Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Surreal Spiti: A volunteer travel experience

And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

To love myself is what I want and the want is pretty intense. And so, it is that the universe conspires and Ecosphere happens! On one of my surfing sprees, I chance upon this article about Ishita Khanna (Co- Founder, Ecosphere) and I know I have found what I was looking for ; albeit in my own country.

After bugging Shubhda (the dear girl who is Ecospheres crucial link to the outside world J) with incessant mails, I choose to experience their Life as a Local program, a 10 day extravaganza to sample the cultural paradise that Spiti is, the local way. I finally embark on the trip of a lifetime and here is a not too boring travelogue about my journey there.

DAY 1:   Ours is a motley group of travelers, varying in what we do and how old we are. Nevertheless, we have all come together in search of something magical. The road is gravelly and mostly nonexistent. But the stunning vistas make up for the 15 hour, impossibly jerky ride from Manali to Kaza. Fluttering prayer flags, majestic snowscapes and bone chilling winds welcome us as we alight at Kunzum La pass. All vehicles take a right turn here to ensure safe completion of the trip. There is palpable spirituality in the air. I take it as another sign from the universe assuring me I am on the right way to discovering some self-love.

Soon, we reach Lossar, the first inhabited village in the Spiti valley. Surrounded by alpine meadows and brightly painted mud houses, Lossar is picture perfect. Finally, we tumble in to Kaza at around 7 in the evening. We meet Ishita and well, I am floored, to say the least. She assures me its the altitude addling my brain. 

A chorten at Kunzum La Pass

Picture perfect Lossar

DAY 2:  We troop into a tiny and cozy restaurant aptly titled Taste of Spiti just below the Ecosphere guest house. It serves an assortment of delicious meals, while a corner houses local handicrafts, tee shirts, post cards, beanies, mittens and a host of other, interesting stuff (leaving me very confused as I want to buy everythingJ). Onto Kibber and Key, then!

Key Monastery, at an altitude of 4,166 meters is the biggest monastery in the Spiti valley and preserves ancient murals, books and weaponry. It can accommodate up to 100 monks and is the training center of the lamas. It gives me goosebumps to just be in a place so ancient and so steeped in history.

The indomitable Key monastery

Kibber village, at an altitude of 4,270 meters is the start to the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and various treks. There is a 3 day traditional route over Parang La to Ladakh from Kibber, which villagers still use for trading horses and yaks. We savour a simple lunch of rice, dal, omelettes and pickle (onions deserve a special mention here; my co-travelers would know why :D) at a homestay here. Hands down, it is more satisfying than the fancy meals, for which I shell out inordinate amounts.

Scenic Kibber

DAY 3:   Our first day of volunteering is at Langza. At a height of 4,400 meters, it is a picturesque village destined to take your breath away. The fall colors are everywhere; the hues range from bright orange to striking yellows and earthy reddish browns. The villagers are busy threshing barley, whistling in unison to lure the winds their way. For a few seconds, I am easily transported to a parallel world! In its heyday, Langza was known for its pottery. Mud vessels of various shapes and sizes were supplied to all of Spiti. Ecosphere strives to keep this dwindling craft alive. You can sign up for your own pottery classes: D I thoroughly enjoy mine regardless of the misshapen vessels I make. We do our best to help the villagers with the threshing (who patiently teach us the ropes of it), but yeah, it definitely is not as easy as it looks.

The homestays that we stay in have sparkling beds, tea with sugar cubes and well, even toilet paper in the loo. The service (remember the altitude?) is a class apart. Anjaan, our homestay owner is smart, intelligent and fluently converses in English. An evening tété-a-tété with him reveals his thoughts on waste management; something that Ecosphere is working hard on! We spend the afternoon pretending to be archaeologists/paleontologists in search of fossils (please return all fossils to the Ecosphere office in Kaza in case you find/buy any) and visit a 1000 year old temple, which turns out to be the headquarters of all deities in the Spiti Valley.

Langza, the pottery village

Day 4:    Today is the day I have been looking forward to the most. Our trek to Komic through Hikkim, which has the highest post office in the world. Dorje is our guide and he chuckles good naturedly as we huff and puff with every step. The lack of oxygen is acute here! My personal battle involves carrying my heavy backpack till the end (heavy with unnecessary stuff). The track winds uphill and downhill, through marshes and meadows. Short, wiry bunches of red grass are in bloom everywhere and snow clad mountains stand sentinel to the impossibly, azure sky. My nostrils are full with the smell of earth and the crisp mountain air.

A single person manned the quaint post office at Hikkim. It doubled up as his home too. We hastily scribble notes to our loved ones onto the postcards bought from the Ecosphere office. Something about the whole process is so thrilling. As if the love we send across would contain some of the magic that Spiti was turning out to be. Finally, we chance upon the tiny hamlet of Komic. I count twenty two mud houses on my fingers, like an excited little kid. Our room is a delight. I can see the sapphire filled sky through the French windows. We spend the evening, huddled around the warm oven, getting to know each other over cups of tea. So much to learn from each one of them.

The gang at Hikkim

Day 5:    A 16 km trek will take us to Demul, a model village for Ecosphere. It is arduous but highly rewarding. While 4 of us opt to hike, the rest leave in a Sumo with our backpacks (sigh of relief). I dont think I am up for another back breaking hike. Nawang is our guide for the day. As we keep walking, the road suddenly opens up to a huge meadow, where villagers from Demul are grazing cattle.  The highlight of the day is our afternoon siesta on a flat topped hill. Lying with my face upturned to the sun, with the winds whispering in my ear and the quiet calm all around makes me incredibly happy. The unadulterated kind which I have not felt in a long while.  The last 3kms down to Demul is like a walk in a painting. Demul nestles in the shade of a snow clad peak, protected from the elements. A sight I cannot forget.

Demul nestles just below that mighty peak

Day 6:    Demul, perched at 4,350 meters has around 60 houses and a large population, according to Spitian standards. Today, we are volunteering at one of the greenhouses built by Ecosphere. The greenhouse belongs to Norbu (Ecospheres right hand man). As much as he regales us with his endless jokes, he is quite the taskmaster. We help to plaster and whitewash the walls. Carrying buckets of mud and then slathering them with an expert splat takes quite some time to master. I have caught a bug and sneeze incessantly. The rough winds do not make it any better. Its so cold is what I keep harping. The culinary delight comes at tea break in the form of hot samosas with the best potato filling, ever! Norbus wife has lovingly made them for us! On a serious note, it gives us immense satisfaction to volunteer at the greenhouse. The bigger picture of life is so clear. That you cannot love without giving.

This particular evening is crystal clear in my mind. We are treated to arakh (indigenous beer brewed locally) and a feast of the local Spiti cuisine awaits us (thukpas and momos is something I remember havingJ). Our hosts are the younger lot at Demul, the elders are away on a spiritual sojourn. We all get along like a house on fire (gleeful smile) and literally dance around the oven to a mish mash of Bollywood item numbers and pahari songs. Psst: True that all over the world, when parents are away, we party. I do not feel out of place even for a moment. Deliriously high on life, it is an evening to remember J

Playing with the children at Demul

Day 7:    The final day at Demul is spent trekking to Balari Top, a vantage spot atop 5000 meters. It is here that the famed Namkhan festival takes place and on a clear, cloudless day, one can see up to 18 villages at once. This remote piece of land does not cease to surprise me. As we keep asking Tashi, our guide how far it is, he points to a behemoth in the distance. The altitude makes me want to throw up. I am scared whether I will be able to finish the hike. I send up silent prayers to the gods akin to smoke signals. I firmly believe in this mythical land now, where every monastery, every lake and every mountain has a connection with the spiritual. Tashi scrambles up like a mountain goat, grinning from ear to ear at our inability to clamber up like him. The last leg is steep and treacherous, the dizzying heights do not make it any easier. Every side offers staggering views of the valley, the Spiti River snaking far below. As Tashi points out the villages to me, I celebrate by taking a selfie with him (clichéd, I know) :p

Atop Balari

Day 8:    We bid adieu to Demul and head to Dhangkar and Tabo. Sitting atop the tempo traveler, holding onto dear life as it whizzes through the twists and turns gives me the best adrenalin rush of my life. Rewarded with an unobstructed view of a pair of wild yaks rearing for a sprint.

Dhangkar, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff is pure magic, again. One can see the crumbling fort walls from afar. Once upon a time, it used to be the capital of the kingdom of Spiti. The Dhangkar initiative, supported by Ecosphere strives to save it from destruction. A lama chants his prayers and his voice reverberates around the ancient walls. I want to tread as softly as possible, lest I disturb the aura that lies thick all around. I imagine a princess of yore opening her windows to this magnificent sight every morning.  Dhangkar Lake is a revelation in itself. A short, 45 minute hike leads us to this beauty. I feel I have walked right into a postcard. Not a soul for miles except us. (Please do not litter and carry back all the plastic you can find.) The last rays of the sun kissing the sacred monastery is how Dhangkar will forever be etched in my memory.

The magical Dhangkar monastery

 Day 9:    Tabo, with its unending apple orchards is touted to be the Ajanta of the Himalayas. The sign outside the 1000 year old monastery reads that this structure, so divine was made by gods, mortals and demons. The monastery houses murals from the past. The detail and grace in every swish leaves you spellbound. As the lady explains to us the nuances of the paintings, one is struck by the fierce belief they have in their legends. Tabo wears a festive look today. A senior, religious teacher has come from Key monastery to deliver a sermon and people are flocking to hear him. Post a hike to the meditation caves, we pluck crunchy, sugary apples right off those trees and devour them (a long standing wish fulfilled). The dusty road back to Kaza snakes beside the unbelievably clear and turquoise Spiti River and offers stunning landscapes to gape at. The evening is spent bugging Ishita to tell her stories about Ecosphere and excessive shopping. An Ecosphere initiative is their food processing unit that makes jams and crush from sea buckthorn, the miracle berry growing wild in the Himalayas. Yummy and loaded with nutrients. Do I have to add that it is a must buy?

Sermon at Tabo

Day 10: Saying adieu to Spiti is painful. We get up at the crack of dawn to head back to Manali. The moon lake (Chandratal) would be a detour. Speechless was becoming a habit. Even the pictures cannot do justice to the beauty of this mesmerizing lake. A phenomenal and mind blowing journey had come to an end.

Chandratal, the moon lake

Some places leave this indelible mark on your heart and you are never the same again. Spiti falls somewhere on top of that list. Travelling with Ecosphere gives you the opportunity to interact with the locals up close. Such warm, generous and kind souls. Mere survival is tough here, a far cry from the lives us city slickers take for granted (you will learn to appreciate hot water, electricity and connectivity). The children with their bright eyes, red cheeks and inquisitive questions are a joy. Everyone is so innately tuned with nature. Flashbacks of endless inspiring conversations with my friends, a star studded sky, my rebellious sun hat flying all helter skelter, walking through the flowing river and a zillion other moments. Spiti is pristine nature, in its rawest and purest form and a land of evolved souls. The love I feel rejuvenates me and I indeed learn to forgive myself.

I cannot thank Ecosphere enough for this sojourn and kudos to everyone working relentlessly for Spiti (read: immense respect). The Live Life as a Local program succeeds in making us understand the need for conservation and responsible tourism. On a lighter note, all the trekking results in weight loss (added motivation to go volunteering: p).

Spiti leaves my heart strings tugging and sets the magic flowing in my veins. I cannot wait to be back again.

Blood red apples at Tabo

These cuties!

Looking onto Dhangkar lake

The turquoise Spiti river snaking beside

About the author: Swastika Samanta participated in the Life as a Local program with Ecosphere in September 2015.She is just a travel junkie addicted to music , dreaming and love among other things :)


  1. You have beautifully shared your experience.

  2. "The bigger picture of life is so clear. That you cannot love without giving. " Thanks swastika for sharing your story. It was amazing.

  3. So Beautifully written, that I lived the journey along with you. Waiting for a chance to be a volunteer soon.

    1. Thank you,you just have to volunteer with Ecosphere, they are incredible!