Nongriat – A Montage of All Things Green

A quaint little village nestled in the tropical rainforests of Meghalaya.

The perfectly rounded moon glistened as it’s bright white reflection fell on the crystal clear waters of Umshiang River that flowed through in shadows of light and dark, right below the double root bridge. It was a December night but not as cold as one would expect. The sky was clear with not a single cloud. It could have been full moon that night, I can’t say for sure but I couldn’t care less.

I seated myself on a flattened rock right beside the double root bridge watching the moon dance in the ripples of the river. There was magic in the air and my heart was strumming a random tune. In this utterly romantic setting, the only thing missing was the prince of my dreams…… Sigh!

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Pic 1: The jaw-dropping wonder of the Double Root Bridge

We were at Nongriat village, in the interiors of Meghalaya – a state in North-East India that houses lush green mountains, thick tropical rainforests, gorgeous water falls, rivers with clear waters and several other wonders of nature. Situated at a distance of 10 Km in the south of *Cherrapunjee, Nongriat’s fame is attributed to the three functional root bridges. Of these, the double root bridge is outstandingly significant.

[* Cherrapunjee, known as Sohra locally, previously held the distinction of being the wettest place on earth, which is now taken over by Mawsynram, another place in Meghalaya.]

The quiet village with its few tiny houses scattered around a thick canopy of green is like a soothing balm to sore eyes and tired legs. Trees of bay-leaf, betel-nut, jackfruit, pepper, bamboo, rubber, a variety of shrubs, ferns, and herbs converge in multiple shades of green creating a healing effect of harmony and freshness. Every household had an artificial beehive just outside their homes making us wonder if bee-keeping was an obsession with the villagers.

Nongriat is accessible only by foot and the pathway constitutes an almost continuous flight of 3600 steps, spread over 3.5 Km. After an early lunch, we had started walking from Tryna village, which is also located in Cherrapunjee. The steps are concrete man-made, which start with a continuous descent that go on incessantly and is merciless on the knees. On the way, we stopped at a single root bridge and our wobbling knees got some much needed respite.

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Pic 2: We start off from Tryna village, there are railings for support but only initially.
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Pic 3: The single root bridge enroute to Nongriat

The steps continue in the same way, interrupted only by a few precarious hanging bridges made of iron rods. These bridges sway dangerously the moment you step onto them threatening to throw you off onto the gorgeous greenish-blue river with huge boulders that lie below. The swaying becomes even more erratic when several people cross simultaneously and if you encounter someone coming from the opposite direction, you may just want to send a prayer heavenward.

Quite an adventure, indeed!

Just before reaching Nongriat, the steps go upward and the descent suddenly changes to a pretty steep climb.

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Pic 4: Those continuous steps take a toll on your knees
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Pic 5: Those bridges were absolutely exhilarating!

The entire stairway is through lush green tropical forests with leaves and roots brushing up against you. This region gets copious amount of rain and it’s fairly common for people to experience heavy rainfall while walking this trial. Not surprising as rains and rain-forests are like bedfellows and you cannot expect one without the other.

Having been born and brought up in the state of Meghalaya, I have seen enough of rains in my lifetime – and ugh, I am so not a rain person! Thankfully it was winter and the weather was pretty good.

And by the way, don’t be surprised if you encounter rain during winter, it rains throughout the year in this part of the country. The winter ensured something else though – no leeches! God knows how much I dislike them!

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Pic 6: The surrounding greenery takes away all tiredness in an instant
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Pic 7: Carpet of ferns, aren’t they gorgeous!
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Pic 8: The final ascent as we arrive at Nongriat

Apparently, the Government is planning to build a road to Nongriat. While it will be immensely beneficial to the local people of the village, I selfishly hope that doesn’t happen. Nongriat will lose its uniqueness. Besides, the ills that will come with a road will surely jeopardise the delicate balance between man and nature in this gorgeous little paradise on earth.

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Pic 9: A village home. This is not in Nongriat, but enroute just after the single root bridge. Khasis have great taste when it comes to home decoration, even a village home will tell you that!

Life is by no means easy for the villagers at Nongriat. The village has no school. While some children study in boarding schools in Cherrapunjee or Shillong, others walk these steps (~ 7000, both ways) on a daily basis.

There is no health care center, villagers rely on their herbal and natural medicines but for serious issues the only way out is again through the stairway. There are no shops in the village except one that sells Maggi and biscuits to travellers. Villagers have to get everything, including grocery all the way from Cherrapunjee.

Hence, devising a way to provide these basic necessities instead of building a road would do good to the villagers.

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Pic 10: The homestay at Nongriat where we stayed that night.

Most people come to Nongriat for a day trek. Our idea of staying a night at Nongriat turned out to be a great decision.

Nongriat is fascinating for nature-lovers – a picture perfect destination to experience nature’s abundance. Besides the forests, rivers, bridges, Nongriat is home to the fascinating Rainbow Falls. And, that sure deserves a separate post.

‘Jhulley’ from Kibber and Lhalung

Kibber

“Jhulley ji!” I greeted the old lady soaking in the sun outside her home. “Jhulley, Jhulley” she returned the gesture with a toothless smile before going back to counting the prayer beads that were held together by a decorative tassel. ‘Jhulley’ means Hello in the local language, a word I had learnt even before setting foot onto Spiti Valley.

It was about 5 PM in the evening and the sun was still shining bright. We had arrived at Kibber about an hour back and after settling down at our homestay, had stepped out to explore the village making sure that we were layered well enough. Soon the sun would go down and it would become really cold. I chit-chatted with my travel companion – my sister – while walking down leisurely through the only dusty lane that ran through the center of the village.

Just a few meters down the road and suddenly a herd of sheep came rambling down from nowhere. We did expect to see sheep and other livestock in the village but not at that time and in that manner. Completely taken by surprise, we were jubilant at the sight of least a 100 sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. As we moved to the side to give way, I scampered through my jacket pocket hurriedly trying to locate my mobile to capture the moment. The sheep were too fast and by the time I was ready many of them had moved on. I had seen herds of sheep in many of my Himalayan sojourns before but this was different as the animals blended perfectly into the surrounding colour of the landscape, which was sharply contrasting to how I had seen them stand out in the green meadows. I regretted not getting a good shot and wished I had my mobile handy at that time!

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Pic 1: The herd of sheep blends harmoniously with the surrounding colour

We walked around the village for some more time, climbing up and down, passing through the narrow lanes, talking to the villagers and reveling at the beautiful surroundings against the setting sun. The leisurely pace enabled us to actually feel the evening slowly giving way to night. This was refreshingly different from  the mad rush in cities where we don’t know where our evenings go.

The village was really clean and much to our delight we found it well equipped in terms of a school and even a dispensary. There were solar panels all around and most houses had a television and satellite channels as well. This turned out to be different from what we had seen at Osla village (in Uttarakhand) a few months back.

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Pic 2: The farmland and few scattered houses on one side of the village
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Pic 3: View of the village from the window of our homestay

The village of Kibber, situated at a height of 4205 meters is about an hour’s drive from Kaza, the main town of Spiti. As you drive from Kaza through the steep and winding roads, Kibber can be seen from a distance as a green patch of land with a cluster of houses with white walls and red roofs surrounded by formidable mountains. Kibber is the biggest village in Spiti Valley, having around 80 houses that are densely packed to make sure that not an inch of agricultural land is lost in this dry and arid mountain area. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the major occupations here. Snow leopards have been sighted in Kibber during the winter season making it a much sought after destination for wildlife photographers. Kibber houses a Gompa and also the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, which is India’s only wild life sanctuary in a cold desert.

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Pic 4: The densely packed houses at Kibber
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Pic 5: Rooftops serve as a storehouse of livestock fodder, collected in preparation for winter
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Pic 6: A typical house in the village

Back at our homestay, we found Padma waiting for us with the evening tea and snacks. Padma and her husband owns the Kanamo homestay, which they had built recently. They lived there with their 4-year old daughter, Saraschotun. We soon discovered that Saraschotun was a bundle of joy with a contagious energy that cannot be escaped. We spent the evening playing with Saraschotun and chatting with her mother as she prepared dinner for us. Padma had two more daughters and a son, all of whom were in boarding schools at Kaza and Rangrik. The importance she gave to education was praiseworthy.

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Pic 7: The tandoor burns while water is heated in a pan
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Pic 8: Saraschotun sits still for a moment as she plays with my phone enabling a quick photo

The spick and span homestays in Spiti turned out to be much more comfortable than hotels. Our itinerary had just one day of homestay but we ended our travel with three. Two in Kibber and one in Lhalung.

My Kibber story will remain incomplete without mentioning Tashi’s home. 20-year old Tashi was the bell boy at our hotel in Kaza, who stole my heart with his simplicity and innocent dimples. I almost felt like adopting him. Tashi belonged to Kibber. When I showed him the pictures I had clicked in his village, he was quick to point out his home. He urged us to visit his home when we go back to Kibber. We did as we wanted to respect his wish. We met Tashi’s father and brothers, his mother and sister had gone over to Kaza. Unlike Padma’s homestay, Tashi’s home was very ordinary and their only source of income was livestock. Tashi was their eldest son, who had studied till Class 12 and wants to do better rather than spend the rest of his life at Kibber. We were humbled by the immense respect showered on us by Tashi’s father.

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Pic 9: Tashi’s home on the right, quite a climb uphill it was
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Pic 10: A selfie with Tashi’s father and brothers

Lhalung

Lhalung is situated at a height of 3,658 meters and is another beautiful high altitude village in Spiti valley. The word Lhalung means ‘land of God’ (lha for God and lung for land). It is said that the Tangmar Mountains, which surround Lhalung village changes color depending on the mood of Lhalung Devta, who is the head of all the Devtas in the valley. Red denotes anger while yellow signifies happiness.

At Lhalung we stayed at Khabrik homestay. Tandup Dolma, the owner and lady of the house was very hospitable and a great story teller giving us glimpses into the indigenous spitian way of life. Tandup lived a happy life with her two husbands. Her husbands are brothers – one of them is in the army and stays away most of the time, while the other is a farmer and lives with her in the village. Their three children were at a boarding school in Rangrik. We met her nephew Nuwangsonam, who was staying with her as his school was closed. Nuwang was in 8th grade and studied in the village school. However, his innocence appeared to us like a usual 5th grader of the cities. Lhalung does have a school but no dispensary. If anybody falls ill they have to travel all the way to Kaza.

We spent the evening chatting with Tandup while Nuwang desperately tried to teach us the local language. The next morning Nuwang took us around the village, especially to show the old Gompa of the village. The Gompa is also known as the Sarkhang or Golden Temple and we were told that it is 1020 years old. A new Gompa has also been built recently besides the old one. The old one appealed to me much more than the new one. Nuwang introduced us to an enthusiastic septuagenarian man who had the keys to the Gompa. This man took us through the Gompa with elaborate descriptions, much of which we just weren’t able to follow. Though we learnt that villagers believed the Gompa was built by angels one night. Hence, touching the murals on the Gompa wall is forbidden as that will anger the angels and they might leave the village.

Later Tandup played their traditional musical instrument, Kho Poh, and also tried teaching us a strum or two.

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Pic 11: A stack of hay stored neatly in the terrace of Tandup’s home, note the mud flooring
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Pic 12: Nuwang takes us around his village with a lot of pride and excitement
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Pic 13: The old monastery or Gompa at Lhalung
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Pic 14: Another part of the old monastery
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Pic 15: Murals on the wall inside the old  Gompa
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Pic 16: Inside the new Gompa
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Pic 17: Tandup tries to teach my sister how to play the ‘Kho Poh’

Everything about the lives of the villagers fascinated us. It was amazing to see the villagers holding on to their beliefs and customs. In spite of the tourist influx, their culture is still intact and modernization has not eroded their traditions and values. The people of Spiti live a life of happiness and pride despite their problems of long winter months and isolation from other parts of the country. They are very hospitable and more than happy to have you as their guest. The sense of compassion and the spirit of Buddhism is deeply rooted in everyone.

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Pic 18: The ceiling of the homes made of branches and twigs, which provide very good insulation

Padma and Tandup have not set foot outside Spiti and have never seen a city, but guests like us are their window to the world. They have their own hardships but are happy and satisfied and in many ways lead much more meaningful lives than those of us in the cities.

Here are some snippets of the villages, the people and the culture:

  • The tandoor in the village homes have the chimneys passing through the center of the homes making the homes warm, much warmer than hotels. Dried yak dung and cow dung are the main source of fuel for heating the tandoor. The floors of the houses are made of mud and the roofs made of dried twigs/branches provide the much needed insulation.
  • The rooms are clean and well furnished, however there were no mirrors in the rooms. The local women didn’t seemed to care about their looks though we found them exceedingly beautiful and simply loved their unique jewellery.
  • The homestays are better than hotels and are easier on the pocket too. They are much warmer, food is great, and you get to learn so much about the culture.
  • The practice of polyandry is seen and all the brothers in the family maybe married to one woman. The main reason is to avoid division of property. This system was fairly common before but now is not accepted by all, especially the youngsters.
  • During the brief summer (mid-May to mid-Oct), people work really hard to prepare for the 8-month long winter.
  • During the long winters, there is snow everywhere and most of the villages are cut off from civilization. People don’t have much to do. They spend their days soaking in the sun, knitting sweaters, and feeding their livestock. In the cold evenings, everyone in the family gathers around the tandoor and spend their time singing and dancing. So they work hard during summer and party hard during winter.
  • During winter, sheep are usually shifted to lower altitudes where the temperate is not that extreme. Cows and mules remain with the owners and are kept indoors. Yaks remain active through the winters and people even ride them to move through snow.
  • Green peas, potatoes, and barley are the main crops. The government is also promoting the cultivation of Seabuckthorn – the orange-coloured berries growing all around Spiti that are rich in vitamin C. The farming is organic and most of the crops are free from pesticides.
  • Some local way of saying things, that we learnt from Nuwang:
    • Accho: Brother (Bhaiya)
    • Acche: Sister (Didi)
    • Thammo: Sister-in-law (Bhabhi)
    • Amma: Mother
    • Appa: Father
    • Aane: Aunt (Bua)
    • Yato: Friend
    • Chiru: Cow
    • Nyuth thuk thapa: How are you?
    • Gno yak poh thak: Am doing good

The Story of Osla

It was a bright sunny April afternoon when we were on our way towards Har ki Dun, walking alongside river Tamosa. As we took a turn in the valley our gaze instantaneously fell upon a bunch of beautiful wooden houses on the mountain slopes. The haphazardly arranged houses almost appeared to be rolling down the mountainside in some form of a disarrayed haste. This was Osla!

Awestruck we were by this neat little village tucked far away in the Himalayas. We took a spontaneous decision to visit the village on our way back with the help of our guide, who had friends and relatives in the village.

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Haphazardly arranged homes on the mountain slope and river Tamosa that flows below.

Situated in Uttarakhand, in Western Himalayas, every little thing about this quaint little village intrigued us – the city dwellers.  Stuck in some bygone age, this unfrequented and relatively unseen village has millions of stories to tell.  As we set foot into the village through the narrow pathway lined with randomly arranged stones on one side and a mountain slope on the other, we noticed the place was dotted with apple trees all over. Just a few meters and the narrow pathway ended at the village temple.

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The wooden village temple as seen while entering the village, a view from the back.

Beyond this there was no clearly defined pathway.  Dedicated to ‘Someshwar Devta’, the unique wooden temple has a charm of its own.  The area around the temple appeared to be some sort of a village square. Young men were idling around, smoking ‘beedis’ while playing cards without a care in the world, children with cheeks as red as cherries chased one another as they ran around unmindful of the dust all around.  Some people say the temple used to worship Duryodhana*, who was a well-loved king in the region but the villagers deny this.

*An important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, whose desire and ego blinded him leading to the famous war of Kurukshetra.

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The temple as viewed from the front.

The beautiful wooden homes that had caught our attention earlier had roofs made of flat stones that were apparently procured from some faraway place. The stones provided the much needed protection during the harsh winter months. With wood appearing to be the primary source of firewood, furniture and construction, a rapid discussion on deforestation ensued between us, the cognizant city dwellers, only to die down quickly as our focus was on the villagers and their lives.

The indigenous people of the village stole our hearts in an instant with their hospitality, innocence and simplicity. Untouched by the vices of the modern world, the love and respect they showered on us was overwhelming, something we can never experience in the cities. Almost everyone we met invited us for tea or dinner. A young girl, Shamita insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea and we had to oblige.  The teenagers, Kashmina and Krishna weren’t tired of showing us around the village. They even got their best clothes to dress up my sister in their traditional attire – something that the whole village gathered to see and which they found profoundly amusing.

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The villagers dress my sister in their traditional wear.
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She poses with Kasmina (right) and Krishna (left). Notice the flat stones that make up the roof of the homes.

The concept of community living and the self-sufficient people truly appealed to us. There were villagers who were spinning yarn from sheep wool. The sheep is again reared by themselves and they use the yarn to weave their own warm jackets.  They proudly announce that their wool is priceless and cannot be found anywhere in the world – a claim that perhaps cannot be denied.   We notice that almost everyone in the village was busy doing something or the other, not many are seen idling time away. We were amused to see a lady stomping her feet in a large wooden basin that had clothes and water. That’s a community laundry where everyone goes to wash heavy clothes like blankets. Also, we were astounded to find children barely 7-8 year old busily washing clothes in the only tap in the village. Tap would be a wrong usage, it was rather a pipe through which water flows out constantly into Tamosa.

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Villagers spinning yarn from sheep wool.
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The yarn is processed further and colored with organic dye.

There is just one tiny little shop in the village which sells a few packets of chips, toffees, and potatoes. There is no grocery, no vegetables. The hard working villagers cultivate and grow their own rice, rajma, and potatoes. These constitute their staple food. Besides, some thorny leaves, bushes, and roots gathered from in and around also constitute a part of their food. There is no concept of storing these items, they are simply plucked as and when required. Cows, sheep, and mules constitute their livestock – cows for milk, sheep for wool, and mules to ferry things from outside. The mules also cater to trekkers like us to carry necessities like food, tents, etc. and in some cases carry our bags as well, enabling us to walk light.

A typical well-to-do home constitutes three floors – upper floor for people, middle one for sheep, and the lowest one for cows. Mules stay outside. Upper floor typically has three rooms alongside a long balcony overlooking the snow-clad mountains. The rooms are minimalistic having only cotton mattresses and quilts. Most of the homes however are smaller, constituting of just one room that serves as the bedroom, kitchen, living room, and everything else.

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A typical well-to-do home with three floors. Notice the apple trees on the side.
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An ordinary home that has just one room.

The tough life of the villagers brought tears to our eyes. The village has no network and hence no phones, Internet is out of question. There are no toilets, no roads, no electricity. A few homes do have solar panels that provide some basic not so bright lighting. Young girls barely 12-13 year olds carry a minimum of 20 Kgs of firewood regularly from the forests and walk 11-12 Km with that load.

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An old woman carries firewood and she must have walked 11-22 Km or more with that load.

In spite of such adversities, the village folks wore a happy smile complementing their unparalleled hospitality. As we bid goodbye the next day, they packed rajma for us in keeping with their tradition of not sending off visitors empty-handed. With an experience of a lifetime we left Osla.

It is incredulous to think that even after 70 years of independence, such remote and backward villages still exist in India. This is strikingly contrasting to the digital India and smart cities that we are supposedly moving towards.

There is a primary school but children are uneducated as the teacher is always drunk. A few children have the good fortune of being educated in other villages or in cities but mostly can’t afford the cost. In some families, especially those with several children get only one or two of their children educated while the rest remain in the village either because the parents cannot afford to educate them or they are needed to run the chores of the home. Amidst all of this, we happened to meet a young man who was completing his Masters in Botany at Dehradun and who had come home during the holidays. This was so refreshing and hopeful indeed!

The worst part is the village has no clinic or dispensary. The nearest medical help is 27 Km away. With no roads, seriously ill patients are tied to a chair that is then carried by four people, who walk 16 Km to reach ‘Taluka’, where they get transport and then drive another 11 Km, and that’s the nearest medical help.

We are back to our comfortable city lives with precious memories of Osla etched in our minds forever. However, each time we remember the lovely time we spent at the village it is accompanied by pangs of guilt as our mind does a spontaneous inadvertent comparison of our comfortable lives with the difficult lives of the villagers. The innocent villagers continue their daily struggle relatively oblivious to all the amenities of modern living.

Note: I am not quite sure I have been able to express myself well enough to do justice to the wonderful experience we had in the beautiful village of Osla. Hence, sharing a few more pictures below with the hope that you might be able to relate to our surreal experience at the village. (All pics are clicked through phone and are unedited raw photos.)

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Pic 1: A patch of green encountered just upon setting foot onto the village.
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Pic 2: A lady busy weaving at her home with several apple trees in her yard.
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Pic 3: Not quite sure about the purpose of these houses, probably a storehouse for wooden planks.
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Pic 4: Beautiful jewelry and rich deep wrinkles that must be harboring millions of wonderful tales!
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Pic 5: There’s just one or two such community taps rather pipes through which water flows out constantly.
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Pic 6: The wooden basin for washing clothes, the community laundry area, where clothes are washed by feet stomping.
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Pic 7: A wooden stairway leading to the upper floor of a 3-storied house.
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Pic 8: The balcony overlooking snow-clad mountains, a view that I could die for!
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Pic 9: There is no proper pathway as you go around the village. It’s like an obstacle course as you pass by somebody’s yard, jump over a pile of stones, walk through stone steps and so on…
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Pic 10: A lovely group photo with some of the village kids!
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Pic 11: Dinner being prepared over a ‘chulha’ in the minimalistic kitchen, which also serves to make the room warm during winters.