Buddha statue on a hilltop in Spiti.
Spiti is small area of northern India close to the Tibetan border with a old Tibetan Buddhist culture.
A few miles south of Kaza, the main town in Spiti, a side track leads to the village of Lantza. Like many villages it’s set in a curve in the hillside. The houses are Tibetan style – flat roofs and thick, white painted stone walls with black door and window frames. A couple of new houses are being built and it’s good to see that they are timber framed with mud bricks from the Spiti river bank, better for the environment than concrete and steel brought up from the plains on trucks.
A large painted statue of the Buddha sits in front of the new monastery on a hill above the village. The statue faces west, out over the Spiti valley and shows the Buddha making the gesture of touching the earth. Behind it the new monastery has been built to completely enclose a much smaller, older one but we can’t find the key holder to let us in to see the inside of either. The simple painted colours of cream and red masonry stand out in 3D in front of the snow capped blue-grey mountains behind.
We walk through the village and follow contour lines for a few miles then drop down into the next village of Hikkim, another Tibetan village with many coloured prayer flags. One house has only blue flags on the roof. In the middle of the village a man is crushing alium flowers in a stone mortar watched by a small crowd of quiet children. It will be dried and used as onion flavoured spice. An old woman wearing big spectacles with milky lenses is holding her grandchild in one hand and spinning a prayer wheel in the other.
Our guide has relatives everywhere and we have tea in his auntie’s house. One wall of the living room is lined with wooden shelves storing cups, glasses, food bowls and vast numbers of metal cooking vessels. She brings us tea and tsampa in small china bowls. Rana tries to improve the reception on her TV but only makes things worse, by the time he’s finished she has no picture at all. At this point he decides it’s time for us to leave.
Clumps of flowering plants and small blue butterflies are scattered among the iron coloured rocks. We pass a sun bleached skeleton of a cow and catch a glimpse of a rare mountain hare. Rana is delighted and says it’s only the the second one he’s seen in his 40 years. Occasional springs of water leach out into small fresh green hilltop deltas. We’re at 14,500 feet, surrounded by snow capped mountains and blue sky.
Further south is the village of Comic. The weather starts to break as we arrive on the path above the village, we can see Jan Singh and our transport parked up ahead. Tonight the storm is coming from the north, the sky is black with rain clouds and lightning. There’s a huge lightning flash just behind Jan Singh, we run past the black, white and red striped outbuildings of the monks’ dormitory to the monastery as huge hailstones splatter on to the dusty ground.
The entrance gives shelter from the rain but we sense that Jan Singh is anxious about the drive back down on the wet track so we don’t stay so long. It’s a tricky drive with the back wheels slipping round the tight corners in the mud and we now realize the jeep isn’t actually a 4 wheel drive, it just looks like one. Or maybe the drive doesn’t work anymore.
Back in Kaza the sky is clear and I climb irregular bamboo ladders and walk around on the flat hotel roof among large prayer flags, water drums and general untidiness. We hope to eat at the Whispering Willow. The electricity is off so we sit with candles, the place is almost empty but we’re kept waiting for two hours. When it arrives the food is terrible. We’re feeling pretty Buddhist about things and make our complaints very gently, suggesting that our guide may not be recommending them again. My wife says that the waiter looks forlorn. We feel even worse for our diver, Jan Singh, whose evening is ruined because he’s needlessly waited to take us back to the hotel and missed a party at our guide’s house.