A month in Kinnaur & Spiti. Part 2: Chitkul

Cheetah helicopter flying in Himalayas

The morning of my second day in Chitkul, I wanted to just laze around doing nothing. Weather was sunny, so I thought that I should go sit on the grass and read something. Even with a bright sun outside, it was a bit cold, so I covered up and went out on a patch of grass in the guesthouse premises. But a stiff breeze made it impossible as skin on my exposed hands and face went numb within a few minutes. Even though the temperature was around 5-6 degrees, the wind chill made it feel much colder. So the plans of reading outside had to be shelved. Even wet clothes set out to dry in the sun froze if exposed to wind, so one can guess the conditions if not familiar. After reading for a bit indoors, I walked down the village to see if I could get something for lunch. Most of the villagers were still busy with their festival preparations and rituals and all shops owned by the locals were closed. I had a cup of chai in one of the most hyped ones, the so-called last dhaba of Hindustan near the bus stand last time, so stopped there to see if they had something. It was nearly full and had rajma chawal for lunch. Rajma were pretty bad and rice half cooked. Tried chai and it was surprisingly awful too. I wasn’t expecting much, but it takes special skills to make it this bad, that too in Himachal. Its clientele cares more about facebook checkins and selfies more than the food, so I suppose it’s alright for them.

A little cow curious about the camera
A little cow curious about the camera

Almost every single place had rajma chawal as their main dish and even I got bored of it, more so with the flavourless gruel they tried to pass off as rajma. One hotel run by Bengalis had a bit more varied menu and I had most of my meals there. There were not many options for food in the village, let alone good ones. The Bengali guys prepared a few Bengali dishes like fried fish, chicken and one potato dish with curd. So it was not too bad overall. The village itself was an interesting place for just walking around and taking pictures of old wood and stone houses, animals and scenery. There were a few noticeable changes from last time. Instead of wood or stone, many houses and storage sheds were using metal sheets for roofs. There were a few houses constructed of brick and cement too. Apparently, it is cheaper to construct those compared to traditional stone and wood houses even with extra cost of transportation. The old fashioned locks were much harder to spot and there was a lot more plastic trash everywhere. More on that later. People seemed a lot more used to tourists too unlike last time. Quite often one could see some dumb tourist asking asinine questions from the locals and getting patient answers. Even I had to answer a few like if it was possible to drive a motorcycle up to the ridge with that flag on it. Some Said that they thought that I was a local. What thought process led them to this result is still a mystery to me.

One old house with a nice view
One old house with a nice view

The next day was Holi in the rest of India and another day of festivities in Chitkul, though they celebrated Holi with colours the next day. V arrived in the morning for some maintenance work and said that there was some kind of fight the previous night involving some people from a neighbouring village. Not for the first time either, by the looks of it. Later as I was walking towards the market, villagers were organising a dhaam (community feast In Jammu & Himachal) in the village temple premises along with some singing and dancing by the women. They were not very happy to have outsiders taking pictures, so I moved on to take a walk towards the riverside. There were a lot of tourists in the village that day, yet no one was being allowed to enter the village at the time. It was a good move too. A lot of these tourists were playing loud shitty music, getting drunk and acting like asses to “celebrate Holi”.

From old unused watermill
From old unused watermill

I got annoyed and walked back to the guest house soon enough. Next day I walked down to get something from a shop only to find it mobbed by 4-5 women with Holi colours in their hands asking the owner to come out and get some. Upon noticing me standing around confused, they asked me to see if the shopkeeper would open the door which he didn’t. I guess he really hated colours and/or baths. Since he was not coming out, the women asked if I was OK with them putting colour on me. I already had a pretty bad sunburn but couldn’t say no. On my way back to the guesthouse, there were 15-18 people of all age groups who first asked if it was OK and then applied some more colour. Some of them just put on a tilak while the rest, especially children, rubbed it in my beard. They thought it was funny. I was very thankful that they were not using water like a lot of children in Manali I saw last year. Getting wet in that cold weather would have been very uncomfortable. Running water in bathrooms started after 4-5 days after my arrival. They just had a flexible pipe running from a stream up to the building. It worked fine when the weather was comparatively warm, but froze more than once.

View of mountains a few km away from village
View of mountains a few km away from village

Few days after Holi, a bunch of local children were enacting the dancing and music they had seen during the festival and running a small procession with a plastic can to beat in place of the drum. Two of them noticed me as I was taking their pictures and asked that I take some of them as well which later turned in to let us take some pictures too. After one was finished, another started. They were enthusiastic but quite polite about the whole thing, so I didn’t mind.

I went on five short hikes during my stay but for the first two days, I either read in the guesthouse or went out just to get something to eat. After not doing much for 3-4 days, I got a bit restless and wanted to hike up to the flag on the ridge (mentioned in the previous post). V gave me directions and I still ended up somewhere else. There were two trails, one easier than the other. I wanted to take the easy one and kept on walking below the ridge till around a km further till I realised that it’ll be very difficult to reach the flag point from there. So I just kept on walking on the mountainside. A few plants were showing signs of greenery and some small wildflowers had bloomed already. It was still too early in the year for most of the plants though, as snowfall had been scant. The weather was sunny in morning, but turned cloudy while I was hiking and looked like it was going to rain soon. So instead of retracing my steps and climbing up to the flag, I decided to come back and try it later. Next morning everything was covered with 2-3 inches of snow and looked completely different. It kept on snowing till 9-10 am, but the weather was not that cold and most of the snow in the village was gone by late afternoon. There was some snowfall and sleet for four days during my stay there.

A rare Bearded Vulture
A rare Bearded Vulture

Chitkul was named so because of six streams flowing through it, although I had seen only three. On my 5th day, I hiked for 5-6 hours towards the source of a stream of water that flowed through the village. As mentioned in the previous post, there was not much greenery or flowers like the last time and most of the plants were just bare thorny bushes. There was not much snow on higher reaches, glaciers were much smaller and the weather had not warmed enough yet for much water to flow. I remember seeing more snow on a few peaks in August than there was this time in late March. There were some birds every now and then, but spotting them was not easy as they blended quite well with the terrain. I had 2-3 mini heart attacks on different occasions as they fluttered away noisily from just 7-10 meters away without me having any idea of their existence. There were at least two small springs on the way, but their output was too small to reach down to the village or Baspa river. Most of the water just spread through the rocks or was absorbed in the dry earth. I kept on walking for about 40-45 minutes after the trail ended and reached an area with large stones and a very steep incline. There were a few birds in the distance but too far to get good pictures.

A friendly and curious sheep
A friendly and curious sheep

Another hike was in the area across the river. I had seen There were a few tourists near the bridge but none after a walk of 100 meters. I wanted to hike up to a stream visible from a km outside the village or possibly a bit further. I had seen it while walking around near the road leading up to ITBP camp 2-3 days back. First hour or so was mostly flat terrain with a bit of snow every now and then till there were only two paths. One path led to the river bank which was a pretty good place to sit down and rest for a while. Other one was covered with layers of snow 2-4 feet high. I walked through it for a while only to find that the clear area beyond was covered with ice hidden by pine needles. It was all very slippery and unstable with sharp slopes onwards, so I dropped the plan of going further and walked back.

Village temple in evening
Village temple in evening

For the first four days, I was the only one staying in the guesthouse and it was pretty nice. The owner lived somewhere else and it was pretty nice and peaceful with no noise, lights or any other human disturbance. On 5th day, a group of north Indian tourists (Punjabi and/or Haryanavis) came up to break the good spell with their shitty music, empty boasts, alcohol abuse and demands of kukkad, paneer and more which went on through most of the night. They also left quite a bit of rubbish and a broken toilet behind them, but thankfully they stayed for only one night. There were two other groups later, but none as bad as them. One other good thing about the guesthouse was that no phone network apart from BSNL worked and even that worked only now and then. So many such tourists didn’t like staying there for long.

Village streets
Village streets

One day, when I reached the village for lunch, there was a police raid going on against the sale of locally brewed liquor. Villagers in most parts of Himachal are allowed to brew 23-25 bottles (or is it litres?) of liquor per household for personal consumption. Everyone I asked had a different answer and different regions have their types. The most common are Chhang made of wheat, Lugadi from rice, Aarak from barley, Chakti from jaggery and a few others like Chuli and Soor from various fruits. Visitors to Himachal can buy certain fruit wines and cider from regular shops too. As far as other local liquor is concerned, the majority of households brew it in their homes and recipes, names and potency vary wildly. This liquor is offered to village devta (deity), consumed during festivals, weddings and of course as a way to unwind or get drunk. Women drink too, but not as much and mostly separately from men. It is a big part of life in the hills, yet the brewing apparatus and procedure leave some things to be desired. The utensils used and storage were usually quite dirty, at least the ones I saw. Perhaps they believe in disinfectant properties of alcohol more than I do. First batch from the distillation (which I think is done only for a few types) is considered to be the most potent one and is usually offered to the deity or sometimes given to some important person in the party. No one I talked to had any idea about methanol contamination or perhaps pretended their ignorance. These days, all the liquor is aged in plastic barrels instead of wooden and they still claim that it gets aged. One local said that the liquor aged in wooden barrels is indeed much better but no one can be bothered to stop using plastic now. Anyhow, the villagers were not very happy about the police raid and some locals were running around trying to get their affairs in order. One claimed that he had nothing to hide, yet I saw him moving a full barrel from one place to another.

A Tibetan goat with a cool hairstyle
A Tibetan goat with a cool hairstyle

I was still hungry with or without the raid and walked to a restaurant type place to get something to eat. On the way, a short man with red hair tried to strike up a conversation. He turned out to be a worker in the same eatery I was walking to and he went inside for a few minutes to come out and talk as I was starting to eat. He started with a story of how he was an orphan and how he lived in some city far away. Then he started talking about his self-help group and how I should definitely check it out. I kept on nodding politely with an occasional word now and then but it was getting tedious. He then started with his life philosophies about the ignorant life of villagers and how the”truth” he was taught in the orphanage was the real solution for everything and everyone should follow christ. I was pretty annoyed by this time as he wouldn’t just take the very obvious hints and stop talking. After a few more minutes of his sales pitch, I told him bluntly, “Before you say anything else you should know that I am a member of RSS and VHP.” That did the job. His eyes widened a bit and he went away after mumbling a few words asking if the food was ok.

Wildflowers
Wildflowers

Next morning I decided to climb up to the flag using the shorter path. Most of it was near vertical but had a few goat trails every now and then. It was not easy, but not too long either and I reached the top in about 50-60 minutes, I guess. There was a smaller Buddhist flag just below the Indian flag which was not visible from below. The view was pretty nice with a clear day and a very stiff breeze. From the top I saw a couple of tourists make the same mistake about the path I did previously. There were three tourists who came in later through the other way and started flying a drone. As I was walking down the hill, I stopped at one point looking for a less steep way to go down. A dog came running up from the top and nearly pushed me off the edge demanding to be petted. It was perhaps with those tourists, but can’t be sure as I didn’t see it with them earlier. I had seen 3-4 tourists struggling to walk down the hill a few days back, but it turned out to be easier than expected. That day, the primary memory card in my camera got corrupted and I lost a few pictures.

Indian flag on mountain ridge in Chitkul
Indian flag on mountain ridge in Chitkul

A local also claimed that Chitkul used to be one of the biggest villages in the region with hundreds of houses, unlike 70-80 presently. A lot of villagers left after a prolonged famine many years back. I’ve not read anything confirming this in any book or paper so far but he seemed convincing. Trade with Tibet used to be a big source of income for the villages near Indo-Tibet border in the past. Chitkul is the last major settlement on one of the bigger routes to Tibet and probably played a bigger role than what it’s current size hints. Caravans with hundreds or in some cases, thousands of animals would carry goods like vegetables, jaggery, grains, cooking oil, herbs and medicine from Indian side to Tibet and bring back silk, livestock, skins and silk. Even goats and sheep would be used to carry a bit of load on their backs. The trade between two sides was done on basis of the Gamgya system which involved tea ceremonies and use of a stone broken into two parts as tokens to establish identities and faith. A few people claimed to have someone older in their family who went to Tibet to trade like this, even after Chinese occupation of Tibet. But most trade stopped after 1962 and people started doing something else. Another local pointed to a seemingly useless shed constructed on a hill and claimed that a person used to blow a horn from that point to inform people of a meeting or gathering as there were so many houses at that time.

Baspa river flowing through Chitkul
Baspa river flowing through Chitkul

I was interested in going on some longer hikes but couldn’t because of near regular snowfall and a bit of rain. So after seeing almost everything, there was to see there, I decided to go to Spiti. A few locals said that a negative corona report was not mandatory anymore and no checking was going on previously either. So that saved me the hassle of getting another test. So one snowy day, I picked up my bags and caught the bus to Reckong Peo. The plan was to spend the night there and then catch the morning bus from there to Kaza and then reach Pin from there. Called a couple of locals and they told me that everything was fine and the road was open. A ride in a local Himachal Roadways bus is not very comfortable if you’re used to cars or air-conditioned luxury buses, yet an interesting experience. The drivers are pretty good at their job and handle these heavy vehicles like they are driving a car on a city road. For this reason, riding a local Himachali bus is not for faint of heart. Especially when you can see it being driven on the absolute edge of a mountain road with a sheer drop of hundreds of meters just below your window. I saw a non-local close his eyes and clutch seat handle nervously on 2-3 such points. These buses also transfer mail for the post office and carry stuff for locals they just want delivered to someone in next village or further.

A cloudy night
A cloudy night

I reached Reckong Peo late evening and checked into a small hotel for the night. Story of Spiti in next part.

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