Spiti Travelogue: Day 5

Com­ic Adven­ture: We sur­vive an extra­or­di­nary day in Spi­ti

Spi­ti is a cold moun­tain desert. The val­ley is formed by the Spi­ti riv­er. Geo­log­i­cal­ly and archae­o­log­i­cal­ly, it is a liv­ing muse­um. The moun­tains are devoid of any veg­e­ta­tion and ero­sion by wind, sun and snow over thou­sands of years has laid bare the rocks. The rugged and rocky moun­tain slopes sweep down to the riverbeds, giv­ing the land­scape a moon-like appear­ance. From Kun­zam pass to Sum­do, the length of the val­ley is about 150 km. Spi­ti riv­er flows east­wards to meet the Sut­lej in Kin­naur.

Spiti River

Kaza is in the mid­dle of Spi­ti and is the divi­sion­al head­quar­ters. It is at an alti­tude of 3600M (11,808 feet), and is a small town equipped with a hos­pi­tal and gro­cery shops sell­ing veg­eta­bles that arrive from Shim­la or Man­ali. Tem­per­a­tures in Kaza at that time, dur­ing October/November, ranged from -12 C to 5 C.Spiti

This was going to be our home for the next 3/4 days and I was enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly look­ing for­ward to it. A few of us walked to a restau­rant to have break­fast, the rest stayed recu­per­at­ing at the lodge. The lodge man­ag­er told us excit­ed­ly about an annu­al fes­ti­val being cel­e­brat­ed that day in a vil­lage called Kau­mik (also spelled as Com­ic) in the moun­tains above Kaza. It turned out that either you could trek up the moun­tain slope or trav­el by jeep in a round­about fash­ion to reach the vil­lage.

These Bud­dhist fes­ti­vals are a visu­al feast and some of us start­ed plan­ning to trek the moun­tain slope. Ini­tial­ly, I felt so worn out after get­ting up that I was in no mood to do any phys­i­cal activ­i­ty. After the break­fast walk how­ev­er, three of us (Mad­hukar, George and I) aspired to trek, while the oth­ers decid­ed to trav­el by jeep and meet us at the vil­lage fes­ti­val.
I had heard a lot about the impor­tance of acclima­ti­za­tion. When you trav­el to an alti­tude of more than 10,000 feet from sea lev­el, you are advised to spend a day accli­ma­tiz­ing your­self to the alti­tude before you move about. The alti­tude can play tricks with your lungs and brain, and it does it so fast, that it is usu­al­ly too late to act if any­thing hap­pens. Trekking imme­di­ate­ly the next morn­ing after reach­ing Kaza (11,808 ft.) was dan­ger­ous. How­ev­er, Mad­hukar and George inspired me, and I did not wor­ry about acclima­ti­za­tion at all.

I think that was the key. I just want­ed to join them and prove to myself that I was capa­ble of doing it. We did not know the height of the moun­tain, except that the vil­lagers had said the trek would take about 2 to 3 hours. One of us said that if it seems dif­fi­cult we could always return after a few min­utes. That put to rest my wor­ries. I decid­ed that I could indeed begin; we will see what hap­pens lat­er. We began inch­ing our way up the moun­tain at 10:45 AM.Kaza and Trek to Kaumik

This image shows the start of the trek path from Kaza to Kau­mik. The size of the moun­tain is such that peo­ple on the path would hard­ly be vis­i­ble at this scale.

Our tar­get was a flut­ter­ing flag fly­ing high above, on the side of the moun­tain­top. It was on the slope, low­er than the top, and the path seemed to go direct­ly up across the moun­tain towards it. After a few min­utes, I was breath­less. I had not tak­en any­thing along with me, to keep myself weight­less and free. Mad­hukar and George were car­ry­ing cam­eras and one back­pack. On the way, we halt­ed for a few moments sev­er­al times for pic­tures. By the time we were half-way through, I was com­plete­ly exhaust­ed. Until now, every­thing was phys­i­cal, now began the men­tal and psy­cho­log­i­cal trekking. Step for­ward, inhale, step for­ward, exhale.

I dragged myself upwards, towards the flag. We encoun­tered sev­er­al vil­lagers who were also going towards Kau­mik, but soon dropped the idea of fol­low­ing them. Their pace and short cuts were beyond us. George and I slowed down Mad­hukar, but he patient­ly wait­ed and urged us along. I was the only smok­er among the three — a fact both not­ed with great sig­nif­i­cance. Step for­ward, inhale. Exhale, step for­ward.

We were now in the steep rocks towards the top. As soon as we neared the flag, we saw that the road did not lead to the flag on the slope, but con­tin­ued upward towards the top. Mad­hukar went on upward along the road to check out how far it was until the top. He went up for some dis­tance and called out to us, say­ing it was only a bit far.

It was only in hind­sight that I real­ized how good a leader Mad­hukar was. George and I plod­ded along, breath­less, but believ­ing him. George was doing much bet­ter, I was worse. Step for­ward. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Step for­ward. Each step was a mile­stone. I tried to achieve a rhythm in my steps and breath­ing, but could not keep it up. I knew the rhythm was the key to trekking and tried to return to it even after los­ing it. After what seemed an eter­ni­ty, we final­ly saw anoth­er set of flags, perched at the top — the real top. The flag we were see­ing so far was only an illu­sion; it was actu­al­ly on the side of the moun­tain slope. The real crossover was still quite some dis­tance away. I was in no con­di­tion even to think about what Mad­hukar had said ear­li­er about the top being close. The set of flags, our new tar­get, was indeed our goal, and we spurred on, inch­ing our way towards it. Step for­ward, sev­er­al breaths, wait, and then step for­ward.

At last, we reached the flut­ter­ing flags at the top. The vil­lage was nowhere in sight. I was out of breath and was about to col­lapse. We then met oth­er vil­lagers who were trav­el­ing the same way to Kau­mik. Upon ask­ing them how far it was, their respons­es var­ied between “no longer far” to “about 30 min­utes far”. Lat­er, we were to dis­cov­er that we had climbed above 15,000 feet. It was a 6 km trek and a climb of about 3,000 feet. We were high­er than Kun­zam!

Of course, we did not know any of this and trudged along the moun­tain. Now, at least we were not climb­ing. An inhab­it­ed hill came into view far away, across a val­ley. We got scared and won­dered if that was Kau­mik. If it was, I was in no posi­tion to reach it; at least in that day. My worst fears came true.

The rest of us were com­ing there by jeep; and we were to meet at Kau­mik. We had decid­ed upon a time of about 2:00 PM, esti­mat­ing that we would take four hours when the vil­lagers had said two. How­ev­er, it was already past 2:00 PM, and we did not know where Kau­mik was. Hence, Mad­hukar said that he would pro­ceed ahead at his faster pace in order to catch the jeeps, while George and I could fol­low at our own pace.

We read­i­ly agreed. Mad­hukar went trot­ting ahead of us, while we trudged along behind him. Soon, he was far ahead of us, climb­ing up the hill that we had seen some time back. I felt it to be impos­si­ble for me to go that far and climb again. George and I were inspir­ing each oth­er to go along and we some­how con­tin­ued. Our steps were waver­ing, we were fal­ter­ing, but we were mov­ing, to catch the jeeps. Sur­vival instinct was my only source of ener­gy.

Then, sud­den­ly, we saw them! Our Maru­ti Gyp­sies had reached the inhab­it­ed hill­top! This con­firmed that the hill­top was indeed Kau­mik, our des­ti­na­tion. We could also see Mad­hukar perched on the top of a hut, appar­ent­ly shout­ing at the vehi­cles. The sight of the jeeps moti­vat­ed me to climb the Kau­mik hill. I was visu­al­iz­ing lying in them and going back to our home in Kaza. Mad­hukar was still on the slope of the hill, fran­ti­cal­ly wav­ing towards the jeeps; but they nei­ther saw nor heard him. Dis­as­ter struck as I saw the jeeps begin their jour­ney back to Kaza.

We lat­er learned that every­one else had thought that if we did not come by the time we had decid­ed to meet, we must already be on our way down and there­fore did not search for us in Kau­mik…

George and I sat down. We said to each oth­er that nei­ther of us had the strength to climb down to Kaza today. Our goal in life was only to reach Kau­mik, some­how, and rest there for­ev­er. We got up and began walk­ing across the agri­cul­tur­al fields in the val­ley. Soon we were inch­ing our way up the slope of the hill. We were walk­ing towards a tem­ple where we saw Mad­hukar perched on the top.

The last sec­tion of the climb was unimag­in­able. I was col­laps­ing and sure that I was in no con­di­tion to move any far­ther. Mad­hukar came down beside us and urged us upwards. I was gath­er­ing men­tal and phys­i­cal strength from all my reserves and I did not know where those reserves were. Every step was a life­time achieve­ment. Each step caused dizzi­ness and I had to rest my hands on the rocks along­side or the ground, to avoid col­laps­ing. I felt the world swirling around me and had no fur­ther strength to con­tin­ue. It was a choice between dying because of mov­ing, or dying because I didn’t move.
I sat down, and saw George con­tin­u­ing to climb. Then I heard Mad­hukar urg­ing me to get up and move. In a hyp­no­tized state, I got up and moved. I climbed and climbed; not stop­ping until I reached the top, where I col­lapsed. After a few min­utes, I regained aware­ness and looked around.

We were at the top of a plateau, and there were sev­er­al reli­gious struc­tures around. The vil­lage cer­e­mo­ny was still going on, and the vil­lagers were danc­ing and play­ing music in a wild, viva­cious yatra — a pro­ces­sion.

Now that the jeeps were gone, we had to find an alter­na­tive way to return to Kaza. Mad­hukar first sug­gest­ed climb­ing down; but that was out of the ques­tion for George and me. He then said he had talked with a truck dri­ver who had brought sev­er­al vil­lagers for the fes­ti­val. He was will­ing to take us back to Kaza along with them. We sighed in relief at this news and crouched on the floor hid­ing from the wind, wait­ing for the cer­e­mo­ny to end.

I felt the irony but felt help­less. We had climbed so much to watch the cer­e­monies of the vil­lage fes­ti­val, but were hid­ing behind a wall to brace our­selves from the wind while the cel­e­bra­tions were going on. How­ev­er, there was no choice as my body was freez­ing and I was already fan­ta­siz­ing about lying in bed in Kaza. Mad­hukar again sug­gest­ed that we could climb down to Kaza but we were in no mood to do that. We firm­ly refused; say­ing we would rather spend the night in Kau­mik than climb down. Thus, we stayed on, crouch­ing behind the wall avoid­ing the cold wind that had begun to blow.

After the cer­e­monies and cel­e­bra­tions were over, a huge crowd assem­bled in the truck. I was amazed at the vari­ety of the crowd that was to trav­el with us to Kaza. There were males and females of all ages, from 10 years old to 80 years old and were scram­bling togeth­er in the truck like pieces in a jig­saw puz­zle. We climbed the truck and stood watch­ing the chaos in a daze.

After quite a while, the truck start­ed its slow and tor­tur­ous jour­ney towards Kaza. The sun was down already, and it was in dark­ness that the truck dri­ver was tak­ing death-defy­ing turns. We held our breath, but were in such a daze that we almost did not care. We were still in a stu­por from all the exhaus­tion and the alti­tude.

A few vil­lagers got off on the way in the local vil­lages and the crowd in the truck reduced. While pass­ing through a deep gorge, the engine start­ed cough­ing and the truck abrupt­ly stopped. There were shouts galore. Some­one opined that it was out of fuel. Upon the driver’s insis­tence, the pas­sen­gers got out and start­ed push­ing the truck. While we were in a daze, wait­ing des­per­ate­ly for the moment we reached our home in Kaza; we looked at Mad­hukar join­ing the group in push­ing the truck. George, suf­fer­ing from a headache, was sit­ting with his head between his hands. I was so dazed that I did not care what was hap­pen­ing as long as the truck was mov­ing.

Soon how­ev­er, every­one real­ized that there was no sense in push­ing the truck since it was nev­er going to start. All the vil­lagers there­fore decid­ed prompt­ly to con­tin­ue on foot, and by the time we were shak­en out of our daze, they were already quite a dis­tance ahead. Mad­hukar urged us to get up on our feet and start mov­ing. George and I scam­pered to our feet and began to walk on the road. Short­ly, the vil­lagers were out of sight. Then we were all alone, in the dark­ness, in the moun­tains on an iso­lat­ed path. We did not know where we were, or how far, noth­ing was to be seen or heard any­where around us.

We con­tin­ued walk­ing fever­ish­ly, urged on by Madhukar’s admon­ish­ments. We could bare­ly see the path in the dark. It was espe­cial­ly unnerv­ing on u-turns. I con­stant­ly fol­lowed Mad­hukar; George was behind me. We lat­er con­fessed to every­one that at that time, we were all afraid of wildlife. How­ev­er, we did not men­tion this to each oth­er as we were walk­ing.

Mad­hukar was encour­ag­ing us all along, inspir­ing us to walk faster. He then remarked about the sound of the riv­er, indi­cat­ing that we were close to the bot­tom of the moun­tain, near the sur­face of the riv­er, near the main road! Our pace increased and soon we were on the main road, like strand­ed pas­sen­gers wait­ing for any vehi­cle that would take us to Kaza.

Final­ly, a van stopped in response to our fran­tic wav­ing and dropped us at Kaza. At 8:30 PM we were back home. Reach­ing home safe­ly after such a night­mare was a dream come true! To this day, this is the most adven­tur­ous day of my life.

Next: Day 6

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