1st July 2003
TRAVELS WITH MY CAMERA /ANU MALHOTRA
MOBIKING THROUGH A MOONSCAPE
THE BEAS river gurgles, sparkling diamonds into the morning sunlight. I see green morning mountains, strung over with lazy clouds stretching all around me. My Yamaha mobike gleams under me, growling impatiently, raring to hit the road. But first, my piece to the camera: I’m at Bahang 5km from Manali, on my way to Lahaul and Spiti, the largest district of Himachal Pradesh. My final destination is the stunning Chandratal Lake.
I rev the engine, release the clutch, and I’m off along the road to Rohtang Pass. The crew follows in the jeep. With the cameraman sitting on the roof, filming me. It is tough coordination and I am totally focused on driving. After all, I have only driven a mobike once before!
Soon the exhilaration of riding in the cool, fresh mountain air takes over, as the road winds through 35km of scenic beauty of Marhi. A quick dhaba-
lunch of delicious rajma-chawla
energises me through the 17km to the Rohtang Pass. I pass a few Gaddis with their flock of sheep. These hardy nomads are mostly from Kangra, wandering through the high pastures of Lahaul and Spiti in the summer and now, in October, migrating to lower, warmer places.
Finally, Rohtang Pass at 13, 134ft, the gateway to Lahaul and Spiti. This region is sealed off between late October and late March, when heavy snow closes the pass. Few other passes can mark so dramatic a change in landscape as the Rohtang Pass. To one side, the lush Kullu valley, to the other, the awesome vista of bare, earthy mountains, hanging glaciers and snowfields shinning in dazzling light.
I negotiate the tricky drive down to the Chandra valley, now in sunset shadows leaving the snow peaks glistening within pink clouds. I am exhausted, dusty and sunburned, but with the day’s shoot over, we strap the mobike atop the jeep and drive on to the tiny Lahauli village of Jispa
I wake to bird song and jump out of bed to see Jispa in morning light. Breathtaking! The Ibex Hotel, built on a slope affords great views of the pretty valley and the Bhaga river. After breakfast, we set off to film this small village, of mud houses with flat roofs loaded with firewood and folder. Every house has a tall pole strung over with sacred banners and prayer flags, as the people here are mostly Buddhist.
The locals welcome us warmly, though shyly and curiously. A pretty girl wearing a chuba, a long coat like woolen dress, lined with silk and worn with tight trousers waves out to me. Tenzin, who studies in Delhi University, tells me: “My parents prefer our traditional lifestyle, but for us youngsters, education and career are important. Also, there is nothing to do here all winter, as we are snowbound and the lack of facilities make life difficult.”
However, Lahaul, the richest district of Himachal Pradesh is blessed with fertile land. Using glacial water channeled down the mountains, Lahauli farmers flow bumper crops of seed potatoes from their terraced fields, the region is also sole supplier of hops to Indian breweries and abounds in rare herbs used for making perfumes and medicines. I see a few huts across the Bhaga river and discover an unusual way to get across. The “jhula” is somewhat like a huge basket hung on a cable stretched across the river. I sit in the little basket, while my Assistant Director, Mikey pulls me across. Suddenly, the movement stops and I am over the middle of the stream, swinging menacingly across the fast flowing river. I crane my neck and Mickey struggling with the rope, “It’s stuck”. Panic station. “No way out!” I think, looking uneasily at the river. An hour later, we are rescued by a local and soon, we are all laughing about my “green face”.
We walk across to the huts and meet a 70 year-old ‘Abi’, a grandmother. She is wearing worn clothes and glasses glued together by scotch tape. Her grandson tells me she is now practically blind, but moves around all day doing all her tasks of cooking, cleaning and fetching fire wood as before. She is fiercely independent but her weather worn face wears a gentle expression. We are all moved by her story. Life is so tough these remote regions. A lot of things we take for granted in the cities are still a dream here. But of course, their healthy lifestyle in a fresh and beautiful enviourment, free from the dizzying clamour of cosmopolitan life, is an idyll for us too.
A crystalline moon rises over the mountains casting celestial shimmer on leaves and electric ripples on leaves and on the Bhaga. I bask in the silvery, sensuous light, intoxicated by the haunting shadowy magic of the Lahauli night.
TRAVEL TIPS YOU CAN’T DO WITHOUT
- Lahauli and Spiti are accessible by road from Manali during the summers – between mid June and mid October – when state buses run regularly.
- You can rent motorcycle from the Manali bazaar or rent jeeps from HPTDC. It’s best to have a customized trip organized by a reliable travel agency.
- It isn’t advisable for bikers to travel alone. Carry adequate spares, repair supplies, petrol, food and water.
- The only hotel in Jispa is the Ibex, otherwise you can camp or stay in dhabas enroute.