On the road from Shimla to Spiti you’ll find a few things to love
In the beginning, there was God. Or so you’ve been told. Perhaps you never believed that. But now there’s nobody around—not even an uncomplaining yak. Glancing down at the NH-22 highway crisscrossing the bare brown slopes below, it seems as if some baby god has carelessly run a grimy finger across the surface of the Himalayas. Now you begin to understand the need for faith.
The Himalayas don’t offer an easy passage up their slopes, but in Spiti you discover that they do offer tutorials in living and loving. For instance, between Puh and Tabo, you go several kilometres on brown, dusty slopes, with a series of landslides to the right; to the left are massive clumps of rock with bits of ice rusting the surface—remnants of glaciers that descended upon NH-22. You learn to keep your eyes open but not think too hard about what lies ahead.
You see a stalled truck spewing black smoke beside the narrow Malling Nullah. The truck can only roll backwards. Watch a child dart under the wheels with rocks in his hands to prevent the truck from rolling. If you’re with someone, a loved one especially, lace fingers.
As you try to follow what used to be the Old Hindustan Tibet Road from Parwanoo to Nako, you learn to feel grateful for small things. Like a hand to hold. Like railings, or white stones that mark the edges of cliffs, or the sight of a homestead. Driving upwards of Ka, there’s no sign of human habitation, barring the odd bare apple tree tinted a burnt purple.
You were glad to get away from people. But the burden of ‘people’ quickly falls off your shoulders. On your way up, you saw a signboard: Dhagar. Population 506. What does it mean, ‘Population 506’? How many kids at a birthday party, you wonder?
The fewer people you see, the more your eyes seek them. A woman with a bundle of grass on her head and two steel canisters on her arms; a boy’s forearms turning outwards like bare tree boughs; a yellow dot moving across a field; a white dragon-shaped cloud fixed upon a terrace as if posing for a camera.
But you truly understand civilisation when you spot the caves where the original inhabitants of Spiti lived. They found (or dug) holes up on the slopes, stacking up stones to serve as doors. There aren’t many of these left, as most locals have since constructed stone houses. But you learn that people thrive, even in caves, if they stick together.
The landscape is grim—a mix of rock and mud that yields at the slightest provocation. But the wind does extraordinary things to it, cutting and smoothing over the rock-face until it seems as if a hundred thousand faces or feet are waiting to emerge from the mountains. You imagine that you see a furrowed brow, a nose, a set of giant toes. In fact, there is a story about how an invading army from Tibet had been scared off by the locals, who stacked up hundreds of human-shaped rocks over the peaks, fooling the enemy into thinking they were fatally outnumbered.
But from Tibet also came monks and kings who created the beautiful monastery in Tabo. Proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chos-Khor monastery is over a thousand years old and contains a treasure trove of Buddhist art. There are nine temples and the walls of each were once covered with paintings that tell episodes from the life of the Buddha or various Bodhisattvas. They’ve been recently damaged due to ecological change. The 1975 earthquake left cracks and the increase in rainfall has destroyed large swathes of the paintings originally done by Kashmiri artists. The Archaeological Survey of India’s attempts to restore them have been poor, but whatever remains is stunning. There are a thousand ‘Medicine Buddhas’ painted in the main temple, and there are also references to ‘Past, Present, and Future Buddhas’. You don’t know the difference.
Ask a young man, he looks 18 or thereabouts, lolling in the sun outside. He says the Buddha will come again. Ask when. He will say, soon. Ask how soon. He will say: “Once, we lived 300 years; then 100; now we live to 70. Soon, our lives will be so short, we’ll reach a point of crisis. Then.” Somehow, you will not be surprised that such a young man should think about life spans and the crisis of age.
Outside the temple, a row of matrons will smile, curious without being intrusive. They will ask: Where are you from? Where are you going? Answer honestly. You aren’t sure.
Perhaps, you could go to Giu. Stop when you see the sign ‘Mummy Road 1km’. Ask who’s in charge. Every 15 days, a different villager is given the key to the shrine and the responsibility of cleaning, lighting lamps and showing visitors the mummy of Sangha Tenzin, a Buddhist monk, which was preserved in a tomb until an earthquake exposed it. A monastery was under construction next to the tiny shrine, where white stones are placed outside the windows as offerings.
Most natural things are worshipped in Himachal Pradesh—sun, wind, stone, snake, water, tree—and most offerings also come from nature. The Suryanarayan temple near Sarahan might be locked up when you visit, but if you peer through the cracks in the door you can catch sight of the shivling. Notice then that weed of the intoxicating kind, often offered to Shiva, grows wild underfoot.
Whether or not there are enough resources for monasteries, each village piles up stones to form stupas called chokdens, which are supposed to contain a holy relic or photo. The Tabo monastery is built of mud because the mountains aren’t rocky enough. The Nako monastery is at-roofed and made of stone, because wood is scarce.
Turn prayer wheels at the Nako monastery. When you round a bend, a churu might appear—a woolly, long-bushy-tailed bull that veers towards its Tibetan cousin, the yak. Driving up here is like watching evolution in fast-forward mode. Every creature has adapted. Dogs get thicker furs, as do cows and goats. Even the pines seem clumpier.
Walk down to Nako Lake and admire its jade perfection. A ring of apple trees waiting to bloom, a horse neighing in the distance, a fence topped with broken stones inscribed in an ancient script you cannot read. The effect is ethereal, as if it were a picture in an illustrated fairytale book. The spell will break when you see a flat stone balanced atop a round, white structure. Ask a villager what that shrine is. He’ll tell you it is a commode, at the site where campers set up tents.
At the Banjara Camp in Sangla Valley, where you’re nearly parallel with the Sutlej River, scores of apple and apricot trees seem like they’re ready to burst with pastels. There’s an outdoor and indoor fire in the evenings, and the relief of no phone network, no televisions.
There’s conversation in the self-service dining area, and if you meet fretty travellers who are worried about ticking the next item on their agenda, smile indulgently. As for your own agenda, wake up to the sound of pigeons roiling about on the balcony. Go back to sleep and postpone the Chitkul visit until afternoon.
Chitkul is the last village on the Indian side of the border, and someone will point to a group of distant hulking mountains and say ‘China’. These mountains are dressed in white from tip to toe and the sight of evergreens on this sparkling white sheet is… Well, the sight kind of bludgeons you into silence.
Ask for tea to fill the silence. The woman who runs the tea stall will tell you that food is scarce. Most households keep supplies locked up in granaries especially built to withstand storms and food robbers. For now, there’s tea and Maggi at the Great Hindustani Dhaba.
You can only dream lustily about the chicken anardaana sampled at The Oberoi Cecil, or the Kullu trout you promised yourself on your return to Shimla. You can also remind yourself to order ahead for those Pahari dishes you’ve heard about—the sepu vadi and chaas mutton—at The Kinner Kailash.
The landscape in Chitkul is not as stern as it is in Nako. The mountains look like the sun has bleached them a hard, glinting white, killing off all the green. Ask for a dhaba, and the bunch of youngsters sunning themselves might laugh. When a home-cum-dhaba-cum-kirana shop finally says ‘yes’ to your lunch query, tumble out and slurp up the daal-chawal. Learn gratitude for sliced onions, their pungent crunch. Pleasures are simple up here, and best enjoyed raw.
At Reckong Peo, the market is bustling. Hot samosas and jalebis can be had at short notice. Actually, not very much else can be had at short notice, especially when a grey mist descends like a herd of woolly clouds. Go looking for unrefined apricot oil. It’s supposed to be excellent for massages—full of the revitalising elements that your lotions and anti-ageing skin products promise you—and they sell it by the litre in the Tibetan market.
Decide, then, to walk up to the monastery and the 60ft-tall golden statue of the Buddha, which means a few minutes’ walk up a sharp incline. Think about how at every town along the way, the one place to visit is a temple or monastery, and getting there involves a climb. By now you’ve learnt the point of these climbs is precisely that—the climb. Maybe it’s an attempt to reach a higher state of being. Maybe it’s just to get a better view of the hills. If you’re from the plains, you might expect a marvel of architecture. You’d be surprised.
On the drive up to Hatu peak from Narkanda, for instance, the narrow road had the shoulders of an anorexic model—all angles and disdainful shrugs. Flanked by chunks of ice thicker than the walls of the average suburban home, it was a sparkling drive. But at 3,300m above sea level, sniffing in the cold, you discovered the temple to Hatu Mata stood no higher than your waist. She’s popular though, for the railing leading up to the temple is covered in pieces of red-gold cloth. But no signboards tell you anything about the goddess. The priest here doesn’t know any more than the priest at Bhimakali Temple in Sarahan did.
There were animal sacrifices in Bhimakali, and parts of the temple still aren’t open to the public. Only the erstwhile king’s descendants—who include the state’s former chief minister, Virbhadra Singh—are allowed entry. There are inscriptions in Persian and Bhoti on the silver doors, and the Kali idol is surrounded by other idols, including one of the Buddha.
At Kamru Fort, a schoolgirl called Khushi, cheeks red as apples, shows you the way. You ask about the exquisite pink flowers on a tree called chuli, a variety of apricot. She climbs onto a narrow ledge to try and pluck you some. Every time she touches a bough, the fragile flowers fell off, tiny petals fluttering down into the valley. She won’t give up. She commandeers two classmates to help. One boy wrenches off a twig with a few flowers still intact and presents it solemnly. Your heart melts.
You clutch it tight all the way up to the Kamakhya Devi temple. The man who offers to escort you turns out to be a cop, a default guide-cum-demi-priest. He loans you a piece of red string to tie around your waist—substitute for a gamchha—and a Kinnauri cap that must be worn by men and women alike before they enter. As for the exquisitely carved Kamru Fort, you are not allowed to step inside, since the structure is wooden and over 500 years old. There are fears it may fall apart.
It won’t matter that much, though. For there is no spectacle greater than the spectacle of the Himalayas. The view from Kalpa’s Kinner Kailash hotel is so stunning that it is worth coming up here even if you’re not staying. But stay, so you can stand around gawking at Mount Kailash without having your nose fall off.
Leave the drapes open at night—you’ll be woken by the hard glint of the sun from behind the peaks. From up here you can look at the distant snowcapped mountains. You don’t look up in awe. You look across with dignity. And when the sun touches the fine fingers of the cedars, it seems to set off light charges, almost like a spark of electricity running around the forest. Thrill with the charge.
Perhaps the highway will be blocked by a hundred goats, some of the fearless creatures deliberately bumping into the sides of your car. Watch the shepherd carry a favourite goat-kid on his back. Watch the shepherdess carry a newborn in her palm. Wonder whether any of these goats are the special amla-eating sort, which you’re told make for a tasty sour mutton dish that requires no yoghurt marination.
The dish isn’t on any menu you can get hold of—you’ll have to charm a local into making it for you. There is one dish, though, that combines three signature products of the hills. Wildflower Hall in Shimla offers an unusual pine tree risotto, which includes fresh green pine leaves in loads of butter and a mushroom topping.
Mushrooms are everywhere—in pickles, on toast, in risottos. Solan is known as the mushroom city. Summer’s too late to go looking for mushroom farms here, but you can pick up pickled mushrooms from stores along the highway. In the meantime, content yourself with eating mushrooms wherever you can find them. Fried, of course. There’s no watching the calories in the hills. Given the exertions in the mountains, it’s easily worked off; there’s no obesity up here.
There’s no rush either. Nobody seems to be late for appointments. Traders rarely hustle. Schoolkids amble past covered pavilions specifically made so people can sit and do nothing. It is possible to forget that anyone in the world has an agenda. Looking at the couples—smiling, riding ponies in new-wed silence—it is possible to believe that love is a thing of leisure.
The drive to Shimla will be cool. The eyes stop often at the browns and greens, with the sudden colourful splotch of rhododendron. A butterfly will dart in through an open window. Outside, it smells like rain.
When you return to Shimla, it might rain. Rush towards the nearest awning. Perhaps, this will be the Fire Station café at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. Built as the residence of the British Viceroy to India, it is now a postdoctoral research institute.
Take a tour. The place makes you want to study, and then study some more. The ballroom is now a library, replete with Belgian chandeliers. But the most interesting thing here is the table where, in 1945, a conference was held to discuss the Partition of India. The table has a crack running right down the middle. Some people say it was split on purpose to symbolise partition, but that isn’t true. The table was just made that way.
At a dhaba near Wangtu, watch an apple farmer couple share a smoke in silence, their backs turned away from the crowd, their faces turned to the valley. Think about them, and higher up on the NH-22, where someone had written ‘I love you’ in English on a door. You can almost believe that to love in this land is inevitable.
Getting there: Fly to Chandigarh with GoAir or Jet Airways from Mumbai or New Delhi. Then follow NH-22 for a nine-day tour. Great Escape Routes (+91-177-6533037) can provide a car and driver and arrange a trip similar to the writer’s.
Suggested nine-day itinerary
1) Parwanoo: Drive from Chandigarh to Parwanoo. NH-22 starts here, and the area has many orchards to explore. Spend a night here.
Where to stay
Moksha Himalaya Spa Resort: The 62-suite property specialises in Thai and Indian therapies. Doubles from Rs18,000.
2) Shimla: Drive 115km through Kasauli, Solan and Shoghi to arrive at Shimla. Spend two nights here. For the classic hill station experience, take a stroll along The Mall road and stop for coffee at the Fire Station Café.
Where to stay
Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas: Perched among pine and cedar forests, this landmark hotel offers cycling and rafting trips. Doubles from Rs20,000.
The Oberoi Cecil: This renovated 128-year-old hotel embodies Shimla’s grand colonial era and makes the perfect base for exploring the hill station’s sights. Doubles from Rs14,000
3) Thanedar: Drive 175km through Narkanda to arrive at Thanedar. Spend one night here and hike to the 3,135m-high Hatu Peak.
Where to stay
The Banjara Orchard Retreat: An eco-friendly resort set amidst apple orchards, with family suites and log cabins. Doubles from Rs5,600.
4) Sangla: Drive 92km through Jeori, Wangtu and Karcham to arrive at Sangla. Visit Sarahan’s Suryanarayan temple on the way. Spend two nights in Sangla. Take an early morning tour of the Bird Park. Visit the Bhima Kali temple and explore Sangla market. Also visit the Kamru Fort. Make a trip to Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-Chinese border.
Where to stay
Banjara Camp & Retreat: The Banjara Camp sits on the banks of River Baspa at a height of 8,858ft and is surrounded by snow-capped peaks and forests. The hotel organises village walks and angling trips. Doubles from Rs8,000.
5) Kalpa: Drive 49km from Sangla to Kalpa and spend a night here. Visit the monastery in Reckong Peo, which houses a 60ft golden Buddha.
Where to stay
The Kinner Kailash: A state-run hotel with stunning views of Mount Kailash. Try the Pahari dishes on offer—the sepu vadi and chaas mutton are superb but must be ordered in advance.
6) Nako-Tabo: Drive through Puh and Khab to Tabo. Stop at Nako, beyond which NH-22 is off limits for security reasons. Stay two nights in Tabo. Visit the Chos-Khor monastery—it is over 1,000 years old and a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Where to stay
Dewachen Retreat: Minutes from the Spiti River, the Dewachen Retreat offers great views of the monastery. Don’t miss their rhododendron walk. Doubles from Rs4,000.