Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Backpacking Across Spiti [Part 3: Of Mountains and Monasteries]

Read Part 1 here or here. Read part 2 here or here. Cellphone with Spiti pics lost at Chandrataal. Respective owners of all pics used in the travelogue have been given due credit.

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
Next, we drove down and took a left just before reaching Kaza to reach Langza (14400ft, 148pop, no cellphone network) - first of the 'triangle-villages'. (A week later, I trekked up the same road for 15 kms from Kaza which took me 4 and a half hours. Another option to reach Langza, the mythical headquarters of the Spitian devtas, is a biweekly bus on Tuesdays and Saturdays).

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]
Langza is the land of a enchanting giant Buddha statue and 33 households. For people with no problem of mountain sickness, a homestay here would be highly recommended.

Langza [Pic courtesy Seemant Saxena, Flickr feed]
Langza is also the land of fossils. We tried to find some and couldn't get any. The 'fossil hunting' is a pursuit of the patient, although little kids playing around are more than eager to help.

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]

The Komik village [Pic courtesy]
We couldn't cover Hikkim (14400 ft, 161 pop, no cellphone network), 5 kms from Langza because of an under-construction road. One can easily hike/drive to Hikkim and post a post card to loved ones from the highest post office in the world.

Highest post office in the world, Hikkim, Spiti [Pic courtesy India Today]
Next couple of days were spent on strolling around Kaza and meeting people, mainly the volunteers from Ecosphere - Shaishavi, Abhishek, Daniel, Lauren, Tien, Vera, Sumant to name a few - from various parts of the world who were here to make a difference in their own small way. Little does Ishita (who founded Ecosphere) know I spent two nights in the Taste of Spiti volunteer rooms!

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]
The monastery, already declared as one of the 100 most endangered heritage monuments in the world, is a crumbling structure precariously placed on a mountain. There are places in the Dhangkar Gompa where more than 3 people are not allowed to go together. At one such partially forbidden points in the monastery at the edge of a cliff, I took a nap under the blue sky looking at one of the most beautiful sights ever. It was there where I met the head Lama of the Gompa who had brought for me delicious black tea. He spoke to me about how nothing really mattered and everything always worked out because everything was part of the one and only unity. The conversation has been the single biggest influence I have had on the way I think.

Dhangkar Gompa [Pic courtesy]
We had lunch at the Dhangkar monastery guest house which is surprisingly good option to stay. A trek to Dhangkar lake is highly rated but we couldn't do it as we had to go back to Kaza after doing Tabo the same day.

Dhangkar lake [Pic courtesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip]
We moved to Tabo (11000ft, 135 families, no cellphone network) which is the second most commercially exploited village after Kaza. 50kms from Kaza, it is here where people come to withdraw money when the ATM and the money vending machine do not work in Kaza.

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]
The new monastery at Tabo [Pic courtesy Marcus Fornell, Flickr feed]
Unlike the rest of the trip, I had booked a cab for Tabo and Dhangkar with Shaishavi in interest of time. And it showed us another unique Spitian feature. Regardless of who is paying for the trip, there will always be locals hopping into the vehicle and hopping out at their destinations. This is because everyone knows everyone in Spiti and one cannot wait for the infrequent buses to travel. Hitchhiking is a integral part of life of Spiti, for which the locals never forget thanking the travelers.

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 -
On rare good days, there is only 3ft of snow which takes a 4-member family about 4 hours to take out manually. Those are the days when people get out of their houses. The rest of the winter is spent with the 10 tonnes of wood that every family needs to survive. Sometimes, there are helicopters to deliver provisions when the land is cut off for long durations. They also serve as the only vehicles available to take the sick and the needy to the hospital in Kaza.

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

Backpacking Across Spiti [Part2: Love At First Sight]

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

I didn't get down at Nako and got a ticket till Kaza. The bus stopped at Hurling [4000 ft], the second village of the Spiti district after Sumdo, for lunch. It was where I met Dorje from a village called Chandigarh in Spiti who regaled me with Spiti stories.

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]

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]

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]

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Backpacking Across Spiti [Part 1: What You Seek Is Seeking You]

“Sometimes, the only way to find yourself is to get completely lost.” - Someone stoned upto his balls.
With a recently fractured wrist, chronically swollen ankles and a Wildcraft Gangotri 65 for company, I set on to discover the mythical land of Spiti with a childlike sense of wonder, hoping to discover a part of me which I had really started to miss for a long time.
Little did I know that our discovery of self is routed through discovering everything else, giving ourselves a much needed break from the mundanity of everyday existence. It’s only when we don’t need the daily masks is when we put down our guards: ready to absorb every single experience like a sponge rather than trying to preempt, critically analyse or dismiss it summarily. It’s only when we realize how monstrously insignificant we happen to be is when we understand how blissfully inconsequential our issues are.
And that realization, if not an orgasm, is pretty fucking close to it.
This would be the right time to violently lament the loss of my cellphone which had the surreal pics of the incredible terrain: the mischievous Sutlej, Spiti, Chandra and Manalsu rivers, snow capped peaks against the bluest skies, awe-inducing majestic mountains of various hues, patterns and rock formations and the best-at-heart humans I ever met - the gentle people from Spiti.
The phone was lost on the penultimate day in Spiti. It was shattering. It was the first time I felt bereavement in the 27 years of my existence. Not only did it make me cut the trip short by at least couple of days, I didn’t even feel like going to the seemingly divine Chandrataal lake after camping at -10 degrees for the night.
All of the memories, gone in a jiffy. More on that later, though. Some pics used in the travelogue were saved online and some others belong to friends I made on the trip.
Shimla and the Kinnauri Shaadi
Like every other place on the mountains, there are two ways leading to Spiti. One is the Delhi-Chandigarh-Shimla-Rampur-Reckong Peo-Tabo-Kaza route, which although of the same length, takes a couple of hours more than the other one which is Delhi-Chandigarh-Manali-Gramphoo-Batal-Kaza route which happens to the one where you get to high altitude (13000ft-Rohtang Pass) very quickly. People with prior experiences of mountain sickness should prefer the former.
This, in entirety, summed up my preparation for the trip which was ‘planned’ one day before I left for Shimla. It was only the sheer curiosity that the Chacha-Chachi of Batal generated in me that my I dumped the thoroughly planned Parvati valley itinerary for an absolutely unplanned foray into the district of Lahaul & Spiti. More on the couple later.
Booking a bus to Shimla was my first brush with HRTC (or Himachal Parivahan, as it’s better known) and it was love at first ride. Some much more glamorous states can learn a trick or two from the behemoth that the Parivahan is, which isn’t just the lifeline of the state - connecting otherwise totally cut off villages with the mainstream - but is a pleasantly potent combination of punctuality and courtesy.
This is a daily affair for HRTC [Pic courtesy Team BHP]
I have problems sleeping on buses. For someone with no such peeves, the semi sleeper Volvo [9 hours, 850 INR] would the most comfortable journey that would be in store for the next fortnight or so. After a dinner hault at Rai, Sonepat and a 3AM hault for tea, the next thing I knew was that the bus had reached Shimla, 2 minutes before the scheduled arrival of 5:30AM.
The hill-town was still sleeping although there were a few early birds on their morning walks. Had booked my first ‘Zo Room’ Bridge View Regency which, upon enquiry with the local folk, was a 40 min ‘walk’ up the incline or a taxi costing me 350 INR or a three-hour wait for the ‘lift’ which took people up in a minute at a nominal cost. The wind was pleasantly chilly; it had rained in the night. I took out the jacket, gloves and the skull cap, buckled up the backpack and started walking.
It took me an hour of walking amidst scores of monkeys jumping from buildings to wires to roads with impunity and chatting with some really jovial policemen over cups of tea to reach the hotel where the room wasn’t ready. The chai sutta on a rickety-ish chair on the rooftop where the sun was rising against the haphazardly stacked-up houses on the hills felt strangely princely. Might have to do something with the fact that Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj for a long time, was after all the seat from where one-fifth of the human race was governed. 
Rooftop, Bridge View Regency, Shimla [Pic courtesy hotel website]
Shimla should be the best place to have a tablet of Diamox/Acetozolamide. For an average healthy adult, it should help one acclimatize for the next week without sweat. Shimla should also be the place where one should find a Himachali contact and get a BSNL sim using his local address proof, in case you haven’t already got one on you. Kaza, the district HQ of Spiti, gets only BSNL network. The places around Kaza have no network at all but it’s good to have an option to connect in Kaza at least in case of emergency. The best thing to do, though, to that emergency sim+phone is to keep it switched off to discover Spiti in all it’s glory.
After a bottle of the heavenly Himachali apple cider called Tempest (8% alcohol, 100 INR) and the above two duties (Diamox+BSNL) done, I was all set to go all touristy. I walked for five hours non-stop exploring the capital town teeming with honeymooning couples, romancing teenagers and sunbathing oldies and it was a delight. 
Went to the Lakkar Baazar bus stand and enquired about bus timings. Could do Sangla-Rakcham-Chitkul or Peo-Kalpa depending upon when I woke up and reached the bus stand. Like the rest of the fortnight ahead, I had no idea where would I be sleeping the next night.
The evening was well spent on an edge of the cliff seat in a quaint little joint called Cafe Simla Times with beer and some seriously kickass Caesar Salad to myself.Had whatsapped these pics to a friend. [Pic courtesy me]
Woke up a little late only to find a monkey in the room. Had left the balcony door unbolted after spending a couple of hours there the last night. Reached Lakkar Baazar bus stand around 11 to discover that I was late. The only feasible option was to go to Rampur and spend the night there. I ‘planned’ to go on to Sangla the next morning, walk a delightful 6 hour trek to Rakcham that I had heard so much about and head to Chitkul, one of the many ‘last village on the Indian side’ along the Indo-Tibetan border.
Only, I did neither of these.
I met Rajesh, a man from a village near Karchham [my age, married with a 3 year old kid] who I made good friends with on the bus to Rampur. He invited me to the ‘reception party’ of his sister-in-law who had already eloped and married. There was a small problem, though. The party was on the same night and there was no definite way to reach Lakho, a small village in the Kinnaur district where he hadn’t gone before, too. We decided we’ll figure out once we reached Rampur, the bustling-by-neighborhood-standards valley town around 6PM.
Rajesh took me to the CM’s palace (which was shut for visitors following an episode of alleged sexual assault) and to meet some of his friends. Had some beer and smoked up some of the finest stuff ever. Add to it the daivik shakti stories the guys narrated in the most matter-of-fact way ever that raised every hair on my body.
The evening had already become unforgettable. Only, it was just the start.
We went to the bus stand at 11 in the night. We heard there is a bus to Reckong Peo around midnight. The ‘plan’ was to drop the idea of going to the wedding party, get down at Karchham around 1AM, walk 3 kilometres to Rajesh’s village, have his mom’s parathas and figure out life in the morning.
Instead, we stumbled across an Innova looking for two passengers.
Having bought the already occupied front seat in return for the occupant’s fare, it was a moral responsibility to not sleep. There was practically no road for long stretches with width of the stretch being no more than seven feet at times. Rajesh had personally witnessed a bus accident 3 days back where the bus fell off the road killing all passengers on the spot. There were obviously no street lights and a vast nothingness accompanied the car on the left throughout along with the gurgling sound of majestic waterfalls which we could only hear. Summing it up, the next three hours were spent on world’s most dramatic roads (according to WikiTravel) between Rampur and Reckong Peo which I can never, ever forget.Imagine these roads at midnight [Pic courtesy devilonwheels]
The Karchham plan was dropped midway when Rajesh’s brothers-in-law forced him to attend the party on phone. So we got down at 2AM in the middle of nowhere where the only sound was us breathing and the only light was our cellphones. We had to walk down a mountain for a couple of kilometres before Rajesh’s brothers-in-law would come to escort us to the village.
We had majestic black mountain shadows on both our sides. For a brief period, I must say I was scared and had second thoughts about Rajesh as well. Thankfully, I hadn’t slept at all in the car and the stuff had started kicking in. Being zoned out reduces the ability to think straight, which, in the circumstances, was to scream ‘What the fuck am I doing in the middle of nowhere with a person I just met 12 hours back and where am I going to’ to Rajesh. But then, he wasn’t in complete senses, either.
So, we continued walking for what seemed like an eternity to find our hosts searching for us. They took us to my first brush with the nicest Pahari people I could ever imagine.
Decked up in grey and green Kinnauri hats alike (literally all of them), drinking the Himachali alcohol from a kettle (literally all of them) and dancing for hours holding hands (literally all of them), Rajesh’s kin impressed me royally. They were really poor. There wasn’t enough place for everyone to sleep. But it didnt seem to bother anyone at all, not even the mysterious army man from ITBP whom no one seemed to know but was a part of the celebrations. Clicked a couple of selfies with him, too.
My backpack was kept in open with the luggage of rest of the guests. Apparently, theft is the biggest crime you can commit in Lakho. It meant that the property was safe in the open. Human life, not so much.
In a period of two hours, there were seriously bad scuffles between the bride’s and the groom’s side at least ten times. There was a lot of blood involved. But the dance continued despite everything. It was a routine affair. I made a video which had the dance and the fight sequence both-in-one. Could have been one of my most prized possessions.
[On hearing that I lost my phone, Rajesh, right now, is waiting for an opportune time to go to Reckong Peo so that he can send me the images he clicked through an active internet connection. The pics would be uploaded in a couple of days.]
Had a pristine view of the Kailash parbat from where I was sitting. If I were lucky, I could also chance upon The ShivLinga. It was visible once a month from Lakho. It wasn’t the day, unfortunately. Watching the sun rise against the mighty Kailash was therapeutic, though.
The mighty Kailash. Kinner Kailash trek is open for 2 to 3 months in a year which can take one pretty close [Pic courtesy me, Whatsapp]
Rajesh told me there are buses around 1PM to both Kaza and Sangla and he would take me to an enchanted forest before dropping me off to the bus station. Only, he was flying higher than kites. Luckily, I wasn't.
I left at 6AM for a 4KM total trek up the mountain to Reckong Peo. No words can do justice to how the Sutlej river looked flowing along with the way. The sky was divine blue and the mountains still had morning snow at the peaks.
I hadn’t slept at all. All throughout the trek, I kept on marveling at Rajesh’s family and the unforgettable experience when a car stopped which I sat into only to realize that the driver was learning how to drive. Up a fucking mountain without roads! The co-passenger was the instructor who kept on guiding - “Good, ab doosra lagaao”, “Clutch chhodo”, “Teesra lagao theek se”. I almost peed my pants.
Thankfully, I got down soon and reached Reckong Peo bus stand at exactly 7AM to find that there was no bus to Sangla today and the only bus in the day to Kaza left exactly at 7AM.
My cellphone showed 20% battery and I had 2500 rupees in cash (there was just one ATM in Kaza which was almost always out of order). Worse, the morning ablutions hadn’t been performed and calling the ride to Kaza spine-chillingly-bumpy was an understatement. I had to take a call between staying back in Reckong Peo doing absolutely nothing all day; and risk shitting my pants, having a drained cellphone and be out of cash in Kaza.
I had less than a minute to decide.
I sat on the bus, which swivelled off to glory the very same instant.
[To be continued in Part 2 here...the bus ride, Dorje, Giu, Kaza, Sol Cafe, Spiti Festival]