Pin Valley By WayFarer
As we walked up the stream towards Mudh village we could feel quite a few pair of eyes fixed on us. Couple of Indian trekkers in these areas accustomed to seeing Israelis and other globe trotters, generally does tend to raise eyebrows, but this was different. Conversations had stopped; a bunch of trekkers had stopped playing cards in the coffee shop to look out; children abandoned their football game and were talking excitedly. The remoteness of this village can not be the only reason.

Thoroughly drenched, we just wanted to get to a warm place though. Gatuk’s mother and sister were leading the way, while persistently offering to carry my backpack, and Nobjung was behind us. We entered from the ground floor and then climbed up a stair to the kitchen. The spitian kitchen, much like the ladakhi and infact the entire trans-Himalayan, is the centre of the house. The warmest, cleanest, most spacious and best equipped. This was a typical one. A large square room with the ‘chullah’ in the middle and a mud pipe rising from it to act as a chimney. One whole wall occupied by shelves with neatly arranged crockery and other utensils and an attached store room to keep all rations.

We sat on the seats made of thick blankets along two walls of the room. The chullah was continuously fed with fuel and was the source of all the warmth that was making us feel so much better. Warmth is precious for Spitians. Everything is designed to keep as much of it inside as possible. Mud walls, cattle on the ground floor and layers of hand woven blankets. This is what helps them survive the bitterly cold and long winters when the mercury drops to -25 degree C. Plus of course the ‘Arak’, alcohol brewed in house from Barley.

The view from the huge window in the kitchen was spectacular. The pastel shades of the mountains, the raging river, the rain, all combined to make it appear like a painting. We were offered some butter tea and then some more. Gatuk’s mother has been anxious about her son since last night as we were all supposed to reach here yesterday. She spotted the party from the window when they were not more than a speck.

We, along with gatuk the guide, kalu the cook, Lopzang the intern and 4 donkeys had started on the trek 4 days ago. Starting from the village of kafnu in Kinnaur, we had crossed over the Srikhand range via the Wang-khango pass and entered the Pin valley in Spiti. From the pine forest of kafnu, across the meadows of Phustriang, through the pastures of Kara and into the barren brown ness of Spiti we had walked. Oblivious of the unexpected, and until lately unheard of, rain which has been pouring down in Pin valley and other parts of Spiti, we enjoyed perfect weather and had climbed the 4865 m pass under a bright Sun.

Our first hurdle came in the way of the first of two streams one has to cross to reach Mudh. Usually a gentle stream, sometimes even a trickle, it had turned into a roaring torrent, blowing away the stone embankment which had never been tested before. After two hours of trying all means, only kalu amongst the three was able to cross it. He was sent to the village to get some help while we waited, still unaware of nature’s fury being enacted around us. In the last few days, flash floods had caused heavy landslides, swept away bridges and roads, stranded locals and tourists and even killed a few. When kalu didn’t return and threatening clouds started gathering over us we decided to pitch tent for the night.

It rained all night. Not heavy rain but persistent. We got up at 5 and with the help of gatuk and Lopzang managed to cross the stream, now flowing with slightly less vengeance. Took us almost an hour to do so and the effort drained us out. But we were finally on the other side and that felt good. Even the realization that two of our donkeys crossed and marched towards the village in the night, and we now have to share the load carried by them, didn’t dampen our spirits. Walking on the desolate trail in the bleak weather and amidst the gigantic scale of the Himalaya was an experience beyond words. The elements of nature conspiring to put things in their place. It was beautiful, scary, surreal.

As we approached Mudh we met kalu and a villager on their way to look for us. We were having serious concerns about the second stream and their sight was a relief. Kalu carried onwards to help his two friends while Nobjung accompanied us. The stream was wider and the water was very fast. But we had some experience by now and with the help of nobjung (who lent his back to my partner) we managed to cross it. The short but steep climb from there to Mudh was punishing.

Once everyone was seated comfortably in the kitchen kalu told us that the village and the entire Pin valley has been cut off from the main Spiti valley for almost 6 days. Many locals and some trekkers, including the group of Israelis, have been stranded. The nearest road head is 30kms away at Attargu, but bad weather and the risk involved has made them stay here rather than attempt walking. That was the only topic of discussion in the entire village. The weather patterns have been changing over the last few years they said. What was an exception is becoming more of a constant now. The high altitude desert is getting more and more rain every year. But the brittle terrain can’t take this and revolts ever so often. This time with much more fury. The ramifications of global warming, still a subject of academic debate and finger pointing, are very real here.

Rumours were getting wings. People were talking about how the mountain had collapsed or how the new bridge at guling was washed away within seconds. The best one was about a car that was apparently stranded between the villages of sagnam and tailing. Unable to go beyond either village, it has been ferrying passengers between these two villages. It had attained almost a mythical status.

After consulting with Kalu and Lopzang we decided to attempt walking to Attargu the next morning, provided the weather holds. We left early and reached our first stop, Tailing, in couple of hours. We stopped at Lopzang’s place for a brief while. Another round of the generous spitian hospitality and a change of clothes for Lopzang later, we were back on the road with Lopzang deciding to accompany us till Kaza. Just like that.

We were now in the land of the mythical Tata Sumo and my eyes were scanning the horizon for any sign of it. We had taken a short cut and hence were no longer on the road which was on the other side of the river. Crossed a bend and there it was. We all were shouting and pointing to the car, which was for real. It was on its way to tailing and by the time it comes back we would have anyways reached sagnam on foot. So we moved on, feeling lighter in our hearts and strangely very hopeful.

We had decided to cover the distance in two days and take a break at Guling, but we made good time and reached there by 2 p.m. The road until there was not bad with a few patches which have collapsed. The villagers told us that it’s a further 4 hour walk and the road gets quite bad. But some people have made their way across from Attargu this morning, so it can be negotiated. Well conditioned by now, have been walking for 5 days on that altitude, we were not tired. There was also a feeling of optimism amongst us and we decided to carry on.

As we moved along the road we came across landslide after landslide and gradually realized that the whole mountain side actually had collapsed on the road. We were now walking on the debris where the road used to be and the Pin river was flowing ever so menacingly close. Many a times we were on unstable land and could feel the ground move under our feet. No one was talking and we were moving silently in a single file. Even a small sound can cause landslides and the mountain was still very dangerous with small stones coming down ever so often. At one place there was a huge hole in the middle of the road and a raging stream of water coming from the hill was swirling and going straight in. We had to walk across it and could feel water gushing under our feet. It was truly nerve racking.

There were small parties of locals coming across from the other side, all walking purposefully. We kept asking how further to go and always got, ‘just a bit more’ as the answer. It seemed unending and we walked over 5 kms on the debris before we finally saw a lone bulldozer fighting its way across. He had been working since morning and has cleared a patch of only 100 meters or so. The worst seemed to be over and we rushed onwards. Finally around 6:30, after walking for 30kms and for 12 hours, we reached Attargu. Luckily we soon got a car which took us to Kaza and then to Demul, our next destination.

Pin valley is one of the remotest places in the Indian Himalaya. It is one of the most awe inspiring also. Its a place for realizations, positivism and gaining perspective on life. Its tantric sect of Buddhism with its wandering lamas, the Buzhen, enacting the teachings as they travel gives it uniqueness in the unique Spiti valley. This amazing culture has survived for centuries under a harsh terrain and climate. The simple and very hard working people here are at a loss to understand the changing patterns of the weather. They sometimes hold themselves responsible for making their god/mountain angry. We know they are wrong. Don’t we?

Note: Pin valley in Spiti can be reached from Kinnaur via the Pin-bhabha pass or from Kullu via the Pin-parvati pass.