Located in the eastern part of the Indian state Himachal Pradesh, Spiti Valley is an isolated and arid region of the Himalayas. Lying at around 3800m above sea level, the valley is cut off to the outside world for most of the year due to heavy snowfall covering the few roads that provide entry. However, despite the constant snowmelt during the summer months, and the presence of the Spiti river that snakes through the valley floor, Spiti is a desert with little to no vegetation.
As well as the harsh climate, Spiti is also a poor area with many residents living through subsistence farming. Those who do earn an income do so through the growing tourism industry by offering visitors homestay experiences. This is a place with limited access to electricity, let alone any phone signal and internet connection.
Yet, every person I encountered in Spiti could not have been more welcoming and generous with what little they owned. I have never met anyone as content with their lives as the Spitian people. They live in peace and want nothing more.
I visited the region in the summer of 2016 with a group of around 15 others. We were there as part of the charity Ecosphere to help build a Solar bath house which would provide hot water all year round to the residents of Kibber Village. Such a project was needed due to very little firewood, or natural resources of any kind, being present to use in the winter. All wood had to be expensively imported from the surrounding area which is no way near sustainable. We were not the first group to undertake a project of this calibre as the charities volunteers have helped provide many communities in the valley with solar power, greenhouses and heating.
India’s Tibetan pocket
Even when the ‘roads’ eventually clear, access to the valley is very strict with only a handful of visitors allowed each year. This is mainly to preserve the culture and tranquillity of the area but also to prevent any form of illegal immigration into/from Chinese Tibet which is located on the other side of the Valley. Due to these fears, there is a small village located on the entrance to the region which acts as a border crossing. It was at this village I was able to get my first taste of how different the culture is in this part of India compared to other places such as Delhi. You would not be foolish for thinking you had crossed a literal border into Tibet thanks to the Buddhist shrines, prayer flags and Indo-Chinese architecture of the buildings. However, unlike Tibetan buildings, every house appeared to have a flat thatched roof. I later found out these roofs were specifically built out of a mixture of manure and straw to provide valuable insulation during the winter months. The ultimate ‘make-do’ approach.
Due to the Buddhist beliefs, the few animals that roam the valley are cared for with the utmost love and respect. No meat is eaten anywhere except the few hotels catering to westerners. This respect was most evident to me when we were leaving the valley. As we were driving out of Spiti the vehicle I was in became stuck behind a group of around 30 cattle moving from one field to the next. Instead of driving through or scaring them off we had to wait for nearly an hour for them to clear the road. Any attempt to scare them off would have been disrespectful. As interesting as this was, adding an extra hour onto an already long, hot and bumpy 14-hour journey out of the valley was not a fun experience.
The capital city town village of Spiti is Kaza. A small market centre, Kaza is the hub of the valley and where all residents of the region go to get any supplies they may need. Despite the size, there are a handful of Hotels, restaurants and a petrol station that claims to be the highest in the world. There is a small ‘high street’ with a few souvenir shops selling handmade Buddhist themed gifts. But the most bizarre place in Kaza is located just off the main market. I had heard it existed but was not going to believe the hype until I saw it with my very own eyes. The sheer euphoria that washed over me when I finally found it in all its glory was indescribable. 4000m above sea level and located around 7000km away from where it should be, there was none other than a German Bakery. After around a week of nothing but Dahl and rice, this really was an Oasis in the desert.
Spiti is home to some of the most beautiful and remote Buddhist monasteries in the world. The surreal looking Key Monastery sits atop a hill just outside of Kaza at an altitude of 4,166 metres above sea level. The 10,000-year-old monastery appears to have engulfed the hill in a scene that looks straight out of The Lord of The Rings. Buildings circle all the way around and up the hill to the prayer hall located on the summit. This hall was opened in 2000 by the Dalai Lama himself who has said that the Key Monastery is one of his personal favourites and it’s easy to see why. The buildings may look old and cramped on the outside but inside they are draped with elegant decorations and vibrant colours. It is a wonder how something so old is still standing let alone have the ability to retain its charm.
Just before we started the project in Kibber, our group visited the monastery for a tour guided by some of the monks. Hollywood would have you believe that Tibetan monks are disciplined martial arts experts who practice fighting and walk through fire. However, the first sight that I had of the monks shocked and amused me. There were around 40 of them playing volleyball in the courtyard with an even bigger audience cheering them on. This didn’t appear to be a show for visitors either as they were good, in fact very good, at it. The guide informed us that in-between the chores and worship volleyball is the number one past time.
This was not the first time on this trip I had seen monks breaking stereotypes. Our first hotel in Kaza was in front of a more modern temple that had a few nice-looking Harley Davidson type motorcycles outside it. I had thought nothing of these bikes until one day we came back to the hotel to see one of the monks washing them. This was unusual, but not that weird until the monk then put on a helmet and took off on one of the bikes. They must have belonged to each of the monks. It was bizarre to think of the monks riding through the valley in a Sons of Anarchy-type motorcycle gang. This experience alone summed up Spiti Valley for me.