Rohtang Pass is a place that marks many divides. To the south are the green slopes caressed by monsoons every year and to its north is a stark landscape often called the forbidden valley. Beyond Rohtang, the landscape begins to start resembling Tibetan, and so do the people. Temples give way to monasteries and Shiva makes way for Buddha. Apple orchards are replaced by potato and sweet peas. It is as if you just changed the DVD and a different movie started playing on the gigantic 16:9 screen.
The fabulous setting of the town of Keylonw, Bhaga River and the road from Tandi
People north of Rohtang have an unusual pride about the altitude they live in. Every village along the way lays some special claims about its location. In Spiti Valley, a deviation on the Leh highway, people at Kibber Village once loved to call it as the highest permanent inhabitation in the world. When the record was broken somewhere else, they were not ready to give up. They came up with more possibilities instead: highest village with electricity, highest village with a motorable road, highest village with a post-office, and so on. A quick web search reveals all possible versions and may even give ideas to cook up new ones. Just below Kibber at the base of Spiti Valley, the petrol pump in Kaza doesn’t fall behind in making the ‘highest in the world’ claim.
Going past Keylong, probably every named place has something highest attached to it. It is only a matter of finding out highest ‘what’!? Indian Army takes bulk of the credits for creating all these highest hypes. In Pang, a tourist stopover on the way to Leh, is an army camp labeled as the “world’s highest transit camp.” Far north in Ladakh is Siachin glacier with its notorious claim for being the world’s highest battle field, where India and Pakistan have been fighting and wasting away lives and resources for a land that neither party can put to any good use. Once you have the privilege of making claims for world’s highest battlefield, the highest airfield is obviously not going to be far away. And Khardung-la, the world’s highest motorable pass doesn’t need any introductions. But Khardung-la’s days are probably numbered: everyone speaks of motorable passes in Ladakh and Tibet that raise much higher. I am sure they will find a new title for Khardung la when another pass officially becomes the highest motorable road.
That’s much digression from Rohtang Pass where we started from. It is a quick and steep descent from the pass, down to the valley of Chandra River. The small village of Khoksar next to the river is more a food court than a village. Dhabas line up the 100m or so length of the road, which is as long that the village spreads. A Himachal Pradesh Government PWD bungalow in the village may be open for visitors, but most people prefer to continue to Keylong. Despite the charm of Chandra River, Khoksar is not a pretty place and is too close to Manali for a halt.
Mighty mountain peaks seen from Keylong town
The way further is parallel to Chandra River, going downstream after crossing the river at Khoksar. It is usually muddy and flows swiftly in the months of July and August – the peak season for travelling to Ladakh. Photographs taken in later months show it in a deep hues of blue, a color that eludes most people who are on their way to Ladakh. The tall peaks along the way tend to have last snow of the season, and many tall waterfalls come down from the steep hills to merge with Chandra.
Tandi, 10km before Keylong has the last petrol pump on the highway. The road here turns right and continues along the valley of Bhaga River. A sign at the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga reads [not verbatim; recreated from memory]: “Welcome to Tandi, the confluence of blue waters of Chandra and green waters of Bhaga.” Unfortunately, the colours are all mixed up with plenty of earth, and what is there to see is two muddy currents coming together into one.
Chandra and Bhaga have an interesting origin. They both begin at different faces of the mountain at the same location – Baralach la. Chandra flows east and then turns west traversing through the valley of Lahaul, while Bhaga flows south through Darcha and Keylong. They meet again in Tandi, like two long lost sisters getting to see and hug each other. More like we see siblings separated at birth rejoining in an emotional drama in a Kannada movie, with the lead actor playing two roles.
Keylong is a quick 20 minutes drive upstream Bhaga River. It is the place where most people prefer to spend the night on the way to Leh, as we found out on arrival.