Spiti: High altitude healthiness

The first time we were riding through Spiti, we saw a young boy running hard up the steep incline from his house towards the road, towards us. He managed to reach a little ahead of our bike and stopped, panting hard. And then, the purpose of the whole exercise: he gave us a high five! What a welcome it was. People often tell us that we must be mad to bike all the way to this area of the Himalaya. I guess they have a point, you either have to be a little mad or seriously tough to endure biking through remote, uninhabited areas, boulder-strewn roads, dry river beds, shooting-stone areas and high-velocity winds, severe cold, low oxygen levels and high-altitude sickness, for miles and hours without seeing another human being.

 

Then, comes a moment like this, like the young boy who welcomed us, a very Spiti moment, and makes the whole thing so worthwhile. Biking in itself is an exhilarating experience: it gives you the freedom of going whenever and wherever you want. Additionally, there are unparalleled 180º views of the stunning environs; and the warmth and hospitality of the locals, which in Spiti never ceases to amaze us. As a fellow biker once commented, “The tougher the areas the warmer the people.”

 

Spiti Valley (Photo by SilverBirch)

Spiti Valley (Photo by SilverBirch)

 

While on the road in Spiti, we’ve stayed in homes of complete strangers and been pampered by the elders like we were their kids. Moreover, we have our beloved Dhanno on our side, our 350cc Royal Enfield, a veteran of many a Himalayan dream-venture, much loved and polished by Idris.Combine all this with Spiti’s rare and precious qualities and you have something a bit divine in hand. Spiti is unique in many ways. It not only shares its borders with Tibet, but also its ethnicity, culture and religion. Most people practise Tibetan Buddhism and belong to any of the three sects of Sakya, Gelukpa and Nyingmapa. Life mainly revolves around the gompas and lamas. The flat-roofed adobe houses are surrounded by a mosaic of barley and pea fields with prayer flags fluttering from the rooftops.

 

Apart from the exquisiteness of the valley, we’re fascinated by the incredible warmth and resilience of the people, despite their largely barren, though hauntingly beautiful, desert environment. In the brief summer months you will find the villagers feverishly working in the fields in the daytime. With winter temperatures as low as –30º C — women spin and weave wool inside bukhari-heated homes and men light fires around hand pumps to melt the water — the whole society welcomes its traditional time of celebration. Festivals and weddings abound with much singing, eating and dancing. The children cheerfully walk over snow for miles to school, playing with gay abandon in the extreme climes, taking turns to take the livestock for grazing. I remember some children we saw in Spiti, sliding down a slope.

 

Each slide had been innovatively and beautifully crafted using discarded materials from kitchen baskets to tyre tubes to little blocks of wood. I remember gentle old Tenzin Lama treating us to tea, and most unexpectedly, settling down to imitate a snow leopard! I remember finding ammonites with our local guides: a schoolteacher and his fiveyear- old daughter. I remember the brilliant emerald Dhankar Lake; hot thukpa in a village home; the 1,000-yearold murals inside Tabo…. Any journey would be worth such a destination. The journey We started fairly early from Manali to give ourselves the advantage of riding through daylight. Just the thought of crossing unruly streams of freezing cold water freshly delivered by melting snowcapped peaks gave us an adrenal rush. As the sun goes up, the water flow increases and these streams often come up to cover the road.

 

Even with an early start we were met with long queues of tourist vehicles waiting to reach the Rohtang Pass, but Dhanno made her way through the traffic, while deodar, fir and poplar trees kept us company. Marhi is where every Rohtang visitor stops for a break; we had our quick bite, and glasses of hot lemon. Rohtang, which literally means ‘a heap of corpses’, was in a state of landslide-hit disrepair. But we met up with a couple of friendly bikers who were headed to Ladakh and rode with them till Gramphoo, where we took a right turn towards Spiti Valley.

 

Spiti Valley (Photo by 4ocima)

Spiti Valley (Photo by 4ocima)

 

We also bid farewell to the tarred road, which now mutated into a bolder strewn bumpy road till Losar, the first Spitian village, about 81 km from Gramphoo. The trees had by now disappeared giving way to smaller shrubs, visually preparing us for the cold desert region ahead. The nallahs greeted us sooner than expected. We merrily rode through the first one but the next wasn’t as merciful. The water flow was unexpectedly strong for that hour of the day and I contemplated getting off to walk through it while Idris continued to ride. But what if I lost my balance in the turbulent current? Our precious Dhanno meanwhile hit against a biggish boulder and I had to get off and push her, wading through ice-cold water. Our feet were now numb with cold. A few kilometres further we met the third stream, thankfully tamer than the last. Just when we thought that our troubles were over, Dhanno unexpectedly skidded to the right and we realised we had punctured our rear tyre.

 

For us amateurs, replacing the tube and pumping in air with our portable foot-pump took nearly 2 hrs. By now it was four in the evening and a long way to Kunzum La. It is not advisable to cross mountain passes after sunset, so we decided against going further up and instead spent the night at the lone PWD guest house at Chhota Dhara, 6 km from where we punctured our bike. After some persuasion, the chowkidar decided to let us stay. A cup of tea, dal-chawal and we called it a day. The next day started on a beautiful note. Soon after leaving Chhota Dhara, the panoramic view of the Bara Shigri Glacier on the opposite bank of Chandra River was enthralling. It’s undoubtedly one of the loveliest stretches of this journey. We soon reached Batal, a tented dhaba-and-accommodation rolled into one, run by an extremely warm Tibetan Buddhist couple.

 

We stopped for a cup of tea and breakfast. Batal is also the starting point of the trek to the famous Chandratal and Baralacha La. Kunzum La (15,059 ft), literally ‘the meeting place of ibex’, is 12 km from Batal, the drive being predominantly uphill. This pass is the divide between Lahaul and Spiti and is usually open from mid-June to mid-October. Kunzum’s crest is marked with a few chortens and temples of Lord Geypan and Kunzum Lahmo, a female deity. The views of the Bara Shigri glacier from the top of the pass are spectacular. Traversing the serene and spiritual threshold of Kunzum, we entered the beautiful world of Spiti. There is always so much to take in visually that your eyes are continuously focussing from one element to the other. We drank in the haunting beauty of the mountain desert as we rode along, with the Spiti River for company on our left.

 

Spiti (Photo by Anks)

Spiti (Photo by Anks)

 

Suddenly, we spotted three majestic male ibex crossing the road ahead of us. What a sight and such a brilliant omen for our trip! This was the first time we had seen ibex in the wild and we were completely exhilarated. By the time we could stop the bike and pull out our cameras, they were gone. But we live content in the knowledge that they are there for us: the mountains, the melting snow, the river, the ibex, making their harmonious music together, which we can visit any time with a little planning — god and Dhanno willing. Beginning with Losar, we crossed several villages on our way, before reaching Kaza, the district headquarters of Spiti. There is not much to see in Kaza, but infrastructurally — with several hotels and the only petrol pump here — it serves as the perfect place to base yourself for your explorations of Spiti. Ki (14 km NW of Kaza) The landscape visible from the gates of Ki Monastery is one of my favourites: set against the blue skies, stark brown, snowcovered trans-Himalayan mountains run along the Spiti River followed by the various shades of green of the fields.

 

The monastery itself enjoys a spectacular location. Situated on a hill-top, its presence seems almost surreal, rising out of nowhere in the wilderness. Ki is the highest (13,503 ft) and oldest (1,011 years) monastery in Spiti. The head lama is the present incarnation of Lochen Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055 CE), the great Tibetan scholar and translator who is credited with the building of 108 monasteries in Western Tibet and Northern India. The gompa has a famous collection of ancient thangkas, weapons and musical instruments. Photography is not allowed inside the temples.

 

About 11 km further up from Ki, Kibber (13,795 ft), once famous, if incorrectly, as ‘the highest village’, makes for a pleasant excursion. If on a tight schedule, you can cover it on the same day. Dhankar (21 km SE of Kaza) Dotted with little villages/ hamlets, our drive to Dhankar village (12,762 ft) was very pleasant and we got one of the best views of the ‘khatpas’ (hoodoos — rock formations shaped, in Spiti, by snow erosion). They looked magical in evening light. We took a left turn just before the village of Sichling and drove through hairpin bends for a distance of nearly 81/2 km uphill before we reached Dhankar. Great views of the monastery and the fort, both precariously perched on steep and eerie looking rock faces, welcomed us. Dhankar was the erstwhile capital of Spiti, and was home to the royal family before they moved to Kewling about 300 years ago.

 

Spiti (Photo by Deadhabits)

Spiti (Photo by Deadhabits)

 

A 10-min walk from the village takes you to the monastery and a little further up to the top of the fort. The strategic location of the fort gives panoramic and distant views of the valley, which were required for defence purposes and to keep an eye on the approaching enemy. From here you can also witness the confluence of the Spiti River with Pin, one of its main tributaries. The main attractions of the Dhankar Monastery are the brilliant wall murals depicting the life of the Buddha and the four-figured statue of the Dhyani Buddha, seated back to back. The best part about our trip to Dhankar was the 1-hr trek we undertook to Dhankar Lake, about 3 km from the gompa. High velocity winds and lack of oxygen made our ascent a bit slow. On the way, we spotted a herd of bharal (Himalayan blue sheep), busy grazing, wonderfully camouflaged by the colour of their coats.

 

A little further up, we sighted a red fox, a beautiful looking mammal that is very shy and elusive. The emerald green lake is set against the typical brown Spitian mountains with a little chorten next to it, and is an ideal site to camp for the night provided you carry your own tent and provisions, and if you are well acclimatised. Even here there were polythene bags and wrappers thrown by visitors. We made up by collecting them as we walked around the lake and took these down with us. Lhalung (30 km SE of Kaza) One day, with a reference from our friends in Kaza, and a packed lunch, we set off to Lhalung, literally the ‘land of gods’. Leaving the Atargu Bridge on our right, we continued straight till we crossed the site of the Lingti hydel project. From here we took the second turn on our left and continued riding for about 13 km through the awe-inspiring Lingti Valley.

 

The wide panoramic scapes we found here are unparalleled in Spiti. On reaching the gompa (also credited to Rinchen Zangpo), we were met by Tenzin, the old resident lama, full of smiles and dust and a jhadoo; he was busy cleaning up the complex. The gompa in Lhalung is called Serkhang, the ‘golden hall’, because of the gold-leaf deities kept here. It was one of the most beautiful chambers that we had seen in Spiti. The walls were exquisitely adorned and literally packed with the stucco deities, mainly of Tara and Buddha. In the centre of the chamber were the deities of Maitreya Buddha, Padmasambhava and Chokche Rinpoche. Wrapped in a maroon robe and sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor of the gompa, Tenzin Lama generously shared his knowledge about the gompa and its history.

 

Over tea, we casually asked him about the local wildlife. Suddenly, there was a spark in his eyes as he started narrating a story. Just two days back, he had to accompany two tourists to Kaza. With the Spiti River on their right and the hoodoos on their left, they started driving towards Kaza when suddenly, Tenzin Lama exclaimed, “Cheetah!” Everybody froze! What he could see to his left was a snow leopard, walking from the river towards the hoodoos. “I thought I was possibly hallucinating, but everybody could not have been hallucinating at the same time, no? We were all in a state of shock. In my 60 years in Spiti, I had never spotted that elusive leopard.” (For a snow leopard is a bit like a Yeti, rumoured but never seen.) “The leopard would take a few steps towards the hoodoos and then turn to look at us,” said the old lama, changing into a very cute neck-craning leopard, trying to turn his priestly self into that feline stately gait, the big watchful eyes, the large paws, and the long, bushy tail.

 

Their sighting continued for a full 15 mins. According to Tenzin Lama, the leopard’s tail was nearly as big as the leopard itself. A fact that we later found to be true. A snow leopard’s thick furry tail is up to 1m long and helps him to balance, the same way humans use their arms to balance. We then realised that two days back, around the same time as Tenzin Lama had spotted the snow leopard, at roughly the same location, we had seen a freshly killed fox on our way back from Tabo! As we rode by the fox, little did we know that the predator was possibly watching from behind the hoodoos, waiting for us to leave him in peace with his kill! Langza (18 km NE of Kaza) Langza is one of the most picturesque villages in the Spiti Valley, with the snowcapped peak of Chau Chau Khang Nilda (20,679 ft) dominating the skyline of the village.

 

It is one of the highest peaks of the valley and is quite popular among climbing enthusiasts. JOM Roberts, a British army officer, made the first ascent to Chau Chau Khang Nilda in 1939. The village also has a temple, which is said to be more than a thousand years old, and houses some beautiful murals. Last year, we had just done a day trip to Langza, but fell so much in love with the place that we promised ourselves a longer stay during our next visit. So, we arranged for a homestay in the village with the help of Ecosphere, an NGO based in Kaza. The stay turned out to be extremely comfortable, our hosts very warm and hospitable. Sitting comfortably in front of the bukhari, in the family kitchen, we gorged on the tsampa (flour of roasted grain, mainly barley) and thukpa and endless cups of tea while chatting with them.

 

The Spiti region was submerged under the Tethys Sea till about 60 million years ago. The remnants of this — a variety of fossils of marine life — can be found in certain pockets of Spiti, Langza being one of them. The local schoolteacher and his lovely five-year-old daughter Tenzin were our guides to the prehistoric site, as we found some fine-looking ammonites a short trek away from the village. Kaumik (27 km SE of Kaza) The air in the dukhang (assembly hall) was heavy with the burning of butter lamps and incense. With an awe-inspiring expression on his face, Meme Nawang Tashi, the new head lama of the Tangguid Gompa, presided over the prayers. Monks with pothis in front of them sat in two rows, facing each other, chanting mantras.

 

Spiti (Photo by Vikas pd)

Spiti (Photo by Vikas pd)

 

The guttural chanting of prayers would be interrupted every now and then by the rhythmic beating of the drums, the clanging of the cymbals and blowing of the trumpets. Sitting there with our eyes closed, we almost felt transformed to another world — the feeling was magical, almost ethereal. We were participating in the coronation, thrilled at our luck. When the prayers were over, there was a melee in the hall with the monks changing into their elaborate brocade ceremonial attire and helping each other with the heavy masks and headgears. There was much rushing about and adjusting of robes as we thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this backstage drama. Outside, the villagers had been patiently waiting for the monks to arrive. The more devotional ones were lying face down.

 

The monks descended from the dukhang with the trumpets playing in the background and tenderly walked over the villagers on the way to the ground. Here they performed Chham, the traditional masked dance, an absolute visual delight. We were pretty enamoured by Meme’s persona, and much to our delight were able to arrange an informal chat with him. The formidable looking monk turned out to be a compassionate, gentle human being. Listening to his story of being introduced to monastic life when he was all of eight, running away to his parents’ home in Kaza, the frugal meals of his monastic childhood, and finally the dawning of genuine interest in the teachings of Buddha at the age of 15… was a pleasure and a privilege. His story is evocative of Spiti’s interesting social system, still practised today — in a family, the eldest son inherits most of the landholding and the eldest daughter marries into a landowning household, inheriting the jewellery.

 

The younger siblings are expected to enter monastic orders as lamas and chomos (nuns), whether they are inclined to or not, causing some amount of discontent among the youngsters. As it happens, this has also helped to keep the population of Spiti in check. Back from Spiti, we have now identified a health problem peculiar to those who return from the high Himachal, making their weary way to Chandigarh, on to Delhi. It is called Low Altitude Sickness. The best antidote we can think of is to quickly start planning the next trip back. I can already see Dhanno nodding in agreement.

 

By Taiyaba Khatoon

 

With her husband Idris, Taiyaba is always heading off to unexplored nooks and crannies of the country- such as Spiti.

 

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