There is one fundamental truth that applies to Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh: anyone who loves the Himalaya and has an affinity for driving will find himself, at some point in his life, taking the long road from Shimla to Manali. No surprise then that I was headed to Kinnaur and Spiti for the fourth time.
We started off from Delhi early, at 4.56 am to be precise. Past experience has shown me that the earlier you start, the greater your chances of escaping traffic snarls. The last vestiges of sleep were dissolved by piping hot masala chai at Sukhdev Dhaba, just one of the many in the row of dhabas at Murthal on the Delhi- Panipat Road. Panipat, which used to be chaos personified during any time of the day except in the wee hours of the morning, has found salvation in three flyovers. What used to take at least 20 mins earlier because of pedestrians and cattle carts (some so old that I am sure they served in one of the famed battles of Panipat), will now take just 5 mins.
We were driving on a Sunday, so we managed to cross Ambala and get to Zirakpur in a shade under 5 hrs. But then there were the battles of Panchkula, Pinjore, Kalka and Parwanoo to be fought, thanks to bottlenecks. This will probably ease in two years when the bypass from Pinjore to Parwanoo is ready, when we’ll be able to make this journey without going through Kalka.
Once the hills started, things eased out 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 this very route, which was once known as the Hindustan- Tibet Road, that caravans from Tibet once took, bringing salt across the Himalaya to India in exchange for rice. Today, beyond Shimla, especially up to Narkanda, NH22 seems to have been neglected by civic authorities as it’s riddled with broken patches. But the bottlenecks and broken roads notwithstanding, we managed to get to Thanedar within 9 hrs, thanks to our early morning start.
Thanedar, where apples were first commercially planted in Himachal Pradesh, is the perfect stop after the drive up from the plains. Sitting on the balcony of a resort there, sipping chai, looking at snow-capped peaks around, I could actually feel the Himalaya envelop me. The drive, the landscape, the pace, everything changed from Thanedar. Instead of Café Coffee Days and flashy dhabas, we encountered wooden tea shops where the proprietor was dressed in Himachali tweed topped with the state’s characteristic colourful cap. Fuel stations started becoming few and far between. At two fuel stations at a row, we couldn’t top up.
At the first, there simply wasn’t any fuel, and at the second, the attendant was kind enough to warn us that his supply was at its dregs and we might get dirty fuel that could cause engine trouble. The lesson we learnt? Wherever there is good fuel available, top up, even if your gauge shows your tank to be three-fourths full.
Up close with the Sutlej
The Sutlej was our constant companion on NH22 right from Bithal till we went off it at Sumdo. The further east we travelled, the more the Sutlej seemed to change from a docile cow to a hot tempered 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 constrained within the relatively narrow width, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if it all went out of control. In fact, a tea-stall owner in Nogli told me that on August 1, 2000, the Sutlej suddenly rose 15m in one day, wiping out roads and bridges. The hydroelectric projects that change this force into electricity may have made Himachal prosper, but they have taken away the charm of these places, and the drive too – till Karchham at least.
The roads were broken, there was a steady stream of dumpers and other construction vehicles and a thick cloud of dust constantly hung in the air. But pristine Sangla, which lies along the Baspa River, a tributary of the Sutlej, helps you forget all this. After two days at Sangla, we were rejuvenated and ready to tackle the road again. Pleasantly, there was no construction after Karchham and the scenery turned even more dramatic. Now we were driving on roads hacked out from the mountains by those infallible road builders – the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).
When we looked at the road wrapped along the mountainside, we realised how hard it must have been to build it. And the mountains had also extracted their price, a fact apparent from the plaques we saw along the road commemorating BRO cadre who had lost their lives during the repair or maintenance of this road. From Karchham onwards, gorges, canyons and bridges that groaned loudly when we crossed, became part of the road. The Sutlej, our constant companion, was sometimes running alongside and at other times it was a shimmering ribbon way down at the bottom of a gorge. The landscape went through a dramatic change as we neared Spiti. The greenery was replaced by stark grey, imposing, craggy mountain sides. Patches of green were restricted to irrigated fields.
At Sumdo, we turned off NH22 on to SH30, which marked our arrival in Spiti, a high-altitude desert where the vast scale of the mountains and ranges makes one feel inconsequential. The Tabo-Kaza Road is arrow straight at some places and the landscape is marked with chortens in brilliant white, which stand out against a deep blue sky. But it all came to a head on the road from Kaza to Manali. I have been fortunate enough to have driven on plenty of roads in India and the Himalaya but I am yet to drive on a wilder and more adventurous road from Kaza to Manali.
We started off from Kaza at 3.53 am. It’s prudent to start early as there are streams to cross on this road and the stronger the sun gets, the higher the water rises because these streams are all snowfed. 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 co-traveller about the unruliness of this road the evening before. He had scoffed it off by saying that he had driven on extremely difficult roads, such as the ones to Badrinath and Kedarnath. Needless to say, this drive left him speechless. Of the 212 km we drove from Kaza to Manali, 75 km were over tracks so ramshackle that it would be almost illegal to call them roads. Though brilliantly scenic, these dirt tracks bumped us around a great deal and they will daunt even the most experienced of drivers. There are narrow ledges that look as if they’ll crumble, and glaciers hang precariously over a cliff under which you have to drive.
Glaciers lie strewn across the countryside, slowly melting. And Gaddi shepherds graze their livestock of goats and horses on the grass that sprouts due to the melting ice. As the vehicle climbed to Kunzum La, the wind began to blow hard. A small temple at the pass had an old priest who walked around bare-chested in a dhoti. It was so cold there that I thought if I stared at him for too long I’d catch a chill. On the descent from the pass, there are numerous hairpin bends that have scree scattered around them.
Sometimes, if I turned too hard, the rear would start to alarmingly slide towards the sheer fall near the edge. From Kunzum La onwards, the track runs along the Chandra River all the way to Gramphoo before it climbs up again to cross the Rohtang Pass. At Rohtang we encountered our first traffic jam since Shimla and to tell the truth, after 6 hrs of uninhabited wilderness from Kaza to Gramphoo, I was quite relieved to be stuck amongst the hordes of tourists and tourist taxis on top of Rohtang. We had arrived at Rohtang on a weekend and the overcrowded pass was bursting at the seams with tourists. This meant that it took us 5 hrs to drive down the 50 km from Rohtang to Manali. As always, I felt again that something had to be done to regulate tourist traffic to the pass, which is being abused and littered beyond comprehension. The drive back to Delhi from Manali via Mandi and Bilaspur felt like a commute within the city after the bumps and jolts and solitude of Spiti. It felt good to be back on smooth roads, where I could put the car into top gear and drive at speeds of more than 40 km per hour.
ON THE ROAD
A car with high ground clearance is necessary for this drive. The vehicle will have to cross streams and you’ll have to find your way through fallen rock. It’s also best to carry an extra spare wheel (i.e., two spares altogether). If the car has tubeless tyres, then carry two tubes, which you can fit inside the tyre in case of a puncture. Remember that you could experience delays that are beyond your control – blocked roads caused by landslides or the unavailability of fuel at a pump. I can’t emphasise enough the advantage of leaving early – especially from Delhi.
Delay your departure by an hour and you’ll arrive 3 hrs later. So, effectively the 10-hr drive from Delhi to Thanedar via Shimla will stretch to a 13-hr one. A 5 am start will help you avoid traffic signals while getting out of Delhi and you’ll also escape the brunt of traffic at Sonepat, Gharaunda and Karnal. The road up to Shimla is wide and smooth but there are some places where rocks tend to fall onto the road; be careful here as cars swing out to avoid these. There are dhabas and restaurants along the road, so watch out for parked cars and pedestrians crossing the roads.
At Shoghi, before Shimla, there’s fog sometimes, as is also the case between Shimla and Theog. Whenever there are landslide zones indicated, don’t stop in the vicinity and get across as quickly and silently as possible. Up to Shimla, there are many fuel stations, but this is not the case from there on. On the road to Shimla, you’ll also have a vast array 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 at Dharampur is supposed to 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 lovely viewpoints on the road where you can stop and eat. Little teashops could also offer dal and rice and could even whip you up an omelette.
Drive carefully. There are plenty of broken stretches on this route and it will be prudent to have your car thoroughly checked and serviced before this trip. Towns like Solan, Shimla, Theog, Narkanda, Nogli, Rampur and Kaza have several auto repair shops and puncture repair shops. It’s after Karchham that the road becomes quite narrow; there are plenty of hairpin bends as well. If you do spot an oncoming vehicle, stop at a place where it can pass, and wait for it to go by. Remember that edges of roads are sometimes very crumbly; so don’t veer out too much. If in doubt, it’s better to reverse to a more stable area than try to inch out to let the oncoming vehicle pass. Traffic is sparse after Karchham, but whatever little traffic there is on the road, the odds are it will come to you around a blind corner, so don’t get lax at all. On the drive from Kaza, stop at teashops at 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’s any particular section you should look out for. The 12-km ‘road’ from Kunzum La to Chandratal is hardly more than a wide walking track on which a car like the Tavera will just about fit. When I drove on that road, I was fortunate to meet the one car we passed in the entire drive, coming in the opposite direction, at the only place where the road widens onto a broad plain. The last kilometre to the lake has narrow hairpin corners where you might need to back up to get around. It’s advisable to ask one of the passengers to step out and guide you as the side of the road is crumbly and the drops long.
Tip: Go on this detour only if you are very confident of your driving capabilities on a road as difficult as this.
About the author:
Rishad Saam Mehta holds a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering yet prefers to work as a freelancer. Driving around the world and writing about his journeys has always fascinated him.