The Journey to Tabo, 14-18 May 2009
I flew in from Bangalore to Delhi, spent a couple of hours in the capital before proceeding to Shimla. With a night halt at Kalka, I arrived at Shimla the next morning by bus. Apart from the aging and paint-stripped buildings of the colonial period, Shimla was uninteresting. The crowds were everywhere. The garbage was ubiquitous. At a quiet stroll in the evening I was chased by a troupe of monkeys. It was difficult to say if they were chasing me or recognized me as their leader; but I ran.
I left Shimla and proceeded to Narkanda, where I hiked to Hatu’s Peak, a moderate hike that took up most of the morning. It is something special to view the snow-capped peaks on the horizon through a dull mist. It is something magical to see the peaks come and go with the playing mist. It is something of a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the Himalayas for the first time.
I continued my journey north by bus, stopping at various villages and towns along the way – Nirath, Dutt Nagar, Rampur and Sarahan. The first two are interesting for some old temples. The Padam Palace at Rampur was full of celebration because just the evening before Congress candidate Veerabhadra Singh had won his seat from Mandi, the only Congressman to win from Himachal. Sarahan has a large Bhimakali temple with architecture influenced by local styles and Buddhism. I stayed at Sarahan, my room overlooking the majestic Shrikand range of snowy slopes and peaks tinged in a subtle warm glow of sunset. I had a refreshing hot water bath, after three days of cold baths.
For most of the day from Narkanda to Sarahan the route follows the majestic Sutlej. The bus winds along a thin strip hugging the rugged cliffs. The river is down below, gathering in its flow the melting snows of the higher slopes. In this inhospitable place, the river is beauty, life and love. After an entire day of following the Sutlej upstream, you are in love with it.
Leaving Sarahan, I arrived at Recong Peo early enough and checked into Saurang Inn. The 70-year old owner of the inn complained how global warming had resulted in low snowfall last winter. This had left the ground dry. This season all his apple orchards are going to give low yield. So we can all expect high prices for apples this year. A short excursion to Kalpa gave me a glimpse of Kinner Kailash, a little piece of rock that looks like a shivalinga. Supposedly, it changes colour with the hour of the day.
These are all like appetizers for the main meal in Spiti Valley. To reach Tabo from Recong Peo is a mightly long journey. The bus was packed and I was lucky to get a seat. The people look different. They dress different. Merchants and coolies form the common crowd. You are recognized as the wandering tourist. In your turn, you feel you are leaving India for some place exotic.
We stop briefly at Hurling for lunch. The bus empties in a flash and fills up the restaurant. A standard lunch of steaming rice, dal, rajma and cauliflower is served around quickly. I sit with two Nepalis and quietly have my lunch. Amidst a hive of conversation in various tongues, the clattering of plates, the heat and hiss from the kitchen, the stomach is quickly filled up. Just as quickly the bus fills up and we are on our way.
Entering Spiti Valley is an awesome experience. The bus climbs to impossible heights in the company of rugged cliffs, desolate landscapes and white-tipped peaks. When we finally meet the Spiti river, we are just about entering the Spiti Valley.
Tabo, 19-20 May 2009
The Buddhist monastery of Tabo is world famous. I checked into the monastery’s dormitory along with some Japanese, German, Israeli and Spanish tourists. We had all arrived at Tabo by the same bus. At Tabo, it is difficult to justify in writing the wonders of this place. Is it the unique and uniform architecture of stones, mud and rubble that captivates? Is it the hospitality of the monks and the peace that reigns on their faces? Is it the wonderful stucco sculptures and colourful wall murals that have been around since the 10th century? Is it this little lonely spot of greenery in a desert-like terrain, flanked by rubble strewn slopes and rugged cliffs that uplifts the spirit with hope?
I stayed at Tabo for two nights. The German tourist and I went on a 5-hour hike on the second day, witnessing some wild and pristine mountain scenery, not to mention a yak farm dedicated to preserving a rare sub-species of the yak found only in the Spiti Valley. For two mornings I participated in the prayers at the monastery for which all are welcome. It is a spiritual experience but to really get something out of it you have to let go of your prejudices and rigid beliefs. You have to give into the chanting of the monks, the smell of the incense and the occasional clang of the brass gong. You have to realize that you are sitting in a hall built a thousand years ago, the very place where the early monks once sat, prayed and meditated. Sitting cross-legged at this prayer in the dim light before sunrise, you are conscious of the expressive eyes of Maha Bodhisattavas and Bodhisattavas, of Buddhas and Dhaina Buddhas, looking down at you with compassion from their elevated seats on the monastery’s mud walls.
As I left Tabo, I realized that the freshness of air and the ancient authenticity of the place is very fragile. Spiti Valley is opening up for tourism. While it is bringing economic prosperity to the region, it is certain that cultural transformation is unavoidable. Their traditional lifestyles are going to be challenged. New buildings are already breaking the architectural beauty and simplicity of the place.
Dhankar, 21 May 2009
No one is really sure exactly when buses arrive and depart. People generally wait at least half an hour in advance. It was not a long ride from Tabo to the little village of Sichling from where I walked 90 minutes uphill to the monastery of Dhankar. What a contrast to Tabo and what a spectacle! Tabo rests in a wide valley while Dhankar clings precariously to the crumbling cliffs.
All monks of Dhankar, and neighbouring monasteries who were visiting Dhankar, were busy preparing for the Kalachakra ceremony planned for July this year. His Holiness Dalai Lama was to preside over this ceremony. Indeed, all monasteries of the Spiti Valley were busy painting, decorating and repairing their structures. Even prayers had been suspended on occasions to prepare for the Dalai Lama’s visit.
I arrived at Dhankar at lunch time. I was ushered into the dining room where about 25 monks of all ages sat on carpetted platforms lining the walls. As a guest, I was offered the best seat right next to the warm fire. Lunch was roti, rice and daal with a vegetable mix of pepper, cauliflower and carrot. I did not understand the local language of these monks but I understood their welcome smiles, their deference to guests and their simple routines.
Dhankar has much to offer. It has fabulous views of the valley and of Pindomor, a triangular piece of land irrigated by the rivers Spiti and Pin. The old monastery has little passages and stairs that take you back many centuries. Where in museums pieces of art are preserved like some lost tradition, here at Dhankar they line the walls as a living tradition. In particular are the scroll hangings in cloth, called thangkas, that are equally old and beautiful.
Because winter had frozen the plumping, there was no water in my building. I had to make do with a cold water stream coming down from the mountain. The weather was colder than I had expected. I did not have enough to keep me warm. By next morning I developed a fever that stayed with me for the rest of my stay in the valley.
A few decades from now Dhankar may no longer be here. With the passing of every winter, the melting snow whittles a little bit of the cliffs. There are NGOs working to save Dhankar. With a last parting glance at Dhankar and taking farewell of the busy monks, I started towards Lalung, a monastery about 3-hour walk from Dhankar.
Lalung, 22 May 2009
The path to Lalung is easy and opens up many spectacular scenes, first of the Spiti Valley, then of the Lingti Valley. Here is a terrain that holds in every grain of sand, in every pinnacle and in every weather-worn cliff the history of the valley and indeed our planet. The path twists and turns, taking you deeper into the Lingti Valley. Suddenly you come to a magnificent view of Demul, a village 4,300m above sea level. The path to Demul is steep, the switchbacks deep and the climb long and hard. The village itself is shrouded ominously in black gathering clouds. It starts to rains over Demul, but where I am standing the sky is still clear.
I continue plodding the rubble path and I reach Lalung in good time. I enquire for teacher Padma at the local school. One of the little boys takes me to Padma’s house. I have a light lunch and a cup of tea. By now, my body is burning. I take some tablets and crawl under the duvet.
In the evening, I visited the monastery at Lalung which is known for its painted and gilded stucco sculptures, not unlike the ones at Tabo. There are legends relating to this monastery and links it to Tabo. The monks were away and only the head monk was there to receive me. He prepared a cup of tea by patiently grinding some tree bark and spices into powder. Tea in the Spiti Valley is not the same as in rest of India. He offered it without milk since he had none. Watching him prepare tea was like a ritual. It appeared that his entire concentration was in the simple acts of washing the cup, boiling the water, grinding into powder and filtering the tea. There was some inner peace and poetic grace in these little things he did.
Other than this memorable meeting with the head monk and the hospitality of Padma in her traditional Spitian mud house, my stay at Lalung was spent miserably in bed and my fever did not improve. I had to apologize for my poor appetite and my inability to enjoy Padma’s excellent meals. So the earlier plan to walk to Demul was abandoned. I took a jeep packed with 20 people, one guy sitting on my lap from Lalung to Kaza. At Kaza, I visited the local government hospital where medicine is free for all.
Kaza and Kibber, 23 May 2009
I checked into a hotel for a few hours, had a warm bath after three days, got some sleep before taking a bus to the village of Kibber at 4200m, supposedly the highest motorable village in the world. At Kibber, I met a boy of only 9 years old who the locals referred to as “lamaji”. It appears that boys are ordained into monkhood as early as 8 years of age. Couples normally have do not have more than two boys. The first one leads a normal like, looking after family, farm and finances. The second one becomes a monk. This is their custom. Young boys waiting to become a monk are given lot of respect even by elders.
After a night’s rest at Kibber, a cold place surrounded by snow-capped peaks, and removed as far possible from any other sign of life or civilization, my fever showed signs of improvement. Perhaps the alhocol of local barley I drank the night before helped me. I took the morning return bus to Ki monastery where I got more sleep and rest.
Ki, 24 May 2009
Life in the monasteries is not as easy as one imagines. It is not romantic simplicity. It is habitual hardship. Food is plain and without spice. Tea is salted and mixed with butter. Roti is eaten dry. There is no saag aloo, mater paneer or aloo gobi. Only for visitors the monks sometimes offer pickle, butter or jam. The terrain is barren and inhospitable. There is nothing to do except occupy oneself in study and prayer. Summer brings a little relief with contact to the outside world, renewal of food supplies and open vegetable cultivation. Winter is isolated, long and cold; a perfect setting to lose oneself in meditation.
At Ki monastery I continued to eat the meals of the monks. Lunch was just rice and daal. Dinner was thukpa with roti balls cooked in the boiling soup. Breakfast was barley powder either mixed with salted tea into a solid paste or mixed in a lesser proportion to form a gruel. They have this for breakfast every single day with no variation whatsoever.
Farewell to Spiti Valley, 25-26 May 2009
When I left Ki on the morning of 25th May, I had recovered quite a bit. It was time to leave for warmer climate and recover fully. I wanted to see more of Spiti Valley but I knew I had to come back another time. I left Ki at 0815 and started on a bus journey that was to be the longest in my life. The next day at 0615 I reached Chandigarh, almost disoriented with the continous twists and turns along the mountain roads.
Visiting the Spiti Valley has been almost a passing dream. Exotic, wild and remote, it came quickly and quietly. Before I could fully sense its reality I was out of it.
From Simla there are buses to Recong Peo for a night halt. The next morning buses leave from Recong Peo to Kaza, stopping at Tabo mid-afternoon. Dhankar is best accessed on foot from Sichling although there may be buses from Kaza. Ki and Kibber can be reached by bus from Kaza. You may have to adjust your plans to suit bus timings.
Kaza has many decent options. Monasteries at Tabo, Dhankar and Ki will welcome visitors. At Lalung, one might be able to stay at the monastery. Otherwise, ask for the school teacher Padma. At Kibber, there are couple of options next to the bus stop.
Basic as I have described with dal, rice, roti, rajma and variations of momo and thukpa.
Plenty. For a challenging walk try Lalung to Demul. A day’s walk from Demul to Langza via Komik is supposedly spectacular but I missed it.