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Tea and puja in Nako monastery

24 Jun

Travel agencies in Shimla had scoffed at the place, snubbed at its artificial lake, and advised us to continue on directly to Tabo. But, when we arrived in Nako, a small village with 270 degree views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks, we were smugly happy with having gone our own way. As expected, Nako was wonderful. And as guessed, few if any of its guesthouses offered commission to travel agencies. Yet, it appeared that the best was yet to come.

The following morning, we dragged each other out of bed at six to find the 11th century monastery in town where we had been told that monks hold open morning prayers. We did find the monastery and also its basement kitchen, where Tashi, a thirty-year old monk in a red hoodie and pink crocs, made us chai and served sugary biscuits.

But first things first, the prayer.

Nako is tiny, yet we needed a local’s help to find its monasteries; both hidden behind a thick and tall clay wall. The same courtyard leads to both, though the monasteries are almost a thousand years apart.

Directly in front as you enter is the new monastery, a modern building resembling an Indian school that was recently inaugurated by the Dalai Lama. But, the one you cross your fingers to have a closer look at, and hopefully be invited into for the puja, is the nondescript, white mud house to its left.

This morning, Tashi undid the padlock to the ancient monastery and pushed the door open. Stooped down, we entered and quickly realised that the tiny, orange door had been deceiving. Inside was a room three to four metres high, with Buddhist murals filling the walls.

Photography is strictly forbidden to avoid any flash to further deteriorate the 11th century Buddhist paintings. With the centuries, the images have faded into weak reds, greens and blacks. A few have even completely let go to the grey clay behind. The faded images and the morning light seeping in shyly through the door stood in stark contrast to the otherwise bright and cheery room.

On every pillar and from every corner of the room, the Dalai Lama and other high-ranking monks beamed from large, glass-framed colour photos lined with silk shawls. At the left of the altar stood a light installation with rows upon rows of light bulbs in the colours of the Tibetan prayer flags: blue, red, white, yellow and green. In front was an altar that could have been taken out of my granny’s kitchen; a massive dresser with glass-doors, normally containing plates and glasses, though here holding a number of statues and candles.

The monks’ morning prayer in Nako is normally held in the new and modern monastery. Both tourists and locals are invited to come and watch. However, this morning, Tashi, a small monk that barely reached me to my shoulder, was home alone in the monastery. And, as my boyfriend and I were the only ones that had gotten up at six in the morning to join him, he invited us into the old monastery.

“Where do you want us to sit?”, I asked.

“Anywhere!”, he replied with a big grin and pointed to a thick Tibetan rug on top of a bench.

“You sit. I begin puja!”

And, as Tashi started his prayer, we watched in complete silence, barely daring to move. A fly buzzed around one of the pillars, and the sound echoed in the little room.

In a surprisingly rhythmic and soft-spoken voice, Tashi read slowly through a stack of rectangular papers in front. Occasionally, he would lick his finger to lift the paper he had just read (or to skip a few) into a second stack. To accompany his prayer, he would from time to time reach for prayer beads, a golden bell or two large brazen cymbals, one of which had a long drum stick attached. Rubbing the cymbals together, the drumstick would hit a large drum above, creating a solemn, prolonged sound that somehow reminded me of an avalanche.

After about a good half an hour, we were still seated in silence, watching the chanting monk, trying to not think too much of the fact that pujas are known to last up to three hours. But, much to our delight, Tashi was also hiding yawns.

Perhaps it was the yawns or the occasional scratching of his bed hair, but I found it easy to imagine Tashi getting up that morning, rolling out of bed before pulling on his red hoodie over the red robes, slipping into his pinck crocs and then slowly tottering over across the courtyard to the monastery for the morning routine.

And, just then, Tashi looked up and sent us a sidelong grin. “Finish my puja!”

Prayer over, Tashi invited us to have a look at the new monastery. He told us they were normally two monks in Nako, and the elderly monk was the one who normally held the puja – in the new monastery. “But he normally does not wear this”, Tashi grinned and pulled in his red hoodie.

After a few rounds of thank you, we were about to leave. Tashi however, seemed keen to have company for a bit longer. As we waved to him on our way out of the courtyard, he shouted back: “You like tea?!”

“Yeah”, we nodded.


Tashi kicked off his pink crocks and led us excitedly past a bright red dog bed for his puppy and down into the new monastery basement. Apart from the gas stove kitchen and thick, red rugs on the floor, the room was bare. As Tashi pulled out his red cell phone, I realised this was a man seriously into colour coordination. I pointed out that all he had was red – from his socks, his puppy’s basket to his hoodie to his phone. He nodded in excitement. “Yes, I like red. All is red!”.

Sipping the tea, I asked him why he became a monk eight years ago, at the age of 22.

“Because there, my home very tiny. And work, work, work. I think, become monk; free mind, no tension.”

“And what is your daily routine?”

“I read certain puja, I eat, sometimes I enjoy a lot.”

Seeing our encouraging nods, Tashi went into more detail:

“I get up at four thirty, I read until five, five I wash, then after six puja, then I work two hours like cleaning, then one hour I read. Then lunch, then sleep one hour, then after three-four, one hour I go shopping and walk around, then five I pray the prayer, then after I go to anywhere, six, seven I come back and make dinner. Nine, dinner. Nine to ten, I read books. Ten thirty, I sleep.”

Tashi grinned widely at us.

“I am busy, morning to evening time!”.



Nako – the gateway to Spiti

24 Jun

Nako has Tibet as its next door neighbour, only eight km away. With snow-capped peaks shooting up all around, the handful of mud houses with branches stacked on the roofs seem however nothing but far, far away from everything and everyone.

The feeling of remoteness begins as you leave the highway between Rekong Peo and Kaza. High on a hillside, at 3660 metres, Nako is reached via eight hairpin bends that lifts you up 750 metres in just four kilometres.

When you arrive, turn in any direction for Himalayan mountains of more than 6000 metres; each enough to make you wonder how on earth the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans ever managed to escape from Chinese occupied Tibet over the Himalayas.

Once part of the Tibetan kingdom, Nako is still overwhelmingly Buddhist and still has a Tibetan feel. The few restaurants in town, clustered around the main bus stop and the small artificial lake, will happily serve up seabuck thorn tea, Tibetan bread (yum!) and yak cheese sandwiches (less yum) in rooms decorated with photos of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan landscapes.

The afternoon we arrived, we trailed up the barren mountain behind the village for an hour, pausing only to catch our breath and to photograph the mani walls that came into sight as we gained height. In addition to mouthing mantras, Buddhists in Kinnaur and Spiti have for generations carved their prayers onto stone slabs, believing that their prayers would then echo eternally and for ever bless them.

The trek led us past thorny bushes and slowly up to rows of two metre high stupas. A few hundred metres above the village, Nako was a surreal view: a stubborn village sitting in a semi-circle of bright, green fields hugged in by an otherwise barren and dusty landscape. As elsewhere in the area, the villagers have perfected the art of irrigation in the cold desert. Small channels plough through the fields, carrying water from the mountains.



Up in the mountains in Sangla valley

22 Jun

Sangla Valley used to be one of Kinnaur's most beautiful and secluded areas. It still is, if you avoid the village of Sangla and continue further into the valley to Rakcham and Chitkul. And, the further you go, the more dramatic the mountains become.

Our plan was to stay in Sangla, but when we arrived, we remained seated in the taxi. Neither of us wanted to leave the car and thus the possibility of leaving. Far away from the promised fairy-tale village, the car had come to a disappointing halt next to a collection of ugly, concrete houses and small shops just after passing a massive hydroelectric plant.

But just then, as we wondered whether to push on to Tabo or retreat to Kalpa, we received a text message. A guesthouse 14 km further into the Sangla Valley had available rooms after all. Situated two blind hairpin bends before Rakcham, the homestay Durga turned out to be one of our best experiences in the Himalayas.

The homey homestay

When you travel, a bed is often just a bed; a place to stay the night and somewhere to keep your backpack as you go out exploring. After five months of travels, the couple of nights we stayed with Mary, a Scottish woman in her sixties, felt however like staying with an auntie. The favourite one.

Already overlooking snow-capped peaks and situated above an apple orchard sloping towards the Baspa river thundering below, the homestay is simply showing off by also being in a traditional wooden Kinnaur-style house with prayer flags fluttering under the beams. Add to that the most attentive and considerate host you could ask for, and you end up staying longer than expected as we did.


Sangla valley is a wildlife sanctuary. Many of the dogs wear steel collars in case they are attacked by a snow leopard (!)


Chitkul is as far as you can go into the valley before the guarded checkpoints ahead of the Tibetan mountains, 54 km away and directly facing the village.


Up, up in the mountains

One of the main reasons we made a slight detour to the Sangla valley before heading up to Spiti was to go walking in the mountains. Spiti is a barren desert, while Sangla goes by the nickname the valley of flowers.

Although the entire length of the valley offers walking paths, the most rewarding ones start from Chitkul, already at an altitude of 3500 metres. Cross the small and only bridge over the river, turn a sharp left and when the path shoots straight up, that's your kinderegg path to three different treks in one.

1) From the river bank, make your way up through the forest on the narrow, soft path covered in pine needles. Huddled in by tall trees, you won't see much though until you make it to a grassy clearing about 20 breaks to catch your breath later.

2) But then. That's when the climb you have just painstakingly done through the forest starts paying off. Eye-grabbing mountains all around, you will inevitably start doing 360 degree turns to take them all in. By this time, there are flowering rhododendron bushes alongside the path, now cutting across a grassy meadow. Like taken out of The Shire, according to my panting boyfriend.

3) Continue uphill, for about another ten intervals of walking and catching your breath, and you have pushed above the treeline. The path has by now disappeared, and instead you are walking on rocks and around thorny bushes next to the lake that comes from the glacier even higher up. We stopped at 4500 metres when we could have lunch next to patches of snow. That was also the time to bring out the thermos flask with hot tea that auntie Mary had sent with us.

Just to again stress how nice Mary is, here's from the morning after our walk up towards the glacier lakes by Chitkul:

When we got up early for another long walk, we realised we were in the clouds. Heavy rain clouds. The fog kept creeping closer; we could barely see the closest trees of the surrounding apple orchard.

And, that's when aunt Mary put her head out the window, holding two cups of chai tea for us.

“Do you want to come and sit in the kitchen? It's a bit foggy out there. Should we watch that film?”


Shepherds for a day in the Himalayas

22 Jun

Sometimes it is all about timing. Impeccable timing.

Yesterday, we started our walk from Kalpa to Tshaka meadow (at 3800 metres) at the exact same time as a flock of sheep undertook its annual trek up to a mountain pasture where they would graze for the next three months (or until the winter snow arrived).

When the sheep came into sight, we at first stepped aside out of both politeness and necessity. At an altitude of 3000m+, even the pace of sheep was too quick for us to follow. But a baby sheep? Now, that we could do!

A small lamb of two months was continuously a few metres behind the rest and we were soon the ones in charge of making it keep up with the rest of the flock. Equipped with a few quickly taught sheep commands, the shepherds invited us to join them up the mountains.

The lamb of two months that would occasionally need to be carried was the star of the show until Jogi (30) and his father (“around 70 to 75”) asked us to wait with them on a grassy opening in the forest.
Again, our timing was superb. After an hour wait, we had a slight sunburn and had watched a lamb being born.
We never made it to Tsakha meadow, but we did make it to 3500 metres and a shepherd's hut.


Kalpa: a slice of Tibet in India

22 Jun

Our plan was to stay in one of the brick boxes in Rekong Peo for a night and then hurry on, with our fresh inner line permits in hand, towards the India-China border area. But then we discovered Kalpa.

If you zig-zag up 13 km on twisting mountain roads from Rekong Peo, you'd think someone had dropped you in Tibet.

At 3000 metres, Kalpa has panoramic views of the Kinner-Kallash mountain range that climbs up in the clouds at more than 6400 metres. Prayer flags flutter in the wind over wooden houses and surrounding apple orchards, and if you walk down the narrow cobbled streets towards the end of the tiny village you come to an ancient Tibetan monastery.

Our plan was to stay for one night. We ended up staying for five.

In addition to the breathtaking views, people in Kalpa were among the friendliest we have met in India. There were also a number of walks up the mountains and along the remains of the Hindustan-Tibet caravan route we could do on our own.

Travelling to the forbidden valleys in the Himalayas

22 Jun

Himachal Pradesh, the state we are in, is sandwiched between Punjab and Tibet. It is home to some of the most accessible and popular hill stations in India, such as Shimla and Manali. But, continue up to the north-eastern corner and you come to Spiti, a valley high up in the Indian Himalayas with some of the highest and most remote inhabited places on earth. “Surely the Gods live here!” the character Kim in Rudyard Kipling's classic exclaimed when he entered Spiti and its lunar landscape, “This is no place for men”.

That is where we are going.

But, Tibet is barely a day's walk away. The proximity to Chinese occupied Tibet means that travel into and through the area has long been restricted. Until recently, large parts of both Kinnaur and Spiti were off-limits to travellers. Non-local Indians could only enter with a permit, and foreigners were forbidden from entering the valleys altogether. But, in 1992, the China-India border district areas were opened also to foreign travellers, and they are now fairly easily accessible with so-called 'inner line permits' that last for 15 days.

Yet, the valley remains largely unknown. General guidebooks to India barely mention the area. An obvious reason is that getting to Spiti is simply difficult. From Rekong Peo, the district headquarter of Kinnaur and where most people get their permits, the road winds its way northwards alongside signposts announcing it as the world's most treacherous road.

The narrow road alternates between tarmac and dirt before it eventually surrenders entirely to dust and rocks. On its way from Rekong Peo to Spiti, via Nako, Tabo and Dhankar, the road leads past menacing overhangs, across streams and rocks, and over high mountain passes that makes you long for the seat closest to the soaring mountain and away from the cliff face and the Spiti river far, far below.

So. Why the desire to go to Spiti?

It is easy to agree with Kim that Spiti may not be a place for men. The desert valley is almost bereft of vegetation, and only the most stubborn and toughest people cling on in tiny Tibetan villages to the sides of eternally snow-capped, barren mountains. But, for tourists, it could hardly get any better. This valley lies across the main chain of the Himalayan range with spectacular peaks soaring to more than 6000 metres. Hanging on to edges of cliffs and high up in the mountainsides are world-famous Buddhist monasteries, many of them with guesthouses for monks and travellers. Spiti, they say, is a small piece of Tibet transported to India. At different times in history, it has been part of the Tibetan realm and its inhabitants are still Buddhists.

Tibet is too tricky to get to, but we can go and see the mountains, monasteries and yaks in Spiti.

Our first stop was therefore the town of Rekong Peo, the district headquarters of Kinnaur, where we would apply for our permits.

Shimla to Rekong Peo

The Rough Guide for India had warned against the Himachal state buses, calling them a bone-rattling experience on twisting high-altitude and hair-raising roads. But guidebooks tend to be fatally prone to exaggeration, so we left Shimla in a bus. We simply figured, how tough could it be? Locals take these buses every day.

Erm…they do.

But, there were also vomit streaks down the sides of our bus within 20 minutes after leaving Shimla.

We realised we were in for quite a ride as soon as the bus started rolling down the hill-sides. Although the road in front was smooth tarmac, the bus journey was already bumpy. When the tarmac eventually gave in to dirt and mud, we literally jumped up and down the mountains for 11 hours. As in a roller-coaster, I clutched the bar in front as my seat every now and then turned into an ejector seat. If I veered out the window, there was so little distance between the edge of the bus and the cliff face that I could see straight down for hundreds of metres. My boyfriend refused to look.

My occasional pained, scared or angry outbursts had little effect beyond fits of giggles among the Indian (all male) passengers. Their laughter did little to reassure me, instead I remember thinking grumpily: “easy for you to laugh; you will be reincarnated, we will not!”

Stumbling shaky out of the bus in Rekong Peo, we realised that renting a jeep (like most other tourists do) was the way to go. That way, we may go at our own slow, slow, safe pace up to Spiti.

As the bus stopped for lunch break, Hanuman, the Monkey God, joined us for a few minutes: