CHAPTER 4 – The End Of The Road
Langza and Komic Villages,
Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh
7th September 2016
Tuesday, 08:30 hrs
For a light sleeper as I am, it took me quite a while to get a good night’s sleep in shared dormitories. Be it a careless whisper, someone’s casual walk to the washroom, some Dark Knight returning too late in the night or inseparable lovers – I have had my dreams shattered by a lot of such small disturbances. But having slowly mastered the art of sleeping in varied environments, nothing could prepare me for the horrors my second night in Spiti had in store for me. Now having already been warned about unavailability of beds in Zostel for the night (Read the previous chapter for the reasons for that), I had showed up at their doorsteps too late yesterday to start the search for a new place. Only for the generosity shown by my buddy in-charge of Zostel affairs, I was saved from my troubles and after a sumptuous dinner I pulled up a thin blanket over my eyes and prepared to sleep on a bedding at a corner of the common room of the hostel. It was uncomfortable for sure, but at least it was much warmer than outside!! Amidst the laughter and commotion caused by a group of friends, probably from Punjab given their strong accents, in the common room, I slowly drifted into deep slumber.
I could see the sun set behind the mountains…Kshitij warning me not to walk ahead as it may be dangerous in the dark. But when did I ever listen to him? Inevitably, as soon as I took my first step forward I heard a loud rumble above my head…..feeling a trickle of cold sweat breaking through my brow!! How did I get myself trapped inside a potential landslide? And why is there a strong breeze sweeping across the valley, blowing straight into my face? Why are the spirits laughing at me?
Startled and drenched in cold sweat, I suddenly opened my eyes to find myself sitting and staring squarely into two startled and visibly scared girls from the Punjabi group!! A hairdryer hummed loudly in the floor between us. Who dries hair at 1:30 in the morning? More importantly, WHY?? The poor girls just dashed towards the door with the dryer still humming in their hands as they rushed towards their dorms. So much for the long walks the day before, I decided it was in my best interest to try and get a much needed nap; for the day was destined to be hectic again!!
It was a real quick breakfast – scrambled eggs, ginger lemon tea and 2 aalu parathas finally got my engine started for the long day ahead. Kshitij was in a visibly excited mood himself. He had woken up earlier than me today, gone for an early morning walk and had come back with information about a bike rental shop in Kaza market. Although, we had no plans to hire a bike till then, we decided to try our luck nonetheless – we could try to reach Komik quickly to spend more time with locals or try to venture even further towards the wilderness than we had plans for. We quickly filled our water bottles, packed a few slices of bread & butter and rushed to the marketplace.
“Sorry sir, nothing available for today. Just now the last vehicle was taken”, said the apologetic dealer.
“But I met you in the morning, a few hours ago!! You told me you would arrange for one….this is not done!! Is there no other vehicle? Not even with the other agency?” Kshitij was visibly irritated and flustered.
“Sorry sir….mine was the last one. Nobody else has any left. In the evening you can have an Activa scooter if you want”, he causally said.
“Hmm…let it be. It’s ok. Thank you!!”, we said while walking out of the agency office.
“Now what? Hitch-hiking again?” Kshitij turned towards me and asked.
“I don’t mind….but probably can’t walk as much as we did yesterday. Having a niggling pain in my hamstring, for some reason. Anyway let’s start and we’ll see what happens” I replied, as we made our way towards the entrance of Kaza village.
It felt like the sun was beating down much stronger than yesterday and the breeze had been sucked dry from the atmosphere. There were no gentle gusts of wind to give us respite as we started making our gradual ascent towards the road leading to Langza. We were hoping we could hitch a ride today as well, although we were not quite sure about it. As already mentioned in our experiences from our journey back from Kibber, the local cab operators have already started raising eyebrows over the concept of hitch-hiking in the region. As per the personal experiences accounted by the generous gentleman who dropped us to Kibber yesterday, he had grown quite used to intimidation, threats and advisories offered by local transport companies and cab drivers, whenever they saw him offering his ride to someone, by now. As per his understanding of the situation, everybody had started recognizing the potential of tourism/travel economy in the region and everybody wanted their share of development – freeloaders were starting to be despised upon. So fully aware of the situation, we were hoping against hope we could hitch a ride today.
Well, as luck would have it we heard a low hum of a diesel engine behind us, to much of our delight. A 4×4 was slowly making its way up the hill, along the winding roads, straight towards us. We could already see a few local ladies sitting in the trunk at the back, so it turned up our optimism a few notches!! Good Samaritans, as almost everybody here is, he promptly stopped his vehicle and allowed us to get on board. A catchy tune, probably in some local dialect, blared on the car speakers as the vehicle again started its ascent through the barren mountains.
“Hello…you guys here for traveling, right? Just in case you want to spend tonight at Chandrataal, my team will be leaving Kaza today at 2:30 pm. I run a travel company and have our tents and other facilities over there. So if you guys want, we still have a few seats left in our group”, the driver suddenly turned towards us and started talking.
“Well….of course we would have loved that, but we won’t be able to!! Can’t return to Kaza before 3 pm at any cost, so no point planning for it”, Kshitij replied.
“Ahh ok….by the way if you want, you can continue with me after Langza….I am going to Komic too”, he made his offered while, surprisingly, his colleague did not even flinch for a moment. While we could decide upon the response the co-driver, apparently in his late 20s, opened the backpack he had pushed under the glove compartment and took out his sunglasses. Putting them on, he fiddled for another few minutes trying to figure out the problem with his wireless portable speakers paying no attention what-so-ever to the conversations around him. It seemed he was more interested in an entirely different sort of connection while on road – and that was when Kshitij made up his mind.
“Thank you for the offer….we’ll see when we reach Langza. We are not sure how much time we will spend there so let’s figure it out once we reach there”, Kshitij replied while turning his gaze again at the deep ravine we were climbing along.
We passed a couple of more cycle groups who were struggling to defy gravity, trying to control the speed on the tricky downhill section. Ascending vehicles such as ours competing for road space did not make matters any easier for them. Our pickup swayed sharply to the right once more before the much anticipated spectacle laid bare before our eyes. There in front of us was the vast barren expanse of land – sprinkled with golden ears of grain swaying to the gentle breeze sweeping across the landscape while a gentle-but-giant status of Buddha watched over them; along with guarding the village below. Situated at an altitude of 14,500 feet above sea level, this is one of the highest villages connected by motorable roads. Possessing a characteristically cheerful and gentle disposition, approximately 140 people of Sakyapa sect of Tibetan Buddhists inhabit this dreamland. This village features prominently on the archaeological maps on India for the abundance of “chaudua” – the Cephalopod fossils, found in the sedimentary rocks around this village. Although sale of these fossils, which date back to millions of years, is prohibited by law it is not uncommon to find kids trying to sell one to travelers and tourists in exchange for some money. If time permits, you may dare to go on your own treasure hunt higher up the Langza landscapes – although I still maintain I warned you beforehand against any troubles you might land into; legally or otherwise!!
The pickup swiftly circled around the village and stopped at the entrance of the small enclosure of the statue of Buddha, prayer flags waving along the wind as can be naturally expected. The entire village of 35-odd houses is placed directly under the pedestal the 1000-year old status is placed at – under the vigilance of the great Teacher himself. As we walked closer to the base of the statue, we could see acres of barren landscapes surrounded by majestic Himalayan peaks all around us….a testimonial of the sheer strength and grandeur of these giant mountain ranges. While a few people engaged in their selfie-sessions around us we sat down under the statue and watched the prayer flags flutter against the gentle breeze, spreading their teaching all across the mountains. While Kshitij unpacked his tripod for a brief photography session, I asked him about his thoughts for the day.
Sticking to the pickup driver’s schedule was not something I was looking up to; and neither was Kshitij. So we bade farewell to him and pretty soon we saw the pickup disappear behind the hill, leaving a cloud of dust behind it. We spend almost an hour walking around the statue and through the golden-yellow fields around Langza when we saw a local villager walking towards us.
“Namaste!! Aapko Hindi aati hai?”, I greeted and asked if he understood Hindi.
“Haan ji samajh aa jati hai…kahan se ho aap? Aaj yahin rukoge?”, he confirmed his familiarity with Hindi, asking if were looking to stay for the night.
“Nahin ji….hum log aaj Komik jaane ka soch rahe the par abhi to kaafi late ho gaya hai shayad. Yahan se Komik k liye koi bus ya gaadi jaati hai kya?”, we asked if there was any means of reaching Komik from Langza as the day was getting warmer every hour.
“Nahin ji, gaadi to koi nahin hain abhi. Koi rok k baitha le to dekh lo”, he replied in negative, asking us to try our luck hitchhiking instead.
“Hmm..chaliye dekhte hain. Waise ye kachha raasta khet se hote hue wahan pahad tak to dikh raha hai…ye Komik jaata hai kya?”. We had seen the dirt track wind through the crop fields extending into the horizon behind the closest hill to us. So we decided to make a curious inquiry about it.
“Haan….ispe chalte raho ye seedha Komik le jayega. 3-4 ghante lagte hain…aap log naye ho to 1-2 ghanta aur maan lo”, he confirmed that the track led to Komik and would take at least a 3-4 hour hike.
A quick glance towards each other, a gentle nod of the head and we were on our way along the dirt track, thanking the village elder for his guidance. The track meandered across the golden ears of, what looked like, barley, providing a refreshing contrast to the barren landscape all around us. Lost in our thoughts, a quick look at the watch told us we had already been walking for an hour without even crossing the first hill on our way. We hoped there would not be many after that.
The excitement of having reached the top of the hills exposed us to the horrors of the journey that lay ahead of us!! There was no sign of the track, nor was there any trace or outline of a civilization as far as we could see. A series of crests and troughs were our only way out if we wanted to reach the motor track far across the horizon – while the faint outline of statue of Buddha being the only visible identity of Langza behind us. The hands of the watch indicated it was already 1:30 pm. It was decision time indeed – either to turn back towards Langza and spend the night there, which would mean me missing out on my flight to Bangalore. Or that we push our luck and try to reach the motorway as soon as we could and hope for the best!!
So, having pushed our bodies through so much since morning, we decided to push our luck as well.
The sun had started to beat down extremely hard on us. The air around us was so dry that whatever sunscreen we had applied had long gone. All that was left was a stinging pain across the cheeks and the edges of our lips, indicating that we were in for a serious tan at the end of the day. The terrain did not seem to end, for no sooner had we climbed to the top of one feature that we found there were still a few more to cover. We could see the small motorway as a narrow line drawn across the barren landscape, only identifiable when an odd motorbike appeared from behind the top of the hill we had to climb. Occasionally a small stream would defy the arid landscape and fill the troughs with precious moisture, turning patches of land between the raised features into an untouched grassland – providing a much needed place to put our backpacks down and lie on the soft patch of green, soaking in some of the moisture. But there was not much time to be lost and we had to make lost ground fairly quickly. After another hour’s walk we finally managed to reach the top of the hill on the motorway, greeted by a fleet of bikers making their way down to the valley. And it was then, upon turning the corner, that reality struck.
I could see the houses near the horizon, but the landscape of Spiti does have that effect on your perception of distance. 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.
“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 Komik, 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!!
When you grow up, you realize that there is no better teacher than Life itself and no book in the world which can teach you the lessons you learn through your experiences. Also, if you grew up in the northern belt of India there is one more thing that gets permanently etched in the your memory – the contagious and amazing vibe of Punjabi music!! Having grown in a neighborhood consisting of vibrant Punjabi community in Dehradun, you could make me stand in the middle of the noisiest of places and I would still recognize, and shake a leg to, the distinct rhythm and energy of a Punjabi song playing at the end of the street……in fact kilometers away in the empty landscapes of Spiti!! There was no hesitation in my mind that the message brought by the winds from Langza was filled with music I very well grew up with and that only meant one thing – if there are Punjabis on their way towards us we need not worry; we will be offered all the help we need!! Kshitij was still looking perplexed as to why I had stopped walking and had sat down so peacefully on the boulder along the road when I asked him to look over his shoulder. The shape of a black Scorpio racing through the rubble path, leaving a plume of dust behind it, was hard to ignore. The cloud of dust grew in size and pretty soon we were engulfed in it as the vehicle stopped to a halt near us.
“Haan bhai, kahin chhodna hai kya tum logon ko?”, an immaculately dressed man, with perfectly tied black turban and cleanly set beard, sporting a trendy aviator, asked while rolling down his windows.
“Thank you sir…aage Komik tak ja rahe the. Aap raaste mein jahan tak lift de do chalega…please!!”, we requested them to drop us wherever they could en-route Komik.
“Arre raaste mein kya poora gaon tak chhod denge yaar….picche baith jao jaldi se. Samaan side mein kar do jo bhi hai”, said the kind gentleman, to your extreme happiness. We were asked to quickly make place for us in the back seats.
Well, if you have heard about Karma being a bitch, trust me it is not only a bitch but an evil goddamn opportunist, messing with you when you least expect. There was no way in hell we did not recognize each other as soon as I opened the back door and my eyes met with the passengers on board – the sound of hair dryer still ringing ever so loudly in my mind. No words were spoken between the two girls and I, while the Turbanator sped through the winding trail as if the Himalayan Rally Championship was at stake. After generic introductions and small talks, we were soon at the gates of Komik – the highest village connected by motor way in the world!!
Located at a surreal altitude of 18000 feet, this place can only be experienced and not described. Surrounded by majestic mountains and valleys, the village supposedly takes it name from ancient Tibetan belief that a monastery in the shape of the eye of a snow cock would be built here; thus giving this village its name – Ko meaning the snow cock and Mik for eye. The Lundup Tsemo Gompa Buddhist Monastery is believed to house ‘Matrey Buddha,’ or ‘the future Buddha,’ who looks after the people of Komik Village. Built in around 14th century, this highest monastery in the world has a fortified castle made of slanted mud walls, representing the murals, scriptures, and arts belonging to the bygone era.
Walking down from the monastery towards the village seemed liked descending into Hobbiton – or what I imagined it would be like!! A small zig-zag causeway descended into the heart of the village made up of only a few houses. Our sheer excitement and relief of having made it here with still a couple of hours of daylight left was hard to suppress, only to be replaced by a sudden bout of hunger. The last meal we had was our breakfast and in all the hustle of trying to reach Komik we had not paid heed to our basic survival need; which demanded to be satiated. We walked from one house to the other in search of some food, only to find the doors all closed and nobody in sight. The village seemed to be deserted for some reason. As we were walking along the walls of the house trying to find any local we could, we saw a monk walking through the fields towards us.
“Namaste”, we greeted him as he came near us. “Yahan khane ko kuch milega kya? Subah se kuch nahin khaaya hai!!”, we inquired about the availability of any food item in the village.
“Arre aap log galat time pe aaye ho. Gompa aaj k liye band ho gaya hai aur yahan to sab khet mein hain kaam pe….kab tak wait karoge bahut time lagega”. The news of the monastery being closed for the day and the villagers having gone to the field for the next few hours broke our heart!! However there was nothing much we could do apart from fill the water bottles from a stream of water trickling through a narrow pipeline.
“Achha ji yahan se Kaza ka paidal rasta kahan se hai? Kitna time lagta hai?”, we asked him for direction to Kaza and how long the hike would take.
“Kaza jaana hai? Dekho ye khet paar kar k wo pahad chadhna padega. Uske aage ek nishaan dikhega. Us nishaan se seedha pahad chadh k doosre nishaan tak pahuchna hai. Wahan se seedha neeche Kaza dikh jayega!!”, he explained. As per his directions we had to cross the fields, climb the hill beyond them till we reach the first marker (a Buddhist flag). Thereafter we have to follow the trail all the way up the second hill to reach a second marker. From that marker we would see the valley and the town of Kaza down below.
We bade goodbye to the kind soul draped in maroon, and quickly started walking towards the fields. Inquisitive eyes of small kids followed us as we walked along the ledge of golden yellow and green fields around the village. Every greeting from our end was being met by an acknowledging nod and a bright smile, while a few kids ran around us trying to find if we had brought anything for them – which we sadly hadn’t!! Walking across the fields and standing at the foot of the first hilly section, we turned to capture the most beautiful village I have seen till date permanently in the memory – a small civilization nestled peacefully in a idyllic village while the snow-capped mountains watched over it. It was a peaceful and yet a starkly powerful vision of beauty without embellishments of any sorts!! Gradually we made our way towards the top of the first hill, breaking for some much needed oxygen at such a high altitude. My head had started to grow heavy and a searing pain was shooting through my skull as I demanded the last bit of energy from my sinews. It was probably because of empty stomach or my body’s inability to handle hiking in such elevations, but my feet felt extremely heavy as I literally dragged my body towards the first Buddhist marker flag. These flags were probably placed by the ancient monks, much before the motorway to Kaza was built, to travel to the town for essential daily supplies and not lose their way in a landscape where losing sense of direction is fairly easy!! As a wide ravine gazed at us on one side, we kept on moving towards the faint image of the second prayer flag fluttering on the horizon. If the opportunity ever comes, I would trade all the comforts in the world to be at that place once more…..amidst a landscape so vividly exquisite as to make anyone fall in love with it. Another grassland springing up in the middle of nowhere, another spectacular sight of an array of snow-covered peaks all around and the calmness and silence which can turn even the most agitated of souls into a meditating ascetic, we were finally greeted to the most spectacular landscape of my entire Spiti journey; while a spooky skull of a ram tried to enforce a sense of fear and security in equal proportions!!
For as far as the eyes could see, the vast expanse of Spiti valley, carved by the Spiti river was a sight to behold. The narrow summer stream of the river moved between the villages, now appearing as sporadically spaced cuboid on a pebbled beach, as a serpent’s gait; while the majestic mountains guarded the entrance to the valley on one side. It was only from this vantage point that we finally realized how precarious and extreme life of the locals in this valley is. With snow covering the entire landscape in a thick white blanket in every winter, I could not help but stand in awe of the hardships these villagers face to see the next summers!! I had entirely lost track of the time I had spent sitting on the edge of the mountain and watching the landscape below when the long shadows of the mountains extending ominously towards the towns below brought me back to my senses….it was time to make my descent!!
The altitude that took us so many hours to gain had to be suddenly lost; such was the tricky downhill section which lay ahead of us. Made up of loose pebbles and a barely visible trail we had to descend the nearly-vertical face of the mountain which stands directly in the face of Kaza’s town, a descent analogous to rappelling sideways along the face of the the mountain!! A vertical dash of almost 500 feet to the bottom was definitely out of question; unless we wanted to enjoy getting badly injured in an avalanche of loose rocks and boulders!! So we started walking down in an elaborate sequence of zig-zag paths of gradual slope across the width of the face of the mountain. Finding a footing was a constant struggle as I slipped and bruised my knees and elbows umpteen number of times before the last light of the day finally began to fade away, in time for us to reach the bottom of the hill into the heart of Kaza marketplace after what had been a day to remember!! Kshitij was in no mood to linger around any more and as he dashed towards the hostel I decided to venture one last time into the marketplace to gorge on some freshly cooked steamed mutton momos and Thupka.
With the city slowly embracing the darkness, it brought to an end one of the most memorable, thought provoking and life-changing experiences of my lifetime!! No amount of reading, writing or oral recounts now can give deserved justice to the 3 days I spent in the lap of probably the most naked and uninhibited form of nature I had ever experienced……nature that taught me lessons worth a thousand years, opening my eyes to an entirely new portal of self realization and self-satiation. Maybe the place will not be the same when I come back next time. Maybe there will be a lot more hair dryers, beer bottles and biscuit wrappers welcoming me as I enter the valley. Maybe the people will become more skeptical and less open with all the different kinds of mentality the cab drivers bring with them from major cities of India – so for now I will revel in the fact that I am probably among the lucky ones to have seen this amazing spectacles in its comparatively purest of forms and having made this dream journey – a journey through the alluring emptiness!!
[ The End ]
– Divas Bahuguna (Robin)