Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Always susceptible to the vagaries of nature, Spiti can be commonly accessed only for three to four months every year. Early July or late September are the best times to go while August would usually suit the people who do not like any hassles of probable landslides, hailstorms and snowfall. But a vast majority of people one usually meets here are the kinds who love a little extra to go on the road. On my first night in Kaza, I met three couples.
One of them were the Batras from Delhi (both aged 55). On a 2004 Machismo, they went on their first bike trip to Ladakh with a Royal Enfield group in 2004 which changed their life forever. They made 24 trips in the next decade together always looking for new adventures. (At this age, they took the rarely tread upon Saach Pass on their way back to Delhi)
Second of them was a Maharastrian couple from Solapur. Both of them (aged 47 and 45) quit their job 5 years back and set upon the adventure of their life vagabonding from one corner of the country to the other. They had just reached Kaza after doing the Pin Valley amidst frequent downpours.
The third was a couple from Chandigarh - the wonderful Jassi Paji and Sunita Bhabhi - who loved the mountains and their SUV. They loved meeting new people and were almost the guarding angels of hitchhikers all the time. They offered me a ride the next morning, which I gladly accepted.
The morning started with my first of the four deeply spiritual experiences I had on the trip. There was a 7am morning prayer at Sakya monastery and it was the first time I felt the power of faith. Whenever the kid lamas chanted, there was a perceivable warmth. When the chanting stopped even for a minute, the temperature fell again!
Amazed to the core, I went back to Sakya Abode, where the Gobhi paratha breakfast can put a lot of restaurants in plains to shame! Immediately after breakfast, I left with Jassi Paaji.
Our first stop was Ki (also spelled as Key, Kye, Kee; monastery at 13700 ft, no cellphone network) Gompa. Barely 12 kms from Kaza on surprisingly good roads, it's a 3 hour hike or a half hour drive. The Ki monastery is supposed to be the biggest one in Spiti and can accomodate more than 200 monks, if needed. One can stay in the monastery and would always find co-travelers and co-residents here, most of whom would have come here to learn meditation from the head monk here.
The view of the Spiti river from the monastery was breath taking. We sat on the monastery rooftop for a long time, admiring the raw beauty we were so lucky to behold.
Just like any other monastery in the region, Ki monks love entertaining guests with what they're having. We were lucky that they were having tea, which they served us with utmost humility. It was, by far and would even be after I had visited all monasteries, the best tea I had ever had. A magical smell and the taste that warmed me up from the inside. To the amusement of everyone else in the room, I asked for another cup and was gladly obliged.
Our next stop was Kibber (14000ft, pop 366, no cellphone network) , barely 6kms from Ki. The roads were still very good and it took us 15 mins. On the way I met Robert and Vivek, two friends I made last evening hiking up. One of best things about Spiti is that one keeps stumbling into the same people again and again. The best experiences and the dos-and-donts are shared and adieu bid, only to meet again for sure.
Till Komik was connected by a road, Kibber was the highest village in the world with a connecting motorable road. It's still the highest polling station in the world. One of the most populated villages and one of the few with a telegraph office, a community TV and private TVs, it houses 77 families from time immemorial, thanks to the golden rule of family planning (explained a little later) which helps every family grow linearly. There is a wildlife sanctuary for the enthusiasts, too.
|Kibber, with identical houses and windows - a unique Spitian feature in every village|
The drive to Langza, and then to Komik was the one of the most beautiful experiences ever. Every few kilometres, we were forced to get down the vehicle and just sit there speechless. It was so quiet we could hear ourselves breathe. It was the second of the four spiritual experiences I had on the entire trip.
|No pic can do justice to the spiritual experience that the roads to Langza and Komik were, but this pic comes really close [Pic courtesy adtales.in]|
|Langza [Pic courtesy Seemant Saxena, Flickr feed]|
Next was Komik, the road to which from Langza is long, tough and confusing despite being the only one. It is the highest village in the world at 15050 ft. Home to 114 people without a cellphone network but with Tata Sky connections and the original Sakya monastery with a really rad Lama (he asked me to smoke the good stuff when I asked for permission to smoke a cigarette).
We met a 50 year old farmer and his really hot daughter who were having fun doing absolutely nothing. They offered me to show a small one-hour route to Kaza on the condition that I would sponsor their night stay there!
|That's me with the 8ft board in Komik in one of the pics that got saved because of Whatsapp!|
|One of the highest monasteries of the world, of one of the most tantrik paths of Buddhism [Pic courtesy trekearth.com]|
|The Komik village [Pic courtesy coveringindia.com]|
|Highest post office in the world, Hikkim, Spiti [Pic courtesy India Today]|
A few of us went to Chichum, a small village near Kibber, to experience the freak ropeway. It was organized by Tien, a Chinese national, is a filmmaker from London who has been spending 6 months every year in Spiti for the last 5 years making a documentary.
All of us went in groups of two in the basket in which the locals go as high as 10 people at the time, hanging! I went in with Lauren, a Dutch volunteer, and the experience was goosebumpy to say the least! We saw a truck split into pieces down below and it made the adrenaline flow even faster! Tien shot our video which I promised Lauren that I'd email her but eventually lost along with the cellphone!
Anyway, this is what the ropeway looks like. It's a must, must, must, must do in Spiti!
More than half the journey is taken care of by gravity but the remaining is hard work: one needs to keep pulling the rope till the basket reaches the other end of the ropeway! On the final 'trip' on the ropeway, Tien sat with two others and while they were about the return to the Kibber end, the rope broke off! It was one of the moments I would never forget in my life. Thankfully, neither of the three panicked. But it made them pulling themselves impossible. So, eight of us pulled them for ten minutes to finally make them reach safely! Phew!
I made really good friends with Shaishavi, an IT professional from Pune, with whom I went to Dhangkar and Tabo. Dhangkar is reached through a 8km approach road from Shichhling which is on the SH30 24 kms from Kaza. It is where I had my third 'spiritual' experience.
Dhangkar village (12800ft, 301 pop, 68 families) was the capital of Spiti before it was shifted to the more hospitable Kaza. There is a 'fort' on one of the highest points of the village from where the people threw stones at the invaders. [Dhang = small mountain, Khar = fortress].
|Dhangkar village, one of the most beautiful in Spiti [Pic courtesy Team BHP]|
|Dhangkar Gompa [Pic courtesy depositphotos.com]|
|Dhangkar lake [Pic courtesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip]|
Vivek, whom I spoke about earlier and met in Tabo again, told me about the monastery stay in Dhangkar, which he loved. Tabo monastery, though a little more comfortable, was a little too mainstream for his liking.
It's famous as being the top village on the wishlist for post-retirement life of the 14th Dalai Lama and for arguably the oldest and unarguably the most beautiful monastery of Spiti. It houses 1000 year old frescoes which cannot be photographed, though one can click in the monastery campus outside.
|The 1000 year old monastery at Tabo [Pic courtesy tourmyindia.com]|
|The new monastery at Tabo [Pic courtesy Marcus Fornell, Flickr feed]|
Spiti literally means the 'Middle Land' - between Tibet and India. One can see a beautiful amalgamation of the two cultures from the relatively commercial Kaza to the tiny mud-and-timber hamlets of 20 people. Buddhism is a way of life here, manifested in the form of Tibetan-ish lamaseries/monasteries dotted spradically across far flung terrains.
People here are simple, almost incredibly so. One of them was Lady Dolma, a strikingly beautiful lady of 35 who looked at least 10 years older than her age. The aridity makes people age quickly, she explained. A disciplined intake of the Sea-buck thorn, spread across the barren-ish land of Spiti, helps but the people are way too lazy.
How would Spiti be in winter: this was one of the first questions I asked her. Almost a painter with her words in grammatically correct Hindi, she explained that for most days during the harsh winter for five months a year, people do nothing. The nonchalance of her rhetoric was surreal.
'Log baithe rehte hain. Aise hi. Ek jagah mein. Baat karte hain, aur kya?'
|Kaza in winters. Pic courtesy - Lifeinspiti.com|
She also explained the age old family planning practices that still find favor across the valley. The first son of the family takes up farming (or other important jobs in the village) as the prime responsibility is towards the land one is born on. The second son of the family, without a choice, has the responsibility to keep the flag of Buddhism high. All the super awesome Lamas that I met were second sons of the family: an amazing trivia I wouldn't have an idea about, had it not been for Lady Dolma, who had never gone beyond Reckong Peo in her life!
Spiti can only be lived. No picture or blog can ever recreate the experience. Thank God for that!
[To be continued in final part...Chacha Chachi from Batal, Chandrataal, Old Manali and Vashisht)
Wednesday, October 07, 2015
Read Part1 here.
There's just one bus from Reckong Peo to Kaza every day at 7AM [11 hours, 330INR]. And it's not just a bus, it's the lifeline of the region in every sense of the word.
It serves as the only newspaper delivery mechanism with the driver promptly 'delivering' neat bundles of 1 to 3 newspapers rolled up and tied together with rubber bands from a moving bus. It serves as the only vehicle carrying officially sealed bundles of India Post without supervision to far flung post offices (including Hikkim - world's highest post office at 14,400ft - routed through Kaza). It serves as a lot more, best understood by talking to Mr Mohan Singh - one of the four conductors on the route - well versed with the region.
Talking to locals is the only way to learn about Spiti, which, with a population density of less than 2 people per sq km, is a land of stories that didn't find their way out. Take out the-relatively-easier-to-live-in Lahaul and what remains is a land of criminally few people and vast stretches of almost virgin beauty.
"Hunooz Spiti Dur Ast" - Nizamuddin Taulia
If the roads from Rampur to Peo were dramatic, I was in for the proverbial roller coaster. I got a ticket only till Nako, which looked somewhere midway on the map. The Nako village [Alt 12000ft, Population 572] and the Nako lake after a short trek, which I got to know later, would have been a fantastic option to explore. But after being forced to miss the Kinnaur gems of Sangla [9000ft], Rakcham [10000ft] and Chitkul [11300ft], I wasn't destined to explore Nako, too.
I was not feeling well at all. It wasn't mountain sickness, though. It was the fact that I needed to use a washroom urgently and the roads weren't helping. After a couple of hours that seemed like an eternity, the bus stopped at a sleepy highway village of Spillow.
'Strictly for 10 minutes,' shouted Mohan Singh.
The short clip shows the roads between Spillow and Pooh. The roads are pretty much the same from Peo to Spillow, too.
Almost in slow motion, I ran down the bus and then a small hill with a bottle of Kinley and the Dettol squeezy handwash, which by the way, is the biggest invention by mankind since sliced bread and condoms. A few minutes later, I personified world peace.
No adjectives or pictures can do justice to the incredibly humbling experience the rest of the journey was. It can only be lived. Especially the last hour before we leave the district of Kinnaur and enter Spiti would remain in my memories as the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen.
Pic coutesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip
Pic coutesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip
One of them was about Chandigarh, the 'newest' village of Spiti around 50 years old. It had a population of 250, huge by Spiti standards. It was during the Chinese invasion in the 1962 war that the Indian goverment decided to relocate some people closer to Indo-Tibetan border to the plains of Chandigarh and Mohali. Not willing to leave their home soil, the villagers from several small villages set up the settlement on the highway and called it Chandigarh!
The other story was about a living mummy in a village called Giu which was 10km away from the place we were having this conversation at. Apparently, a buddhist saint asphyxiated himself with his knees to achieve the supreme form of transcendental meditation in the fifteenth century. In the 1975 earthquake, the mummy got washed up in the Spiti river only to be discovered when a ITBP digging shovel hit it on it's head and it started bleeding. The proof of the pudding lies in the fact that hair and nails still grow on the mummy's body!
One of the only 11 'mummified' Buddhist monks that somehow didn't get destroyed by the locals fearing the Chinese post the Cultural revolution. Carbon dating confirms the times of the 15th century. [Pic courtesy trekearth.com]
Planning to do Giu along with Tabo, I sat on the bus only to find myself catching forty winks involuntarily and wake up suddenly every few minutes to look outside and marvel at an entirely different terrain than the last time I woke up. The experience, in itself, was a unique one. It was almost a trance, with the night's sleep catching up with me in funny way.
Photo credits already taken by the photographer in the pics
Almost used to not having proper roads in the much more hospitable plains. I was pleasantly surprised by the work done by BRO and ITBP in such hazardous terrains. Hats off, to not just their willpower but also to their weird sense of humor exemplified in small boards that one finds all along the way.
Their acronym makes everything just so cool!
At around 7PM, the bus reached the much awaited basecamp for the next few days: Kaza [12000 ft, Pop 3000]. Fell in love with the place the moment I got down the bus!
Kaza Bus Stand [Pic courtesy human-vagabond.blogspot.in]
Met a couple from Sweden in the bus who told me about the two best places to stay in Kaza: Sakya Abode and Deyzor. Tired like a dog, I buckled up and started walking when I came across the best little thing in Kaza: Sol Cafe.
[Pic courtesy Ecosphere]
Stopped by to have a cup of some seriously good coffee and met some great people, in turn. I would spend all the post-travel evenings that I would spend in Kaza in this little place meeting more interesting people than I could have ever imagined. The Seabuckthorn tea [50 INR] steals the show with the special Sol Sandwich [80 INR].
Sol Cafe, along with Taste of Spiti, is run by Ishita of Ecosphere for the last 12 years on the sheer strength of her iron will. They are 'developing the ecological and cultural conscience' of Spiti promoting eco-tourism, sustainable livelihoods and seabuckthorn - a local berry that's supposed to be awesomesauce for our health. It's run through a well-oiled chain of volunteers who participate in short or long term assignments on things as big as conservation development and as small as running the Sol Cafe. [Know more about the enterprise, which is no longer not-for-profit, here] It is here that I made friends with Abhishek, Shaishavi, Vera, Tien and Sumant with whom the mountain ropeway at Chichum was an experience of a lifetime a couple of days later.
It was here that I also got the much needed roadmap because it was getting increasingly confusing with all the stories and I desperately needed to put things in perspective using a map. The 10-rupee map that made everything crystal clear looked something like this:
Fingers crossed, I next went to the infamous Kaza ATM, only to find it out of order. Little did I know that it would not be working for the next four days and I would not be able to check out of the hotel till a wonderful couple from Chandigarh bail me out!
It was then when I overheard people talking in Spitian and the only words I could hear were 'Spiti Festival'. I took a chance and asked them what were they talking about and it happened to be a question of amazing consequences.
Serendipitous as it might sound, it was the penultimate day of the Spiti festival: the annual cultural/sports extrvaganza of the district where people from all the villages walked tirelessly up and down the mountains for three consecutive nights in the dark and assembled in the Kaza Government school.
The folk dances were breath taking and so was the innocently explosive response of the crowd after every performance. I had seen the likes only in pics in the online travelogues. Witnessing them firsthand blew me away. Below are some pics from the Spiti festival - absolutely not doing justice to what the experience was like.
It was pitch dark till the time I decided to move on to the hotel. There was no electricity in the village and the only sounds were those of a few travellers and a lot of dogs. The mountains still looked majestic! [I try finding other adjectives for them but there's nothing - not even one - that does justice other than majestic]
With a torch for company, I would have gone to every corner of Kaza before finally stumbling across the hotel Sakya Abode which, for future references, was next to the Sakya monastery.
Sakya Tangyud monastery [Pic courtesy Rudolf Schratter, Tripadvisor]
Sakya Abode, though not looking as beautiful without electricity, is still the best hotel in the district [Pic courtesy - Tripadvisor page]
I was told that it was impossible to get a room in Sakya without prior booking but I was lucky to get one, though I did see many of my cotraveler friends having to switch hotels because Sakya Abode was pre-booked!
Hotel food is so damned good that when I was came back to Kaza and didn't get a room here, I stayed at the hotel next door so that I could get food here. More importantly, the dining area is just too good with amazing coffee table books and retiring travelers with whom one can share a conversation or two with ease.
Dining area, Sakya Abode [Pic courtesy hotel website]
It was here that I met Mr Tsering Bodh, the property owner who also runs two other properties and organises camps, treks and all things in and around Spiti with several collaborators online. He is a rockstar with proud Spitian roots and a Delhi education. He knows what he does really well and is down to earth like few others. He happened to play an important role in my journey.
It was also here that I met Poonam, the stud caretaker-cum-waiter from Assam who loves spending 6 months every year in Kaza!
I got a room downstairs for Rs 1000 a night, which Tsering reduced to Rs 900 at the time of final bill! This, by the way, is super expensive by Kaza standards where you can get a room for as low as Rs 200 and an equally comfortable room as Sakya Abode would cost Rs 600.
But I'm glad I stayed here as some of the people and the resulting experiences I met here probably changed the way I think forever.
[To be continued in Part 3...Spiti Festival, Key, Kibber, Chichum, Langza, Komik, Dhangkar, Tabo and back to Kaza]