In a country like India that bursts at the seams with people (or cattle), there are few places where you can walk for miles without encountering another soul, or take in the view for as far as the eye can see with no man nor beast in sight.
Spiti is one of these rare places. Part of the Lahaul-Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh, where just over 2 persons live per square-kilometre (didn’t think that possible in India, did you?), Spiti is a journey and a destination unlike any other.
Much before you actually reach Spiti, the landscape changes into the stark, barren vastness that is typical of the region. Dry riverbeds – now widening enough to fill the valley, now contracting to mere streams – run along the narrow, winding path on which cars and buses make their way through boulders, gravel, unexpected water streams (glacial melts) and, of course, cattle out for grazing. The landscape is stark, the vistas panoramic. Giant mountains, wind-lashed through the ages, provide a backdrop to the valley and dwarf the occasional houses scattered through the slopes. The world here looks surreal; it’s the kind of view that makes everyone in the van fall silent, withdraw from company, rest their foreheads on the window and watch the landscape inching past.
Here’s the first in a Spiti mini-series: 7 abiding memories from Spiti valley.
1. Everywhere you look…
It has always amused me how Indian hill stations have sightseeing ‘points’ where tourists go to gawk at something pretty/strange/historic. Almost every colonial hill station worth its salt is likely to have a Lovers’ Point, a Sunset Point, and a Suicide Point. Cab drivers and tourist guides at these overcrowded places approach you with a standard pick-up line, wasting neither your time nor their own: “200 Rupees, all Points”.
Spiti, on the other hand, stuns you no matter where you look. Sure, there are monasteries and villages that are invariably recommended to first-timers, but even if you pay no heed to anyone and just walk where your feet take you, you will stop every once in a while, overawed and overwhelmed.
For instance, this one time my shared-van from Manali to Kaza chose this spot (below) to break down. In the middle of nowhere. And I got out to stretch my legs… and did not want to get back inside, even when the cab got patched-up and was good to go.
2. Chants for peace
Spiti has some hauntingly beautiful monasteries. There are those that stun you from afar, like that first moment when you spot the Key (also Ki, Kee and Kyi!) monastery.
There are some that take your breath away – quite literally – like the one in Komik, supposedly the highest monastery in the world at an altitude of ~15,000 feet. A colourful structure standing framed against the barren brownness, Komik is easily one of the most unforgettable sights in Spiti.
Some monasteries look small, desolate and forgotten, every bit of their interiors going back hundreds of years, till the time you hear fervent, rhythmic chants emerging from a room within. At one such monastery in Kibber, after a brief prayer requested by a group of women from Japan, I hung around till the courtyard cleared of visitors at lunch time, and then munched on the roasted chana offered by the head monk while we talked of his home and mine.
You don’t forget Dhankar.
Not that first view, when you walk past the monastery and stop in your tracks, catching sight of absurdly huge rock-pillars that rise from the earth like medieval demons and tower over the village nestled below.
Nor the view that greets you when you nip into a narrow passage between the mountains and find yourself at a cliff edge, looking down into a valley unfolding hundreds of feet below, where dry river beds meet and form a spectacularly unusual sight.
And definitely not the slanting rays of an evening sun going down behind the mountains, watched by the crumbling, cliff-top ancient fort that gives the village its name. (Dhang=cliff, Kar=fort)
Dhankar is dramatic, someone had told me. And I can’t yet find a better adjective for Dhankar.
4. The local buses
Bus journeys, ah, you gotta love them. In Spiti, buses are hard to catch (most routes run only one bus a day; some buses are as infrequent as twice a week) and harder to fit into. Due to limited frequency of buses and no other mode of transport except private cars/taxis, Spiti’s local buses come a close second in cramminess to rush-hour Mumbai locals.
Once you are inside, you must leap over piles of firewood (and land on feet whose owner’s head is a disconcerting distance away), make your way past big oil drums, and deftly avoid sleeping kids strewn all over. Smiling locals make the journey much more bearable, and consider yourself a certified Surly One if you don’t have at least a couple of invitations to random strangers’ homes and kitchens by the time you get off the bus. “Ask for Rinzen Llamo!”, I was instructed by a cheerful girl in a maroon scarf, as she patted me encouragingly on the shoulder while I tried to disentangle myself from limbs and luggage. “Just ask anyone in Chicham village for Rinzem Llamo, and stay with me the next time!”
One way to ride local buses like a boss is to climb up to the top of the bus, where adventurous locals huddle together. Seen mostly in the less hilly parts of Spiti, the only two things to remember while riding bus-top is to Hold On Tight to the luggage carrier, and Duck Collectively as soon as you see one of those decorative arches that announce village names.
5. Chandra Taal
Chandra Taal, the lake of the moon, just lends itself to adventures. There are two ways to reach the lake: hitch a 14-km ride from Batal, or trek 9-odd km down to the lake from the mesmerising Kunzum La. If you’re like me, you choose a third way – get hopelessly lost while trekking down from Kunzum La; slip, struggle and slide down a mountain face; for the next half hour, clutch at anything that holds and clamber upward, fearing for life; lose sight of your companion on the way; go back to Kunzum La companion-less, shocked and aghast; and hitch a ride from a camper van all the way, finally, to Chandra Taal.
Judging from the stories of other travellers I later met, I definitely wasn’t the only one to have had an unintentional Chandra Taal adventure.
The lake, by the way, is worth every misadventure.
6. Shepherd for a day
One of my favourite entries in my Spiti diary begins thus: “Today I was a shepherd!” And I was, I was. As part of a volunteer-travel opportunity made possible through Spiti Ecosphere, I stayed with a family in the highland village of Langza and got a chance to assist them in farming as well as shepherding. While the harvesting work on sweet-pea fields was about as backbreaking as I knew it would be, shepherding turned out to be much more sweat than I had expected.
I always imagined the shepherd’s life to be really chilled. Sure, getting all the animals to behave nicely, stick in a group, and head towards the jungle might be a task, but once the livestock starts grazing, you have joy and peace till it’s time to return, right? Wrong! Turns out goats are great quarrellers, and some cows are too feisty for instructions, and sheep are so silly they’ll pick the one lost, wandering sheep in the herd to follow dutifully over to the edge of a cliff, and so on and so forth, and of course the shepherd has to save the day in every one of these crises. Phew! Imagine running uphill after an errant cow at 14,000 feet, with the thin mountain air escaping your lungs sooner than you can say “Oi!” to the cow. Double phew!
7. The people and the homestays
Some of the warmest, kindest and most hospitable people I’ve met in my travels were in Spiti, and I’m beginning to take it as a rule of thumb that harsher the terrain, nicer are the people living there. Of all the emotions I felt in Spiti the most unsettling one, at first at least, was the immense trust that the place and its people inspire. In less than a day, though, I warmed up to it – hitching rides on lonely mountain roads; trekking on, even as the sun set; snuggling into a makeshift bed for the night at a roadside dhaba.
Barring Kaza and Tabo, the two hub towns, you would be hard pressed to find a hotel in Spiti valley. Although why you would be looking for one at all is a mystery, since homestays are a big part of Spiti’s charm. My host family in Kibber plied me with local dishes like thenthuk and kiyu, and enough information about Spiti to keep me travelling there for a year. During my stay with a family in Langza, I helped them pluck ready-to-harvest sweet peas on their fields and assisted their 6-year daughter with her Hindi homework, and was rewarded with a movie invite (a documentary about Ladakh screened by visiting healthcare volunteers) late one night at the village’s community centre, a 2-rooom unoccupied house.
While the most-visited villages of Spiti have several homestays, even if you decide to spend a night in a small, off-the-radar village, rest assured that you’ll find more than one local family happy to host you for the night. The people of Spiti have no qualms in opening their homes and their hearts to visiting travellers, and despite the stunning landscape, beautiful monasteries, and fascinating treks, the people you meet here may turn out to be your most abiding memory from Spiti.