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!

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!

Gurudongmar Lake – The crown jewel of Sikkim! – Travel Photo Essay

Basking in the glorious enchantment of the gorgeous Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim!
Basking in the glorious enchantment of the gorgeous Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim! Picture credits: Nishit Gupta

Sleepy-eyed, tortured by the harsh temperatures, shivering to the bone despite four layers of clothing and 2 blankets – that would be me through the first half of the drive. But once I saw the sun rising in the mountains, leaving a shimmery gold trail all across the snow-capped peaks, and sprinkling peach pixie-dust over the clouds, sleeping was not an option anymore. You read it in the travel blogs and see it in a few movies, but it’s only when you see it yourself that you realize how magically overpowering a sunrise in the mountains really is!

The clouds waking up for the sunrise!
The clouds waking up for the sunrise!

We were driving towards the sole motivation behind my entire trip to Sikkim – The Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! Situated in the northern-most part of the state, Gurudongmar is one of the highest lakes in the world, and the second highest lake in India. At an altitude of 17000 ft, this place is a MUST bucket-list site for all Indian travelers!

Our journey had started just a day earlier from Gangtok, where we had to acquire our permits to visit the lake (being extremely close to the Indo-Tibetan border, tourists can’t go here without permits and have to go via authorized tour operators). Our driver, Arun, was the most rocking chap you can ever come across. He rapped to Yo Yo Honey Singh songs and kept us entertained throughout with interesting stories about Sikkim and his experiences with various travelers. This was a huge blessing, considering the 8 hour odd drive from Gangtok to Lachen, though very scenic and beautiful, did take a toll on us!

We reached our guest house at Lachen right in time for dinner! Our guest house was a small little home-stay of sorts, with the most beautiful arrangement for meals. We devoured on the humble feast served to us, and ran to our rooms, getting ready to wake up at 3 am the next morning!

Loved the interiors of our guesthouse at Lachen, Sikkim
Loved the interiors of our guesthouse at Lachen, Sikkim

Now, while waking up at 3 AM on any regular day is a task in itself, when you’re sleeping cuddled under 2 blankets, waking up at 3 AM is next to impossible! Had it not been for the unavoidable lure of the lake, we would have never managed to drag ourselves out of the comfort of our beds. After putting on as many layers of clothing as we possibly could, and packing the blankets from our guest house – we were finally ready for our Gurudongmar adventure!

We made a quick stopover at a small food joint, run by a sweet and ever-smiling guy named Rikjung with his Mom and younger sister. These were the most hospitable and friendly chaps! They cooked for us, helped us to servings of a local mixture called tumba – made from rice and taken with a bamboo pipe – effective to fight the cold, and lit up a fire to relieve us from our misery. This place won’t be difficult to find, as it’s one of the only places you come across on the way, approximately 8 kms before Thangu, at Yatang.

The family that runs the food joint enroute Gurudongmar! Do make time for a chat!
The family that runs the food joint enroute Gurudongmar! Do make time for a chat! Picture credits: Saloni Saraf
After fighting all that cold, a humble cup of tea brought all our senses back alive!
After fighting all that cold, a humble cup of tea brought all our senses back alive! Picture credits: Saloni Saraf

What started as a sleepy to-do journey, turned into the most scenic road-trip of my life! Be prepared to crane your neck left, right, to the front and back, all within a seconds notice, because there’s just so much to see all around, that you can’t help but act like an over-excited 5 year old in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory! Even though you won’t come across any kind of vegetation or human settlements that are usually a regular sight up in the mountains, the barren and cold landscapes with occasional spotting of Yaks holds a different charm to itself. This wasn’t my first encounter with the mountains, having had my fair share of adventure in Himachal. But there’s something about the untouched magnanimity and beauty of the mountains in North-East India, which is so exotic and mesmerizing, that captures you in its inviting embrace instantly! Have tried to put together a visual journey for you below:

Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim
The road to Gurudongmar Lake, while barren and dusty, is the most beautiful drive you’ll encounter!
Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim
Those black dots are actually Yaks. Loads of them! My camera could only zoom in so far!

Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim

Snapshots from our drive to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim

After 4 odd hours of driving, including a stopover at an army camp, we finally reached our destination! One look at the snow-fed crystal blue water of the lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, dressed with Buddhist prayer flags across its breadth, the texture of the water perfectly matching the pristine blue  of the sky above – and you stop right in your tracks, losing all sense of time, place… and existence. There really isn’t much I can say that can justify how stunning this site is, I’ll let you decide for yourself:

Touchdown - Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!

Touchdown – Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!

The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! The mesmerizing Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!

 

PS: We made this trip in November first week, so the pictures above represent what the lake looks like in November. However this view may vary from month to month depending on the weather. My friend just visited the lake (only two days ago actually). So I thought I should share his pictures too, to give you an idea of how unreal the frozen lake looks in March.

A frozen Gurudongmar Lake in March- North Sikkim. Picture courtesy: Abhishek Gupta

 

Trivia about Gurudongmar Lake: Gurudongmar Lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, who is said to have visited this holy lake during the 8th century AD. Gurudongmar Lake is listed among the 108 saccred laked of Sikkim and is regarded as the northern door for entry into Demojong (Sikkim). This sacred lake is said to have divine powers to fulfill the wishes of devotees who visit the lake. It has been notified as one of the most sacred Buddhist places of worship in Sikkim.

Notes:

  • If you have an extra day, choose to stay at Lachung after your Gurudongmar trip, and opt for a drive to Yumthang valley and Zero Point the next morning! There is also a famous hot water spring enroute Yumthang that you can stop at.
  • Unfortunately for our overseas friends, the proximity of the lake to the Indo-Tibetan (Chinese) border renders this site out-of-bounds for all foreign travelers. Even Indian travelers can travel here only through packaged tours organized by local operators in Sikkim, and everyone needs an Inner Line Permit from Gangtok.
  • Under normal circumstances, I would share the number of the travel agent who fixed our tour, but we had a really bad experience with him and wouldn’t suggest him to anyone. For reference (and warning) sake, his name was Tashi Thendup – Anoop, he owns a hotel in Gangtok (which is too costly for the horrible service they provide) and he tricked us into staying there despite our repeated refusals.
  • Our driver was a superstar! You should call him whenever you’re going for this trip. He can organize the trip too, cheaper than others. Arun – +919475715570
  • Note for people with breathing issues: The drive to Gurudongmar from Lachen starts at over 8000 feet altitude, and you keep driving constantly till 17,000 feet. Breathing here gets difficult for even regular people. We were strictly advised by the army officials to not run / walk fast near the lake, and keep drinking water regularly. You also have to make sure you reach the lake early in the morning, and drive out before noon.
  • Make sure you keep your permit and photo id proofs handy on this trip, as you will be stopped and checked at the army check-posts. Also, for safety, carry dry fruits with you.
  • The water of the lake is considered sacred. We were advised by one and all to fill bottles from the lake to carry back to Mumbai. 
  • The lake also has a small temple which is revered by Hindus as well as Buddhists, and attracts many pilgrims and monks.
  • Important: Just trust me and stop for a coffee with our jawans at the army camp enroute!!!

 

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