Elated by the accomplishment at the World’s Highest Post Office, I trudged back, breathless and slumped into the car seat. We were out of drinking water in the car by then. Also the biscuits I had bought from Peo and had freely distributed through the journey were finished and that made the going uncomfortable. On the way back, our driver took a shorter route – it goes direct to Kaza. Having caught my breath, I looked out the window and got that ‘top of the world’ view again.
Shortly thereafter, we passed by the largest herd I had seen on this trip – it was goats and sheep and a few very cute donkeys. The donkeys of course stay on the road while the rest roam on the near vertical slopes and graze freely on the loose gravel and scree because they can, the donkeys are just not as sure-footed.
These treacherous slender roads are not intended for large trucks to pass through – the climate doesnt support cattle, so for over a thousand years, this part of India was connected with the plateau of Tibet and everyone used donkeys to traverse them. I feel sorry for the donkeys.They keep their heads down, carry enormous loads and stand aside respectfully when a car comes blaring – just look at this poor creature.
No sooner than the herd was past, we came upon a bend that promised a view of Kaza and were told ‘look – a dust storm’. Spiti is a desert, a fact we often easily forget with the views of snow that abound and nature had reminded us again that there is very little water in these parts. The dust storm was at-least couple hundred feet high and covered all of Kaza.
Moving along, we understood why our driver had avoided the road while we were coming up. It wasn’t just the snow, it was also the angle of light. Coming back down, the light was perfect to get good shots. The road however, was indeed quite risky, just about enough for a single jeep to pass through, so we didn’t stop for the most part.
It was also not metaled, just dirt. On the right was a mountain of gravel held together by wishful thinking. It looked like it could come down any moment but thankfully it didn’t. We were going down sharp switchbacks now and rapidly descending to get to Kaza and to the comforts of the hotel.
The rapid progress slowed to a skid by a view most unexpected. Look, said K, our driver, “blue sheep”. Called Bharal in the Indian Himalayas, these antelopes were very well camouflaged with their coats matching the color of the earth and dry vegetation – it’s their Natural defense from their enemy – the elusive snow leopard. It was only K’s trained gaze that helped us spot this opportunity of a lifetime. Blue sheep are quiet creatures and unlike ibexs that jump solitary from a crag to another, dislocating pebbles and drawing attention, these guys barely move, preferring instead to quietly disappear in the surroundings.
We didn’t even let the car come to a complete halt but just leaped out of it, half scaring the poor antelopes. We were told that the sheep never come to this low an altitude but it could be because this was still very early summer and lots of snow was around so they came down looking for good grazing. The herd was about twenty strong – a mix of fully grown adult males, females and some juveniles. I could identify the males by their large horns – the ones I had seen at the monastery in Langza earlier today. We were upwind and that was not good for us as they had smelt us for they all stood up and an adult male looked straight at my camera.
We got back into the car, negotiated a hairpin and came to a halt again – this time we were downwind and I hoped to get a better, longer viewing. I wasn’t disappointed but our oohs and aahs must have got into their ears and they calmly stood up and started walking away. This photo accurately shows how far we were –
I still got a short video.
Excited with this new discovery we were quite satisfied with our exploits for the day and rapidly made our way towards Kaza. On the way, a group of local ladies flagged us down. K stopped the car and after briefly asking us if it was OK, had nine of them pile into the car. That made for a very busy car indeed but his logic was, in Spiti, the resources are so few, and that one cannot leave people behind. Best of all, A managed to talk the ladies into singing some folk songs – the ones that are never recorded but passed down from mother to daughter. I could get few clips (bundled together) to give you a flavor. Dont worry if you cant understand the lyrics – it was an alien tongue for me too.
Later in the evening, there was no power. So not only there was no TV or hot shower in our rooms, there would be no dinner either as the kitchen had only electric cooking range in working order (gas supplies had not resumed for the summer by then). We ordered food from another restaurant that was able to supply. While we waited, K brought out a bottle of rum he had on him and my other two trip mates started drinking slowly. Skalzang Dorze (who represented India in the Olympics) joined us in some time and he had a bottle of wine with him.A little later R started strumming the guitar (it is the resident guitar of the hotel – available to all guests). I was the only non-drinking member of the party so I captured some shots – here’s that bottle of wine in candle light.
The food was good but the stories I heard that night must have been even better, for we sat around several hours – by the dying light of the candle, chatting, eating and drinking and singing to the idle plucks of a guitar.
A was under some time pressure to get back to Mumbai as she had to go to London next month to start her master’s program. So we all retired to our respective rooms with the understanding that we will discuss in the morning whether we all go to Pin valley or part ways. I tried taking some moon shots from the open window of my room but sans a tripod, got just green blurs. It had been a day full of adventures and I was content as I slept.