At 12,000ft, we are talking lifestyles. At that height, an overview is possibly easy. The elderly uncle of Sonam Gialson of Tara Guest House, Mudh village, isn’t convinced though, about the perils of life in the summer-baked Gangetic plains. After throwing open his home to us because his nephew’s inn is full, in a gesture characteristic of mountain hospitality, he runs down high-altitude living: too much snow for too long, not enough firewood, all ice and little water, communication breakdowns, and so on.

The hills have eyes: (clockwise from top left) Children outside the Lalung Monastery; the Buddha at Langza; and on the bus to Kaza, Spiti’s ‘single-bank, single-petrol pump’ town. Photographs by Shamik Bag

“But do you get these here?" I ask, showing him the fading remains of a red rash under the collar, carried over from sweaty Kolkata. “These…," he wonders for a while, inspecting, intrigued. “na na, yeh nahi hota (no, no, this doesn’t happen)" I smile, for the case against the scorching plains has just been sealed by prickly heat.

It’s summer here too and Mudh, in the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh’s Pin Valley National Park, is lovely. The sun is up and we are sipping tea; raucous chicken families run out of their coops, corn stacks dry in a corner. Uncle’s wife, who communicates with us through smiles and gestures, has left to work on the family’s potato field, taking with her two grandchildren, a shovel and a tiffin box. As the sun thaws the frost, they walked quietly into the snow-fringed green valley after crossing two raging streams, including one coloured rust by mineral deposits, and past the isolated Buddhist hermitage of women monks.

Two days earlier, we had travelled on the same bus as the monks. The bus originated in Kaza, the subdivisional headquarters of Spiti Valley and a single-bank, single-petrol pump town. The journey took us along the graceful Spiti river, gushing its way into the mighty Sutlej, before taking a right turn towards Pin Valley and Mudh, where the road ends. It’s a walk from there, into the folds of the wild Himalayas.

Dressed in long maroon robes, with their close-cropped hair peeping through colourful scarves, the monks had boarded the bus from the nondescript Kungri Monastery. As we progressed precariously past snowfields and the seemingly hand-painted Sagnam village, the women floated into a prayer song. For the duration of the song, the journey seemed elevated to an even higher plane.

“You know, na, about the Kungri Monastery?" Kaul, one of four spirited Delhi college goers, who had hiked and biked across the valley, had asked me at Tabo, one of our first stops. “Monks there are allowed to marry and may even offer you a drink," he enlightened us amid much incredulity. Two days later, in the bus resonating with soft choral singing, I thought Kungri Monastery sounded good anyway.

As night fell on Tabo, the mesmerizing play of light and shadow on the vast naked mountainscape gave way to an overwhelming calm. While we sat huddled in the gnawing cold around a flickering lantern, Sonam Tsering, the owner of Kunzom Top Restaurant and a passionate son of the soil, introduced us to the bagli—fried momos with spinach and cottage cheese stuffing, served with mint sauce—and tentatively brought out his collection of local and Tibetan folk instruments: the three-stringed khapo and danyen and the violin-like piyang. As the monks of the ancient Tabo Monastery walked back to their quarters, Tsering sang for Spiti, the mellow mountain melody pulling a veil over the eerily silent night.

Later, we retired to the Tabo Monastery Guest House, which assures a warm bed in the cold desert clime. The next morning, as we watched, the monks resumed the rhythm of their daily life within the mud-walled campus of the monastery, among the world’s oldest at 1,014 years, famed for its priceless repository of paintings, documents and murals of the same vintage.

The unfussy, unchanging nature of Buddhist life in Spiti is also apparent in a photo plate in Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter’s scholarly booklet Tabo Monastery: Art and History. It shows an all-important village council meeting—involving about a dozen men who would decide on the Kalachakra ceremony held in 1996 in Tabo by the Dalai Lama—being held in the humble shade of three apple trees. In the serene inner chambers of the monastery, stunningly bathed in the muted natural light filtering in from the skylights, young monks display the same guilelessness while describing millennium-old wall paintings to visitors fumbling between Manjushree and Maitreyi, Buddha and Bodhisattva.

“Respect. It’s all about respect here," Angel, the dreadlocked, sharp-goateed owner of Tabo’s Angel Café—which lists Double Power Omelette on the menu— had said, softening the last “t" to give the word a Caribbean-like lilt. After three days in Tabo, Angel accompanies us to the desolate bus stand where we wait for one of the two daily buses that service the route. Neither turns up, so we haul ourselves on to a passing lorry and Angel, heading to Kaza—a couple of hours’ drive away—for work comes along.

He reaches Kaza two days later. Having decided, midway through the lorry journey, to guide us, Angel leads us on a short but gruelling trek through the barren, two-toned trans-Himalayan landscape to the remote villages of Lalung and Dhankar, both home to primeval beauty and ancient Buddhist monasteries that cry out for funds and protection from the elements.

From Ki to Kibber, Langza to Lalung, each road bend throws up yet another spectacle in rock and ice sculpted by the elements. Spiti is nature’s grand art installation.

When he doesn’t talk about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and reggae, Angel plays Marley, Tosh and reggae on his portable sound system. And when our four-day-old friend leaves, he accepts nothing more than a warm hug. Fists boxing the Spiti air, he takes leave, saying, “Respect, respect."

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