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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Seductive Spiti TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUDHA MAHALINGAM


Seductive Spiti
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUDHA MAHALINGAM


A Himalayan sojourn in the postcard-perfect Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh.


THE SERENE SPITI valley.
“STOCK up on pain balms, spare spectacles and take an oxygen cylinder,” advises a friend when he comes to know of my plans to drive into Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, in an all-senior-citizens' group. I am slightly apprehensive about the altitude sickness I am invariably prone to; how would the others react at such heights? But even more daunting is the prospect of throwing a set of perfect strangers – all of them are my friends, but they do not know each other yet – into a small vehicle for extended hours on the road for 10 days.
I need not have worried. The journey turns out to be utterly delightful as much for the kaleidoscopic and stunning scenery that the drive serves up along the route as for the interesting, and at times desultory, conversations we have on a range of topics. Contrary to my fears, no one reported altitude sickness, except me, not even at Demul, a village perched on a promontory at 14,000 feet (4,200 metres), where we stopped for the night at a typical Spitian village ‘homestay'.


THE SUTLEJ AT Pooh. Here, the river sports a dull grey hue and puts on its fiercest demeanour, cleaving through intimidating gorges sculpted out of shale and granite.
Our original plan was to drive along the Sutlej river from Rampur Bushehr to Recong Peo, Kalpa, Pooh, Khab, Nako and Tabo into Kaza and return through the Kunzum pass via Rohtang and Manali along the Beas. It would make a perfect loop and offer a mosaic of landscapes. But soon we discover that August does not augur well for Himalayan journeys. Even as we reach Chandigarh on the first leg of our journey and drive in a blinding downpour towards Shimla, the airwaves are full of news about a cloudburst at Rohtang and two metres of snow stranding thousands of vehicles on either side of this notorious pass. To add to our woes, the day of our departure happens to be Raksha Bandhan as well; a steady stream of vehicle-borne brothers and sisters carrying gifts make their way towards their respective siblings in another part of town, clogging up the winding, slushy slopes of Shimla, where we are forced to make an unscheduled stop for the night. And as inclement weather continues through the week, we are forced to return by the same route along the Sutlej, abandoning our plan to make a loop around the Spiti valley.


DEMUL, A LITTLE village sprawling at the feet of the snow gods.
No complaints though, considering that the foul weather is confined to the lower valleys and as we move up, we have bright, crisp sunshine throughout. Not to mention the apple-laden orchards that line up along National Highway 22 right up to Shipki La on the Tibetan border. Beware of the procession of apple trucks that can bully you into driving off the road and into the canyon below. Packed tight with cartons of apples, these trucks move bumper to bumper to reach the produce to markets as far away as Mumbai before they perish.
We take a detour into the postcard-perfect Sangla valley. Chitkul, at 80 km from the border, is the perfect fruit and nut village, if ever there was one. Sitting astride the gurgling Baspa river, Chitkul groans under the weight of apricots, almonds, apples, cherries, chilgoza, walnuts and other assorted hill fruits and nuts. We stay the night on the banks of the Baspa and have our fill of the fruits plucked right off the boughs. Next day, we retrace our way along the Baspa until Karcham-Wangtoo to get back to the Sutlej basin.
MOODS OF THE SUTLEJ
The Sutlej is a seductive, playful and sensuous river. But she is also moody and tempestuous. You have to pursue her with passion and persistence to know her better. Closer to Narkhanda she feigns indifference and appears almost supine and listless. She perks up a little upstream as she is joined by many frothing snow-melt streams that course down the slopes in spectacular cataracts. At Rampur Bushehr she appears at her widest and calmest, gurgling contentedly through the valley and nourishing the villages and an occasional town that perch on her banks.


AT THE TSERING 'homestay' in Demul.
Drive further upstream towards the magnificent Kinner Kailash range and she will disappear into a deep gorge and play hide-and-seek from the entrails of the earth. At Pooh, she sports a dull grey hue and puts on her fiercest demeanour, cleaving through intimidating gorges sculpted out of shale and granite. Follow her further and she will let you glimpse her playful and joyous side. As you near Khab, you can see how she has doodled all over the imposing and sheer granite to present some of the most impressive artwork ever wrought by a river anywhere on the earth. The spectacular striations on granite and slate are a reward for anyone persistent enough to venture all the way to Khab where she disappears behind three snow-crowned peaks into Tibet through Shipki-la. Years ago, when I visited Rakshas Tal, her birthplace in Tibet, I witnessed her infantile and juvenile phases which offered little clue to the mercurial maiden she would become in her marital home in India.
Khab is where the Sutlej mingles with the Spiti, which meanders from another valley even more remote and forbidding. On the third day of our journey, we are still in Kinnaur as we cross the bridge at Khab and wind our way through some dusty brown landscape, a quintessential high-altitude desert. The tarmac twists through treacherous terrain where vehicles look like toys on some supernatural game board. The moonscape is as alien as it is intimidating and you believe you have reached the end of the earth. Until you stumble upon the oasis of Nako, that is. Suddenly, in the ocean of brown there is an emerald patch that seems almost like a mirage. You rub your eyes and blink to make sure what you are seeing is not your hallucination. How is it possible to grow anything at all in this loose crumbly soil and that too at this height? Anyway, what is it they are growing?


FRIENDLY FACES AT a window, in the village.
Our vehicle heaves and sputters and laboriously wends its way into Nako. The worm's-eye view is quite stunning. Nako is carpeted with barley fields watered by streams and channels that coax snow-melt into the village.
Chang trees shaped like bouquets line the village streets. Most trees have little boards advertising homestays, resorts and modest hotels. Some even offer foot massage. Most houses sport typical slate roofs, but here and there two-storeyed concrete houses have sprung up. Nako is a Buddhist village and the square has the regulation prayer wheel under a canopy. Eateries flaunt their nouveau cuisine comprising ersatz native menus for Israeli, French and German palates. We make a beeline for a local eatery that serves authentic thukpa and chowmein and wash it down with sugary tea creamed with yak milk.


MUD SCULPTURE DONE by whistling winds, en route to Sumdo.
The frequency with which villages clinging to apple-laden orchards surface along an otherwise forbidding and apparently desert-like landscape sends Niranjan, the poet in the group, into raptures. He entertains us with a series of Urdu couplets describing the grandeur of nature.
Apple has been the passport to prosperity in these parts. Not only do we find pucca homes made of concrete but more than an occasional small car. “How do you drive this on such treacherous roads which even an SUV finds difficult to negotiate?” I ask a villager. He grins from ear to ear and says it is the best vehicle for these roads since two people can just lift the car and put it on the other side of a landslide. “You city-dwellers with your mammoth SUVs will get stuck if there's a landslide, but not us,” he laughs. The car is often their workhorse too, carting their produce to the market and fetching their stuff from as far away as Manali or Shimla.


THE DHANGKAR MONASTERY against a dramatic backdrop.
Very soon we have an occasion to witness this for ourselves. The Maling nullah is a dreaded stream en route to Spiti and is prone to frequent rockfalls. It is perennial and ever ebullient, tripping up massive trucks and Himachal Road Transport Corporation buses that get stuck in its many-sized rocks untamed by macadam. As we near the nullah, we hear a thunder-like sound as a giant boulder dislodges itself from its perch and comes crashing down. Instead of rolling down the slopes further, it decides to stay put, bang in the middle of the track, daring travellers to get into or out of the Spiti valley. A small car stops by, four people get out, lift the car and put it on the other side of the fallen rock and drive off even as we gape in disbelief.
Fortunately for us, a truckload of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel are ahead of our vehicle. Even more fortunate that neither they nor we were in the boulder's way as it decided to shift residence all of a sudden. But these are hazards travellers to Spiti must learn to negotiate. Nothing renews your faith in life as this hair's-breadth escape from the jaws of death. It takes the able-bodied and public-spirited ITBP men but a few minutes to wedge a crowbar under the rock and heave it out of the way. Soon we drive into Sumdo, the border village that separates Spiti from Kinnaur. Magnificent mud sculpture carved by whistling winds over eons stands out stark, mimicking straw-covered granaries that one sees in the plains. Spiti works her way around these mud mounds to nourish apple orchards on the opposite bank. Inaccessible villages unsullied by road connectivity perch proudly opposite the promontory, daring us to visit if we can.


NATURE'S ARTWORK NEAR Khab. The Sutlej has doodled all over the imposing and sheer granite to present this piece of art.
For the night we put up at the Trojan guest house in Tabo, the second biggest village in Spiti. Intermittent power supply and indifferent service cannot detract from the feeling of elation that comes with the elevation. Now we are at around 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above sea level and that sure makes you light-headed, literally! The setting is surreal and snow peaks beckon through the window.
Tabo has a gorgeous monastery, older than all others in the valley. Here we are joined by Tsering, who has assumed the name of Anjan just for the convenience of boorish plainspeople like us who mangle their names and mispronounce them. Almost everyone here, male as well as female, is named Tsering with an odd Sonam or Pema breaking the monotony. Tsering has been sent by Ishita of Spiti Ecosphere, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is coordinating our journey and arranging homestays and hotels along the way. Tsering will accompany us to Demul, a village sprawling at the feet of the snow gods. We shall stay the night with a village family in their traditional home, an experience all of us are looking forward to. But before that, we drive to the Dhangkar monastery, perched precariously on a spectacular bluff in the middle of nowhere.


A ROAD HEWN out of the mountainside at Khab. On the treacherous terrain, vehicles look like toys on some supernatural game board.
The location is straight out of a scene in The Lord of the Rings. Our vehicle wheezes up the winding slopes and drives straight up to the entrance of this gompa hanging out of the mountainside. Like Karcha Gompa near Padum in Zanskar, Dhangkar's location is its greatest attraction. It is visible for miles around and beckons the faithful like a colourful beacon in an otherwise bleak and apparently inhospitable landscape.
Dolma La at 15,200 feet (4,560 m) is a windswept pass with prayer flags fluttering like party buntings except that the setting is hardly a picnic spot. I am reminded of another Dolma La I had crossed in Tibet 15 years ago when I was on my parikrama of Mount Kailash. This pass is watched over by a chain of peaks, including one named Princess of the Sun and Moon. It is so cold that even Nikhilesh, the 68-year-old superman of our group, has to pull out his jersey. By the time we reach Demul, it is dusk. Our homestay is situated right on top of the spur and we pick our way through the elongated shadows, side-stepping puddles and yak dung. Geeta Gouri and I are to share a room in our homestay. Our host, another Tsering, gallantly carries our bags and leads the way.

HOMESTAY AT DEMUL
The household consists of his wife Pema, a daughter, a seven-month-old son and surprise, surprise, an ayah to care for the infant when the family is out in the fields. “We have hired her for the next three months,” Tsering mentions in a matter-of-fact tone. The family assembles in the kitchen, a warm and welcoming room with a wood-fired boiler in the centre. It is a large room with mattresses for seating, and long low benches next to them. The cooking section is just a shelf and a table with a gas stove where Pema is busy stirring the pot. There is neither a sink nor running water and certainly no storage for groceries. Yet, in a jiffy, the meal, a thick white soup of potatoes and peas, is ready.
Tsering's house, unpretentious from outside, is more spacious than a bungalow. It has several large rooms, all well-furnished, and a stockyard to store their harvest. There is no bathroom though; a hole on the floor constitutes the toilet. And no running water either. The young girl has to fetch pails of water from a snow-melt stream for the family's use. The guest room is the best room in the house, with an entire wall adorned by an ornamental window that looks out towards the peaks. That night, altitude sickness, my implacable nemesis, catches up with me. Tsering seems a little distracted as he has to organise the labour for the morrow's harvest of peas. Demul, incidentally, grows the tastiest and juiciest organic peas in all of India and we are lucky to be able to buy a few kilos straight off the creeper. And we cart this precious cargo all the way back to Delhi.


LUSH FIELDS IN the Sangla valley.
From Demul we are to undertake a yak safari to another village called Komic, where we are to stay the next night. But suddenly all yaks have been whisked away to Kaza for a festival and we are spared the ordeal. I had earlier ridden a yak and am familiar with its waywardly ways; if there is a grassy meadow and a boulder-strewn slippery slope, trust the yak to choose the latter. I can still remember hanging on to the shaggy hairs of the animal you ride without a saddle and dodging the boulders placed there seemingly for no purpose other than to smash my knees. Am I not grateful for this reprieve, especially after last night's headache and nausea?
So we ride in our jalopy to Komic, taking a circuitous route. There is supposed to be a snow leopard in the monastery there. But to our horror we find it is a stuffed animal. The gompa is unpretentious and the village unremarkable. We make our way to Kibber, the most-photographed village in Spiti, truly the last frontier and the bastion of the snow leopard and a myriad other Himalayan species not found elsewhere even at those heights. Kibber is a disappointingly dirty village, but the meadows are lovely, velvety and sprawling, inviting us to spread our picnic and stretch our limbs. A German bakery supplies us with apple strudels and aloo paranthas. On the way back from Komic we spot a herd of blue bulls grazing placidly in the valley. But before I could take my lens and monopod out, they sprint out of sight.


A VILLAGE PERCHED on a promontory in the Spiti valley.
We spend a couple of days in Kaza, the capital of Spiti, where Ishita and Sunil, a lovely couple in their early thirties, have arranged our stay and travel. The couple runs Spiti Ecosphere, which teaches the local population livelihood techniques. They have been living here for almost a decade. Well-spoken, city-bred, and truly dedicated, they have many hilarious tales to narrate. When they first came to explore the region to set up their NGO, they were told to contact the local king named Nono. “Imagine having to meet a Nono when you want to hear a ‘Yes, yes',” laughs Ishita. Without Nono's permission, no outsider, however well-intentioned, can function in Spiti. Nono, a revered leader of the community, lives in a village not far away from Kaza and works for the government.


APPLE ORCHARDS IN Nako. The worm's-eye view is stunning. Nako is carpeted with barley fields watered by streams and channels that coax snow-melt into the village.
Peas and apples have brought prosperity to this remote region, but its impact on the population has not been that positive. Alcoholism is rampant. While Israelis and some Europeans who flock to Spiti have spawned a hospitality industry, the labour that sustains it is almost entirely from the plains, leading to some tensions. Yet, for the present, these are subtle and not readily apparent to the visitor who comes away with the impression that Spiti is indeed the refuge of the gods.


A VIEW OF the Spiti river from atop the Dhangkar monastery.
The Spiti river accompanies us all the way up to Kaza and beyond. It continues upstream until Kunzum pass where it originates in a glacier. Snowstorms have made Losar, the gateway to Kunzum, impossible to negotiate and we have to retrace our way back along the Spiti and the Sutlej. Considering how stark, stunning and serene the landscape is, we are not complaining. Our only regret is we have had to forgo our camping experience on the banks of the gorgeous Chandra Tal. That will have to wait for another trip.