This article has appeared in the June issue of Terrascape
Travelling with a knowledgeable guide makes a trip worth it. And if the guide is someone like Chhering, you’ll cherish the trip all your life.
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of human beings, the inquisitive and the conformist. It is the inquisitive kinds who try new things; experiment, ask questions, make most discoveries, travel to unchartered territories and constantly venture into terrain, geographic and cephalic, where angels fear to tread. The conformist does none of the above. They travel only the well-trodden path, visit places where the food, the hotel, the weather, in fact nothing whatsoever has the potential of throwing up a surprise.
The world cannot exist without either. The inquisitive opens up the world, both physically and in terms of ideas, while the conformist fashions new territories – geographical and cerebral – habitable and familiar for others and prepares the ground for the next generation of the inquisitive to venture beyond what has by then become familiar.
It is a fact that I am not one of those who can be included among the ‘inquisitive’, not in the sense in which I use the term here. It is equally true that I do not want to belong to the category that I have chosen to describe as the ‘conformist’. Why I do not want to be placed in the second category will be revealed once you go through this episode placed below. Your perusal of the same would perhaps justify my reluctance to be counted among the second category.
I have had occasions to be on excursions with a bunch of conformists. I will not say that I welcomed such outings, but I must confess that I have been exposed to such life-changing experiences. I have had to suffer these situations because I was travelling with a group that consisted exclusively of people who only wanted to shop for things that everyone buys and to eat what they had eaten all their lives. This group of most reluctant tourists – they certainly were not travellers – put up, most grudgingly, with the sight-seeing that was part of the junket because everyone was expected to be on it.
The only time there was a sparkle in their eyes was when they entered a food court and discovered that tucked away in a nondescript corner was a shop that proudly displayed the ubiquitous dhaba menu that tries to arrogate to itself a pan-Indian identity but is, in fact, nothing grander than something that has emerged in the post mid-1950s in and around the newer parts of New Delhi and has then spread like a virus across limited parts of North India. I refer, of course, to the likes of chhole bhature, dal makhani, shahi paneer and that strange concoction called butter chicken.
I was with this group of worthies for a week a few years ago and even now I go all numb whenever I am reminded of those excruciating times. No matter how hard I try, deep down inside I have a feeling that I carry this mark on my forehead and that everyone can sense the ignominy that I have heaped upon the tribe of travellers and travel writers because of this one transgression.
Since then I have tried to stay away from touristy spots with the zeal of a new convert, and travel today with the conviction of a born again believer, to places where the inquisitive might go. This was easier said than done. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak and so I went in search of those brave souls that inhabit the cusp that separates the conformist from the inquisitive. I went seeking the denizens who might frequent this space. Having met a couple of them, the realisation dawned upon me that the world is not divided in two kinds of people but into three.
Between the inquisitive and the conformist lies a grey area that separates light from darkness, uncertainty from confidence, lush green from bare rock, exhausted plains from verdant forests, and the traditionally known from the newly discovered. It is this ‘no persons’ land that is occupied by those who familiarise the conformist with the world of the inquisitive. These are the people who make it possible for people like me to venture into regions that appear to us as unchartered territories, and help us experience something that has been the exclusive preserve of the pioneer, the discoverer, the inquisitive – namely, the joy of observing, sensing, hearing, perceiving something for the first time, the elusive thrill of discovery. And those that bring such unbridled joy to the inveterate traveller are the teachers, the unheralded, rarely acknowledged and never celebrated guides!
This piece is about one of these teachers, about Chhering, our guide in Spiti on our trip last May. This is our tribute to Chhering and through him to all those guides who have brought so much joy to so many countless hearts across millennia.
Though not educated beyond class 12, Chhering is extremely knowledgeable about the land where he lives. He knows the trees, the plants, the vegetation, the shrubs, the scrub and the grasses that grow in the cold desert. He knows about the local fauna, about the best time and best locations for bird watching and ditto for ibexes and the entire landscapes, about best routes, treks and the best time for venturing on those treks, the best eating joints, the best shoe maker, where to get the best hand-knitted woollen socks and the best tea mugs from China. But this is not all, he knows the people, the various ethnic communities and their rituals. He is extremely polite, soft spoken, helpful and sociable, but the most outstanding characteristic that, in my view, places him heads and shoulders above everyone else from among the suave and smooth-talking breed of professional guides that one comes across all over, is the fact, that if he does not know something, he is honest enough to tell you that he does not know and to say that he will try to find out and he does so.
I met Chhering more than a year-and-a-half after meeting Sunil Chauhan. Sunil is a Shimla man who has chosen to make his home in Spiti. We met several times and discussed the possibility of exploring the spiritual through journeys spanning the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayas. We tossed the idea several ways and each sitting ended with Sunil inviting me to Spiti, to Ecosphere, to experience the Trans-Himalayas and to see what Ecosphere has been trying to do in the field of responsible travel. He told me about how they are building solar passive structures, reviving local crafts, especially pottery and trying to save organic farming and saving traditional plants and herbs like black peas, wild onions, mint and garlic and a range of other unique medicinal plants from the threat of annihilation at the hands of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
All this was very exciting and finally Kausar and I decided to take a trip to Spiti on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of our wedding. The fact that the trip was going to be sponsored by our daughters had made it more than worthwhile even before we had started. Sunil made detailed plans, gave us all the numbers, the hotel bookings, both in writing and in discussions about what to expect and the care that needed to be taken while living and breathing in an oxygen-deficient atmosphere. Then a day before we were ready to drive off into the great unknown, he quietly dropped a bomb. He could not accompany us. He had to travel to Tamil Nadu for a conference and then on to Kerala for treatment of a knee he had fractured six months ago. But we were not to worry; he was sending Chhering to accompany us on the trip. Chhering was the best and would take care of everything.
Thus was our introduction to Chhering, we had not seen him, we did not know him and had no idea of what he was like. We were being asked to place our lives in his hands, or so it seemed at the time, and we did and don’t regret it.
Our first meeting with Chhering went thus. I asked him to tell us something about himself. It emerged that Chhering had been working with Ecosphere since 2005. After completing his studies in 1999, he had been drifting along in search of his calling. So in the interim period he ran a small roadside dhaba. He was the chef, the chef’s assistant, the bearer, the manager, the dishwasher and owner. It was hard work and not very satisfying, so he gave up the lease and began to work with construction labour. His work there was to train the workers on the construction sites. He later completed a basic training course imparted by the army and then joined Ecosphere in 2005.
Chhering recounted that during the first two years there weren’t too many tourists and it took a lot of effort on the part of Ecosphere and other tourist agencies to encourage people to visit. This then changed and today there is a regular flow of tourists. In 2009, Chhering was sent by Ecosphere for a mountaineering course at the Nehru Mountaineering Institute, Uttarkashi. He was also assigned by Ecosphere to do another two training courses – one in Wildlife First Aid at the HANIFL Centre at the Woodstock School, Mussoorie, and another short course in mountaineering conducted by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) USA, at Mussoorie.
He later travelled to Assam for exposure to a totally different environment from the one at Spiti and for skill enhancement. At Manas, he learnt the basics of how to handle tourists, what things to keep in mind when selecting a hotel and what are the basic facilities and comforts that are necessary and need to be provided for tourists in terms of information, transport, food, accommodation, etc.
Chhering told us that people do not come to Spiti for the same reason. Some come only for photography or making films, some come only to visit the monasteries, while others come only to search for the snow leopard, or other wildlife, or birds, or plants and herbs. So one had to be sensitive to what the visitor is interested in and if you want to be their guide, you need to know all that is there to know. You learn all the time. At times, he said, the visitor knew things that he did not. This happens because many of them are experts in one field or another. Also, there were things that guides may not notice because they are commonplace daily occurrences, but not for the visitor.
Citing Spiti as an example he said, Spiti has 13 kinds of mammals, large and small and more than 130 varieties of birds. Chhering knows all the mammals but he does not know all the birds. They often get bird watchers who have been studying the birds of the Trans-Himalayan region for years. Chhering recognises some of the birds, in fact most of them, but not all of them. He also does not know everything about the ones that he recognises and so there is a constant learning curve in the trade of guiding.
He told us about the wide variety of medicinal plants like ratanjot or arnebia, myricaria, caragana, seabuckthorn, willow, juniper and others. Most plants and trees in Spiti are thorny; this is a cold desert and shrubs and bushes have evolved techniques to conserve their leaves and retain moisture. Thus the leaves are shiny and narrow and many plants have thorns as protection from animals. Caragana, or ‘thama’ as it is called locally, is a very important plant. It is crucial for the survival of the ibex and the blue sheep. Caragana is thorny, so domestic animals stay away from it because their throats and tongues are soft, but caragana gives protection to other plants and both ibex and blue sheep, who can tackle the thorns, are able to survive on them. As summer gives way to winter, caragana begins to turn dark and becomes almost totally black. This is yet another evolutionary trick the plant resorts to. During winters, black absorbs heat faster than lighter colours and so the snow melts rapidly from the branches of caragana and that helps the animals during the long winter.
Chhering then told us about the religious practices of the region and about the five major monasteries in Spiti. We visited four of them but did not talk much on the sites because I was busy photographing, not only the monasteries but also the landscape all around, since most monasteries give you breath-taking views of the surroundings.
So as we sat down before starting our return journey at Kaza, Chhering narrated to us the history of the monasteries at Dhankar, Tabo, Kungri, Kee and Komik. He told us that Tabo is believed to be the oldest though Dhankar is perhaps the oldest. Dhankar, he told us, had lost a lot of its old records because of lack of protection against rain and snow and how old paintings on one-and-a-half wall were almost destroyed. Tabo, that has records going back to more than a thousand years, now lays claims to be the oldest. The other three are Kungri, Kee and Komik. Komik is one of the highest monasteries in the world and is located above Kaza. We could not visit Komik because the road was badly damaged, and both Kausar and I had nose bleeds. So Chhering suggested that we drop Komik from the itinerary. So Komik remains to be seen and that is reason enough to go back.
During our discussions, Cherring told us about the three major Buddhist sects in Spiti – the Gelugkpa, Sakya and Nigyima. He told us how to recognise the various sects. While the monks of the Gelugkpa sect wear Yellow hats, the Sakya monks wear Red Hats. Gelugkpa is the newest sect, while Nigyima is the oldest. While on the subject of hats, he informed us that every monk does not get the hat; novice monks certainly can’t wear these hats. The hats have to be earned; one needed to work, study, meditate and learn all the arts that a monk has to learn before one acquired the status to wear a hat. Cherring informed us there was another sect – Kagyudpa – but it has no presence in Spiti.
We had just returned from a visit to the Kee Monastery and I had been photographing the vast expanses of the river bed and the fields that were being readied for planting for the short summer season. After returning to the hotel, I decided to catch up on the information on the monastery. Chhering told us that Kee is the largest monastery from the point of view of the number of lamas. Almost 350 lamas reside there, all of whom though are not present at the same time. Some travel out for further studies and return only at the time of special ceremonies.
Every monastery organises a masked dance ceremony and each is known by a different name. The Komik Monastery, for example, organises a major ceremony called Jeejay in October. Tabo has a major ceremony once every three years, called the Chahar. Kungri has an annual ceremony called the Chham festival. Dhankar has the Gyotor festival. When we asked for the dates of these ceremonies, Cherring told us that since the monasteries follow the lunar calendar, exact dates with reference to the Gregorian calendar were not always very accurate. The Buddha Jayanti festival, that was earlier probably observed by each monastery with villages owing allegiance to the monastery, has now become a big event and monasteries take turns in observing it. The date is now fixed, only the monastery changes as the festival rotates between the five monasteries
We had reached Spiti right at the beginning of the tourist season, in fact about 10 days before it started. The greatest advantage was that we were not competing with ‘tourists’, but realised that early birds are not always lucky. Though we got our rooms at off-season rates, we had to miss the yak safari. We had arrived early and the yaks were yet to return from their winter sojourn in the wild. Had they arrived we could have gone up to Balangri, located at almost 5,000 metres. Cherring informed us that from Balangri one gets a stunning view of all the three valleys of Spiti – the Lingti, the Pin and the Spiti – and a bird’s eye view of 18 villages scattered through these three valleys. Keeping in mind the condition of our noses, we also had to give Dhankar Lake and Demul village a miss. Both these are above 4,000 metres.
After our return from Spiti, I thought to myself if two individuals who have not looked after themselves can go to Spiti and come back alive without any serious mishap, there was no reason for us to not go and try our luck at Leh. Having done that, I am now planning a quick trip to Spiti to visit all the places that we missed last time. I want to time it with the return of the yaks from their winter vacation. I guess this time round we will get to see the three valleys and the 18 villages from Balangri.
I have since then met Sunil and Cherring a couple of times when they come to Delhi. Chherring continues to add to his accomplishments – he has learnt more about the history of traditional musical intruments of Spiti – and has learnt to play the local guitar. Ecosphere continues to support Chhering in his quest to become a perfect guide. So next time you go to Spiti, go look for Chhering and Ecosphere, they will show you Spiti as it needs to be seen.