Most things in Spiti have reached their peak. They have a sign to prove it.
Kaza is home to the world’s highest altitude retail petrol pump; Tashigang, a nearby village, has the highest polling station; Kibber claims the world’s highest rooftop café, although in three weeks there we never saw it open once. Kibber also retains the Guinness World Record for the world’s highest functioning post office—a low, smoky room that doubles as the postman’s living quarters. (Hikkim, several hundred meters above, lacks only a Guinness World Recordkeeper intrepid enough to follow up.)
The nebulous local pride of such claims matters little when compared to their sheer power in attracting tourists. Every day by base camp we watched in astonishment as confused vehicles stopped in their dozens and asked for directions to Chicham Bridge: Asia’s highest. One afternoon I walked down from Kibber to visit the place myself. I read its painstakingly lettered sign several times, wondering how people could believe it; back in the plains I would find it took less than three minutes of Googling to prove wrong. But in a place where online is six hours’ drive away, how did it matter?
A motorbike roared in behind me, and I turned, startled by the sound. A middle-aged man got self-consciously off the Harley; he was wearing a too-small leather jacket and tight beige pants that did nothing for his pot-belly. I watched in bemusement as he struggled with unfolding a small tripod by the edge of the road. In the end he found a good place for it and went to stand by the ravine. His back was to the camera. Occasionally he raised a jerky arm, as if performing some half-remembered dance: he was pointing with great concentration, I realized eventually, at the distant mountains, as if explaining something to someone next to him. Only the wind whistled an appreciative response.
After some ten minutes of this he came back to check the photographs. Satisfied, he got back on his bike, waved to me, and drove off. That was all he had come for. He hadn’t even read the sign to confirm its inaccurate altitudinal claims.
I was filled with questions. Clearly he’d known I was there: why hadn’t he just asked me to take the picture? What did he even need a photo of his back against the mountains for, anyways? What had he been pointing to? Was this what a midlife crisis looked like?
I wondered who he’d show the photo to, or where he’d post it. Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? He was old enough: maybe it was MySpace. My solo bike trip through Spiti. Contemplating the mountains… And then the silhouette of his proffered hand, finger brushing a peak, an indicator: yes, I did this, I was here. I was here.
Later I perched on the slope overlooking the bridge, and watched the Tempo Travelers stream in, congregating at one end in gleaming white flocks. They disgorged crowds of stumbling people: several immediately went to a convenient platform to vomit. The men inevitably sidled off, side-eyeing the group, to unzip their pants at a conspicuous corner; mothers rushed to keep their children from the edge while couples cavorted in postures trying to recall Bollywood music videos. People climbed on top of their vehicles and danced. Someone launched a drone. Then the vans drew them all magnetically back and the hill clouded with their disappearing dust clouds. Check mark ticked: highest bridge in Asia, visited.
As evening fell, I climbed down to look at the remnants of their visits: plastic water bottles, cigarette packs, beer, collected on the ravine’s edge below the bridge in shining sedimented piles. I walked to Kibber slowly in the grainy dusk, enjoying the silence. At a bend I came upon a herd of ibex: three, all female, and a fourth tiny foal tagging the steps of the leader. They turned to look at me with deep amber eyes, then returned to contemplation of the road. As one they walked to its edge and hesitated. Then in one breathless moment they sprinted across in two bounds.
I stood confused, looking at where they’d vanished over the slope, before realising they were scared of cars. I wondered when they learned that fear.
By all accounts, tourism in Spiti has reached a tipping point. While reliable statistics are few and far between, in nearby Kinnaur daily visitors peak at 70,000—almost equivalent to its 84,000-strong population. I made a game of reading the number plates of the cars coming in: Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan. In the summer months people drive hours, days to get here and see the scenery; in the winter they ford endless fields of snow to find leopards. Spiti used to be the domain of the ultimate hippies. Most villagers remain derisive of what’s generalized as “Israelis”—drug-smoking, uke-playing, long-haired stereotypes, long since priced out of Kaza and remnant only in restaurant signs. Over the years, tourists have shifted more and more upscale drivers. They stay in homestays, visit villages, eat momos, and leave in a few days’ time. There are package tours; there are travel agents.
And, unavoidably, in the wake of all this, there are traffic jams; there are garbage dumps, scattered indiscriminately; there are the stray dogs that feed on them. There are plastic water bottles in their tons; there are cars going off-road, across the sensitive high alpine ecosystems. Coming back from a trip to Kaza, climbing up above the Spiti River to Kibber, we watched the wide bed of the valley web with tractor-trails. Sand-mining, to found the construction of yet more homestays. The dark specks of the vehicles like ants, exploring, seething, excavating, bit by bit, pulling the river away from itself.
Kullu sighed. “The place seems so big, they think there’s no impact.” Death by a thousand cuts into the valley floor. Ibisbill—a high-altitude specialist riverine bird with a clown-red bill—has not been seen here for a decade or two now. I asked which it was: ten years or twenty. Everyone laughs. “Does it matter?” At some point the absence elongates into permanence.
In a landscape characterized by its tight-knit isolation, where things change, literally, glacially if at all, the transient population of tourists are the ones with the impacts that linger far beyond their ephemeral visits. But such irony is hardly new. And the tourists have brought other change with them, too, with more likely to come: better roads, improved infrastructure, perhaps even—eventually—a reliable phone signal. To claim that the outside world must be held at bay, that this must be held as some isolated refuge—like the History Monks from Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time, living in a valley that holds forever constant against the flow of time, the cherry blossoms ever-flowering—is a romantic delusion at best and destructive at worst.
Development will come and it will keep coming: why should these communities be restricted from it? The issue is regulating and harmonizing growth, and not holding a naïve faith that the size of the mountains will—at least in our lifespans—overwhelm any impact we can have. High-altitude life, starved of oxygen, supplies, kind terrain, balances on a fine ridge-edge: one lost meal, one unusually chilly night, one foolhardy hunter, one blocked road. In this vastness it is frighteningly—and thrillingly—easy to lose yourself. This is the border of bureaucracy, the corner of civilization. The country’s frontier. You cannot go any higher without treading air.
And in that context, the want to mark yourself present—I was here, I was here—and retain the proof of that presence becomes elementary logic. There is that machismo excitement of faux-exploration, but also a delicious shiver from imagining, briefly, you can encompass all that space. I, too, touched this boundary. I saw where it faded to elsewhere. I was here, I was here.
In Spiti the stars are clear like no other place in India. They wheel overhead in their limitless multitudes and one can only gape to see them. Under the glittering night one, too, is more conscious of the warm coat, the tea waiting inside, the blanket and the book under the covers. Small fragile warmth glowing all the brighter in the face of universal scales. These are the things the mountains can teach you to value.
The day before I left, Chayant and I went on a birding trip. We forgot birds, though, in hardly an hour, stopping instead to wonder at the dusty general store and laugh at the goods: nearly all several months expired. An old woman grinned toothlessly at us as we bought bread that turned out to be mostly mouldy, and also mostly eaten by the time the someone noticed.
By the Spiti River, wandering vaguely towards our birding destination, we kept stopping. Along the shingle banks we crouched and looked at flowers. Among the grey stones the colors gleamed: arresting blues, reds, pinks, shades that burst through the landscape, into the eye. By one particularly delicate blue we spent several minutes examining it in different lights when I went to move off a piece of dried leaf. I started when I saw the leaf move, and not from the wind. With shock we realized it wasn’t a leaf but a crab spider, and half-an-hour went then in looking at how it had woven its pale white body among the stems. A thin matrix of web circled the leaves together and held it aloft. It raised a slender trembling limb to the wind, as if beckoning—to the cliffs rising far above, the storm clouds rolling in, or just an insect, perhaps. I was here. I was here. We left it there, waiting for fulfilment.