Vijay and I waited nervously for the CT scan report to arrive.
Rio Singh, our eleven-year-old labrador retriever was diagnosed with a tumour in the jaw. Dr Vaibhav, who has been Rio’s doctor from the time he was born, recommended that we do a full-body scan to investigate if the tumour had spread to any other area. The report, when it finally arrived, did not bring the news we hoped for. A tennis ball-sized mass was discovered in the spleen.
Our choices were to either remove the entire spleen, a procedure that would put tremendous strain on an older canine or we let it be and let the illness run its course. No parent should be put in a position to make such a choice. As we pondered over the decision to be made, we noticed Rio run excitedly towards our truck. Nothing makes him happier than a car ride.
It was at this moment that I remembered a promise that I had made to Rio Singh a long time ago. We would go together in search of snow. It was mid-September and, perhaps, the Kunzum Pass might have a bit of snow. On our drive back home, we decided to drive to Spiti Valley the following week.
The night before we were to depart, I made four sandwiches which would serve as a mid-drive meal. Our plan was to be on the road no later than 5 am. After all, we had 500 kms to cover from Gurugram to Narkanda. As we were loading the truck, I noticed that Rio Singh was nowhere to be found. A foil paper trail, however, was left behind which led to a very content labrador hiding behind the sofa and enjoying what seemed to be his third sandwich. We decided to eat something on the way. After making Rio Singh comfortable on the back seat, our journey began. It was uneventful until we were welcomed by a heavy spell of rain at Shimla. The rain sabotaged our plan to stop for a meal. Vijay began to get a bad bout of acidity and was in a fair amount of discomfort. I took the wheel from him and had to drive a sick husband and an overexcited labrador for the next two hours, in very poor visibility, to get us to the homestay we had booked at Narkanda. It was one of the hardest two hours of my life.
Vijay was fine post the home-cooked meal made by the family whose property we were staying at. And Rio did his best to teach Casper, the family’s beautiful golden retriever, a few tricks. But Casper was in no mood to let Rio Singh have his way. It was only when we were leaving the next day that we realised that a bond had been formed between the two retrievers. Casper ran behind our car and refused to let us leave. It took five grown men and a tight leash before we could be on our way. Rio Singh kept his gaze on Casper until the road curved away.
The second day’s drive was to Kalpa. Apart from a three-hour delay due to a landslide, it was a beautiful drive with large pine trees giving us company all the way. We reached the Grand Shamba-La at Kalpa by late evening. A sumptuous dinner was quickly polished off and we called it a night. The real excitement was to begin the next day.
We rolled out of the hotel at 7am and, within an hour, the terrain began to change—trees began to disappear and soft soil mountainsides were replaced by hard rocky surfaces. Soon the roads turned to just gravel and the mountains began to get taller and taller. Just when I thought that I’d end up doing the entire stretch with the 4X4 engaged, we were welcomed with a freshly laid tarmac road that was a joy to drive on. The air began to taste crisp and clean and a smiling Rio Singh was stretching his head as far out of the window as he possibly could.
Our aim was to reach Kaza for a late lunch at the Deyzor Hotel. For the first time in three days, we made it on time. As I parked the truck, Vijay noticed a lot of local dogs around the property. He went to ask Karan, the owner, if it was safe to get Rio Singh inside. Karan asked us to be careful of Azizam, the St. Bernard who was seemingly resting peacefully outside the door. As Rio Singh alighted from the truck, the local dogs and Azizam got agitated. They charged towards Rio Singh. Instinctively, I stood in front of Rio Singh and Vijay tried to hold on to Azizam, who was not in the mood to give in. Vijay got a free bite on the knee from Azizam before Karan could harness him and get the situation under control.
With our bellies now full, we continued our drive towards Chicham, eventually arriving at the legendary bridge claimed to be the highest in Asia. Once we crossed over, Chicham Village was close by. Narrow lanes separated the cottages that were all built keeping one consistent design—flat, boxy homes painted in white with large brown windows. The Nomad’s Cottage was the last building in the lane. We were apprehensive about the other guests’ reaction to Rio Singh. We tentatively entered the property and ran into two young ladies who seemed like they were guests at the property too. I gripped hard on Rio’s leash and that’s when the ladies noticed him. For a brief moment there was an uncomfortable pause, and then all hell broke loose. The ladies shrieked in joy, dashing towards Rio Singh, who lovingly danced his way towards them. It felt as if three long-lost friends were reuniting.
After a long dinner which was garnished with Rio being the dining-room star, we retired for the night. I was excited about the next day as we had planned to camp at the world’s highest village, Komic. The truck was packed with our camping gear and, without Vijay’s knowledge, I had packed all the ingredients to conjure up a breakfast fit for a queen. We drove all the way to the top and found a wonderful, open mountaintop to pitch our tent. While Vijay was busy setting up the tent, Rio Singh lay down on the dirt ground to bask in the sun.
A beautiful night under the stars later, we were back on the road towards Chandratal. The roads up to Losar were exceptional and, just as we crossed the beautiful village, the tarmac road ended and the infamous, treacherous Losar-Gramphu terrain unfolded. The road was filled with gravel and all sizes of boulders; certain places had sleet rocks with razor-sharp edges and Vijay kept reminding me not to go too close to them for fear of a tire sidewall tear. An hour and a half later, we arrived at Kunzum Pass and to our total joy, it had fresh snow strewn all over it. I turned back to see Rio Singh’s head stretched far out of the car, his tail wagging furiously. Vijay quickly got out of the truck, opened the rear door and Rio Singh made a glorious jump right from the truck into the snow.
What followed was a display of unabated joy and excitement. Vijay and I just stood there with a heavy heart watching our boy roll around the snow playfully. Big chunky bites were taken out only to realise that there was an unlimited supply of the white stuff. Rio Singh was in heaven.
Eventually, we had to move on and, under protest, Rio Singh got back inside the truck as we made our way to Chandratal. The route progressively got worse - and more than once, we considered if the trip to the lake was even worth it. But we soldiered on and finally arrived at the parking lot, from where we hiked up the lake.
We were barely a few hundred metres from the lake when our water-obsessed labrador retriever began to show signs of severe excitement. At one point, he broke out of his harness and dashed towards the water flowing out of Chandratal, making a mighty jump right into the middle of the stream. Vijay and I were relieved that Rio Singh chose the stream, and not the lake, as neither of us had the will to jump into the freezing waters after him.
After drinking the icy blues of Chandratal to his belly’s content, and resembling a very wet Turkey towel, Rio Singh had to be cajoled to walk back to the truck. It took a fair bit of effort to dry Rio. We were now famished. Very close to the parking lot was a small dhaba that served the most delicious Maggi I had ever eaten, or maybe, I was just that hungry.
Vijay was nervous and, at the same time, excited about the Losar-to-Grampu stretch of road. Every story he had read about this route had emphatically claimed it to be one of the harshest routes in the country.
The terrain lived upto its reputation—there were no roads at all, just the mountains and us. We had to find our own routes in most places. Often, for long periods of time, there was not a single person in sight. It was terrifying—and, at the same time, humbling—to be reminded of how insignificant we were compared to the might of the Himalayas. After what seemed like eternity, we crawled over onto the fine tarmac roads of Gramphu. A few kilometres later, we were inside the dimly-lit Atal Tunnel.
I turned around to check on Rio Singh—and for the first time in over six days, it warmed my heart to see Rio Singh curled up on the rear seat, sleeping peacefully. He had an adventure of a lifetime. Not once during the trip did he give up and ask for help.
Looking back, I couldn’t help but remember Mark Twain’s words. “It’s not the size of a dog in a fight. It’s the size of the fight in a dog.”