After just five days in the utter mayhem and stifling heat of modern Indian cities, I escaped to the cool and sparsely populated mountains and valleys of the Indian Himalayas. It was spine-tinglingly exciting to be travelling into the world’s greatest mountain range, far exceeding any altitude I had previously been to and entering the abode of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Geologically, the Himalayas are an infant mountain range formed by the Indian subcontinental tectonic plate colliding with the Asian tectonic plate. The resulting peaks are of astonishing and unprecedented heights and continue to grow each year (all 110 of the world’s peaks that are at least 7,000 metres above sea level are located in the Himalayas or mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau). The Himalayas and adjacent Tibetan Plateau, collectively referred to as “the roof of the world”, have historically formed a natural barrier between the two defining civilisations of Asia: China and India. The people that have traditionally inhabited this barrier zone spanning Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian states of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh share ethnic and cultural similarities, especially for their reverence of Tibetan Buddhism. The cynic within me stymied efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment in this auspicious region, though I certainly met several kooky Western chaps who believed they were more successful (more on that in subsequent entries). I travelled through Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys and Ladakh, which are some of the most desolate and least populated regions on Earth (yet are counterintuitively part of India).
I journeyed up to the foothills of the Himalayas on the Kalka – Shimla “toy-train”, a World Heritage-listed railway recognised as a marvellous feet of engineering. Construction of the railway was instigated because Shimla served as the capital of the British Raj when the colonialists found New Delhi a trifle too hot (so for half the year). The route is traversed in quaint matchbox-sized carriages, although the quaintness of the experience was lost on me due to my annoyance at the difficulties in finding my seat (Indians seem to have a knack of over-complicating the simplest of matters). The historic area of Shimla stretches for two kilometres along a ridge with two, thankfully pedestrianised, boulevards lined with colonial buildings. The ridge affords magnificent views of Shimla’s pine-clad suburbs that cascade down the mountainside. Ultimately though, Shimla is mostly a ho-hum destination and swarming with Indian vacationers. It mainly served as a transit point for me as I organised a five day jeep tour through the isolated Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys.
Shortly after departing Shimla, I was very grateful not to be relying upon buses to explore the region. The roads were extremely rough, with gradually increasing precipitous falls. Every few kilometres we were reminded of the treachery of the route by signs claiming, “You are driving on the world’s most dangerous road” (although I think there are a few claimants to that distinction). French Canadian Mathieu joined me on the tour and we were led by Ladakhi Hassan and driven by Kashmiri Kamal. I particularly marvelled at the skill and caution of our driver in navigating the ostensibly two lane road, which was barely wide enough for a single buggy. The scenery on the first day became more dramatic with every passing hour, as the mountain peaks continuously rose and the chaos of Indian civilisation dissipated. The residents of the Kinnaur Valley look more Chinese than Indian and wear cylindrical hats with green, gold and purple bands. In the late afternoon, we arrived at the tiny village of Kalpa; evocative of the quintessential Himalayan setting. From my balcony, I had a perfect view of the snow-capped 6,050 metre mountain of Kinner Kailesh rising above Kalpa on the opposite side of the valley. The village consists of stone and wood buildings, colourfully painted and connected by winding stone pathways. Two modest Tibetan Buddhist temples occupy the centre of the village and the ethereal sounds of chanting monks and horns emanate from them. The slopes surrounding Kalpa are thickly covered in pine trees and also feature terraced apple orchards, bean fields and grazing goats.
The landscape became substantially more desolate as we continued further north-east into the Himalayas. The trees eventually disappeared completely, save only for irrigated apple orchards, as we increased in altitude and travelled further from the coast. Stripped bare of vegetation, the mountains in this region appear to be enormous and unstable piles of scree which threaten to collapse from epic landslides at any moment. The mountains are incised by the raging, milky waters of the Sutlej River flowing through the bottom of the Kinnaur Valley. Unsurprisingly, we passed through villages with much less regularity than in previous days. Due to the proximity of the Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys to the Tibetan border, military installations are instead the most visible form of civilisation (we required permits to travel in this region, no doubt to ensure we’re not Chinese spies, although I think my face gives that away) and therefore the roads were intermittently quite good. We stayed in the stunningly located village of Nako at an altitude of 3,600 metres, the highest point on Earth I had been to (which I repeatedly surpassed over the following week). The Kinnaur Valley’s width at Nako is expansive, which almost creates the impression that Nako is within a vast caldera rimmed by snow-capped peaks rather than a river valley. The village is essentially an oasis within the mountainous desert, with potato plantations and thick groves of willows shading an aqua lake designated as “sacred” by the Dalai Lama. Nako is a Tibetan Buddhist community composed of mud-brick dwellings and replete with a modern monastery. The incredibly atmospheric five-coloured flags and banners (red, green, yellow, blue and white) synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism flutter in the wind throughout Nako. I think these flags are my favourite religious decorative motif; simple but astoundingly beautiful in the Himalayan context and effective in conveying a spiritual “vibe”. They festoon bridges, temples and isolated stupas throughout the region.
Shortly after departing Nako, we entered the Spiti Valley, a region of foreboding mountains, stark lunar landscapes and utter dryness save only for the Spiti River. The extreme isolation of the valley (during winter, Spiti is permanently inaccessible from the western approach and can be completely inaccessible if snowfall and landslides block the other end) has helped preserve its distinctly Tibetan-influenced culture. The few inhabitants of Spiti reside in clusters of large, white-painted mud-brick houses, intermittently and surreally appearing on the lifeless slopes. It defies belief that many of these settlements have existed for centuries; how did people possibly live in such remote, empty and frigid (winter) environs without road access and electricity? We visited the small but broadly spaced town of Tabo, situated at the bottom of the valley (so only 3,000 metres in altitude) and hemmed in by scree mountains. The austerity of the buildings and dull atmosphere hide some of the finest examples of Tibetan art in the world. The Tabo Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) was founded more than one thousand years ago and its dark interiors feature intricately detailed and colourful Buddhist murals, remarkably well preserved for its age. We also visited Dhankar Gompa, which is probably the most spectacularly located building I have ever seen. The 1,200 year old monastery is perched on an eroding pinnacle a thousand feet above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. Unsurprisingly, the building is listed as one of the “100 Most Threatened Monuments” on Earth, so I even took the extraordinary step of donating money to a religious institution. The monastery buildings are partly hewn into the rock and feature small temples, winding stairwells and passageways and rooftop terraces with staggering views. The monastery is painted white with black and red trimmings on the outside and yellow and red on the inside. From the monastery, we hiked up to the aqua Dhankar Lake at 4,200 metres in altitude, which appears like a mirage amid the monotonous brownish-orange of the landscape.
Kaza is the only proper town in the entire Spiti Valley and was the termination point of my jeep tour, as I wanted to explore the area independently. Near Kaza, the Spiti River is more a vast floodplain with meandering streams than a conventional river, creating a juxtaposing landscape of interminable flatness bordered by Himalayan mountains (Shilla rises to 7,026 metres). I hired a taxi with a German guy to visit the high altitude villages close to Kaza. We stopped at Ki Gompa, an almost circular compound picturesquely situated on a hillock overlooking the Spiti River floodplain. It reminded me somewhat of the capital of Rohan, as depicted in Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. We then ascended to Kibber at 4,200 metres, a village of large mud-brick houses on a plateau overlooking the valley. Just near the village is the skeleton of a bridge crossing a 300 metre gorge, which has remained unfinished for over a decade. Alternatively, the locals cross the gorge by an open, wire cable-car with no harnesses or safety equipment whatsoever. We next visited Langzha, a tiny village perched below a quintessentially pointy Himalayan peak (6,300 metres) with a massive modern Buddha scanning the valley. We continued to the village of Komic, which was noteworthy only for its claim at being the highest motorable village in the world at 4,513 metres. To complete the tour, we sent postcards from the highest post office in the world in Hikkim at 4,440 metres. The lack of replies from home suggest perhaps there were issues with the delivery.
The Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys hardly constitute a trip through culinary wonderland. The region’s extreme remoteness and minimal agricultural output have precluded it from developing a cuisine matching the glorious repertoire of kitchens in India’s central and southerly regions. Omelettes, stuffed paranthas (similar to roti, stuffed with spiced potatoes or onions) and uninspiring renditions of lassis were my conventional breakfasts. For lunch and dinner, I usually ate dhal or a lacklustre chicken curry, or one of the ubiquitous triumvirate of Tibetan dishes that have seeped across the border: momos (similar to Chinese dumplings, just blander), thukpa (noodle soup) and chow mein (essentially just Chinese fried noodles). The only thing of intrigue I tried was tea made from sea-buckthorn berries; vivid orange berries (touted as a super food) that grow natively in the mountainous deserts of the Spiti Valley.
My journey out of the Spiti Valley took a long and somewhat eventful full day. In order to catch the only west-bound bus from Kaza, I was instructed to arrive at the bus station half an hour before scheduled departure at 6:30am. I punctually adhered to this advice and found several groups of locals loitering around the bus in the pre-dawn dimness. I discovered the early formations of a queue awaiting an attendant at the ticket counter and placed myself fourth in line. When the attendant eventually came (late), he was mobbed by the locals and the queue immediately disappeared. While the locals displayed barbaric manners in their efforts to secure a seat, I determinedly maintained decorum - to my loss. The attendant unapologetically ignored me in the mayhem and shrugged his shoulders at my sudden plight in being unable to secure a ticket on the only bus heading outta town that day. I may have directed him a couple deserving F-bombs in my bemusement (there are certain advantages to being three times taller than most Indians). Fortunately though, there were a few other tourists stranded, so we hired a jeep at relatively considerable expense and were on our way. The route was predictably awe-inspiring, highlighted by crossing the 4,551 metre Kunzum La mountain pass. Greenery reappeared in the landscape and the scenery seemed somewhat more familiar and earthly. The other tourists were travelling south to Manali, so mid-afternoon I disembarked at a junction called Gramphu, hoping to catch a passing bus north towards Ladakh. With a surprising absence of, well, just about anything, I wasn’t terribly confident in my prospects. A “real hippy”(so very very rare) Puerto Rican guy already waiting at the junction did not share my cynicism though and began waving down any passing vehicle heading in my direction; military not exempted. Within ten minutes I was tucked into a tiny white car driven by a kindly, though seldom speaking, long haired local man. After three hours, broken conversation and hitching another ride for the last five kilometres, I arrived in Keylong just before dusk; ready for the famed road trip north to Ladakh the next day.
That’s all for now,