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Life in Thin Air and Sub Zero – How Spiti Sustains Sustainably

March 17, 2017


” The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life harmonious with all existence” – Rabindranath Tagore

We are all curious to know much about our existence, who are we? why are we here? what is our purpose of this life? and that is the thirst we thrive on everyday of our lives. I suffer from the same syndrome and for the little bit that I have been able to conclude is that some part of the Himalayas is perceptually calling me and Spiti obviously is on top. You can easily say its just following the call, or curiosity of the call.

IMG_7283Frozen Nako Lake

After being in and out of Spiti several times, I certainly wanted to experience the winters there. I have been studying Spiti very closely. Understanding Spiti as a Micro-Ecosystem seems an area that interests and intrigues me and one would truly believe that any natural ecosystem if not anything else must not be disturbed at all. It doesn’t deserve to be disturbed – heaven doesn’t need disturbance.


After alot of planning and speculation about the weather and the roads we finally made it in there. Without much thought we decided straight to head to Dhankar, my favorite village in Spiti. The temperature in Dhankar was -5 maximum with minimum going to -15. We decided to stay in a traditional home stay, I was curious to see exactly that, how do the locals survive in such harsh winters?


IMG_7320Dhankar Village at Dusk


Spiti being a dry mountain desert terrain doesn’t have much stones in its topography. Like other similar terrains i.e Ladakh, Mustang Valley in Nepal and Tibet, villagers in Spiti have been building the traditional mud houses for centuries now. These mud houses are warmer than modern concrete houses. To be very honest, concrete houses are a complete no no for a terrain like that of Spiti, the reason is that modern concrete houses absorb the atmosphere’s temperature and reflect the same inside close spaces in the houses, which means that in a place like Spiti, one will only feel colder inside a concrete house. With growing tourism and modern telecommunication technologies taking over Spiti, the growth of concrete houses are also rising, one can even find concrete in new monasteries that have been constructed. This will most certainly adversely affect the ecosystem.


IMG_7411Kibber Village – Traditional mud houses and concrete constructions on its way

However, one can still find mud houses in Villages in Spiti and the homestay we decided to stay was a traditional mud house. All Spitian houses have the traditional Tandoor heating system. The Tandoor heating system is used all over the Himalayan sub continent. In greener patches of the Himalayas access to fuel-wood is easier, though timber trade happens, not always dead wood is used. Spiti not having any access to fuel wood has a more efficient fueling mechanism, Spitians use biomass (Yak Dung) and dessert shrubs as fuel for the Tandoor. Modern LPG gas has reached most households in the village for cooking, however a substantial amount of cooking is done on the Tandoor.

IMG_7366Tandoor in a Spitian Home

We parked ourselves at the main room with the Tandoor and kept ourselves entertained watching what an everyday life of a home in a Spitian Village looks like – in winters. The morning goes in bringing water in huge jerry cans on domesticated donkeys from stream a bit distance, enough water for a family of 4-5 to be able to drink, cook and wash., bathing happens on a ceremonious day for a Spitian in winters. Along with water bio-fuel also needs to be carried from different areas arround the village, this includes Yak dung and dessert shrubs.

The most interesting phenomena about living in the Sub-Tibetan plateau (Ladakh, Mustang Valley and Tibet) is the dry toilet system. The dry toilet system is a two storey mechanism with a thick mud plank dividing the two floors and a hole is created on the plank. All the human waste goes through the plank to the floor at the bottom and the top floor is used as the toilet. In order for human waste not to leave a smell, yak/cow dung is thrown over the human waste day and again along with dry hay. This waste is collected for the whole season and right before winters before the snow sets in, the waste is taken down and thrown on agricultural fields for the soil to become fertile for agriculture. Come April the fields are ready to be ploughed.

IMG_7395The Hike Up to Spot the Snow Leopard

Spiti can grow almost anything, there is no original native crop barring Sea Buckthorn which is a fruit. Lower altitude villages in Spiti grow apples as a cash crop and higher one’s grow peas and potatoes. Native medicinal herbs are common in Spiti which is an area that can be explored in herb and medicinal plants rich Spiti. Cash crops are more commonly grown than native crops for livelihood. Spitians have had a very hard life because of limited connectivity and being written off as a tribal settlement, have now began to see prosperity due to rise in tourism.

Rise is tourism is certainly doing good in many ways, however one always seems to concentrate less on its adverse effects. Dry toilets are rapidly being replaced by modern western flush toilets like in Ladakh. Water is a scarce resource in Spiti and the traditional dry toilet system is an efficient and sustainable model for the landscape. Hence, its necessary to be preserved.

Tourism is also increasing plastic waste in the valley. One can find patches of dumped garbage which is not a very pleasing sight. The trade of daily edibles like grains and vegetables is one thing. However, the trade of neo-consumer items is purely profit based, how does one stop that. Will the future be a resilient model of community based tourism from food to shelter to income distribution point of view or will it turn into another commercial destination completely ruining its true charm.

Since we were in Spiti in winters, we had to go for the mythical Snow Leopard spotting. Hence headed towards Kibber Village after spending a couple of days at Dhankar. The sight I saw there was rather disappointing. There is always something about wildlife photography that bothered me. One can love clicking the animal, with an expensive equipment for only those can afford to buy do, but how many of us do really care for animal or think that may be we are disturbing them and that it is us who is invading their private home or spaces without their permission. How many of us think that way?

IMG_7396Tourist and Photographers waiting to get a site of the mythical Snow Leopard


We did spot a snow leopard. Neither did I have the equipment nor the interest of capturing it. I was happy spotting one, no glory to be claimed here. You are just spotting an animal.

All in all staying there was quite tough. Surviving without a Tandoor was impossible. Stepping out for a bio break into a dry toilet usually constructed outside of home needed immense bravery not that I had much of a choice there. But it was all worth it because being in Spiti in winters is like you are on another planet, a parallel universe. Magical and surreal.



Local Spitian woman – She invited us over for butter tea and gave us some Yak cheese and local herbs

Spiti being sustainable pretty much already, all a traveler can do is ensure to choose what is sustainable, a homestay, a dry toilet and local meals, it isn’t that hard after all.

Now go back to the top and read the quote 🙂

Happy Eco-Traveling !


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