Spiti: An experience unforgettable
Spiti...the land of the lamas...a beautiful and extraordinary place, with its gorgeous landscape and breathtaking topography stands elegantly in the north eastern part of the state of Himachal Pradesh. Quiet and isolated, it is an ideal place for those seeking some peace and serenity in their lives.
This year in the summer of June 2011, a bunch of super excited kids, gathered at the Inter State Bus Terminal, New Delhi, all set and ready to board the bus to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. We were a total of nine people going to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh to work on the Gold Solar Project.
This group of people had come together courtsey an NGO Ecosphere and The International Award for Young People in India. Ecosphere was co-founded by Gold Award Holder- Ishita Khanna. It is an organization focusing on improving the lives of the people living in Spiti by providing them with useful facilities and sources of livelihood. The activities of ECOSHPERE are carried out by volunteers who are willing and determined to work for a certain cause. Last year they built green houses and solar baths in other areas of the region and this year Ecosphere had advertised that they wanted volunteers to come and help build a solar bath for the women of Spiti in the distant village of Morang.
Our main motive of going to the Spiti valley was to help the people there by constructing a solar bathing facility for a group of nuns who stayed at a nunnery in the remote village of Morang near Kaza. As the temperatures there are very low and the climate extremely dry and cold, hot water to bathe is an absolute necessity. Normally water would be heated by burning firewood or fuel. This was not a sustainable solution to the problem. Hence the decision to construct a solar bath facility.
We left new Delhi on 11.06.2011 at 8.30 pm in the evening and reached Shimla at 6.30 am . We left a hot boiling Delhi and woke up to a cold wet morning. It was raining and all of us were feeling extremely cold!
At Shimla, we were greeted by Angdui bhaiya and Sonam bhayia from the organization. They had come from Spiti to pick us up. Taking our luggage we boarded the mini bus and headed to Kalpa. Enroute we reached Narkanda and had breakfast there, we had started to feel the chill in the hills as the temperatures came swooping down. All of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, traveling through the lush green hills of Himachal, chatting, listening to songs and munching on goodies all the way...
We arrived at Kalpa at 4:00 in the evening, a spectacular place with the Kailash mountain range beautifully bordering it. After feasting on yummy cottage cheese and vegetable pakoras and having an early dinner we all went to bed. But little did we know that we would have to face minor tragedies in the form of boys falling sick and fainting in the bathroom post midnight! Just goes on to prove that girls are much stronger than boys!
The next day we headed to Kaza, the district headquarters of Spiti. The scenery was spectacular..tall mountains standing firm and looking magnificient. The wind had cut patterns on the rocks. All along the way the road meandered alongside a river. Sometimes the river was next to us, at other times it was deep below. The roads were pretty good but they had to be reconstructed every now and then due to damage by landslides and rain.
The ride to Nako was not a very easy one as as we were stranded on the way for four hours due to a major road block. We spent all our time splashing each other with water from a nearby waterfall, throwing pebbles in the river and talking to other tourists. This experience taught us how to remain peaceful and composed even during disturbing times.
By the time we reached Nako, all of us were starving. And after having a hearty meal over there, we all headed towards Kaza. The ride from Nako to Kaza was a very enjoyable one as it was night time and we played atlas and antakshari, even Olga joined us and sang some Russian rap, we tried to copy her but soon realized that non of us were nightingales at singing!
We went to Ecosphere's office in Kaza the next day, there we met Ishita and her team, including two adorable puppies-Neema and Tashi. They showed us around and we saw the wonderful products they had made out of seabuckthorn, a wonder berry considered to have wonder full healing, anti-aging and medicinal properties. Apart from that, the shop also had items made by local people with beautiful handwork including shawls, mats, knitted caps etc.
The people of Spiti are very simple and pleasant, they are warm and extremely friendly. The one thing that I can proudly say is that they have managed to maintain their culture and heritage in its original form. They have not been influenced by the outside world much, especially western culture, as what has happened in many parts of our country. Their music and dances still has the feel of mountains and the streams ringing in . The livelihood of the people mainly consists of farming, herding, joining the army or doing other small jobs. The women take care of the house and also help in the farming. Some of them even open up small schools in the villages to educate the children.
We reached the Morang village in the afternoon and after finding a nice green spot, 200 m from the nunnery, set up tents. The toilets were dug. Evening time was fun time as we had put up a volleyball net and played volleyball, some would play cards and the others would just sit and gossip. It was fun talking to the nuns, getting to know more about their lives and daily routines. It was bliss watching them so happy and satisfied with their lives.
There were around 50-75 nuns living over there. There daily routine comprised of getting up, praying, preparing and having breakfast, then some would work and some would study. Many were even taking exams in English and Philosophy. As the day would pass, they would finish there work have tea, sit around , relax and talk to each other. They would have prayer ceremonies in the evening also.This was the village where we had to build the solar bathing facility. Not knowing what was in store for us we got prepared for the work which was going to start tomorrow.
Our daily routine for the next 4 days went like this...........we would get up every morning at 6.30 A.M., freshen up and go to the nunnery for breakfast, one of us was appointed the leader and the cook each day. The leader had the responsibility of waking us up and making sure that everything happened well and on time for that particular day, the cook would help Angrup bhaiya in the kitchen.
After having a good breakfast of paranthas, toast and eggs we would head for work. Our work for the initial days consisted of building a strong foundation. The area was dug up and we started laying the foundation. Now the hard part was that we did not get to use cement or bricks for constructing this, instead we used mud and big rocks, all locally available materials. There was a broken down monastery nearby where we used to go in a tractor to get mud and stones. For constructing the foundation, we would make a human chain and pass the heavy rocks, then we would dig and collect mud, water it and mix it well, then when an ample amount of clayey mud was made, some would pass the mud to the ones doing the mason work and hence the layers were made comprising of big rocks, small stones and mud.
At 11.30 A.M, we would have a juice break in which we would have seabuckthorn juice and cookies, after which we would continue working till 1.00 pm. And then have lunch,mostly dal chawal and curd, then we would work some more till 5.00 pm. And then we would be free for the day! After freshening up by a nearby stream, we would change our clothes and go back to the nunnery to enjoy our free time.
Often in the evening, Norbu bhaiya and Ishita didi would come to meet us and we would play volleyball together. Once they even got us a very interesting movie to see, containing various facts about Spiti, its wildlife and nomadic life. also came to know about many interesting facts such as that Spiti was a part of the Tethys sea before the formation of the Gondwana land and that it is one of the oldest and biggest deposits of fossils. We got to know about the lives of the people in detail, about their travels and experiences, about how they tended and fed their livestock and got valuable products like milk and fur from them, about the protectiveness of the Himalayan cranes towards their children and about the terror and threat that the wild wolves and foxes pose to the livestock. It all showed that living with nature in harmony was the only way out for the sustenance and survival of these people as everyone is interdependent.
Dinner would be served by 8.00 pm. And then we would go to bed. We would often stay up late, sit by a bonfire, talk, and sing songs.
The next 2 days were spent building the rock layers. After the completion of these layers began our work of building huge mud layers which were 1.5 feet high each. This was hard work as we had to make a lot of wet mud which comprised of collecting, ploughing, watering and mixing mud. We also had to fill up the huge pit which had been dug up inside the boundaries of the room with rocks and stones to make the floor even.
At night we would often get to eat yummy local delicacies such as momos, thukpas and noodles. We also choreographed dances and skits for the cultural night which was going to be held at the end of our trip.
Sleeping in the tents was a wonderful experience except for the fact that I found a big fat rat in my sleeping bag once! Yikes!
After 4 days of rigorous work at the solar bath construction site, we left Morang temporarily to go trekking to Asia's highest village 'Komic' on the 19th of June. A jeep took us from Kaza and dropped us at Langcha, an intermediate village between Kaza and Komic. It was from this village that we started our 7 kms long uphill trek to Komic. We trekked through rocky mountains and across green meadows, crossing numerous streams on the way. We stopped half way to grab a quick lunch, comprising of yummy bun sandwiches, juice and biscuits. We reached Komic by 2.00 pm. and visited some local monasteries before going to our respective home stays.
These home stays were organized by the Ecosphere organization, where we got to stay in the houses of local people, learn their ways of life, eat and learn to cook what they eat and know there culture. Nivi, Olga and I got to stay at the village headman's house. It was a huge, spacious house with a lovely comfortable room and traditional compost, clean toilets. We had delicious momos with spicy tomato chutney for dinner and after interacting with the villagers, went to bed. And then something not so funny happened ...a huge black beetle fell on my face from the ceiling!!!....after that incident, I was so scared that I wasn't able to sleep all night!
The next day we got ready for the day's trek. We had hot, fluffy, homemade bread with butter and jam for breakfast and even got to taste some local thukpa with wild onions in it. Today's trek comprised of a 11 km long trek, mostly uphill to the village of Demul. This village is lower in height than Komic but the trek comprised of steep climbs across mountains with a little bit of flat land walking. Even at Demul, we got to stay in home stays. In the evening, after reaching Demul we had local people perform the local dances in which we all joined and had a lot of fun. The next day after trekking to the vintage point (a little further from Demul), we headed back to Kaza. After having lunch, we headed back to Morang to complete the work we had started.
The walls had to be completed and the roof laid, but by putting together everyone's effort we all managed to do a good job. We all worked really hard to complete the project, we painted and cleaned the doors and windows, set up the solar geyser, cemented the walls (inside and outside) and finally inaugurated the project on 22.6.11, after its completion. The king of Kaza, the head monk and all the nuns came to attend the inauguration. He cut the ribbon and inaugurated the solar bath. We were honored by the king and Ishita gave all of us mementos and prasad. We were thrilled, happy and satisfied to have completed something which would benefit so many people. We were all glad to have been given this opportunity to have done something for others. As the day for our return drew near, we were all in a dilemma, a mixture of emotions as no one wanted to go back from this lovely place. After all who would ever want to return from heaven once having experienced it.
We also visited the Key monastery at Key village. It is 12 km away from Kaza and is 900 years old. The monastery is beautiful comprising of different prayer, meeting, dining and worshiping rooms. It is said that the Dalai Lama visited this place in 1974. The monk who showed us around was an extremely interactive person, he was very friendly and funny and kept all of us entertained throughout the visit.
Our journey back was a lot of fun. We were returning back to Delhi via Manali. After spending an enjoyable day at Manali, watching movies, shopping and eating (a lot!)....we headed for Delhi and reached on 25th July morning.
For me this experience was truly overwhelming. I hope to go back again. What I have learnt on the trip is something no amount of books could have taught me. I also realized that together we can do things, that can make a lot of difference in peoples lives...