Saturday, May 16, 2015

Tenzing, Tenzing, Tenzing: A Photo Story

We spent two and a half weeks in one of the world's most remote regions, an area of Himachal Pradesh called the Spiti Valley. It's near the Tibetan border, evidenced by the momo shops, colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind and the gold prayer wheels people spin as they walk by. 
Prayer flags everywhere

Spiti is one of India's least inhabited areas, which was a shock after our time running around bustling Delhi. For most of our trip, we had no phone service, no internet, no running water. Stoves fueled by cow dung. Cold winds, and altitude sickness that forced us to descend for a few days. It even snowed! It was tough, and we were there during the easiest time of year--summer. Winters are long and totally isolating; families pass the months together in one room, since it's impossible to keep a whole house warm enough. Winter is also party time: everyone told us that basically all they do in winter is play cards and drink moonshine. Weddings also happen in the winter, but women aim to give birth in the summer, when it's possible to get to the hospital.


We were volunteering with the organization Ecosphere, which works to support sustainability in the region, and help locals deal with the harsh environment (Spiti is a mountain desert, with very little rainfall; all their water comes from snow melt). Growing vegetables is difficult, and there's not a huge variety of food; their main crop is green beans. Ecosphere have facilitated building greenhouses in some villages and monasteries, so people can continue to grow vegetables during the winters (when the roads are often closed, and it gets down to -35 Celsius). They also have a number of other great projects; we were there to help build a solar bath in Komic Monastery.

For more on Ecosphere, check out their website:

It took two days to reach Kaza, the area's main town. An overnight bus took us to Shimla (with the mandatory one a.m., lights-on, get-off-the-bus stop for "dinner"); from there we spent two days in jeeps, sleeping in a town called Kalpa.

View from Kalpa
We got up at 5 on the morning of the second day, because the roads are pretty terrible (basically construction roads next to GIANT CLIFFS, rarely with a protective barrier) and it was a long trip to Kaza. An hour into the trip, traffic stopped. Huge line of parked cars. We walked ahead and found a landslide; boulders blocked the road completely. Some people seemed like they'd been there for awhile already; men were milling around, assessing the damage, napping. There was a truck of livestock that was fun to watch (much to the bemusement of the driver, who was like, why are you petting my sheep and cows).


Crazy sheep time

Painted truck parade. You see these Blow Horn signs on trucks all over India.

Soon a group of guys in hard hats came along and started drilling into many of the biggest rocks. Landslides are commonplace so it wasn't a big deal to them (another day, another landslide), but it was exciting for us! They stuck dynamite in the holes, preparing to blow them up later.

Landslide cleanup: these guys in hard hats were drilling holes into the boulders, preparing to blow them up later.

Then a man in a digger came and pushed the biggest rock off the cliff.

A digger shoved the boulder off the cliff, into the river! It was dramatic!
The workers were efficient and we are able to move on after a couple hours.

Spiti River, on the way to Kaza

We spent a day in Kaza, which is a quietly bustling, relaxed town, at the manageable altitude of 3600 meters. We met Ishita and Sunil, Ecosphere's founders, and learned a bit more about what they do. We visited Kee Monastery (unfortunately the camera was dead), met some monks and sampled butter tea, which is rich and salty.

The next day we headed back up the mountain, with all our stuff and the 14 other volunteers (two groups of teenagers--one of girls, one of boys--and four people around our age). It was a half-day trek to reach Komic; we stopped at the World's Highest Post Office in Hikkim and spotted Himalayan griffins.

Buddha, seen on the trek to Komic


On the way to Komic. The views were insane.

It's true.

Himalayan griffins--they look small here, but they were so big that when we saw them on the hill, Lauren thought they were sheep.

Buddhist carvings. You see these a lot as you trek and on the roads. It's convention to pass to the left of them.


Spiti is also geographically rich, with ammonites and trilobites covering the hills. One local showed us his prized possession: a large fossilized clam, in perfect condition. Unfortunately word seems to have gotten out, and there are mostly fragments now; you can see where people have cracked open the egg-shaped treasures, often damaging the fossils inside.


Yak attack! On the roof of our homestay.

We were put up in a homestay with a few other guys from our group. The best thing about our homestay was the resident baby, Tenzing, permanently ruddy-faced and snot-nosed. Tenzing is a popular name because it's the name of the Dalai Lama; we met maybe half a dozen Tenzings during our stay. Spiti is the most Buddhist area of India; nearly everyone is Buddhist.

At 4200 meters, Komic claims to be the world's highest motorable village (we've heard mixed opinions about this, but it's definitely one of the world's highest). The work site where we were building the solar bath at the monastery was a twenty minute walk up a steep hill. Every few steps, you had to pause to catch your breath, no matter how slow you went. Somewhat predictably at this point, Lauren came down with altitude sickness before she even reached the work site, and spent most of the first couple days in bed, downing the famous "ginger soup" (hot water with ginger).

Rammed earth

A bit on the solar bath: there are no trees in the area, so all the firewood has to be brought by (the terrible) roads during winter. It's very expensive; the government used to subsidize firewood for the area, but no longer. You can imagine how much wood is takes to heat your house when it's -35 degrees C outside (let alone have hot water to cook and bathe). But Spiti receives about 250 days of sun a year, so solar heating is a really effective option here.

Ramming some earth.

First, we laid the foundation, which basically meant moving a whole load of large rocks into a flat pile, then smoothing mud over the rocks. The main work of the first couple days was pickaxing the hillside to get enough mud to make the floor and walls; it was tough work, especially at the altitude. We had to switch often. The pickaxes also had a habit of breaking every hour or so, and needed frequent repairs.

Rammed earth on top of the stone walls.

The technique of ramming earth is old; they've been doing it here for centuries. You basically stamp on mud until it gets hard and compact. It helps cool your house during the summer, and keeps the heat in during the winter.

Plastering mud on the walls; this was by far the most fun job.

Some young compadres

Piyush, Shubhda and Preethy during tea break.

Just after sunrise, from the hill above Komic (you can see Komic below; the long red rectangle is part of the monastery). It was a surprisingly epic hike up to this point (we blame the altitude).

Raccoon enjoying the view

Racoon--the lens cap is on

Sheep wool, Komic

Unfortunately Lauren was still sick by day three in Komic, so we had no choice but to descend to a lower altitude. The drop made all the difference, and she felt better after a half day. It was disappointing to have to leave midway through (we missed a couple days of solar bath building, and a day of a trek), but we got to see more of the area and we ended up rejoining the group after a few days, anyway.

Back in Kaza, we went to the Kaza Monastery, which was buzzing with monk activity. We were there during a particularly auspicious month (around the time of Buddha's birth, awakening and departure from his physical form), and the monks were busy chanting and tossing rice and wheat. They kindly let us sit in on the ceremony; a lot of the younger ones were really goofy and pretty intense about the rice and wheat-throwing (aiming an each other's heads). We were also surprised to see many of them secretly on their phones!


Kaza Monastery

Kaza Monastery

Kaza Monastery
You are so Cuddlesome.

Momo restaurant art.

We spent two days in Pin Valley, a couple hours ride away by bus from Kaza (still at the pleasant altitude of 3600 meters). We went on a really laid back trek and witnessed the third day of a cricket tournament between 11 local towns (we were staying in Mud). All the best players were monks because, as someone explained to us, they have the most time to practice. (And there are a lot of monks in the area, since tradition says that every second son becomes one). One monk hit eight six's in the space of a few overs to take his team to victory.

Donkey near Mud

Rock balancing near Mud

Pin Valley

Pin Valley

We rejoined the group for another trek to a viewpoint at 5000 meters (we went realllly slowly). It was a 360 degree view, and you could see 18 villages from the top! Insane!

This view!

It was so windy and the drop was so huge that we had to sit.

Sunburned cheeks!

We visited Dhankar Monastery, which is built on a cliff, and one of the world's 100 most endangered sites... there's the distinct possibility it could collapse at any moment.

Dhankar Monastery

What a nice... sheep. He greets you at the entrance to the Dhankar Monastery.

This is the Dalai Lama's chair.

We accidentally left our wallet (with our passports, cash and credit cards) underneath the Dalai Lama's chair in Dhankar Monastery. OOPS. Luckily monks are pretty honest and it was there three hours later.

Back up to Komic for a few days, to finish the solar bath. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to actually finish--when they did the grand ribbon-cutting ceremony, the bath lacked a roof and windows. They blamed it on a delayed delivery of the window frames, though we wonder whether maybe we were just kind of inept builders!? Regardless, the monks were happy.


Komic Monastery

Butter candle

Isn't this a tasteful stuffed snow leopard? He guards the entrance of the Komic Monastery. When we asked how he came to this position, we were told that several years ago, in another village, a snow leopard had wandered into the back room of a house. Villagers stoned the leopard, then presented him to the Komic Monastery. That... doesn't seem very Buddhist to us.

We were fairly surprised to see our names in big letters on the SOLAR WATER BATH sign.

Some of our friends. We got these special white scarves in thanks for our contributions to the solar bath.

Butter sculptures that the monks at Komic Monastery were making to prepare for a week-long puja.

Yes. Yes it was.
The road back to Delhi was another three-day epic journey, which was passed by playing the word association game Contact. Back in civilization, we went out for milkshakes and pizza with a few of our fellow volunteers, then collapsed in our air-conditioned room.
-Lauren & Hamish
About the Authors: Lauren & Hamish travelled to Spiti in June 2014 on a volunteer travel program- Greening the Desert and assisted in the construction of a Solar Bath in Komic which is Asia's highest motorable village. Lauren is an American and Hamish is British. They spent 100 days in India and authored a photo book by the name of "100 days of India". Both of them are currently living in Brookyln, New York. This blog was originally published on their blog-

1 comment:

  1. Hats off to you guys for assisting Echosphere In building the solar bath. I congratulate Echosphere for doing such a wonderful job in Spiti. I was privileged to have Experienced my visit to the valley with a couple of friends in May 2014 through Echosphere. I hope to return there again soon.
    Roop Singh