After the bumpy ride from Manali, the wind-stricken stay at Batal and the maddening walk to the breath-taking Chandra taal, my bones were craving comfort, a clean washroom, hot water and some belly filling food. And that’s exactly what I got in Kaza.
Here, I’m cooped up at Hotel Spiti Heritage. A relatively new hotel in New Kaza, the Spiti Heritage has a view to die for. When I reached here at around 5 in the evening, I was led up to my room on the third floor by the ever smiling Tilkraj who blushed profusely as he struggled with the minuscule lock and the key with a gigantic wooden key chain. He opened doors to what seemed to be a Queen’s share of Kaza’s skyline.
Situated near the river bank in New Kaza, not much interrupts your view here. Neither are you disturbed by the increasing chaos of Old Kaza. Instead, you find yourself left alone with the silence of Spiti and the pensive mountains. And at night, with the countless stars.
My room is called Kalpa instead of something insignificant like ‘301’. It’s my queendom indeed. Kalpa has windows for walls. The one opposite the bed looks out at the far away pea farms, and the even far away snow-peaked mountain, peering out at the horizon from amidst the two lines of mountains that surround Kaza on both sides. While the window opposite the door looks out at the river and the mountains across with its great grey slides.
Leaving me gaping at the view, Tilkraj bhaiyya ran down to fetch me a cup of steaming milk tea and all the fatigue of the journey washed away as I sipped the beverage staring far away into the sky, watching the sun set over the Spiti River.
The property is run by Tilkraj and Sajan bhaiyya under the supervision of the hard-working and sincere D.P. Bodh who’s retired from his government service and is now dedicated to making his dream project (Hotel Spiti Heritage) a success. Tilkraj comes from the green hills of Dalhousie and Sajan comes from Bihar. Both of them have traveled far for work, are new to this terrain and are homesick. They surely look the part too and spend time in their asbestos roofed rooms in the courtyard watching Hindi films on a small TV when there is electricity. They are happy to have a guest to serve and talk to.
Tilkraj smiles from ear to ear every time I ask him to make something (mostly tea). He diligently makes it a point to ask me if I liked what he’s cooked and if I would like to eat something more fancy for the next meal. There’s been all kinds of curries and dal and biriyani and even the incredible gur-gur tea with butter and salt. A kind of creamy but light soup if you will. A shock to the tongue initially that you can’t get enough of eventually. Gur gur tea in a fancy flask with an printed dragon. It cures the breathlessness.
Tilkraj dreams of making it big as a chef one day. He will go to Delhi after his stint in Kaza is over, he says. Hope he finds what he’s looking for. They have been my companions over the duration of my stay at Kaza and I know shall miss the occasional conversation they offered me.
The next day, I’m sitting at Sol café in Kaza. It’s a small and neat place with wooden furniture and paintings on the wall. But a damn expensive menu. Tibetan culture has puked all over this place. This is in collaboration with the Eco Sphere NGO and a table next to me displays handicrafts made by the local women of Spiti. The back page of the menu boasts of local tourist attraction packages such as ‘look like a local’, ‘ride on yak’, ‘make thread from yak wool’ etc. Rs. 2,500 for two people.
This list of ‘real Spiti’ experiences gets me thinking. What did I see in Kaza all morning? Was that the fake Spiti experience?
Kaza is a quiet village. People sleep early. There are no street lights and the roads are littered with dogs curled up at all kinds of comfortable corners.
The dogs sleep in the mornings too and it seems so do the locals. I leave my hotel room at 9.30 to empty gullies and it is only at the pul that I see a few people, chattering and making their way to the busy bazaar of old Kaza. A stream runs across the village. Men wash cars and women wash blankets and other clothes with this water, beating the pile up with a wooden bat. The atmosphere smells of detergent and I’m suddenly homesick too. That’s how my home smells on a Sunday morning. Sunny, breezy and soapy. That comfort of clean clothes.
I walk towards the river. The left is dotted with farming plots. Two women pick some crop into a basket tied to their back. By 10.30 the sun’s promising to make this a hot day. Yesterday’s grey clouds are gone. The heat is making me wary but the women in the farm have their heads covered with scarves and are wearing woolen jackets. I plant myself on a stone near a small stupa munching on the delicious butter cucumber sandwiches that Tilkraj packed for me in the morning.
The only other people I see here is a man who was styling his hair in the reflection of his phone a while back and has now stretched himself out under the shed further downhill on the right. The only shed in the vicinity. The other man is a goat herder with only three goats to look after. He has it easy. I feel like one of Kaza’s rejects.
At Old Kaza, The market is lined with shops that cater to the needs of the locals. There’s Ansari’s tailor shop for the local women. Sabzi wallas, a halwai who fries crispy jalebis in the evenings and a dedicated dog outside its gate waiting eagerly for each fallen piece of the sweet (it’s a shared meal, really). And there are side alleys occupied by cutlery sellers and that rare sardarji with his faded photo parlour who spends more time on the road than tending to his customers in his shop. Then there are the multipurpose kiranas with a display of shampoo sachets and sacks of rice and other grains at the back. All throughout the spidery lanes of old Kaza. Here, something like Sol café or Himalayan Café sticks out like sore thumb. For travellers who would rather be in a café than in a dhaba.
I found a rather glamour-less simpleton café (if you can call it that) near the bus stand. Benches and tables lined one after the other. The conductors and drivers drink tea here before they head out to face the snaky roads ahead. A synthetic cream coloured curtain hanging from the door has been pulled to the side and tucked to the window grills. It lets in a veiled amount of light that reflects across the room bouncing off from the shiny cream paint on the walls.
The one chef-cum-waiter in the place spends his time listening to 90s Hindi hits in the kitchen at the back (Dhadkan and Karan Arjun seem to be a hit in the region) where he chops meat to add to the thenthuk customers have ordered. You can also simply sip lazily from the hot and sticky glass of tea he will offer.
The real Spiti is a mundane little village and people here don’t quite have time to ride yaks any more.