The Yak Pack News #11 - Langza and Hikkim
It is incredible to think that this whole region once lay under the Tethys Sea. Now Langza Village is 4400m above sea level, its underwater past is revealed in the fossils found here – mostly ammonites – exactly the same as the ones found along the Dorset Coast at home. I find this ancient global connection between such disparate places really moving. We are not so different, living on the skin of the same earth.
We arrived in Langza on Saturday afternoon (23rd July), ready for our third and final week touring ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in Spiti. We have 4 performances in some of the highest villages in the world, before descending back to Kaza for a final show.
We are high above the valley floor now, about 6-700m higher than Kaza, and the Spiti River is hidden far below. Up here on the plateau, a new range of mountains has become visible, peaks rising to 6500m all around us, snow caps and glaciers shining in the clear sky. The enormity of the landscape is impossible to describe or even photograph. We are utterly dwarfed. We are at the mercy of the mountain gods. Ants bumping along under the roof of the world.
Langza is stunningly beautiful. Black scree slopes contrast with the green fields and white-washed houses, punctuated by fluttering prayer flags on the roof of every house, the village dominated by the white peak of Chou Chou Khang Nyidla rising up behind.
At the top of the village, looking out over the surrounding mountains and visible from miles around, is a huge Buddha, serene and timeless.
We’re staying with a lovely family here. They have 4 children aged 4-17yrs, and the eldest, Angmo, immediately recognised Izzy! She goes to Kaza Government School, where we held our first performance. Angmo is 17. There’s a middle school here in the village, but there’s only 2 pupils, so she stays in Kaza with a relative during term time so that she can attend a bigger and better resourced school, with lots of people her own age. Home now for the holidays, she showed Izzy round the village after dinner.
[Photo: the local god, according to the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, sited on the roof of the village Lang (temple) where we performed]
The youngest child of this family, Tenzin, is 4. He was curled up under a blanket in the corner of the lounge when we arrived, deeply asleep, oblivious to our arrival as we sat down around him drinking tea and chatting. Awake, he’s a friendly confident and somewhat cheeky child, happy to play with visitors and soon had monopolised Izzys phone and was busy playing ‘Subway surfers’, humming happily to himself as he spent all the game credits that Izzy had collected over the past few months. Just like toddlers everywhere, he had a loud and snot-fuelled tantrum when it was time to stop.
We have another member of the Yak Pack team for this final week. Jonny hails from Chicham village, and will be our guide as we trek between villages.
Climate change is taking a very real and immediate toll on this village – and the others of the high plateaus.
There is a drought here wreaking havoc on the green pea crop and threatening the ability of people here to survive the winter.
Far above the Spiti River, villagers here are completely reliant on glacial meltwater to irrigate their crops. People have lived here for millenia, and are resilient, ingenious, adaptable. But recent decades have wrought changes far beyond their control. Sometimes the snowfall on the high mountains is poor, and there’s not enough meltwater – but this winter saw plenty of snow. The problem is far more fundamental than the vagaries of snowfall.
In past years the snowline would be as low as 5500m even in August, slowly melting and providing a constant flow of meltwater throughout the growing season – a precious trickle channelled onto the fields. But global warming means that the snow melts far too fast. Here we are in July and there’s barely any snow to be seen, even on the highest peaks. This year was especially bad, and the snow had mostly gone by April. A wander around the fields reveals pea plants withering from the base and barely any peas.
Villagers harvest what there is – which is not enough. Local people have turned to other ways to earn cash income to get them through the winter – working on the roads and making the most of tourism. There are local solutions to this problem (as opposed to global issues of controlling climate change), one is pumping water up from the Spiti River, another is trapping the meltwater in reservoirs above the valley. Both require government or monastery investment, and either would save the livelihoods of everyone living here. But it needs to happen quickly, before the traditional way of life is gone, and all the water is used to provide flushing toilets for tourists.
Tonights show is a test of our resilience! A cold/bug/virus has done the rounds – Ollie first, then Lou, now Arjuna. Sore throats, feeling bunged up, a touch fevery. Ollie did the show at Dhankar feeling rotten, and its Arjunas turn tonight. Hurrah for paracetamol. Izzys hurt her knee, and Pennys sprained her ankle. Still, the show must go on!
We set up in the Lang – the village temple and community room right at the top of the village. It was dusty and dark, with low soot-covered beams, a couple of tiny windows and all manner of community paraphernalia everywhere – rugs, huge cookpots, a couple of wood burners.
Jonny and Kaku helped us move everything to the sides, and we laid out seating from what we could find.
We moved everything as carefully as possible to avoid clouds of dust, though someone lit a fire in the wood burner, which chucked out heat and smoke, not to mention adding an interesting hazard to stage left!!
People started to gather and we soon had a sweet little audience of children, adults, and a lovely elderly chap who had been sitting in the sunshine winding wicks for the temples butter lamps as we arrived.
The show was hilariously chaotic, with ladies popping in and out and talking across the stage to each other, a group of teenage boys coming in and out, the 4 year old from our homestay with his infectious laughter in the front row, most of the cast in fits of giggles at one point or another. Everyone present had a great time!
Monday morning dawned clear and warm, and we have gained more members of the Yak Pack! We have 3 little donkeys, looked after by T and Angdui, who will carry the props and costumes bags, Bens guitar, the scenery trees, and our personal bags. They were quickly loaded up and trotted off towards Hikkim in a purposeful little huddle. The yaks watched us solemnly with big brown eyes as their handlers, Lotey and Chherring, put saddles and colourful rugs on their backs. Now we feel like the Yak Pack is earning its name!
The walk to Hikkim took 2½ hours, up an undulating moor, over a high point, and down into a deep gorge where the village and its surrounding fields were nestled. We took turns riding the yaks, their easy strides eating up the miles, where we struggled breathlessly upward. They are such gentle animals and exude a lovely peace as you ride with them. The silence is so deep when we stop for a rest. Inspired by the far mountain ranges coming into sight as we went higher, Ben, Penny and Jonny decided to walk up to a little peak we were passing, abut 500m higher than the trail. The rest of us continued to Hikkim, which suddenly came into view below us.
We arrived at our homestay, a traditionally built mud house like most in Hikkim, only to discover the owners were out! The man of the house was thought to be in Manali, and his wife was in Kaza until evening. We squeezed into a strip of shadow at the side of the house and contemplated our options… There is no phone coverage here, so calling either Lotey back in Kaza, or the owner is impossible. Jonny found the front door key but our joy was short-lived – it was bolted from inside. Arjuna crawled through the open lounge window – but that room too was bolted shut. Same story with the downstairs loo. By this time, Ben Penny and Jonny had come down from their expedition to join us, and we were all really hungry. Finally we made contact with the owners brother, who gave us permission to break the lock and use the kitchen to make some food. It was such a relief to step into the cool rooms and relax. The lady owner arrived back from Kaza, apologetic over the mix up with dates – she was expecting us tomorrow – and we all settled into an evening of playing Karrom and writing postcards.
The ’Worlds highest post office’ used to be in the centre of the village, in the postmasters charming little house, where you could drink chai, write letters, then pop into his tiny office to buy stamps. Opposite a little shop and café did a roaring trade from people coming to post letters with the ‘worlds highest’ post mark.
But its moved! Now there’s a weird red tower thing up on the road where the postmaster deals with jeep after jeep of tourists from Mumbai etc, ticking the boxes of ‘worlds highests’.
On one hand, this means the tourist cars don’t go through the tiny village, the postmaster doesn’t haven’t to share his home with random strangers. But on the other hand, the shop and café have both now closed with the lack of passing trade. Hopefully the tourist money is kept within Hikkim – the local women want to set up a new café but at the moment can’t get permission from the land owner.
Kaku and Jonny have been chatting to the locals, and they’ve requested the show at 4pm rather than 6pm. We’ve scouted the various venue options: There’s the Lang, a village temple on the outskirts of town, a half built community hall which is basically a concrete box, or a lovely little grassy patch in the centre of the village. It feels like a village green, and we the travelling players. Unfortunately the sky clouded over, the wind picked up, and a few warning spots of rain meant that the community hall was the best spot. A gaggle of village kids appeared to escort us, through the village and up a scree slope to the hall. We passed ruined mud-built homes, cracked as the unstable slopes slip around them. Hikkim feels less well off than Kibber or Kangza, people seem to be struggling here.
[Photo - workshop in Hikkim - prop making]
We’re a man down for todays show – Arjunas feeling worse and after a night of fever he’s gone back to Kaza for a couple of nights, with access to paracetamol and the hospital if he needs it. So, Ollie is now playing Tick-Tock (and Brother), and Penny is Woody the Woodcutter, as well as Mother. Ben and Ollie practiced the fight scene in the homestay lounge, with a row of curious kids pressing their noses against the window and peeping round the curtains.
[Photo - dance workshop in Hikkim]
We ran a workshop for 7 kids who had a lovely time making flowers and learning dance routines with us. Jonny, our guide, got involved too – he’s really good with kids, perhaps missing his own 3 youngsters back in Chicham village. As the show began, other villagers arrived, walking up slowly from the fields, dropping off enormous bundles of peas and fodder at their homes before walking on up the hall. It was a small show – 22 people – but the kids enthusiastically joined in, and the adults enjoyed it too. It was good for Penny and Ollie not to have the pressure of a large audience as they took to the stage in their new roles for the first time. They did really well, and the various ‘bloopers’ added a layer of slightly manic hilarity and backstage giggling. Everyone was buzzing afterwards.
We’ve enjoyed visiting Hikkim but I think we’ll be happy to head off in the morning. Our homestay is even more basic than usual, and has some special features including bedbugs, nowhere inside to wash, monk-level hard beds, nylon duvets which generate purple flashes of static electricity, and a layer of dusty grime over everything. We know the lady of the house is struggling with an alcoholic husband (currently AWOL in Manali), so she must be finding it hard to manage her fields, family life, and the homestay so we don’t really mind…..but we’re all looking forward to the delights of a hot bucket wash and comfy nights sleep.