We have just completed a tour of remote villages high in the Himalayas along the Hindustan-Tibet highway. It has been one of the best parts of our trip and unlike anything we have ever done before. We have visited ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples perched atop rocky fairy-tale peaks, seen more goats and yaks than we can count, exhausted ourselves trekking up steep mountains, counted ourselves big fans of yak cheese, and become intimately familiar with squat toilets. We think we have seen the most beautiful scenery that we might ever see in our lifetimes.
Almost two weeks ago now we reunited with Yann and Emilie in Manali, which is a popular tourist destination set amongst beautifully treed mountains. It actually looked less like McLeod Ganj and more like Banff. After swapping stories of the two weeks that we spent apart, the four of us set off from Manali to begin our trip to more remote locales. We started with a thirteen hour bus ride over the highest mountain passes we have ever been to. The trip was bumpy and nerve-racking, but for the first few hours we tried to enjoy the stomach flips and awesome views. Once we climbed to 4,551 metres above sea level, though, the altitude, constant bumps, and scary roads had taken their toll, and the last half of the ride was spent praying that we would arrive in Kaza soon. When we finally arrived our brains felt a little scrambled, but we were very grateful.
Now that we have made it safely across, we can tell you that our guidebook refers to the Hindustan-Tibet highway as the most dangerous stretch of road in India. Hopefully that is true, so that no one has to endure anything more frightening. We would routinely drive miles above the nearest ledge on a gravel road so narrow that the side of the road was not visible past our tires. We drove over waterfalls that had taken out the road. Sometimes stones would crumble away down the side of the mountain under our wheels. We saw one car halfway down a mountain that had obviously taken a tumble off our road, and another time a crumpled jeep that was being towed up.
We had planned to stay in Kaza for a couple of days to adjust to the 3,800 metre altitude, which at first made us feel drowsy and light-headed, and ridiculously short of breath when going uphill. But we ended up having to stay longer because apparently James is very allergic to something in the air there. He woke up the first morning with a terrible rash all over his face and neck. Assuming it was something on his pillow, we changed guesthouses but the mysterious rash only spread to other areas of his body and was accompanied by a swollen face, feet, and hands. This called for our first attempt to seek medical attention in India, and it was quite an interesting experience. Luckily Kaza has a free clinic, but clinic hours were already over on the evening that we first visited. We managed to find a nurse to look at James. She spoke very little English and all that we could understand was an ominous "Injection. Ready?" With so little information, James responded with an assertive "No" and we decided to return the next day when the doctor was in.
When we came back the next morning there were already dozens of people in the waiting room, but there was no nurse or sign-up sheet or triage of any kind going on, so we wondered what the procedure was to see the doctor. We witnessed the procedure minutes later when the doctor arrived, and it was the following: everyone ran and pushed their way into the doctor's office, hoping to be seen first, on the sole basis of their sharp elbows. The doctor first examined a small boy, while everyone crowded around the examining table so that they might be next. To us, it all seemed so ridiculous and inappropriate and far from the way any examination would take place in Canada. Eventually the doctor seemed to agree that things were getting out of hand and ushered everyone out of his office, and he literally had to push people to get his door shut. Everyone, that is, except for the over-privileged, but shamefully grateful tourists (yours truly) who got to see the doctor before everyone else. He diagnosed James with an airborne allergy and prescribed a daily regimen of anti-histamines and multivitamins, which have been working nicely ever since.
Before we left Kaza we learned that a rare Chaam festival was happening in Ki, a town only half an hour away. We had to take advantage of our amazing luck, since this festival only happens once a year, and we hired a jeep to take us to see it. There, we saw monks dressed in beautiful costumes and elaborate demon masks. They do this to frighten away any bad spirits that might try to threaten the village in the coming year. Other monks play music and light huge fires, and after the dancing we were amazed to see the procession of monks climb over people laying face-down on the ground to receive blessings, all the way down the mountain path.
When we were sure that James was healthy enough, we set about getting permits to travel along the Hindustan-Tibet highway, which until recently was off-limits to overnight tourists because of its proximity to the Tibet border. Acquiring the permits was yet another encounter with often frustrating Indian bureaucracy, but after two and a half hours we left with permits that nearly spelled our names correctly. This enabled us to leave by bus for Dhankar, our first stop on the highway. Reaching the village, which is nestled in a valley at 3,900 metres, required hiking uphill from the nearest town on the highway. Our guidebook told us to take a "very steep" ten kilometre path from the highway, but a local man had told us a shortcut. We were grateful that we didn't have to walk up the ten kilometres until we realized that the "shortcut" cut down on the distance only because it was that much more steep. We spent one hour and a half hiking up what felt like a slippery near-vertical climb while carrying all of our belongings. The scenery was spectacular, with the Spiti Valley below us and caves dotting the unusual rock formations around us. The 1,200 year old Dhankar gompa was perched above us on the highest, starkest, most ominous peaks around, taunting us as we struggled to get closer to it.
We were exhausted when we finally reached Dhankar, but the hike was worth it when we saw the small village: a valley full of white-washed buildings and two monasteries on either side, with the longest string of colourful Tibetan prayer flags joining them, stretched across the gorge. Visiting the town that afternoon was almost eerie, as there were virtually no adults to be seen. The village appeared to be deserted apart from small children who seemed to have the run of the place, and a small goat who was apparently separated from his flock and followed us around for the protection that we offered him from stray dogs. People began returning to the village around dinner time from working in the fields and pastures, their herds of yak, sheep and goats pouring down into the valley for the night. This daily routine was repeated in most of the villages that we visited in the valleys, meaning that during the day the town is oddly occupied only by children too small, and people too old to help in the fields.
That afternoon we forced ourselves to go on another hour-long uphill climb to visit a green, secluded lake with wonderful views of snow-capped mountains in the near distance. In the evening we were treated to a homemade dinner prepared by the family that provided us a homestay. We watched sheep and goats play in the yard, and heard the town crier bellow out an announcement for a town meeting the next day.
The next morning we woke up early to attend puja, the prayer ceremony at the monastery. It was very serene to be the only visitors to listen to the nine monks chant for about an hour. James thought the chant sounded like a didgeridoo. We were graciously served butter tea by a young monk, and we tried to smile as we choked down the rancid yak-buttery taste. To everyone's surprise and dismay, James, not wanting to be rude, accepted the offer of seconds. Everyone then had to help finish it.
Afterward we visited the old gompa and fort complexes, which house thousand year old artwork and are built on a set of rocky, barren peaks that make the gompa look like an evil fairytale fortress. The gompa is protected by the World Heritage Fund and is one of the world's one hundred most endangered cultural sites, since the rocks underneath it are naturally decomposing. It was very beautiful and afforded amazing views of the surrounding valley and mountain ranges. After the high altitude sightseeing it was time to come back down the mountain, which was not as physically difficult, but much more scary than going up. It took us an hour to cautiously come down, using careful baby steps, often holding hands to prevent slipping on the unstable rocks.
Next time on Part II of our Eastern Himachal Pradesh adventure: more temples! more Tibetan cuisine! more death-defying bus rides!