A city dweller finds his soul in the arid starkness of Spiti, its elemental village life and the glistening Spiti river snaking down.
by karanbir singh bedi
after experiencing living with 25 million people in Mumbai where my career, social life and love life all unfolded within five square kilometres, I yearned for something at the opposite end of the spectrum and I found it in the Spiti valley. I was in search of a place I was far removed from my job, and in Spiti I didn’t have to go to a park to see nature. Rudyard Kipling called Spiti “a world within a world.” Having hitchhiked through South America and cycled through East Africa in the past, this was one trip I knew I wouldn’t regret.
Moutain biking may not be an easy feat, but it’s one that gives you a rush like no other sport. Lowering is a rock climbing technique to descend. If the belayer at the bottom gives you the wrong instructions, you’re basically screwed, with nowhere to go. In mountain biking, you are your own belayer and you are more often than not responsible for your own fall. The rider marks his own route with his eyes, guides his bike with his knees and shoulders and, if that doesn’t work, locks the brakes and hopes for the best. Unlike rock climbing, the mountain biker isn’t safely lowered with a secure rope. But if you do reach the bottom, with the bike and yourself in one piece, no one can take away the bragging rights you have earned—specially if you have just mountain biked down from the world’s highest village!
For the monks living at Komic Monastery, the road from Komic to Kaza is the only connection between the globe’s highest village and the outside world. After braving temperatures of –30° Celsius during winter, the monks, known to practise tantra and armed only with a shovel, start cleaning the road before the government’s bulldozers and snowcutters inch their way up to the isolated village. The melting ice mixed with loose mud makes the road down to Spiti valley from Komic an adrenaline junkie’s delight.
The descent from Komic is demanding and even the most experienced of downhill mountain bikers needs to remain extremely vigilant. A big part of my mind kept telling me that the risks were just not worth it. There was no chance of rescue and even if I did survive the fall, I would have no source of communication with the outside world. But I knew I was in no ordinary place and the rules required me to look at situations anew, with new eyes. I wanted to be the
first person that year to bike down the treacherous trails from Komic into the Spiti valley and, despite the odds, the reward was worth fighting for.
The myth-like status of the road, the ever-present danger, the dizzying elevation and the beautiful landscape meant that it really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was aware that I couldn’t allow testosterone to dictate and exceed riding ability. Downhill mountain biking is an extreme sport like bungee jumping and skydiving. The difference is that there is no expert guide controlling your propulsion and you are completely on your own.
We all have our own mountains to climb, but this one was my mountain to descend. With my legs wedged tight on the pedals, and the surging water threatening to tip the cycle over, I remember thinking that I had bitten off more than I could chew. On a trail no wider than a metre and with speeds touching more than 50 kmph, the moments of stress aren’t few and far between. But then sometimes better sense prevails: Keep your knees and shoulders loose, your eyes focussed on the track and maintain a rhythm.
The first section of the road down from Komic, before it is cleaned by a JCB, is the trickiest. No more than a trail, it’s here that the first 15 minutes feel like eternity as cold water pierces like needles through the feet. The gushing waters started to push the cycle closer to the edge and I needed to use all my strength to keep it on track in an inch-by-inch tug o’ war. The freezing wind had penetrated right through to my bones but my pulse raced and the adrenaline drowned the shivers that racked my body. To muster the courage to keep going down the trail, I had to employ the Jedi mind trick: Look where you want to go.
Speed is critical to safety in downhill mountain biking, but that doesn’t mean you can afford to take it easy. Small rocks and dips can throw you off the bike, but if you are reasonably quick, your momentum can carry you through some ditches. The rider, though, at all times needs to judge the difficulties.
As the trail became wider and merged with the road, I went around the first hairpin, only to look back to see a lava stream-like flow of earth and stone coming rumbling down the mountain. It was slow, but it was taking everything in its path into the river below. Fifty metres behind me, Mother Nature had taken back what was rightfully hers.
I reached speeds of over 75 kmph on the high-speed sections of the now smooth road, riding past fields of intrigued mountain goats. The last section of the road down from Komic into Kaza overlooks the valley. The giant rock mountains around could not have been carved by any mortal hand, only by the force of wind and water over millennia. In Spiti, you learn that there is more than one path into the future—a path based on the co-evolution between humans and Earth. At first the outsider sees only the hard life, but give yourself time and you’ll see the rare purity the people live with. For the adventure traveller, Spiti is virtually a natural theme park, with a seemingly endless array of activities to be enjoyed in the mountains.
It is a place to connect with nature, and here you see that if you let indigenous people live as they have for thousands of years, you have more to learn from them than they from you. This trans-Himalayan backcountry is one of the most stunning and rugged regions on the globe with a well-preserved Buddhist heritage. The villages in the valley typify the myriad aspects of Spitian culture with some ancient monasteries dating back more than 1,000 years.
Such is the energy of the place that you’ll feel strangely content. Maybe it is the architectural beauty of the mountains that lord over this high altitude wilderness. It’s a place which represents immeasurable freedom under an eternal sky.
Cycling is often the best way to see a place. Things go past you slower and you notice more as a result. You have all the time in the world to listen to the running commentary of your mind. Cycling past the villages, you cannot but notice how Spiti is steeped in spirituality. It is everywhere. In the prayer flags furiously fluttering in the breeze and in the wrinkles of old monks chanting as they go about their day. And if that doesn’t enchant you, Spiti’s landscape will. The river braids the valley’s vast plains and narrow gorges, glinting like a stained-glass masterpiece, crimson-hued at sunset. As a village approaches, the browns give way to rolling pea fields and apple trees. And not for the first time since I made it my home, Spiti reverberates through me. My muscles relax after a long day of riding, my breath slows down and inside me something unclenches. I felt true thrill as my bike gathered momentum, whizzing down barren slopes towards Dhankar. It’s difficult to imagine anything surviving here, and yet birds hop from rock to rock and lizards scuttle between hiding holes. The stunning scenery and floating clouds in an azure sky add to the out-of-the-world experience as one rides in Spiti. On the cycle one has time to notice the iron-rich mountains, their slopes textured like freshly brushed sand, with patches of red, orange and brown scree looking like ink blots across the spurs. At times, I have to remind myself it’s not an art display. Instead, it’s some of the most inhospitable mountain terrain in the world.
On uphill sections, the air becomes noticeably thinner. Let alone cycling, even drinking or eating is difficult. It seems the only air here is inside my tyres. From my trekking experience, I know that at a time like this a Spiti staple called tsampa, a savoury laddoo of sorts made with roasted barley flour and water, works better than Red Bull.
The light was fading by the time I got to Tabo. Adding another layer of clothing to my knackered body, I cycled past apricot trees, the local school and a café with a monk eating an apple pie. The monastery in Tabo, built in 996 AD, was closing by the time I got there, but a lama gestured for me to come in anyway. The main temple was shrouded in darkness and a silence so deeply penetrating that I walked on tiptoe.