When electricity first coursed through the jagged terrain of Spiti, its older inhabitants were ill-equipped for change. Like the elderly woman who tried unsuccessfully to snuff out a light bulb as one would a candle, and then proceeded to douse it with water. The bulb exploded and the valley echoed with an urban legend. But change has been a constant in this Himalayan haven ever since the earth folded up to form the greatest of the world’s mountain ranges, its rippling ridges and striations forming a variegated pattern of textures and colour. This tiny valley in Himachal Pradesh, which straddles both India and Tibet, has belonged to the Guge kingdom of the Tibetan plateau, and the kingdoms of Ladakh, Kullu, Punjab and Kashmir, before it became a part of British India.
The previously pastoral settlement was impenetrable until 1992, due to its sensitive border with China; even Indians needed a permit for entry. Today, it is largely agricultural, having undergone a rapid transformation since it opened its doors to the world. Spiti is the eco-traveller’s dream, unspoilt and pristine. From the Kunzum Pass, our car is but a slow-moving snowflake in the magnificent vastness of the arid landscape that resembles, at times, the Grand Canyon. The dramatic play of light and shadow under a mackerel sky mimics the movement of a time-lapse video in which the Spiti River is a constant companion. In Kyato, en route to Kaza, yaks plough fields that have been freshly harvested of green peas. In Demul, women roast barley for the coming winter, pressing some into our hands as a snack while we gaze upon snow-capped peaks from behind fluttering prayer flags. Higher into the mountains is the last potter of Langza, who shoulders the great responsibility of having to train a new generation in its dying, traditional art.
It is little wonder, then, that visitors to this destination should wish to contribute towards its upkeep; Spiti offers what most destinations can only dream of promising—a return, if briefly, to the simple life. This is a place where even the tourist can make a difference and drive change. The bedrock of all activity here is Ecosphere, a social enterprise that works with the local community to create sustainable livelihoods. With its focus on conservation and development of the region, the NGO protects traditional agricultural practices, ensuring that Spiti’s produce remains organic. The organisation has its roots in seabuckthom—a berry packed with minerals, vitamins and Omega oils 3, 6, 7 and 9, among other nutrients— that grows wild in the valley.
What began as a mission to educate the people of the region regarding the potential of this ‘miracle berry’ resulted in seabuckthom products, followed by solar houses and energy, management of black carbon emissions, reduction of the conflict between humans and wildlife (leading to an increased wolf population) and a revival of dying arts. But Ecosphere’s most significant contribution has actually been in the development of homestays for sustainable livelihoods, and in voluntourism. Today, thanks to the organisation’s initiatives, visitors have the chance to live with resident families to experience the local way of life firsthand, while a steady flow of volunteers means more helping hands in a variety of developmental projects. Schools from Canada and Scotland bring their students here on volunteer programmes, and in the green village of Demul, voluntourists have helped build greenhouses and restore a 500-year-old stupa.
For Jennifer Evert from Sacramento, California, the Live like a local programme is a chance to engage more deeply with Spiti’s culture. “From befriending other volunteers to working in the cafe, helping build an artificial glacier and experiencing the daily lives of my kind and generous host families, every phase here has been so different,” she says. The income from these activities goes back into the projects. “The goal, eventually, is local ownership. The staff is being trained for self-sustenance,” says Ishita Khanna, cofounder of Ecosphere. Her business partner, Cherring Norbu, tends to daily tasks from behind the counter of their fusion restaurant, Taste of Spiti. Here, and at their other cafe, Sol, even the menu, which combines local ingredients with global recipes (think barley pancakes with seabuckthom jam or Kaza falafel with black-pea hummus) has been conceptualised by a volunteer.
I learn soon enough that when in Spiti, one must do as the Spitians. This is a back-to-the-basics journey that shakes you out of your urban complacency. It challenges you to step out of your organic cafes and experience the real thing. To forsake fancy meditation retreats for the austere monastic life. To take a break from your virtual community and experience true community life. As for holistic living, try traditional healing with Tibetan Amchi medicine and trade the treadmill for a trek in the giant outdoors. In return, you will be blessed with the beauty and the wisdom of the Himalayas. From Kaza, we proceed towards Pin Valley National Park, where a red fox darts from behind the bushes and a herd of wild blue sheep (bharal) perches precariously atop a slope strewn with boulders. The park is thickly populated with snow leopards in winter, but for now we must be content with tamer sightings. Meanwhile, the village of Kalamuti, on the way, has a population of three people.
Our guest house, run by Choden and Chhimed Doijey, lies in Phukchung, at the edge of the national park. Meals are had in their adjoining family home and we gather around their hearth, revelling in its warmth. Food is integral to the Spiti home, and guests are warmly received in the welcoming space that is the kitchen, dining and living room all at once. In the days to come, we will partake of many meals around the bukhari or chaktap—the traditional stove with its chimney going up the roof—ranging from the thukpa, potato-stuffed momos and mutton soup to alu parathas, rajma chawal, instant noodles and more. I take a bite of the ornately shaped tingmo bread and down it with a shot of the potent barley arrack. Reeling from the latter’s intensity, my mind replicates the star-studded Himalayan night sky.
Chhurpi, the local cheese, is an essential ingredient in thukpa, formed when hung curd from the milk of a churn (a cross-breed of a yak and a cow) is kneaded and laid out to dry. In Demul, we watch Butith Dolma churn ghee from curd the traditional way, in a somchok made of juniper wood. She counts softly under her breath, turning and twisting the shuma, or wooden rod, with a leather strap to make a sloshing sound. On the 250th count, she heats the mixture and resumes activity; on the 500th count, the ghee rises to the top. The first offering is stuck onto the pillar to which the implements are attached. Called soktsel and used in the traditional butter tea, the ghee is then stored for a year. We are rewarded for our patience with femar, a mixture of ghee, sugar, barley and dried cheese. Milk and cheese apart, the yak’s wool is used to twine rope and weave beautiful woollen shawls and socks.
“A long-distance lover is like sunshine on the mountain,” goes the song that the young girls of Demul sing wistfully for us later that evening. Dressed in colourful shawls, headdresses and silver waist ornaments, they sing songs of sorrow and hardship, of happiness and peace; this oral tradition has been passed down generations of women. They clap their hands and dance in formation in a grassy clearing as boys from the village play the drums in accompaniment. The mountainscape behind them resembles a studio backdrop. The experience is sublime, almost spiritual. Spirituality is integral to the tiny population of about 14,000—entirely Buddhist—that lives in Spiti. The valley is a veritable constellation of gompas, or monasteries, like at Ki, Dhankar, Tabo, Kungri and others, all atop impossibly beautiful locations. The prominent ones like Ki and Dhankar house thangkas that are almost 1,000 years old, and a bedroom occupied by the Dalai Lama during his visits.
Hie community is closely connected to the gompas—most families give their second son as a lama. Monks are highly revered and, interestingly, open to change. “Buddhism needs to keep up with the times,” says Takpa Loden of the Ki monastery, telling me that where entertainment was denied earlier, monks are now allowed access to TV and the Internet. In Pangmo, we spend the night in a nunnery and debate the notions of right and wrong with the young chomos (nuns). Spiti’s gompas hone the debating skills of monks and nuns, who are encouraged to question teachings and precepts. The flexibility of the religion adds to its appeal; they can even renounce monastic life should they be disenchanted with it. The blue-faced Medicine Buddha is an important figure in most monasteries; in Norbu’s house, an entire room is dedicated to this Buddha.
Spilling over with scrolls, medical scriptures and thangkas that go back several centuries, this room is where he meditates to invoke the spiritual powers granted to his family by the Medicine Buddha. Norbu belongs to a long line of Amchi physicians, and like his forefathers before him, he is training in Sowa-Rigpa, the ancient science of healing, which uses a profusion of powders made from the 1,000-odd medicinal plants and herbs found in the region. But the trained hydrogeologist has no ready antidote to the grim reality of climate change—the biggest threat faced by the region. “Do you see those mountain peaks? Those were covered with glaciers in our childhood,” he says, wistfully. For the first time in its history, Spiti has had no snowfall this year, making precious water even more scarce. It was under Norbu’s supervision that Ecosphere volunteers like Evert built an artificial glacier in Demul to channel springwater into lower-altitude springs.
Our trip ends in Komic, the highest village with a motorable road, where we visit the highest post office in the world at Hikkim. At 15,500ft, it’s also the highest I’ve been (barring that night of arrack). At our homestay overlooking the Chocho Khang Nilda peak,Tsering Lamo passes around a box of laddoos to celebrate the first birthday of her daughter, Chhukit Somo, before seeing us off. A trip to Spiti is far from luxurious. One goes there knowing that accommodation is basic, roads are bumpy, electricity can be erratic and mobile network and water, scarce. As we return to Kaza, we muse that if the roads were better, Spiti would see more visitors. To which Takpa Tanzin, our guide and companion, responds wisely, “To reach heaven, one must prepare for an arduous journey.”