Trespassers on the Roof of the World

Published in The Hindu — August 1, 2018.

Craggy peaks whoosh past my window. A turquoise ribbon of river cuts its way through the mountains. Snow lies unmelted in shadows that the sun hasn’t reached. I’m in a bus that’s hurtling down thin, winding roads in Spiti Valley to the little town of Tabo. It’s near the end of my mountain holiday, and it’s been fascinating. I’ve chanced upon fossilised ammonites in Hikkim, sipped warm butter tea at a monastery in Key and watched my travel companion’s face light up while encountering his first snowfall near Kaza. The nights have needed an extra layer of clothing, but they’ve also let me become familiar with Spiti’s dark, crystal-studded skies. Each time I spot the stars that make up the Great Bear, I’m thrilled.

Spiti, the Himalayan region in north-western Himachal Pradesh, is starkly different in its landscape from the rest of the State. Barren mountains and large swathes of emptiness are broken by tiny villages and towns. Tibetan prayer flags flutter wildly in the wind as reminders of civilisation. If human life ever makes it to Mars, I imagine it would look like this.

Kaza is regarded the biggest settlement in the valley, and makes for a good base from which to explore spots like Hikkim and Key. But Tabo, another of Spiti’s larger towns, offers a cosier setting. When we reach, we check into a quiet homestay, tucked alongside an apple orchard. The trees are covered with little white blossoms, and I realise that this is the first time my city-bred brain is giving thought to the flowers that make way for juicy apples. Our homestay owner, Tenzin, later tells us that harvest season generally begins around August.

Tenzin also hooks us up with a cab for the 45-minute ride to Giu, a village close to the India-Tibet border. What really put this village on the map is a 500-odd-year-old self-mummified monk. We’re told that the mummy was only discovered during the 1975 earthquake, when the stupa he was in collapsed. Today, the shrunken, naturally preserved body sits encased in glass.

Sandcastles in air

The Tabo Monastery, is one of the oldest monasteries in the region. Founded in 996 AD, the beige buildings in the complex look like they’ve been mashed by hand, like sandcastles. We duck to enter the main temple, and our eyes take a minute to adjust to the dark chamber. There’s a single shaft of light streaming in, but even in the darkness, the murals on the walls are mystifying.

Thirty-two clay sculptures line the walls — some say these symbolise moments in the Buddha’s meditative process. In the inner sanctum, the walls are covered with a 1,000 paintings of the Buddha. They gleam gold in the faint light and I’m floored.

Nearby is Tenzin Corner, where we order two rounds of flavourful, juicy muttonmomos . I could use the fuel for our next activity. It’s a climb up the mountain opposite the monastery to meditation chambers carved into the rock. Most of these caves are now derelict, but there’s one — under lock and key — that’s still precious. It’s home to gorgeous murals that are said to date back to around the time Tabo Monastery was built.

If monasteries and mummies don’t cut it, Tabo has more. Sweet little cafés, like Cafe Kunzum Top, let you soak in the views with coffee and snacks. We stop for hot pakodas and Spiti Coffee — a potent concoction of strong coffee and locally brewed barley liquor. Later, Tenzin serves us a simple dinner of tingmo , a pillowy Tibetan bread, and potato bhaji . That night, I spot the Great Bear one last time in the Spiti sky and grin. Like the stars, it hasn’t been long, but Tabo feels just as familiar.

 

Where to Stay

  • Gakyi Homestay: Adjoining an apple orchard, with basic but clean accommodation (www.gakyihomestay.com).
  • Sonam Guesthouse: A well-reviewed spot, run by a well-informed local who also has a tour and trekking firm. Cafe Kunzum Top is also here (www.spitisonamtours.com).
  • Hotel Maitreya Regency: Expect upscale service and better amenities. The hotel’s restaurant serves a range of familiar North Indian and Continental fare (www.maitreyaregencytabo.in).

How to get there

Delhi is the closest metro to Tabo, about 700 km away. It’s best to drive, either via Manali or Shimla. The Shimla route — Reckong Peo is a popular transit stop — is open all year round, and the road is better as well. State-run HRTC buses also ply these routes.