Driving through Middle Land
- AREFA TEHSIN
Gurgling rivers, crunchy apples, breathtaking views…Spiti Valley turns the writer into a storyteller
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” Bilbo had warned Frodo. And so were we warned, before we went to Spiti, literally ‘The Middle Land’ between India and Tibet, which is no less adventurous than the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings.
After an inspiring self-drive to Ladakh last year, we had to brave the more desolate desert mountain valley of Spiti in the Himalayas, located in the remotest part of Himachal. On the very first day of our long self-drive journey, the T-shirt of one of our gang warned us — ‘Things don’t get easier, you get stronger’.
Our journey started from Chandigarh. Crossing Shimla, we entered the valley through the Kinnaur region and reached Kaza, the district headquarters of Lahaul and Spiti, went in a long loop around the hushed valley and exited it through Rohtang La, which separates it from the chirpier Kullu valley. It’s essential to travel light if you don’t want to break your backs, however. Taking Solzhenitsyn’s advice, we let our memories be our travel bags and returned laden with a lot of extra baggage.
Apples, in full bloom throughout Kinnaur, were the constant companions on our autumn journey. We helped unburden the bent apple trees at every opportunity. We munched on apples as we hiked to the apple orchard village near the Sangla Valley, when we trekked from Chitkul alongside the Baspa River to the Chinese border and when we went to explore the area around Kalpa, with the snow-capped Kinner Kailash looming large by our side. Even when we reached the end of our comfort zones, we still carried apples.
The barrenness of the mountains strikes you with its suddenness as you enter the valley along the Spiti River and its numerous tributaries – from the fruit-abounding Kinnaur to the fruitless, pathless, treeless, fearless and people-less Spiti, one of the least populated regions of India. We passed villages with a population board stating “25 souls”.
Predominantly Buddhist, Spiti has a culture quite reflective of Tibet and Ladakh. It is dotted with gompas, around some of which small human settlements exist. The 1000-year-old Dhankar, perched precariously on jutting rocks on a mountaintop, is the most fascinating. It is losing its battle with the elements. It is on good terms with snow, but can’t stand rainfall, which has increased due to climate change. The revered dead animals that hang from its walls or the three skeleton-faced gods standing guard on tridents seem at a loss to halt the impending doom.
The best guides to any gompa are its lamas. Even if you had a working network in the remote Himalayas, Google cannot substitute talking to a lama, telling you that from each family they send the second son to become a lama to avoid division of family property. Or sitting in a wooden home in Sangla Valley, with the wife of the household asking one of her husbands to take care of the children while she talks of the fraternal polyandry practised by the locals — one wife with several husbands — to avoid division of family property. Paul Theroux wisely noted that tourists don’t know where they’ve been, and travellers don’t know where they’re going. And you too never know where these conversations will take you – to the deep recesses of timeless cultures or to the progressiveness of those supposedly left behind by progress.
Another popular monastery of the region is Key. On the winding road to this gompa, a golden mountain fox crossed our way at dusk with a fat rodent in its mouth. Although the drive by the river into the treeless Pin Valley was fascinating, there was no such encounter with a wild animal in this national park. And thus we kept driving in Spiti, with the hope to someday address Prophet Mohammed’s question, ‘Don’t tell me how educated you are; tell me how much you have travelled’ — especially since the question of education is a little touchy for most of us and we won’t tell that anyway.
If one is not as averse to a dry pit toilet as one is when it comes to talking of one’s educational qualifications, one can stay at Langza, the third highest village in Asia. Staying at a home in this village, which has a population of 200, provides an insight into their culture and the survival tactics needed in such an unfriendly terrain – and not to forget the local liquor.
Ibn Battuta had said that travelling leaves you speechless; then turns you into a storyteller. Our most adventurous story of the journey is of that fateful day when we crossed Kunzum La – which rises 15000 ft, dividing the Lahaul and Spiti region — in heavy snowfall, with our hearts and vehicle skidding from edge to edge, detoured to perilous Chandratal, crossed the stream-laced, pathless 50-km stretch till Gramphu at night, and arrived at Sissu just before we or the vehicles collapsed.
Sitting in Sissu by the willowed banks of the Chandra River, my partner Aditya told us its story. The Chandra River, as the mythology goes, was the princess of the kingdom around Chandratal, in love with Baga, the son of Suryatal’s king. They were caught and killed at Tandi, where they’d met to elope from their dissenting fathers. From then on, it is believed, they wander through mountains as Baga and Chandra rivers and converge perpetually at Tandi where they become the Chandrabhaga River. It’s not just us who are left speechless witnessing the Himalayas. The Himalayas are silent spectators in witnessing a race that has, for as long as they can remember, preferred war to love.