It was almost 6 p.m. so I guessed Nako couldn’t be far from here. I asked the Lama about whom I had mentioned earlier, how far Nako was and he said it was not very far. He was also coming from South India, Karnataka actually. I knew there were a few Tibetan monasteries in Koorg and he was coming from there. He came to Spiti to visit his parents who lived in a village near Nako. The bus stopped in front of a small tea shop and the conductor told me to get down there. I was shocked when I looked around because there was no sign of hotels or even any house. The Lama laughed and told me to look behind the tea shop and as I looked I saw the whole Nako village in the distance. I said goodbye to him and started walking towards Nako. Nako is a small village but definitely bigger than Pooh I guess. 5 minutes of walk and I reached Nako, I went straight to the first hotel that I saw but there was no one around to make enquiries. Luckily there was another hotel adjacent to it and the caretaker took me to a room. The room was nice with water heater and all. There was an open passage to the room where one could sit and see the entire Nako valley from the top. I paid Rs 300 for the room and decided to take some rest before having dinner. I slept for almost an hour and when I woke up there was no power. Luckily I had managed to charge the phone and camera earlier. I went outside to have food. There was a small dhaba next to the hotel run by the same guy but since he wasn’t there at that time I went to a restaurant inside the hotel just opposite the road. There were plenty of foreigners staying in the hotel and many of them were in the restaurant too. For the second day in a row I had candle light dinner. While I was having food I talked to the waiter there. He said the chance of power coming that day was really low. It could be raining or snow falling somewhere in that region, so they must have cut off the power supply as a precaution.
When I came back to the room after dinner I was thinking of going straight back to bed but the awesome climate there changed my mind. As I said earlier one could see the entire valley from the passage to the room in that hotel and even though it was dark at that time I still could see it by the light of the vehicles coming from down the valley. I sat on a chair which was in the corner, looking at the valley. But I couldn’t sit there for long as the cold started to cover Nako. I went to the room and picked up a heavy blanket, covered my whole body except for the eyes and sat on the chair listening to music. Through the light of the vehicles I saw the mist coming from down the valley and slowly starting to cover the entire village. I didn’t know how much time I spent there looking into the darkness. Many things came to my mind that night- my life, my profession, friends, family, football! I think that night I spent there alone, was one of the highlights of my trip. The whole long hectic journey to reach there was worth it just for that night. At some time during the night, I went back to the room as my eyes wouldn’t keep open any longer.
I woke up past 8 a.m. the next day, the power hadn’t come yet and also there wasn’t any water in the pipe. So I went out looking for the caretaker but couldn’t find him. When I returned I saw a foreign lady coming out from the next room. She took a bicycle from her room and headed outside. I asked her in English whether there was water in her room. She replied ‘Nahi he… kal se hi nahi he’ (No, not since yesterday) in Hindi. I was stunned by her reply, that foreign lady spoke better Hindi than me! Luckily last night I had managed to save some water in a bucket so somehow I managed to do the morning chores with that and went outside again to have breakfast.
The caretaker was there at that time and he agreed to make me parathas for breakfast. As he started cooking we had a conversation. His name was Sonam and he was coming from Ladak, Kashmir. Sonam told me to go check out the Buddhist temple on top of the hill and take a walk to the Monastery down the road as I didn’t know much about Nako. He advised me to hurry up because I should get back there by 12 p.m. in order to get the bus to Kaza. The bus could come any time afternoon. The weather was all cloudy in the morning and even snow started to fall but only for a very short time. As soon as I finished breakfast I started trekking towards the temple as Sonam had suggested. The narrow pebbled pavement to the temple on top disappeared a little while after I started climbing up. I looked up, the temple was made up of rocks and I guessed it wouldn’t take more than an hour to reach there. On the way I saw the Nako Lake on the right side, it was nothing to boast of, probably a little larger than a pond. The trail completely disappeared after a while, so I had to stop at many points to find a way to the top. While climbing up I saw a giant prayer wheel on the edge of the mountain and made a quick detour towards it. The view from there was spectacular. The sky was getting clearer after the morning snowfall. All the reddish mountains that I saw the previous day had put on the white cap of snow by then! The white clouds were flying through the gap of the mountains on top of Spiti. I turned the prayer wheel a few times and listened to the sound of the ring echoing across the valley. I sat there for at least half an hour gazing at the flying clouds. In that mesmerizing land, you could be alone but never lonely. I think sometimes we feel more human when we leave all the civilization far behind and come closer to nature.
I started climbing again towards the temple after a brief moment of philosophy. At some point I saw a glimpse of the trail on the other side; I guessed I took the wrong path from the start itself. After a half hour of trekking I looked up again. The temple looked just at the same distance as when I looked from below. How could that be possible? I was quite sure that I was not going to make to the bus stop in time if I was going to continue with the trekking, so I decided to come back. From the top, I saw the Tibetan monastery on the far side of the Nako village. To reach there I would have to cut through the village or walk the whole way to the hotel and then take the road. I decided to go with the former option which seemed easier and less time consuming. And by doing so I could see more of the village also.
I asked a few guys for the route once I got down from there and they showed me a tiny footpath going through the village. As I walked through it I realized I had made a big mistake. The roads through the village seemed more complicated than some maze you found in the newspaper. It split into a dozen paths as I went further and I didn’t know which way to take. The worst part was that there was no one there to ask for directions. I was pretty sure I was circling for a while at the same point. There were a number of cattle and sheep and donkeys adjacent to some houses. Somehow I managed to escape the maze and reach the road which led to the Monastery. But disappointingly there was nobody there and it seemed to be closed, so I roamed there for a while and decided to go back to my room since it was getting to be noon. On the way back I purchased some souvenirs from a shop. I packed up my entire stuff, said goodbye to Sonam and started walking towards the junction. On the way I saw an old man coming from the opposite side. I wasn’t looking at him but as soon as he reached beside me he asked where I was going to. When I told him I wanted to go to Kaza, he pointed to the bus stop. He advised me to get some rest at the tea shop which I had seen the previous day because the bus would come only after 1 p.m. probably. This was what I loved about the people here……. everyone you met on the way is really friendly and helpful even though you weren’t asking for it. I went and sat there on the chair outside the tea shop from where I could see the bus from the distance even as it came through Nako village. The minutes passed by and there was no sign of the bus. I had rice and curry from the shop while waiting. As I was standing there I saw a bearded guy with beanies walking towards the junction carrying travel bags. That guy reminded me of the hero from the movie ‘Into the wild’. He asked me what time the bus was and I said I had no idea as I had also been waiting for the bus. He asked me to come to the junction so we could chat till the bus came. I picked up my luggage and followed him. That’s how I met Nikhil.
Nikhil who was from Mumbai was working with an advertising firm, later quit his job and had been travelling around in Himachal Pradesh for a month with his friend. But from Peo he split up with his friend and came to Spiti alone. Actually he had a really funny story- he was staying in Sichiling (27 km before Kaza) with a few foreigners he had met during those days. But the snowfall which occurred that morning was quite heavy in those areas and they decided to come down as fast as possible because in those areas the road might get closed if the snowfall continued. But while coming back, he saw the weather getting clearer and so decided go back to Kaza because after coming all the way and still miss the Key monastery would be a pity, so he got down at Nako. As we were talking, an Italian couple (Marco & Sabrina) came to the bus stop. Actually, I had seen them that morning; they were also staying in my hotel. Soon our conversation moved along various topics from Indian culture to Mao se Tung to Italian weather! We didn’t realize the time was already past 2.30. Finally, we saw the much awaited Kaza bus coming through the Nako village. I wondered whether Vasu and his friends were in the bus, even if they were, there was a chance they would get down at Nako village (later I learned they weren’t in the bus).We kept our luggage on top and went inside the bus. It was jam packed; Nikhil and I had to stand beside the door. The condition of the road was getting worse as we travelled further but Nikhil said it was actually better compared to what we would have to face shortly. There were a number of migrant workers in the bus coming from the Northern States of India—-Uttar Pradesh and Bihar mostly and some foreign and native travellers. Nikhil said it was really difficult to get a seat from Peo in the Kaza bus unless you came to the booking counter early in the morning. The decision to take the Nako bus instead of Kaza bus on the other day turned out to be a great decision even though it wasn’t planned.
After an hour of journey we reached a place called ‘Sumdo’ where there was an army check post. The foreigners had to submit their in line permit which they got from Peo to travel beyond that place. We resumed our journey and later stopped at ‘Hangring’ for a tea break. This time I ordered mutton Tupka as per Nikhil’s suggestion and it tasted much better than the last time. There in those mountain areas mutton seemed more popular than chicken mainly due to its availability I guess. The journey continued- the constant twists and turns made standing beside the door really uncomfortable but it gave us an amazing sight that I would never forget. On the opposite mountain, there was a man leading a group of sheep through the steep cliffs. The sheep were all either black or white in color so from the distance they all looked like a moving chessboard! It was one of the most spectacular scenes I had ever seen in my life, too bad I couldn’t take a picture of it. The bus reached Tabo after 6 p.m.. Marco and Sabrina along with many foreigners got down at the bus station. Since Nikhil had already stayed in Tabo a few days earlier, he knew all the places there to see and so he advised them on their Tabo itinerary. Finally we managed to find a seat in the bus. Apart from the few migrant workers and natives and us, there was a Gujarati family also in the bus. It was so refreshing to see an Indian family with small kids coming to these unexplored areas rather than going to some usual places like Shimla or Manali.
I felt really enthusiastic about seeing the sight in front of me as I put my head out through the window. The road was leading straight towards the big mountain which was partially covered with white clouds. The cool breeze coming from the mountains just wafted through my hair. I started listening to music. The light began to fade away after 7 p. m., the clouds were gathering in the sky probably for a snowfall and I wasn’t wrong. We saw tiny pieces of snow falling down through the headlight of the bus. The members of the Gujarati family I talked about earlier were getting really excited seeing this, probably the first time in their life they were seeing a snowfall. Nikhil and I weren’t really excited, he just had been through one that morning and I had seen plenty of it last time in Gangotri, but still it was beautiful. Finally after 9 p.m. we reached Kaza. We climbed to the top of the bus to get our luggage and it took a while to unstrap all of it. So by the time we got down, everybody in the bus had left the bus station. Snowfall was getting heavier, so we started walking from the bus station to find a hotel to stay. There was no electricity just like the previous day and all the shops were closed. Nikhil said it felt like we were walking through some deserted town that we saw in the video games and I couldn’t agree more! Soon my hands started to shiver because of the cold. I saw the light of a tiny candle coming from a small shop on the left side. I went close to look; yes it was a liquor shop! I pointed out to Nikhil, he stared at me and said “Yeah let’s have some booze”. Getting liquor became our priority rather than finding a place to stay the night in that cold weather! We bought liquor and went in search of a room. Finally we found an open restaurant and asked for a room. The waiter arranged a room in a hotel just opposite the restaurant for Rs 400. After dinner we went to the room, shared the drink and chatted for a long time until I fell asleep.
Getting up past 8 a.m. the next day, we wandered through the streets of Kaza after breakfast. There was one SBI ATM in Kaza, so the information that I got earlier about the last ATM being in Peo turned out to be wrong. I bought a few more souvenirs from a small fancy shop. While coming back from the shop I saw Nikhil talking to a guy. He introduced him as Nithin – the biker. Nithin was travelling alone on a motorcycle and these guys had actually spent some time together a few days earlier. Nithin introduced to us his lady friend he had met the previous day and it was none other than the Hindi speaking lady I had seen at Nako hotel. Small world!!!!. He introduced her as Kim, the cyclist. She had come all the way from Chandigarh on her bicycle! Soon we left them. Our plan for the day was to go to Key monastery which was 12 km from there. We enquired about the bus availability to Key but learned that there was only one bus and that too only in the evening, so we decided to get a taxi to get to Key. From the taxi stand near the bus station we managed to get a taxi for Rs 800 which would get us to Kibber village (a small village which is hardly 5 km from Key) and then to the Key monastery.
The sceneries you find on either side of the road to Key were absolutely mind-blowing. The Spiti flowed through the wide stretch of areas between the mountains on the clear sunny day. There was a small village (Rangrik) on the banks of the river on the opposite side. On the way to Kibber we stopped at Key village to take a look at the Key Monastery and later we resumed our journey. By 11 a.m. we reached Kibber village. We told the driver that we would come back by 12.30 and went out to roam through the village. Kibber is one of the highest villages in the world with an altitude of over 4000 meters. At the Government High School a few students were sitting outside to study. I guess sunlight there was a luxury, that’s why probably they were sitting outside even though there were classrooms. We saw the neighboring village called Chitkul when we reached the top, which was on the other side of the village. But walking till there would take hours, so we didn’t even consider going there. One farmer was taking his yak to the paddy fields but by the time we got to him, he would have covered a lot of distance. A local man standing there said a couple of years ago they saw a snow leopard in the village!
Kibber felt like a pitch inside a giant stadium, surrounded by snow capped mountains instead of the gallery. I was totally unaware of this place but was so glad that I could I visit there. There was a Monastery in the village but it was closed at that time. The locals said the Lama could come at any time and we should wait if we wished to see him. While waiting for the Lama, our attention shifted to a very pleasant sight. We saw lots of small kids sitting on the ground to study in a pre-school. What were the chances that it could be the world’s highest pre-school, I wondered. No matter where you were and in what condition you live, education is a birthright for you, isn’t it? We went near them and took some pictures. They were all looking at us possibly wondering what was so special about the whole thing! Surely they were the cutest kids that I had ever seen; their cheeks were pink as if they had applied some make-up! Apart from their teacher there was one more person to help them with their studies and it was none other than our driver! Guess he worked as a part-time teacher also. When we came back the Lama had arrived at the monastery and we went inside. Apart from a prayer wheel and some old paintings there wasn’t much to see there. We decided to go back to the cab since it was already 12.30. Before leaving Kibber we had lunch from a nearby hotel, since we heard there won’t be any restaurant in Key village.
Finally we reached Key monastery. We said good bye to the driver and started walking towards the entrance. Young Lamas were playing cricket outside, which seemed to be their only leisure activity. There was a board in front of the gate narrating the history of the monastery which is one of the oldest monasteries in the world with over 1000 long years of history to tell. The stairway to the monastery led us to the top of the building where the main prayer flag was situated. The building had a unique structure which helped to survive the earthquakes. The Key monastery consisted of small rooms all in a rectangular shape. In the prayer hall a lot of monks were praying and young Lamas, carrying teapots, filled their teacups regularly. We could walk through the hall while they were praying but had to maintain absolute silence. Outside the prayer hall there were lots of old Buddhist paintings depicting the Buddhists beliefs. We talked to a few monks who were sitting there.
One Lama was particularly very friendly towards us and led us to a room on top where they had some sculpture and all. The narrow corridors and rooms could make you feel like you were in the temple where, in the ‘Batman Begins’ movie, Bruce Wayne was taken for training by Ras Al Gul! As we entered the room, the Lama started explaining about the temple’s importance, how they chose the Dalai Lama and about their life in the monastery. He was talking really fast in Hindi so I couldn’t actually understand all of it. But I did understand the procedure by which the young Lamas are selected. The second boy in a family in that region was the one selected to be a young lama and that too with his and the parents’ absolute willingness. Later we went on to the balcony to have a better view of the Spiti valley. I felt like seeing a painting as I gazed at the valley. It was so unrealistic.
The Lama had earlier said that the Buddhists believed that to enlighten one’s minds, one needed to live in a peaceful and beautiful atmosphere and that was why they chose to build the monasteries in those remote places surrounded by great natural beauty. When we came back, our Lama friend served us Tibetan tea which tasted so different yet delicious. He said we could stay there for just Rs 200 per day which included food also. Nikhil said he would definitely come back there and stay for a couple of days after I left the next day. We said goodbye to them and started our return journey to Kaza. This time we left through the back side of the Monastery which reduced the travelling distance.
When we reached the road, Nikhil started climbing up through the sides of the mountain to take a better picture of the Monastery from a distance. The monastery looked absolutely spectacular from the distance. It looked like small matchboxes arranged in a mischievous way. I sat there for some time thinking of that moment when I saw the picture of that monastery long ago and how I decided to come here. It was a hectic journey to reach Spiti valley but it was worth every penny.
After a while, we started walking back to Kaza all the while admiring the beauty of the magnificent Spiti valley. We had to do some risky trekking at some places in order to reach the main road. On the way we got a new friend, a boy from Rangrik village. He came to Key to take his broken cycle which he had left at Key village last day. While walking we shared some chocolates I had with me. The decision not to take the cab back to Kaza turned out to be a good one because I never got the opportunity to walk around much since most of the time I was travelling by bus. Realizing that my trip was almost over, I felt a little bit sad inside.
As we were walking we saw the bus coming towards Key, we realized it is the evening bus to Kibber from Kaza. As the bus approached near us a guy was waving at me and I couldn’t recognize who he was. I looked closer and realized its none other than Vasudev! So sad our reunion couldn’t last more than few seconds. I waved at him as the bus passed by. After covering almost 10 km my legs were getting tired, so I decided to ask for a lift and luckily for me, I saw a cab going to Kaza. We were 2 km short of reaching there. They stopped for me but Nikhil decided to walk the rest so I took the cab. Inside the cab, there was a Russian couple and a Japanese woman. They were also planning to go to Peo the next day and needed room to stay overnight. So when we reached Kaza, I guided them to our hotel to get a room. Luckily there was one room left and the Japanese woman agreed to sleep on an extra mat they provided. The room key was with Nikhil so I had to wait outside until he came. While I waited I went to a restaurant nearby and ordered mutton momos. I don’t know if it was because of my hunger or the tiredness, those momos tasted just so delicious that I had to order another plate.
I went back to the room and saw the Japanese woman outside. We chatted for some time, her name was Miho and she was visiting India for the second time. Miho said she was very much interested in coming to South India when I said I was from there. She was very keen to watch the dances like Mohiniyattam, Bharathnatyam etc. Nikhil arrived finally and we all went to have dinner. She suggested a Tibetan restaurant and do I need to say we had food by the candlelight again? I honestly didn’t know the name of the dishes that I had for dinner, it was Miho who suggested it. Nikhil asked her what she did back in Japan and she replied she did whatever job she got, like farming or work in some restaurant, anything. This kind of attitude you wouldn’t find anywhere in this country. We all look for some white collar job, settle down in our lives doing what the society thinks is right and leave all our dreams behind…….. Finally we reached the hotel and it didn’t take much time for me to fall into a deep sleep since I was so I tired walking the whole 10 km.
I got up at 5 a.m. the next day and started packing all my things. Last night Nikhil had promised to come to the bus stand but he seemed so moody when he got up. So I told him to sleep some more time and not to bother about it. What really happened was that after we reached back last night he went outside to get something and met Nithin, the biker and Kim, the cyclist. Nithin had bought some booze earlier and those three hung out till early in the morning. I came to know of this only when Nikhil rang me up after I reached back home. I went to the bus stand with Miho and the Russian couple. I bought the ticket to Peo and went inside the bus. On internet, you would find that the bus timing was about 7 a.m. but when you asked the locals they would say it was around 7.30 and they both were right. This was how it worked………. the driver would start the bus at sharp 7’o clock and would go to the petrol station straight and then he had to wake up the worker there. After filling the tank the bus would come back to the bus stand and finally at 7.30 it would start its journey to Peo. And thus began my long 36 hours of return journey to Delhi. My plan was to reach Peo by evening, catch the last bus to Shimla which was at 7 p.m., reach Shimla early morning, take the bus to Delhi and reach Delhi by evening. Unless you had a tight schedule or some really good tolerance level, don’t take a full stretch, it’s really deadly!!!
The bus I got in was a new one with really good leg space and all, but the luxury didn’t last long. After about 2 hrs of travel the bus broke down. We had not one, but two flat tires on the backside! The driver and the conductor had to wait for a long time to get a vehicle going to Kaza to get us a spare bus. We all waited there, some went for a walk, others walked towards the bank of Spiti and sat there but I decided to sit inside the bus. We waited three long hours until they returned with a spare bus. I was sure that bus was the oldest in the route……. there were even some seats missing in it! But we were lucky to get at least that. Anyway the rustiness of the bus didn’t affect us as the driver accelerated it along the curvy roads. Unless we reached Peo before 7 p.m., I won’t get the bus to Shimla. If that happened I would have to stay back in Peo and that would ruin all my plans. I was starving to death because I hadn’t taken anything in the morning not even a cup of tea. Luckily for me there was a packet of biscuits to survive by. Usually the buses there stopped at a number of places for tea and lunch break but since we were already behind schedule by 3 hrs, we didn’t stop anywhere except at Hangring, to have a late lunch.
I heard the conductor calling the Peo bus stand and telling them to wait for our bus to reach there. There were ten other passengers beside me who all wanted to go to Shimla. Among them there were two soldiers who joined us from the Sumdo check post. One was from Tamil Nadu and one guy from Andhra Pradesh. I talked to them in Tamil, and just like everyone else they were surprised to see a guy from Kerala alone there. I told them about my experience there and how I had planned to go to Manali from Kaza earlier and later changed it since the pass from Kaza (Kyelong pass) to Manali wasn’t open. One of the soldiers laughed and said he was in charge of clearing the road and it won’t be open until he came back after the vacation. We passed Nako and reached Kaza around 4 p.m. I saw Sutlej after a few days. She was still very muddy, probably the rains hadn’t stopped at Manasarovar , I guessed. I looked at Spiti for one last time and cherished all the good things I had on its valley. Surely this won’t be the last time I am coming here, I decided in my mind.
Finally we reached near Peo around 8.30. The Shimla bus was waiting for us on the way at some point, so we stopped on the road and quickly changed buses. I was really feeling tired and hungry. The lunch I had from Hangring was all that I had the whole day, so I immediately fell asleep in the bus. I opened my eyes when the bus stopped at some place to have food. I rushed to the restaurant to have food and realized it was the same hotel I had food with Vasu and friends when we came from Shimla to Peo in Jeori. We resumed our journey. A little after 4 a.m. I opened my eyes as we were nearing Shimla.I looked through the window and saw a starry sky and when I looked carefully I spotted the ‘Milky Way’. There wouldn’t be any better way to end my trip than this. I had everything and more than what I hoped for during this trip when I got in the flight from Kochi. I didn’t go to sleep again but sat staring at the starry sky until we reached Shimla. The bus arrived at the new bus stand around 5 a.m. Along with the two soldiers I took a Punjab RTC bus to Chandigarh. I asked the driver when it would reach there but he said he didn’t know because it was his first time on these routes. I didn’t believe him until I saw him put his head through the window looking out for signboards and even ask the traffic police officers for the way to Chandigarh!
Finally we reached there and this time I didn’t take chance by taking a non AC bus to Delhi, so I waited for an AC bus and got onto it and reached Delhi by early evening. Just like the last trip, in the end I went to my uncle’s home in Guragaon and stayed there for the night. I was eager to take a shower; it was over one week since I had taken a bath! I had all the dirt in the world on my body. When I looked into the mirror, honestly it took a while for me to recognize my own face! Next morning I went to the Hazrat Nizamudin station to catch the Mangala Lakshadweep express train to get back to Kochi. Each time I traveled to different places and had different stories to tell but the ending was always the same…. return by the Mangala Express!
The only regret I have is that I had only a few days to spend in that mesmerizing land. In the end, I was just like Ramesh who came all the way up to meet his sister. I too had time to just have a glimpse of what I wanted to see. But within my tight time schedule I enjoyed, experienced and saw the maximum that I could. All my misgivings about travelling alone had vanished by that time. I would say every one of us should travel alone at least once in our lifetime. It is the perfect way to meet random people, make friends and wander around……