In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.
While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.
Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.
Chicham is a village like any other in the Spiti Valley, quiet, pastoral, with a primary school, a friendly lama and spectacular views. But the people in the village have one hell of a time getting out of it as the nearest settlement, Kibber, is one deep canyon away and the only way to get across is through a perilously perched pulley system joining two cliff-sides.
I trotted along with D purposefully towards the object of our adventure. And there they were, the village in the distance, the gorge separating us, the angry waters of a stream gurgling 500 feet below and a little basket and a rope provided to haul yourself across to the other side. D bailed out immediately and left the scene. I stupidly put my foot in the pulley only to realise that it had moved before I could get the other foot in. I got the other foot in and then realised that there was no one on the other side to pull me across. The basket had moved and there was now a 20 meter gap between me and the cliff separated by a yawning canyon. I tried pushing the pulley back to the cliff but it resisted the motion and pulled itself away towards the other side, which made me curse myself for not paying more attention during physics lectures in college.
After a while, no matter what I did, the basket wouldn’t move and this was bang in the middle of the canyon. My nerves were doing a dance of death and I sat there suspended for over an hour, 500 feet above raging waters wondering what after-life was going to be like. I had lost all hope of survival till I heard someone calling from the Chicham side of the gorge, giving me step by step instructions to get out of the jam. Basically, I had to loosen the ropes very slowly and pull myself with all my might to go over to the other side. I fought my vertigo and gingerly got up to loosen the ropes one by one, after which it moved a few feet. In 20 minutes, once I was close enough to the Chicham cliff, the man pulled me across.
He was a Czech musicology student who was doing some research for his thesis paper on ethnic music from the Himalayan hinterlands. He lived in Chicham, he said, and went across to Kibber every day for a snack and a few beers. He didn’t know how the pulley worked either and was primarily using trial and error to negotiate the challenge. Nevertheless, he had saved my life and we went on to have a few beers in Kibber to celebrate the fact. What are the odds.
Most people travel to Sarahan for the spectacularly located Bhimakali Temple and I was no exception. That’s all I had wanted to do, spend a day or two in the serene surroundings of the temple guest house and move on to more exciting things in life, like a short trek in Kinnaur or home-stays in Spiti. Only, I ended up spending a week at the Bhimakali Temple out of sheer inertia.
The village of Sarahan is a dull cluster of dhabas, hotels and a few shabby under-construction guest houses set around the temple. Apart from the odd pack of Israeli backpackers and a Bengali family or two, there was a feeling of desolation here that I hadn’t encountered elsewhere in the Himalayas. Although the views from my verandah were fantastic and living within the grand architecture of the temple precincts was a unique experience, things were beginning to get depressing. I started feeling sad and angry for not getting a move on especially when it was so easy to get a move on with buses leaving regularly for the places I wanted to go.
But the baba had an explanation for it. I was “meant” to have stayed longer than I wished to because I had no choice in the matter. We were “meant” to have met at the temple and he was “meant” to be there to show me the right path. He looked ancient, with a long scraggly beard that extended all the way down to his waist. He was so skeletal in appearance that I felt he grew his beard that long just to cover his bones. He was upset about his previous disciple deserting him on the way to Kedarnath leaving him to fend for himself and I started to get the impression that I was being measured up as a replacement.
I accompanied him for a walk into the forests, him effortlessly walking barefoot, me in my Coleman boots struggling to keep pace. After expounding much on the Upanishads and mythological lore, a lot of which flew over my head, he advised me to do a trek to the lofty peak of Shrikhant Mahadev and said, “I have been to all the abodes of Lord Shiva but none have the ability to make your blood freeze, your feet bleed, your inner systems growel like the Shrikhant Mahadev. At this time of the year, the snow would bury you up to your neck and treacherous crevices could open up at every turn. If you harbour evil thoughts, you will certainly be swallowed by the mountain. But if you have a pure soul, the grace of God will keep your body warm and show you the way. I can help to purify your soul. You can spend months here in these beautiful mountains and get your soul cleansed with the beautiful air and a good diet of fresh fruits and herbs. If you take care of me well enough, we can go climb that mountain together.”
Feeling a little (unjustifiably) creeped out, I told him politely, “I don’t have the faith or ability to live like you do but am highly thankful for your offer to take me into your fold. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run because a friend is waiting for me in the village to take me to Rampur. Again, thank you and good-bye!” I scurried down to my room in the temple guest house, packed my bags and hitch-hiked in a milk van out of Sarahan into Kinnaur.