I remember when
I remember
I remember when I lost my mind
There was something so pleasant about that place
Even your emotions have an echo in so much space

After getting enlightened from hearing HH Dalai Lama speak for three days in Kaza, I went for a short three day trek in the surrounding mountains. I said good bye to my new temporary family over chai and croissants at the German Bakery and then began my hike up the imposing, bare mountain immediately behind Kaza.

Komic from above

Komic from above

I left my huge 70 liter backpack in the Ecosphere trekking office and set off with a small backpack and my camera bag. In addition to what I wore I brought along a long sleeve thermal, a fleece jacket, basic toiletries and my iPhone.

As I did when I trekked in Nepal, I found out as much info as I could from the locals about what to expect and general directions, then headed out sans guide or porter. It’s much more of an adventure this way.

Chemso, the monk in my Komic homestay

Chemso, the monk in my Komic homestay

I’d much rather be on an open road without someone guiding me or waiting for me to catch up, even if it does mean getting lost from time to time which happens to me A LOT. I have done a half dozen treks sans guide on this trip and in each one I have gotten lost at least once, and usually on the first day.

This trek began with the hardest part of the entire trek. Once I left Kaza, I zigzagged my way up the mountainside, climbing 900 meters in two hours. It was a steep climb right across the face of the bare mountain on a gravelly trail. I was expecting to see many people on the trail, spill overs from the Dalai Lama talks. I saw not a soul on the whole trail except for a ten or eleven year old boy on his way back from school.

Once I reached the summit, I was greeted by silence and a family of wild blue sheep off in the distance who had taken an interest in this new being that had just emerged in their presence.

Blue sheep on the horizon

Blue sheep on the horizon

Blue sheep are quite rare and used to be in danger of extinction because of snow leopards and wolves, but since those populations began decreasing the blue sheep have flourished. They are always wild, never domesticated and would seem to have pretty good lives. They’re not really blue, more like a lightish gray, and they look more like goats with deer horns than sheep. Other than that, they look totally like you would expect a blue sheep to look.

My first destination was Komic, a tiny village of 13 households and a population of 84 whose name literally means ‘eye of a snow cock’. Nestled in a small fertile valley at 4513 meters elevation, Komic is one of the highest villages in Asia and its monastery, the Komic Lundup Chhemo monastery, is one of the world’s highest at 4587 meters.

The children of Komic village

The children of Komic village

I was feeling good from reaching the summit and from here on it would be mostly flat or downhill. I took out the iPhone, scrolled to the ‘Dance Your Ass Off’ playlist and started up the tunes. But they clashed big time. The setting was too serene, quiet, peaceful for anything too intense. So I put the iPhone on shuffle and as it usually does, it made an awesome playlist.

First song, “Crazy” by Alice Russell, a diva-ish/gospelesque cover of the Gnarls Barkley track. Then another cover, this time by Jose Feliciano, of The Doors “Light My Fire”, done in a moody jazzy tone. And to top it off, the “Om Mane Padme Hum” mantra started up which is probably the most fitting song given the setting and the fact that HH Dalai Lama had just conducted an initiation of this mantra the day before.

I reached Komic an hour or two later. I stumbled upon a woman and her daughter working in the potato fields and asked about a hotel. She didn’t understand me. A bedroom? She didn’t understand that. Homestay? Yes! That was the magic word to remember. Homestay. Everyone in the valley seems to know two English words. Homestay and shortcut, and they’re both important to know. When someone is giving you directions, they will say ‘Shortcut’ and point to a path off the main road. Very useful.

As it turns out she had a homestay herself. A homestay is as the name says: you stay with a family in their home. They cook your food, make you tea, you hang out with them if you want, you hide out in your room alone if you want.

The goats' pen outside my bedroom

The goats' pen outside my bedroom

Just like home. My room had capacity for five or six people and I had it for myself. A queen bed and cushions and low tables in an L-shape in one corner of the room. They brought me a fresh bucket of water to wash up and a basin to rinse into. And of course, no homestay or even just a home visit would be complete without the chai. That’s what I love about India. You are always greeted with a chai when you visit someone’s home, even when you’re just stepping into someone’s shop and you’re going to be there for a bit. They’ll bring you some chai. There’s something very welcoming about it.

I put my stuff down in my room then went for a walk through the village. It was more like a short climb up to the gompa (monastery). There are no roads within the village, just well-worn dirt paths. Komic is connected to the rest of the world via a dirt road a couple hundred meters up the hill, although I don’t recall seeing any cars driving on it. You can sense that not much changes here.

Yaks in the field

Yaks in the field

Families live off the land, growing their own vegetables, typically peas, potatoes and onions, bringing in rice and daal (lentils) from the bigger villages below. The eldest son is raised to eventually run the household, taking care of his parents in their later years. Subsequent sons are sent to monasteries to become monks. The family I stayed with had three sons and two daughters. The second and third sons were home for a short summer break before they returned to Dehra Dun to continue their studies. The women in the family do a lot of the field work, tending to the crops and then cooking and cleaning the house.

It’s impressive seeing how they use the resources available to them. A basic water system is set up, piping fresh, cold water from an uphill stream to all the crops and to the homes. Cow dung is highly valued as it is used for cooking fire, which saves on burning wood. Even the bathrooms are super eco-friendly.

Eco friendly toilet

Eco friendly toilet

It’s a squat toilet that deposits into a pit a couple meters below, but instead of flushing with water, you simply shovel some dirt into the hole. The deposits below are eventually taken out to the fields and used as fertilizer. I was half-expecting the bathroom to smell like some other basic bathrooms I’ve used before, but surprisingly the only smell here was of the dirt piled around the bathroom to be shoveled into the deposit.

The homes themselves are quite an impressive achievement. Built from clay, they are extremely durable and many of them have been around for hundreds of years. The rooms are quite basic and non-descript but the big wow factor comes in below the ground floor. On my way to the toilet I noticed a staircase descending into a black darkness below. After shoveling dirt into the hole, I ventured down the stairs along with Chemso, the youngest of the two monk sons.

Precious cow dung

Precious cow dung

Down here is where they live most of the winter. There are bedrooms and another kitchen down here, and a storeroom for trunk loads of rice and grains (barley is very big in the valley). Even the animals have a home down here. Cows are kept in a large room, separate from the goats in the room next door and separate from the yaks which are in another room nearby. Each room is stacked high up to the ceiling with hay and yet another room is filled to the ceiling with the precious cow dung. Interestingly, the yaks aren’t around much during the summer. They’re out roaming in the hills and at just before winter the families will go out and bring them home. I asked Chemso how they know where to find the yaks if they’ve been roaming around for months. He laughed and said you just go walking and bring them back.

The major religion in Spiti Valley is Tibetan Buddhism and most homes have a worship room that is solely for their spiritual practice. In the worship room in Komic, they had faded thangkas (finely detailed religious paintings) that must have been hundreds of years old.

Sutras from the worship room

Sutras from the worship room

On a shelf nearby was rows upon rows of the sutras (Buddha’s teachings) written in Tibetan, bound in a wooden cover and covered with thick layers of dust. I was amazed to see such beautiful pieces in a home. These would be prime displays in any museum on Buddhism but here they are commonplace to each household.

In the evening I had a traditional thali dinner, which consists of rice, daal (lentils), subji (cooked vegetables) and chapati. It is always served on a metal plate with four different compartments. And the best part of thali dinners is that it is all you can eat. So if you really like the subji or you want some more chapati to wipe down your plate, all you have to do is ask. And of course no meal would be completely without the customary post-meal chai.

I woke up the second day to the bleating and mooing of goats and cows being freed from their pens to start another day of roaming and grazing in the nearby fields. The elder sister had prepared a tasty breakfast of omelette with a couple of chapatis and chais.

Mules on the trail

Mules on the trail

I found it hard to leave as I was quite comfortable and relaxed. As we were chatting around breakfast, Chemso took an interest in my music and I figured I’d impress him by playing the “Om Mane Padme Hum” mantra. I may just as well have played nothing and would have gotten the same reaction. I figured now would be a good time to bring out “Dance Your Ass Off”, put on a Rihanna song and then he started rocking out, smiling and bobbing his head sitting there at the table. Even monks like some good old American pop music. Who knew. By the way, there is a really bad internet virus going around now spreading Rihanna’s songs on people’s hard drives. That must be how that song made it onto my iPhone.

Around noon I figured I should probably head out and get started on my journey. Chemso walked with me outside and directed me to the shortcut beyond the gompa and through the hills, avoiding the main road.

It was a five hour walk to Demul, the village I planned to stay in that night. The sky was cloudy in the morning and by noon it still hadn’t cleared up. I could tell it was going to be like this all day. It’s perfect weather for trekking as once you get started walking, then you don’t need so much to stay warm.

Cow lazily chewing and watching me walk by

Cow lazily chewing and watching me walk by

At one point it did begin to rain very slightly and I decided that if worse came to worse and I had to get some shelter, my best bet was to sneak into a cow shed off in the distance. Luckily the rain let up after not too long and some cows were spared giving up their bed to a guest.

The trek was relatively flat or slightly downhill as Komic is one of the highest villages in the valley. The trail is mostly walking across valleys, trying to not venture too far down because you’ll have to climb up and out on the other end. But sometimes you have no choice and you get all the way down and find the driest way across the small stream running there. There isn’t much opportunity for shade so it was good that the sun was hidden most of the day. Otherwise, it can get very hot very quickly at this altitude. All it takes is a cloud to get out of the sun’s way and ten seconds later you feel the scorch of the sun on your neck.

I didn’t see another person until just before reaching Demul. I had the mountains to just myself, and of course the animals too. Yaks, cows and goats are the most prevalent ones up here.

The green fields of Demul

The green fields of Demul

I came upon a valley of yaks where there must have been over fifty yaks grazing while up in the hills a few stray yaks must have found the climate more suitable up there. One yak decided to join the group down below and so started making his way down but before long his weight was just too much to go slowly and he broke off into a mad run, kicking up an enormous cloud of dust behind him.

If you’ve never seen a yak they can be quite intimidating. They are absolutely huge, bigger than a cow and draped in thick shaggy fur with large pointed horns. And they are always staring at you which can be a bit discomforting when you see one blocking your path and you need to make your way around him. But they’re so chill, they just stand there and stare at you, probably wondering what the big rush is as everything you could possibly need is here, mountains, cool weather and endless green fields.

Just before reaching Demul I bumped into a twenty person trekking group and as it turns out they are all American first year college students on a ten day trek. They were with an organization called Where There Be Dragons (http://wheretherebedragons.com) whose aim is to promote cross-cultural exchanges and learning, and so before their trek not only did they see HH Dalai Lama, they got a private 37 minute audience with him.

The homestay owner in Demul

The homestay owner in Demul

One of the guides, a Tibetan who now lives in New York, was so excited by this he knew the exact time they were with him. And of course in keeping with the tradition of most U.S. travelers I meet being from California, the lead guide was from Lower Haight in San Francisco. It really can be a small world meeting someone who lives a mile away from you at over 4,000 meters high in some remote mountain range in the Himalayas.

I arrived to Demul around 5 in the evening. The village coordinator, this guy named Gonpo, worked with me to find a homestay. Owning this distinguished title means he is responsible for helping trekkers find accommodation and for helping them out however they need, and showing them around the village if they like. I wouldn’t consider myself a picky traveler, but the first homestay he showed me was just not doing it for me.

Om Mane Padme Hum

Om Mane Padme Hum

The mattress was on the floor (no problem) but upon closer inspection there was dirt on the sheets. Add to that the semi-cold nature of the owner and I just wasn’t feeling it. Gonpo took me to another homestay up the hill a bit which I wasn’t too psyched about since I had already walked several hours that day, but the homestay turned out to be well worth it.

Moments after setting my bags down in my room, the owner brought me chai and a healthy snack of roasted barley with brown sugar. It was a small mountain of a portion and by the time dinner rolled around I was still not too hungry. Luckily he was taking his time cooking, and so I hung out with him in the kitchen while he prepared the standard thali. He gave me the tv remote control and I scrolled through a hundred satellite tv channels. It’s pretty impressive that all the way in these remote villages the locals can get such good tv, and by good I mean the quality of the reception, not the content. But in the end I handed back the remote as I didn’t really feel like watching anything, and he put it on what everyone likes to watch, Hindi music videos.

His mother sat with us and she was playing with her prayer beads and mumbling the “Om Mane Padme Hum” mantra over and over and over under her breath. She left the kitchen for about an hour to head up to the worship room.

Dynamite from above

Dynamite from above

Shortly thereafter I could hear her chanting loudly and banging away on a drum. When she joined us again after, she was still playing with her prayer beads and chanting her mantra.

The food was excellent and we were joined by his wife, her sister and his nephew, a 15 year old monk from down the road. Unfortunately I couldn’t engage in much conversation as no one spoke English and my Spitian is still in its early development stages.

The next morning I decided to get an early start because I wanted to make it to Dhangkar, which would be a seven to eight hour trek. The owner (I wish I could recall his name) made me chapatis and omelette, and then wrapped up a few extra chapatis for me to take on the road. I filled up both of my water bottles with boiled water, took some pictures of massive piles of cow dung outside the kitchen and then made my way back onto the path. I ran into Gonpo on my way out of town which was good as he explained the shortcut I needed to take.

The third and final day was pretty much straight down hill all the way to the river. I was thankful the whole time that I wasn’t going up this hill and that I had done the hardest part on the first day. Much better that way.

Cute kid from Lahlung

Cute kid from Lahlung

I ran into the American group again shortly after I began. They had camped in a nearby field and had to deal with the rain that had fallen all night. I slept so well that night I didn’t even know it had rained. Suckas.

We were rocked by a blast of dynamite coming from above where they must have been building a highway. Ten minutes earlier and we would have been right in the line of the rock fall that started raining down. I always catch shit when I talk this way, but I’ll say it anyway. “In America, we would have made sure the path below was sectioned off so no one would be injured.” It just makes sense. The guides from the group began whistling and hollering to let the people up above know we were down here. I’m not sure if it helped or not but I didn’t hear the next round of dynamite until we were well past the rock slide area.

We parted ways shortly after as I was heading down to the river and they climbing around the mountain to a nearby village, Rama. My plan was to get to Lahlung, the next village and then hopefully going from there to Dhangkar. I got a bit unclear as to which path to take once I got down to the river but luckily there was a pack of cargo mules up ahead and so I ran to catch up and asked one of the herders (mule guides?) for directions.

Lahlung is a big village by Spiti Valley standards. There are probably fifty or so households and lots of green fields where they grow their wheat and other crops. It was around noon when I arrived and the sun was shining full force. I knew I wasn’t going to stay the night here but I still wanted to have a look around.

I began chatting with a woman washing her pots and pans outside her home and she invited me in for a chai. Luckily I had some biscuits on me so I could offer her and her daughters something in return.

Cows and goats coming home after a day in the field

Cows and goats coming home after a day in the field

The children of Lahlung all have this booger affliction where there is always an active running layer of snot lingering above their upper lip, precariously resting upon a caked layer of dry snot beneath. But they’re also really friendly and wanting me to take their picture. “Photo! Photo!” I would take their photo and the moment they hear the shutter ‘click’ they are running over to look at the picture. They each point at their own picture and laugh.

I made my way up to the gompa which is always at the highest point of the village only to find that it was locked. The one monk in the village was not there at that moment. I had already seen enough gompas and decided to just get back on the road. I later heard it was a beautiful gompa as everything inside was carved from wood, and not the usual paintings and statues from the other gompas.

In a strange synchronicity, I decided to walk on the auto road for the first time during the trek, as the path through the hill didn’t seem so well defined and a couple locals had suggested I take this way. Half an hour later, I see a blue car approaching me. I walk over to the side to wait for it to pass but instead it stops just in front of me. I look at the car and inside was my Kaza family, Marni, Lindsay and Penpa. How random. They were coming from Dhangkar and were on their way to Lahlung and then Tabo. We made plans to meet up in Tabo the next day. The villages are small enough here that saying you’ll see someone in a town is enough. No need to make much more elaborate plans than that.

I arrived Dhangkar around 6 p.m., tired and hungry. There is a thousand year old gompa here that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I followed a monk inside and sat with him a while as he did his daily evening puja (ceremony). Sitting on the ground with a large drum in front of him, incense burning in the corner, he begins chanting something I have no idea what, alternately clashing two cymbals together and banging on the drum. I donated some money and headed out to see more of the gompa. I get to talking to a 34 year old monk dressed in his traditional robes but with a bright yellow sweater on top to shield himself from the cold. And wouldn’t you know it, he invites me into his kitchen for a chai.

I eventually, finally dragged myself away from the gompa and walked over to a homestay on the other side of town. By other side of town I mean on the other side of the small valley which is Dhangkar. I had wanted to stay in the new monastery that HH Dalai Lama had just inaugurated two days earlier after his talks in Kaza, but the rooms were all full. Shortly after checking into the homestay, the son, Anil knocked on my door and asked for my help. Turns out there was a goat who was drinking too much of his mom’s milk and so he needed my help to hold the goat while he tied a little piece of wood in his mouth that I guess prevents them from drinking. The goat was quite calm the whole time which was good since Anil had some trouble getting the thing to stay tied and I certainly didn’t have much advice to offer. He finally got the thing tied and we released the goat who immediately took off into my room and jumped on my bed. When Anil tried to grab him he just ran in circles around the room with Anil chasing him before he ran out of the room completely.

As Anil and I were walking to the village shop, we heard a man yelling from the far end of the valley. Turns out this was the call for that night’s town meeting. The meetings are impromptu, and held whenever something needs to be discussed. Each home has one representative and Anil was his home’s representative. I asked if I could join and he said I could but that I wouldn’t really understand so much. Had I not been so tired I would have pressed on but by that point I was happy to just rest in my room and wait for a YAT (yet another thali) dinner. This time it was a bit different as Anil’s dad (the chef of the home) added soybeans to the subji which made for an interesting change of pace.

I definitely got the sense that Dhangkar is not as shanti (peaceful) as the other villages I had passed through. I think it is the influence of the much greater number of Western travelers coming through Dhangkar, most probably going there for the UNESCO gompa. The locals seemed a bit more rushed and certainly not as relaxed as I had seen. Anil seemed a bit restless and I learned that he really wants to travel (France would be his first choice) but he doesn’t make nearly enough to afford a flight. I suggested that he could sell a lot of the yak wool and sheep wool products that they make in the village for a lot bigger profit if he could find a way to sell it online. I offered to help him and took some pictures of some rugs, in case we ended up putting these things for sale on ebay. As a way to gauge his true interest in this project, I told him to email me with projected shipping costs to the U.S. and Europe once he got that info from the post office. It’s been a week and I still haven’t gotten an email so we’ll see.

Another local I met just outside the gompa seemed to be even more unhappy. I asked him how he was doing and his response was “Not good.” Fair enough. I asked why not and he replied “because I am still living in Dhangkar.” He was well dressed with a button up shirt, clean slacks and a black leather jacket and drove a car, which in the valley is a luxury most people don’t have. And yet he was probably one of the unhappiest people I met during my trek. I guess if you see lots of Westerners coming through your town and hearing their stories, you would probably want to go and visit their countries too.

The following morning I ate breakfast with Anil then walked with his dad straight downhill for about thirty minutes until we got to the main road. My trek was over and I was ready to head back to Kaza and reclaim my 70 liter bag and then move on to Tabo to meet up with my family.

And just in case I was beginning to think I was no longer in India, I waited for the bus that someone had told me arrived at 9:30, another told me at 10 and another told me at 11. That’s India for you. Three answers, three different times. I was at the bus stop by 9 and by 10:30 I still hadn’t seen a bus so the next car driving by, I stuck my thumb out, asked the driver “Kaza?” and then hopped into the front seat of a pickup truck where there were already two other passengers. I don’t think the other two were too happy by the addition of me and my bag, especially the guy to my right who now had to sit with the gear shift precariously between his legs. Every time we went into third gear the gear shift pulled within an inch of his groin and he’d slide up just a bit higher in his seat.

I’m not sure why but I had begun to think that maybe this remote area of India was isolated enough to be immune from the uncoordinatedness that is so commonplace with the main heartland of India. I guess I was wrong.

Does that make me cra-zay? Possibly.

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