The remote region of Spiti in the Indian Himalaya
Originally published in the Khaleej Times, 29/04/11
The bus lurched around another hairpin bend, and a terrifying void opened to the left. Hundreds of feet below I could see the river, a streak of turquoise in a landscape the colour of wild horses. Crumbling ridges rose on either side, and the pale mountain sun burnt coldly in a hollow sky. This was the Old Tibet Road, one of the most spectacular – not to mention terrifying – highways on earth. I gritted my teeth, ignored the chasm below, and focused on the stark mountains beyond. I was on the very brink – quite literally – of my destination: the remote upland fastness of Spiti.
Hard on the Tibetan border in the Indian mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, Spiti is a world apart. A long valley, walled in by sky-scraping ridges, its language, landscape and culture are more Tibetan than Indian. But while its better known northern neighbour, Ladakh, has long had a prime place on the travel map with direct flights from Delhi ferrying in thousands of visitors each summer, Spiti has slipped beneath the radar.
As a sensitive border region it was only opened to outsiders in 1993; there is no airport, and the rough roads (it is a two day trip from the Himachal capital Shimla, or a 16-hour jeep ride from the tourist hub of Manali) has kept all but the most adventurous at bay.
It was the promise of epic mountain scenery and authentic Tibetan Buddhist culture that had led me to brave that bus ride. News of an expanding network of locally run village home-stays, meanwhile, left me confident of finding somewhere to stay.
The next day, with my nerves scarcely settled from the jolting journey, I met the key mover behind those home-stays and wider efforts to develop sustainable community-based tourism in Spiti.
Sonam Tsering is a pint-sized force of nature, a sometime trekking guide, restaurateur and all-out enthusiast for his own Spitian culture. Over a steaming bowl of phakste, Spiti-style dumpling soup, in his Kunzum Top Cafe in the village of Tabo, he shared his views.
According to Sonam the slow development of tourism in Spiti has been a blessing in disguise. Tabo is the hub of what passes for a tourist industry here, but it is home to nothing more than a dozen guesthouses and a clutch of cafes.
“The most important thing is sustainability,” he said, citing the ugly plethora of concrete hotels that swamp Manali and the Ladakhi capital Leh. “And it is also important that the first benefit should be for local people. This is the thinking behind the home-stays; it spreads the benefit so it’s not just here in Tabo. There are home-stays now in even the most remote villages.”
While not running his restaurant or helping home-stay owners Sonam’s other cause is the preservation of Spitian culture. Concerned that traditional music was vanishing from village festivals, he and a group of friends have set about learning to play – and to record – Spitian folk songs. As night fell over Tabo he reached for a khokpo, a long-necked Spitian guitar, hanging on the wall, and smiling modestly – “I’m not very good yet!” – he began to pluck a wiry rhythm.
The monk settled himself cross-legged on a pile of dusty blankets, turned the first strip of elaborate Tibetan script, and with a gentle clearing of the throat began to chant in a low rumbling voice. I was the only other person in the little chamber of the protector deity in the ancient Buddhist monastery of Dhankar, 20 kilometres west of Tabo. The monk’s name was Chumpa, and a few minutes earlier he had found me wandering alone in the courtyard and invited me to watch his lonely morning puja ceremony.
When he was finished I stepped outside into the sharp sunlight. This tiny monastery village was perched in the very teeth of the mountains 3894 metres above sea level. The air here was thin and the light was sharper than glass. Alpine choughs with glossy black wings twisted in the cold thermals, and far below the blue-grey river was braided into a mesh of channels on the valley floor.
Spiti’s name means “The Middle Land”, reflecting its past as a place between more powerful neighbours: Tibet, Ladakh, Kullu, and Kashmir – and these days India and China. Buddhism probably arrived here in the 7th Century, amalgamating with the ancient Bon religion of the mountains. Today most of Spiti’s 10,000 people belong to the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism, the Yellow Hat sect of the Dalai Lama.
From Dhankar I travelled onwards into the Middle Land, sometimes staying in village home-stays recommended by Sonam, sometimes bedding down in the simple guesthouses attached to Buddhist monasteries. In the stony side valley of the Pin National Park, the snow leopards said to haunt the upper slopes eluded me, but the snow-streaked mountain scenery was worth the detour. Spiti is prime trekking country, and the Pin Valley is the starting point for the week-long hike into the neighbouring Kullu Valley.
Further west I passed through Kaza, the administrative capital of Spiti, and the only place in the valley where concrete and tin predominate over packed earth and poplar wood. From here a strip of winding tarmac led north past another ancient hilltop monastery at Ki to Kibber, claimed to be one of the highest villages on earth. It was a cold place where ibex horns decorated the doorways and prayer flags snapped in the running breeze. In the evening herdsmen brought yaks down from the hillsides and there was a smell of wood-smoke and livestock. This was the edge of a wild world that runs east for many hundreds of kilometres – the world of the Tibetan Plateau.
My escape from Spiti would take me across the 4551-metre Kunzum Pass to Manali. But first I doubled back east to seek out one of the remotest of all the village home-stays, 20 kilometres up a side valley in the hamlet of Lalung.
For my final days in Spiti I was the guest of Tashi Bodh Khabrik and his wife Dolma. They have been taking in travellers for the past two years, and they were the best of hosts. I was given a room with a roof of poplar branches in a corner of a whitewashed village home.
Over a dinner of momos – Tibetan dumplings – in the cosy kitchen-cum-living room that is the heart of every Spitian home, Tashi told me how the villagers club together to take care of their combined flocks of goats and yaks. Each family has only a few animals so people take it in turns to take the entire four-legged population of the village out to graze before returning each beast to its individual owner at nightfall. In winter, Tashi said, the dirt track down to the main valley was often blocked by snow for months on end; beyond the village there is nothing until the Tibetan border.
Here in Lalung, amongst the narrow lanes, the poplar-lined irrigation ditches, the endless cups of tea and the cheerful calls of “Joolay!” – the standard Spitian greeting – the journey into the Middle Land along bone-shaking mountain roads seemed more than worthwhile.
© Tim Hannigan 2011