woensdag 23 oktober 2013

Over The Hills And Far Away or From Spiti With Love

It's quiet here. Really quiet.

If there wasn't so much to tell I would leave this entry empty to show how quiet India can be.

Sure, there's the occasional honking in the 'capital' Kaza (elevation 3640m), but there is little reason for honking because there are almost no cars and just a handful of people around. There are rocks though, loads and loads of rocks. And there are mountains. Many mountains. Definitely more mountains than people.

I have to get used to this. It's so quiet.

There's a reason why the Spiti region is so quiet though, you figure that out before you get there. You don't 'just' get to Spiti (at least not in the way Spiti gets to you). There is a road, yes. However, the road leads through the mighty Kunzum La pass, which is truly as Lord of the Rings-ish as it sounds. Rising almost 5000 meters into the air, the pass is home to a landscape that gives you a very good idea of what Mordor (or for those non-LoTRs, the Moon) would look like if you were to see it with your own eyes. Nothing but dust, rocks and high mountains. In ten hours of (hazardous, terrible 'roads') driving you come across maybe three/four villages, with on average five houses. Amazing how so little can make such an impact. Spiti must be Tibetan for complete and utter emptiness.

On the way I la shared a taxi with Peter (aka 'The Cricket Guy'), an Englishman who works for HawkEye and is involved with the implementation of the system in India's favorite sport: Cricket. Being in the middle of nowhere with at least one person who speaks decent English, yay!

Arriving in Kaza after managing our way through Morder, we got a sense of Indian planning. We booked through the same agency and everything seemed to go more or less as planned, until we were dropped at a hotel in Kaza. No one there. After finding some people sleeping somewhere, it became clear that they were not expecting us. Wait, I thought this was booked weeks in advan... It was not. Luckily Peter had the number of a guy called Lara who was supposed to arrange this for us at Kaza. Apparently there had been a week long power cut and he had received no notice of our arrival, but he was on his way right now.

Enter the kind ("no problem-no problem, just tell me, no problem"), but very chaotic Lara. First question he asked: "whaddayouwannado?" Turned out he knew almost as little as the people of the hotel. Luckily Lara did know how to arrange things on the spot and made sure we got more or less what we paid for. For me that included trekking & homestays in some of the villages in the region.

Homestay in the the villages of Spiti, is a back to basics thing. There's no running water (so no showers or flush toilets), there are no chairs or tables, actually there is virtually nothing but a television, a stove, some mats and cooking utensils in these houses mostly made of mud and wood. There's electricity (most of the time), but it's only there for the television and a handful of lamps. The stove burns on (dried) Yak shit and is used for cooking, providing warmth and the continues supply of hot water (for chai tea of course). While the family sleeps in what really is a living room (that's where the stove and the warmth is; smart people), I generally slept along with my guide in another room which consisted of four walls, a ceiling, a floor, two mattresses and some blankets, and a window. It's simple, but it's also all that you need. Anyway after walking for a few hours (elevation 3500-4500m), you're pretty tired, so no complains.

Since the Tibetan language isn't one of my strong points and they rarely spoke a word of English, my guide was crucial in any communication with the families we stayed at. They generally didn't interact too much though, except during breakfasts, lunch and dinner. Apparently, as a guest, you're always hungry no matter how much you ate already. You really have to forcibly decline and actively indicate with gestures that the food was great (it was, best veg momo's I've had in India) but that you're full now. You won't leave these houses hungry as they share whatever they have.

Weather changes quickly in the Himalaya. One day you walk in the sun with just a t-shirt, next day the first snowflakes of the season make their debut in the skies of Spiti. The latter meant that we sort of had to evacuate from the village we where in, as there was no telling how the weather would behave. Good plan, because though the villages and its people are nice, you don't want to get stuck in the middle of the middle of nowhere.

Got a hint of the cultural differences when my guide asked why I wasn't here with my wife. When I told him I wasn't married he seemed genuinely concerned (at my age he already had been married for two years and had his first child). I kindly declined his half-serious offer of letting him finding me a wife here and I assured him I would return in two years with my wife. Oh well, you never know, do you?

If and when I return I'm pretty sure I won't take the bus from Kaza to Reckong Peo again. While the trip from Manali to Kaza with its small decaying roads, relatively high speed and non-existing safety precautions was not risk free (despite the occasional warning of a landslide prone area, from a European safety perspective the entire road was prone to landslides), the trip to Reckong Peo was far worse.

Referred to in the Lonely Planet as one of 'India's most dramatic mountain roads' and the same books also warns those who take the bus that they may have some tense moments 'as the bus skids around hairpin bends with millimeters to spare'. Regarding the latter statement, the last part is not entirely correct. Generally the bus does indeed skid these hairpins with little to no margins to the edge (over the edge and you're gone, no chance), but you get used to that. After a while you start to 'trust' busdriver and accept his driving like this because he knows what he's doing and you can enjoy the beautiful scenery. But. Then there are the moments that there is an overarching wall of stone, pushing such a large vehicle as a bus not just to, but slightly over the edge. Those are the scary moments that the bus creeps forward centimeter by centimeter and you feel that at least one tire has lost contact with the road. It's a balancing act on a road which even by Indian standards could be labeled as unsafe. I'm perfectly allright with near the edge with high speed, but next time I think I'll avoid the over edge with slow speed, even if that means backtracking. Got some good pictures though!

After a ten hour ride we at Reckong Peo (not a very appealing town) and a short night's sleep later there was another ten hour bustrip towards Shimla. The contrast couldn't have been bigger. More soon!

The way to Kaza (Spiti):

Spiti river:


Pictures Trekking:
Kaza - Langsha - Komick - Dhemu - Dhankar


Dhankar Monastery (below), built upon an ridge that's slowly falling apart. They're actually constructing a new monastery nearby, because this one is getting too dangerous. Second picture may give an indication how worn-down this part of the mountain is and how precarious the situation of the monastery.

Look to the right (Spiti river):

And to the left (more Spiti river. The snow on that mountain was the first of the season, winter was coming):

Unfortunately no pictures from the infamous trip from Kaza to Reckong Peo, but these will follow later, as they're on the digital camera. They're worth the wait though, promise.

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