Continuing along, we reached our destination late in the evening. Tired to the bone, I was on the verge of a headache. The hotel in Sarahan was a disaster. I was not delighted to find company too. Honestly, just wanted some peace and a neat room to sleep in. However, travel teaches you to let go! Let go of yourself and your attachments to familiar, things that are predictable and comfortable. Shedding my cravings, I went in and sat with the kids and the family, we had a lovely conversation about our journeys in the mountains, recounting aches and pains to see that ONE view that imprints our memories. Someone spoke of their quest to see the Kanchenjunga peak and someone narrated their experiences of being in a place with coloured mountains all over. The stinky bathroom and the tacky, tiny bedroom faded away and we were enveloped with visions and excitement to reach Spiti and be engulfed by the glory of Himalayas, once again.
The morning was not phenomenal either, but bird chirpings and a line of snowcapped peaks in the distance cheered our spirits. There is one thing in these journeys. However tired you are, the mountain air makes sure that after a good nights sleep you are as fresh as dew!
Known for the grand Bhimakali temple, the village of Sarahan (in the erstwhile kingdom of Rampur) is enchanting with its scenic location and very hospitable altitude.
The Bushahr rulers of Rampur are known to be under the protection of Bhimakali and still highly revered in the area. Life centers on the temple here and along the road you can spot usual shops selling snacks, bottled water, daily needs and some touristy ones to cater to the growing international footfall. Considered a gateway to Kinnaur and the greater Himalayan trail (the erstwhile Indo-Tibet Highway) what caught my attention in Sarahan was the amazing variety of flora and avian fauna. Sarahan also boasts of a Monal pheasant breeding centre! Ready for the day with a good breakfast, we left for our next destination: Kalpa.
As the terrain changed and we were welcomed by the famed rock clad roads, it felt like gliding through tunnels in some parts and cliffhangers in others. Once you cross the Baspa Hydroelectric power plant and cross towards RecongPeo, the road gets extremely bad. Shaking and turning constantly on an entirely rocky stretch, all you see around is blasted stone, tunnels and dust.A very muddy Satluj is by your side all along, slowly becoming angrier. All this was not new for me and memories of last year were still fresh, I could also remember turns and bridges correctly, which is a rarity! One new thing that I noticed this time was “Patel” boards, which were probably of the contractor in the area assisting the power or road project.
They have been around for years but I had somehow missed their prominence last time. A little further, there were multiple spray paint slogans of “majdoor andolan” or labour unions demanding various things such as EPF and action against exploitation; there was one to clarify all doubts declaring “Patel” to be a thief. We entered the last mile to RecongPeo only to find that the road was jammed with a line of cars and buses as some truck had met an accident. The group decided to reschedule the program and proceed to Nako, our first stop right before Spiti, today itself. The road conditions remained very treacherous and tumultuous for a good two hours.
We crossed many a stony abyss, one after the other. At one point there were some stones hitting our vehicle. Before recovering from the thought that it could have been a huge boulder hitting us instead of stones, I saw a board saying “this area is prone to shooting stones, look before you move”.
A little before on a particularly slender patch, there was a board saying “this area is sinking, please drive very slowly”. Beneath, I could see tin cylinders filled with smaller rocks and propped up to keep the edge of the road in place. Not very assuring, I must admit. Alongside, the Satluj had become a dark brown, forceful gush resounding around the massive walls of rock it seems to have cut through; flowing relentlessly for hundreds of years. Vegetation was sparse, at best, with a few desert scrub like growth between rocks. At one point there was a military water tank being filled directly from an expansive waterfall, coming down from my right, flowing generously over the road and meandering down hundreds of feet to my left, into the river.
As we entered Puh, a green patch of apple and almond trees could be spotted from far. From here on, senses adjusted to interpret that the sight of green amidst barren mountains all around, signals a milestone village.
After crossing Puh the colour of the mountains started getting a little brighter and snow clad peaks regularly emerged in between, straight in sight. The glistening sun over white peaks wedged between rust coloured mountains we had grown accustomed to in the last 3 hours, against the peculiar blue sky (that you only see as you close in near higher Himalayas) drowned all our dizziness accumulated so far.
At Khab, where the rivers Spiti and Satluj engulf each other in a confluence, I could finally see apple trees flowering. Also, a tunnel like road emerges once you cross the bridge demarcating the confluence. The road is silky smooth by now, mountain rocks are no longer the monotonous brown and there are a few typical birds to be spotted such as stonechats and water redstarts. The inclination is greater and so is the dazzle around. Prone to snapping at each other due to the seeping exhaustion, we both suddenly were overcome by the silent joy that grips us in the company of magnanimity. We have a penchant for happiness at such times – when there is a sense of arriving at the end of the world, I was reminded. Brighter than the usual bright is an important feature of such terrain and you can feel the loving sun burning your skin. I am pretty confident of how well my words fail to convey what I really wish to express!
The air is rarified and there are chances you will feel lightheaded with so much to grasp. One also has to be through the multitude of machines cutting up rocks, blasting tunnels, sight of laborers sleeping under those same rocks, their children dust laden, playing around, their tents pitched precariously in the middle of nowhere, the occasional apple flower blooms, the danger of land sliding beneath the vehicle at any moment, the thousand feet drops to your side, the ever changing geography, the obstructions offered by herds of Gaddi sheep and so on; in order to feel the real worth of human life and the strength and beauty of nature.
Meanwhile the terrain went another change once we exited the tunnel like road from Khab onwards and opened to ochre rocks, neat roads, brilliant blue sky and a kaleidoscopic sun setting behind a monolith, giving off all seven colors in its rays.
We stopped, stared, moved, stopped, stared, moved and finally reached Nako feeling refreshed! As we entered the village, I was struck with a sense of clarity that of having arrived at a destination I have been searching for all along. Called Nai go’ (door to a religious consignment) in bygone era, it marks the start of this region. People have Mongoloid features, houses are of stone bricks-wood with mud-thatch roof, horses are used for farming and mixed religious allegiance of middle Kinnaur gives way to predominant Buddhist following. The Nako Monastery (1025 AD) seemed deserted as I circled around to steal a glimpse.
We had to find a place to stay but first went to check a camping arrangement recommended by somebody. It turned out to be extremely cold and expensive. Walking around to find a decent homestay we chanced upon Tashi’s and liked it immediately. A modest 3 rooms of concrete over the ground floor of traditional built up, it costed us rupees 700 per night with excellent food, view of the Nako lake and homely conversation about the village with Tashi. He suggested us some treks nearby and told us how the trickling tourism has given various opportunities to many villagers who mainly sustained on agriculture. For the next three hours two men from the group vanished and everyone was busy searching for them in the village lanes. It was dark and chilly winds were blowing. By the time the two came back three hours later, I was down with a throbbing headache and anger. It turned out they went to the nearby helipad to shoot the moonrise over snowcapped peaks. Very well! But it could not inspire me enough not to lash out. In three hours I went from worry to desperation to anger.
Our mind is so fragile but it still manages to play tricks on you, I thought, as we quickly made up over soul satisfying food: Rajma, Chawal and Gobi Aloo sabzi with almost no spices. The next morning was resplendent.
The Reo Purgyul peak to our back was shining like a golden armour as the sun slowly rose over it, casting a glowing film of shimmer on the village.
All of us felt a little sad at the prospect of leaving Nako. We realized a dent had been made by the embracing community. Feeling light headed and “high” at 12014 ft (Nako is the largest village at this height) we were swayed by the morning sounds of horses, mules and cows, the scent of burning hill wood and the sight of sheep being herded for the day’s work. The plan was to see Tabo and Dhankar monasteries and reach Kaza by sunset. I must mention here that officially the Spiti Valley starts once you leave Nako.
The Spitian Himalayas afford an insight into the geological past of the Himalayas. The Spiti river, originating from the foot of a glacial peak marked K-III on old maps, flows approximately160km in a south-easterly direction up to its confluence with the Pare Chu at Sumdo (district border between Spiti and Kinnaur).The river has carved out a unique storehouse of Shale. Rock faces in the area are veritable storehouses of the geological history of the Himalayas, dating back to 500 million years and offer striking patterns and shades to the landscape. The Spiti valley has an amazing proliferation of Precambrian/Cambrian era fossils. The valleys of the Lingti and the Pin rivers have long been frequented by fossil research scientists. A recent study by the Geological Society of America shows that Spiti houses various unique and rare fossils of marine life (Trilobites, of the Paleozoic Era are some of the earliest legged creatures, relatives of crabs, centipedes and spiders). A cold desert at an average altitude of 4000mts, the valley experiences extremes of climate and temperature variations ranging from -25 degree to +30 degrees centigrade (From the website of Spiti Ecosphere)
#8: Chango, Tabo and Kaza
As you drive towards Kaza, the road briefly dips to the level of river & offers greenery. Approaching Chango, another monastery settlement, you will see a flourish of apple orchards on your drive through the village to a neat, colourful Monastery on the top.
It is noteworthy that all these villages are far apart and have a population of 30 to 300 but have functional, basic amenities which are decently maintained. Our next stop was the picturesque village of Tabo. Known for an ancient monastery (996 AD); the landscape and monastery grounds are enough to evoke a sense of beginning. Mud walls, wooden windows and doors, age old murals and noiseless calm. You definitely have a chance of finding yourself here! There are facilities to stay here if you wish to experience the life in a monastery.
The way to Kaza from Tabo was awe inspiring. It offers you primitive rock formations along the river with glimpses of snowy waterfalls and aggressive streams cutting the roads. However, all was not well with massive machines dotted all along, working the ground for laying 4G Cables!
Kaza, the town itself felt like a small replica of Leh. Surrounded by the mighty peaks, it is a trekkers’ base, re fuelling and refilling point. If you’re aiming at Chandra Tal or Kunzum La treks, blindly seek village folk, locals to plan instead of agents. Or better still, stay at Kibber or Chichham villages rather than Kaza because those are the places you will be visiting anyway; they are much smaller and will offer you a much closer feel of being in Spiti. Also, the wealth of information about their life and culture is freely available when you stay with people in their homes and no amount of reading up and conversation with guides can match up to the lived experience!
Just when we reached Kaza, we hit upon a polished looking guy who offered us some information on the possibilities of trekking till Chantratal Lake via Kunzum La, which was my ultimate destination for this journey. However, as we sat drinking Barley Coffee (YES!) in his lovely hotel/restaurant, his local contact walked in and told us that it will be impossible for us to reach Chandratal within the next 15 days. Somewhat dejected, we spent the rest of the evening at Kaza circuit house listening to ghazals.
#9: Kee Monastery and Kibber
The Kee/Ki/Kih gompa, the largest in Spiti and one of the oldest in the world, is built like a fort due to multiple invasions and looks stern from outside. Interiors were slippery with aged stone and smelt of old incense burning through history. A lama kindly chaperoned us and offered fragrant herbal tea in the antechambers.
Unlike myself, I felt and urge to put money in the donation box although the story of various Dalai Lama’s did not interest me so much. The wall murals held my attention more intensely and so did the multiple black birds roaming the campus, flanked by multi-colored mountains on all sides. Spiti river meandering along thousands of feet below looked congenial from a distance. I wondered, how would it feel to be in such surroundings, chanting hymns, lighting incense and praying, day in and day out for an entire lifetime.
The next village, Kibber, is a sight to behold. Unmistakable Tibetan influence in the architecture catches your eye. Notably, the school here had 3 students and 7 teachers! Trying to cross the village I saw people washing and cleaning on the middle of the main road, which was awash with a gushing, melting snow nullah! This felt like one more place to spend a few days. It is also the highest village in Asia to be voting in elections..If you go further till Chiccham there are chances of spotting the Ibex
#10: Pin Valley (Mud)
Proceeding to Pin Valley, we crossed Kaza and took a right where Spiti left us and Pin river joined. More waterfalls gushed through and we even crossed a deep stream on the road; quite a little adventure of our own! Reaching Ghungri (intended stop) we realized one had to carry supplies from Kaza for food.
Hungry and disgruntled, we waited two hours as the MEN again vanished under the pretext of finding food in the village. I almost felt like the women who must have been left alone as our ancestors, primitive men went hunting for food in the jungles. Grrr. Finally they returned to tell us they have organised a surprise ! We then proceed to Mud village, the last of Pin Valley a 30 mins drive from Ghunghri. Road via Sagnam (where Pin is joined by another tributary) is patchy but with amazing views. Sagnam bridge was delightfully vibrant with layers of prayer flags. This is also where you find Yak, the snow leopard, blue sheep and Siberian Ibex
We crossed a small sub-centre (village level hospital), fitted in three villagers walking to Mud in our packed car and reached our destination while they freely told us about short cut treks and stuff not to be found anywhere on the apparently Godly Google search. The view was worth every second of wait and ounce of frustration I endured! Expansive mountains covered in stripes of snow, extending upto a massive glacier; it’s peak rising up till they blurred with clouds. Below, the curvaceous Pin river was splitting the landscape into two: offering us a befitting last view for the trip.
You see people walking in file on these long roads, waiting for the singular bus service. Being a cold desert, nothing much grows here, except some potatoes and peas. With unmatched beauty also lives unmatched difficulty! People rely on scant government jobs and tourism with the agrarian connections dwindling.
My spoilt brain from plains could not fathom what one would do in emergency here! It is about 40kms from the main Kaza road and would take 1.5- 3 hours and 4-6 hours to hospital, from what I could estimate from our travel time. We stayed at the amazing Tara Guest House where the owner and his family filled us in with information about the treks nearby, why Indian tourists score less than their foreigner counterparts and so on. The evening drowned in a bonfire by the glacial mountain.
Rising up to russet sparrows chirping on the mud-thatch roofs of the village, I sat in the cozy kitchen having butter tea with our hosts early in the morning while the rest slept. outside, a light drizzle was falling from the grey skies. Smelling sour of Yak butter and fragrant of the kangra tea, it’s a perfect companion to the sight of cold snow outside. The trek upto glacier here is easy & rises in slow gradient. Meadows already flowering with purple bloom and strange colorful birds welcome you and snow patches with red, grey & orchre stone lined the way.
As you keep moving, the view of horizon broadens with the 3 mountains in close range separating out. After 2 hours, I was gasping for breath & could feel the loss of balance after a steep bit. The rest 5 were moving dots along the trail. Contemplating my situation sitting at a vantage view point, I decided to head back.
My camera bag was heavy with the variety of stones collected. Far below, some campers by the river waved at me. Partner was visible high up and I knew he had no way forward except for crossing the raging waterfall. This juncture revealed to me my human instinct. I was alert for every step, my mind trying to consume the beauty and danger together but bothered for myself more than anyone else. All my focus was on finding my way back without losing balance. Visualising a steaming cup of coffee waiting for me, I slowly pushed on. From sunny, it was now chilly & overcast. As I entered the village, the trail looked pleasant from this distance, with the icy stream cutting through like a satin ribbon. Two from the group were still not here but my mind was shut. Exhilaration at the warmth of shelter and my own failings (strange!) took over. Diminutive against the backdrop of nature, we humans are blessed with capacities for joy no other has!
After a heavy meal of fresh Thukpa and euphoric conversations on how each of us experienced the same trail in different ways, we set out to Nako. The road was sunny and we enjoyed the ride back through familiar sights, but opening up new views as we approached it from a different direction this time.
As we entered our most loved village, we were privy to a spectacular sunset display. Meeting Tashi again felt like homecoming! There was no electricity for the day so we could star gaze and savor the light of fire. His family fed us delicious black matar daal (grown in their farm), rice, paalak and stories that brought content sleep. I loved seeping under covers, in the chilly night in my bare room with only a candle burning (because there was no electricity), its flame casting still shadows on the ceiling (perfectly in sync with my taste for such ambiance which I often anyway create at home to soothe myself, but in such contrasting environment!). The next morning, we started our return journey, with stops planned at Kalpa and Sangla/Chhitkul before heading back to Shimla.
This section has exceeded my word limit for a single post, so I am going to save my thoughts on the magical grandeur of Kalpa and Sangla for another time! Thank you for being part of this journey. I must note here that all the little things like watching Tashi’s children get ready for school, or wondering why a Llama is offering tea to visitors or trying to get away from conversation in the car and feeling light headed with a memory, feeling lost when I gazed out of the window into lines of rocks, getting a momentary awakening of being close to my “calling”; these are the things that make me the wanderer that I feel like in my soul. It is not only what all I saw and who all I met, but also, as much, about the uncanny observations catching me unawares, the immensity of nature, the instinct of human life that is offered to me in these travels that beckon me time and again. After such experiences, one does not need a reason to travel. I do not need to travel because I need a break or because I want to tick off a destination on my wish list. I need to travel because it reveals to me, what is inside of me.
Photographs are mine (except one) and mostly unedited. You can visit Mr. Som’s gallery here for more of his work:
Misses of the trip in Spiti Valley (not in order): We could not visit Chichham village, Gue Monastery (houses a naturally preserved Mummy), Kanum village, Jispa, Chandratal Lake, Kunzum La, Langza, Hikkim and Komic villages, Dhankar Gompa, Rangrik Caves and Tabo Caves. The above journey took us 6 days with constant travel during the daytime and no repeat night halts except Nako. I will be happy to furnish more factual information if anyone is interested!