MANALI, India — A barefoot holy man stood imperiously in the middle of the road just as our four-wheel-drive reached the last ridge overlooking the Sutlej River.
Dilarum Sharma, our driver, pulled over, and the holy man gave his blessing, pressed red paste (signifying awareness) to Sharma's forehead and offered him a few kernels of sweet, popcorn-like prasad, a blessed offering.
"Siva insurance," Sharma explained, referring to the Hindu god of destruction and creation.
"Don't be worrying," he continued. "God's insurance is good."
For the next seven days, on a 300-mile journey along the sometimes-harrowing Hindustan-Tibet Road, we were in his hands--so we hoped he was right.
Isolated within the Himalayas in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the dramatically beautiful valleys of Kinnaur and Spiti lie close to the border of Chinese-occupied Tibet on this road, which dates to the days of the great trans-Himalayan trade caravans of the 9th century. For those hardy and curious enough, this rugged, single-lane track links these remote and distinctly different cultural strongholds: the lush Kinnaur Valley, once an independent Hindu kingdom, and the desert-like Spiti Valley, formerly part of the west Tibetan kingdom of Guge.
The road, two miles above sea level, opened to tourists in 1994, just as my partner, Maria, and I were completing another spectacular drive on the road from Leh to Manali, also in India. We knew the region's reputation as an unspoiled area of stone-roofed Hindu temples and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, but we didn't have the time to make the detour. Vowing to return, we continued to Manali but feared we had lost our chance to see these valleys before tourism altered them forever.
Last September we had the chance to keep our promise. We returned to India, landing in New Delhi and taking the train from there to Simla. At the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Department office, we arranged for a four-wheel-drive vehicle and driver for the trip through the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys. Although buses also ply this route, a vehicle and driver afforded us the freedom to visit the more remote villages and keep our own schedule.
The distances between villages are not great, but the going is slow on this mountain road, sometimes no more than 20 mph. But with surprises around every turn, there's no point in rushing.
As we rounded one blind curve 2,000 feet above the Sutlej River on that first afternoon, we encountered a massive landslide that obliterated the road. It appeared hopeless. Sharma, displaying characteristic patience, simply shrugged and said: "They will have it cleared by tomorrow or the next day. They always do." Disheartened, we backtracked to Sarahan, a half-hour down the road and another half-hour up the mountainside. The tourism department's
Srikhand Hotel ($16 a night) had spacious rooms, a good restaurant and a view of the Kinnaur Valley from its terraced lawn. For an unplanned stopover, this was a pleasant surprise. We strolled among the British-era apple plantation homes and explored a temple to Kali, a Hindu goddess, that was built in the Indo-Tibetan pagoda style.
At midmorning the next day, we returned to the landslide. It still looked hopeless. We were resigned to losing another day from our trip when a man appeared from the far side, balancing a suitcase on his head. Another followed. Then another. People were crossing over, changing vehicles from one side to the other. Sharma told us we would have to do this if we really wanted to continue. We grabbed our backpacks and shoulder bags and dashed across the field of rubble. Once across, Sharma found a vehicle for us and bargained the asking price of 800 rupees down to 400 (about $9) for the two of us for the two-hour drive to Kalpa, our original destination. We piled into the vehicle, along with several other passengers. We would wait for him at the HPTD hotel there.
"Don't be worrying!" Sharma called as we took off. "I'll catch up with you in a day or two, God willing."
On the road to Kalpa, the scenery changed from merely dramatic to astonishing. The Himalayan peaks rose steeper overhead, and the blind hairpin curves (drivers give a warning blast on their horns) grew more precarious. Driving on the left and heading north meant we were on the outside when we inched around oncoming vehicles. Our wheels often were inches from the drop-off. There were no safety barricades, usually nothing more than a row of whitewashed rocks to highlight the lip of the dirt track, and sometimes not even that.
It was definitely not a road for night driving.