A Tiny Infinity – Lahaul & Spiti

It has been more than a year and I have tried numerous times to put ink to paper in expressing those few days spent in the lap of absolute bliss. At first, it was the reverence and notion that putting any words to it might violate what I experienced in those mountains, and later, as any writer would have encountered, it was a feeling of guarding the experience and trying to preserve it. But, sooner or later, it spills out, from our blood and bones, and as vain as that may sound, ‘tis time for it to be finally released.

As Anthony Bourdain once said, “For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.

A blissful pasture of wildflowers, mountains, and sheep

This sums it all up.  To date, I have never been more grateful for what I saw, what I experienced, and what I came back with, in the majestic mountains of Lahaul-Spiti. I have carried the mountains in my soul for as long as I can remember, vehemently seeking them out in any country that I travel to. However, this part of the Himalayas was something that I could never have imagined even in my wildest dreams.

Starting from Manali after an overnight stay, inching towards Rohtang pass, the weather starts to change and a light drizzle along with dense fog envelops everything around us as we make a pitstop from breakfast. The wind is chilly and the cliffs surrounding this damp morning are decorated in rows of pink and white wildflowers. As we move along higher into the mountains, the air feels thinner, crisper, fresher. Verdant mountainous landscapes start intermingling with jagged, rigged cliffs.

Spiti translates to The Middle Land and is the place between Tibet and India which has managed to preserve its pristine and untouched beauty

Towards mid-morning, just when slumber starts taking over, the clouds open up to reveal the first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas, with glaciers on the distant peaks. Where we stand, the narrow road splits a mountainside covered in purple wildflowers. The earth rises up sharply, adorned with snowy glaciers on one side and drops into a deep gorge on the other. A shepherd’s tent sits below a stream of a waterfall that is oozing out from one of the crevasses and casting a rainbow across the landscape. The bleating sheep catch our attention as a flock makes its way down the snowy slopes and into the field of wildflowers for their fill of the luscious, and I am sure scrumptious, bounty nature has to offer.

After spending some time here, we clamber back into our vehicle to meander through the countryside, which is swiftly leaving behind any and all traces of organised roads. Ahead of us, it is only gravel, water streams that pass for roads, and gently rising cliffs. This day has been particularly unpredictable, as the weather changes from howling winds to gentle breeze along our way. The sun plays peek-a-boo with the rolling tufts of clouds that adorn the mountaintops and casts mesmerising shadows on the scenery. Mountains rise and fall, changing colours along with the sunlight, going from auburn, to flaming red, to luscious green.

The heavens and earth were in a tug of war on who can create more drama for the puny humans that were witnessing it with utter amazement

At our next pitstop, we are surrounded by towering cliffs on all sides. The mountains have now decided to take on a tall, black, stony form. Right above us, a section of the mountains protrudes out in sharp conical forms giving an impression of a fortress and we decide to name it Minas Tirith. The mythical quality of the place is augmented further by the strings of clouds that form garlands around the peaks and cling across its slopes.

At one point, the road is completely submerged by a mountain stream and vehicles are lined up on either side to cross by. A hoard of people has assembled to try and direct the traffic. A lightweight pickup is stuck in the middle, trying to break free from the slippery stones of the stream, but despite the revving and manoeuvring, doesn’t seem to be having much luck. A bunch of men climb onto the rear of the vehicle to offset the weight, as it gives inching forward another try. Suddenly a mudguard comes loose and goes flying in the direction of the shrieking assembled crowd. After about an hour, they find success and the traffic starts moving.

In the stark barrenness of the cold desert is where the monks make their home

By evening, as we make our way to Kaza, the moon hangs near the horizon in a thin crescent against a deep purple sky. We arrive at our destination and retire for the day for the much-needed rest, still wired from the enchanting landscapes we crossed during the day. If I could sum up that day’s drive it can be described as a dance, like the heavens and earth were in a tug of war on who can create more drama for the puny humans that were witnessing it with utter amazement.

In the morning, after breakfast, we make our way towards Hikkim, home to the world’s highest post office and by evening we are set towards Key Monastery. Against the barren landscape of the towering mountains, the monks that call this place their home were exceptionally hospitable and friendly. We spent some time at the courtyard, where the novice monks had come out to play after their day’s lesson and were running amok in absolute glee and joy. After a walkabout inside the temple compound, we were invited by one of the monks to his private dwelling and offered freshly brewed tea, with a view to the peaks and slopes outside the window of the cosy room.

The sunset from Key Monastery

As the sun starts to set, we make our way to the top of the monastery to catch the sunset and a few members make the steep climb up the gravel path behind the compound to get a bird’s eye view of not only the sun’s descent but also the grandeur that it casts in this part of the world along with the River Spiti flowing in the valley. The sky turns deep orange and the clouds mushroom over the snow-capped peaks, as the sun bursts into rays just before saying its final goodbye for the day. An image that, until this day has stayed with me and brings much peace every time, I remember it.

In the morning, we drive down to the quaint little village of Langza. Some 50-odd residents call this place their home, surrounded by towering snow-covered CCKN peak and a giant Buddha statue sitting over the village in quiet contemplation. Our homestay overlooks the green expanse of pea and mustard fields, where women after finishing the morning chores, grab their sickles and work with the earth.

Langza village
Star studded night skies that makes the Milky Way visible

We spend the day roaming around the fields, playing with children, and visiting the village elders in their traditional garbs. As night sets in, the sky is lit up in a spectacular display of a million twinkling stars, something that I crave to see in the cities. The clean air and high altitude of the place make it easier to spot planets and shooting stars with naked eyes. It is a sight to behold like none other.

Our final stop of the journey is Chandrataal lake, named so because of its shape like the moon. We make our way through rugged narrow roads, higher up in the mountains and arrive at our campsite. By evening, after settling into the place, we drive up to the base from where we walk down toward the lake bed. I remember the very first sight of the emerald waters surrounded by mountain peaks covered in snow and gasping at the ethereal beauty. It felt like I have stepped into paradise and was speechless for minutes. We walked towards the shores and spent time photographing the sunset set against the backdrop of this dramatic landscape.

The first glimpse of the lake had me skip my breath
Just before sunset

The next morning in the wee hours, we make our way back to the lake to catch the sunrise. This time the landscape is completely different. Devoid of other tourists, it is a personification of calm and depth at the same time. The waters are blue and absolutely still creating a natural mirror and reflecting the mountains, skies, and clouds. Through the clear waters, we can see the bed of the lake containing colourful pebbles and flora.

A sharp biting cold wind starts to blow and soft ripples start emerging from the opposite bank and eventually covering the lake. The sun makes its entrance, lighting up peak after peak and making the world around us shine. After snapping up a few images, I find a secluded rock face and sit upon it just drinking in the beauty of the place. I can’t help but wonder, how these mountains and waters have been here for aeons and will be long after we are gone. What stories might they be hiding in their core?

Natural mirror that is Chandrataal

As humans, we pass by, but these monoliths have been here forever. There is a sense of oneness here to be felt, where time expands and everything becomes godlike. I carry this feeling within me even after all these years and it always brings up some deep powerful emotions. Emotions that I have tried my best to describe here, but no words will ever be enough to express what I gained in those mountains – infinity and tranquillity are the only words that come closest to it.

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