This is a long post which has meandered in my mind for the past 6 weeks. I have pinned it down today, after the first winter shower last evening and after Biskit gave me an entire night of sleep. So settle down with a cuppa tea and come with me to a different mountain top.
Ranikhet, at the height of 6000 feet (1869 meters) is high enough to be termed a mountain top. At Kibber, while gulping a scarce bit of oxygen and potting what to say with the next breath, I realised that I had assumed 14,200 feet (4270 meters) to be equally high.. Thank God for being scatter-brained and not Googling Kibber before accepting this assignment! I would have chickened out before starting!!
It all started last winter, when there was a polite knock on a cold January evening. The dogs and me were all stuffed into different corners of the divan with a cosy quilt, Peppu’s hot water bottle and the TV remote. The door opened to this excited group of people 9 ( 6 women and 3 men) who had heard about me and wanted to know more. Winter homes are replete with knitted stuff…the throws, mufflers, shawls, dog coats–they were all over the place, and after getting a lecture on quality, the request to visit Kibber in Spiti happened.
The Snow Leopard Trust works with the 5 countries which contain 75% of the world’s snow leopard, a magnificent endangered big cat. In India, their partner, The Nature Conservation Foundation, a praiseworthy group of scientists and conservationists, work together in Spiti to create programs which benefit the local community, as well as conserve the snow leopard and its environment. All this knowledge entered my life AFTER I reached Spiti, spent hours talking to NCF staff, listened to their lively meetings with the villagers and lived in their cosy office building.
My trip was scheduled for late November 2015. Knitting lessons could happen only when the women can sit down to it. Farming, tending to their yaks, cows and asses, hosting tourists and mountain trekkers, storing food and fodder for the winter ….all this takes up every hour of every day from March to October. The rarified air makes every activity a challenge and all plans have to include hours of rest and recuperation ( for us visiting folks, not the hardy, lovely people of the valley!).
A list of essential packing stuff ( including baby wet-wipes, hot water bottle and dark glasses) was sent, and a very detailed schedule for travel, including days scheduled for rest and recuperation. ( That should have got me thinking, but no, the excitement blotted out all doubts and questions!).
A cheat sheet for knitting socks, diagrams for Kitchener stitch grafting, excel sheets of wool calculations ( two pairs of socks+ 2 cowls x 50 women= 4 kgs wool…bulky stuff!), my guide books and I was ready to see Kibber and Chichen, the two villages of Spiti.
15th November…and I was in the Volvo bus to Shimla, with my companion for the next 3 weeks, Radhika. A botanist and conservationist, she had taken her work to the next level by focussing on livelihood options for the women ( to make them less dependant on the land), teaching herself crochet from Youtube, teaching the women this craft ( along with charts and symbols) and producing lovely, quirky crochet bookmarks and bags. Soft spoken, self contained, ever smiling and attentive to every need which I could have, she was the perfect escort to this chatterbox. We hit off from the word go and it was like being with family.
Shimla and its sunny Ridge, the serpentine road through orange forests and steep mountain slopes to Rampur, a monstrous cattle fair on the banks of the Sutlej, the brooding mountains of Himachal Pradesh and the cold crisp air…they all flashed past in two days, with Spiti songs blasting on the jeep radio, and our two escorts, Taapka and Kalzaan singing along. (I am still singing those songs in Ranikhet…talk about catchy tunes).
The real trip started on 17th, when we drove 300 odd kms on NH 22, justifiably termed as one of the most treacherous roads on Earth. Mountains blasted to bare rock, landslides, frozen waterfalls, workers of the Border Roads Organisation working with explosive devices, remote controlled vehicles, labourers , furry dogs…all on the banks of roaring, swift Sutlej river.
This hydro-electric project, from Rampur to Basha ( no dream is too big–the byline for JSW) has blasted out Nature and its foliage to lay bare the grey rocks which signify progress and development and prosperity. Heart-rending, but lets not go there.
Let us reach Spiti with its dark blue skies, clear air, bare brown mountains and ice clad peaks. Spiti with its delicious apple orchards ( spillover from Kinnaur), Buddhist stupas, monastries, manas and prayer wheels. Spiti with its smiling people, momos and thupkas and fresh food. The Spiti river welcomed us at Parecheu.
A silvery blue ribbon of frothing water, she flowed beside us through Huring and Tabo . On one side, these bare mountains with red slopes of Ephedra berries and Seabuck thorn, food for the ungulates and the foxes. On the other side, the wall of Himalayan peaks..snow covered, stark and majestic…and in the middle , we travel on a dusty road with little villages and big prayer wheels, chubby cheeked kids and slinking dogs…we breath in that icy fresh air and I get breathlessly excited.
Kaza arrived and so did the realisation that I was breathless due of lack of oxygen in that rarified air, not excitement. Collapse was a foregone conclusion. Two days of rest in a comfortable home-stay, getting the hang of breathing shallow and sincere, settling down to the local food…and I was ready to enter Kibber.
Kibber was pretty, our little room with the bukhaara was pretty warm and cosy, the knitters were pretty, warm and welcoming and ready to pick my brains, pick up knitting skills and life skills and have a good time. We did have a good time.
Knitting needles clicking, attentive nods to my instructions, laughter and hugs, eyes misting over while listening to my stories of “life as a single parent/divorcee/accident victim/ amnesic”, and rounds of salty tea, sweet tea, herbal tea. I learnt about farming peas and barley, about the pain of sending little kids to boarding schools in distant Dharamshala, about Buddhism and local witch doctors and apostles.
The last evening was reserved for a party. Women came over with momos, meat stew , steamed and roasted bread, barley stew and a big bottle of gin. Their gentle dancing with an empty petrol can drumming out the rhythm, the songs and laughter, the warmth in the room and the smiles and affection–they will stay with me forever.
We left the next morning at dawn. It had snowed the entire night, and the journey till Tabo was like driving through a landscape of cold Black Forest pastry. Pure snow, chocolaty brown rocks and mountain slopes, icy rivers passed us in the grey morning light. The songs continued to blast along, Taapka recounted tales of chasing feral dogs, of election parties and grabbing free Wi-Fi, of visiting the plains in the winter. The NH 22 seemed less treacherous, the river felt more familiar and I wished that I could have stayed on.
I will visit Spiti again. I will practise breathing exercises and be fit enough to sit in a basket and pull myself across that deep ravine , visit Chechum village and spend a few days there. I will take a walk around Kibber village and visit my new friends. In that fortnight, not once did I have the energy to take a walk. It was all about our little warm room, the warm training hall, the visits to the little hut with the toilet, the kitchen and the mobile corner.
Fifteen days of forced captivity had never been so memorable. I was spoilt silly with hot delicious food, courtesy and care, hourly checks of my oxygen intake levels, chats with Radhika, and so much more.
A different place in the Himalayas, different people, different language….but the same simple affection, genuine respect and the same desire to knit good socks!!
Its a small world.