My visit to the arid land of Spiti was my first solo trip in all sense. I have previously spoken about its beautiful landscape and the wonderful people through my blog posts. But, on a personal note this travel has been one of the most impactful trips of my lifetime. So, here is the entire story in the form of an e-book.
Through this book, I seek your company while I backpack alone on a trip to the mountains. I want you to join me when I gate crash a mountain wedding and dance to the first snow. I want company when I confront a mummy and when I visit a vault full of millennium old paintings. Stay with me as I return home with an unsettling chaos running in my tummy. As you read through the pages of this book, you can bite into the juicy apples of Kinnaur all along, walk with me meeting people and go on a virtual trip to the Spiti valley and back.
You can get your copy of the e-book on Amazon by clicking on the image or the link below:
Yes, I know the language could have been tuned a little more and the English, could sound a little more polished. But, due to reading the same story over and over again, a few mistakes have outflown, my humble apologies! This book had been compiled in the first covid lockdown (Apr 20) and I have been procrastinating to publish it for over a year now, even post 2nd lockdown I (Apr 21). So, finally it had to be done….. But, I promise that my intention of sharing my story and experiences from the road has been compiled to the best of my abilities. I wish you all read, enjoy your virtual trip to Spiti and share your honest thoughts about it…
Here’s a story of when the ‘Plan A’ went kaput and we were stranded in an alien land without a ‘Plan B’. No mobile phones working and no internet connectivity to reschedule our return tickets, here’s a snippet from our first trip farthest from home. This post is written by Lahar Ganapathi, my brother and my favorite co-traveller on most trips. This is a throwback post to the winter of 2015, When we were among the earliest few Indian travellers: Doing the Chadar trek.
So, it’s the peak of winter in the north of India. Chadar trek was finally happening which was planned a few months in advance. With all the built up excitement, we left Bangalore for Leh. Delhi was where we met a few others doing the same trek, however they had bad news for us. That was of the Zanskar River being blocked due to a landslide upstream and all activities downstream indefinitely banned, or rather a section 144 was imposed. We were not the ones to be disheartened by the news and continued to Leh, onward from Delhi after a night’s sleepover at the Indira Gandhi International airport. So, after an uncomfortable sleep in the waiting lounge of the airport and a few hours of delay later in morning, we finally took off for Leh.
The view from above the Himalayas was breathtaking from the point where the Gangetic plains raised up to the mountains. There was stark difference as we saw a plain flat ground rising drastically, forming the snow-clad mountains in a matter of minutes. A flight to Leh in peak winter provided a beautiful view of the mountains in full glory, as if they were majestically looking down towards flatter lands at the bounty they provided. So, after all the aahs and oohs we finally took notice of the changing landscape as we reached Leh, white snowy terrain giving way to brown rocky terrain. In a moment we were already over Leh airstrip and we landed without any bumps. The announcement stated the temperature as 6 below 0.
Being from the temperate part of India and never having experienced such a low temperature, excitement took over my sensibility and I got off the plane wearing only a normal woolen sweater (good enough to push through winter in Ooty or any other hill station down south). Yeah, such a jerk I was to do that. At first, the cold did not feel much different from other places. But, trust me it was -6 at 12:30 in the afternoon, with overhead sun. 10 minutes was all it took to knock the heat out of me. As it got unbearably cold, I scrambled for my warmest layer. It took three layers to feel warm enough. We caught a taxi to the hotel where we were scheduled to meet the other trekkers and the organizer. By this time, barely half an hour after laying foot in Leh, the cold had already F*&%$# up my toes to the extent to not feel anything for the next few days. The first news we got from the organizer was what we had heard in Delhi. ‘Zanskar is blocked and the government has banned activities downstream’.
Okay, enough for the first day. We huddled up near a gas heater in the hotel, while sipping on some hot yak milk tea. We were provided with a room for the night at a nearby accommodation. All done, we gathered in the room to discuss plan B for the next few days in Leh. Good night.
We woke up and immediately I noticed the frost on the window glass. The moisture in the room had frozen on the windows. First for everything, I was immediately mesmerized by the intricate pattern ice tended to have. Okay, so after a warm comfortable sleep we were ready to beat the cold. Once outside, we could notice that our body had “somewhat” acclimatized to cold. No tap water in Leh in winter; so don’t expect luxury of running water. You’ll be provided with a bucket of ‘hot’ water, which is normal water ‘feeling’ hot. We were then off to the hotel to meet the organizer, he had his own Plan-B for the situation. He claimed to take us to Nubra valley and Hemis national park, home of the rare Himalayan snow leopards. Our calculations were that, it would be a waste of money to do only two things for the cost of the whole trek. So, we opted out of his itinerary and took refund. We also made friends who liked our approach to the situation, a couple from Hyderabad who incidentally became best of friends over next the few days. So, now we are left in the streets with enough cash, more than enough cold and no idea as to what next.
Our immediate requirement was clear, to find shelter for the next few days. By then it was around 11.00 in the morning and we headed out hunting for a room. Since it was the season when Leh has the least footfall, it was kind of difficult to get a room as most of the hoteliers had shut shop for the season and the remainder were booked. Finally, we did manage to find an accommodation. We stayed with a family who rented out their son’s room to us. So accommodation set, what next?
We set out on a walk to the main market. We made a few enquiries around with the locals, about places of interest in and around Leh. We were immediately made aware of the ongoing Gustor festival at Spituk monastery. We immediately set out for the festival. Hired a cab and off we went. This monastery happens to be right across the Leh airport and has a commanding view of the runway. Looked like the whole of Leh had descended to the monastery. The road leading to the monastery was blocked a mile away due to the surge of vehicles and people coming to the festival. Chill, we ain’t scared to walk a few hundred yards. We passed through various stalls that were selling festive items and tents that served hot tea and lunch. The locals, all had a peculiar warmth in their sun burnt faces: so welcoming and refreshing.
As we walked, an air force plane flew past us to the runway. All ration to Leh is carried out by air in the winter as the roads are closed due to snowfall. The festival was one of a kind experience, something we probably had watched only on TV: Horns, colorful masks, bells, buddhist monks and their humming of prayers. Nice, we sat among the devotees and enjoyed the festivities happening in the courtyard. After it was done, we headed back to the parking. But this time, we stopped for lunch in one of the many tents. Ah, scrumptious, we filled our belly and topped it off with a hot tea. We were set for the next few hours. We headed straight to the main market since we had no other plans yet. Walking around the place, there were quite a few small stupas scattered around the main market area. We stepped into a few shops for the sake of buying souvenirs. At no time did we feel as being outsiders in Leh, pretty easy to mingle among the residents.
Okay done for the day. We walked back to our homestay and settled down. At dinner, it was decided that we eat something what the locals prefer. Not knowing what it was, we just told the landlady to serve us ‘whatever the locals eat’. Yeah, that’s it. In came a bowl of steaming hot thukpa for each of us. More like a thick soup mixed with chunks of meat and lots of vegetables. So much, for not knowing what the locals eat. Blah, it certainly did not satisfy my hunger and I ended up eating my sister’s share, as well as a serving of rice. Okay done for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a good day.
We had done a little socializing in the town last evening and ended up getting a car guy to take us to places around Leh. His was a comfortable Tata Aria. We left to Pangong Tso, A bloody massive lake situated across India and China. We were told by the car guy that it was the lake or place where the last scene of the movie 3-Idiots was shot. Oh okay! We didn’t know that, didn’t care either. Enroute to pangong we passed through the school where the Phunsuk Wangdu from that movie resided. Also, we passed through lakes converted into ice hockey rinks. Ice hockey seemed to have a good following there. But as the driver noted, not much was done to develop the sport.
It was quite a long journey, we took a pee stop at some barren place. Tanks emptied, and what we saw was a vast barren stretch of land. So off we were back in the Aria. We could see snow filled peaks in the distance getting nearer with every passing kilometer. And after a while we were at Chang La, a pass situated at 17688 ft or 5360mts above sea level. Another pit stop, this time it was because of the snow. We stopped just to feel snow, because Why not! Okay my sister barely stepped out of the vehicle only to get back in. It seems she felt a jolt of extreme cold ride in her spine. Ha, rightfully the lostlander, who lost her senses in the cold. Kid me not, every breath there took an effort, the altitude made us tired for every step we took.
Okay Chang La conquered, next stop was Pangong tso. Maybe an hour or so from changla, we reached Pangong. So much excitement to get on a frozen lake.. So we spent a while there clicking pictures, admiring the beauty of the place. It has been the closest I have been to China. So long to Pangong, we headed back to civilization.
We were dropped off at Shanti Stupa, a major tourist attraction in leh. Thank god, it was winter and no tourist to crowd the place. We had the whole place to ourselves. It was around 5:30.p.m., so we walked back from there to our home, through the desolate streets of Leh. Not a single soul was seen loitering in the evening. It was getting insane cold as the darkness loomed over…
Oh, I forgot to tell about the magnetic hills of ladakh. Our Aria-man took us to this place called as the magnetic hills where cars and others wheelers defy gravity. Stop your car on the slope and watch it slowly roll up the slope defying all known logic of gravity. After this, we were taken to our beloved river which gave haath at the last minute, Zanskar. Or it was rather the confluence of Indus and Zanskar. We did actually go down to river bank when a police van appeared out of nowhere asking us to leave the spot because of the section 144 or curfew imposed in the area (remember the landslide that made us change our plans? That one!).
Okay lucky enough not to end up in a police station I guess. The road enroute to this place is somewhat good, vast stretches of dry land with snow filled peaks in the distance. Our Aria-man was kind enough to tell us that these vast stretches served as testing grounds for Mahindra vehicles in high altitudes and that they have tested almost all their vehicles there. This was quite a day actually, we’ve been driving the whole day. For lunch we stopped at this particular town which looked dreamy, with shops lining both sides of the road the entire town’s length.
As I arrived at Sangla, the setting sun had already laid a golden welcome… I started to walk around the town looking for a homestay. After walking here and there, up and down, I decided to settle down at a homestay, which seemed like a pretty big bungalow. The owner of the house was away, and it was let to the caretaker’s responsibility. I was the only guest. However, this seemed to be better than all the properties I had seen thus far. I freshened up, unpacked and unwound myself while watching the daily evening procession of the deity of the ‘Chandi Mata’ temple from the homestay itself.
Post sunset, I wore all the thermals I needed and ventured out to explore the town. The commercial area seemed just like any other small town I had been before and didn’t want to get too adventurous on my first day in the valley. In the entire town, I was drawn towards a very small restaurant called ’The Buddhist Café’. I was being just one of those typical Indian tourists in the Himalayas; I was tempted to eat momos 😛 The place rather looked dinghy with dim lights and no customers in their main dining area. On enquiry if the restaurant was closed, I was greeted by an old Buddhist lady who guided me to follow her to the kitchen inside. Despite being a little suspicious of her gesture and given the shady looking walkway, I continued to follow her. She made me sit at a table where she served me steaming hot momos and black coffee after taking my orders.
There were a couple of people who came in and out whom the lady attended to but did not take any money from. It seemed to me that they were mostly labour who helped her in fetching supplies to her kitchen and she retuned their favour by providing them free meals. She was speaking very gently to them as if one would talk to their family members. I felt so much positivity emanating from this lady. Eventually, she pulled a chair next to me and settled down to have a long conversation with me. She enquired about my journey and said a few things about herself and her family. We both were so engrossed in our conversation that it was 09.00.p.m. by the time I realized that I had quite a distance to walk back in the darkness to reach my place of stay. The lady took my hand in hers and asked me to promise that I would visit her daily for as long as I was in Sangla. “Tumse baat karke bahut accha laga mujhe. Kal Aajao, gappe maarenge. Zaroor aana, mein intezaar karoongi”, she said. Amused, I left by promising her that I would return.
I was an early riser on the following morning in order to make it to the bus stand on time. There was only one bus that ferried passengers to and from the last village in this part of the Indian borders. It ran twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Chitkul is a tiny settlement beyond which, the mountains belong to Tibet & China. After having read enough articles on the internet, I wanted to check this off from my list of places to visit in Himachal. I however de-boarded the bus at a village called Rakcham, a few kilometers ahead of Chitkul. I was standing on the rear side of the famous Kinnaur Kailash mountains. With curious villagers staring at me as if I was a lost alien wandering alone and children walking to school posing for photos looking at my DSLR, with a beautiful sunrise over the mist laden valley and the gushing Baspa river on the other side, the morning walk on the empty road felt magical. Although I had seen apple trees earlier, it was the first time I was seeing apple orchards. The houses in the settlements on the slopes were unique to the area. I spent good amount of time exploring the village perched on hilltop and down in the cold waters of the Baspa before settling down with a cup of sea-buck thorn juice at a campsite that was being disassembled.
I had read that Rakcham valley looked vibrant with pink flowers of a native millet during its season. But I seemed to have arrived late to see the famous pink fields of Rakcham. Anyway, the orchards had turned the valley equally vibrant, in myriad shades of golden. But, honestly, there was nothing specific to see or do there, apart from the solitude that I had found thus far in my trip. I walked back to the main road and enquired with the shopkeepers about getting to Chitkul. A few localites who overheard my enquiries tried to pitch in their suggestions. Going by their suggestions, I waited by the roadside engaging myself in answering the enquiries about my solo travel. It was well over half an-hour as a shared jeep arrived, which they asked me to board to reach Chitkul. Just as the jeep cranked to start, one of the men talking to me asked the driver to wait. The man ran to a shop and returned with a bag. “It was nice talking to you; this is for your way.” he said while dumping a bag full of apples into my hand… I picked two from the bag (not wanting to disappoint him), thanked him warmly for his gesture and convinced him that I couldn’t carry so much luggage with me and bid him goodbye.
The road ahead was bumpy, yet interesting. It passes through forest area that was in bloom, opened to large meadows and then, the snowcapped peaks appeared rather suddenly. Foreigners need to register at the check post that falls enroute as Chitkul is a sensitive area guarded by the ITBP. On reaching Chitkul, I started to walk towards the viewpoint. Yes, no doubt it looked beautiful and I could walk right into the river below that demarks the border. But my heart skipped a beat when I saw the solitary Indian national tricolor waving in the middle of nowhere. Apart from taking a walk along the valley and exploring the tiny hamlet, there seemed nothing much to do. There are quite a few options to stay at both Chitkul and Rakcham, but for a moment, I feared the temperature that I was warned about. The temperatures in Chitkul are colder than anywhere else in Kinnaur. That’s why I changed my mind to return to Sangla for the night. As there was still lot of time left before the bus started, I decided to walk towards Rakcham so that I could click some good landscape photographs along my way. Anyway, the bus arrived in a while and I returned to Sangla.
There was still enough daylight time left, and I decided to explore Sangla that evening. I climbed up the Kamru fort from where I could see the magnificent view of the town and the golden sunset that had welcomed me last evening. An ancient wooden temple stands strong on top of the fort and looks brilliant with its detailed sculptures and friezes. There is a dress-code to follow (a head gear and a waist band needs to be worn) to enter inside. Since most of us there didn’t have it, we had to wait for the priest to provide the same to us, and go inside, in turns. The priest also gave me a peak into the history of the fort and how the temple came into existence. It felt very peaceful and I sat back there until the sun had gone down completely.
I had decided to leave Sangla on the following morning to continue my journey ahead. I had also not forgotten that I had promised someone that I would visit her. I wanted to inform her before leaving. That’s why I then headed towards her café for that evening. It is hard to explain how excited she was at seeing me. “I wasn’t sure that you would return. But I was looking for your way”, she exclaimed! She served me noodles and black tea, introduced me to her son whom she had called to talk to me and found good company in talking to me. After a couple of hours had passed, I informed her that I was going to take her leave. Guess what? She gave me a rucksack full of apples which she had specially bought and kept for me. She didn’t own any orchard and hence, she ensured she bought the best apples as souvenirs for me. When I say BEST, I mean THE BEST…. Kinnauri Golden apples! Can you imagine me carrying a rucksack full of apples (souvenirs!!) along with 10kgs of additional backpack that I already had. for the rest of my journey??? 😀 I convinced her that I was sorry, and I couldn’t accommodate so many apples in my luggage. And she still managed to squeeze in a good few kilos telling 2 apples for each member in my family, back in Bangalore…!! She had tears as she saw me off and I cried as I was missing my mom! Sometimes, you never understand how connections work with strangers…
So… I headed straight from office to Bengaluru Airport to catch a late-night flight. Just so that I could make it to the railway station to catch the early morning ‘Himalayan Queen’ on time. Just so that I could reach Kalka on time. My friend in Delhi helped me in my commutation juggle between the airport and the railway station. Then, the Himalayan Queen chugged off from Delhi. Apart from seeing a hazy sunrise through the windows, I slept through most of the journey until I reached my first destination in my 10-day long tour, that afternoon. I ran to the special platform in the other end of the station at Kalka to board the ‘Himalayan Queen’ that ran on a narrow-gauge thereafter. Only to realise that it was delayed by an hour.
Anyway, the ride in this train which is a part of UNESCO Heritage was a different experience. The 1st class bogie had old cushioned wooden adjustable chairs like you would have at old single screen cinemas, an unfamiliar thing for those familiar with the regular compartments of Indian Railways. The route was scenic as the train passed through hills, forests, tunnels and cliffs. It stops at several stations that allows ample time for photography and for exploration for passengers who are mostly foreigners. One such stop was the halt at the Railway museum at Barog. But yeah, the initial excitement of experiencing a narrow-gauge waned down soon as the journey got monotonous and long having none of the co-passengers to talk to. It was dark and cold by the time I alighted at Shimla. That’s where my real trip began…
After searching multiple online sites and walking around in the unknown city in search of a suitable place to stay, I was still clueless of where to go. I finally settled down at a rather shady looking place when I realized that the backpack was quite heavy, and the cold was becoming unbearable for me. The guest house was old and the things in the room were unkempt too… Anyway, I had settled there as the caretaker seemed okay to believe in. I locked myself up in the room, used my sleeping bag inside the warm blankets that were provided and tried to sleep (although I didn’t!).
I checked out of the place at 05.00.a.m. on the following morning and started to walk towards the HSRTC bus-stand based on directions given by the caretaker. I took the wrong deviation and lost my way. I saw that I was reaching the city central area and continued to walk as I hoped to find someone. I heaved a sigh when I saw the army command building. I stopped by to enquire the guard outside for directions. Since I was carrying a large backpack, walking with a face covered with a balaclava, all alone on the empty dark roads, he began to question me suspiciously. Once he heard the girl’s voice and I told him that I was traveling from South India, he introduced himself as a Tamilian who had been posted there just a couple of days ago. He was of little help and I proceeded. Google maps didn’t seem to be of any help either, as the distance only increased every time I walked ahead. I then came across a man on his morning walk who guided me through what he called was the shortest walk path. It was long, dark and scary initially. Although there didn’t exist an official road, the distance (may be aerial) on google map kept shortening. It was a descent downhill and I did back and forth when I had my doubts. Finally, it had dawned when I reached the bus stand and relieved when I saw a few newspaper distributors sorting their dispatches. I had missed the first bus that was heading towards Sangla. They introduced me to a man in a tea stall, whom they said was the driver of the next bus which was scheduled an hour later. The driver offered me chai and asked me to stay around.
Finally, the bus started. It would drop me until Karccham from where I had to board another one. The journey to my destination was going to be a long one. Amidst the early morning rays, the verdant hills looked amazing and I was excited about the road. The bus conductor and the driver were both nice people who kept checking on me every now and then as I was alone and new. They even bought me peanuts to munch along for my journey. An hour on the road, our bus halted. There was a massive traffic jam due to an accident on the highway. A car had gone almost completely under a lorry that came from the opposite side. It was over an hour by the time the police arrived and cleared the spot after inspection. Meanwhile, the hospitable people in the hills obliged to allow me inside their house when I wanted to use a washroom. Would you allow a random person on the road enter your house? I’m certainly not sure if I’d do that myself.
By around noon, the bus that I was travelling in broke down. Given that Rampur Bushar was the nearest town where he could find a mechanic, our driver somehow managed to negotiate the ride till there. Also, the passengers could board another bus from the large terminus in the town. He ensured that I sat in a spot, informed the bus station master to keep an eye on my safety and to guide me to the right bus when it arrived. These are the kind of interactions that make you feel confident about having a safe journey ahead. isn’t it?
That said, I sat in the next bus a good 2 hours later. It was a direct bus to my destination: Sangla. But I had a carry-over ticket from the previous bus only until Karccham. The conductor of that bus was fussy about considering the carry-over ticket until Karccham. But I stuck to what I was instructed by the previous driver. A good argument later, I got my ticket extended by paying only for the journey between Karccham to Sangla. The sun was slowly coming down as I approached my destination.
Finally, when I alighted at the Sangla bus stand, it was by far the most magical sunset I had witnessed all my life until that day. Right in front of me lied the snow-capped Kinnaur Kailash mountains and the peaks had turned golden. The rest is for another story!
That morning, I had arrived at Reckong Peo and already done 4 rounds of the main road in the town with my heavy backpack, an uphill climb and down. I was searching for a hotel or a homestay. The only one that I found near the bus stand was out of my budget. I enquired with a few in the town and they suggested me to go to Kalpa. Kalpa is around where, all sightseeing places are situated and has a range of options to stay at. Accordingly, I sat in a local tempo traveler and started my ride towards Kalpa.
A narrow winding road, lined with apple trees on both sides with golden foliage, finally took me to a seemingly small town. The conductor announced: “Kalpa, last stop!” with narrow cluttered lanes, shops and eateries inside small sheet moulds, houses tucked behind high rise stone walls- the town looked very old school. Imagine a quaint town overlooked by the beautiful mighty mountains.. for me, it was a moment of ‘awe’ at first sight. I enquired with a few shops at the bus-stop for my stay and they guided me to walk further inside the village. I found a good one and the hotel was very new. So, the clean room, warm blankets and 24×7 hot water were just perfect for me to settle in there. But what lured me the most to the hotel room was the view from the window. Kalpa is very famous for its apple orchards. I was there towards the end of the apple season and so all the leaves were just about to shed their golden leaves. So, imagine a golden stretch against a background of white Himalayan mountains? I was mind blown!
My stomach was growling, and I fed it with Paratha at a small restaurant opposite my hotel. The lady running the eatery was quite amused to see a lone girl who had travelled so far. She enquired about myself and asked me to return in the evening after I had finished my sightseeing. “I am busy attending to customers, come in the evening when both of us are free, let us chat up and spend some time”, she said. I walked down the alley to the only Buddhist monastery I had seen in the entire trip thus far. It was a very small one compared to all the other ones I had seen in Ladakh or back home in Karnataka. But irrespective of their size, Buddhist monasteries always have their own charm and pull. I lit a couple of incense sticks, rolled a few prayer drums and sat there for a few moments watching the mountains in silence before continuing my walk further, randomly through the alley.
I stopped along my way to ask a man across a fence, for directions to Roughi village. He was working in his apple orchard, busy getting the fruits harvested. He called me inside his farm and enquired where I wanted to go. He told me that my destination was 6+kms away. It would be difficult for me to get a vehicle at that time. I said I was Ok to walk the way as I was more curious in exploring the place. He was quite surprised when I asked him if I could help in plucking the pome. After a while, he handed over a packet full of apricots when I began my hike towards Roughi.
The walk and the scenery are best, only when witnessed and cannot be expressed in words. Only little would my limited photography skills help. I quickly made friends with a dog at a random house along my way. The dog accompanied me, and the owner let it come. Re-iterating again, the view was unbelievable. The stretch of road happens to be one of the steepest and I tried to take a peep down the deadly valley below. I pulled myself back after my head went into a tizzy. The dog continued to walk when I walked and stopped when I paused for a photo. There was a point when he was tired and panting and I had to make a bowl out of a plastic sachet from my bag for him to have some water. That said, we together reached Roughi village just after noon 😊
Beautifully groomed orchards, the suicide point, a quaint village in the foothills- Roughi was a warm tiny settlement with nothing very specific to do. After wandering around for a while, I made friends with a few kids who were returning from school, ate a few fresh apples from my bag that I had been received from random passersby on the road and finally settled down at the village entrance, hoping to find a ride back. I was all alone on the road. I spent almost an hour waiting and I was losing my patience as well as fearing the cold that would be brought in by the setting sun. There was no way I could stay there because I had dropped off all my essentials in the hotel in Kalpa itself. I started to walk rather than waiting there. After covering almost a mile, I heard an engine from behind. I turned back and waved them to stop. It was a couple in an Alto car, heading towards Reckong Peo. They obliged to drop me off along their way.
There was still time for sunset, and I thought I could use the daylight to explore the lanes of Kothi village. Although I aint a trained architect, the structure of the ancient Kalpa fort was something that I loved. I walked down through the villages, spoke up with inquisitive villagers, visited the chandika temple and finally settled down at the viewpoint to grab the golden hour of the setting sun over the Kinnaur Kailash mountains. I had seen the mountain from the rear side at Sangla. Now here I was, experiencing the moments of tranquility, in front of one of the holiest destinations of Lord Shiva. Believers who cannot make it to the Kailash mountains in China come here. Hence, Kinnaur Kailash is believed to be the alternate abode of the Lord.
As I was admiring the sight and capturing it in my DSLR, an old Bengali couple identified me as the one who had taken some nice photographs of them at the Kamru fort in Sangla, a couple of days ago. They asked me for a favour. They asked me to zoom into the peaks of the mountains with my camera and show them their deity… I was perplexed and asked them what it was. They explained……. “To the left side of the mountain was the Shiva Linga and right side was his consort- Parvati”. I was quite amused at hearing this and tried to capture images of both the manifestations with my camera. When I showed the images to them, to my utter surprise- they both started jumping and screaming and clapping with joy. They both folded their hands in front of my camera screen and chanted their prayers. Next thing I saw was the lady kept her palm on my head and saying, “We were saddened that we couldn’t get a closer view of his manifestation even after travelling this far. You showed us our lord! May he bless you with all the best and happiness in the world”, they wished me a good future. For me, it was quite an experience. I was unsure if I had to call it their innocence of praying the camera or admire their faith that had brought them this far. But I was feeling very good about myself that I was able to bring so much joy to someone. I was feeling an inexpressible emotion from within.
As the sun went down, my jaws started to chatter in the biting cold. I rushed to my room, warmed up myself with the thermals I had and stayed indoors until I felt comfortable. Around 7.00.p.m., I decided to step out to meet the aunty running the restaurant just outside. She said she would be free after closing the shutters at 07.00.p.m. I had carried millet Rotis from home which I thought I will share with her while buying some curds from her to make a dip for my rotis. She was excited at seeing me and called her family members to meet me. The restaurant was only an extension of her house, separated by a closed wooden door. Hence, she took me in and showed me around how traditional Kinnauri houses looked in Kalpa. We were back in the restaurant, chatting up over a hot glass of chai that she made for me. I gave her my rotis for tasting and she made me pulkas for supper. I returned to my hotel after a good couple of hours with her.
I missed the morning bus from Reckong Peo and that gave me some time to take part in the annual mela in the district headquarters. I boarded the next bus at noon, from Peo towards my destination for the day- Nako, a small township in the Hangrang Valley, a part of the Spiti valley. The place gets it’s name from a Tibetan word ‘Nego’ which translates to ‘The Door to a holy place’.
The transition from Kinnaur valley to Spiti valley was evident in its landscape. The road changed from green to rocky to barren along the way, each being spectacular. The snaking road was accompanied by the crisscrossing Spiti river amid a mind-blowing scenery all along the way. Although I was travelling solo, I felt accompanied through warm conversations with the driver and the conductor of the HRTC bus. They were quite surprised and amused to hear that I was from South India, spoke fluent Hindi, was travelling alone and without a fixed itinerary. The bus was stuck in a couple of roadblocks caused by landslides for almost 3 hours in total and that meant- I arrived late at my destination. From all the online research I had done about the place, I knew that Nako was decently popular on the tourist radar and finding a place to stay wouldn’t be difficult. When finally the bus stopped at the Nako bus-stop at 07.00.p.m., I was in for the BIGGEST surprise of my life!
The bus stop was on the highway. That was the LAST public transport of the day. It was pitch-dark already. All the civilization I had read about, did not seem to exist there. Apart from the bright stars twinkling in the clear sky, the only light I could see was that of a dimly lit lantern hanging in a tiny shop. The conductor looked at me blankly and said- this is Nako. “Talk to the shopkeeper and he might help you to find a place to stay”, he said and signaled the driver to proceed their ride.
“Where am I going to stay tonight? Can I trust the shopkeeper? Do I have any other option apart from approaching the shopkeeper?” A million things were running in my head. I stood there for a moment to let my thoughts settle down first. But before that, the biting cold and the rough winds rushed me to the shop for some warmth. In the dim light, I saw hope. The shop was run by an old man and the wrinkles on his surprised face multiplied when I asked him if I could get a place to stay. He nodded a yes and asked me to wait until he attended his last customer and lowered the shutters of his little grocery store.
He walked me through steel shutters behind his shop, got a bunch of keys from his house and asked me to follow him to the floor above his house. He said he runs a homestay (Somang dhaba, hotel and homestay) during summer. Since I was there during offseason, the room wasn’t used for a long time. The room had a low voltage bulb and had no running hot water. I could stay there for the night if I could manage with whatever was available. He was not going to charge me for it. The room had a decent washroom, carpeted floor, enough blankets and a comfortable looking bed. The thought of saying no to the old man and getting adventurous in pursuit of a better homestay in the cold night did not even pass through my head. This place was more than what I had expected to get. I agreed to stay there and grabbed the room keys from him.
As I unpacked my bag to pull out my thermals, Mr.Somang knocked at my door with a bucket of hot water for me to freshen up and told me that he had informed the small dhaba next door to stay up for me so that I can go have my supper. If there was any other problem, I could knock at his door, Mr.Somang lived with his wife in the ground floor. The dhaba was a tiny shed put-up with sheets, was run by a Nepali family and fed the occasional truck drivers who stopped by for chai and Paratha. I had the same for my supper too. As I answered the family’s curious questions, I sat warming myself around the fireplace in their kitchen for some time before heading back to my room.
I was in for a surprise when I woke up in the morning. The view from the window transcended me to another world that I had imagined only on Microsoft Window’s wallpaper. Barren, dry arid landscape and distant snowcapped mountains. A lonely road ran uphill, and I had slept in a roadside house that had this magnificent view. I immediately jumped out of my bed, fetched a bucket of hot water from the host’s house, freshened up and got out quickly, to sink in the morning vibes of the place. I took a walk to the nearby helipad from where I could get a 360deg view of the surrounding mountains. That was the first time I was seeing a landscape so arid, so dry, so different and so beautiful.
As I walked further, is when I realized that the real civilization of Nako village existed only if I walked further away from the main road. Doing this on a moonless night, in order to find a place to stay would have been next to madness. I was greeted by tiny tots with their heavy backpacks and playfully jumping on their way to school. The sounds of mooing cattle and crowing roosters echoed in the silent streets.
The sweet smell of incense arising from the monastery had engulfed the ambience as I walked towards a small red structure made of clay and red oxide. Prayer drums on its outside indicated that it was the ancient Buddhist monastery where people seemed to be coming to offer their morning prayers. An interesting structure caught my attention to up in the hills. “That’s the old and the main monastery from the 11th century ”, a passerby answered to my question. But it seemed quite far for a lonely walk, so I decided to keep it for some other day. When I have company, perhaps!
The further I walked into the village, the more magical it started to seem. The structure of the houses was unique to Nako, from what I had seen all this while. The houses are built at an elevation from the ground with wooden beams holding the dry stones, slate roofs covered with hay and all houses painted with white lime. While I was finding my way to the Nako lake through the muddy lanes, reaching random dead ends and taking blind turns, I felt lost in the maze. Just then, a man appeared in front of me and greeted me with a warm smile. He saw me taking photos on my cellphone and asked me if I minded a selfie with him. Although bad at taking selfies, I did not mind getting myself pictured in that unique looking place.
He invited me to his house for a cup of chai and not for a second did I think again. I nodded a yes with joy and followed him to his pretty haven whose courtyard overlooked the Nako lake. His wife got excited at the alien visitor in their little abode and got me chai and biscuits along with some hearty conversations. She took me around her home, and I was quite amused at the style in which it was built (almost entirely of clay, stones and hay), a first time for me. Apart from a heartfelt thank you, I did not have anything to give them back for their wonderful hospitality. And neither did they expect anything in return. I bid goodbye and walked down the lane to the lake, a holy place for the villagers.
Apart from a few grazing horses, I was the only human there that morning. It was the first time I felt like meditating and decided to sit by the waters for some peaceful moments. The Nako lake is considered holy among the Tibetan Buddhists as Lord Padmasambhava is believed to have meditated here. It is no surprise why I was feeling the unusual calmness and serenity at that place.