Yak Pack Theatre Project
The Yak Pack News #12 - Komik and Demul
[Wednesday 27th July]
We’ve got new yaks this morning! Our other 2 (named Mr Horny for his glorious horns, and Princess) spent the night hanging out in a huge herd of around 700 yaks in the high meadows above the villages and relocating them was impossible.
The new arrivals both have magnificent (terrifying?) horns, and one is absolutely huge. Still, I have to stow my waterproof in my backpack before approaching, lest its rustly flapping prove simply too freaky for them.
Its cloudy this morning, and without the sun we’re soon reminded of the altitude and dig out our warm layers. The donkeys are loaded up and trot away in no time, we follow somewhat more ponderously.
Ollie, Penny and I all woke with sore throats, bunged up noses, feeling a bit under the weather, a bit too warm, a bit breathless. Izzy has a sore throat too but is much more concerned about counting her bedbug bites. Whatever this bug/virus is, Ben has escaped it so far and refuses to sit next to any of us. It could be Covid but we have no way of knowing, and its difficult to separate the effects of altitude from whatever the bug is responsible for. We haven’t run out of paracetamol yet and the show goes on!
It was a short walk from Hikkim to Komik, up and over the rolling moorland which separates the villages. Soon Komik monastery came into view, and the tiny village of Komik below – the highest village in the world with a road and electricity.
[Photo: Its official!! Spot Kaku, Cherring and Jonny with some of the show coming up the hill]
At least for today - though probably for most of this project - we are....
The Worlds Highest Theatre Company!!!
[Photo - Our homestay in Komik]
Komik is TINY. There are 18 houses, and just 2 students at the little village school. The ‘worlds highest village’ sign puts the population at 114, but at least half of those are monks.
The fields are greener here than in Langza or Hikkim – we can hear the trickle of water through the irrigation channels, and the peas are still flowering. The barley ripples like water in the breeze.
Ben and Jonny went up to the monastery, and chatted to the Lama there about the show. We are extremely privileged to be performing in the monastery courtyard itself, where ancient traditional ceremonies are held. The Lama decreed that 5pm is an auspicious time for the show.
[Photo: Monastery restaurant: Jonny, Kaku, Ben, Penny, Izzy, Ollie, Lou]
We walked up the hill from Komik village to the monastery about 4pm, just as a light drizzle started. A couple of bikers headed off leaving the monastery utterly deserted. We sat in the café and drank hot chocolate, and wondered where on earth our audience was going to magically appear from.
Setting up in the monastery attracted some curious faces though, and before long people started wandering in. A group of 15 soldiers joined us – they were Tibetan Army (now based in India) who were training along the sensitive border area between Spiti and Tibet. They had just had a blessing with the monks and were enjoying a day off. Some sat along the back, others joined some local children and a couple of monks in the craft workshop making flowers out of discarded plastic. Possibly the most surreal workshop group yet!
A group of ladies settled down to watch from the balcony, and a handful of local families and children walked up from the village – we’re pretty sure every child in the village is here! We waited for the monks to finish their daily prayers and get settled in the audience. What a mixture of people! Despite our initial reservations, they were an absolutely wonderful audience, responsive and enthusiastic, about 65 people. The monastery courtyard had amazing acoustics.
After the performance we had a cuppa with the monks, then were shown around the newly completed monastery museum. It was really interesting, showing artifacts and information about the monastery itself, Buddhism, and life for ordinary people in Spiti. Nothing yet has labels so we got a guided tour from the monk in charge. Coming out of the museum as it was getting dark, Ollie and Izzy ran over to join the monks playing volleyball at the back of the monastery, the rest of us headed down to the village and a well-earned dinner.
The following day was our most challenging trek day. 15km to Demul, over 2 passes at 4800m, and most of the day walking over 4600m. To the locals delight, gentle drizzle was falling.
Penny woke up feeling utterly wretched, bunged up and coldy, fevery. She decided that the walk would be too much, so Jonny found a local person willing to drive her to Demul instead. It’s a long drive round the mountains which took about 1.5hrs on bumpy little-used tracks. There had been lots of little landslides strewing rubble, scree and boulders onto the road.
Penny and the driver had to keep stopping to throw rocks off the road and down the mountain. One boulder was too big for even their combined strength; luckily they managed to move it enough to just squeeze the car past.
[Photo: Descent from the second pass to Demul in the distance]
Ben, Lou, Ollie, Izzy, Kaku, Jonny, Lotey and Cherring walked with the animals and everything for the show. As usual, the donkeys bundled ahead, making light work of the undulating moorland taking us ever higher towards the first pass of 4750m. After that the track stayed more or less level for another 3 hours walking, before we crossed another pass around 4800m, then a steep and very welcome descent into Demul village. The drizzle continued on and off all day in a very English way.
Demul is one of the most isolated villages in the Spiti Valley, far above the main road along the valley floor, over high passes whether approaching by road or foot, tucked in amongst the feet of huge mountains rising to 7000m.
Almost everyone is primarily living on subsistence agriculture, with the pea harvest, a bit of road work, and the odd homestay guest providing cash income. At this time of year, preparations for the harsh winter are evident – the rooftops stacked high with animal fodder, the fields cleared after harvest, the race to complete road mending or house building before its too late.
Demul villagers organise themselves so that the cash income from visitors is shared equally. Homestay guests are allocated to a house when they arrive in the village, on a rotation system overseen by the village organiser (also a rotating job). We stayed in a lovely home – with a teacup collection to rival Penny’s mum Lindas. The loo is outside as usual, a traditional dry toilet - though this one has an enormous hole capable of swallowing up a stray toddler. A mouse is hanging out in the pile of animal droppings (used for cleaning instead of looroll). We've called him Mr Jingles as everyones reading 'The Green Mile'. They made us very welcome as we dried out and recovered from our various journeys here. As it got dark, Izzy and Ollie discovered where all the Demul teenagers hang out – in the bus stand, the only place in Demul with an internet connection!
[Photos: The infamous bus stand, teacups; the long drop!]
Lotey and Cherring are from Demul, so Ben, Kaku and Jonny were invited to Cherrings house for a dram of arak. Arak is the local whiskey, made from barley, and a feature of most gatherings and celebrations. Whilst they were there, representatives of the womens collective went to visit them, to ask that the show be at 10am. Although the villagers are having a day off from pea harvesting, they will all be working on the roads tomorrow – a 10am show will mean everyone can come along, then head off to work afterwards. Spitian society has 4 arms of local council, with equal authority – the men, the women, the elders, and the youth – what an enlightened way of hearing everyones voice.
Thankfully Penny is just well enough to perform in the morning after her rest day (does boulder moving count as rest?!), and we set up after breakfast, welcoming about 12 children in early to make flowers and learn the dance. The village has a big community room and a prayer room right at the centre which is perfect. We used a huge pile of rugs to make a seating area, shoved empties into the corner – obviously this is a well used community room! Around 10am the rest of the villagers started arriving, the women old and young choosing to sit together in a wonderful array of bright woollens. By the time everyone was settled, primed to ‘boo’ the Wolf and the children with the flowers arranged in the front row, there were about 75 people in the audience.
Halfway through the show, Arjuna appeared at the back! He’d felt better so borrowed a motorbike from Lotey and whizzed up from Kaza, thinking our show was starting at 11am - it was originally planned for 11am and the earlier time of 10am was a last minute change. He got to see the second part of the show from an audience perspective, which was quite surreal, hearing Ollie say his lines!
Although a rather early start, it did allow us the rest of the day to travel back to Kaza. Arjuna and Penny sped off on the bike as Arjuna was starting to feel the altitude change (Demul is about 500m higher than Kaza), and didn’t want to wait in case it worsened. The rest of us went to Chherrings house for lunch. He’s a good cook- responsible for the gorgeous pilau rice we’d enjoyed most lunchtimes - so eating at his home with his family was a treat.
Its been a really amazing week in these high villages, and although our audiences have been smaller than in the schools, we are reaching all parts of society with these village performances. The 30 or so children who took part in the 4 workshops will have had an especially unique experience – they clearly enjoyed making the flowers, learning their parts in the show, and performing in front of everyone with enthusiasm and big smiles of pride. Their parents, as parents do everywhere, loved seeing them take part in the show.
From our observations 4 years ago, we were expecting more litter to clean up on the trekking routes between villages, but actually we saw very little. We also saw no other walkers. The nature of tourism has really changed in the past few years, and most visitors only spend a few days in Spiti, racing round the ‘sights’. As a result, the problem of litter was far more apparent on roadsides and in the villages.
Coming back to Kaza for our final show feels like coming back to the big city! Soft cosy beds, cafes serving food other than dahl and rice (that’s not so say we don’t like dahl and rice, its just that we’ve eaten nothing else for 8 days!), shops….oh yeah, and the howling dogs all night long!