CHAPTER 1 – LOST AND FOUND
KAZA, SPITI VALLEY
8th September 2016
Thursday, 14:00 hrs.
How the hell am I going to make it? Is it even possible to escape from here? How could I trust the guy and not my guts…I should have given it a thought earlier; probably in the morning itself…..damn, now I am screwed for sure!!!
I could see the houses near the horizon, but the landscape of Spiti does have that effect on your perception of distances. Although the small village of Hikkim was only separated by, what seemed like, a small hilly section, by now I had a fair amount of idea what a “small” hilly section actually meant when you had to walk across it. It was only a couple of hours ago when I had asked the villager in Langza about how to reach Koumik, and whether it was possible to reach it on foot.
“Yes son, it’s not that far. You see this hill in front of you? Just climb it and beyond that lies Koumik. We cover the distance in 2 hours…you will probably take 3-3.5 hours. Just follow this trail through the fields and you will reach Koumik.” – The old man had told us a few hours ago, exuberance visible in his voice and his eyes.
So I did take his words on face value. It was only after spending almost 3 hours walking under scorching sun that I finally realized the mess I was in – for I stood hopelessly at the turn beyond which there should have been a village, but actually were kilometers of emptiness!!
The clock indicated 2:00 pm and it was imperative for me to reach Koumik by the end of the day. I knew that Koumik was separated from the city of Kaza by an old trail which takes around 1.5-2 hours on foot – so that was my only way out if I had to make it to Kaza before night. Although finding refuge in Langza or Hikkim is not difficult, with many travelers having told me about the locals being extremely generous in terms of letting you stay with them for a night, but I had a flight back to Bangalore on stake and I just could not afford to miss the bus from Kaza to Manali the next morning. I had to make it to Koumik at any cost and my options and spirit were already running thin.
“Dude….I tell you lets go back to Langza and find a place to stay for the night. There is no way in hell that we are reaching Koumik, let alone Kaza, today”, exclaimed Kshitij while trying to catch his breath and walking up the last section of a trench as he approached me.
I looked at him before staring into the emptiness again. He was probably right….time was running out and I had to make a decision – ASAP!!
I met Kshitij at Zostel in Kaza where I had arrived day before yesterday. Wrapped up in a jacket and what almost looked like a monkey-cap, he was sitting at a corner of the courtyard with a glass of ginger-honey-lemon tea in his hands. A consultant in Pune by trade, he had taken 2 weeks off to satiate his wanderlust and the desire to backpack solo through the wilderness of Spiti valley – only to let AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) force him to spend an entire day glued to his chair. I could easily relate to his condition, for it was AMS that had ruined my first visit to Chandrataal a few years ago – something I regret till date. I got an empty bed in the same dorm he was staying in and joined him in the courtyard after throwing my backpack in the room and ordering a ginger-lemon-honey tea for me as well. It was well past 8:30 pm by the time we finished with our pleasantries, general introduction and “background check”. As I sipped on my tea with the not-so-faint sound of ‘Brown Rang – Honey Singh’ from a makeshift sound system in the courtyard, Kshitij suddenly had his hand across his face.
“I mean, seriously? At 3500mts in this secluded landscape and a clear starry night sky above, they really want me to dance to Honey Singh and ‘Chittiyan Kalaiyyan” songs? At least have some basic appreciation for the location….it’s not Chandigarh or Gurgaon for fuck’s sake!!”
He surely had a point. In fact, by the end of this trip Zostel Kaza had left me disappointed as well, tampering with the spirit of hostels and the purpose they are supposed to serve in the first place – but more on that later.
“Have you ever seen a sky so beautiful, ever?” he asked, while looking across the sky.
”I have seen starry sky in my village, but not as many stars as I see now”; I glanced at the night sky, amazed at the array of stars dotting the night sky.
“Ahhh then you have seen nothing till now. Follow me”, he said while standing up from his chair and walking across to a dark corner of the courtyard. “You see, all these lights hide the beautiful stuff from your eyes…so it’s important to move away from them for a moment. Careful with the dog….now look up and tell me if you see THAT?”
And I saw THAT!! For the first time in my life I had seen it with my own eyes – emerging from the silhouette of the mountains in front, carrying a cluster of star and spreading them along its arms across the night sky behind the peaks on the other side of horizon. It was my first encounter with the Milky Way!! Having only seen it in photographs, actually witnessing it with my own eyes was even more breathtaking. The fact that there was not a speck of cloud to hinder my view, the more my vision adjusted to the darkness the more glittering and spectacular the experience became. I stood motionless, trying to get an eyeful of the arms of our galaxy as much as I could.
“I saw it from this same spot yesterday…but wait till they close this hostel down for the night”, he said. “Later tonight we will climb to the roof of this place. With all lights turned off, you will see the Milky Way in all its glory. Will try to take some camera shots at night…let’s see how that turns out”
Indeed, later that night when the town fell asleep we climbed our way to the roof of the hostel. As he had said, the sight was even more mystical than before. There were a lot more stars, the Milky Way arms looked filled with a lot more stars and were more pronounced than what we had seen earlier. Braving the chill in the air, Kshitij set up his tripod while I decided to make a ‘desi jugaad’ – trying to balance and fix my camera on an angle against small stones lying on the ground. Across the rooftop was a sweet couple who were staying in our dorm as well.
“Hey guys…here to take the night shot too, are we?” said the girl. I guess she was smiling – for although I could not see her in the dark I surely could catch the glee in her voice. “He is a weird soul, my boyfriend. He only takes his camera out for night photography…doesn’t click anything when we travel during the day!!” she said while teasing him. I couldn’t blame him either; after all if you can see the cosmos in such spectacular beauty every night, why wouldn’t you live for sights like these!! If only the view of night sky from my village near Dehradun were as clear as it was at this altitude, there was no way my dad could neglect my demand for the binoculars I was so adamant to buy back in my childhood days.
What ensued was a fun filled night – from trying out a lot of crazy shots, tripping over bricks strewn across the pitch-dark terrace floor to exchanging travel notes and itineraries with each other, I lost track of time and probably went to bed well past midnight. I still had to figure out what to do with my day tomorrow – as I had so meticulously planned for this trip!!
Standing at the bus stop in Bhuntar late night last Monday, the thought of an unplanned backpacking trip to Kaza had crossed my mind for the first time that evening……and wasn’t it one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!!