A journey through hidden Himalaya
This place has to be seen to be believed.
In the crowded centres of civilization, microscopic men are running hither and thither, inflated with their self-importance and quarrelling over the crust of the planet, which in the last analysis, does not belong to them. [In the Himalayas] a score or more of high peaks squat perfectly still with their heads uplifted above the planet, as though unconscious of their kingship, power and grandeur.
– Paul Brunton, Hermit in the Himalayas
“What an unearthly place!” I thought, as I turned the page of an inflight magazine saw a picture of immeasurable beauty. Latte coloured bare mountains rising high above a lightly grassed valley, in the midst of which lay a startling blue lake. “Chandertal Lake, Spiti, India” the small text at the bottom went on to explain. I promised myself, if ever I had the opportunity, I would go to see it. Recently the opportunity arose.
Halfway between the heavens and the earth, Spiti lies nestled in the remote Himalayas in north eastern India, ironically once of the least populated places on earth. Starting at 3000m above the earth’s water line, a height greater than Machu Picchu, and rising to the half the cruising altitude of a plane, 5000m, this isolated desert lies hidden from the world for three quarters of the year. For only 3 months, she lowers her drawbridges and let’s in the lucky, the curious, and the bold, and what they will see will take their breath away (quite literally!)
Manali – Rohtang La – Gramphu – Chattru – Battal – Chandratal
We leave Manali for Spiti in our hired Tata Sumo jeep, complete with an “I’m married but don’t mind if I hit on you” driver. Within minutes we’ve left the noise of the city behind, and were labouring up a narrow road scratched into the edge of the mountainside, loop upon loop, hooting as we round blind corners. Had it not been for the captivating scenery, I might have had holes in my palms, as we skirted scarily close to the edge to take sharp bends, or let an oncoming vehicle past, mauled and mangled remains of vehicles in bowels of the mountains, a sobering reminder of the dangers.
We pass through Rohtang La (3950m), meaning “pile of dead bodies” owing to the hundreds of people who have frozen to death there due to unpredictable and swift weather changes. From here on, the traffic dies down considerably to a car every couple hours, and it becomes apparent why.
As we approach Spiti, the weakening of our feeble grip on the land becomes apparent. The paths (for to call them roads is like calling donkeys horses) are bumpy and coccyx breaking. Unruly waterfalls that seem to start in the sky come crashing down, turning the roads into rivers. Rockslides are frequent, and take their toll too. Despite being cleared daily, jagged rocks, sometimes as big as buses, litter the path. I shudder as I think that we could just as easily have been under one of those rocks as behind. We rarely go above 30km/hr, and it takes us around 8hrs to cover 120km.
CHANDRATAL LAKE (MOON LAKE)
We arrive at our campsite around 6pm, having risen 2.3km vertically in the last 8hrs, and head straight for the “moon lake” a few hundred metres away. As soon as I take a few steps, my breathing becomes labored, and my heart thuds very heavily and fast, as if I’ve just done a 100m sprint. I think I could have a heart attack. Luckily I don’t. This is my first taste of thin air. At 14,0000ft (4300m), this is the highest I’d ever been with my feet on terra firma. As I came over the hill, I stopped breathing momentarily. The sight before me was unlike anything I’d ever seen – smooth brown mountains cupping a turquoise motionless lake. Whether through sheer enchantment, or shortness of breath, none of us spoke. This must be how Neil Armstrong felt upon landing on the moon.
Despite being peak summer, the air was cold, and at night, the temperature dropped to about 5 degrees (still better than the -30 degrees of winter). I couldn’t sleep. It was quieter than I had ever known. Not a cricket, bug, bird, train, plane. Nothing. An unearthly silence. I lay awake in my tent for hours staring up at the light cobalt blue sky, glittering with a million stars, and an exfoliated and scrubbed moon, shining like a diamante bindi, with a halo twice it’s size. I saw at least five shooting stars. I froze the frame and deposited it in the permanent storage section of my brain as I may never see anything this beautiful again.
Chandratal Lake – Kumzum La – Kibber – Ki (Kye) – Kaza
“Good Mahn-ing! What’s up?!”
I look at my watch. It’s 5am. I am staggered at the ridiculous conversation taking place without any regard to the other sleeping campers. We witness instant karma in action as we see the perpetrators broken down on the roadside a few hours later.
From Chandratal Lake, we cross Kunzum Pass (4550m) and descend to Spiti valley where horses and goats graze contentedly. They look like little dots giving and make the towering mountains look even more imposing.
We stop for breakfast in Losar. There is a stall nearby selling trinkets and handicrafts. “Do you think that guy has Tibetan balls?” asks Angie in her Northern English accent. I am surprised by the question. I glance across at the vendor, a Tibetan looking man. “It’s quite likely” I respond on reflection. “I want to see them but I don’t want to get his hopes up”. It dawns on me what she is talking about. “I want the balls that come with the stick to make them sing” she continues earnestly. Mike and I fall about in fits of laughter.
Bowls said in Northern English = Balls
KAZA, KIBBER, KYE
The landscape becomes more dramatic and rugged as we progress. Several hours later we spy a little blob of white in the distance. This is Kye Gompa (Monastery), a 1,000yr old monastery with a spectacular view, dwarfed by the imposing mountains that surround it. It housed 350 monks, which seems a lot for its size, who probably enjoyed the isolation and solitude, as it would have been very difficult to reach here in the old, pre vehicle days. Furthermore, they served as forts as approach from any direction would have been quickly spotted.
Then we proceed to Kibber 10km away, a picturesque cluster of rectangular white washes houses perched on steep barren mountain slopes. At 4350m, this is one of the highest villages in the world, and certainly one of the most photogenic!
Unable to find accommodation in Kibber, we head back to Kaza, the capital of Spiti. It is a very quaint, small, town full of old wordly charm. The dogs are fat and happy. Pedestrianized stone streets make it easy to get around and appreciate. This town appears to have changed little over time. People go about their business without more than a passing glance at the tourists, of which we only see a handful. This sleepy town is tucked in bed by 9pm and the only eatery that’s open has one dish to offer (despite a 5 page menu) – veg momos (Tibetan dumplings). We all decide to have the veg momos. “Any drinks?” I inquire not trusting the 3 page menu of beverages. “No. Hmmm, maybe I have Fanta.” “I’ll take it”. The friendly waiter returns a few minutes later with a half drunk, fully flat bottle of Miranda”.
Kaza – Dhangkar – Tabo
After obtaining our Inner Line Permits which are necessary to proceed to Tabo, as the journey takes us past the highly sensitive and well protected Indo-Tibetan border. I am pleased to note that it is referred to as Indo-Tibetan and not Indo-China as this indicates India’s repudiation of China’s claim on Tibet. We traverse through more imposing and grandiose lands. Jagged, hulking, dark mountains rise high into the vivid blue sky, their stratified layers pushed up sometimes vertically, displaying 50 million years of history, and making you marvel at the power of the earth to push up million of megatons of rock so high.
We approach Dhangkar Gomp, which is also perched on a high ridge. It’s made of up of mud, and wood, and from a distance looks like a beehive.I walk out one of the little doors and am briefly immobilised by vertigo. There are no fences or railings; one wrong foot could send you tumbling 1,000ft. The silence echoes across the mountains. We see a locked wooden door and spy a key on the adjacent ledge. The key opens the lock we look upon a small room, less than 3x3m, with faded muralled walls, a painting of Buddha on the main wall with little lamps in front of it. The monastery was perched very high in a very isolated place – that alone made it very special. However, what amazes even more is the fact that it is mostly is made up of mud and wood, and despite this has endured for 1,000 years!
We then try to hike to Dhangkar Lake on top of a near by mountain. Ange and I decide to take a short cut go straight up the steep mountain. The rocks become shale and grit and, and climbing in any direction precarious. We learn first hand that there is no such thing as a short cut. Suffice to say, there is probably a very pretty lake in Dhangkar that I have not seen.
By evening we reach Tabo, yet another quaint isolated village with little more than 100 homes, lying in the shade of a large mountain emblazoned with a Tibetan prayer – “Om Mani Padme Hum”.
Tabo – Sumdo – Malling – Nako – Pooh – Reckong Peo – Kalpa
There is something indescribably special about sitting to 6am prayers in an ancient monastery, listening to low chanting of a monk, the only other person there. This could well have been 996A.D, when it was built, for there is nothing in this scene to link it t the 21st century. I leave and hour later feeling very peaceful and calm.
Today we say goodbye to beautiful and unforgettable Spiti, as we travel along the world’s most treacherous roads to Kinnaur.
The landscape quickly becomes green, the mountains even higher. We stay the night in Kalpa, and are treated to glimpses of the 21,000ft high, sacred Kinnaur Kailash, winter home of Lord Shiva.
Kalpa – Sangla – Chhitkul
We climb high up some very steep mountains to get to the little village of Chhitkul.
Chittkul is a village forgotten by time. The village is wooden, the people simple, the setting rustic. They follow Bhuddism and Hinduism. They live in this isolated town far from it all.
Chitkul – Cholling – Tapri – Wangtu – Sarahan
Once again traversing insanely high roads (definitely not for the faint hearted!). The road from Cholling to Tapri was closed due to a landslide which meant that we had to go up and down a mountain, so what should have taken 15mins took over 2hrs. This is the way things are in the mountains. We stop for toilet break. As was often the case, we find ourselves in a forest marijuana plants – it was incredible, big fat bushes about a metre flanking the sides of the road and beyond. It may as well be the state plant! In the words of the illustrious Michael, “if I was hash smoker, I’d be having a wet dream”
We stop over in Sarahan, a small quiet town (except at prayer time when the hindu prayers and bells rings though town). Panoramics views and a few beers at the Himachal Tourism Hotel are the perfect way to wind down the trip.
Sarahan – Shimla
We visit the famous Bhimakali temple in the morning, a beautiful wood carved temple that is the centre and the drawcard of the town. A few hours later we have left Kinnaur, to me a lush land of sky roads, mighty rivers and green hats (Kinnauris, men and women wear them).
And this is how one can be amazed beyond belief in just seven days on under $500.