Friday, June 12, 2020

No Money No Cry, Under the Spitian Sky

Everyone makes life-changing decisions. I’ve made a few myself but the one I am about to share is closest to my heart.

I had this dream to travel across the whole country without having to spend a dime. In order to do so, I planned to barter my life-force in exchange for grasping our beautiful country with my senses.

Setting out with a flag of India, a pre-historic Nokia phone, and a heart filled with hope and faith in humanity

And this is where my unbelievable journey to Spiti comes in!

Murphy's law says "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Well, it applies to travelers as well! I was excited to set foot in Spiti after 65 days, a place which took me over two-and-a-half days to reach by hitchhiking through the world’s most treacherous routes via Indo-Tibetan Borders.

As a traveler on cashless travel, my priority was to find food and shelter. And to find them, I ended up investing a lot of my time! I was initially referred to a hostel by my friend’s brother. But the person with whom I concurred with was not present there at the time. I spoke to the other management and partners of the space, and they said they couldn’t accommodate me nor could they give me much work. 

So instead, they referred me to this Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called "Spiti Ecosphere”. I reached the place on foot and spoke to the staff. They owned a café (Sol Café) in the main bazaar and also a restaurant (Taste of Spiti) with homestay accommodation. I felt that arriving at Ecosphere was the chance of certainty.

As a lost traveler, I went into Sol Café and met with a humble, passionate, and kind lady, Ishita Khanna - the founder of Spiti Ecosphere.' I shared my story with her and she decided to help me out with no hesitation! She gave me the opportunity to contribute to various Ecosphere projects and initiatives.

I found myself with food, shelter and to barter for it, enough work to tire myself over the day. From photography, cooking, painting the walls of the buildings, and housekeeping - I did it all! They gave me the tools and I gave back with whatever skills and manpower I could.

There was a great deal of work, fun, and laughter. People jokingly began calling me “cashless” for obvious reasons – and the nickname seemed to stick…

I spent 18 days there and I realized that life is much simpler at Spiti Ecosphere. It was my first time working for an NGO, and I felt alive and focused like never before.

During my stay, I learned about sustainable traveling, which means leaving zero waste and negative impact during traveling, while contributing positively to the nature, economy, and culture of a place instead.

Daily life was simple there. I would get up in the morning, freshen up, have breakfast, do any work which needed to be done, have a pleasant walk in the evening with the manager, have some snacks, visit another hostel and occasionally catch up with some friends.

On my way back, I would stop and stare at the unbelievable Spiti night sky, even when the temperature was freezing! Every once in a while, if luck would have it, I experienced fresh snow falling on top of me.

During my stay there, I captured the interest of many people in the restaurant and café. Of all the travel stories they had heard, mine turned out to be the most amusing! I had a great time meeting and chatting with them each evening!

Looking back on those days of #missioncashlesstravel - especially now during lockdown - made me realize how it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life! And who knows when I will be able to experience such unforgettable and spontaneous adventures again! 

Ishita Khanna, Norbu sir, Takpa, Lobzang, Nawang, and Neema - thank you all for your kindness. I will always be grateful to everyone in Spiti and my Spiti Ecosphere family.

Farewell notes 💜

About the Author: Abhitej, a.k.a Cashless a.k.a Teja, traveled to Spiti and into our lives exactly 3 years ago, with the lines “I was told you will be able to help me”. But in truth, it was Abhitej who gave back to us and to Spiti a thousand times more. Here's hoping our paths cross again!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

#BEINGTHECHANGE: A heart-warming story of love and friendship

I have always felt a strange connection to Spiti and I have been visiting this beautiful and magnificent valley for multiple years. In 2018 when I started volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere, I found one of my many soul connections to Spiti, my dog – BALLU.  

It had only been a couple of days since I had started volunteering at the Sol Café, when this black dog with blue and yellow paint all over him came in to my life. He suddenly appeared outside ‘Taste of Spiti’ (our beloved hotel and restaurant) and joined our pack of dogs. It was peculiar to see this tight pack accept a new member without much resistance; anyone who has been to the hills knows, how territorial mountain dogs are. But this black dog was different, he seemed to blend right in and was soon friends with the whole pack.

I too felt a strange connection with him, I instantly started to pet him and he returned my affection with double the love. He was so calm and loving, he wouldn’t run around or jump on people, he simply sat giving away lots and lots of love. I named him ‘Ballu’ full name ‘Ballu Lama’ because of his ‘Blue’ paint and calm behaviour. Soon he became the highlight of my day, I loved spending time with him, talking to him and watching him play with other dogs. Not just me, but everyone at Spiti Ecosphere loved him dearly.

I remember when my stint at Sol Café was over and I had to return back home, I felt a strange sadness in my heart, it wasn’t just about leaving Spiti but it was about leaving Ballu behind. Ishita offered me to take him home with me, but I knew my family wouldn’t approve. (they were really scared of dogs.) 

I came home, returned to my normal life but always had this longing, I missed Ballu so much. After a couple of months Ishita texted me saying Ballu was not keeping well and it would be best if we moved him from the hills to somewhere in the plains. 

I couldn’t say yes but I couldn’t say no, in the end, against my family’s wishes I decided to take him in. My family obviously wasn’t happy, but I was adamant. Ballu needed a home and for some reason I knew it was with me.

So long story short, I got him to my home town in Bathinda, where my family greeted him by serving him lots of food but never truly loving or accepting him as a part of the family. But Ballu has a charm of his own, it didn’t take him even a week before my mom and grandfather both started to warm up to him. His loving eyes, his calm behavior and his timid walk started to warm their hearts, their fear of dogs flipped to loving Ballu. He too, gradually started to accept life in plains and soon became, the dog of the NEIGHBOURHOOD! All my neighbours started to love him, everybody wanted to feed him, to quote, “they felt connected to him”, they even got upset if he wouldn’t visit their house or eat their food. He became a total hit!

It’s been 1.5 years since he has been with us and he is the most active dog you could ask for. He is spoilt, runs like the wind and has started to bark fiercely at cows. (poor cows). He hates being on a leash and likes to take his walks by himself, he refuses to do his business if I am around, he is hilarious! My family now loves him more than my brother and I, and honestly he deserves it.

I know he only showed up at my doorstep in Spiti, because he wanted to come home to his family, not just us, but the whole neighbourhood that loves and adores him. He has truly enriched our lives with so much joy and love. Now none of us can remember a day where Ballu’s tales are not shared. We are truly blessed that he chose us!

There are many such loving dogs in Spiti waiting to go to their homes. Adopt dogs from Spiti because they all deserve loving and caring families.

P.S. - Spiti dogs sing!

About the Author: Megha volunteered with Ecosphere in 2018 and helped us out at Sol cafe.

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to her for being so compassionate and Making a Difference to the life of a Spiti Stray.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Going local in the Spiti valley

Ecosphere, an organisation in Spiti, is offering an immersive taste of local life

I’m still recovering from an exquisite panoramic view of the Trans-Himalayas from atop a cliff 5,000m above sea level, when Kunga brings me something cupped carefully in both hands, his excitement redolent of a child flaunting his favourite figurine. It’s a plant. Well, parts of one. He peels the skin off a stem and hands it to me. “It’s called rubaab [sic]. It’s perfectly edible,” he assures me. The light-green stem is sour, with hints of a sweet note, its texture on the tongue similar to sugarcane’s, and size that of a straw. “When we go into the woods to graze cattle, this is our lunch; it has vitamin C and E. They even make jam from it in Europe,” states Kunga, as he merrily munches away at a bunch of rhubarb stems on our trek down from Balari top to Demul village.

Further ahead on the trail, Kunga points out a shrub with tiny red flowers, which when combined with some roots, make for an excellent analgesic. We pluck purple cloves of wild garlic as aid for high-altitude breathlessness, and for culinary use. We’re in Himachal’s Spiti valley and this is no regular sightseeing tour. Kunga Lodhren is a 24-year-old guide and cook with Ecosphere, an organisation which works with locals to facilitate responsible, eco-friendly tourism. We’re here to get a taste of the Spitian way of life while treading a breathtaking mountainscape over three days by engaging in activities designed to this very end.

On our first day, we find ourselves in the kitchen of Sol Cafe, a cosy eatery run by Ecosphere amidst the din of the only market in Kaza, the sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti where we’re based. For someone as dyslexic in the culinary realm as I, cooking a local dish is no mean feat. Kunga has his task cut out, which becomes obvious as I start chopping onions, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and cauliflower to make the gravy for keu, a local version of pasta. Next up is fashioning dough out of super-refined wheat flour. The dough is then flattened and tiny dumplings of it dropped into the boiling mix of veggies and spices in the cooker. The dish that is served after 10 minutes is surprisingly scrumptious.

Now that we’ve made the food, we must do the dishes. It is no coincidence that we head to Langza to throw a pot. The village gets its very name from the craft. ‘Lang’ stands for temple and ‘za’ denotes a certain kind of mud found here which lends itself to pottery. Until around half a century ago, the annual Ladarcha festival saw traders from Spiti and Ladakh barter items of business here, including a certain chemical (locals call it namak) which reinforced the pots and prevented cracking at high temperatures. But, over the years, as plastic and metal invaded lives, the mud pot lost its place on the kitchen shelf. And the namak disappeared. Today, a lone potter is active in the village that was named after its clay. Fifty-six-yearold Dorje Angchuk now uses the potter’s wheel to make artefacts like candle holders, flower pots and even replicas of sea fossils which are routinely found in the area.

The first step of the process is surprisingly similar to cooking. I’m trained in making dough out of the moist mud. It’s beaten into a firm ball to remove air bubbles and placed on the potter’s wheel, which is driven by foot. Over the next hour, my sloppy hands learn the fine nuances of pot making–from centering the dough to carving out the perfect cavity and tapering the rim. The final product bears the marks of a newbie but isn’t too bad. This pot will now travel to Kaza to bake in an oven at 800- 900°C before acquiring a glaze.
While it’s best known for its mud, Langza is blessed with a singular location at an altitude of 4,400m. The snow-clad peak of Cho Cho Khangilda stands tall at 6,303m, keeping watch over the nondescript village which has just 33 houses. In 2005, an enormous golden Buddha statue was erected at the highest point of the village. The medicine Buddha stands pensively, gazing at the Trans-Himalayan range, holding a bowl of herbs. As many as 340 medicinal plants grow in the valley and the belief in nature is deep-rooted.

Out here, it’s normal for a villager to first consult a local medic (amchi) trained by his ancestors in the use of herbs or the village deity (which manifests itself in a chosen person called la) before resorting to Western medicine. At one point in the tour, we witness a chowa (local tantrik) bless alcohol bottles from every household of a village to give them medicinal properties.

While the deities seem to have a stranglehold on the valley, locals often find themselves torn between two belief systems. Their religion, Tibetan Buddhism, decries these deities as hungry ghosts. When I ask Nima, another cook and guide, about this dilemma, he says they invoke their deities only in an ‘emergency’. But the deities of the valley are far less regressive than in other regions of Himachal, says Ishita Khanna, founder of Ecosphere. In fact, these days they render advice in alignment with an organic lifestyle and ecological conservation, adds Khanna. For instance, every village here brews its own alcohol with locally produced barley. At some point, they began using a chemical to expedite the fermentation. One of the deities manifested in the village la and asked them not to continue the practice as the chemical was unhealthy. It also asked them to graze their cattle over a wider area so as not to deplete the resources of a single hillock.

Lahaul-Spiti was once two separate districts. While Lahaul has a mix of Hindus and Buddhists, all the residents of Spiti follow Tibetan Buddhism. To better understand their religion, we spend the second day with Buddhist nuns at Pangmo, one-and-a-half hour away from Kaza. The nunnery here started in the 70s with 12 nuns meditating in a cave for 7-8 years. Today, it’s a concrete, two-storeyed structure that houses 46 nuns, the youngest of them just four years old. Discipline is central to their lives. Each session of the day commences with the tolling of a brass bell. Their studies begin at 5.30am, when a guru, the only monk in the nunnery, teaches them Buddhist scriptures. There are sessions in Tibetan, English, Hindi and Math during the day, interspersed with praying time.

But the session that stands out is called ‘debate’. At 9am, the nuns are paired up according to their age. In each pair, one sits on the ground and answers questions posed by the other, who makes a resounding clap at the end of every query. A cry of ‘So che!’ (Answer quickly!) mocks the sitting nun for not knowing an answer. The questions come from their holy books, mostly from lessons learnt earlier that morning. It’s a revision test like no other. Later, the exercise is repeated in groups, where it acquires a competitive tenor.

In the afternoon, the little nuns turn teachers, helping us navigate the Tibetan alphabet. I learn how to write my name in a script where every letter looks the same, and the proper way of chanting Buddhist hymns, including ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ and ‘Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha’.

The nuns’ hospitality is typical of Spiti. Locals help each other in everything, from building homes to everyday commute. There are few means of public transport, if any, in this hilly terrain. Hitchhiking is a way of life. So, when it’s time for us to go–after we’ve been fed two wholesome meals and a gazillion cups of tea–the nuns hail a truck passing by, and bid us a reluctant farewell.

The third day could very well be called Yak Day. We head to Demul village (4,310m) to get a lesson in twining rope out of yak fur. Yaks are the most common domesticated animals here, besides cows. The fur on their back, called khulu in Bhoti, is soft, warm and plucked at the onset of summer, to make sweaters and blankets for winter. The fur on their belly, sitpa, is much tougher and clipped off to make ropes. The haircut, in turn, helps the yaks cope with summer.

A mass of sitpa is first ground between two phalsets, huge combs with iron bristles, to soften and untangle it. The resulting strands are stretched and wound around a wooden stick. This is then doubled over and intertwined a number of times, end to end, until the strand becomes a thick rope strong enough to strap a man to a saddle.

My teacher, 41-year-old Angdui Phunchok, is a simple man who wears a permanent smile. Even when his two kids tear his house down or when I ask him to repeat the same step a third time. He says twining is a pastime for locals in the harsh winters of Spiti, when temperatures dip below -30°C and even the cattle is given shelter inside dens built into the house structure. His modest mud house has a single large room that serves as dining space, bedroom and kitchen for the family of five. Mattresses and low tables are lined up along three walls facing an old-fashioned idiot box and a cupboard full of crockery. I count at least 35 cups, polished to perfection. “We get a lot of visitors,” he explains. In fact, every kid of the valley gets one huge birthday bash in their lifetime, at 2 or 3 years of age, where all Spitians congregate. While he explains this bond among villagers, Angdui armed with an astonishing muscle memory finishes the rope, stitching together the last two thick strands, with a thread made of, yes, yak fur.

Puneet and I mount two yaks, aged 11 and 13–both called dullu for a lack of horns, to reach the the cliff-face of Balari top. A yak is mighty enough to carry a human on steep slopes through the wild countryside but it has the heart of a mouse, startled by loud noises and strangers. The journey to Balari top is a trek to a vantage point for tourists, but for the people of Demul it’s a ritual. Kunga tells us the story as he treks alongside our yaks without breaking a sweat.

Every year, after a three-day harvest of wild grass in August, locals of Demul celebrate the ‘Namkan’ festival. The head of every household sports a traditional costume and races the others on horseback to Balari top. The winner gets â‚¹1,500 and any head not participating is fined â‚¹500. This piece of historic information gives our journey uphill a different meaning altogether.

A friend once asked me to listen to the mountains, “for they speak,” she said. I’ve always been an ocean person so I didn’t pay much heed then. But, as I stand atop Balari, I hear the mountains whisper a singular cosmic hymn, riding the feathered back of the mighty wind. Below, the Spiti river flows relentlessly; on the horizon, the Trans-Himalayas wear a veil of clouds, furtively feeding snaking streams with their glaciers. Spiti has taught me one simple lesson: If you’re not in love with the mountains, you haven’t climbed the right one yet.

The Information

Getting There 
The only way to get to Spiti is by road. The road from Manali has two passes–Rohtang Pass and Kunzum La–and is open from around mid-June to mid-October, depending on the weather. This is also the best time to visit Lahaul and Spiti, as the mercury can dip below -30°C in winter.

A single bus leaves from Manali at 6am every day (₹400). But the best way to get there is on a shared jeep (Tata Sumo). Many of these make the journey every day and a seat costs â‚¹1,200 (varies according to demand).

The average time of the journey is 11-12 hours. You could also drive yourself up but bear in mind that the route is treacherous, with mountain streams flooding the ledge-like road at many places. Smaller vehicles tend to get stuck. Chandratal, a popular tourist destination, doesn’t fall on the shortest route. Hence a private jeep has to be booked to take a 13-km detour. It can set you back by â‚¹8,000-10,000.

An alternative route from Shimla to Spiti is open nearly throughout the year but takes much longer. One can also trek from Manali through Hamta Pass to reach Spiti.

Where to Stay 

We stayed at Ecosphere’s guesthouse, Osel Rooms, which offers seven rooms in Kaza (₹800-1,000; 9418860099,

Alternatively, there’s Sakya Abode and Hotel Kunphen, each with 12 rooms (₹1,100-1,540; 9418208987,

There are now some 40-50 guesthouses and homestays in this town, a major upgrade from just the one 15 years ago. Other villages in the valley have only homestays that charge anything between â‚¹700 and â‚¹1,500 per night. The food offered is made to order by locals.

What to Eat & Drink

 A wild berry called seabuckthorn grows along the river bank. Nicknamed the Miracle Berry, it is supposed to be the only plant with all the Omegas–3, 6, 9 and 7. These plants are also a rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and are available in the form of crush, tea and jam in the cafés at Kaza. The breads, tirik and tingmo, are both made with wheat flour. A traditional Spitian thali is my idea of a wholesome meal. Locals swear by their butter tea, but I wouldn’t have it again even if you paid me to.

What to See & Do

You can base yourself in Kaza and take up day-long activities like we did. Ecosphere offers activities immersed in local traditions like ‘Nun for a Day’ (₹1,000), ‘Cook like a Local’ (₹500), ‘Throw your Own Pot’ (₹500), and ‘Yak Rope Twining’ (₹500). You could also rent mountain bikes and explore the grand monasteries in Ki, Tabo or Dhankar. I highly recommend a yak safari from Demul to Balari top (₹1,500). For a 7-8 day tour, you can also trek through villages in Spiti, staying at homestays in each village overnight.

This post is by Sumeet Keswani, who joined us on our "Life as a Local" volunteer program in 2016. It was originally published on Outlookindia-

#BeingtheChange: The story of the friendship between a Spiti stray dog and a Dutch girl

In 2015 I travelled to Spiti Valley to conduct a 6 month internship with Ecosphere. Half a year later I found myself traveling back to the Netherlands with not only a load of experiences and lovely memories but also a dog!

Within the first weeks of my stay in Kaza I was roaming the streets when I suddenly heard some distant whining coming from a small garbage dump. I already knew of a mother dog and two puppies living there, as I had been feeding them biscuits and milk before. So I hurried down to the place where the sound came from.

A tiny white fluffy puppy sat there, whining and wagging her tail at the same time when she saw me. I picked her up and immediately found my hands covered in blood. Turned out the puppy had a deep cut halfway around her neck. I rushed her to the local vet, and while I held the puppy down, he stitched the wound. Because the wound needed daily care and the puppy needed supervision as she was stubborn and tried to get rid of the stitches all the time, I decided to take her in.

The Ecosphere staff gave me permission to let the puppy live with me in one of their rooms, proving yet again to have a huge heart for not only the humans but also animals within their community. Together we gave the puppy a name: Zema. Pretty little Zema. And we took in her brother too who we found abandoned in Kibber to live with Ishita and the Ecosphere staff. We named him Zikpo. Handsome little Zikpo.

Fast forward to 2020. After living in Spiti and later on Delhi (thanks to the help of Ecosphere’s volunteer Mayank) Zema is now living with me in the Netherlands. She’s travelled eleven countries with me so far, but her most favourite place in the world is at my animal sanctuary.

She’s made friends with the sheep, the alpaca’s, the horse, the calves and even the cat! She’s a smart little girl, knowing at least 20 different commands (although she doesn’t always listen to them..) And she’s the most loving and funny shadow one can wish for. Who could have thought that a Spitian dog would end up like this. I wish all the dogs in Spiti to find a home and companionship like Zema did.

About the AuthorLaurijn did a 6 month internship with Ecosphere in 2015.

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to her for being so compassionate and Making a Difference to the lives of Spiti Strays.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Unconditional Love – A Day In The Lives Of The Nuns At Pin Valley

All of us have days in our lives that we are grateful for – days that end up having a strong impact on us and in some way change something within us. This was one such day in my life. During my volunteering term with Ecosphere – Spiti Valley, I got a chance to visit the Pin Nunnery. Even though it has been over a year and half since this experience, it still holds a special place in my memories. During my month long stint in Spiti, I visited many villages and monasteries, but this was my first experience in a nunnery. I was more than excited to interact with the nuns and understand their lives. On this particular day we had gone to install solar panels at the nunnery that would in turn generate electricity there for the very first time!

The roads to Pin Valley had opened only a day prior and I was so grateful that on my last day of the trip I was finally making it to Pin. Having seen a large part of Spiti, Pin still left me awestruck – the landscape and the view were beyond magnificent. There is a traditional family rule in Spiti, where the third child of each family is sent to either a nunnery or monastery depending on the gender of the child. I would be lying if I said I had not made prior assumptions or judged the lives of these children. I thought to myself- What if they wanted to do something else with their lives? What if they did not believe in this institution or way of living? Why didn’t these children get the right to choose? I had so many unanswered questions in my mind.
On our arrival, the team started with a recce to understand the best place to install the panels so as to ensure full coverage. The new building was still coming up and sadly, a storm earlier that year had destroyed a large part of where they were currently taking shelter. Despite these circumstances, there was not a sign of remorse or complaint in any of their faces – they greeted us with genuine warmth and smiles.
As the day progressed, my impressions and understanding about them kept evolving. The group of youngest nuns aged 9yrs onwards smiled and giggled as they saw us working. They ran around, spoke to each other, and made their set of impressions about us. Slowly, they opened up to us. They asked our names and discussed their lives and schedule at the nunnery. Two young ones came and chatted with me about my whereabouts, my camera, why I was there and where I “belonged”. We spoke about their homes, since when had they been here and if they were happy or missed their families back home? I was pleasantly surprised to hear about how happy they were here and how this was their ideal life. It seemed that nothing but gratitude, prayers and smiles were present in their daily lives.
Even though they had no electricity, just a couple of rooms to sleep, study and eat in, no real protection from the chilly cold and regular supply of water or food! They were strangely satisfied- happy and infused with passion and an inexplicable zeal for life. Studies, daily chores and prayers formed a large part of their day – but they were aware, smart and had a dream that they believed in. Later, the elder nuns helped us with all the raw materials and the set up required for the installation. They served us a delicious meal and we all got back to work.
This day broke down a lot of my concepts – of how I perceived life to be for myself and others. It truly showed me simplicity and faith could be all that is needed to be happy. The choice of how to lead our lives is purely ours and how we deal with the consequences is also our decision. Along with the installation of the solar panels, I was also documenting the work and making videos of this process for Ecosphere. This gave me a chance to interact with the nun in charge of the place. The love and appreciation she had for Ecosphere and for us working on the installation is not something I can describe in words. I was touched by her gratitude and the regard she had for each one of us with this initiative.
As the day came to an end, we were almost done with the cabling and connections, I then had my “Swades” moment- seeing the switch being turned on and the bulb flickering to life. The build-up to the moment was deeply moving. The older nuns sat together in the rooms and conducted prayers. They chanted and finally, the moment we were waiting for, THE LIGHT. Along with it, happiness and joy flooded the place. The smiles on each of their faces were priceless. That moment is etched in my heart forever.
Following that, I ended my last day in Spiti Valley with a lovely dinner and some more time with the nuns. I am forever thankful to the team at Ecosphere and all the others involved, for giving me a chance to be a part of this experience. I also feel an immense sense of gratitude for their efforts at providing solar power to so many parts of this region and adding a little light to all the lives around.

About the author: Sonali Gupta volunteered with Ecosphere in 2013 as one of 2 volunteers that ventured onto a program called Inner Space Adventures. This piece was written post her time on the program but the adventures obviously continued !

She loves the mountains, and believes nature is her calling and continues to seek unexplored and explored destinations. You can read more about her journeys on her blog where she shares the world through her eyes and lens.