Murthal on the Delhi-Panipat Road. Panipat, who was chaotic personified at all times of the day except the wee hours of the morning, has found salvation in three flyovers. What used to take at least 20 minutes earlier due to pedestrians and cattle carts (some so old that I’m sure they served in one of Panipat’s famous battles) now takes just 5 minutes.
We drove on a Sunday so we managed to cross Ambala and get to Zirakpur in less than 5 o’clock shadow. But then there were the battles of Panchkula, Pinjore, Kalka and Parwanoo to fight, thanks to bottlenecks. This is likely to diminish in two years when the Pinjore to Parwanoo bypass is completed, when we can make this journey without passing through Kalka.
Read also: Celestial Mountains: Spiti Left Bank
Once the hills started things calmed down and the driving started to become therapeutic. NH22 to Shimla is one of India’s best hill roads, well maintained, wide and smooth. It was precisely this route, once known as the Hindustan-Tibet Road, that was once used by caravans from Tibet, bringing salt across the Himalayas to India in exchange for rice. Today, beyond Shimla, especially up to Narkanda, NH22 seems to have been neglected by civic authorities as it is full of broken spots. But despite the bottlenecks and broken roads, we managed to reach Thanedar within 9 hours, thanks to our early morning start.
Thanedar, where apples were first planted commercially in Himachal Pradesh, is the perfect stop after driving from the plains. Sitting on the balcony of a resort there, sipping chai, looking at snow-capped mountain peaks, I felt the Himalayas hugging me. The ride, the scenery, the pace, everything changed from Thanedar. Instead of Café Coffee Days and flashy dhabas, we came across wooden tea shops where the owner was dressed in Himachali tweed, topped with the state’s signature colorful cap. Gas stations began to become few and far between. We were unable to top up at two gas stations in a row.
In the beginning there was simply no fuel, and in the second case the attendant was kind enough to warn us that his supply was underground and we might get dirty fuel that could cause engine problems. The lesson we learned? Wherever good fuel is available, top up, even if your gauge shows your tank is three-quarters full.
Up close with the Sutlej
The Sutlej was our constant companion on NH22 from Bithal until we took off at Sumdo. The further east we traveled, the more the Sutlej seemed to change from a docile cow to a heated filly. The force with which it flows in these parts is the reason why there are so many hydroelectric projects on it. But looking at all this water confined in its relatively narrow width, I wondered what would happen if everything got out of hand. Actually, a tea stall owner in Nogli told me that on August 1, 2000, the Sutlej suddenly rose 15 meters in one day, sweeping away roads and bridges. The hydroelectric projects that turn this power into electricity have made Himachal prosperous, but they have also taken away the charm of these places and the drive – until Karchham at least.
The roads were broken, there was a steady stream of dumpers and other construction vehicles, and a thick cloud of dust hung in the air at all times. But pristine Sangla, which lies along the Baspa River, a tributary of the Sutlej, will help you forget all this. After two days in Sangla we were rejuvenated and ready to tackle the road again. Pleasantly, there was no construction after Karchham and the scenery became even more dramatic. Now we were driving on roads hacked from the mountains by the invisible road builders – the Border Roads Organization (BRO).
As we walked to the road along the mountainside, we realized how difficult it must have been to build it. And the mountains had won their prize too, a fact evident from the plaques we saw along the road commemorating the BRO cadre who had died during the repair or maintenance of this road. From Karchham, gorges, ravines and bridges that groaned loudly as we crossed each other became part of the road. The Sutlej, our constant companion, sometimes ran alongside and at other times it was a glittering band at the bottom of a gorge. The landscape underwent a dramatic change as we approached Spiti. The greenery was replaced by stark gray, imposing, steep mountain walls. Green areas were limited to irrigated fields.
At Sumdo we turned off NH22 to SH30, marking our arrival in Spiti, a high-altitude desert where the sheer scale of the mountains and terrain doesn’t make you feel insignificant. The Tabo-Kaza Road is a straight road in places and the landscape is marked with chortens in bright white, standing out against a deep blue sky. But it all came to a head on the road from Kaza to Manali. I have been fortunate to ride on many roads in India and the Himalayas, but I have yet to ride on a wilder and more adventurous stretch from Kaza to Manali.
We left Kaza at 3:53 am. It is wise to start early as there are streams to cross on this road and the stronger the sun gets, the higher the water rises as these streams are all covered. Some of the scenery looks straight out of the movie Mackenna’s Gold, especially the approach to the mighty Kunzum La, at 14,927 ft above sea level.
Kaza to Manali: Difficult driving
I remember telling my fellow traveler about the unruliness of this road the night before. He had amused it by saying that he had ridden on extremely difficult roads such as those to Badrinath and Kedarnath . Needless to say, this ride left him speechless. Of the 212 km we drove from Kaza to Manali, 75 km were on tracks so rickety that it would be almost illegal to call them roads. Although beautiful scenery, these unpaved roads affected us a lot and will put off even the most experienced drivers. There are narrow ridges that look like they are crumbling, and glaciers hang precariously above a cliff under which you have to drive.
Glaciers are scattered across the countryside, slowly melting. And the Gaddi shepherds pasture their livestock of goats and horses on the grass that sprouts because of the melting ice. As the vehicle climbed to Kunzum La, the wind began to blow strongly. A small temple near the pass had an old priest walking around bare-chested in a dhoti. It was so cold there that I thought if I stared at him for too long I would chill. On the descent from the pass, there are numerous hairpin bends that have scree spread around them.
Sometimes, if I turned too hard, the rear end would start to slide alarmingly toward the sheer drop near the edge. From Kunzum La the trail runs along the Chandra River all the way to Gramphoo before climbing back up to cross the Rohtang Pass. At Rohtang we encountered our first traffic jam since Shimla and to tell the truth, after 6 hours of uninhabited wilderness from Kaza to Gramphoo, I was quite relieved to be stuck among the hordes of tourists and tourist taxis at Rohtang. We had arrived in Rohtang over a weekend and the crowded pass was bursting at the seams with tourists. This meant that it took us 5 hours to cover the 50 km from Rohtang to Manali. As always, I felt that something had to be done to regulate tourist traffic to the pass, that is misused and beyond comprehension. The drive back to Delhi from Manali via Mandi and Bilaspur felt like a city commute after the bumps and jolts and loneliness of Spiti. It felt good to be back on smooth roads, where I could put the car in top gear and drive at speeds of over 40 km per hour.
ON THE ROAD
A car with high ground clearance is necessary for this journey. The vehicle has to cross streams and you have to find your way through fallen rock. It is also best to carry an extra spare tire (i.e. two spares in total). If the car has tubeless tires, carry two tubes, which you can fit into the tire in case of a puncture. Remember that you may experience delays beyond your control – blocked roads caused by landslides or unavailability of fuel at a pump. I can’t emphasize enough the benefit of leaving early – especially from Delhi.
Delay your departure by an hour and you will arrive 3 hours later. So, in effect, the 10-hour drive from Delhi to Thanedar via Shimla will extend into a 13-hour drive. A 5-hour start will help you avoid traffic lights as you depart Delhi and you will also escape the hustle and bustle of traffic at Sonepat, Gharaunda and Karnal. The road to Shimla is wide and smooth, but there are some places where stones tend to fall on the road; be careful here as cars wave to avoid them. There are dhabas and restaurants along the road, so beware of parked cars and pedestrians crossing the road.
At Shoghi, before Shimla, there is sometimes fog, as is also the case between Shimla and Theog. When landslide zones are indicated, do not stop nearby and get across as quickly and quietly as possible. Till Shimla there are many petrol stations but from then on this is not the case. On the way to Shimla, you also have a wide range of dhabas vying for your business. There is a McDonald’s outlet 13 km from Parwanoo and two Café Coffee Day outlets between there and Dharampur. Giani Dhaba in Dharampur should be very famous but honestly I have found it below average every time I have eaten there. The service is downright uncaring and rude. There are no dhabas after Narkanda, so if your hotel offers you a packed lunch, accept it. There are plenty of beautiful viewpoints along the way where you can stop and eat. Small tea shops can also offer dal and rice and can even give you an omelette.
Drive carefully. There are many broken sections on this route and it is wise to have your car thoroughly checked and maintained before this journey. Towns like Solan, Shimla, Theog, Narkanda, Nogli, Rampur and Kaza have several car repair shops and tire repair shops. It is towards Karchham that the road becomes quite narrow; there are also many hairpin bends. If you see an oncoming vehicle, stop where it can pass and wait for it to pass. Remember that edges of roads are sometimes very crumbly; so don’t bend too much. When in doubt, it is better to return to a more stable area than to try to walk away to let the oncoming vehicle pass. Traffic is light after Karchham, but whatever little traffic there is on the way, chances are it’s coming at you around a blind spot, so it’s not going to be lax at all. On the drive from Kaza, stop at teashops in Losar, Batal, Chhota Dhara and Chhatru. These usually have information about the road ahead and will tell you if there has been a landslide or if there is a specific section you should be aware of. The 12-km, “road,” from Kunzum La to Chandratal is barely more than a wide footpath that a car like the Tavera would almost fit into. Driving on that road, I was lucky enough to meet the one car we passed the entire drive, in the opposite direction, in the only place where the road widens onto a wide plain. The last kilometer to the lake has narrow switchbacks where you may need to back up to get around.
Tip: Only take this detour if you are confident that you can drive on such a difficult road.