Check out a short video of the road to Chitkul
We depart Kalpa early in the morning. This can be a real feat for us, but since the sun is fully up at 5:30am that helps us out of our warm comfy beds. Our intention is to enjoy the ride today in the best weather-window possible. The region’s monsoon season isn’t until July, but grey skies and rain showers can roll in strongly during mid afternoons these days. It’s sunny and bright as we retrace a few kilometers backward to take an out-and-back split off toward the little hamlet of Chitkul. This road ends at an impassable mountain range that forms a portion of the India/Tibet boarder. We top off the gas tank as full as possible just before the split as it will be the only station we will come across until we return back here in a few days time. The Sangla-Chitkul Rd climbs higher out of the foothills and follows the Baspa River as it flows down from year-long snow topped mountains on each side.
The road is a mix of very old asphalt pavement remnants filled in with gravel and dirt to make about a 50/50 average mix of each over the total length of the road. The further you get up from the valley, the more it turns totally into a rock and dirt road. On several parts of the road that hug tightly to the side of the mountain, the road is literally carved into the side of the mountain to make a 3 sided, C-shaped tunnel in the rock. As the area has gained traffic over the years and larger and larger trucks and busses are needed, the side and roof of the road are simply tunneled out wider and higher. The Royal Beast is handling the very bumpy road pretty well but after 4 hours of road time today, we are sure to be a little saddle sore. There aren’t many vehicles out today but the road is so narrow that we get stuck at several impasses where a local bus has met face-to-face with a car and therefore the Indian mountain-pass standoff begins. Even a row of three 4×4 trucks loses to the bus. Lots of horns, arm waving, persuasive yelling and posturing results in the smaller vehicles giving way and reversing to an area where the bus can pass. I guess the bigger you are, the more right of way you have. Yielding sometimes comes within just inches of rock road away from deep sheer drop offs. If there isn’t a 2-3 foot wide motorcycle lane to wiggle through, we have to wait with everyone else.
Just outside of Chitkul we stop at an Army checkpoint to show our Inner-Line Permit and have all our passport info recorded. Just 5 more Km to our destination and the first real place for us to take a break today. We sit on the outside deck of the last Cafe in the “Last Village in India” or so a tourist sign says. Indeed we are a few hundred meters from where the road dead-ends into nature’s vertical rock and snow barrier with Tibet. Some local coffee with frothed fresh milk and sugar is just the right welcome we were looking for. We were at about 11,320 ft and enjoyed our view from just above the tree line up into the cold high desert mountains.
A short walk uphill into the living portion of the town reveals timber framed homes cobbled side by side up the main stone path of the village and an amazing carved wooden Temple complex. In this area of the Himalayas the lines between Hinduism and Buddhism are blurred. Hindi deities are represented along side traditional Buddhist prayer and meditation spaces. Buddhist prayer wheels are placed along public paths and prayer flags fly over Hindi offerings. Here we have also become enamored with an architectural feature that we have only seen once previously. Intricately carved and turned wooden dowels are fashioned into a fringe that hangs down from all of the rooftop edges of the Temple, several of the buildings and a ceremonial platform. They are attached in a way that they move with the breeze exactly as if they were made of string or tassels. They don’t make a sound but move in harmony to one another as the cool winds move through the Temple grounds. One of the sights that always makes me smile in Buddhist regions is when I notice a small stream diversion over to a little wooden structure. The water enters one side of the short little wooden structure situated beside the cascading water so it flows under and out the other side. The water will turn a horizontal paddle wheel that will then perpetually turn a prayer wheel of blessings for the village before the water is channeled back to it’s source.
After a quiet and peaceful visit to this beautiful and remote village of Chitkul in its high arid desert valley, we hopped back on our faithful single cylinder thumper for the ride back to Sangla which will be our home base for a few more days. We settle ourselves in a cute little hotel which was a former farmhouse in an apple orchard. The young men who work at the Hotel Prakash are helpful, attentive and accommodating to we Americans who may only make up 2-3% of the guests here with the majority being family groups from the larger cities in India coming up to the mountains to escape a little of the summer heat further south. The spicy Dal dishes, murgh (chicken) tika and rice preparations are warm in our bellies and washed down with a little whiskey and Pepsi that Lacy procured in town. Lacy has made a new friend in the owner of a small restaurant in the market serving Tibetan and local Indian cuisine. She has treated us to some amazing Thukpa and Thentuk soups, 3 inch thick Tibetan pancakes and freshly made gnocchi slathered in a simple tomato curry and spices that heats your soul. Tonight she brought home a Gobi (cauliflower) curry and Dal Bhat that is so much a comfort food for us. All of her food is pretty amazing: fresh, deep with spice and very rich at the same time.
As in much of rural India that we have experienced so far, smiles and waves abound from children, young families, older couples, village dogs and sacred cows. The offers to help us, whatever the situation, are truly genuine. The people of Sangla have touched our hearts.