#FacesBehindPlaces is a special series that spotlights the guides and storytellers who bring our favourite destinations and experiences to life
For Takpa Tenzin, Spiti valley is jannat—heaven on earth. His village, Chicham, is a scenic hamlet in the north-east of the valley, close to the more well-known Kibber village. Until a few years ago, a deep gorge separated the two villages, allowing little to no tourism in Chicham. But in 2017, the Chicham Bridge was constructed and has now become a tourist attraction. Takpa tells me that Spiti valley as a whole used to be pretty inaccessible too. Indian tourists used to need an inner line permit to visit. But after permits were eliminated in 2000, he has travelled with tourists from India, France, Italy and England.
Takpa has been a tour guide in the area for 21 years and runs his own homestay in the village. “I was always interested in travel,” he says. “We would watch National Geographic on TV all the time. But I didn’t know how to do that kind of work.” Then, one day, a Delhi-based travel company visiting Spiti said they were looking for a porter for their trek in Ladakh. Takpa went along on a whim. “That is when I came to know there is something called a trekking and tour guide.”
Ever since then, Takpa has been conducting treks and village tours across Spiti, Ladakh, Manali, Shimla and Kinnaur. “People know a lot about Ladakh, but very little about Spiti,” he says. “There is so much to see here. I always tell tourists about the homestays and introduce them to the mountain people. Spiti also has the world’s highest post office in Hikkim village,” he says proudly. In the winters, his tours focus on the king of the mountains—the snow leopards native to the region that are now dropping in numbers across the world. Takpa saw his first snow leopard in 2008, when he was travelling with the acclaimed wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee. “I could not believe it when I first saw it,” he says. “Since then, I’ve seen snow leopards many times but it is just as exciting each time.”
For the past year though, there have been no tours for him as Spiti went under complete lockdown. “No one thought of what we will do, not the government and not the people,” he says. There are almost no alternative paths to pursue in his remote village. “We couldn’t work as labourers and couldn’t even go to neighbouring villages for work. Whatever we had saved is getting over.” As beautiful as the valley is, it poses major challenges for him and his family. Agriculture is tough and snowfall has been minimal this year. To top it all off, they struggle with internet access. His three daughters have had to put a pause on school because online classes are next to impossible for them. “We are only hoping that the pandemic eases up by August or September so that we can open up again for the winter.”
A quiet entrepreneurial spirit has kept him going during this time. With the help of the company he works with and some of his friends, he distributed ration kits and clothes to the needy in the lockdown. His homestay now houses a small library for children and adults in his village. “Winter is usually the off-season. Many people are left without work and end up gambling and drinking,” he says. “That’s why I set up the library, to help people get rid of these habits.” He’s also been working on innovations in agriculture in the valley—growing oyster mushrooms 4,200m above sea level and trying to set up an artificial glacier to harvest spring water so they don’t have to depend entirely on snow and rainfall.
“Sometimes, I feel very proud of myself,” he tells me. “I am illiterate. Whatever I have learned, I have learned from being a tour guide. Even today, people I have travelled with will call and talk to me like I am one of their own. Who does that these days?”
You can reach Takpa Tenzin on Whatsapp on 9418215768