Tabo is the home of the Tabo Gompa, a world heritage site. Tabo Gompa is a Buddhist monastery built over 1000 years ago in 996 AD. It has been visited several times by the Dalai Lama. He plans to retire there when he finishes active work.
If you saw the place you would find it an interesting place to retire. It is in the center of the dry Spiti Valley. It is a two-hour drive over rough roads to the next town. It is very cold eight months of the year. It has a community of monks living there and a school for children. I found it a very peaceful place to stay. I stayed in the guesthouse run by the monastery. It has a small library with a comprehensive collection of books about Buddhism and the Dalai Lama and Tibet. The old monastery also has irreplaceable frescos and statues of the Buddha in the temples of the complex, which look like a group of adobe houses from the outside.
I also attended a 6am puja with the monks in the monastery, which consisted of about twenty minutes of chanting mantras and forty minutes of silence. It was so calming that afterward I went back to bed for two hours.
I also visited a small town called Nako even further east of here. Nako is perched high on the wall of the valley. To the west is a great view of the Himalayan mountains. To the east, if one were to climb high over the valley wall, one would be in Tibet. I’m told that through the pass just to the south, one or two Tibet refugees a day cross the border into India. To counteract the presence of Chinese military troops across the border in Iran, there is a visible presence of Indian troops and military bases. They are called the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force. Because this is a controlled area, I was required to apply for an Inner-Line Permit. This allowed me to travel up the lower end of the Spiti Valley near the Tibetan border. There were two checkpoints in the Inner-Line zone, where all of the foreigners had to get off the local bus and show our permits and have our information recorded in a log. If for some reason we were deemed undesirable, the police could have denied our desire to continue and sent us back.
I received the Inner-Line Permit in Rekong Peo, which is the administrative town for the Kinnaur Valley. I stayed in the town of Kalpa, 600 meters above Rekong Peo. These places, like Kaza now, were large enough to have ESPN on the cable and poor internet service.
Kinnaur is a valley greener than Spiti, but with the same dramatic landscape. I walked through farms and pine forests above Kalpa to get a good view of Kinnaur Kailash, a massive mountain across the valley.
Some Indians make a difficult religious trek circumscribing Kinnaur Kailash. When they do, they end up in Chitkul, a tiny town at the far upper end of the Sangla (or Baspa) Valley. This town gave me a feel for the local Kinnaur culture. Because these valleys were very isolated before Lord Governor Dalhousie of India decided to build the Indo-Tibetan highway in the mid-1800s, the people of the valleys of Himachal Pradesh had there own distinctive look, culture, and language. In Chitkul this was evident in their dress: flannel caps with a thick green velvet band and wool suitjackets. (I assume these came about after European influence.) They also looked different than the people of Kullu and Spiti Valleys, with long noses and faces. Very little English was spoken there. I believe tourists showing up there is a relatively new thing, as mostly I was stared at or ignored as something alien. There seemed to be a wedding going on everyday, with a caravan of cars of the groom coming from the neighboring village to pick up the bride and bring her back.
There are only a handful of tourists going through Kinnaur and Spiti. They are mostly tourists who have some time on their hands, because it takes a long time to journey between towns on rough roads. The choice is either local bus or hired jeep, both equally harrowing. The towns, especially the smaller ones, have been especially pleasant and peaceful to stay in, and the temptation has always been to stay another night.
The valleys are changing quickly. I am glad I have had the opportunity to see them now. The Indian government is building like crazy: damming the wild rivers in multiple places, blasting the cliff walls to build more roads, and putting up power lines. In the villages, the traditional stacked stone and timber houses are being overshadowed by quickly-built concrete guesthouses. The attitude seems to be build, build, build, with little thought to the impact on the environment or the people. I spoke with an engineer with the electrical power agency in Kinnaur, who said that out of one thousand Nepalese working on putting up power line towers, two hundred have died doing this dangerous work. I just hate to see a beautiful place get ruined.
Since there are only two ways to visit these valleys, clockwise or counter-clockwise, I have been seeing the same travellers from town to town. Most are Israeli, as they have a lot of time on their hands to see a place such as this. It’s a great way to travel, as we end up eating together at night, staying in the same guesthouses, and figuring out how to get to the next town.
Well, there are a number of things to see near Kaza, including the Ki Gompa, Dhankar Gompa, and the Pin Valley.