Tabo: The mountains are my god

View more photos from Kalpa to Tabo, Tabo, Tabo to Kaza and the towns of Kaza, Kibber and Kee monastery.

Our speed on this journey was woefully slow thanks to the poor condition of the roads. If we saw that a town was 60 kilometres away we thought “that should only take about three hours”. As we crawled higher into the rocky mountains we saw the sobering sight of female road gangs working on the roads, clearing rubble and laying tar on the few bitumen stretches. A lot of the women came from Nepal to work in the summer and many others were lower caste Indian women, there with their babies who they nursed during breaks. They all wore kerchiefs over their face to keep out the relentless dust from the traffic. The sun was baking with very little shade apart from makeshift camps. One of the saddest sights in India was seeing one of these women breast-feeding her baby next to the road and gently stroking its cheek as the traffic trundled by, raising dust.

The rough condition of the roads extends to the bridges. While there are some new ones, most of them are single lane timber numbers which clatter and crack as you drive over them – sounding like they will send you plunging into the rushing river at any moment. One bridge had a guard to prevent more than one truck going on at a time, and almost all had Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags strung along their beams. This doesn’t inspire confidence but they all held up for one more load when we crossed over them.

There is nothing like a big whack of nature to put you in your place. Some people like to contemplate the endless ocean, the rolling sands of desert or the distant stars on a clear night. I prefer mountains surging out of the earth to give me some perspective. They make the horizon smaller but tower above you magisterially exposing the rock sediments that have formed over millennia. The valleys hewn by glaciers and rivers are another reminder of the age of the earth, which has come into this shape over timescales that stop your breath when you think of it.

One stretch of road on the hillside wound back on itself so many times, and was so steep, that looking back on it was like an optical illusion, some kind of M. C. Escher sketch where it seems that nothing should connect but somehow it still does. The landscape was entirely rocky by this stage, there were even patches of ground that appeared as though boulders were being grown on a farm, yet even here we kept passing orchards by the river, carefully tended to grow beans and apples even in this high altitude desert.

We took a detour to a pretty little village off the main road which houses a 500 year old monk mummy. It was found during excavations for the road, the crew claiming that it spurted blood when they hit it with shovels. It is now kept in a glass case with a monk’s habit on and is thought to be a lama.

We stayed the night at Tabo which has an amazing 1000+ year old monastery made from mud. Inside its rooms, the walls and ceiling are completely covered with colourful thangkas images of Buddha and the Tibetan gods. The designs look very fresh and contemporary but no photos are allowed so they will have to live in our memory.  The rooms are kept quite dark to prevent them from fading. Sarah asked our guide, Anjaan, to explain a bit more about the Buddhist Gods but we got about as far as past, present and future Buddha, medicine Buddha, bodhisattvas and demons before realising we weren’t going to reach enlightenment in a five minute conversation. Although Buddhism has the aura of simplicity in the West, in practice the Tibetan brand has thousands of Gods and stories, temples and worship rituals, and fearsome protectors, whereas we are more likely to think of meditation and peacefulness. The Buddhists here also eat meat regularly. They say they need it because of the cold and the harsh climate. The Dalai Lama strongly discourages the practice but has accepted that locals persist, with their own interpretation of the scriptures – it’s ok to eat meat as long as they don’t do the killing (i.e. buy it from non-Buddhist butchers / farmers). We were surprised to see a young kid launch a decent kick at a baby donkey which seemed incongruous with loving kindness to all sentient beings, but maybe that says more about little boys than Buddhism.

We did a tour of monasteries in the area which all have more amazing settings than buildings. The monastery is high on a precipice, the kind of place that would have a castle in other parts of the world. The view is unreal. A valley with an opal blue river running through it is surrounded by high mountains. The second highest mountain in Spiti is 6500 metres and the town of Tabo is nearly 4000 metres high. The altitude makes the sky a deep rich blue and the mountains look like rocky cutouts against it, some with a sprinkling of snow. The monastery has a nice sun room that Sarah was quite taken with, just a clear sheet of plastic over the small inner courtyard at the top of some rickety stairs. The shrine is very simple with a medium sized statue of the Buddha which receives offerings.

Down another valley two rivers meet. One river is light blue in colour and it is joined by a dark grey river full of mud and silt from the mountains. They don’t mix immediately but travel next to each other for some way, half the river blue and the other half this dark grey mixture until eventually they combine and rush into another larger river further down the valley. If you follow the dual river you reach another monastery. Most of the monks were five hours away playing a cricket tournament on the day we visited, too far for us to travel and see them – more’s the pity. This monastery is also surrounded by beautiful mountains and contains the scriptures in scroll form neatly packed against the wall.

The last monastery we looked at was called Kee and was perhaps the most spectacular setting of all, located the furthest north in the Spiti valley. The monks were having their service and all chanting in the main hall as we took our tour past them. The young boys stared at us with curiosity and didn’t seem to be very deep in meditation but everyone chanted all the same. On top of the prayer hall you can walk on the roof, which was an incredible setting with mountains all around, some solar panels (which makes a lot of sense), and some totems for which receive offerings in the event of a bad storm. The Dalai Lama stayed here and his bed is kept neat and ready should he return.

After the monastery we went to Kibber, one of the highest villages in Asia at 4300 metres high. You really feel the effects of the altitude up here and although we had been taking diamox and acclimatising slowly it was still an effort to walk around. The village has prettily-coloured houses with solar panels, and two stories to house the family and its livestock in winter. The buildings have flat roofs that locals have to shovel snow off in winter. When I asked why they didn’t build sloping roofs that you see on buildings in other alpine areas our guide said that then they wouldn’t have anywhere to store their hay. Seems like an odd reason to me but I guess it keeps them busy. They had baby yaks in a field grazing with the cows. They seem like peaceful creatures but they have to be looked after so that the snow leopards don’t get them.

View more photos from Kalpa to TaboTaboTabo to Kaza and the towns of Kaza, Kibber and Kee monastery.

1 comment to Tabo: The mountains are my god

  • Richard

    Incredible scenery. Love that Mummy too. The little Buddhist monk kids we saw in Gansu spent a lot of time in net cafes playing Counterstrike. Must be a kid thing…

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