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Adventures in Spiti

17th July 2010, Manikaran.
With its spectacular mountain scenery, friendly inhabitants and generally laid-back atmosphere, Himachal Pradesh has easily become my favourite state in India - at this time of year at least - during the winter temperatures can drop to -30 degrees in some places; I don't think I'd be so keen on it then.

When I left you last I was about to embark on a trip to the remote Spiti Valley, and feeling a tad nervous about the ten-hour jeep ride there. Well I needn't have worried. My driver was very good, and I soon felt relaxed enough to enjoy the trip immensely . . . in fact I can truly say that it was one of the best experiences of my life. I was lucky enough to have fantastic weather for the trip, and sat in the front on the jeep, leaning out of the window with my camera held up to my eye for most of the journey. The scenery was just superb, and I hit a new daily record for the amount of photographs taken. You can see a very small selection of them here, and read more about my jeep journey from Manali to Spiti in my blog.

I arrived in Kaza around three, a tad battered and bruised from the bumpy roads, but ecstatically happy. I checked into the Mandala Hotel, which was just a short stagger away, and was warmly welcomed by the family who run it including the very cute kids, Lamo and Zompa. As I'd just experienced a 1,600-metre increase in altitude, I thought it wise to relax the next day and do nothing too strenuous, so I set to work on my multitude of pictures. The weather was a little overcast anyway, so a lazy day was no great loss. The power went off in the morning, but fortunately my laptop was fully charged and I get about three hours on a full battery. When that had run out I went to the generator-powered Internet cafe and listened to all the tourists complain about the bad connection and the extortionate price (about £1.20 an hour). Admittedly the connection was shocking, but come on guys - we're in an extremely remote location and the guy's got a generator running - give him a break! By the time I'd got back to my room the power had returned, and my laptop was recharging. It went off again around eleven, but I didn't think too much of that.

The following day was wet and miserable, but having just had a lazy day, I couldn't justify another one (and besides the power was still off, so I couldn't work on my pictures anyway) so off I set to Tabo. On the bus there I realised I was woefully underdressed, in my salwar kamiz and yak-wool poncho; it was decidedly chilly. Fortunately I had brought my umbrella, but why I hadn't bothered bringing a jumper was beyond me. I can only put it down to being decidedly dozy first thing in the morning, as those who know me well can confirm. I shivered my way around the monastery that Tabo is famous for, trying to shelter my camera from the rain with my umbrella, which kept collapsing on my head. I was cold, wet and grumpy, and remained unimpressed at Tabo - which I'm sure is the fault of the weather and my short temper rather than the town itself. (Click for pictures and blog)

On my return to the guesthouse the power was still off - which meant that the hot water geyser wasn't working, so I couldn't have a hot shower to warm up. As the power had come on around seven the night before, I didn't worry too much though, and uploaded the days pictures before having something to eat. Back in my room afterwards, it was getting dark and there was still no sign of the electricity. I found some candles in a drawer, and lit one, reading for a little while before going to sleep before nine. The next day was wetter than the last, and felt cold - my thermometer confirming that it was around 15 degrees. I had no inclination to go out, so spent most of the day huddled under two duvets, wearing almost all of my clothes, and read up on Nepal, where I shall be heading in a little over a month. The power remained absent all day.

Wednesday began in a similar fashion, but fortunately by three o'clock the sun had put in a tenuous appearance, mostly hiding behind the clouds like a shy child, but letting us know that it was still there at least. The power was of course off all day, and I had all but given up hope of it ever coming back. Then amazingly that evening, while I was eating dinner at the hotel restaurant, it came back. I jumped to my feet and punched the air - and heard a cheer echoing around the town. I don't think I've ever been so excited to see the glow of an electric lightbulb. It also meant I could watch Spain knock Germany out of the World Cup later that evening, which was a shame.

The sun remained the next day, so I set off to visit Dhankar, climbing up the steep path to the cute little village that nestles amongst the rocks, overlooked by the 1200-year-old monastery. The place is wonderfully picturesque, and the tough walk to the lake above the town was well worth the effort for the fantastically peaceful setting. I'd planned on catching the bus back, but instead walked around ten kilometres along the road before hitching a lift back to town. (Dhankar pictures and blog here).

I'd decided to do the full loop round through Kinnaur to Shimla, so spent much of the following day getting my inner line permit, which would allow me to visit the sensitive border region with Tibet. Before I left the region though I visited Ki Monastery, and was lucky enough to time my visit to coincide with a festival there. Monks dressed in elaborate costumes performed twirling dances, while the local villagers - and a fair few tourists - watched on in delight. As the monks left the performance area, women prostrated themselves, encouraging the monks to step on them along the way, presumably to earn merit. (Pictures and blog from Ki)

My guidebook had described the road I'd be leaving Spiti on as "the most dangerous and knee-trembling road in India", but I enjoyed it myself, and wasn't scared at all. During my time in Spiti I'd developed a great deal of faith in the drivers of the clunky old local buses - and a fatalistic attitude that allowed me to enjoy journeys alongside forbidding precipices. Sure, if we'd gone off the road we'd have died a horrible death, but these guys know what they're doing - and worrying about the possibilities won’t effect the outcome. The road may look only wide enough for one vehicle, but somehow when an approaching bus or lorry appears around a corner they manage to squeeze by each other with centimetres to spare and no harm done. (Leaving Spiti blog and pictures) We picked up three other tourists along the way: a Greek, a guy from Sudan, and an Israeli. When the bus arrived at Rekong Peo, ten hours after leaving Kaza, the four of us headed up to nearby Kalpa village, finding a hotel that had a TV so we could watch the World Cup Final. And what a game that was! In the absence of goals, we cheered everytime a yellow card was produced.

I spent two nights at the hotel - partly for a rest, but also because they had the best hot shower I'd come across since leaving home; hardly any food in the restaurant, but a great shower. My next stop was Shimla, another ten hour bus ride away. The scenery on this journey was a lot greener - I'd returned to an area with trees . . . and metres-high cannabis plants. I'm sure that a couple of decades ago the area was most spectacular, but hydroelectric projects have since blighted its beauty. The road was cut into the sheer rockface, as if some giant, rock-eating worm had munched its way through. With the scenery less spectacular, the journey dragged a little - especially the last couple of hours. For anyone heading to Spiti, I'd advise them to do the loop in reverse, saving the best scenery for last.

Shimla was as steep as I'd remembered it, and the bus stand was the most chaotic I'd seen in India. Coming from such a peaceful place, it was a bit of a shock to the system. I'd intended being lazy, and getting a porter to lug my pack to a hotel, but typically I couldn't spot one, so I had to struggle uphill myself. I stopped at the first hotel I saw, where their charges were far to high, but I asked to see a room anyway just to have a rest. My the time I'd got to the next hotel, I'd had enough - I was staying there regardless. I first checked into a depressingly small, smelly room - but after spending ten minutes crying, realised I couldn't stay there, and asked to see another room. They showed me another, which was passable, and reasonably priced . . . but it was in the basement and my Internet connection and phone didn't work - and having been out of touch for so long, that just wouldn't do. So I ended up in a rather odd room, with a circular bed, and mirrors on the ceiling - which kind of suggested a honeymoon suite . . . but there was another bed in that room, plus a separate room with two more beds in it. I know Indians like to be surrounded by each other, but this seemed like a strange set up to me.

I spent a couple of days in Shimla, mostly catching up with my photos and stuff, before moving on to Manikaran in the Parvati Valley. I'd accidentally booked myself on a super deluxe bus for the first six hours or so, then swapped to the other extreme for the last couple of hours of the journey - an incredibly overcrowded local bus with barely room for my luggage and I to squeeze inside. Amazingly a man, who was getting off a couple of stops later, gave up his seat for me, while another local held on to my bag to stop it falling over - this wouldn't happen on the plains; people are so much nicer up here. The town of Manikaran is famous for its hot springs, and I selected a guesthouse with a plunge pool filled with roasting spring water - just the ticket after a long day of travelling. On the downside there was also a smelly toilet in the room - but if I'm not used to the smell of piss after four months in India, I never will be!

For once I turned down a room with a view here . . . as the view was mostly of a rubbish tip complete with grazing cows. Manikaran has a considerable garbage problem for such a small town, no doubt exacerbated by the high number of domestic tourist and pilgrims that flood to the area. The bank that lines the roaring river sadly doubles as the local tip. I took a walk along the other bank today, and was shocked by the scale of the problem. I guess that's due in part to having just visited Spiti, which was, by Indian standards, almost spotless.

I think I'm going to head to the hippie traveller hangout of Kasol, just a few kilometres away, for my birthday, which is only a few days away. As usual, it's a little odd having a birthday in a far flung place, thousands of miles away from friends and family (again though, I should be used to it by now really). Hopefully I can find some new chums to enjoy the day with, but in case I can't, please do raise a glass to me on the twentieth. Once I've got my birthday out of the way (and begin the countdown to the big 4-0, gulp!) then I'll head back to Manali and on to Leh. Let's see if its scenery can top Spiti's


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