Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Kibber Village & Wildlife Sanctuary – Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh

On morning of 4th May 2014, leaving Kaza behind, we traveled further 7 km northwards to Kee village for our first sightseeing break.  At the fringes of Kee village, the single and two storied houses looked similar to almost everywhere we have seen in Spiti  Valley. The pyramidal external contours of eight storied kee monastery - the largest in Spiti valley at the altitude of 13,728’ elevation looked magnificent on a bright sunlit day. On the left side at a distance, the Spiti river ran its course through the valley. 

Kee Village & Gompa at higher elevation
Kee Gompa close-up Zoom shot

Barely to cover 1 km uphill ride up to Monastery, we had another break to see the monastery in side view.  The top three floors of Gompa are on flat land and the rest five floors are on hill slope. The backdrop of snow clad hills added dimensions to the landscape.  Further up we came to a flat land adjoining the Gompa complex from where sloping walkway seem to take one for a visit to Kee monastery. As Sachin trudged his way up, I got engrossed in a game of cricket being played by young lama students. ‘Cricket is religion in India even in this land of Buddhism at high elevation in Himalayas!’I mused.  

Kee Monastery in side elevation
Lama students & game of cricket
Sachin coming back from his Kee Gompa visit, mere 5 km drive takes us to the fringes of Kibber village - where we proposed to spend the night. Hotel Tashi Zom, a good looking hotel and located a walking distance of half a km from village, looked ideal. We got a good looking room at Rs. 800/- per day; however as expected during early summer, no piped water was available. The room looked reasonable in that context. As we were in process of transferring our luggage, driver Sohan exclaimed pointing out at a distance on vegetation less rugged terrain bang opposite to hotel. A group of Ibexes were poking into mud and walking across. The long distance Handycam shot taking recourse to high optical zoom and combined with digital zoom, was not to the best of clarity but nevertheless we could recognize the feature of the animals. It downed to us that we were in fringes of Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary.

Ibexes at Sanctuary
Hotel Tashi  Zom
Still a lot of time in our hands before sun god calls it a day, we were on the roads to visit Gete village situated at higher elevation at 14,000’ and is probably highest village in Asia connected by motorable road. Within no time we were above the snow line. Our first halt nearing Gete village was to get a bird’s eye view of a frozen pond with some wild horses grazing on scanty patch of grass. The snow cover was as far as eyes could go but surprisingly the road was clear of any impediments. Our next break was at the fringes of Gete village. At last we could see some villages leading Yaks for tilling plots as we have seen in many destinations in Spiti valley at this time of the year. The village appeared to be sparsely populated with hardy half a dozen houses.

Frozen pond & grazing horses
Gete village cottages

Retracing our path towards Kibber, it was again a rewarding experience of seeing some more wild life. It was driver as usual who spotted the Bharals also called Himalayan Blue Sheep on the hill slope. The half a dozen of docile looking animal appeared not to be perturbed by our presence, yet kept a watchful eye, preparing to flee in case of slightest provocation. This time we got a much closer view and it was a pleasure to shoot some video clips with good clarity. Incidentally Bharals are hunted by Snow Leopards for their own food.

Pair of Bharals
Kibber Zero Point

Returning in afternoon to hotel, feeling discomfort with cold winds blowing despite a bright sunlit day, sitting in canteen cum reception area with a cup of hot coffee was a solace. Planning for next day’s sightseeing in morning was the topic of discussion. While Sachin preferred a half day trek through Kibber Wild Life Sanctuary, I preferred a leisurely walk though the sprawling Kibber village getting to know what the village has to offer and also the activity of the villagers.

Norling Guest House
Road leading to Kibber village

On the morning of 5th May after a leisurely breakfast, I came on the road and barely walking 100 m, stood near the milestone indicating zero point of Kibber. Another signage indiated that the road project for this village is named as Chicham Kibber project. With full day at my disposal, a casual walk without unduly testing my lungs at the high altitude of nearly 14,000’ was considered wise. For the past few days we travelled through Kaza, Tabo,Dhankar and Pin valley where altitude ranged from 10,000’ to 12,000’ thus acclimatizing ourselves. The first important single storied good looking structure of significance I came across was Norling Guest House. As expected this place looked deserted in early summer when very few tourists arrive.  I took to sloping mud roads through the village going upwards.  The secondary school building loomed ahead with deserted adjoining open area. Being too early for the students to troop in for their classes, it was worthwhile climbing higher to see more of the village.

Norling Homestay
Way to Plots for tilling

I came across giant yaks being led by a lone villager to his agricultural plot; yet another villager led a bunch of cows and calves. With the advent of summer, the snow cover getting lifted and snow-melt moistening the soil, it was tilling time to grow some grains for the family. The beautiful looking two storied Norling Homestay looked more like a regular hotel or guesthouse.

Highest point on Kibber village
Chorten & Kibber Gompa

Setting my foot on highest point in the village, I come across a flat stretch of land with houses on one side and cultivation plot on the other. I was actually walking on a 3 ft. mud track in between two cultivation plots. At the termination of the track I got a view of Chorten and Kibber Gompa. In any Himalayan destination particularly high altitudes ( above 8,000’ ) it is unthinkable not see the temples of Buddhist religion.

Secondary School Building
An open air class

Going downhill on my way back to hotel, I was lucky to see the School premises humming with activity. The open space bereft of anything earlier had at least 10 black boards and white boards and chairs for teachers. Students in cluster sat on mat spread on floor waiting for teachers to arrive and some perhaps catching up on their homework. I patiently waited and savored the scenario. The chemistry class had the entire backboard filled with formulae of different chemical compounds. The English class had blackboard full of English words and their Hindi meanings.

Chemistry class in progress
View of school in progress

What struck me as unusual was lack of male students in the school. Are they doing manual work along with their family members on the cultivation plots? Or, are they being sent to better schools at Kaza or any other bigger townships of Himachal by well to do villagers? With these questions in my mind, I returned to hotel by noon to wait for my friend to return from his trek through Kibber wild life sanctuary.

*Ropeway for material transport
*Frozen waterfall - Kibber Sanctuary

Over our lunch in canteen, Sachin narrated his experience through sanctuary. In his words, “after requesting for a guide at the hotel, the manager arranged for one. The guide came to meet me in the evening and discussed about the trek and instructed the hotel about the food arrangements. Together we hit sanctuary trails the next and trekked for nearly four hours. Among the notable observations we made was a frozen waterfall, a non-operational watermill for grinding grains, a trolley way for transporting material between two cliffs. However people were traveling in the trolley at great risk. I had the visual of group of Ibexes from long distance. At few places we had to cross through wooden bridges. During a break, guide offered hot tea from his flask which was great in chilly high altitude region. Over a chat guide told me that in his younger days, he and his cousin used to collect fossils from the sanctuary and sell it to tourists. About the local traditions of the villagers he said, the eldest brother inherits the agricultural land.’

*A bridge to negotiate - Sanctuary
*A watermill non-functional

After lunch, with the chill winds blowing, it was terribly cold. We were looking forward to retreat back to Kaza as early as possible for a night halt. When we reached Kaza and decided to check in at the same hotel Snow Lion, the rates had gone up to R. 1000/- per day due to piped water supply having commenced in washroom. Next day our destination was Nako, which we bypassed while travelling through Kinnaur, keeping it for our return journey. Having had a great early summer trip of Spiti valley destinations, we realized Nako although situated in Kinnaur valley will offer no respite from biting cold being situated at 11,000’ elevation.

Important Info:
1. Best time to visit Kibber and Spiti valley in general would be period beginning mid-May, when piped water is available in washroom of the hotels and Homestays.
2. The three hotels / Homestay that author came across in Kibber: Hotel Tashi Zom, Norling Guest House and Norling Homestay.
3. It is better the take services of local guide while undertaking trekking through Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary

Readers who desire to see video clips of Kibber may take the following captioned link:

* Images by Sachin Vaidya