Stuck in the snow in Spiti

27 Jun

Kaza is the district headquarters of Spiti and the little town where you stop for supplies before you head for one of Spiti's more remote villages or the mountains. Or, if you were there in June this year, where you were simply stuck.

With one petrol pump, even if it is the highest in the world, a bus stand, a few restaurants and hotels, as well as a monastery, Kaza was not a place we intended to stay for a week. Even less so when it turned out that the floods further south had washed away the power lines, leaving Kaza without heating and electricity.

(Before I continue, I’d like to stress to the ones back home who might have followed Indian news and know that flooding devastated the Himalayan region in June that we were in the northeast of Himachal Pradesh. It was in the state of Uttarakhand that swollen rivers took down entire towns and killed an estimated 1,000 people – with the figure likely to rise.

We were unaware of this while in Himachal Pradesh – as we were cut off both literally and communicationwise. We only knew of the landslides isolating people in the hill state we were in. For us, the “evacation” was a matter of getting people back to work and their families, not away from gushing waters.)

The route back south to Shimla was blocked by landslides in four places, which the ones in the know said would take weeks to clear, and the road northwest to Manali had yet to open for the year. A menacing glacier was blocking the way just by Kunzum Pass at 4551 metres.

But there was adrenalin in the air (as well as snow, sleet, fog and the smell of unwashed tourists). Every morning, a new impatient jeep would set out, its driver hopeful the information that had reached Kaza was inaccurate and the road in either direction would turn out to be open. Though, as the eight, ninth and then eventually also the tenth Indian came back for the night, day after day, someone brightly pointed out, “This has become Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave!”.

Huddled together in the common room, the only room warm thanks to the sheer number of Indians inside with woolen hats and mittens, we spent the next few days “doing time pass” and learning other Hinglish phrases.

It's not like we had a bad time in Kaza. After the first two days with sleet, the fog lifted and the sun came out over snow-capped peaks in one of the most spectacular valleys on earth. And, “downtown”, as I once happened to call Kaza's main one street and which caught on among laughing Indians, was Babu, a cheerful Nepalese man who every day got up at 3am to make cinnamon buns and apple pies in candle light for his German Bakery.

But, people's vacation times were running out. Erratic bosses, concerned Indian mothers and frustrated colleagues were on the lines, whenever the phone connections worked (“I get no connection. We're back and beyond!”). Some had children they needed to get back home to. Domestic tourists from southern India kept postponing and cancelling their flights from Delhi and home, running up higher and higher costs for their vacations. Rented jeep drivers, paid by the day, were playing cards in the garden. (It wasn't all bad though; for many Indians, it was their first snow fall. Though by the time the snow turned to sleet and then eventually rained away, most of them had been cured of their initial obsession).

For us, it was a different story. Our plane tickets out of India were two weeks away (one week by the time we managed to leave). We would have prefered to explore the area around Kaza, but with uncertain rumours about coming bad weather and when the roads would open, we decided to stay put in the big smoke of Spiti and not end up stranded in one of the remote mountain villages. And, in many respects, being stuck in Kaza turned out to be one of our highlights in India.

Consider, for instance, a room full of extremely bored Indians and two extremely curious tourists. Name the question and we had at any time a handful of friendly and interesting people ready to explain and answer. Consider the opportunities to discuss Indian politics and society; among the just under twenty people we met, there were Catholics from the south, Bengali Hindus, Sikhs from Punjab, atheists and muslims from Delhi and Indians living in England. Later, thanks to the helpful and insisting tourist information they also provided, we ended up seeing the pythonesque border ceremony with Pakistan, had the super and original Moti Mahal's butter chicken in Delhi, and we had wonderful new friends to meet up with when we all eventually made it to Delhi.

Indeed, we were having a really great time. When we each got a bucket of hot water on day five in Kaza (day eight with no hot water in hotel rooms we could see our own breath in), we were even close to ecstatic.


The Indians were less happy with being stuck. As the days passed, the pressure mounted to get people out, or more accurately, to get the voting booths in. A local by-election was only a little week away and the electronic voting machines had to be brought in and set up in the villages.

With no roads, the only option was by helicopter. After offloading the voting machines, the helicopter was able to bring a few people out. And for the rest of us, it was a day of exciting time pass.

So, there we were again, sipping hot chocolate in the common room of our hotel. But then, one euphoric day later, there was one who triumphed. The Sikh family of four who had persistently tried for days to drive over the mountains sent a text message. This time they were not coming back. They were through; Manali, no wool and lots of electricity next!

And, by that time, German Bakery in town or not, we were ready to wake up without being fully clothed under three thick woolen blankets, to shower in hot water and not with wet napkins, and to not order cups upon cups of tea to have something warm to hold on to.

We were lucky enough to get a lift with one of the Indian couples we met in the hotel, who adopted us for the week and made sure we were updated with information about our evacuation routes (as well as regional and national tourist information, restaurant recommendations, recipes, invitations for dinners in Delhi, and the Indian political situation… to name but a few.).

So, thank you Debbie and Ashok for getting us out of Kaza! And to the rest of the tour group that made our frosty stay in Kaza well worth the wait, thank you for a great week.

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!


Drab Tabo with the grandiose monastery

24 Jun

Honestly, when I first arrived in Tabo I thought to myself, why oh why would I want to come here? And let alone, why would anyone like to live here? Yet, this drab little place is why many people travel up to Spiti.

Tabo greets you with a helipad, a few shops and a number of hotels in the middle of a barren expanse high in the Himalayas. On each side of the small village, rocky mountains sweep down with hardly a hint of green in sight. It is like stumbling into a giant quarry with a dozen confused households.

But, in a small compound in the middle of the village is a world-famous monastery. In 1996, Tabo monastery celebrated a millennium of existence. It has been a working monastery since it was founded; in the past one thousand years, Tabo gompa has not known a day without prayer.

Most of the monasteries in Spiti are impressively located on top of a cliff or a hill. Tabo monastery is on a flat ground. Made of sand and clay, the buildings look plain and boring from the outside.

But, on the inside they harbour some of the most important Buddhist art in the world. Duck inside with a small flash light and fragile frescos and clay sculptures come into sight. Some of the murals of deities and demons inside date back a thousand years.

After our morning with 30-year old Tashi who cracked jokes and served hot chai, the puja in Nako monastery would be a tough act to follow, even for monastery rock star Tabo.

We caught the monks in Tabo just before their lunch. Twelve monks sat cross-legged in the main prayer hall, counting their prayer beads and sipping tea. A small window in the ceiling let in just enough light for them to read their prayers. As the monks slowly read through their prayers, I realised that Tashi had given us the express puja. After twenty minutes, the cymbals and drum were still untouched. My boyfriend had similar thoughts. “I bet they don't skip pages”, he whispered, before adding: “I don't think we get tea here.”

We didn't. We did however get more of a show than the one Tashi put on. While he stumbled sleepy into the monastery, wearing his red robes, a hoodie and woolen socks, these monks were impeccably attired. Several of them wore large golden decorations on their heads and intricately woven shawls on top of their saffron and red-coloured robes. The chanting at different notes by 12 monks was also more impressive than that of a single monk.

Yet, I preferred Tashi's prayer. In Tabo, a tourist would every now and then move around the room to take in the murals, while in Nako it was just the three of us. The larger number of monks in Tabo, with the occasional one checking his watch or resting his back on the pillar behind, also made the Tabo prayer feel less intimate and more like a scheduled group exercise.

And, all of a sudden, that was it. Two monks suddenly got up and walked out of the room. Another quickly emptied what was left in a white tea cup. The rest of the monks folded together their thicker blankets and walked out quickly as well. It felt like a meeting had ended.

Perhaps that was why Tabo was my least favourite monastery among the ones we visited in Spiti (Nako, Tabo, Dhankar, Kye and Kaza). The monks left without a nod, smile or a glance in our direction. In all the other places, I felt invited to see the prayer and many of the monks invited us to tea and a chit-chat post-prayer. Though in Tabo I had the feeling of being someone peaking in, not being invited in.

Yet, as we were on our way out, the woman in charge of the small gift shop at the entrance and also for detecting any cameras, encouraged us to come back: “Now, lunch break. You come back two o'clock!”


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?”