Bidding farewell to Himachal’s best book café!

Location, book and shawl courtesy: Illiterati Cafe Photo Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel
Location, book and shawl courtesy: Illiterati Cafe
Photo Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel

Edit: Even while the previous owner of the cafe has left, the cafe was left in good hands, and continues being the lovely, cozy and all-welcoming place it originally was! Yes, it is very much operational, and kicking ass no less! 

_
Writing about something you’ve grown very very fond of, the fondness almost bordering addiction, is the most difficult thing to do, well almost. As I sit in my verandah, trying to write a goodbye ode to my favorite café … all I can really think about is how I wish I could be writing this at Illiterati, with belgian fries and mausambi juice for company.

Why am I writing about some place that has already shut down? What’s the point in praising a place no one can visit anymore? Well, something this beautiful deserves to be preserved for posterity, even if only with words and pictures. I want to capture and save a part of this café on my blog, so that ten years down the line, when I’m old and probably bored with my existence, I can look back and remember how much joy this little place in the mountains gave me, pick up the phone and make a trip to meet the owner, wherever he will be then.

Have you been to Illiterati? If you have, you already know what I’m going on about. I’ve spent months nestled in the same couch of the café, just sitting and noticing reactions of people who walk in for the first time, and it almost always would be “WOW”. It’s hard to not love a place that has books for walls, an unrestricted view of the mighty Dhauladhars, soulful live piano music in the background, and amazingly weird people around. Oh, and not to mention, a delightfully mouth-watering fare on the menu! But what beats it all, is the soul of this place, so pure, positive and giving, where everyone finds a reason to stay, to call it their own, to never wanna leave. With Yannick playing the piano, Aymon lost in his own world dancing around the place, Devanjali jumping from one table to the other, Manan secretly praying that someone orders a Belgian Waffle, Julian feeling too important for the mundane busy with his iPad, Lekmon and Rikten chattering away in Tibetan, Atisha browsing weird Youtube videos to complement his weirdness, Ten Tsering pestering him to play Maar Daala, Nalin trying to find something he lost last night (again), Lakhan in the kitchen asking for his special chai, Abhinav walking in with a bunch of tired travelers from his photowalk, Elena going through the coffee-table books to find something new to sketch, Mudita complaining about her soup while Manu’s thinking about the next poker night – oh, they met at this place like so many other couples, Dolker reaching in style on her Enfield, Divya reading the same book about plants – AGAIN, the kids loitering around trying to get their hands on any phone that has Subway Surfer… and Fondue, well Fondue just being Fondue – there really was no good explanation for whatever went on here, and still there always was, at least for me! This is the place that made Himachal so beautiful for me, and for many I know. It was where everyone was welcomed back, and where everyone met to say their goodbyes. It has now been no more than 4 days since the café shut shop. Of course there will be another café here soon, maybe the same café with a different owner, maybe a different café altogether, but it is hard to imagine being the same ever again.

Illiterati - Books, books, and books, oh and coffee.
Illiterati – Books, books, and books.

 

A regular evening scene at Illiterati. Picture Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel
Oh, and conversations over coffee. Picture Courtesy: Abhinav Chandel

 

One of the many impromptu jam sessions. Yannick on the flute for a change.
One of the many impromptu jam sessions. Yannick, the cafe owner, on the flute for a change.

 

The worlds most serious comic reader.
Will miss reading comic books so seriously.

 

Cafe with a view.
Cafe with a view.

 

Cafe with a view - part 2
Cafe with a view – part 2

s

No explanation for randomness
No explanation for randomness

 

The worlds best work-station!
The worlds best work-station!

 

The one thing I can keep with me. Illiterati's plantable bookmarks made of seed paper!
The one thing I can keep with me. Illiterati’s plantable bookmarks made of seed paper!

 

The life and joy of the place!
This! How can this ever be replicated.

 

They say it’s not really a goodbye until it’s a goodbye. Unfortunately in this case, it already is!

STORIES FROM SPITI – Lama Kanpo: The Gyu Mummy – TRAVEL PHOTO ESSAY

The view from the starting point of the Gyu Village in Spiti. You can see the yellow speck on the mountain where the Gyu Mummy resides.
The view from the Gyu Village in Spiti. You can see the yellow speck on the mountain where the Mummy resides.

 

The quaint little village of Gyu does not attract many tourists. Being the village closest to the India-Tibet border, foreigners require a special inner-line permit to visit Gyu. Should you take the effort? Definitely, because this village is home not just to the living, for eere resides, since centuries, Lama Kanpo aka The Gyu Mummy, which brings with it a very interesting story.

The residence / temple of Lama Kanpo - The Gyu Mummy

The residence / temple of Lama Kanpo – The Gyu Mummy

 

So let me take you through my journey to Gyu…

Probably the most exciting part of my hitch-hiking experience in Spiti – my journey from Tabo to Gyu in a truck, and back on an Indian Army water tanker!

I woke up at the crack of dawn, I was out by the main street at 5 AM, and it was deserted barring the one truck that was just getting ready to leave. A little hesitant at first, the Alia fever in me caught up quite easily, and I ran to get what I had, and well – luckily for me they were heading in the right direction. The fact that the truck driver is still stalking me even after almost a month since that ride, is a story for another time.

My Highway experience, tinted brown when the truck driver started stalking me!
My Highway experience, tinted brown when the truck driver started stalking me!

 

The truck dropped me off at the junction marking the start of Gyu village, where stood before me the haunting 8 km uphill walk to the village.

The 8 km walk to Gyu, although tiresome, is insanely beautiful!
The 8 km walk to Gyu, although tiresome, is insanely beautiful!

 

Touch-base: the Indian-Tibet Border Police camp, where the cops directed me to the trek route to the Gyu Mummy! And what a beautiful walk this was.

While you can directly take your car / jeep right to the doorstep of the Gyu Mummy, walking up from the ITBP post is another alternative. Hardly a 10 minute walk, mainly steps.
While you can directly take your car / jeep right to the doorstep of the Gyu Mummy, walking up from the ITBP post is another alternative. Hardly a 10 minute walk, mainly steps.

 

I didn’t know what to expect from this visit, I just knew my trip would’ve been incomplete if I didn’t. What should you expect from a mummy? Maybe a dark dingy room that smells of the dead? But I was surprised at entering the room, the sight of the mummy was anything but creepy. The room was very nicely maintained, well lit with butter lamps lining up the walls and incense sticks working their magic. However, you won’t notice any of this at first, because the moment you step inside, the first thing that greets you is a withered cadaver, neatly tucked inside a glass case.

Lama Kanpo - The Gyu Mummy, Spiti
Lama Kanpo – The Gyu Mummy, Spiti

 

A shriveled torso with blackened skin, said to still be in meditating position though you can’t see the whole body as it’s covered with yellow silk, hollow eye sockets that hauntingly stare back at you, and one visible hand, with bony fingers curled as if rolling invisible prayer beads of a rosary.

The skin blackened over time and exposure to burning candles, the eye sockets of the Gyu Mummy stare back at you.
The skin blackened over time and exposure to burning lamps.

 

Fingers curled around invisible prayer beads.
Fingers of the corpse curled around invisible prayer beads.

 

I stopped over at the ITBP (India-Tibet Border Police) camp later, where the officer in charge – Nanak Chand Thakur went all out with his hospitality, too surprised to meet an Indian girl traveling alone! We sat together for almost an hour, he sipping chai and me having aaloo gobhi and paranthas very graciously cooked by the jawans, when he started reciting local tales about the mummy – some facts, some fiction.

So as the story goes, back in 1976 during an excavation project by the ITBP, an axe hit something that wasn’t earth and drew out blood. On further digging, the body of a Lama was discovered, still sitting in meditation position, in monk clothes, long hair and nails.

The site where Lama Kanpo's corpse was found by ITBP, under the white chhorten you see in the distance. These have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1975.
The site where Lama Kanpo’s corpse was found by ITBP, under the white chhorten you see in the distance. These have been reconstructed after the earthquake of 1975.

 

Guessing from the maroon color of robes and yellow belt that was found on the body during excavation, it is believed that Lama Kanpo was a monk of the Gelugpa order. Recent reports have confirmed that the body is easily 400-500 years old. The mummy was shifted to the newly constructed temple later in 2006, where it now peacefully meditates, albeit a few noisy visitors with cameras, some even trying to take selfies 🙂

Meditate in Peace, Lama Kanpo!
Meditate in peace, Lama Kanpo!

Stories from Spiti – Chai at Key Monastery! – Travel Photo Essay

View from our lodging facility at Key Monastery.
View from our room at Key Monastery. Which, by the way, is also the best place for star-gazing!

The one place that single-handedly kept Spiti on the very top of my travel bucketlist! This will probably sound silly, but then most of the things I end up doing are silly so what the hell. Remember Highway, the scene where Alia is sitting and staring at the mountains on the other side. “Aisa lag raha hai ki woh mujhe bula raha hai, kaash hum waha jaa paate”, and Randeep Hooda very lovingly agrees to take her across. I’m not talking about those mountains, but the monastery in the background – that’s Key Monastery.

"Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?" Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.
“Tumhe pahad pasand hia ya samundar?” Alia Bhatt and Randeep Huda at Key Monastery in the movie Highway.

I have been lusting over that sight ever since I saw the movie, and I had never imagined that the actual place could be thousand times more spectacular!

The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.
The majestic Key Monastery in Spiti Valley that reminds me of a white balloon afloat a high mountain.

Key Gonpa!!! The crown jewel of my entire trip to Spiti. I ended up staying here more than at any other village, and given a choice I wouldn’t have ever left! Technically, all the monasteries in Spiti have lodging facilities for travelers, but none come even close to the experience you’ll have at Key. For one thing, at Key you’re not put up in a guest house, you live in the existing Lama quarters, at Rs. 200 per night, including meals that will be cooked by and for the resident monks. The kitchen at Key Monastery beats every café, anywhere in the world, because here’s where conversations flow over endless cups of butter tea. When I visited, the Lama incharge of the cooking duties was Kunga ji, and he is the most adorable Lama I have ever met. Always smiling, always up for a chat (over a cup of chai, mind you!).

Time: 5:30 AM Place: Kitchen - Key Monastery. Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!
Time: 5:30 AM
Place: Kitchen – Key Monastery.
Pic: Lama Kunga preparing chai for us, always the first to be up and going!

The evening I reached the monastery, I entered the kitchen to try and meet someone who could tell me what are the lodging facilities, and I met Kunga ji running around, serving all the monks. It was only 7 pm, but that’s regular dinner time at the monastery, and the tiny kitchen was bustling with more monks than it could accommodate, and one tiny traveler who looked utterly lost. Kunga ji noticed this and immediately came over with a plate of piping hot rajma and tingmu (Tibetan bread), “baitho baitho, pehle khana khao (sit sit, eat first!)”, and immediately 2 monks got up from the only bench in the kitchen to offer me a seat. I resisted,  but I was overpowered by 5-6 monks “aap humare guest hai, aap baitho! (You are our guest, you should have a seat!”).

And I knew in that moment that this place would steal a piece of my heart forever.

The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.
The bus to Key Monastery leaves from Kaza everyday at 5 PM, and returns the next morning at 9 AM.

 

School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!
School-time for the young monks at Key Gonpa!

 

A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.
A Buddhist native who walks up to the temple every morning despite his old age, and is a regular face at the monastery.

 

I was lucky to be at the monastery on one of their most important days. It was the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye (Khetol), – a tradition of the Gelugpa religion of Buddhism, wherein all the 300 monks from Key Monastery visited each and every house in the village to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I was lucky to accompany them through this pilgrimage, visiting houses, indulging in the lovely hospitality of the locals, and chai – lots and lots of chai.

 

Don't have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.
Don’t have count of how many chocolates I ended up having in lieu of the Yenne Gaaye celebrations.

 

Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.
Monks from the temple, walking towards the Key Village to begin the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye.

 

Young monks share a light moment.
Young monks share a light moment.

 

Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.
Prayers offered in the fields of Key Village.

 

Followed by chai of course! There's always time for chai.
Followed by chai of course! There’s always time for chai.

 

Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.
Families welcoming the monks into their home for the traditional prayer ceremony.

 

Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couples joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.
Giving the entourage of 300 monks and us 4 travelers some company, this couple joined us throughout, playing some lovely music.

 

Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I'm sure the kids had a great laugh later.
Lunch scenes on the terrace, under sun so bright & cruel, I kept awkwardly jumping while eating and pulling at my clothes. I’m sure the kids had a great laugh later.

 

Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I've had on my travels.
Lunch prepared for us by the villagers. By far the yummiest and most fulfilling meal I’ve had on my travels.

 

 

After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, I legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn't let me be without a second helping of lunch.
After almost 3 hours of walking around with the monks, my legs gave up on me and I decided to stay back at the village, where the villagers didn’t let me be without a second helping of lunch.

 

I couldn't have left without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.
I couldn’t leave without learning to make butter-tea from Kunga ji. This is me preparing butter tea for the early morning prayer.

 

Didn't feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.
Didn’t feel like leaving the monastery. Farewell pictures taken with Lama Kunga, Lama Gompo and the rest of us.

5 ways to untravel Spiti Valley!

The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!
The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!

My fascination with Spiti Valley began when I saw Alia Bhatt pointing at a mountain and asking Randeep Hooda, her knight in shining armor, if there was any way they could go there! It wasn’t so much the scene than was the gorgeous monastery in the background that caught my attention, and I’ve wanted to visit the tantalizing valley of Lahaul-Spiti ever since! But what I didn’t expect is, not only will I get to see this monastery, but also live there… cooking, laughing and living with the monks.

Well, no points for guessing who is the over-elated city girl who just returned from Spiti!

Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have been more accurate when he called Spiti “a world within a world”. The valley has the most incredible landscape that’s green and blue and brown at the same time! You encounter a new sight at every turn, and every sight makes you wanna sit and stare in silence, until the end of eternity! But the real charm of the valley begins when you get over its exterior beauty (which is not so easy to do, I mean just look at that place!!!) and notice the exceptional purity the locals live with. Being low on budget, I opted for hitch-hiking (Dad if you’re reading this, it’s not as bad as it sounds), in cabs, in jeeps, in trucks – behind trucks, in buses – on buses… and not once did I have an unpleasant experience (which being a solo female traveler came as quite a surprise!). The people in Spiti literally open their homes and hearts for you, they all want to hear your story and share their own, and more often than not – they go out of their way to make sure you feel at home.

  1. Stay at Key Monastery – Undoubtedly the most beautiful experience from all my travels – staying at Key Monastery! Spiti boasts of a purely homogenous Buddhist society belonging to the Mahayana sect of Vajrayana Buddhism, and is home to numerous monasteries with history dating back more than 1000 years. While each one of these monasteries is worth a visit and is glorious in its own way, Key monastery holds a special place for how incredibly inviting it is! You walk into the kitchen at the monastery and are invited by monks for a cup of chai, no matter what time of the day it is, you can live in the Lama quarters of the monastery (at just Rs. 200 per night, including meals!), indulge in their irrefutable hospitality, sleep under the gorgeous starlit skies in the veranda, and I was lucky to also attend the annual Gaaye celebration of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism! I may always recommend things on my blog, but never before have I been this confident about my recommendation. Take my word on this – this is an experience you shouldn’t miss!
  2. Go country with lovely homestays – I met this incredible lady from Mane village, who welcomes travelers to live at her house, and shares the finer way of living the Mane life! You can learn weaving, making chhang (Local beer prepared with semi-fermented barley), or simply experience the country life with her assistance. Similarly, you will be able to find humble homestays at Lhangza, Gomik, Demul, Dhankar, Lhalung, Cyoto or Tashi Gang, and I personally feel this will be the best way to discover the charm of Spiti!
  3. Finding Fossils – The Spiti we see today is an incredible sight of monstrous mountains with rock formations made by the force of wind and water over epochs, and the serpentine Spiti river adding a touch of elegance to the rather rugged landscape! It is also a known fact that the Tethys Sea ran through this mountain desert till about 60 million years ago, and in Spiti you can still find proof of this geological past. Step into Lhangza village and you will see kids running to you with stones in their hands. Look closely and you’ll realize they’re not stones, but actually fossils of maritime life, that probably died 100 million years ago. Innumerable such fossils can be found with a short walk to the Lhangza naala, all you have to do is walk 🙂
  4. Meditate in Caves – A visit to Spiti will be incomplete if you don’t visit Tabo, which has the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monument of India, famous for its wall paintings and murals. In its millennium of existence, the gonpa boasts of not having seen a day without prayer. But that’s not the only treasure Tabo holds, walk across the mountains adjacent to the tiny village and you’ll come across many meditation caves, some with interesting artwork inside.
  5. Rent a bike – One thing about Spiti, traveling locally can be quite expensive if you don’t have your own car. Cabs charge approximately Rs. 1000+ for 10kms, and while that pricing is totally justified considering the wear and tear these vehicles are subjected to on really difficult (or at times, non-existent) roads, not everyone can afford the luxury. So what do the rest of us do? While I chose to hitch-hike as I didn’t feel fit enough to do this, I came across a few people who rented a bike (which are easily available in Kaza), mounted it on a local bus while going uphill, and cycled their way back to Kaza on the descent. I can only imagine how exhilarating and challenging that experience must be, adrenaline rush max!

So that’s about interesting activities in Spiti. You can also go on an wild-life exploration trip, but for that you have to visit later in the winters. The best person to guide you with this will be Karan Bedi, who owns Hotel Deyzor (which, btw, is also the best hotel recco I can give even though I didn’t stay there myself). Just go to the cafe and ask for him, he organizes many culture & adventure tours in and around Spiti that you can easily be a part of.

I have so many stories to share from my short affair with Spiti. Working on a few photo-essays to take you through my journey, stay tuned 🙂

 

 

Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!