Sweet Valley High: Spiti

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Isolated and hard-to-reach, Spiti saves its best for the intrepid few who brave its weather and terrain, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY on the Spiti Left Bank Trek to Himalayan homestays and Tibetan monasteries

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We were suitably dizzy and wobbly-kneed after 4 days of trekking and breathing rarified air in a near lunar desert landscape. So before we smiled and swooned at the doorway, our host intuitively thrust two cups of a pale orange brew into our hands, saying ‘Drink, drink’. With beggarly desperation and gratitude we complied and almost felt lightbulbs switch on inside us! In a matter of minutes, with the swagger of Asterix or Popeye, we felt ready to conquer Komik, the highest village in Asia and the rest of the Trans-Himalayan belt, thanks to a strange brew masquerading as a welcome drink.

The tea was made of Seabuckthorn or ‘tirku’, a Wonder Berry known to possess a host of medicinal properties that can combat over 300 diseases, including high-altitude sickness, a problem not uncommon when you are in the attic of the world. Wedged between Tibet in the east and Ladakh in the north, Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh is a creation of nature’s most dramatic accident. Millions of years ago, two great continental shafts crashed against each other and thrust the earth up to form the Himalayan Range and also caused the draining of the ancient Tethys Sea that separated Europe from Asia.

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The event changed the map of the world forever and laid bare several buried secrets about this planet. The birth of the Mediterranean, Caspian, Black and Aral Seas and the very existence of rare open-air fossil sanctuaries allude to this truth. Besides stumbling upon fossilized marine life in the Himalayan region and the magical elixir in seabuckthorn and its cultivation, we were in for a whole tectonic shift in perspective about the uniqueness of this valley unknown to tourism till as late as 1992.

A 10-hour bus ride was all it took to obliterate the tourist frenzy of Manali and transport us to this realm, 4400 m above sea level. With Kaza as our base, we covered Kye Gompa, the largest monastery in Spiti valley and walked past quirky signs to Kibber, touted as the highest motorable road in the world.

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At the Spiti Ecosphere office in Kaza, we learnt about the Spiti Left Bank Trek and high altitude homestays of Langza, Komik, Demul, Lhalung and Dhankar. From the office window, Norbu had pointed to a speck of a village that seemed vertically above Kaza. “That’s Komik… where you will go…on foot… from another route’, he said slowly, pausing at key points as if negotiating tricky crossings on a trek. It only looks daunting. Believe me, coming down is fun,” he said cheerfully.

Tsering Angdui, our guide smiled and said “I knows a short-cut.” Thus persuaded by an enthusiastic guide and charmed by far-flung hamlets bearing musical names, we set off on our walking holiday across the mountains.

Goodbye Ginseng, Hello Seabuckthorn

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In this desolate landscape irrigated only by the melting snow water, villagers grow barley and peas in the fields, while seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhammonides) grows wild, thriving by the riverside in sunny arid zones. Unaware of its economic potential, locals used this remarkable shrub as fences and exploited it as firewood, leading to its rapid depletion. Things changed when ‘Nono’ Sonam Angdui, the King of Spiti approved a conservation proposal by MUSE (later Ecosphere).

Under the aegis of The Spiti Seabuckthorn Society, a community livelihood initiative empowering village women to create producer groups for the commercial usage of tirku through viable conservation methods. The initiative currently involves 33 groups from 27 villages and over 500 members.

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With time, seabuckthorn has evolved from the fence to defense. Given its unique composition of minerals, vitamins and amino acids and additional anti-cancer, anti-ageing and anti-radiation benefits, seabuckthorn juice was developed by India’s Defence Research Development Organization for army troops facing extremely low temperatures in Siachen.

The multi-vitamin drink called ‘Leh Berry’ has been discontinued, but in Spiti, the berry is used to make jam and juice concentrates, available by the brand name Tsering (Tibetan for ‘blessings for a long life’). The dried and shredded berry peels also make energizing tirku tea. Seeing its instant restorative effect, we understood why.

Komik Timing: Asia’s highest village

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Our co-ordinator Nawang Tandup took us on a tour of Komik – a wide, open bowl of green fields and brilliant blue skies with a ring of tall snowy peaks in the periphery. On a bare patch of land, an old man clicked and urged his belligerent yak as he tilled the soil in slow meditative rows. The village, located in a depression, is believed to look like the sunken ‘eye of a snow cock’, hence the name ‘Ko-mik’. We trudged towards the old Sakyapa monastery and were awed by its setting. Two majestic mountains, one shaped like a reclining tawny lion and the other akin to a headless eagle with outstretched wings poised for flight, provided the perfect backdrop to the ancient monastery. A monk explained that the monastery fulfilled an age-old prophecy that it would be established at the exact spot where a headless eagle and lion would be seated side by side.

At night in our homestay, we curl up in the kitchen covered in warm handwoven rugs with dainty Chinaware in the shelves as Tsering Angdui enthralled us with more Spitian lore. “Remember we visited the ruins of a monastery in Hikim on our way to Langza yesterday? The monks were forced to abandon the place because the water source ran dry following an earthquake. Yet, in one of the caves thereabouts, a monk has been meditating for months with no food.” Dinner is a simple spread of hot thukpa, momos and thick bread. As our host ushered us to our bedroom upstairs, his berry-cheeked child sprang up and flung her notebook aside before rushing off ahead of us. The kid has spread an oversized blanket for us but it felt like we were in a glass bubble on the moon.

“I was the first to build a room upstairs with glass windows on three sides. They called me crazy but I did not want to break the view. Now, others in the village are copying me!“ our host confessed. It was freezing cold but snug under the softest faux mink rugs we stared at the ghostly stretch of the Himalayas silhouetted in an endless arc and a curtain of stars hanging low overhead.

Langza’s Fossil Sanctuary

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The last few days flashed past our eyes – lores of the princess and the moon linked to the peak of Chocho Khang Nilda, seeing the khutung (room) at Tashigang where the Dalai Lama had stayed after his exodus from Tibet through treacherous passes past the Khanomo peak and trekking to the homestay in Langza, where Angdui gave us a crash course on indigenous plants and survival tricks in the high mountains. He plucked a small tuft of grass, brushed the root, peeled a layer and bit into its cottony base. “This is good. When you are hungry and have no food, eat this. We know what to eat and what not to, otherwise you die,” he said simply.

But we hadn’t come to graze; we wished to see Langza’s fossil sanctuary. Over the years, the open sanctuary suffered much damage by curious visitors and locals who found it lucrative to sell fossil stones as souvenirs or sacred objects. With a vow not to touch or steal them, we reached the protected riverbed where a bit of the history of the world lay buried under the dark, damp layers of rock. The fascinating reality of the Tethys Sea unfolded when Angdui identified and opened the geode shaped rocks to display fossilized marine lifeforms preserved from a bygone era. George, a researcher we had met in Kibber had been frequenting India thanks to his obsession with fossils. He told us about Langza and Gette being the best places to see fossils.

“But they are so rare today. Everyone… visitors and local children rob them with impunity. Handling fossils requires tremendous skill,” George rued, before adding, “It’s such a shame because they break the fossils in the wrong direction and throw them away. Such precious records are irreparably damaged or gone forever.” Today conservation efforts to prevent illegal pilferage of fossil stones have prompted training locals to make replicas in stone. 

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We had the option of continuing from Komik to Demul to meet Amchi Chundui, a traditional practitioner of Tibetan medicine (amchi) who took people on guided walks that shed light upon the medicinal and curative powers of endemic plants. Since he was travelling, we decided to return to Kaza via the ‘promised short-cut’. The steep descent was nothing short of a 4km adrenalin rush. The narrow slippery footpath full of loose rock, shale and sheer drops is not recommended for those with weak hearts or vertigo issues. But the adventurous can get lucky with glimpses of lammergiers soaring between the cliffs and herds of Tibetan blue goats hoofing the sheer cliffs with swift agility, grace and precision.

We practically slid down the mountainside and reached Kaza in an hour. A short bus ride took us along the Spiti river to Sichling from where we trekked 8km uphill to Dhankar, the extraordinary old capital of Spiti before heading further to the bustling town of Tabo. Plans to go to Giu to see a mummified monk and the backpacker haunt of Mud enroute to Pin Parvati Pass were quashed by a landslide. We were forced to beat a hasty retreat to Manali, barely a day before the pass, Kunzum La, was closed indefinitely due to bad weather.

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Our narrow escape only highlighted the fragility and unpredictability of this treacherous yet breathtakingly beautiful Himalayan region. The genuine warmth and hospitality of people in Spiti and spirit of endeavour had enabled them to convert traditional crafts like pottery and weaving to commercial products like bags, rugs, shawls and handicrafts, besides manufacturing seabuckthorn and organic products. Voluntourism and responsible travel offer tourists a chance to be part of something meaningful – helping with village chores, farming, building solar baths and greenhouses and herding cattle to prevent livestock depredation due to manpower shortage.

Carbon neutral trips, wildlife trails and conservation programs organized by Spiti Ecosphere have helped generate valuable tourism money. Herders who hunted down the Tibetan wolf, long held as the farmer’s enemy, now act as its custodians of nature, often doubling up as wildlife guides.

Box – Dhankar

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Perched on a 1000-foot-high rocky spur overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers, Dhankar was the old capital of Spiti. Literally translated as ‘citadel on a cliff’ (Dhak–cliff, Khar–fort), Dhankar is crowned by a precariously balanced fort, home to the erstwhile royal family. The village has remnants of an old palace, a prison and a cave that provided safe sanctuary to all the village folk, during war besides a museum showcasing its historic past. Peppered with brutal accounts of war and pillage and descriptive anecdotes about sacred placid lakes on high-altitude treks, we learnt of how the women of Dhankar, known for their beauty lured the enemies and pushed them over the precipice to their deaths. How Dhankar’s brave horsemen rode the finest swiftest Tibetan steeds through this rugged terrain and how their festivals and annual fairs display their horse-riding skills and unique culture.

Occupying the steep southern slope of the village is the Dhankar Monastery. One of the five major monastic centres in Spiti, it was founded between 7th and 9th centuries and belongs to the Gelugpa sect of Vajrayana Buddhism. A maze of multi-storeyed buildings, the monastery’s sunless chambers are decorated with exquisite thangkas and wall murals depicting the Buddha, Tsongkhapa and Lama Chodrag. In another crumbling home left to wither by time, apathy and vandals, we watched an American Professor of Asian History and Ancient Buddhism, document every inch of flawless wall art, in photographs. “This will all vanish soon. All this priceless art…There’s no one to take care of it”, he observed darkly. Though listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the World’s Hundred Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Watch program, Spitians believe that even on Doomsday when all the monasteries of the world collapse, Dhankar would still be the last to fall.

Fact File

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Like its better-known neighbour Ladakh, Spiti was part of the Western Tibetan Zhang-Zhung civilisation, and retains a strong Tibetan influence. Most locals are Buddhists and followers of the Dalai Lama. Isolated and hard to reach, Spiti is home to rare flora and fauna – the endangered snow leopard roams the Pin Valley area, along with the Himalayan wolf, blue sheep and ibex. And while Spiti’s geography and climate attract adventure seekers, the stunning landscapes and panoramic views appeal to all.

When to go 
Spiti is a cold, harsh desert environment, but during the tourist season (May-October) plenty of welcoming guesthouses and tiny wayside restaurants open up. In the third week of August each year the Ladarcha Mela festival is held in Kaza to mark the end of summer; so that’s a good time to visit.

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How to get there

By Air: The nearest airport is Bhunter, 50 km from Manali.

By Road: From Manali, Kaza the district headquarters of Spiti is 213 km away. After Rohtang Pass, the road turns right at Gramphoo and reaches Kaza via Chhatdu, Batal, Kunzum Pass and Losar. Chandertal Lake is a small diversion off this road. HPTC buses leave from Manali bus stand every morning, traversing the distance in 10 hrs. The road continues past Kaza to Tabo (40km) and Recong Peo.

Things to do

Treks and homestays 
If you’re in reasonable shape you can’t do without long rambles in the area. And by visiting or even staying in local homes, you can experience life in some of the world’s highest and most isolated villages.

Mountain biking
With roads that vary from freshly laid asphalt to loose rock, as well as spectacular vistas, Spiti has a lot to offer adventurous mountain bikers. Those who come without their own bikes can hire them.

Yak safaris
The stretch between the villages of Komic and Demul is famous for yak safaris. The yaks are locally owned, clean (as far as yaks can be!) and well looked after. Since they are available only at specific locations, and have other duties in addition to ferrying tourists, safaris need to be planned and booked in advance.

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Tourist information 

Spiti Ecosphere, Kaza 
Run by Ishita Khanna, Ecosphere is the best place to start a Spiti adventure, be it trekking, homestays, yak safaris, white-water rafting or eco-sensitive tours and voluntourism projects.
Ph 01906-222-652, 9899492417, 9418860099 
info@spitiecosphere.com www.spitiecosphere.com 

Spiti Holiday Adventure
Ph 01906-222-711, 222-634
loteykaza@yahoo.co.in

Where to stay

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Delek House & Restaurant
New Kaza, near Post Office (01906-222-348/ 94184-48485).  This small hotel, with trees on one side and Spitian mountains on the other, is new and slick. Located in New Kaza, away from the hustle and bustle of the market, Delek House is ideal for peace and quiet. Owner Phunchog Negi has designed the rooms in warm rust, orange and red, and there are great views of the Spiti river.

Dewachen Retreat
Tabo (01906-223-301/223-318/94183-63999/ 94182-8975/ashok80_thakur@yahoo.co.in) Modern style meets old-world ethnic Indian decor. The family suite is the best room in the house. Views from room balconies are stupendous, with the Tabo Monastery as backdrop. A laundry service is available. Guests can enjoy buffet meals in the dining area.

Dhankar Monastery Guesthouse
Dhankar. No phone. Friendly monks run the show here with the help of locals. Their guesthouse is new, with fresh upholstery and simple furniture. Besides the rooms, there is a spacious dormitory on the top floor with large windows facing the valley.

Sakya Abode
New Kaza (01906-222-256/94185-56213/94187-57496) Situated just 50m (164ft) from the Kaza Monastery, this is the only hotel in Kaza built in the local architectural style. Rooms are clean and have basic furniture. Attached bathrooms are reasonably well equipped, with shower and hot water. Sakya is justly famous for its delicious kyu (vegetable barley stew).

Hotel Spiti
Sarai Rangrik (94184-39247/www.spitiholidayadventure.com) Eight kilometres outside Kaza, in Rangrik, Spiti Sarai is known for its excellent hospitality, accommodation and food. The hotel is set amid green fields, and rooms are spacious and well furnished. Owner Ramesh Lotey is extremely resourceful and always around to assist, and staff are knowledgeable and helpful.

Hotel Trojan
(Parasol Camps & Retreats) Tabo (94182-08975/94188-44772/www.himalayantrailsindia.com) Built in traditional style, Trojan tries to be eco-friendly. Tibetan carpets adorn the floors of all rooms, which are decorated with souvenirs from different parts of India. Food includes both Tibetan and European meals. Manager Lama Dechan is also a monastery guide and a fount of information.

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the inaugural issue of Time Out Explorer, June-August 2012. 

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