Over the past couple of years, I’ve devoted a great deal of time to collecting and sending postcards, with the hope of reintroducing the art of letter writing to all my Facebook friends. So far, I’ve been less than successful. Replies to the last set of postcards I sent out—from a floating post office on Dal Lake in Kashmir, no less—trickled in via text messages and Skype. Nevertheless, I still walk into my neighbourhood post office in Mumbai every week, and spend leisurely moments sticking stamps surrounded by pre-historic ceiling fans and peeling walls.
So you can imagine the intensity of my excitement as I climbed to the world’s highest post office. Perched at 15,500 ft above sea level, it is only appropriate that it is located in India, home to the world’s most extensive postal system. Hikkim, the village to which I made this pilgrimage, is 23 km from Kaza, which is the main town in Himachal Pradesh’s barren Spiti Valley. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but getting invited into the postmaster’s house for a cup of chai came as a rewarding surprise. I went armed with 16 postcards, 12 already scribbled with messages and four for privileged friends, to be written on in that holy space.
The Hikkim post office was opened on November 5, 1983, and the man who holds my dream job—Rinchen Chhering—has been the branch postmaster here since its inception. He was 22 years old when he took charge. Today, as he stamps those letters and postcards, it’s an act as familiar as planting peas in his backyard or drinking tea. This inconspicuous little Spitian office which doubles up as Chhering’s home is the only conduit to the world for Hikkim’s 161 or so residents—there is no cell phone signal or internet to connect with. Like the rest of the valley, the post office is also shut for six months of the year because of snow.
It is here that the monks from the nearby Komik monastery receive their passports to undertake overseas pilgrimages, where local farmers maintain savings accounts, and where curious tourists come to send postcards. Two runners take turns in delivering mail on foot from Hikkim to Kaza every morning, from where it is taken by bus to Reckong Peo, onward to Shimla, further by train to Kalka, loaded on a bus again headed to Delhi, and distributed by rail or air depending upon its destination.The most fascinating part of the journey for me remains the hike (a “one-hour quick walk” for locals) the runners undertake daily, from Kaza, passing languid bharal and ibex along a precarious path etched into the tall, dry desert mountain that separates Hikkim from Kaza. I believe my postcards reached Kaza before my rattling Maruti 800 cab got there. Just as well. I could barely wait to receive these postcards with the prestigious stamp back home in Mumbai—on behalf of my flatmates of course.
Appeared in the October 2012 issue as “Postcard Pilgrimage”.
Pin Code 172114
State Himachal Pradesh
Getting There There is a motorable road to Hikkim. Travellers can hire a cab in Kaza. Alternatively, one can go on a two-hour uphill hike from Kaza. There is only one bus a day at 2 p.m. that drops off passengers above the village.
Stay There are no guesthouses in Hikkim, only one homestay in the nearby village of Langza promoting ecotourism. Kaza has the best accommodation options and restaurants.