On a cold morning, imagine completing a grueling trek, breathing rarified air at over 15000 ft and finding a monk welcome you with a smile into a monastery, offering his warm room to rest as he prepares a hot cup of tea. Too good to be real, isn’t it? Not in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti valley. Contiguous to China’s Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) on its west, sharing its culture and religion of Buddhism and hidden between the high Himalayas, Spiti promises and delivers on being traveler’s a delight. Brace up, not only for a peek into one of the most remote and striking topographies of the world but also, as hosts, among the finest of people.
While the description of the place may tempt you, bear in mind that making it there is as difficult.
Despite being ‘connected’ to Manali from June to October, before the snow sets in, Spiti remains off the tourist map with many preferring driving 480 km to reach Leh than taking the 200 km route culminating in Spiti.
Not without reason, as we were to discover.
The distance takes nearly 10 hours through the ‘shortest’ route which often coincides with rivulets and stones, rattling every bone of the body. The other approach into Spiti, through Kinnaur, locals informed, “Is more than double the length of the Manali route and unreliable.” Even though, often, the scenery weans away the agony of the journey, the criminal neglect of the region’s connectivity is hard to ignore. As you adapt to the altitude and make your way to the administrative hub of Kaza, located in the centre of the region, en route are numerous treks, open spaces and camping sites promising an endless supply of solitude, a concoction which lures the harried vacation-seeker like nothing else does.
Our journey into the valley actually began when the one from Manali ended at Kaza, located at over 3600m.
A combination of the impact of altitude, punishing journey, availability of round-the-clock medical support and comfortable, cost effective accommodation makes Kaza the most preferred destination. Unless your body has successfully negotiated high altitude, it would be advisable to relax for 48 hours in Kaza. Symptoms of altitude sickness which include frequent headache, vomiting and high blood pressure though common to beginners should not be ignored.
Taking one step at a time, we began by exploring Kaza, its vibrant, newly-built monastery, its market before moving to the nearby villages of Key and Kibber where an older, much different era awaits. Key monastery, some say over 500 years old, perched atop hills overlooking the village and the quietly flowing Spiti river, never ceases to amaze with its architectural integrity and spiritual richness. Kibber, on the other hand, is the perfect example of living in isolation as the boundless azure skies above and empty expanse around join hands to deliver that sense of seclusion.
What works for most is that the monks or the Lama jis there can converse in Hindi or English, apart from the local language Bhoti. Thus all that a curious visitor needs to do to break the ice is to smile and say ‘Juley!’ (Ju stands for greetings and Ley for respect) and an eager monk will engage you till you so desire. From religion to the local lore to culture and history, these monks, locals themselves, are often the best suited to satiate one’s inquisitiveness.
Having acclimatized, your next stop should be Tabo, 50km from Kaza. Located at a slightly lower altitude, Tabo’s resulting greenery emanating out of countless apple orchards ensure more than adequate oxygen supply. Before reaching Tabo, however, a 12km detour takes one to Dhankar where another, over 1000-years-old monastery exists. Limitations on the number of visitors, ‘entry fee to save Dhankar monastery’ lend an air of urgency to the other timeless setting. A peek into its prayer hall and the architecture transports one into a different time zone.
Tabo monastery, said to be even older than the one at Dhankar, serves as the magnet, drawing Spitians from all sides and the caves, located inside the hills in the vicinity, where monks have traditionally meditated, bring one up to speed with the rigours of the different life.
From Tabo, one can head further along the road towards Shimla to visit the Gue mummy and Sumdo from where Shipki La, the first village on the Tibetan side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is the closest. We chose the other way and headed to Langza, the start point for our trek.
Located at higher altitude, with a range of over 4000m, on reaching the village, we were greeted by a giant statue of the meditating Buddha, at the head of Langza. Running behind schedule, we kept our luggage at the residence of a local family, took our water bottles and headed up the river bed in search of ‘fossils’, unique stones found locally. Even though our effort did not produce the desired result, we came across some very interesting stones. On return, we were treated with the locally grown vegetable of ‘aloo mutter’ combined with hot daal, rice and Tingmo – local wheat-based bread. Interestingly, the main stove in these homes was not located in the kitchen but in the living room. This arrangement kept the room warm as a locally modified tin chimney kept the smoke away. “Everything here except the Tingmo is cooked using a cooker thanks to the altitude,” said the lady. The arrangement sure paid off as the chilly winds outside did not cause any bother while we wrapped ourselves in a blanket, inside the living room!
Originating at Langza, early next morning, we trekked to an altitude of 4440m where Hikkim, a puny village of not more than 15 families, was located. While Hikkim may not ring a bell to most, it has the unique distinction of hosting Himachal Pradesh’s highest polling station as well as the world’s highest post office. Hardly any visitor leaves Hikkim without posting a postcard to his/her dear ones from the distinguished post office.
The trek, which offered us magnanimous amount of thrill, solitude, view of yaks, breathtaking landscape, snow-clad peaks and an occasional blow of icy wind on the face, was figuratively and literally our highest point. The trekker’s route goes further to Demul and below but we culminated our journey at the Komik monastery.
While reflecting on the trip our guide Tenzing said, “The biggest resource here are the people. We do not survive winters when the mercury drops below minus 30 degrees based on any modern facility or infrastructure but shared wisdom and togetherness. Given that our population is not more than 10500, there is every chance that from Losar to Sumdo, one Spitian will know the other.” When asked about the pathetic state of roads, electricity and water supply, Tsering Sakya, a local hotelier stated, “Our culture teaches us to be content with what we have rather than agitate for what we don’t. May be that makes us less audible to the powers that be.”
While vegetables are rarely available across the year, in summers locals eat pulses whereas the winter months see them hunting for wild chicken as well as praying for an occasional Ibex to come along in an avalanche. “We do not kill animals generally. When our yak grows old and infirm, we call slaughterers and have its meat. This is however reserved for winters. Otherwise, we live between hard work for six months and party for the remaining six when there is nothing but snow and all activities cease,” said 24-year-old Kunga, who manages a hotel in Losar.
Buddhism, which is the religion among the locals, is very deeply involved with everyday life. It mandates that the younger sibling, whether boy or girl, be diverted towards its study, away from familial attachments. “But it is all voluntary. One can pull out the day one feels like. Another impact of religion is that everyone here is concerned about his or her karma and strives towards accumulating as much good karma so that they secure even their future generations,” said Tsering.