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At Razor’s Edge: Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh

The desert valley of Spiti offers a unique travel experience

A jeep safari through the land of blue skies, yellow mountains, luminous lakes and ancient monasteries

This is a two-part account of a road trip in the Kinnaur and Spiti regions of Himachal Pradesh. For a peep into the Hindu-Buddhist world of Kinnaur, click here.

I thought I was well-armed with my woolen thermals and thick blankets, not to mention my  extensive experience of Delhi winters. But there’s no winning against the icy cold Death Eaters of Reo Purgyal, whose repeated attacks through the night have left me shivering and exhausted. So when the first ray of sunshine beams into our tent in Kinner Camps in Nako, it’s one of those rare days when I’m glad it’s daybreak!

Situated at the base of Reo-Purgyal (the highest peak in Himachal) and overlooking a lake and a tiny village, Kinner Camps provide breathtaking vistas of the surrounding rocky mountains and the stone-and-wood houses that are typical of this region. This morning, our attention is captured by an ancient Buddhist prayer wheel situated above our camp, and a thirty minute hike along a kuchha cattle trail is just the warm-up we need for our parikrama of the picturesque Nako Lake. The brilliant yellow of the willows and poplars that surround the lake, charming white huts (we choose to ignore the newer, and uglier, concrete ones), the radiant blue of the lake and the watchful gaze of the omnipresent mountains – it’s impossible to put our cameras away.

Nako Village_Kinnaur

Nako Village

After a short tour of Nako village, we head towards Giu, where the mummified remains of what locals believe to be a dead Lama have been preserved. A group of villagers – employed to build roads as part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – have gathered for lunch when we visit, and they insist we join them for a cup of tea. We spend a pleasurable half hour exchanging stories, admiring the beautiful ornaments and ready smiles of the women, sharing their innocent delight as they see themselves on the camera screens. As we prepare to leave, we catch a lone solider keeping watch on the very road that brought us to Giu – a quiet reminder that we are not far from the Indo-Chinese border.

Snow capped peaks from Giu, Spiti valley

 On the road

By now, we are well acquainted with the bare mountains that will keep us company for the remainder of our trip, but that doesn’t stop us from sighing repeatedly over their remote magnificence. This is not the eye catching beauty of lush green valleys, azure seas or dense forests, but nature stripped of any form of embellishment  – haughtily grandiose and exceedingly powerful.

Our next destination is Tabo, situated on the banks of the emerald Spiti river and the abode of one of the oldest – and many consider the holiest – monasteries of the Buddhist world. We are now officially in Spiti, a desert valley with only 10,200 people and home to some of the most endangered creatures in the world, from the  snow leopard and the Himalayan wolf  to the muscular mountains that could come crashing down thanks to human greed and folly.

Tabo Monastery

Inside Tabo Monastery

Made of ancient stone that seems to belong to the Egyptian civilization (a sign outside declares that it was built in 996 AD), Tabo monastery is renowned for its paintings made of natural colours that have retained their lustre over a thousand years. Surrounded by thirty three holy deities, our guide explains the tenets of Buddhism in the great hall of the Golden Temple (Sarkham). As we watch the sun set over the mountains from the courtyard of the monastery, it is easy to believe that we have been transported back in time.

After exploring the caves of Tabo, we continue to accompany the blue Spiti river as it slashes its way  across mountains that look like giant ant hills. Along the way, we pass Kurith, a village with a grand population of 30 people! There is not much that thrives – or survives – in this rain deprived land that is virtually inaccessible for the greater part of the year. Why do people continue to live in such an inhospitable environment, we wonder aloud one day. “It is their land, they were born here”, answers Jeetinderji, our driver cum philosopher. Over the next few days, we learn to appreciate the scarce bounties of nature – potatoes, sweetpeas, sattu (locally called Tsampa), sea buckthorn (locally called Leh berries), brilliant blue skies and the smiling hospitality of the locals.

 

dhankar village, spiti valley

View of Dhankar

Our next stop is Dhankar, capital of the erstwhile Spiti Kingdom and home to an ancient monastery that is built on a 1,000 feet high ridge overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. A 3 km uphill trek from the village leads to a lake in the midst of the hills, at a height of nearly 14,000 feet above ground. It is time to test our mountain sturdiness.

Spiti landscape

A unique landscape

The brilliant views of the monastery and the winding Spiti river soon give way to the arid landscape and brownish-red shrubbery (called nyalo)  that is characteristic of this region. This is a spot frequented mostly by avid trekkers and there is no one about at this time of the day (it’s afternoon, the sun is tearing at us and our stomachs are growling!).  Sitting under the shade of the prayer flags on the banks of the lake, staring at the mountains rising all around us as we finger the party of stones left behind by visitors to mark their arrival, I feel a stillness that is difficult to grasp in the mad scramble of our city lives.

dhankar lake, spiti

View from Dhankar Lake

Thanks to a flat tire on the pebble strewn roads, it is dark by the time we reach the village of Demul. But Lamaji, our host, has been patiently awaiting our arrival, and after a brief handshake, he easily lifts our two suitcases and starts sprinting across the  steep mud path. Huffing and panting, we arrive at his home on the northern edge of the village – a pristine white mud structure with the roof and windows painted in red and black. A narrow staircase takes us to the living quarters (the ground floor of all houses is reserved for cattle) – our room is at the end of the corridor. The floor is covered with bright rugs and carpets. A double wooden bed enveloped in fat, inviting quilts occupies one corner. Across the bed is a windowsill adorned with two plants – one looks like a green cactus while the other has a single blooming flower. In front of the sill is a long settee made of rugs and mattresses; a long, low table is placed in front of the settee, with a bright bunch of artificial flowers placed in the centre of the table. A plastic water filter and two clean glasses are placed upon an adjoining table. In the third corner of the room is a cemented area with a two inch high wall – this is our cleaning and bathing area. The ceiling of the room is covered with what appear to be foamed bedspreads. It is bitingly cold outside, but our room is surprisingly balmy.

Demul village

 In Demul village 

We join our hosts in the large kitchen cum living room, the warmest part of the house. Lamaji’s wife is cooking dinner on a small tandoor – a simple but delicious meal of potato momos. A tiny girl with butter soft skin and bright button eyes peeps out from beneath layers of clothing – the little black dot on her forehead is meant to ward off the evil eye. Lamaji is making tea, which he serves in beautiful cups – Spiti pottery, he remarks. Pictures of a much younger Lamaji with his wife in front of Tabo monastery adorn the wall opposite us, there are more recent pictures with what appear to be groups of travellers. A finely carved wooden cabinet occupies another wall, in which delicate crockery rubs shoulders with sturdy cooking pots. Outside the room is a small washing area, a corner of which houses the loo. We will be using a dry pit toilet for the first time in our lives.

The next day is Dussehehra, but there are no special celebrations in Demul. Instead, village kids are busy practising for a cricket tournament – all the villages from Spiti will be converging at a playground on the outskirts of the village. If only we could harness the emotional power of cricket in India for something more enduring than power or money.

From Demul we make our way to Komic, a charming village of  just 13 houses and many more yaks. At 14,806 feet, it is the highest inhabited village in Asia, perhaps the world. Komic is also home to the 700 year old Tangyud Monastery, one of only two monasteries belonging to the Sakya sect in Spiti.

Komic village in Spiti Valley

There are more yaks than people in Komic, the highest village in Asia

After a brief stopover at Hikkim to send postcards from the highest post office in the world ( 15,500 feet ) and a longer stop at the scenic Kee Monastery, Spiti’s largest monastery, we head towards Kaza, capital of Spiti valley. From Kaza, we will cross the 14,928 feet high Kunzum pass and drive along the banks of the mossy green Chandra river as we make our way to the dazzling Chandratal Lake – a perilous, backbreaking drive of 50 km along kuchha hairpin bends that reinforces our respect for Jitenderji and Negiji and reminds us, once again, that faith can move mountains – quite literally.

Kee Monastery Spiti

Monks enjoying a game of volleyball in the courtyard of Kee Monastery

From Chandrataal, it is another tortuously long journey to Manali over non-existent roads that hug the riverbank. Kudos to the men who brave these roads on an almost-daily basis!

Chandrataal Lake

Chandrataal Lake

The moon shaped Chandrataal Lake

An 8 pm traffic jam in Manali, complete with incessant honking, startles me – there are too many people,  way too many cars, hotels and cafes and too much light. The yellow and brown mountains, blue skies, dusty crumbling roads, emerald rivers, ancient monasteries, luminous lakes, grinning kids with running noses and the gently smiling people flash by like an epiphany – telling me what?  To wonder about the future of this unique land that is struggling to maintain a fragile balance between growth and survival. To be more grateful for what I have, and whine less  about what I don’t.

Suddenly,  for no conceivable reason, I hear our guide’s solemn whisper as we sat in the hall of Tabo Monastery:

“There are three traits that you need to become a Buddha – compassion, wisdom and power.”

Don’t we all?

The author undertook this trip with Ecosphere, a social enterprise that aims to conserve  the fragile ecosystem of the region, as part of a fixed departure tour organized by them. 

All images are the property of the author. Please do not reuse in any manner without prior written permission. 

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