LOSAR looms LARGE in our minds. It’s the last village before the hardest stretch of the Hindustan / Tibetan Highway. A riverbed of a road that separates two icy passes; the Kunzum La and the Rohtang La. The last translates as ‘pile of dead bodies’. Yikes! – After the hundreds of travellers who freeze to death here over the centuries. ‘Look-on-the-bright-side-Harry’ sighs with relief that it’s from the cold and not the road! We plan to cross these two passes well before November. Well before they fill up with snow. Well before the Spiti Valley is cut off from the rest of the world.
It’s our psyche equivalent of ‘the Marsabit Road in Africa’ and ‘the Wakhan Corridor along the Silk Road’.
We arrive in Losar on 14 October to find Hotel Samsong. It’s a modest home, with extra rooms. Kalgemz, the owner, a mother, stands ready.
She helps lug our luggage up a rickety steel staircase. Extra duvets pile on our bed in a squeaky clean room. Back in her kitchen she is busy with hearty dishes; spicy dhal (lentil) stew, a curry cauliflower and potato hot-pot and steaming rice. Chapattis flop into circles between her hands and land, to blow up deliciously, on a piping hot pan. We sit in a cosy dining room and savour.
Outside – a flaky flop – clobbers us! OUTSIDE – it bloody well starts to SNOW.
Kalgemz nods once; – it’s early. Kalgemz nods twice; – if it doesn’t let up, we cannot cross the passes. Kalgemz nods thrice; – if it does not let up, we should go back the way we came! Oh no! Not Losar, Kaza, Tabo, Nako, Sangla, Shimla, 724 kms and 34 riding hours over again? Please, PLEASE, please, one last hard day; not 5 days all over again.
Its early afternoon and we are cold to the bone. Harry and I go to our room and climb under the dead weight of our duvets. The snow ROARS outside and we draw the curtain. We only manage to pull a single weak bulb of light. All that electricity, we see climb up and down these Himalayan slopes, is too weak for anything else. We have a charged laptop and run away with a full series of ‘Death at Pemberley House’.
Peep, after peep, through those curtains – Losar dwells in a flurry of white flecks. Darkness brings a knock on the door. It’s Kalgemz with hot tea, a bright smile and good news.
We leap downstairs and grab at that speck-less and clear night sky. Kalgemz is with her brother, and a neighbour, in the kitchen. The air is thick with curry mutton. Harry, with only the tiniest prompt from me, asks after beer. Kalgemz offers a home-made concoction. She brews it herself from barley, water and masala. We love it – It tastes like pineapple. It makes us even happier.
Kalgemz excuses herself and returns with a pale of milk. She tends to a brood on the inside and the outside!
We eat, we chat, we uncover …
Kalgemz is 34 and the oldest of nine children. She has seven brothers and one sister. When her father passes away, 19 years ago, she stops school to work at home. A shrine to the Dalai Lama and her father flickers in a ring of candles. Her youngest brother is a monk at the Buddhist Kye Monastery; where we come from. Her younger sister is a nun at Dharamsala; where we are going to. It’s common practice amongst Tibetan Buddhists for the youngest son to go to a monastery. The Dalai Lama, she explains, is for her, like our God.
We ask after children. A full-on smile lands on her face with two girls and a boy. They all go to school in Manali; all to boarding school since the age of 6. The very same Manali we hope to reach; just the other-side of the dreaded Kunzum La and Rohtang La! The impact of this rings wordlessly in our ears. They don’t see each other, when the snow bounds them, from November to March every year. They gobble each other up during the long June / July holiday. Her oldest daughter is thirteen. Kalgemz un-wraps a dear photo, dated 2013, of her in traditional dress.
Up early to leave early; Kalgemz too. We steal as many hugs and grasps and squeezes, from each other, as we can. Enough to last a life-time? For the briefest of moments we swop lives.
She says we are probably her last visitors. We joke about the bags of potential barley beer that stack her passageway. Kalgemz itches for us to get going. She knows the road ahead … her heart reaches to the very end of it!
So Harry and I follow the road, of her children, to Manali.
Over the Kunzum La pass, that is a snowy scary mess, we slide (!) slowly (!), for 20 km and 3 hours. Along the road, that sits squat in a rocky riverbed, we rattle for 80 km and 5 hours. Through the Rohtang La pass, that is under-construction, we compete with earth-movers and truckers, for 40 kms and 2 hours.
We arrive, safely and soundly, in Manali, 140 kms and 10 hours later. Like the children of Kalgemz, so often before us. Suitcases and schoolbags and lunchboxes shepherd them with … kilograms of love to outlast the snow … volumes of courage to tackle the term.
The next morning we sit quietly in the village square. We see Kalgemz’s two girls and her little boy, a thousand-fold! Here, there are agencies and internets and windows and doors to the world. Here, with the Kunzum La and Rohtang La between them, Kalgemz places her little ones … to touch the future. And we get it!
Kunzum La! Rohtang La! Bow down! You will never breach this mother’s reach!
…. as I bask within my own ‘mamma’ Gail’s reach every single day ….
P.S You may also wonder …. Why, in the world, is there a Losar? Later, I read, it’s on the ancient Salt Trade Route that existed between India and Tibet.