Friday, September 25, 2020

Uncharted trails & star hugs – A solo female traveller’s guide to the Spitian Galaxy

One of the most delightful persons I came across in Spiti was Takpa, a trusted team member at Ecosphere who can always find a reason to smile. We would often share banter about the village he hailed from, Chicham.

‘Jannat’ is the word he would choose to describe it, and I would often express disappointment at how I never got a chance to visit Chicham. To this he would say, “You have to wait for the more remarkable things in your life”. I would like to believe that. It is also tough to not let your patience waver.


Four years ago, my father - an ardent reader of unusual and in-between-the-lines stuff - handed me an article about a young woman spearheading a beautiful initiative by the name of Ecosphere in Spiti.

Three years, plenty of reading, and INTENSE discussions with my family later, I found myself boarding a bus to Rekong Peo. I had packed only for one. Solo travel was unchartered territory for me, much like Spiti - the Middle Land.

So, naturally, there were many reservations floating around safety, health, stay, travel, expenses, and of course network issues, which demanded and deserved our attention. Heads up! Your love for the mountains might not count as a rebuttal to your family right away. In hindsight, that was actually a good thing. In trying to persuade my family, I felt pressured to find more information, read more, look up people and stories that could provide valuable lessons and help prepare a little better.

Watching travel vlogs on YouTube and intentional scrolling through articles on reliable websites (eg Tripoto, Devil on Wheels and other local webpages) proved to be an insightful exercise. I also contacted a bunch of women travellers on social media and asked countless questions. Quick tip: Never shy away from asking for help and keep up a workout routine for better acclimatization.

Finding a place to stay

I decided to stay with Ecosphere and volunteered to help run their Sol Café. My association with Ecosphere was a relief to the many safety and stay concerns. Regardless of whether you’re working with them or not, the Ecosphere-run Osel Rooms is a popular and trusted option for visitors. And overall, Kaza is a generous host with a number of hostels, guest houses, homestays, and hotels suited to every budget. You’ll find plenty of accommodation within walking distance of the main market. Female dorms in hostels are a favored and safe option for many women travelers who might be keeping an eye on the budget. You can easily look them up online and even pre-book them.

“How will you get there?”

That was the next big question and took the longest time to decide! Taxis turned out to be slightly disruptive to my budget. Initially, overnight journeys in public transport were a straight up no for my folks. But after being reassured of its effectiveness, my brother, who has always been with me at various turning points in my life, helped me book my bus ticket from Chandigarh to Rekong Peo. That was the first time I knew that this was happening- for real!

Feel free to take your own vehicle with someone trusted and with mountain-road experience behind the wheel. The views are charming, but the terrain, testing. Keep an eye out for the petrol pumps. In fact, map their locations well in advance and refuel whenever you get a chance. Although slightly pricey, private taxis are perfect for those who like their space and want to take their sweet time to reach the destination. You can easily find shared taxis from Rampur, Kalpa, and Peo as well.

It was a comfortable overnight ride from Chandigarh to Peo which lasted for close to 13 hours. After staying in Rekong for one night, the following morning I got my bus ticket for Kaza. The journey from Peo to Kaza was close to 11 hours long - a tad tiring, yet immensely memorable. I was lucky to connect with a couple of passengers at the outset who would often cross paths with me in the days to come. My anxiety seemed to ease a little with every steep bend we passed. My excitement received a push with the changing landscape which was at one point very Martian-like. We got off at Kaza Bus Station and I strapped on my backpack while it rained and started to walk towards Osel Rooms- my home for the next fortnight.

Osel Rooms – My Mountain Home

Since it was pouring, I didn’t pay close attention to the surroundings, but the vibe the place gave off was great! I reached Taste of Spiti (TOS), an Ecosphere-run restaurant which houses Osel Rooms over it. Neema, a reliable team member greeted me with a ‘Julley’. The tea that he offered was all that I needed in that moment. Neema dutifully encouraged me to take it easy for the rest of the evening and take time to acclimatize. He said that Buddha Purnima was due in a few days. and that I would want to be fit to join the celebrations.

With that, I settled into my cozy room upstairs which I was sharing with two wonderful female solo travelers, who also happened to be my co-volunteers. Although it took me a while (and an extra pair of socks) to get warm under the blankets, I slept with the moonlight falling on my face. Quick tip: Layer your clothes at all times!

At around half past 6, I woke up to the sounds of birds chirping. The air I was breathing was chilly, but I was snug in my bed. It is indeed a beautiful start to the day when a magnificent snow-capped mountain wishes you a good morning.   City habits caused me to check my phone first thing - No WhatsApp notifications! Just an SMS from my family.

Mobile network in Spiti can be a concern for a lot of people. Get a BSNL or a Jio sim card. Internet is still a bit tricky throughout Spiti, but you’ll find some connectivity in Kaza. It would really help you to keep some local numbers handy and share them with your family too. Contact them whenever there’s network. If your folks at home are anything like mine, try and send them a text at regular intervals.

Acclimatization and Self-Care

In a few days - assuming I had acclimatized well- I began bothering less about hydrating myself or keeping my neck warm. Rookie mistake! And, enduring the start of a dust storm on return from a hike made the inevitable happen next morning. I was throwing up and showed signs of mild AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) + a really bad throat. 

But thankfully, Norbu whipped up medicine which was magic and Neema kept the kettle going. Sharmishtha and Akhila, my amazing roommates made sure I was tucked up well. I was up and about the next day, just with extra caution. So, I shall trust you to take care, pack sunscreen, and wear that extra layer of clothing.

Volunteering at Sol Café

Sol Café was my work station for the next two weeks. It is a bright, warm and inviting space with enough tables to host a crowd without ever making it feel overcrowded.

Most days in Kaza were spent at Sol alongside Lobstar and Singhey, who took me under their wing. My co-volunteer, Akhila, and I would often have tea with them while sitting outdoors during quieter hours and discuss post-dinner plans. An impromptu dance evening with locals, guests, volunteer friends, and Singhey is one of the great memories I have of Sol!

When you’re here, make sure to write and flip through the travellers book that is placed near the window. You’ll also get used to ending your evenings with a steaming cup of ginger honey or seabuckthorn tea, and sometimes. something slightly stronger ;)

The food choices in cafes, restaurants, and local stalls are a myriad of flavors which go beyond regional tastes. Do not miss the tingmo or Neema’s Garden Keu or local bread w/ seabuckthorn jam at the neighbouring Taste of Spiti restaurant. Also, local stores and shops line the area with something for everyone.

In its peak season, Kaza can very well be called a global village. One morning at Sol, I took 4 different orders of people from El Salvador, France, England and Israel, only to see them all sitting together around a table when I returned with their food.

I’ll be eternally grateful for meeting some incredible people quite early on in my trips. We often went for long walks after dinner. We would find a spot decent enough to lie down in silence and let the stars put on a show for us. Every now and then, we’d check up on each other and ask if they’re okay. That actually translated into, “Could we stay here for just a little while longer?” And we would stay until the cold defeated our jackets or even our blankets on some nights!

Three suggestions: 1. Meet and greet. 2. Download Sky Maps 3. If you have the luxury while planning your visit, consider the phase of the moon for a good night sky.

Travelling in Spiti

The distances here between locations are great and petrol pumps, scarce. So, if you’re travelling in your own vehicle, mind that fuel gauge and always take a local’s opinion before heading off somewhere.

State-run buses cover the area rather well and with a decent frequency. Enquire about the timings well in advance since some routes aren’t functional on a daily basis. Renting a bike or booking a local taxi-shared or private-is a popular option.

The last resort (first for some)-is hitchhiking. You might not have to wait at all or stay put for an hour or more, but you’ll find a ride-a bike, car, tractor or truck. I urge you to try it if you get the chance. But, remember to trust your gut and always thank the people for letting you tag along.

Thankfully, I found the time and people to explore the area without slacking off at the café. Once, we went on an impromptu afternoon visit to Rangrik and a neighboring nunnery (which by the way, was not abandoned as informed!). 

Shout out to Akhila, who rode the two-wheeler like she owned the road. Overnight stays at Dhankar and Mudh with a few friends that I made early on were insanely beautiful for more reasons than one.

Learning and Growth

It was not all peachy here. There were moments of uncertainty, waiting, sickness, longing, confusion or reluctance. Sometimes you struggle with a lack of faith. But, this is how we learn and grow.

For me, it was the people who made this a memorable visit. The visitors that I came across in different parts of the town became regular customers, who became Jenga frenemies, who then became stargazing partners and before you know it, they were friends who bid an overwhelmed adieu at the bus station. 

Spiti has a subtle alchemy. My experience was a perfect harmony of the most gorgeous landscape and the warmest people. Give the surroundings some time and respect to get acquainted. You feel alive with every breath. The colours of the prayer flags radiate a resounding feeling of warmth, hope, love and safety. It is like being engulfed in a massive hug! 

I did come here alone, however, I rarely ever felt lonely.  

Like most people, I rambled stories after stories once I came back home. My folks were excited and patient to hear what I had to say. But, I quickly realized there was so much they couldn’t relate to and, I felt terrible. However, that’s turned into my motivation for taking them there someday. I’ll never forget that if it weren’t for my parents and brother, I would never have been able to share these experiences in the first place. So, you can blame them for this lengthy article!

 You know the feeling when something within you has changed, but you can't really put a finger on it? Yet, you're happy and content. That's what I feel after this tiny visit to a land of magic. For the first time, in a long time, I walk with my head up. What Spiti also left me with is some faith and star-hugs, something I would otherwise doubt myself of ever having.

If I ever find myself feeling unlucky or ungrateful, a reflection on my time in Spiti always makes me feel otherwise.

With that, let me share one last anecdote.

It was one of my last days of volunteering at Sol Café. The sun was bright. The air, crisp and cold. The people, warm. My heart was filled with utter joy. We were chatting away when I mentioned, “Lobsang, I’ll try my best to make it back to Spiti again”. He replied with a smile, “A lot of people say that, but a lot of times, people get caught up with their life and seldom visit us again.” Ouch! But without missing another moment he added, “Don’t worry, come back here soon again and we would love to host you again” And, just like that, with a renewed sense of confidence and hope, I sipped on my ginger honey tea.

It’s been a little over a year since that conversation. And, to be honest, life does seem to have caught up in an uncertain way. But, I often find myself reminiscing moments from my time in Spiti with great fondness, and an even greater hope of going back.

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