Once upon a time, a Queen told a traveller to send her son, the King a message down the valley. That traveller was me…

Spiti Valley: photo by Tej Ram

It’s been a while since my last travel blog. Well, I’ve been travelling. But I’m still going to pick up where I left off last time when I was on those rattling buses in Spiti Valley. I knew I couldn’t get further away from home than this, and though the growling engine of the bus and the dust curtains that hung over our filthy, flapping windows and the frightening plummet to the land hundreds of feet below the road’s edge where the forgotten buses and jeeps lay like skeletons in the desert, there was always this thrill, that despite this terror and this potential dance with death, I was not home. More on that later.

“Travelling- it gives you a home in a thousand strange places, and then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” Ibn Battuta

I went far, very far. To the hills and beyond. Now, after months of being in Dankhar monastery (please read the previous blog, the Temple in the Crag) in Spiti Valley- months, that was, of being tutored in Tibetan but relentlessly pursued by my very tutor in dark and windowless rooms, on tiny paths to villages where local families would ply us with the local arak brew, but only ever in the dark, and never in the light. I needed a break. I was proud however that despite the fact that night after night I had to fight off the advances of my pedagogue, I fought well enough to keep him away. Yet every day, we kept the veneer of teacher and student, and I only endured my strange days at Dankhar because the monks, the villagers and the old Rinpoche were so wonderful, and because I was driven to learn Tibetan from a ‘good’ teacher.

He was a neat little chap who carried a perfect little suitcase everywhere he went- even in snowstorms, even across lumpy, stony roads, always in the same impeccable argyle cashmere jumper, his ray bans shielding him from the intense sun rays that Spiti valley drew to it… well, I was ready to leave. Or at least, to have a break from the Temple on the Crag: Dankhar, a fort once the seat of the Spiti Kings, from which they hurled rocks at roaming marauders from Tibet.

While at Dankhar, the monks had spoken often of Kinnaur, the valley that led on from Spiti Valley. It was green and lush, full of almond and apricot and apple trees. Sometimes I had seen Kinnauris travelling through Spiti, wearing their green velvet pillbox hats, and flowers dangling from them. They had big, wide eyes and long, tweed waist coats. I wanted to leave the aridity of Spiti Valley, and find the King of Spiti, to give him the message his mother had sent, through me, from Kaza: Please send six Pressure Cookers from the Army Canteen.

No foreigners had been allowed into Kinnaur before 1989, and now we needed the ‘inner line permit’ which enabled travellers to legally pass through the valley. When the bus stopped at the Shipki la pass, and the bungling officer stamped my permit with his eyes half closed, I was minutes from Tibet. He filled out the details of my passport in his little hut with such vigour, that his cup of chai shook.

“Write here.” He said to me, handing me a form.

Purpose of visit: visit

Places to be visited: Puh

“Why Puh?” He asked, sleepily.

“Visit.” I said.

“Acha.” He said “Why not?” He said, handing me back my passport. Not the most alert border policeman I had ever met, but the Chinese had not invaded for more than thirty years, so I supposed he could be excused.

“The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped.” — Graham Greene

When the bus passed Yangthang, below the beautiful village of Nako, perched on the mountainside, five Kinnauri women got onto the bus, all wearing the traditional green velvet pillbox hats, and their hair woven in to tiny plaits which they call Lin-bu. Dried flowers and beedies hung in the flap of the older woman’s hat flap. They moved into their seats, laughing and cackling as the bus drove through the gorges of white rivers, past waterfalls like cool ribbons gushing down the mountainside like smoke.

The amorous and jovial Kinnauris made the Buddhist missionaries in the 1st C A.D. , quite wary: they were just too beautiful to become monks and monks were fined a prajika (penal fee) if they made love to the beautiful Kinnauris.

Above: local Kinnauri politician with O.P.Negi’s mother and Below: three beautiful Kinnauri women in Puh, Kinnaur. Photo: Siofra O’Donovan

I got out of the bus at Puh, where a huge Defence Colony lies hunched on the banks of the Sutlej River. An army truck gave me a lift up the winding road to Puh village where the Nono, the King of Spiti, was staying. The Queen mother of Spiti Valley, who so urgently needed her pressure pots, had told me I would find her son, the Nono, at the house of the Negi family, in Puh village. He had a government job at Puh. Now the only problem is that every single family in Kinnaur is called Negi. I looked at the message she had written and saw the name Om Prakash. And the driver, and the ladies of the Lin-bu, and everyone knew, that it was O.P.Negi, because there was only one of those. And that was where I would find the Nono King.

Left: The Rani (Queen) of Spiti with her Lhasa Apso, and Left: The Raja (King), of Spiti, the Nono. Phostos by Siofra O’Donovan

I had another strange gift that had been given to me in Manali, by an Austrian friend of the King. He pressed a copy of War and Peace into my hands, and asked me to give it to the Nono. And so, I stepped out of the army jeep with my small bag on my back, out into a cluster of wooden houses, and I began to ask for O.P.Negi as I passed through a knot of little lanes. I was pointed, by the beautiful pill box hatted, smiling Kinnauris, with flowers in their hair, towards a pagoda that peeped over the top of a crowd of trees.

“Nono is there.”they said. “And O.P. is there.”

And so, I walked down to the Pagoda behind the trees. They were expecting me- the Queen of Spiti had phoned from Kaza that morning. As I came to the pagoda, and the houses that surrounded it, a man came to greet me, wearing brass rimmed spectacles and a tweedy looking jacket.

“We’ve been expecting you. I am Nono.” He said, smiling. He took my bag, and shook my hand warmly and led me into a conservatory room with views that spread all over the delicious green valley. It was like paradise, after the arid lengths of Spiti Valley, and the howling, dusty winds. O.P. Negi sat between two phones on a couch, his finger in the dialler of the red phone, the receiver of the green phone nestled between his shoulder and his ear. He looked up at me as I came in- he had a soft round face and a small goatee, and the large, Kinnauri eyes that would make you swoon.

“Hanji? Hanji? You do one thing…” English interjected through Hindi and Kinnauri, always with the same phrase you do one thing…O.P. Negi was not just an apple, apricot and almond baron, but the transport tycoon of Puh Valley. He was a busy man behind the Pagoda, with his red and green telephones.

I handed Nono the copy of War and Peace, and he asked me how Lutz was. There it was, returned to its rightful owner, that dog eared book I had carried all the way through Spiti Valley.

“By the way, your mother told me to tell you to get her some pressure cookers from the army canteen…”

“She told me yesterday on the telephone. Do you like Dostoevsky?”

O.P. Negi slammed down the phones, and groaned, and a small, dwarf lady in a Kinnauri hat and a green Salwar Kameez came in with a silver tray of tea. Her name was Kelsang, and she was one of O.P.’s three dwarf sisters. Another lived up the valley, tending to his brother the Lama Sushil, who was in a three year, three month and three day traditional retreat.

“You’ll take rum?” Said O.P. “Tonight there will be a party for the Commander in Chief, he is leaving for Benares. You’ll join us for the evening.”

Downstairs in the basement of the house, was the kitchen where his dwarf sister, and all his other unmarried sisters, his mother who had the longest Lin bu plaits I had ever seen (down far beyond her behind) and his wife, who was also the wife of his two brothers (they still practice polyandry in Kinnaur, as they have for hundreds of years), were down crouched around the stove, brewing wild goat stew with flowers, dal and sabji.

Nono took the afternoon off work, and sat with me by the window and we spoke of Tibet, which we could see through the window, over the mountains.

“It’s a five minute helicopter away.” Said Nono. “But I’ve never been there. Who knows what will happen..”

A Kinnauri Pagoda

Most of his life, Nono had spent away from Spiti, in boarding schools and universities and institutes. He was a trained sociologist and had returned to Spiti to work on a government development project for children. He had an exiled look about him. The following year I would be at his wedding, where he looked as lost and exiled as ever. His mother had married him off, at 40, to another local 40 something year old royal lady from Lahaul. He was covered in a pile of white offering scarves in his fort at Khyuling, looking very dejected indeed. [photo]

That day in O.P. Negi ‘s conservatory , I had seen it all- dwarves, kings, apricot barons and even smugglers: a man had come looking for O.P., and Nono told me he was a smuggler who worked for military intelligence. Two or three times a year he went to Tibet over the Shipki la on horseback in the guise of a tradesman bringing back goat wool, Chinese runners, flasks and army coats. The story went that he gave more information to the Chinese than he did to Indian Intelligence.

Evening came, and the officer’s wives were put in a room off the conservatory, and I was ushered along with them, the no alcohol room with lemonade and Bombay mix. The Commander’s wife was dressed in a lemon chiffon sari and she told me her husband was always eating roti, and never rice. She turned to a woman who sat like a statue in the corner in a beige satin sari, who nodded, her two brown eyes reflecting the light like pearls. The Commander came in beaming from ear to ear, a tumbler of rum in his fist, wearing a black Polo neck jumper and a shirt so white it nearly shone. He looked like he could not be happier to get out of this jaded little outpost. He grinned a this wife throw the door and said ‘everything OK sweetie’, a string of his slicked back hair stuck out over his ear, he swung around again as a microphone was pushed under his nose and he sang thunderously into it, like an Indian Tom Jones.

Later, O.P. broke into a Ghazal in a voice that slid over those Urdu words of love and longing as if it was coated in soft rain. He kept his eyes closed, and when he finished the song, he looked up and said:

“I know only know one thing. I want to be reborn in Spiti . Will you all please pray that I am reborn there.” He lifted his glass, and it was filled with Triple XXX army black rum. A Kinnauri song was played and the Commander, the Nono the officers and O.P. Negi danced in a circle while I looked at the black mountains under the dark blue sky, the stars and the moon burning through it. This was India, not Tibet. Yet, over the border, the village people spoke the same dialect as the Kinnauris, wore the same green pill box hats. Before 1962, the Kinnauri people considered themselves Tibetan. I thought of what the Dalai Lama had once said: that Tibet was invaluable to the Chinese because it was a vital nerve point in Asia, and its mountains could be made an impregnable citadel from which to launch attacks on India, Burma and Pakistan. And there was the Commander, with his merry troops asleep in cantonments below, dancing to Kinnauri songs, singing his head off.

The Infamous and wonderful O.P.Negi, in Spiti with a local girl. Photo: Siofra O’Donovan

At the confluence of the rivers Sutlej and Spiti, there was a final farewell party for the commander at 3 o’clock the next day. A red carpet was rolled out on the rocks beneath a small Hindu temple, where the picnic was laid out. I pictured him on the red carpet at the confluence of the two rivers by the bridge, singing his Tom Jones songs, as the wind licked his hair out of shape.

And later that year, the bridge would collapse. The Sutlej would rise up forty metres, and people would say that a Chinese dam had been burst on the other side. They would disown the river, and call it The Chinese River. Somebody other than a weather god had to be blamed for the village of Bilaspur that was washed away and seventy people with it. 150,ooo apricot and almond trees were ripped out of the river banks. Many of those belonged to O.P.Negi. And not long after that, O.P.Negi fell out of his jeep, and hit his head on a rock. By the time they got him to Shimla, he was dead. And so, I believe he must have been reborn in Spiti Valley and I will go back there one day, to find him. This blog is dedicated to the most talented transport and apricot baron I have ever met, who could sing ghazal like an angel in the rain. RIP Om Prakash Negi.

If you would like to read more about Spiti, Kinnaur, Ladakh and Tibetan villages in the Himalayas, please read my travelogue, in Lost in Shambala . And more Travel Writing here.

Left: O.P.Negi and a local politician and Right: O.P.’s brother Shamsher ji. Photos: Siofra O’Donovan

Beautiful Kinnauri women. Photo: Siofra O’Donovan