Dhankar: better in sun than in sleet!

25 Jun

From Tabo, we headed northwest to Dhankar, another monastic village. After about two hours alongside the river Spiti on the valley bottom, a road shot up a steep mountainside. Following this twisting road, we leaned as close to the windows as possible to get a glimpse of what waited on top.

Dhankar monastery, perched imposingly on a cliff three hundred metres high, was hard to miss.

At one point in time, Dhankar was the capital of Spiti. Today, it is a village of fifty-one houses and host to 25 monks that alternate their prayers between the old and the new monastery. Situated at an altitude of 3900m, I was startled to see what the children were up to: “LOOK, THEY ARE PLAYING VOLLEYBALL!!” Yes, panting and catching my breath with the slightest inkling of incline, I found the children jumping up and down almost equally impressive as the superb mountain views.

But, as with our stay in Nako – another place we loved – our stay in Dhankar was much against the advice of all travel agents in Shimla: “It's too high”, “there is little to see”, “there is nowhere to stay”.

Well, we were thankfully reluctant to follow their advice. The list of misinformation they had dished out about Spiti was long, and more importantly, Mary had put her foot down. Our wonderful host in Sangla valley had shaken her head when we told her our travel plans (Sangla valley to Tabo and then onwards to Kaza, Kye and Kibber). Indeed, a recipe on how to miss out on the best parts, she told us. Both Nako and Dhankar deserved longer visits.

Unfortunately, most travellers spend only a few hours in Dhankar before jeeping away to Kaza or Tabo. And, as expected, the monastery guesthouse has no agreements with travel agencies. Manik, a cheerful stereotype of Indian hospitality, told us “we give no commission. The ones who want to come and stay, can stay”. Sadly, travel agencies snub them. And since the majority of tourists ask for help to plan their route when booking their jeeps, Dhankar and Nako are often left out.

Anyway. Back to the monastery on the cliff. From the monastery guest house, a dusty and narrow road leads to the old monastery. I asked Manik, and not surprisingly; just like the tourists, the monks prefer the old monastery.

But, only Buddha knows how long the old monastery will be around. It seems only a matter of time before the monastery, along with the rocks and sand supporting it, will tumble down into Spiti river and extinction. It is already on the list of the 100 most endangered monuments in the world.

When entering, a narrow staircase leads to the top floor, where you find a small courtyard flanked by prayer rooms. Inside most of them, cracks run from top to bottom next to fading frescos on the wall. If you come around prayer time (and you're a man; women are not allowed to witness the puja here), you can sit in with the monks. When we passed by, it seemed like the cosiest puja in Spiti. The monks sat huddled together in thick bags of sheep wool, sipping hot tea in a room that barely fit two benches, but that most likely kept in most of the heat.

Heat, you see, was a scarcity in Dhankar. Already on our second day, fog crept in and the air seemed unusually crisp. The explanation came the morning after when my boyfriend peeked out the window.

“I blame you one hundred percent for this. Have you seen the amount of snow outside?!” He paused for dramatic effect before adding: “Yes, this is entirely your fault!”

Right. Having almost melted away in Rajasthan, I was the one who had wanted to go to the Himalayas. I might even have said at one point that I looked forward to being cold.

Well, I got what I wished for. There was snow. Lots and lots of it. In June. For the first time in 26 years.

Electricity was also out. As you may imagine, we were cold. It was two degrees outside and no heating inside. After the third day of candle light toilet visits and three layers of wool blankets wrapped around us as eskimo dresses, we started to check if any cars could take us to Kaza. If we were to be stuck up in the mountains, we would prefer to go to the largest town in Spiti, where we could find working phone connections and information about what was happening.

At first, our prospects of leaving looked bleak. No one wanted to take us the one hour drive to Kaza. The mountains in Spiti are largely rocks and sand. When the valley escapes its normal rain shadow, boulders easily come tumbling down the mountains. But then, the Congress party – India's ruling party headed by an Italian (no worries, the Indians are just as perplexed as you are right now) – rolled into the village in two jeeps. With a by-election for the state government only days away (23 June), they were out campaigning in the villages.

Although originally looking for a leaflet, my boyfriend ended up getting us a lift to Kaza. We had to come electioneering with them first though, the Congress party half-way apologised, making my boyfriend's eyes twinkle even stronger. Although a bit of sleet was not to stop the campaign, the first few rocks that appeared on the road did. Within minutes of sitting squeezed into the jeep, Congress party visors on our heads, we turned around. The day's campaigning was called off and we were en route directly to Kaza.

But, also in the big smoke of Kaza electricity was out and we were advised to look for a room in one of the traditional mud houses that apparently have the thickest walls. Soaked within minutes as we left the car, we sought shelter and cinnamon buns at the German Bakery in town.

Kaza turned out to be a major adventure in our India trip. By the time we had reached town, landslides had eaten up the road in four places en route back to Rekong Peo and the mountain road over to Manali was still blocked by glaciers and had yet to open this year. We were stuck. But, stranded with 16 Indians in a hotel with no heating or electricity for a week whilst jointly plotting our escape/evacuation taught us more about India than what we learnt in the past two and a half months combined. And, we had the German Bakery. And, that is for my next blog post!


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