Friday, October 19, 2012

(From my journal): A journey to Asia’s highest village:

Since leaving home, the name “Komic” has been stuck in my head.  Regarded as the highest village in Asia, I’d read about Komic being in the vicinity of Kaza.  Where? I had no clue.  I had mentioned to Fred – a Swiss man in Manali – my plans to go there, and he had said it was perfectly possible from Kibber, as most of the elevation had been gained by that point.  It was surprising to me that – when having lunch with the road crew on our way to Ki - that komic was described by Choper as being closer and far more accessible from Kaza.  A day hike.  I checked this information with the manager from my guest house and he confirmed it.  In fact, there were two ways to Komic, but one was steeper, more rocky and more dangerous.  I opted for that route possible on the way down. 

The alley providing access to the steps to the small temple were just where the manager said, and in 5 minutes I was overlooking kaza with several locked meditation rooms behind me.  The steps had ended, so I climbed over the ledge and headed towards a forest of prayer flags flapping in the crisp morning air.  The sun was out, and I was warm and full from breakfast, wearing only a t-shirt, beanie and gloves. 

Just beyond the flags, I find a well worn trail that switch-backed higher and higher.  At a rock pillar, prayer flags.  Higher and higher.  Another pillar – more flags.  While standing there admiring the view, I heard a *WHOOOOOOOISH!!!* as a black bird tucked, wings back in full attach dive blazed by me.

Eventually, I hit the road the manager had promised was there… the road to Ikim and Komic.  Down the road I walked passing two women and a man.  “Namaste!” I said.  “Jooleh!” They replied.  Oh yeah… Spitian here, not Hindi.

The road hooked far to the left, so I followed a foot path shortcut across an open, shallow wrinkle.  At the bottom, a large rectangular pile of rocks sat.  Carvings and pictures adorned the capstones.

By now I was close enough to see that village I had though I’d seen high on a cliff was actually the ruins of one.  Adobe houses falling into themselves like an old Indian pueblo.  Another house, well kept and lived in sat among them, empty.  It was only me, the view and two cows chomping away. 

Looking further up the road I could make out the white buildings of a small village.  Beyond, a steep triangle peak loomed, glittering white with snow:  Mt. Shilla - a 7026 m wonder - commanding attention.

Onward and downward, I am stopped cold by a fox standing in my path.  He doesn’t spook.  He stares.  Prances a few meters forward.  Stops.  Gives me another look.  I fumble with my bag to get at the camera, but the first pictures come out dark and the later pictures s/he is too far away.

Back to the road and down another shortcut, I am soon in the village.  Immediately, I meet an old woman collecting brush for a fire.  “Hello.” She gathers more  brush.  I am just about to walk away when I hear, “Chai?” I nod.  She leads me to her front door, the first house in the village.  “Ikim” I ask.  “Ikim,” she confirms and gestures that I enter.

I am blinded by darkness, and my eyes struggle to adjust to the room lit only by the sun sneaking through cracks.  It appears to be a communal room, a storage space.  There is a thick animal smell, unpleasant at first but dimming with time.

She opens another door in the right hand corner and invites me into a 20x20 room, well lit by two windows.  The floor, hard-packed, smooth dirt, is nearly covered by thin flower-covered mats.  Three wooden pillars support the ceiling.  Tiny stirrups hang from one of them.  Again, I am reminded of the adobe architecture of the Southwest. 

The old woman pours a pot of water from a larger pot resting on an old coal stove and begins to prepare hot water on a newer propane stove. 

One wall is dedicated to cooking.  Shelves of cups, bowls, plates, pots, pans.  In the middle, a propane stove.  To the left – I unhappily admit – a TV, vcr and set of speakers.  Yes, even up here there is power, and where there is power, there is TV. 

Mats for sleeping are stacked neatly in the corner.  Long, 1ft high tables for eating sit in front of the windowed walls.  There are no chairs.  Two small framed pictures, a clock and a calendar look lonely on the walls.

She serves me my tea in a small ceramic cup with dragons on it, walks to the corner and returns with some flat bread.  “Thank you!” She retires to the window, picks up a small prayer wheel and spins it round-and-round, breathes wheezing and quiet, and mumbles “om mani peme” over and over.   A small bell tinkles with each turn.

I finish my tea and bread and offer 10R.  She refuses.  I Ask for a pictures, and she says yes.  I finally get a good shot and show it to her.  She laughs, and despite her protests, I leave the 10R anyway.  Outside, the light is blinding.

I walk through the village, only a few houses collected on the hillside and meet five women and a man wearing a New York hat.  One woman plays with rocks.  Another rubs here dirty-gloves hands.  Another knits, while another picks nits out of the final woman’s hair.  The man tells me that Komic is 15 minutes away.  I thank them and walk on.

Beneath the village, there are terraced fields where donkeys graze on dry grass.  The path twists and turns.  I meet another group, excited to see me.  “Komic is half an hour away.”

Up and up over the rounded desert hills past more cows and donkey’s.  Another rock monument.  More flags.  Another hill, another crest.  And there on the horizon, I spot a rooftop.  I approach a woman who is collecting dried donkey  dung – stove fuel in the winter, after having been dried – in the flaps of the fabric on her shit.  “Komic?” I ask.  “Komic,” she replies.  I’ve made it!

The village is small comprising perhaps nine white-washed homes.  Inside each home, there are five or six rooms, each housing a family of four or five.  Conservatively, that’s 180 people… but you’d never guess it from afar.  It is placed on a wrinkle in the mountain where a small stream flows and is tapped into by black pipes to the villagers.  The road stars high and snakes lower through the village, over the stream – where, at this time of the year icicles are hanging – and ends at a pocket of homes and the start of the dusty terraced fields.  Down the valley, the drop to the stream gets treacherous.  That river flows all the way down to Kaza. 

I’m drawn to the top-most building in the village, the komic gompa- monastery.  Three main buildings stand on the hill, the right – red, the center – topped by a wind turbine, and the le – a two-story building with vertical stripe.  I learn later that the left-most building is the new gompa while the red building at right is the old. 

A man is standing in front of the new gompa looking my way.  A piece of angle-iron lays at his feet, angle down, and a hose is positioned such that the water flows onto the iron and creates a small stream down to an area to gather water or to wash clothes or dishes. 

The man is Chering, a monk, dressed in a hodge-podge set of jacket, pants, sweat-pants and a well-worn pair of converse sneakers.  “Are you alone?” he asks, a bit surprised to see me finding my own way.  “No, there are two more behind me,” I reply, lying but keeping with my “safety” answer.  Everyone wants to know if you’re alone here, and while I’ve never felt their question to be nefarious in nature, I think it better to be on the safe side.

Choper is amused with my trekking poles and can’t understand the need for two.  “Isn’t this one good enough?” I demonstrate the benefit of two by stepping up the three foot ledge that the water is streaming off of.  He tries to copy me, but the poles are too long.  Grunting, he makes it, laughing. 

Another man emerges from the gompa.  “This is Karmachering, the head cook.” “Nice to meet you.” “Come in for lunch.”

I enter the kitchen through a short door (I must bow through all doors in India due to my American-height). Another door continues into the main area – that looks like a fort or a rustic motel with a courtyard – and a window facing down the valley lets in more light.  Centered in the room is a large fire-stove with a huge vat of oil sitting on top, smoking.  One monk feeds shrub into the fire and then blows through a pipe to increase the flame while another – sitting cross-legged on top – holds a long forked stick, shiny from oil.  To his right sits a large pile of squiggly fried breads called mutter. 

Other monks enter the kitchen to joke and fill their plates with rice and dhal.  I am offered a plate heaping with rice and soaked with the delicious bean mixture.  I eat alone in the kitchen, the warm smoky air heating my outsides, the lunch heating the in.  The monks return for seconds.  My plate is filled again.  “Salt?” “Yes.” And a large pinch is dropped into my palm.  I’m filling up, topped off, stuffed and entering a food coma.  “Hello, man? Hello, man?! Want more dhal?” But I politely refuse. 

I ask about the mutter, and Chering gives me the good news.  “We are preparing for the festival. “ The festival! The one I’d heard of! “When is it?” “October 14th.” “Am I allowed to come?” “Yes, yes!”


I thank Chering, say goodbye to the other monks and walk off to see the village and start on the shortcut to Kaza that Chering has pointed out.

The “shortcut” ended up being “find anything that looks like a trail and follow it, or go cross country over those bluffs until you reach the cliffs, and then look for the trail from there.” Every twenty steps, I would turn to see both Komic, Ikim and Mt. Shilla towering behind them. 

The weather began to turn cloud, and the wind picked up as I approached the cliff edge overlooking Kaza.  Find Kaza: Done.  Now to get down… Cliff, cliff, cliff.  Nothing hikeable! NOTHING.  I made my way along the cliff edge, scouring for a trail.  Nothing promise.  In fact, it all looked downright dangerous.

My wheels began to spin… just a little.  “It’s cold.  I’m alone.  The sun is dropping.  The clouds are moving in.  And here I am, stuck on this stupid cliff.  Trail! SHOW YOURSELF.” I’d been promised switchbacks, but all I could see was scree and cliff. 

Making my way along the ledge, I eventually saw a trail.  Onward I walked, and the trailed snaked higher.  Finally, in the distance, I could see a rock pile and flags marking the start of the descent.  I was as good as home.

The down was steep and at times slippery, and after a few minutes flecks of snow began to pelt into me.  More and more, and soon it was pushing white-out, the flecks, swarming down the mountain towards Kaza, matching the angle of the slope as the wind whipped.  Down, down, down and finally… the road. 

A hot dinner.  A cold night but a warm sleeping bag were all in my future, as I strode the last few paces to my guest house.  “You made it!” said the manager  happily.  ”Yes!” I replied.

I made it.

Thanks for reading!

I love you all (but especially you, Michelle!)


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