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The middle land

Gustasp & Jeroo Irani, Nov 6 2017, 12:11 IST
Spiti Kaza, a little settlement snuggled under the compelling landscape of a high-altitude desert.

Spiti Kaza, a little settlement snuggled under the compelling landscape of a high-altitude desert.

After the explosively lush beauty of Sangla in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh and its forests of pine and cedar, wildflowers and gushing streams, we were heading for the high-altitude desert starkness of Spiti valley. This entailed an eight-hour drive but we soon realised that the Trans Himalayan region does not let you enter its charmed heart easily.

Initially, we exulted that the roads had improved, but half an hour before the rough and tumble town of Spillow, our car ground to a halt behind a serpentine queue of vehicles of every shape and size. People had spilt out of their cars and a wedding party decked up in all their finery, the women in rustling silks and the men in jaunty Kinnauri caps with plumes were posing for selfies on the filament-like road.

Below us, the Sutlej river tore through the gorge reflecting our impatience, but there were no signs of road rage or anxiety amongst the laid-back queue of cars brimming with happy vacationers and locals. Minutes, then hours, ticked away as the road was being widened. A couple of times, calls of "Khool gaya. It's open," rippled down the line of cars, but they turned out to be false alarms. A gentleman from the wedding party said that delays such as these were to be expected in these parts. A group of smiling locals handed us a few apricots in a gesture of friendship and we immediately felt better despite the delay.

It was a valuable lesson that we learnt in the mountains - of patience, fortitude and faith in the gods! After three hours, resignation was replaced by smiles and soon, we were away. With typical urban impatience, we overtook several cars and sped away over a fragile bridge that could take only one car at a time!

Beyond, the road was often gravelly and narrow, so narrow that the two left tires of the car grazed the sides of the mountain while the other two clung to the edge of a ravine. The frequent bumps and grinds would have had us airborne but for our seat belts.

After lunch at the one-horse town of Spillow, the landscape decided to pull out all the stops. Mountains rose like huge seismic humps and struck belligerent poses. Vast gorges swept past, resembling the open cavernous mouth of a giant, while the river ripped through like it was on steroids.

In the distance, the white-tipped Himalayas shimmered in the sun, while below, brown mountain ranges that changed colour under passing clouds - from dun to steel-grey, dark-blue to bruised purple - rose like angry, bunched fists.

We passed towns with quaint names and reached Khab, which is the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti rivers that roared through a vast gorge. Above us soared the Reo Purgyil, (6,816 m or 22,363 ft), the highest peak in Himachal Pradesh.

The town of Nako turned out to be a charming one with the air of a Central Asian settlement on the Silk Route. It has a monastery and a poplar-rimmed lake, but we did not linger as darkness was gathering, and driving at night in the mountains was a scary prospect.

Naturally interrupted

But fate had other plans for us and a little ahead there was a landslide and another knuckle-biting wait of two hours. Once on our way again, the dark road was lit only by the headlights of our car and a stainless steel moon that spilt its beams on the other-worldly landscape.

Three kilometres ahead of the town of Sumdo, which marked our entry into the magical Spiti Valley, a fork in the road towards the north leads to the village of Gue, the home of the sacred, naturally preserved Mummy Lama. According to legend, the mummy is of a lama who lived 600 years ago. It is believed that he purged the village from the scourge of scorpions. When he died, a rainbow straddled the sky and, today, the village of a few hundred souls worship the mummy like a living god.

Dressed in silk robes and kept in a glass chamber in the monastery, the mummy has not been embalmed yet is well-preserved, and even his hair and teeth are intact. But we had to skip Gue as darkness clung to the landscape like a highwayman's cloak.

We reached Tabo around 9 pm, shrouded in the quiet of night and seemingly fast asleep like a spell had been cast on it by a wicked witch. However, our hotel, the oldest in Tabo, was lit like a beacon and after a hot dinner, we fell asleep dreaming of fire-breathing dragons flying over soaring massifs. The next morning, just beyond our verandah stretched Glistening-green barley fields, and in the distance were low-slung, whitewashed mud-brick homes similar to the ones in Ladakh.

'High' tea

We couldn't wait to get to Tabo Monastery, the oldest continuously functioning gompa in India dating to 996 AD, and said to be the Ajanta-Ellora of the Himalayas. A young monk showed us around the spotless monastery consisting of nine chapels in mud-walled buildings. Five of them, dating between 10th and 11th centuries, glowed with murals that looked like they had been painted yesterday. Indeed, the best Buddhist muralists painted them in the Tibetan and Indian styles.

After our exploration of the old and new gompas, filled with a vibrant energy, a wizened lady invited us to tea which she had brewed fresh on a portable stove in the expansive grounds. With typical urban insensitivity, we offered to pay for the tea, but she gave us a toothless smile and said that it was a service to welcome visitors. Another lesson learnt - don't offer cash in these remote inhospitable tracts where kindness and compassion are the only legal tender.

Soon, we were on our way to Kaza, the sub-district headquarters of Spiti, revelling in the scenery once again. Back in Mumbai, we dream of the mountains that rise in defiance of the heavens; some that crouch like wrinkled folds on an ancient face while others clad their nakedness in shawls of fleecy clouds. Nor will we forget the villages that balance on precarious ridges, sparsely populated with a few hundred souls - warm, welcoming and nurturing.

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