9/19/2008 to 9/28/2008 | Himachal Pradesh , India

Snowbound in Spiti

legacy gallery with captions

Day 1 (9/20/2009):

I stared out of the window adjacent to my bed.  The steady rain which had started early in the morning was now turning to fluttering white flakes of snow.  Looking across at the gray skies which now isolated the white flat roofed Tibetan buildings of Kibber from its mountain surroundings, my first thought was of relief that I had chosen yesterday to explore the surrounding countryside rather than today.  As it turned out I was luckier than I realized at that moment and had very good reason to feel a sense of relief at the now steadily falling snow.

The sound of a horn muffled by the weather announced the 7:30 departure of the daily bus to Kaza 20 km from and 600 m below Kibber on the banks of the Spiti River.  Having packed the night before, I walked down to the road to hail down the departing bus, along with Robin and Natalie, the English couple whom I had trekked with to Kibber, and a handful of others from the guesthouse at the edge of town where we stayed.  It would be the last such departure from Kibber for at least a week.

Kaza is the administrative center for the Spiti Valley region of Himachal Pradesh.  This wide beautiful and arid valley is nested between the Himalayan Range on the South, which separates it from the forested Hindu populated foothills, and the Zanskar range to the North dividing it geographically form the far more similar regions of Ladakh and Tibet.  While the region with its Tibetan style villages and monasteries amidst snow capped mountains and painted cliffs is beautiful, few people would attribute Kaza as adding to that beauty.  Kaza is an island of civilization in the remoteness of Spiti, a place to check your email, buy some chocolate, and move on to more idyllic surroundings.  If you told anyone who had been to the Spiti Valley that you spent a week in Kaza they might look at you with a perverse gaze wondering if you had some fascination with late 20th century Indian Provincial government architecture.  The concrete tin roofed structures that marred this no doubt once picturesque Tibetan town.

I had every intention of merely using Kaza as a pit stop to check my email and move on.  I sent an email informing my family I had survived the trek from Ladakh and was alive and well noting in my email that I was snowing in Kaza.  It was shortly after I sent that email that the power went out finally succumbing to the relentless snow fall.  I sat in the small restaurant across from the hotel where I was staying, with Robin and Natalie drinking chai and enjoying the mutton momos (meat filled dumplings) expertly prepared by the Nepali couple who ran the place.  Another couple (American guy & Israeli girl) traveling by motorcycle were also hold up in the restaurant entertained by Rob’s tales of African travel and hell razing on an Israeli kibbutz in the 80s.  Amidst it all the snow continued to fall.

The local way to deal with the cold and incessant snow fall seemed to numb the senses with that universal of all drugs, alcohol.  Groups of men were downing whiskey and the local homebrews with persistence nearly equal to that of the falling snow.  The sounds of intoxicated voices could be heard throughout the town into the evening.  Taking our cue from the locals we ventured out from the confines of the restaurant to find the “English Wine Shop.”   After an excessively long hunt through the snow covered streets it turned out to be right around the corner from the restaurant we were eating at.  The sale of alcohol is controlled in India, a semi-prohibition which is a denial of reality, the outlets authorized to distribute the elicit beverages are known ironically as English Wine Shops.  Of course this oxymoron of a title has no literal meaning and you would have about as much luck finding a bottle of English wine in an English wine shop as you would in a Parisian wine cellar.  Behind the counter of the tiny hole-in-the-wall shop lay shelves of whiskies and other spirits, no wine English or otherwise.  The most space was give to the plastic bottles full of the locally produced variety.  We opted for the more pliable less likely to leave you blind, beer.

Day 2 (9/21/2008):

I flipped the switch next to my bed looking at the bulb it was allegedly supposed to control with vain expectation.  The clicking sound of the switch completing the circuit produced no light.  The power was still out.  I managed to pull myself away from the warmth of my sleeping bag and made my way though the frigid room to the window, careful to not disturb the bucket I had place on the other side of the bed during the night to catch the water now dripping from the ceiling.  Still snowing.  The town was shrouded in white and the streets empty at this still early hour.  I retreated to my sleeping bag.

Hunger and boredom wrested me from the warmth of my sleeping bag for the second time, and I picked my way through the snow covered street to the restaurant opposite the hotel ordering two potato parathas (flat Indian bred filled with a thin layer of potato and spices), two onion garlic omelets, and a cup of chai (the sweet Indian milk tea) an order which would soon be shortened to the mere words “the same,” in later days.  Sitting in the restaurant staring out at the continuously falling snow it became clear I would be in Kaza for a while.  This would be no pit stop to check email en route to better things.  One of the more remote inhabited places in India there are only two roads into the high valley, one over two high passes from Manali the other through a gorge towards Shimla, repeatedly closed due to landslides in good weather much less the onslaught of precipitation it must now be receiving.

The snow stopped falling around 5 pm, some 40 hours after it first began.  A few hours later I ventured out with Robin and Natalie to grab some dinner.  The restaurant across the street was closed as were most in town.  We stopped in front of a small restaurant which had a light on and appeared to be open.  We had not yet taken a step towards the doorway when a man burst from it staggering to one side hunching over and proceeding to vomit over the newly fallen snow.  We looked at each other and decided to keep looking.  Unfortunately that seemed to be the only establishment in the vicinity open at the current hour.  We returned to the scene of the vomit, pulled the curtain covering the doorway aside and entered the restaurant.  It was packed, usually a sign of good cheap food but on this occasion I attributed the places popularity to its current monopoly on food and more significantly alcohol.  The only seats available were next to a couple of local gentleman staring at the empty bottle of whiskey between them as if hopping to refill it with their own cravings, like some sort of Tibetan Jedi mind trick.  I could tell by the dripping brown fluid on his sleeve that one was the figure who we had recently seen exiting the premises.  The man with the brown fluid sleeve babbled incoherently at us.  His friend made an attempt at translation, meat and whiskey, were the only words we could make out.  We said we’d start with the meat and ordered a couple of mutton curies.

Day 3 (9/22/2008):

Like ants after a rain the residents of Kaza and those forced in to residency like myself by the unrelenting snow, emerged from their snow covered houses and dark powerless hotel rooms to observe the effects of the previous days’ storms.  The morning was blinding after having not seen the sun in two days, as the morning rays burned through the thin air reflecting off the sea of white which engulfed the landscape.  Locals on roof tops shoveled feet of snow off the flat roofs entertaining themselves by taking as little care as possible to avoid, some might say actively targeting those walking the streets below, as they hurled shovel full after shovel full of snow upon the streets or any unfortunate passer by who got caught in the bombardment.  Exploring the snowbound streets of Kaza and the immediate vicinity it became very obvious we would be in Kaza for a while.

Among those stuck, in addition to the smattering of grimy backpackers, like myself, was a Belgian tour group staying at the fancy lodge at the edge of town.  They were attempting with the help of there embassy, travel insurance company, and tour operator (who had his office next to the hotel where we were staying and turned out to be our best source of information), to get a helicopter out.  I was wondering why the embassy and insurance company would bother with a group of snowed in tourist stuck in a resort.  I later found out they would have to bend the truth a bit.

After having a brief look around town and noting the number of downed power lines (we weren’t expecting power for a while) we settled down for another day of mutton momos and endless cups of tea, and a few beers.  The clear skies brought out a few of our fellow Kaza inmates out into the open, among them a group of Israelis who were already showing signs of desperation at getting out of town.  No doubt worried that they might have to cut out the Pushkar to catch up with the other Israelis in Goa and Hampi on the standard out of the Army Israeli tour of India. Desperation that would lead to a con even greater than the Belgians would pull off.  There was also an American girl there who was volunteering at a local organization.  Possibly the only one happy about the current situation as it gave her some English speaking company in a place where foreign tourists often breeze by as fast as they can read their email.

Day 4 (9/23/2008):

I don’t know who was more disappointed when the Belgian group’s helicopter failed to show up the locals who where expecting it to be the big entertainment of the day, or the Belgians who desperately wanted to get back to Delhi in time to catch their flight back to the land of good beer.

A trip down to the bus stand yielded little information about the status of the roads, with the bus stands unfortunate employee throwing up his hands claiming he didn’t know when the roads would be open and that he was under “public harassment.”  He didn’t bother to show up for work on subsequent days.

Day 5 (9/24/2008):

The Belgian’s got there helicopter.  At a 1000 euro a seat (paid by there travel insurance company) the Belgians lifted off heading off over the snow covered mountains to the freedom of Manali, leaving us lowly backpackers behind.  I would later find out the story that the Belgian government was hearing, from a Belgian woman who was also stuck in Kaza but not fortunate enough to be a member of the aforementioned tour group.  Apparently all of Belgium including the insurance company, Belgium government, readers of Belgium newspapers, and watchers of Belgium news, were under the impression that a group of Belgium tourist had been miraculously and heroically rescued after being trapped in a blizzard near the Indian Pakistan border.  Apparently conditions were grim with food supplies running out and the possible outbreak of violence between Indian and Pakistani troops an imminent threat.  On arriving home to Belgium this heroic group was met at the airport by television cameras before being ushered off to the local Military hospital for medical check ups after their traumatic journey home.  Somehow I’m guessing none of them suffered from too many physical aliments with the exception of a couple of cases of travelers diarrhea.  Being that I was staying in town and the resort was 2 km to the east of town, I was staying even closer to the Pakisani border yet for some reason the American Embassy didn’t send me a helicopter, maybe because they can read maps and knew that the Pakistani border was three full days of travel away, and it would be faster to get to Pakistan from Delhi than it would from Kaza.  They did have something about the lack of food, the restaurant across the street had run out of tomatoes to put in my morning omelet.  It was pretty rough starting the day with a potato paratha and omelet (with only onion and garlic).

While the Belgian’s were busy fabricating their amazing escape, people began to filter in to town from the outlining villages and regions with genuine tales of survival.  I was again thankful that I was not caught on the trek from Ladakh in the snow storm.  Two Germans we had passed on our way down to Kibber made it back into town extremely exhausted and grotesquely sunburned.  They were on an all inclusive guided trek heading the opposite direction towards Ladakh, fortunately they had ample fuel and warm clothing to ride out the storm which caught them below the Parang La.   They then struggled through waste high snow for two days before making it back to Kaza.

The snow had also melted to a point where it looked like a hike to the bluff above Kaza was possible.  Rob and I headed out in an attempt to gain a view over the snow covered valley.  The road that snaked its way up to the villages that dotted the plateau above the valley was in disrepair and unlikely to be open again until next spring at the earliest.  Avalanches, landslides, and boulders obstructed the muddy track.  We left the road and followed a small stream upwards before an hour struggle through thigh deep snow to reach the top of the bluff overlooking the valley.  The effort was well worth it and we were rewarded with uninterrupted views over the snow blanketed landscape.

By evening, the owner of the town’s internet café finally realized that he was losing a mint with a town full of captive foreigners, bored to tears, and desperate to get online.  He barrowed a generator to get his shop up and running and we finally had a connection with the outside world.

Day 7 (9/25/2008):

Relaxing from the previous day’s effort it was another day of tea drinking and mutton momos, listening to the tales from others who were now filtering in to town and were not as fortunate as us to be stuck in the relative metropolis of Kaza.  Another group of German trekkers were in the process of hiking to Chandra Tall a lake near the Kunzum La which separates the regions of Lahaul and Spiti.   Again on a organized trek, with pack animals, porters, and guides, they were hiking to the lake in the storm but there support team carrying all the tents and supplies decided the weather had gotten to bad to continue and turned back while the Germans and there guide kept going only to reach the lake and realize they had no supplies.  They had to trek through the snow back to the road and a small dahba (restaurant) at the Lahaul side of the Kunzum La (over 20 hours of walking in the snow).  At that dahba a small rock building with a surplus Indian Army parachute for a roof, 80 people were stranded; two bus loads of people, the German trekkers, and a few jeeps.  Many of the people on the bus were ill prepared for the cold, without sleeping bags expecting to sleep in hotels in Kaza or other major towns, and had to sleep on the bus in just the cloths they were wearing, as there was little room in the dahba.  An American guy I spoke to who was stuck there said fortunately the dahba had just been re-supplied with food, but they still only got two meals of rice and dal a day and three cups of chai (Indian milk tea).  He said chai time was his favorite time of day.  They were suck there five days before the Indian army rescued them and brought them to Kaza.  The rescue involved them hiking with all there things two hours up the pass through the snow to a point where they could be loaded on to Army trucks for the journey onward to Kaza.

Meanwhile the Israeli contingent was getting restless.  If the Belgian’s got a helicopter out they figured they should get one as well.  They were apparently calling their embassy with less than truthful descriptions of the situation in Kaza; a no doubt embellished report, which in addition to the tragic lack of tomatoes, likely also contained reports Islamic militants running about town crying out “death to Israel.”  In reality the closest thing to an Islamic militant in Buddhist Kaza was the Punjabi tailor who was too busing declaring jihad on the many holes in my year and a half old pants to bother with any Israelis.

In the evening to everyone’s surprise and to shouts of jubilation across the city the power came back on.  In the restaurant across the street we stared up with dumbfounded amazement at the illumined light bulb as if we were witnessing the Thomas Edison himself flip the switch on the world’s first electric light bulb.

Day 8 (9/26/2008) :

Rumor was that the road to Manali had almost been cleared and there was a small stretch of road still to be cleared.  A jeep load of people with international flights to catch set out with the intention of walking across the yet to be cleared stretch and being met on the other side by a jeep from Manali.  They reported back via email that they had reached Manali at midnight exhausted having set out before 5 am on a journey normally should take about 9-10 hours.  The stretch they walked took them over two hours through deep snow.  They didn’t recommend this option unless you really need to get out.  We decided to wait until a jeep arrived from Manali the ultimate proof that the road was indeed open.

Day 9 (9/27/2008):

A few more jeeps set out and the official conformation that the road to Manali was actually clear came when the first jeeps from Manali arrived in Kaza.  This was also the day the Israelis finally coned their embassy in to getting them a helicopter.  The big story in Israel was apparently how two of the Israeli’s risked their life to be true to their faith by refusing to be rescued on Shabbat, the Jewish holy day which orthodox Jews do not travel or work (instead they got a jeep out the next day with the rest of us).  The “English Wine Shop” still had a few beers left for celebration although the shelves were quite a bit barer than when the snow had started 9 days earlier.

Day 10 (9/28/2008):

We finally made it out of Kaza, the drive through snow covered Lahaul was as spectacular as it was long.  The road in best of times is considered extremely rough and now it was a mix of snow and mud making it a challenge for even the four wheel drive jeeps to navigate, but by evening we were safely in Manali, having finally escaped from snowbound Spiti.

1 comment to Snowbound in Spiti

  • Snowbound in Spiti is really awesome if I say because the way it’s written shows every detail to a reader and I really enjoyed the article. The customs and nature of people that you shared here is really enjoyable,If I got any chance to visit Spiti I’ll not miss the opportunity.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>