9/7/2009 to 9/15/2009 | Himachal Pradesh , India

Dodging falling rocks on the way to Kalpa, Kinnaur

Is it possible to be simultaneously both jinxed and lucky?  I think I may fall into that category with respect to my travels to Spiti and Kinnaur.   Last year a the snow storm stranded me in Kaza for nine days and prevented my planned visit to Kinnaur, however I was very fortunate that I had finished my trek over the Parang La before snows came.  And now this year. . .

It was a bright sunny day when I left Kaza for the village of Tabo, the kind of weather the arid Spiti Valley is supposed to have this time of year.  The only reason to visit Tabo is to see the Gurge era gompa dating from the 10th century and the spectacular frescos it contains.  Having viewed the gompa and its frescos the next day I got on the bus to continue on my way to Kinnaur.  Unlike the clear skies of the previous day, ominous dark clouds filled the skies on this morning, prompting a local, keeping his eyes fixed towards the horizon, to remark with an even yet slightly threatening tone, “monsoon is coming today.”

The bus whose final destination was Rekong Peo (shortened to Peo by the locals) contained a substantial contingent of foreigners.  In addition to myself there was an American couple in the midst of a year of traveling in Asia, a couple Italians, an Israeli couple, an Englishmen writing for the Rough Guide, and a female philosophy professor from Chile who had quite her job and was traveling in Asia for 7 months.  As we headed down the narrowing valley, the weather worsened and the rain fell with a steady persistence.  Not far from the tiny village Nako, which was my next destination the bus stopped before reaching rockslide which had blocked road.   We sat on the bus for a while until word finally came that we would be switching buses.  The bus from Rekong Peo to Kaza was on the other side of the slide and would return to Rekong Peo while our bus would return to Kaza.   I gathered my bags and headed out into the rain with the rest of the passengers.  As I reached the beginning of the rock slide area the passengers in front had stopped without continuing over the slide.  I joined them staring out at the rock strewn road.  Rocks fell like artillery shells in short volleys every 3 to 5 minutes.  Nobody was anxious to cross, knowing that even a relatively small rock hurling down from the cliffs above could deliver a fatal blow.  Finally the passengers from the other bus emerged crossing the rock slide from the opposite direction.  They informed us the rock fall area was about 150 to 200 m in length.  Rightly or wrongly one always feels more reassured when they see someone else complete a dangerous task.  We decided to cross.  Probability says that the quicker you walk through the slide area the less your chances of being hit by a rock.  I hurried and found myself leading the pack of passengers a good 5 meters in front of the nearest person.  We had just started out across the rock fall when the sounds of rocks skipping down the steep hillside caused my heart to likewise skip and I glanced up at the hillside to see a volley of rocks heading directly towards me emerging from the clouds above.  In seconds that seemed like minutes I first quickened my step but I realized at once as the rocks approached there was no chance to out run them.  My only chance was to move towards the hillside, I saw an ever-so-slight overhang steps away and I dashed towards it instantly, pressing my body against the rock as stone after stone whizzed over my head protected by the slight overhanging ledge, each with the size and velocity that would have instantly decapitated a person with a direct hit and would have at minimum taken off a limb in the indirect case.   I waited until the sounds of smashing rock receded and only the light tapping of rain drops on the now still stones remained.  I left my refuge against the cliff and hurried through the rest of the slide, my heart pounding fueled by the adrenaline of my recent escape, to the waiting bus.  It was the closest to being in the midst of a war that I hope I’ll ever feel.

Someone once asked me what my closest call was.  I think I have a new number one.  Once on the bus my fellow passengers congratulated me on my luck.  Yes, there was undoubtedly some luck, but sometimes you have to make your own luck too, by thinking quickly and acting decisively under stress.  Fortunately I seem to be blessed with the ability to do just that.  At least so far, since I’m still here.

In what I would later learn was my second stroke of luck that day, I along with the Rough Guide writer and the girl from Chile got off the bus at the tiny village of Nako.  That night and following day the rain continued and we learned that the road was now closed in both directions, although accurate information was hard to come by.  The small village of Nako nestled alongside a holy lake, which could be more accurately described as a holy pond, was pretty enough but even the most charming places lose their luster in dreary weather.  The village’s small gompa dating from the 10th to 11th century and contained some fine murals and provided and hour of diversion, but most of the second day was spent with small band of foreigners who were trapped along with us in a the tasty but limited Tibetan restaurant.  The menu seemed to be shrinking by the hour as they ran out of ingredients.    The liquor shop next door still had a few bottles of rum and we turned to liquid entertainment trading rounds of black tea and rum (a surprisingly tasty drink in cold weather) with some Polish guys and a couple of Swiss girls.  The Rough Guide writer, Nick, was in a real hurry to get down as he still needed to cover Shimla and all of Uttarakhand in the next 3 weeks.  Rumors of a way down to Rekong Peo opening up flew around the small village the following morning and 3 jeeps were going to make an attempt at heading down.  I decided to join Nick and Sylvia (the Chilan girl) in one of them, knowing that if there is a way out at this point I should probably take it.  Nako had no electricity for the last day, food (at least in variety) was running low, and accommodation was rather expensive, all of aforementioned issues conspired to influence me to join the breakout attempt.  Shortly after we left Nako we had to clear a few small rock falls, then 7 km outside of Nako we came across a large landslide.  The brief patches of blue sky which had given us hope earlier that morning had since vanished and rain was now falling.  Seeing the condition of the road in the section that was supposed to be clear and with the rain now falling I could see there was no way that we would reach Peo that day, even if we cleared the one that lay before us now probability said with the amount of debris on the road we would eventually reach one we could not clear.  With the very real risk of continued rock falls, I lobbied that the risk did not justify continuing given that the likelihood of reaching Peo was extremely small, in my opinion nonexistent.  However, others were blinded to the reality of the situation by their desire to get out and they continued to clear the rock fall in front of us.  Most fervent in the push to continue was the lead jeep with a Bengali couple who were in a rush to make their flight back to Calcutta from Delhi and their driver, a short portly mustached man from Shilma who whose optimism and fervent faith in his god Shiva bordered on delusion.  Both Sylvia and I were fairly adamant about returning to Nako but the others influenced heavily by the short in stature Shiva devotee wanted to continue.  This left us in a bit of a dilemma as it became clear they would eventually clear this particular slide, our driver would not drop us back at Nako even for money thanks to the assurances of the lead driver that he would get stuck if he went back.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, for him the road was always blocked behind us by a recent slide, and always clear in front of us after we cleared next landslide.  Walking back uphill in the rain for at least two hours through a region where clearly rocks had fallen in the last few days was not an appealing option either.  We stayed with the jeep.  After that major slide the road to the next settlement of Pooh (yes there really is a place called Pooh) was relatively clear but further progress was halted by a large landside outside of Pooh.  A construction vehicle known as a “JCB” the equivalent here of “Caterpillar” was in the process of clearing it so we waited.  Others convinced themselves that the next landslide was always the last one despite previous experience to the contrary.  We inched along behind the JCB it took us five hours to cover 5 km, with the JCB clearing three and a half landsides in that time span.  It was working on the largest one yet, when a series of rocks fell past the JCB a couple of a size that could have easily knocked the vehicle off the cliff into the rushing river below narrowly missed the JCB.  It was five in the evening and the road workers took that narrow escape as a sign to quit for the day.  So we were forced back to Pooh to Sylvia’s and my relief and to the others disappointment.  Yes, at this point I was very happy to be stuck in Pooh.  Pooh is a much larger settlement, if less picturesque than Nako, with a sizable army base adjacent to it.  It even had a semi-regular supply of electricity.  There we learned from the military that there were at least 22 blocks along the road.  Nevertheless the jeeps were prepared to leave the following morning inching their way behind the JCB clearing the slides.   Sylvia and I decided to stay behind in Pooh, and find another ride out; once we were sure the road was clear.  That evening another group who had been in Nako showed up in Pooh.  They had originally wanted to continue towards Spiti, but said that the road was so messed up now in that direction it would take at least a month to clear.  So by a single day I had narrowly escaped my fate from a year ago of being stuck in the Spiti valley and having to return via Manali.

By noon the following day word came through from the army that the road was now cleared to Peo.  Sylvia and I managed to secure a ride with a very nice elderly man from Chandigarh traveling with his daughter and her two friends.  I got dropped off at Peo while the others continued on down towards Rampur halfway to Shimla from Peo.   In Kalpa, the small village above Peo where I stayed, I ran into some people who were on the same bus which we had taken to Nako.  The three of us that got off in Nako had often wondered if we would have stayed on that bus would we have made it through.  Was it unlucky or fortunate that we got off at Nako.  It was very fortunate.  The bus had gotten stuck on the road with landslides in front and behind.  People were forced to sleep on the bus for at least one night with rocks periodically hitting the bus throughout the night, leaving the captives to wonder if eventually a rock large enough to smash through thin metal roof would eventually break loose.  The second day apparently most of the passengers tried to walk out rather than spend another night on the bus with no food or water.  They slowly filtered down to Kalpa getting rides when they could in overcrowded vehicles arriving at Kalpa either the same day I did or the previous evening.

At least 2 people maybe 3 died from falling rocks during those few days.  At least one of the fatalities was a road worker trying to clear the road (in what may be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world) another was a 14 year old girl who was trying to hurry back to school to be on time to attend her classes.

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