I didn’t really know what to expect from Kaza, the main town in the remote Spiti Valley, but I certainly wasn’t expecting super fast Internet access and electricity 24/7, so I hung back in Manali an extra day just to chill out and check out of real life for a several hours whilst compulsively scrolling through Facebook, and Jess headed off in a mini bus. Apparently, if the roads aren’t too awful, a government bus will run to Kaza from Manali but we asked around and right now that wasn’t a thing so it’s mini bus or jeep with some manner of ridiculously timed pick up from a bridge. It was pitch black as I shuffled around restlessly, waiting for a vehicle to collect me. I was due to be picked up at 5am but you know what it’s like over here, 5am could mean any time up until 6am, and I worried I was loitering suspiciously around the wrong bridge. I wasn’t. Eventually my jeep pulled up and we drove into New Manali to pick up a Russian lady, her kid and her guide, then off we went towards Vashisht. Where we were promptly stopped and turned away because we didn’t have a valid pollution certificate.
Are you actually shitting me? It’s not like it’s a fucking secret! Everyone knows you need a pollution certificate to pass Vashisht and I’m a foreigner who’s never driven in India. It didn’t help that I hadn’t had food or tea yet which meant I was on high murder alert and every single thing in the world was going to piss me off, even if it involved puppies and unicorns. I think I strained an eyeball whilst rolling them in exasperation. He drove us to a garage where it took about 20 minutes to get the certificate he needed and I wisely used this time to apply crisps to my facehole. That was better. Now I was less likely to nut someone because they tried to speak to me. Or looked at me. Or breathed. This time we glided though the checkpoint with ease, as much as one can glide on a north Indian road anyway, then just as the tarmac finished and the road became unsealed we got a flat tyre. Well that’s no one’s fault really hey, flat tyres can’t be helped though I was pretty glad I’d appeased the stomach gods by this point or I might have bludgeoned him with a tyre iron.
This is such a stunning drive though. It was foggy as fuck for the most part but as it swirled, lifted and engulfed the hills again we caught glimpses of the lush, green valley. We stopped at Rohtang Pass at 3980 masl for a chai and more crisps because crisps are the the ultimate road trip food and I could run out and get them and run back to the car thus alleviating this weird anxiety I have of transport leaving without me even though that tiny, rational part of my brain knows that they not only wouldn’t leave without me, the driver was off somewhere grabbing a paratha. I would have had plenty of time to do the same. But no. Lay’s Magic Masala. Lots and lots of Lay’s Magic Masala, which to be fair I think I had a bit of an addiction to anyway, I think they lace them with crack or some shit. Then we were back on the road, we climbed up and up, through glaciers which had been carved out to reveal whatever was left of the road beneath, through tiny streams, and closer to crumbling edges than I would consider comfortable. The roads hair-pinned back on themselves over and over again, the higher we got the less green it became, then we drove over the Kunzum Pass and began the descent and the terrain got less and less forgiving. So fucking unforgiving in fact that we got stuck in a river crossing.
Haha, it had to happen really, and it wasn’t an awful view to get stuck with. I stood back and allowed the men to get one with it. Ownership of breasts and a vagina automatically disqualifies you from any manner of input into these kinds of matter in this part of the world. In the 40 minutes it took them to liberate the vehicle we managed to block two other 4WDs heading in our direction, and one 4WD and three motorcycles going the other. Fourteen blokes and a lot of rearranging of stones and engine revving later and we were back on our way. Guys, you’re gonna need spare camera batteries and a huge fucking memory card for this region, and that’s just for the drive in. It gives you gravel rash on your chin as your jaw scrapes on the floor in genuine awe. Those rocks though. Rocks are generally pretty great unless you’re in the north of England and they’re rocks being thrown at your head by a gang of eight year olds. Rocks in this region, I’ve never been anywhere that does rocks quite as well. Around every corner there’s some manner of layer or pinnacle or gravity defying lump of geology or a rock shaped like a massive cock which you have to try and photograph without sniggering so the others in the jeep don’t realise that you haven’t quite worked out how to adult yet and probably shouldn’t have been let out on your own.
Eventually you start seeing small settlements made up of these freakishly photogenic white houses shaped like boxes, surrounded by green fields of crops against the backdrop of the barren brown of the surrounding mountains. And after over twelve hours on the road stopping at roadside dhabas, one passport checkpoint, and for cheeky little wees behind inappropriately small rocks on the way, we rolled into Kaza at 3800 masl. It’s actually a lot livelier than I expected, not that you’d call it any manner of sprawling metropolis, but there are plenty of places to stay and a small square in what I guess you’d call the town centre with a bakery, a travel shop, shops, an Internet cafe, restaurants, an off licence, the usual.
Jess met me where the 4WDs drop you off and I followed her to Zanchuck Guesthouse where she was staying. It’s fine there, they say they have WiFi (they don’t) but it’s not an awful price for a room with an attached bathroom that has a hot water boiler as long as there’s electricity. Get the price in writing though because they’ll try and charge you more on the way out. The town is a nice, chilled place to spend a few days though as long as you have a good book and no real need for all of the Internet access in the world as the power, understandably, frequently goes out. You can explore stupas and a Buddhist monastery. A dry river bed runs right through town, and when we were there there was a field strikingly full of colourful flowers, and the locals collected the yellow ones in huge bundles but I haven’t got a clue as to why.
And the dogs. So many dogs! Some of the dogs here have tags on their ears, this apparently means they’ve been vaccinated against rabies which is a good thing because there’s a shit tonne of them, but vaccinating them doesn’t make them well. There was a puppy in the square that seemed very jittery and had some manner of breathing issue, there was a really old, blind dog, and a dog that had literally had its nose ripped right off apparently in a fight but didn’t seem to give any shits about it. I’ve never bought so many biscuits not destined for my own digestive tract before. Anyway, we’d both come here to do a well known homestay trek through Spiti Valley where you walk from village to village and stay with the locals in their homes. You can do it guided and I did look into it, but Jess had her little heart set on doing it independently. I weighed up the pros and cons. It really would save a lot of money to go it without a guide, and the whole point of having a guide, for me, is the local knowledge, but surely we could learn what we wanted to learn from the families we stayed with? Righto then. Independently it would be, and we roped in a very large Latvian man called Ron to come with us, because hey, the more the merrier.
Kaza, Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India
Stayed at: Zanchuck Guesthouse