Adventure · Himalaya · India · Photography · Travel Writing

To Pin or not to Pin


Ten days after starting this solo unplanned Himalayan adventure in Shimla, I woke up a bit before six, to a knock on the door in the hotel in Kaza. It was R (who i had met back in Tabo, just three days back) and he wanted to know if I wanted to get going towards Shimla along with them. He had decided to board the morning bus (that leaves Kaza at 7 am and goes to Recong Peo) – they were to make their way to Shimla and onto Mumbai from there. I was undecided – it didn’t feel ‘right’ to have come all the way and not visit Pin valley.

Worse, it turned out I was the only one left in the entire hotel. Suddenly I didn’t have such a good feeling about being on my own. There was no one to share a ride with, no bus that I could take to a next destination and to top that that, yesterday’s incessant exposure to the cold wind had given me a bad headache.

So I just slept off again, waking up quite late, around nine AM and then getting dressed only to find that there was nothing for breakfast or tea. I walked out and down the road was a tea shop that sold some dough fritters – I ate some and had a bit packed as well. My photo of the ‘breakfast shop’ should give you some idea of what to expect while visiting Spiti in the ‘off-season’. This man’s ”shop” is a roof of corrugated steel , held up by thick bamboo poles, and the ”walls” are the back of a government office that lies in disuse. The display shelf stocks only what can be sold within a day, at best two.

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Back in the hotel, I had trouble finding Karan (hotel’s manager) – I knocked his door and I think he was still hung over from last night’s rum. We discussed the trip to Pin and he clearly told me that chances of spotting wildlife especially snow leopard are very dim – typically one has to camp several nights and plan excursions into the valley.

He arranged for a taxi, but it would cost me a full thirty one hundred rupees (Rs 3100/-). The first car that was sent was a small, alto. I was furious and vented my ire on Karan. He of course, called up the taxi union again and this time they sent a Sumo. It’s a large jeep but very uncomfortable. Still, this was all that they had and by their rules, it was mine for the day. We left only at a half past eleven in the morning. Tashi, my driver was soft spoken and his car was decorated with Tibetan buddhist symbols and prayer flags.

First, we followed the road towards Tabo (reverse of the journey I had undertaken while coming in) for about seven kilometres but then after the bridge at attergu, took a sharp, right turn and crossed over the spiti river and shortly thereafter was a gate – it read ‘Welcome to Pin Valley’. I missed photographing it earlier but i did in the evening (seen below) – like all other gates welcoming visitors to any major village of Spiti, this one also bears the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism – four on each side. On top of the gate are the dharma-cakra (wheel of dhamma) and the deer that face it remind the onlooker of the deer park at Sarnath, where the Buddha had given his first sermon.

welcome-to-pin-valley

From here, we were to follow the bank of the Pin river which was of a distinctly different color – it was turquoise blue (unlike the muddy brown of Spiti). Shortly thereafter, as I looked outside the windscreen – I noticed that the road straight went into the river! When i had photographed this, Tashi was out of the car removing a stone the size of a small child from the road.

where-is-the-road

I asked Tashi, my driver for the day, as to where we were headed and he said, two years back there was a flood in the pin valley and the aftermath of that was the river changed its course slightly and left behind many pools of water. This was one such – deep enough for telephone poles to be nearly completely submerged (note the part sticking out). There was a narrow, temporary road on the right side that the Border roads organization (of the Indian army) works nearly constantly to keep open in season. I think we were just lucky to pass that stretch – when the flooding had happened, tourists were stuck for five days in this valley.

the-road-that-went-under-the-river

The first hour of journey, frankly, was underwhelming – the sky was dull, the mountains were low and nearly uniform and I didn’t feel like it was a very special place (given how much I had heard about it). The road itself was practically non-existent. In some parts there was water (snow-melt) flowing over it and in others, it was slush from whatever had passed on it. It was also very bumpy and I was regretting my decision to spend so much money on a ride which was not enjoyable.

that-is-the-road

At a quarter to one, we pulled into Gulling village and Tashi asked if he could go visit his wife (she lived in this village while he drove a taxi ex-Kaza). So I let him off went in search of food and photos. The village itself is not picturesque but worth observing for it tells the visitor how people in this part of the world live –

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It is naturally protected from strong winds by the bluff seen at the back of this residential structure. The road and the pin river parallel to it bend slightly here. For the villagers, dhamma is of paramount importance and even when a road – perhaps their biggest necessity given the isolation of the place – was to be built – the chorten (memorial stupa) could not be moved.

Given the climate the roofs are made of an intermediate layer of wood – it keeps the house insulated. Buntings of little prayer flags flutter in the strong winds – protecting the house and its occupants from the demons that cause foul weather. At first glance, these appeared to be the only differences between this and a city house, but on closer inspection, I noticed the Yak parking on the mezzanine level – not sure how easy it would be to park after the day’s drive. [It is required to protect them from the snow, don’t think they come with under-body protective coating]

please-park-your-yak-at-mezzanine-level

Apparently, taking a Yak out of the parking can be quite challenging for the locals. Sometimes they refuse to start on cold mornings and have to be pushed (or pulled) as seen below.

cold-start-problems

The setting of the village itself is nice – a clear stream runs near it and merges with the pin river. It is where the locals brought their Yaks’s to get a drink (if the Yak starts OK, that is). On the right, a rare sight – a grove of slender trees – so rare to spot any in spiti. These are Himalayan Birches (bhojpatra) the ones I had seen as logs in chitkul.

stream-at-gulling

Tall, leafless (for the winter) trees stand near the road and they looked picturesque – their light colored stems contrasting with a bright blue sky (it had cleared up a bit at that time). To see something of this girth and therefore age, is such a rare occurrence that I forgot to ask anyone around what these are, and I cannot identify them now, suspect a birch .

pictueresque-gulling

The highlight of the day (thus far) was a chance discovery of a lunch spot. In a hole in the wall, a vendor from the far away state of Bihar had discovered a captive market for his large flattish samosas (savory pastries). He came here for the ‘season’, rented the shop and left when the season was over.

samosas-at-3500-meters

Children and adolescents came in at all hours and bought one for five rupees each – it was a novelty for them and they loved it! They paired it with fresh ground chilly chutney (what one normally associates with Indian Chinese food). Samosa is, after all, Indian fast food.   Life here is far from Perfection, it is rather ‘jugaad’ (Hindi for make-do), but it is exciting and ever present in-your-face and that’s what made travel here so worthwhile.

captive-market

Tashi was supposed to be gone for ten minutes but of course he was gone for half an hour. So I used the time the restaurant owner cum cook chopped onions for capturing this video, behind the two rooms set up which was kitchen and restaurant. It shows the general surroundings of Gulling –

About my chowmein – well, all I’d say is that the man from Bihar had come to the high Himalayas in search of a living, but he wouldn’t give the residents or migratory nepalis or tibetans a run for their money any time soon. I chomped in silence, and awaited the return of my driver so we could go to our next stop – the fourteenth century monastery at Kungri.

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