Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The lake and a quirky Gypsy

Does high altitude sickness hit vehicles too? I wonder after my Gypsy behaved most peculiarly when we drove to Chandertal

There is something special about the first trip of the season. The snow has been cleared on the 13000ft Rohtang Pass and the Other Side is finally connected. The Other Side – Lahaul and Spiti are closed, inaccessible for nearly 7 months in a year from late October to late May or even June. The snow that is so popular with the tourists in Manali, isolates the two regions from the rest of the world, save for a helicopter or two every week that bring in essential supplies.

But the winter had passed and Rohtang was ready to let people venture beyond. We were headed to the most beautiful (at least in my opinion) lake in the Himalayas, Chandertal. It was an interesting prospect. The previous two times that I had been there, I had taken a local bus to windy Batal and hiked the 14 km to the lake. This time around, we would be breaking in our brand new Gypsy to the mountains. Well, it was new to us but was really a second hand 2002 model that we had fallen in love with, mostly for its massive alloys and jazzy headlights.

Unfortunately, like all vehicles that have stayed with one owner for too long, it had its quirks. It enjoyed throwing in a surprise at us atleast once a week – an oil leak here, a broken bearing there. It had just returned from the Maruti service station in Mandi where it had been for a good two-weeks. And we were confident that most of the faults had been fixed and it did seem eager to head out.

The idea was that three of us – two friends and me – would drive with my three dogs to Chattru, a “town” of tent-dhabas, populated only in seasons where we would pick up my husband. We stocked up the Gypsy with sleeping bags and tents and food. Winter had just passed and the lake, at 14000 ft would be much colder.

We started out early, at 6 and climbed the 51 km to Rohtang. There was very little traffic with only the early trucks attempting to get to Ladakh. Past Kothi, as the climb got steep and the road got worse, it became impossible to shift into the third gear. I juggled between first and second and occasionally into the 4WD to negotiate the really bad patches. It was the first time in the Himalayas for my friends, so they were awed by the first sunrays touching the mountain tops. And even for someone who lives there, each day that you catch the sight, is special. So we stopped a couple of times to take in the sunrise, walk the dogs, grab a chai before we reached Rohtang.

The pass was still snowbound and bitterly cold but already the honeymooners were there. In their fur coats and gumboots, they were busy playing in the snow. The snow, thankfully was still a brilliant white, a colour that it would lose in two weeks once regular traffic started. Beyond the pass, the road got worse, but because we were descending, driving was easy. All the Gypsy’s minor problems seemed to be fixed and I was glad that it had not given up on us on the climb up.

The road was pretty much a dirt track with bits of long-ago-tarmac on the corners. Once we turned on the Spiti road from Gramphoo, surprisingly enough, the road got worse. We bumped along, crossing streams, leaving the road a couple of times to drive almost over the edge, passing shepherds with their flock on their way to summer pastures. It was an ideal day to be out in the mountains.

At Chattru, my husband got on and took over the wheel. Maybe the Gypsy particularly felt cheeky with him but barely 15 minutes out of Chattru, the engine was heating up and we had to stop at a stream to pour some cold water over it. The coolant was full and there didn’t seem to be any problems in its flow. We started again, but 10 mins later, we had to stop. We drove the remaining 40 odd km with breaks every 15 minutes or so to pour water from streams onto the engine. Going back wasn’t an option. The only thing we could do was drive to the lake and take a good look under the hood.

To make matters more interesting, one of the front tyres burst on the last 14 km stretch to Chandertal from Batal. Being a tubeless tyre, the huge rip it got meant that we would have to junk it once we got back to Manali. For now, the spare would do the job. When we finally reached a lake, the Gypsy seemed to be as relieved as us. It was late afternoon and we decided to give the engine heating a night’s rest. The blue waters of the lake were inviting and within half an hour had almost made us forget the problems we had had to get there.

Over the next two days, we idled on the lake shore, took long walks, even baked a cake. Occasionally other tourists joined us for a cup of tea. A trio from Mumbai who had driven up in their Ford Endeavour had had a tyre burst as well and joined us in venting over tubeless tyres. On the second day we took another look at the coolant, the tube and the engine and everything seemed in good order. We ran the vehicle for a while and it didn’t seem to be heating up. We figured that it might have been a temporary block – probably caused by an air bubble.

On the third day, we set out. After three days in pure mountain air with no one else for company, we were in great spirits and got into travel song mode. From Kishore to Rafi to Shankar Mahadevan, we sang all our favourite songs and before we knew it we were back in Chattru. And the most surprising bit, the Gypsy hadn’t heated up even once. Maybe it was happy to get back as well.

We were concerned on the climb to Rohtang Pass, but even there it was perfectly behaved. We got to Manali, called our mechanic and told him about the erratic behaviour of the Gypsy. But like how your computer miraculously starts working the minute you call the technician, the Gypsy refused to heat up for the mechanic. It purred contentedly, drove smoothly, cooled perfectly… Nearly a year later, we are still wondering what it was that made it heat up on the way to Chandertal. Maybe we have our own version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with a mind of its own?

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