The month of March ushers in Spring to many parts of the country but it is still dead cold winters in high Himalayan reaches. Going to Spiti Valley in second week of March meant traveling into the harsh and punishing heart of Trans-Himalayan winter, the toughest of winters there is to be found.
In this season there is only one bus plying between Reckong Peo and Kaza, leaving at six in the morning from either side. The other route from Manali and Rohtang Pass through Gramphoo and Batal remains snowbound at Kunzum pass for almost six months, and in March, it's entirely out of the question. The route I took - Shimla, Kinnaur,Nako and Kaza remains open almost all the year round and opens up scenic vistas ranging from dramatic to mesmerizing nonetheless.
So it is from Kinnaur side in Himachal that I went trotting in the HRTC bus all the way to Kaza, a distance of 228 kms, in a journey that would take one whole day. Once out of the Kinnaur valley with the Sutlej roaring at your side, the land and the horizon begins to change drastically. The gradual disappearance of green vegetation somewhere after crossing Pooh tells you that you are entering a cold, dry , desert like landscape resembling Ladakh and Tibetan plateau. Spiti valley lies isolated in North Eastern Himachal Pradesh separated from it's cousin Lahaul by the mighty Kunzum pass and the longer route from Shimla side gives you many advantages - gradual acclimatization to prepare you for the harsher conditions in Spiti and dramatically beautiful mountain scenery for company at each bend on the road.
The road goes east from the town of Reckong Peo in Kinnaur district - Pangi,Ribba,Spello,Hurling,Pooh,Nako, Sumdo, Dhankar and finally Kaza.The Spiti border begins at Sumdo near an area which is very close to the Chinese/Tibetan border. As the state run bus screeched to a halt on top of the mountain road at Nako, all of us got down to watch in awe at the strange land we are travelling in, a vast expanse of rock, boulders, loose soil and a lot of snow in March. The notorious Malling Nullah on the route was still frozen - lucky because as soon as it melts late in the winter, the adjacent road becomes prone to landslides all too easily. But it looked almost surreal through the cold bus window,falling water frozen midway and water dripping down with much effort.
The valley of Spiti opened up wider around late afternoon, somewhere 70-80 kms before reaching Kaza. Small hamlets with few mud houses showed up but the land was still in grip of a long frozen winter. And there it was - Spiti river down below, greenish blue and flowing in grip of the winter terrain. My watch showed quarter to five when the modest settlements of Kaza finally showed up. Slanting rays of the sun over the icy white valley floor was giving off a stark warning - it will be dark soon and it's going to get cold, very cold.
The town of Kaza sits on the valley floor which was all but white now except a few barren rocky patches. Large looming mountains all around and the Spiti river flowing sluggishly down below in it's bed. The river looked spread out like veins and arteries laid out in the frozen valley, it would be few months before Spiti valley turns it's shade again to green and brown of the summers.
Walking away from the small bus depot, I loitered around the center of Kaza in the main market with the bag slung over my tired back. Darkness was creeping in and the streets looked empty of people, more than half of the shops were already shuttered down. As the chill gripped me strongly and I was breathing heavily in icy vapors , a new problem was at hand - I got turned down from eight or ten places while searching for a place to stay. 'You shouldn't have come at this time. All pipelines are frozen, there is no water in here. The toilet is not working. Bad time to visit Kaza' - I was told around by many people.
Around six in the evening , while I sat near the market place , tired and thinking over my options, someone told me to go to Nyingma House and meet UC. And what a lifesaver that was . It's in strange times as these that you meet wonderful people- Urgian Chhering Dongthoth or UC in short, just the kind of friend and guide you would need while in Spiti Valley and much beyond. He showed me to the room and introduced me to the cooks in resident there. Just the kind of place you have in mind , Nyingma House in old Kaza, just behind the bus stop.
Spiti means 'the middle land' and refers to the land tucked between India and Tibet. The valley is starkly similar to it's more glamorous and commercialized cousin - Ladakh but yet to bear the brunt of overcrowding by tourists. In fact it's one of the least populated districts in India, the town of Kaza, the district headquarters having only 3000 people and still it is the biggest town in whole of the district. Kaza stands at 12500 feet altitude and by evening I was beginning to get a feel of the trans - Himalayan winter, the streets were deserted, markets were shut and by late evening, the temperatures plummeted to minus fifteen degrees Celsius.
The kitchen in the lodging was the place of warmth and it was there that I spent most of my time, chatting with the cooks. At night, I needed two heaters near my bed and I kept them few feet away from my body. Not to mention , I was coiled up under two thick blankets. Dead cold winter nights they were, and I mean it.I can describe it in thousand words and still can't tell you what it means for the chill to enter your bones.
The next morning I took a small walk down the lanes of Kaza. A flowing stream and a bridge over it separates the older part of Kaza, Kaza Khas from Kaza Soma, the new Kaza where all the newly built hotels and administration buildings have propped up recently. Old Kaza contains the bus stop and the bigger market area which slowly spread out in the periphery into numerous walkable narrow lanes leading to the residential houses that are probably part of the original settlements in the valley floor. The ice deposited on the muddy path has created a network of slush all around the lanes of old Kaza and while walking you have to keep a firm footing else the slush is all yours to handle.
The small town acts as if in hibernation in the long winter months, keeping in mind that the season is too harsh for locals. Only half the shops open and that too for few hours in the day, the children and the mountain dogs keep the streets a busy place by all their running around and me, a stray drifter in these parts was discovering a wide network of inner lanes to walk around and see for myself the beautiful looking houses and the leafless trees in their backyard. Frozen icicles hung precariously from the terrace of houses and hotels with water dripping down in the sunlight, and after much walking I realized that probably I am going round and round in circles in Old Kaza. Time to stop now.
Outer realms of the town are gradually getting flanked by the new age hostels and home stays -but thankfully Kaza is still a long way from becoming another Leh. The new Kaza on the northern side of the town gives way to the high altitude petrol pump and the famous monastery - Tangyud Gompa. The colorful structure looking all the more prominent in a backdrop of brown hills and white ice. The middle aged women who was praying near the Stupa inside the monastery compound told me, 'Very cold...isn't it? You must come sometime again in summer time...all this will seem very different'. I promised her that I shall indeed try and visit Spiti in summer. It's amazing how seasons change the landscape in places as these. In cities, there are only three things to experience - hot, cold and rain. Further north of the town, the road leads away to other wonders of Spiti Valley - Key, Kibber, Hikkim,Langtza etc.
By afternoon, the place was beginning to look like a strange settlement - as if a colony in some other planet, somewhere other than earth. The sunlight shining hard now on the white valley, white all around and as far as eyes could see. The white spread out land embedded with cubes of mud houses, mud because it helps trap the sun's warmth during the day and retains it for the evening and night when you need it the most. But this is never enough to keep everybody in the house warm and safe, so in the evenings you see small 'tandoor' fire places lit up at all places- home and otherwise. A large oven of heat with cow dung and wood glowing in embers inside, a little sanctuary of heat and life after the sunset in the cold valley.
By late afternoon when the sun had climbed down substantially, I walked over the valley floor towards the river bed, which in summers must be green meadows but right now were in grip of a thick ice cover. I tried to find foot prints so that I could follow because I was never sure about the thickness of the crust and where it would cave in suddenly, I have had too many bad experiences of treading snow laden paths. I jumped from patch to patch looking for firm ground to stand. Not only me but the whole of Kaza was struggling with the snow in this season I guess, a lot of ice heaped on houses, backyards, roads , everywhere.
Leafless and brave trees standing tall on valley floor, waiting for Spring to arrive. But nature has a pace of it's own, which I suppose humans can never appreciate in it's totality because we see time differently and hence lose patience so very quickly. Near the river bed, on the edges, the ice was slowly but surely thawing and giving way to small streams that persistently made it's way down to the river below - the cycle of nature and hence by default, the cycle of life on earth. People and animals waiting for the Spring to arrive, a Spring that nobody deserves more than these people after such a trying and long season of hardships.
Now a little farther from the center, I look back at the town of Kaza in the slanted sunlight. A group of kids have found a large patch of plain ground to play cricket and a group of army men are walking down the road to the nearest military depot. Few old men, workers I suppose, sit by the road side and smoke cheerily and wave at me, I wave back and smile. This is it, we are the only humans in that vast expanse of frozen earth, rest of the place wears a deserted look. Strange and beautiful part of the Himalayas this one - the kind of place that you cannot un-see once you see it, it stays in your memory for all times to come.
I sit on the lonesome bare rock for a long time , surrounded by my reflections of the place. A white and cold reflection so to speak. The clear blue sky of late afternoon was looking darker in contrast to the white landscape and the more I looked at it, the more I felt as if it's changing it's shades - purple and pink towards the dusk as the sun goes down behind the peaks. My eyes wide open, I tried to take in as much of the surreal scenes as I could, till - till I felt a burn in my eyes. A mere irritation at first but which gradually grew painful the more I rubbed them. I rushed back to my lodgings and tried to sleep it off but it was still there after two hours, though reduced in intensity a little.
That night when I sat with the others for dinner, by others I mean, me and the two cooks- I was the only person put up at the place, I told them about the irritation in my eyes - and he told me not to wander about in snow for a long time without the protection of shades. Exposure to the sunlight reflected from ice and snow for a long time can result in eye burn - it's called Snow Blindness , a result of my greed to take in as much of Spiti Valley as I wanted through my eyes.
I gave myself a good night's sleep and thus I dreamed - I sat perched on a hill cliff , somewhere above the valley that I see and there's a light snowfall, gentle snowflakes falling as if in slow motion. An old man sits beside me , smoking a bidi and smiling , we wait there, I don't know for what. And then suddenly he bids me to look down into the valley and asks me to keep quite , I see it...a family of Snow Leopard, two adults and two cubs walking near the edge of the cliff. They keep walking and then it all becomes hazy...they chase sheep or somebody and then the scene disappears totally. I wake up uneasily and put my head between two pillows because of the cold. Tomorrow I will go to Key Monastery and Kibber village.
Soumya D Jena