“It’s as if we just landed on Mars!” exclaimed my friend, while trekking through Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. The landscape here is indeed stark, simple and overwhelmingly quiet. In the one week that we spent here, trekking from one village to another, we hardly came across a moving life-form outside the villages. The occasional rabbit, fox or blue sheep (deer) will sheepishly bounce across your path, hoping that you didn’t see it. The only abundant movement here is of rivers and butterflies.

Spiti’s splendour lies in its starkness, where mountains are not lush, but rocky and dry. As if under a spell, they change colours with the sun, from orange to purple to green. The silence of this place throws you off guard and you wonder if you are in a dream or perhaps have walked into a painting. It is hard to believe that such a place exists, and has existed for time immemorial without anybody knowing about it. How could such magnificence escape the human eye? As we trekked at nearly 5000 mts. above sea level, gasping for oxygen, I wondered that if no one is here, if this place is so silent, for whom does it exist? For whose eyes does it pose so gorgeously? What is this grandiose beauty for? For whom does this river cartwheel away so earnestly? As if in love with its own self, this valley seems to sprout stunning wild flowers for its own sake. Beauty here is untapped, un-cashed, un-captured by the external eye, and simply exists for its own self.

Of course, other than natural beauty, this valley is also dotted with quaint villages, agricultural fields, handicrafts and spectacular monasteries. This is not a place one wants to desecrate with hotels, and so Ecosphere (an organisation working on rural development and eco-tourism here) organises home-stays in villages for wanderers like us. They also plan your trek based on your interests and ensure that a local guide accompanies you throughout. This person is your best friend on this trip – he tells you stories, the history, geography and economy of this place if you are inquisitive enough to pester him with questions.

Befriending the locals is a charming way to travel. Your hosts will graciously give you your own room, but isn’t it so much more fun to make momos with them and drink their local liquor over conversations about life in Spiti? Children here will skip school so they can go fossil hunting with you in the river. This will remind you that the Himalayas rose over Tethys Ocean millions of years ago. Fossilised remains of sea life can be found in abundance over here. Fossil hunting turned out to be quite an excitement amongst us as we spent hours getting wet in the river, looking for dead life. These however must not be brought back as they are the prized possession of this region and are here for balancing the ecosystem and adding cultural value.

Our eight day trek consisted of Kaza-Kibber-Key-Langza-Komik-Demul-Dhankar-Kaza. This included the world’s highest post-office; second highest village; Tantric-Buddhist monasteries with walls you cannot touch and stories of spirits and fairies; walking through gushing rivers by making human chains; napping on rocks in the middle of the trek; watching yaks fight by locking horns; trekking through treacherous paths in life/death situations as you are literally crawling on loose gravel and a single wrong step will have you tumbling down the gorge that resembles the Grand Canyon; meditating in ancient Buddhist caves that resonate with spiritual energy even today; and serene lakes, ideal for stone-skipping.

Needless to say, the romance of this place is intoxicating. Ecosphere’s efforts in maintaining its essence while also introducing it to the outside world, is commendable. Their rural development initiatives along with eco-tourism ensure the best combination of responsible travel. This definitely remains one of my most memorable trips and is a place that lingers high on the ‘visit-again’ list.

by Sarandha, the author of In Search of Yamuna: Reflections on a River Lost (Vitasta, 2011). Worked with the Centre for Science and Environment, is currently a research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. And also writes a blogSarandha’s Musings.