It was all set for yet another Himalayan voyage, a seven nights & eight days through the Indian Trans-Himalaya, close to the borders of Tibet.
Claiming thousands of lives the per-monsoon rains, caused unrest in Himalayan regions, however, I had sensed my Himalayan invitation.
Packing my sack, on day one, we drove through one of the major apple growing belts of district Shiplap, Narkanda, Kotgarh and Kumarsen. The story dates back to early 1900's when an American missionary, turned the life of natives by providing apple sapling to the area.
Touched by the simplicity of the people, their warmth in culture and off course, the Himalayan panorama, Samuel Evan Sotkes adopted Hinduism and devoted his entire life to this small village of Kotgarh.
The hike from Narkanda up to the peak of Hatu showcased the rare Himalayan flora. The moss laden, Brown Oak forest, enveloped with a thick veil of mist, left the guests spellbound.
Driving down to River Sutlej, all of sudden, the valley turned warmer. The mighty Sutlej, slicing the great Himalayan range, here becomes swollen with its glacial deposits.
Crossing the river, we entered Kullu valley, the valley of Gods and Goddesses. The beauty of traveling into rural Himachal lies in the constant change in the culture, dialect and even the dressing style of the natives. The small houses clinging to the cliffs amazed the travelers as we drove up to Jalori pass, connecting Shimla with Kullu. At the top few 'Chai' (tea) shops welcomed us, offering prayers to the local goddess; we enjoyed the Himalayan hospitality with steaming masala 'Chai'! Five kilometers below the pass is village of Shoja, a true Himalayan Retreat. A village home stay welcomed us and I completely enjoyed sleeping on the attic, ah, it reminded of my village.
On day two rains restricted us till nine in the morning at the house, finally taking a call, we decided to drive up to the pass and set out on a five kilometers walk to a sacred lake through an old brown Oak forest. As we peeped through the thick forest, the lush green fields and orchards charged the spirits of my guests. Walking at an elevation of more than 3000mts. requires passion, dedication and unmatched devotions to these sacred mountains.
The clearing in the forest laid down a symposium of rare Himalayan wildflowers, yes, it was truly romantic. Finally, we reached the Lake; I felt being again blessed by the old serpent Goddess (Buri Nagin), whose ancient temple stands by the side of lake. Devotees from all around the valleys throng here in spring for an annual fair. My eight year old attachment to the place left me overwhelmed at I met the natives selling, 'Chai' and snacks since then.
Enjoying the best Tea in the world, as my guests exclaimed, the thick cover of the mist slowly faded away and now one's eye could measure the depth of the valleys. Bidding goodbye to the people and the Gods, we started back. The walk back proved to be much faster and in four hours we were at the pass again.
Now the drive down to Kullu passed through villages, streams, shops and unmatched scenery. Along the River Beas, we drove over NH-21 and reached Manali for overnight.
Early morning on day three, we drove along the banks of Beas while the thick clouds and fog hindered the mesmerizing natural beauty. However, as we advanced up to Rothang Pass, suddenly the stunning views of interlocked valleys and snow-clad mountains welcomed us.We left the car and decided to walk over the Pass, guests were enthralled and their shutters fired in every direction to capture the memorable moments!
Rothang-La, (La means pass) from centuries has been a major but tough access into Kullu, Lahaul, Spiti and Ladakh. The huge amount of snow for seven months restricts the entry to and fro.
At ground zero on the pass, the gigantic mountains (elevations 5000 – 6700 m) of Chandra Bhaga range came face to face. The million years old piles of massive glaciers recounts the Himalayan geology. And here we entered the boundaries of trans-Himalayan desert into the tribal districts of Lahaul and Spiti.
The drive now descended down to Gramphoo, bifurcating roads to Ladakh and Spiti valley. The straight road went to Ladakh while the right hand turn advanced to Spiti along River Chandra.
‘Chai has been the highlight of this trip and we recharged ourselves with a hot bubbling cup of masala tea. The guests were imbibing the versatile aspects of Himalaya, including the warm hospitality of the natives.
As we drove through the rough river bed of Chandra up to Kunzum La, the story went like…according to a mythological tale, Chandra and Bhaga, two sisters, commence their journey from Chandratal and Surajtal, on the either side of Chandra Bhaga range into Arabian sea.
Regarded to be one of the thrilling road journeys in the world, the drive brought us close to the wandering nomads with their herds. Numerous gurgling glacial streams offered us a tough advance en-route Chattru, Chota Dhara and Batal, however, Ajay our chauffer was excellent with his job this time also.
Before Batal, lies Bara Sigri, biggest glacier of Himachal Pradesh, was clearly visible. As the guests got out of the car they were astonished with the mammoth piles of the glacier. Here we all enjoyed Darjeeling blend of tea, as hot beverages reduce the high altitude symptoms.
The drive ahead from Batal bifurcated to Chandratal (The Moon lake), negotiating the scary turns producing heaps of dust, we landed close to the lake with CB13 &CB14 following us. Loosing no time, we all marched towards the lake and with the first glance of the crystal blue waters of the lake, everyone yelled out “wow”.
The fairy tale associated with this pristine Himalayan jewel describes the visit of the fairies on full moon night, when the impression of the moon reflects in the lake. These tales echoes the silent valleys as described by the nomads who travel these alpine Himalayan highlands in search of green pastures for their herds.
It was late afternoon and the charisma of the place made us difficult to leave. However, our destination was Losar village, on the other side of Kunzum – La. The golden rays of the sunlight on the mountains were a rare sight as our jeep roared through the silent valley.
Close to the pass we met a long convey of army trucks, however, we hastened as the sun was setting behind the horizons. Soon we were at the small hamlet of Losar, the first permanent village of Spiti valley. All the vehicles, driver and foreigner need to register themselves here at the police check post as we enter the bordering areas with autonomous Tibet.
In recent years the place has developed few more accommodations for the travelers. Far away from the modern luxuries of the world, these guest houses and home stays offer a cozy shelter.
Now the calm village became alive with the arrival of natives from their fields, herds of cattle arriving from pastures by rattling rocks on the steep slopes and more travelers arriving for overnight. Since my first visit to the place nine years ago, now the small restaurant at the guest house is equipped with satellite television. Soon the place busted with the exchange of big laughter, travelers exchanged their travel plans ahead and that was the end of day.
The dawn broke behind the mountains and soon the sun rays pierced the thick cloud cover of the valley. Day four excited the guest with the wide views of dry landscape and few lush green barley and green pea fields. The colorful Tibetan flags on the dry roofs of mud houses added authenticity to this little world of Lamas.
Just before the main town of Kaza, we took a right turn to visit the fortified complex of Kee monastery. The entire monastery complex is located on the hill slope in tires. A residential school for more than 220 monks, the monastery was built on the elevated top to withstand against the possible invasions centuries ago. Preserving archaic musical instruments, manuscript, murals and Thankas (frescoes) the complex sits with perfect harmony to the place. Guitor, the annual Chham festival at Kee is held in the first week of July.
Here we were cordially invited for a refreshing cup of herbal tea prepared by the monk who offered us the show-round of the entire monastery. “How were last winter”, my usual question at every place, “it was quite harsh” everyone exclaimed.
As day progressed the sun became stronger, bidding goodbye to the place we continued up to the village of Langza. At an elevation of 4300m and dominated by 6500m snow clad peak, Chou-Chou Khanng, this is a small hamlet of seventeen traditional houses. The monastery at Langza does not have any resident monk but is being looked after, by the entire village turn by turn.
Above the village was a gigantic statue of meditating Buddha, overlooking the entire valley. This all was visible from a distance as we drove up to this mystical land, explored the village, enjoyed a walk and learnt about the forthcoming visit of the Lamas (Monks) from the other monasteries. Walking above 4000m with negotiating high altitude is entirely different feeling, regular walks acclimatized the guests and this exposure to the elevation was comfortable.
A warm welcome at a traditional house with a hot lunch was the highlight of the day. This also provided the guest, a deep peek into the lifestyle of the people. More interesting fact was that the owner was skillful in pottery. He revealed about his training at the Norbulinka institute of Tibetan handicraft, Dharmshala in Himachal Pradesh.
The next destination en route today was Komic village (4587m), 26 km from Kaza, renowned to be the highest motorable village in the world, inhabited for entire year by natives. As we were proceeding to the monastery, a young Lama recognized me who met me last year. His, deep affection could be judged from the tight hug and warmly he welcomed us inside. An atrium style monastery here is built out with thatched walls, decorated with bright colored Thankas (frescos), wall paintings and numerous pictures of Lamas (monks) who have served the monasteries in the past. The divinity and the cosmic force of the place compelled us to be there for more time despite of the thin air.
We could not refuse to his invitation for a cup of tea as he escorted us to his personal room inside the monastery. A little, neat and cozy room was naturally lighted with a small window. Cutlery, utensils were properly placed on the shelves; a small iron fireplace with its chimney jutting out through the roof was placed in the centre of the room. These arrangements are vital here as the place witness harsh winters, where the mercury drops down to -25 degrees. Altogether, it was a perfect room to live a simple and contended life.
After a lovely cup to tea, time was to say goodbye to our friend and place. The jeep slowly crawled down the steep sand slopes and within forty minutes we were in Kaza. District headquarter of Spiti, Kaza is main hub of Spiti, having a reasonably good market. One can even browse the internet in this isolated part of Indian Himalaya. Our hotel was even equipped with Wifi service which added to the delight of the guest.
Next morning, the plan was to head further down to Tabo and en route visiting the Dhankar. As the sun glanced over the dry mountains of Spiti valley we drove down to visit Dhankar village with its old monastery along Spiti River. 27 km from Kaza, as we advanced on the adventurous road leading to Dhankar, Manirang sisters, with their veil of white were clearly visible jutting through the barren cold desert on the opposite bank of Spiti River.
Further down, a link road bifurcated up to Dhankar and we decided to get off the Jeep, to visit the village. Dhankar, originally called Dhakkar (Dhak: cliff and Kaar: Palace), literally means ‘a palace on the cliff’. The fortified nature of the monastery accounts that it used to be a palace once.
As we descended down the steep path through the deserted village, silence of the place was being constantly broken with the gush of winds and chirping of birds at regular intervals. Looking down into the deep gorges on which the entire village and the monastery stands, we could clearly understood the effect of erosion by wind and water.
At the bottom of the village stood the age old, multistoried monastery with several rooms on each floor. The guest felt very curious as they were heading up through the dark staircase. Reaching the top floor courtyard which was surrounded by various prayer and meditation rooms, one could peep down into the Spiti valley, where the Pin River amalgamates with Spiti River.
We were being graciously escorted by the resident monk who gave us a complete show around. Interestingly there was a meditation room where only males were allowed. Right from the musical instruments to the centuries old Thankas, everything lying there was self-descriptive. Like many other monasteries in Spiti valley, Dhankar also resides about 150 monks pursuing Tibetan studies.
For lunch, we decided the monastery guest house and guests were delighted with their preparation. From Dhankar, we continued to Tabo for overnight stay which is Spiti’s second largest town. Tabo is India’s oldest functioning monastery, 47 km from Kaza. In 1996, Tabo monastery celebrated its 1,000th anniversary when the 14th Dalai Lama performed the Kalachakra ceremony here.
For past one month the small town of Tabo is without electricity, so we enjoyed a candle light dinner. Suddenly, we could observe a strong light piercing the darkness and soon the entire village was bathing in the moonlight. At dinner, we also decided to attend the Morning Prayer ceremony at 6.
The morning Prayers refreshed us and post-breakfast we were ready to visit the monastery complex. The monastery has a distinct boundary – a wall made of mud bricks. Tabo’s central temple is surrounded by smaller structures at the four cardinal points. Inside there are nine temples and one chamber for nuns.
The interiors of all the temples are left dark so as to protect the natural color of the walls and fabric. Equipped with my small torch as we entered the dark rooms of the complex, just next to the entrance were two statues of the temple guardians, my guests were stunned as I flashed my torch. The temple also presents the most elaborated forms of Mandala here. The walls are divided into three tires with Bodhisattvas on the uppermost tier, followed with 32 stucco images on pedestals in the middle tier and life of Buddha is depicted in the lowermost tier.
The method of construction here allows mud to be the best material in use. The process is painstaking and involves kneading mud like dough, compressing it to remove air bubbles, shaping and drying the bricks for fortnight in the sun.
The Gompas (monastery) have massive wide walls at the base which can bear the load of successive higher stories. Also moving higher up the walls tapers inwards and becomes thin so as to provide the firmness to the structure. It is also believed in Buddhism, that these structures allow entry of cosmic rays with intricate exit.
With pleasant temperature inside the walls of the monastery, outside we could feel the scorching sun. The plan for the day was now to move into Pin Valley National Park and we retraced the same route back close to Dhankar.
From here the road bifurcated and we entered a narrow valley with multicolored layers of sedimentation touching the sky. Topography of Spiti valley demonstrates the presence of sea million years ago. And, I forgot to inform you, that this all can be better revealed by the marine fossils found in and around Langza village.
It was lunch time at Kungri monastery; however we were being shown the entire complex by a young monk. Resting between the towering snow-capped mountains, what a place to learn! En route we visited monastery at Kungri. Due to Sectarian strife in entire Spiti valley most of the monasteries are of Gelukpa. Only in Pin valley does one finds Nyngmapa tradition followed in monasteries, perhaps due to the isolation as the only entrance through Pin River.
Beside, visiting the new complex where hundreds of monks residing and learning Buddhism, it was interesting to know that a group of foreigners were residing and studying here, who met us later in the evening at Mud for Dinner.
We also went to visit the old monastery, where monks were offering prayers playing traditional musical instruments. Driving along the river bed, we finally reached our destination, Mud village.
This last village at the entrance of Pin Valley National Park, this was an absolute bliss. After checking at the village home stay run by the native family, we decided to walk up to a close glacier and it was a pleasant mountain walk.
In fact, Mud was the coldest destination we stayed at, however, surprisingly; the rooms were warm and cozy. With no electricity, the village shrouded into the darkness, but the owner started the generator which lighted the entire house and amazingly the internet too!
Mud village is base for two famous treks leading into Kinnaur and Kullu valley over Tarikhango and Mantalai glaciers respectively, and also offers excellent hiking and mountain biking options. Crossing Pin River, in the morning we all enjoyed an hour’s lovely walk towards Tarikhango pass. As we crossed the dancing local suspension bridge, a flash of my trekking memories once came back and I shared them with our esteemed guests.
Today was the last night and we followed our journey back to Losar village with a brief stop at Kaza.
Marked with the long drive, we started the concluding day early so as to avoid the glacial streams en route. Crossing Kunzum La and Rothang after 6 nights through the cold Himalayan desert, it took some time for our eyes to adjust with the lush green Kullu valley.
Departing the guest in Manali, which always has been a tough job for me, we also settled for the night. Early morning, next day reconciling the entire trip, we reached back to Shimla.