In “The Code of the Woosters”, PG Wodehouse, an old favorite of mine, wrote “The cup of tea on arrival at a country house is a thing which, as a rule, I particularly enjoy. I like the crackling logs, the shaded lights, the scent of buttered toast, the general atmosphere of leisured coziness.”
As described in the last post of this series, here, This was the mood in Tanzi homestay in Langza, Spiti as we sat sprawled on the narrow mattresses covered with Tibetan carpets while the tea kettle in the center of the room bubbled and boiled. Welcoming guests with tea is an Indian custom, to refuse is a mark of insult but the people of spiti carry it two steps further. They offer tea to total strangers and are genuinely surprised (but not offended) if you refuse. We had experienced this at Dhankar, then at Key and now at Langza. At this altitude and given the harshness of weather, all the things people of importance and not have written about the restorative properties of tea rang true. With our wear a little less, we gave long hard stares to our man Friday till he asked ‘Oh, so you are up for fossil hunting?’
Spiti has an extensive number of fossils especially of Trilobites. These creatures (I read about them in a Macmillan illustrated encyclopaedia in school) were predecessors of crabs and other shellfish. Millions of years ago when the landmass of Gondwana rammed into Laurasia creating massive folds that we know today as the Himalayas, these palm sized creatures were caught in the middle – today they are found sandwiched between rocks and when the wind erodes some and snow breaks up others, more and more are exposed to the outside world. They are symmetrical, beautiful like a shell half cut up and hard as rocks (though brittle).
Fossil hunting is a popular excursion for tourists in Spiti. It is illegal for the fossils to be carried out (not that it stops some people from doing so) but it is fun to look for them. So we walked out and went behind the house, up a slope and slowly along the face of a hillock that is at the back of Langza. On the path there was expectedly, no one – save this boy –
After this large ice field (below), we reached a clearing that sloped gently for dozens of feet before dropping off precipitously – there is a river down below. I didn’t risk going all the way and looking down, it was hard as is to balance myself and keep breathing in the howling wind.
The idea was to bend down and look for anything that looked interesting, tap it and if it was a bit hollow sounding, it could be a fossil. A was lucky, she found a nice fossil and then immediately threw it down the precipice – she was conscientious that way. In most cases though, when I got something, it turned out to be solidified dung. Bleurgh.
I did get a nice view of the area where we stood – with the little princess looking at us and smiling mysteriously and the hills changing colours with each passing cloud. Karan mentioned that the bluff across the precipice and to the left, which he referred to as Fossil Mountain, there are fossils the size of small cars. I don’t believe that, but it sounded believable at that moment, given the landscape and the thrill of impending discovery.
A bit past two in the afternoon, when we could search no more, we all got into the car and started driving away towards Kibber. The road to kibber passes through a higher altitude than the village is at. A bit into the drive, the snow on the ground on either side got thick and the surface started turning to slush. It was around here that we had the first scare in the two days we had been together. The car, at one such curve with a gradient and a steep bank, near a parked road roller struggled badly – it was a combination of the thin air and surface deterioration.
Having come out of it after just a re-start, we discussed if it was worth going to Kibber and after some assurances from Karan that we weren’t missing much decided to go to Hikkim instead. Hikkim, is the place where the world’s highest operating post office is located and I wanted to find it. The altitude of the post office is 14567 feet or 4400 meters – that’s higher than the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland and higher than Lhasa in Tibet. The post office works year round.
The snow cover kept intensifying and it got worse for the road as well – the saving grace were some views that included my favorite subject – a little red house on the hill.
At half past two, we were in Hikkim – much relieved. The mood in the car was somewhat mellow though – Karan wanted to get back to the hotel (he had some work) and A didn’t care about the highest post office and R remained neutral (I think he was just being politically correct at the moment). Only I was gunning to find the place.
We got off the car and I started looking around, there were no signs, only one tin roofed ‘pucca’ building. There were no marks of even the name of the village – leave alone the ‘official’ looking construction I’ve come to associate with a post office. We accosted the first passer-by and were pointed to one direction and walked to, what felt like a kilometer (in that rarefied air) but was half that distance am sure now. The first person we asked could only confirm that the tin roofed building was not the post office.
The lay of the village was like that of a funnel cut into half and sloping down steeply while we stood on the lip. It appeared confusing and for some reason, I found the air to be even thinner here than Langza, making our walk a Struggle. Three women approached from a distance and we were so exhausted that we just sat down and waited for them to come up.
They were carrying fire wood and this was their home. But of course we got asked for tea and it took us a while to convince them that we were not being polite when we refused it. The ladies however gave us something far more valuable –info-byte that there were two parts to hikkim – upper and lower and we were in one (I forget which) and the post office was in another – there is a drive of three kilometres between them. With that information, I confronted my now wishy washy fellow adventurers and they relented.
We were all into the car and here there was a second scare. There was not enough space to turn the car around and it would have to be a three point turn – the car got too close to the edge of a steep face that fell at-least a hundred foot below. We drove off very slowly and it was only at a quarter past three that I was inside the home of the one man army that passes off for the post office of Hikkim. The post master cum post man runs this office from his home. In the large kitchen (seen below), in the center was the familiar spiti stove, but on the right is a shelf that holds trays with seals, stamps, envelopes, receipt book and all the other necessities that make this home, a bona fide post office.
After a few customary photographs, I asked him if I could send a post card from there and he said yes. As I was completely unprepared for the activity, I did not even have a pen. What I did have were the set of picture post cards I bought from the Tabo Chos Khor (monastery). I picked up three that I liked – the one that shows a photo of Key monastery, I thought was the best and this I addressed to my brother and sister in law who live in Miami. Clueless about the postage, I asked the postman how much would it cost to send it to the US and he bought out a sheaf of other post cards, all bearing stamps and post marked already – they all had been given to him by tourists! (he’s picking up stamps for me in the photo below)
The one on top was to go to London and it bore stamps worth thirty five rupees. I asked again if he was sure about the postage and he was, so I bought stamps for all three post cards – the other two I addressed to myself and my parents and sent them to Delhi and Jaipur addresses. I thanked the man profusely – he carries the post twice a week to Kaza on his bicycle – sixteen kilometres one way and collects what needs be distributed for Hikkim and Langza and delivers these to the residents. It is a tough, tough job