Please forgive me… so tardy that I am not even giving an excuse. Just read please. I think the very fact that the www.dangerousroads.org lists the road to Jalori on its site should have warned me off. According to the website, the Jalori Pass (at an elevation of 10,800 ft / 3,120m) above sea level in Kullu, features on every adventurer’s map! The roads are usually closed to vehicular traffic during the winter months. And even during the summers and especially in the monsoons, the winding, narrow roads are a test of one’s driving skill, patience and balls. There are stretches (especially closer to the Pass) of the road which are just one vehicle wide, climbing steeply and where it is nothing but mud, pebble and stones, with the tar layering worn off by the rains, streams, landslides and harsh winters.
The initial stretch from Narkanda to Jalori (a total of 77kms) down the Ambla-Shimla-Kaurik Road is a dream. Initially we descended from the heights of Hatu and Narkanda and soon the jackets were off as the sun warmed up the mountains. The Ambla-Shimla-Kaurik Road branches off near Sainj and we turned left and took the Sainj-Ani-Banjar-Aut Road. At one point we stopped the car and stepped out for a 10 minute break to just sit and take in the beautiful view which included the Sutlej (Satluj) River snaking its way from one end to the other. The water is brown and muddied from the recent rains and in the hush we could hear its roar even from a great distance.
At 1,450km long it is the longest of the five rivers in the region and originates from Rakshastal (Tal means Lake and Rakshas means demons in Hindu mythology – read a bit more about Rakshas at the end of this post) which lies south of Mount Kailash (it is considered the dark to the light of Mansarovar lake), before heading into the Arabian Sea. That is some journey! Along the way The Sutlej (also called the Red River) meets up with the rivers Beas, Chenab and finally the mighty Indus itself.
The Sutlej soon gave way to one of its tributaries as we would our way up the mountain. Along the way we stopped at a roadside dhaba for lunch. It was rather ominously called the Kobra Dhaba, and had a bathroom that had spiders the size of toy teacups. I did not take pictures… I should have but honestly I just wanted to get the hell out of the loo. After a quick bite at the Kobra we continued towards Jalori Pass. The route and the scenery soon changed. The sun was soon shrouded in a thin veil of mist, the trees loomed ominously over us and the road narrowed and twisted and turned sharply. One could not escape the feeling that it was almost like a warning from the mountain Gods… an unspoken sense of anxiety sets in.
Surya became even more focused on the driving and the other three adults in the car also began to pay attention to the road and the various outcrops, rocks and the clouds. Yugi slept unawares but Sakshi and Parisa stopped squabbling and sat quietly. We crossed the aftermath of a few landslides that had occurred in the recent past which the locals had told us about. Luckily, no lives were lost and the authorities had cleared the road allowing traffic to flow.
When we had started out on the Sainj-Ani-Banjar-Aut Road we had come across a few rivulets cutting across the road. But they looked tame and were quite easy to ford. In fact the government has now created passages below the road for the mountain streams to flow, thus preventing them from cutting across and wearing down the road. However further up the rivulets were a different beast altogether.
While we had been covering the distance at a decent pace until now, our speed was just a few kilometers above crawling now as the road snaked uphill. Up ahead we could see a rivulet (well, it was more a stream) that was cutting across the road. In this particular case the danger was heightened by the fact that the water seemed to be flowing down a channel created by a recent landslide. We were in two minds as to whether we should go ahead or not, when we saw an SUV driving through what looked like a rock-fall road block.
We saw a local driving up and Surya hailed him to ask him how the road ahead was. Typically, the answer was “Haan haan bhai, Ja sakte ho. Sab teek hai bas ek chotti si jagah pe thodi dikhat ho sakthi hai.” (Transalation: Oh yes! You can go ahead. You may face a slight problem in a small section of the road.) In the mountains the trick is to read between the lines and the gist of the local’s warnings always amounts to – “Go ahead if you are an experienced driver like us locals. However if you are an amateur ape trying to be macho on the mountain roads, then you’d better turn back cause you are going to be so screwed”. The ‘thodi si dikhat’ or ‘small problem’ he was referring to turned out to be a large chunk of road eaten in to by a landslide. Given that Surya was an experienced driver and used to these roads, we decided to forge ahead. There is a trick to fording these rivulets – it lies in respecting them. They look like they are going to be easy to cross but most of them have a strong under-current and vehicles can very easily lose their grip on the road and find themselves sliding to the edge of the road along with the water flow.
We managed to cross the rivulet though we were too close to the edge for my comfort. Quite a few times, I caught myself thinking ‘this is it’ as I looked out of the window in to the ravine. I don’t know about the others but my heart was in my throat and I could feel the headache returning. On the other side of the rivulet loomed a nature-made bottleneck created by the mountain side on one side and a huge rock (no doubt, the remnant of a massive landslide in the past) on the other. I was convinced that the XYLO was going to get stuck between the two.
But there was no way we could turn around at this point… the road was too narrow. So we took inspiration from the local who had driven his SUV through this and said ‘Jai Mata Di’ and forged ahead.
PS 1 (courtesy Wikipedia): It is said that Rakshasas (demons) were created from the breath of Brahma (the creator in the Hindu trinity) when he was asleep at the end of the Satya Yuga. As soon as they were created, they were so filled with bloodlust that they started eating Brahma himself. Brahma shouted “Rakshama!” (Sanskrit for “protect me!”) and Vishnu came to his aid, banishing to Earth all Rakshasas (thus named after Brahma’s cry for help). Rakshastal also called Ravana Tal is where Ravana is supposed to have undertaken severe penance to please Lord Shiva.
PS 2: It is obvious that you love the mountains and the environment; otherwise you would not have read till the very end of this post. So while you are trawling the net, please do visit http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2608579/, to read all about how the villagers of about 250 villages in HP have turned eco-warriors to save the Sutlej and assess the damage caused by hydro power projects in the state. This is of great relevance considering the terror unleashed by the rains in Uttarakand last year.