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)


  1. Love your articles!!!!! Amazingly written about Spiti..Waiting for the final part.
    Please post soon!!

  2. Its really very well written, while reading I felt as if I was on a mental tour to spiti..!

  3. I am so so glad to see u come back :) :) {Though I'm a bit late here to comment }
    HP is one of the beautiful places and I am happy it made you believe in faith :)

    And belated happy birthday :)

  4. Eagerly waiting for the final part!


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