The Valley and the Sky

A few years ago, someone in the UK came up with the idea of dark skies. Being small, crowded and electrified, Britain is not the ideal place for clear night skies. The stars above our densely packed island are too often drowned in noise. Choked. Swamped in a dense fug of smoky-orange light pollution. Since the dark skies award was launched, rural places like Northumberland and Dartmoor have had the clarity of their night skies formally recognised and rewarded; testament to their relative lack of urbanisation and the fact that more than perhaps seven stars can be seen suspended above them after dark.

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The Spiti Valley from Balangri

The problem is, though, that this doesn’t really mean anything. Not when you’ve been to the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, northern India. Not when you’ve looked up and seen real dark skies.

Imagine a sky untainted by light. Unspoilt by pollution. Viewed through an atmosphere of utter transparency. Imagine perfect clarity gazing up at thousands of pinpoint stars, the blackness between them all the more absolute for their brilliance. Sky in which the Milky Way is a broad, speckled, silver splash across an obsidian hemisphere. On a moonless night the light from the stars alone is enough to illuminate the Himalayan landscape around you, washing nearby rises and distant peaks alike in a pale and ghostly luminescence.

Two weeks ago I was in Langza village, just to the north of the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India, looking up at that sky. I’ve just led my first overseas expedition, taking a group of 12 young people to India for Outlook Expeditions (more on this in an upcoming post).

Spiti Valley lies in the rain shadow of the India Himalaya. It’s a beautiful, stark and desiccated landscape of barren cliffs and alien water-sculpted soil formations. Villages like Langza stand out from far away, their squat and whitewashed mud-built houses ringed by patchwork skirts of emerald wheat fields.

Spiti is more Tibet than India. From its climate to its culture, it has far more in common with Lhasa than Delhi. In fact, it was formerly part of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhist culture prevails here. Monasteries cling to precipices above the valley. One such monastery, in the small village of Ki, is in such a precarious position that it now stands in imminent danger of collapse; a point not lost on me as I wandered through its labrythine interior with an uncharacteristically reverential group. A tattered magazine wedged against the wall proclaims Ki Monastery as one of the world’s 100 most endangered historical sites.

In Spiti, we spent a week in Langza working on a greenhouse construction project and another six days trekking from Langza to Dhankar.

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Himalayan Griffons drifted overhead and our camp was invaded by yaks. We hacked latrine pits out of the dry, compacted earth with chisel-tipped metal poles and plucked black ammonites and trilobites from shallow streambeds. We sipped cups of sugary hot masala tea and slathered on handfuls of sunblock in sticky defiance. We laboured under sacks of plasticine mud, pressing it into metal brick moulds with bare hands before leaving it to dry in ordered rows. We breathed the thin, high-altitude air, feeling its inadequacy on gentle slopes and mountain passes alike, bent double to catch breath under leaden daysacks. We stumbled upon the gleaming bones of cattle bleached white by the sun. We played cards and laughed with the Indian porters, and ate more rice and dal than we ever thought we would have to.

And every night after dark we returned to our tents. Beneath the chandelier, of stars and atmosphere  – to quote the Killers.

Beneath real dark skies.