Spiti Valley – one of the favorite destination on every avid traveler’s list especially who is fascinated by the mountains. I had first heard about Spiti Valley- the middle land between India and Tibet, in 2015 and it instantly on boarded my travel list. And finally, I could make it happen in Aug 2019!!During these 4 years, I had various encounters with mountains and high-altitude places; as if the nature in its own way was making me ready for this wonderland of Lahaul and Spiti Valley.
After Pune-Delhi flight and roller coaster Delhi-Manali road journey I met my co-travelers in Manali. This was my second trip to Manali so instead of tiring myself in visiting typical tourist places, I spent the day in relaxing and exploring different cafes, food and music with my new friends.
We started our journey, group of 9 people, guide -Dinesh bhaiya and driver- Manohar bhaiya- in a tempo traveler, for Manali to Kaza: largest town of the Spiti Valley. Being a journey through mountains it takes 12 hours to cover 200kms distance on a good day. And we all were hopeful that it is our “good day” today but we had to stop near Solang valley – as army trucks and traffic from other side was passing by. We got down for fresh air, the valley and adjoining route was a pleasant view. People were charged up initially, busy in clicking pictures, tasting juicy apples from orchards nearby but as the time passed slight irritation started. I was occupied in my favorite pass time- chatting with our guide- asking all sorts of questions about the route, places that we will cover, about the people there, how our home-stays will be and many more. He patiently answered few of them and then said “Madam ji , saare sawalo k jawab na apko khud hi milenge jab aap waha k logo se milengi, un k sath rahengi. Aur ek baat yaha mountains mein patience jaruri hota hai kab kaha kya ho jaye, kaise fas jaye raste me pata nahi bas vishwas aur patience se hi raasta niklega”. I experienced the importance of his last statement on my Manali-Delhi return journey when we got stuck in the mountains near Beas river due to heavy rainfall in Himachal and other neighboring states.
Slowly the traffic started moving and we passed Solang valley- crossed Rohtang pass spent some time there. Road till Rohtang was still fine and what we call as “motorable” but ahead calling it a road was an oxymoron. The whole journey was “off roading” and our lives were in the hands of Manohar bhaiya who at that time was driven by one single mission “crossing chhota dara” at the earliest and for that we had to cut short our breaks to quote in his words “ ek baar chhota dara paar ho jaye, fir aaram hi aaram hai”. We reached Gramphu splitting point on Leh Manali highway,road to the left takes you to Leh and the one to right leads you to Spiti via Kunzum pass. The route is alongside Chenab river. At Chhatru, the first checkpoint of our journey to Spiti we registered our crossing. Then came the most awaited spot chhota dara, and we understood why driver bhaiya wanted to cross it during the morning hours. It has most ferocious water crossing on this route over gravel and rocks. It’s only due to Manohar bhaiya’s driving skills we could make it to the other end smoothly. He, with his experience, then helped other drivers too. We had our lunch in Batal village at Chandra aka Chacha Chachi ka dhaba. In my travel research earlier I had read about this Savior Couple serving food and accommodation on this route. Travelers satiated their hunger with ‘rajma chawal’ served hot in their tent-cum dhaba. Already the journey was complete off-road and post lunch the route seemed even more bumpy. Greenery, when we started, was slowly being replaced by brown and dry terrains.
After Rohtang the next pass that we crossed was Kunzum La (at approx.15,000ft) which connects Lahaul and Spiti. All the drivers and travelers halt here thanking Kunzum mata for safe journey till now and seek blessings for the dangerous journey ahead. Vehicles enter from left and complete the circle by exiting right – like pradakshina imbibing energy of the sacred place. This place offers first spectacular view of Spiti Valley and few kilometers ahead the trek route for Chandratal lake starts which we took on our return journey. By now the altitude started showing its effects. From my experience of the mountains so far one of the easy solutions I had learnt to cope up with high altitude sickness is keeping oneself hydrated. And hence I could enjoy the photography at Kunzum pass-capturing every bit of this place and path which leads to magical Spiti Valley. Drive ahead from this point has very thin line between adventurous and dangerous – narrow paths, absolutely no roads, windy and dusty!! Now dark waters of Spiti river are leading us to the valley and brought us to Losar- first signs of civilization in the valley. We stopped for tea and mountains wali Maggie break. We reached our Kaza homestay at 10.30pm after around 14hours of bumpy off-road journey. To our surprise the home stay was not what we had imagined – a mud house, with basic beddings and dry toilets; it was a pakka house- duplex kind of, with cozy beddings and regular toilets. After refreshing hot water bath, we entered the dining room for our dinner- the room was equipped with all sorts of traditional cutlery and there was traditional heater inside. Landlord and his family served us dinner with smiling faces even at that hour, followed by chit chat.
Next day I woke up at 4.30 am (which is rare scene back at home) that’s the effect of high altitudes one tends to sleep less than usual. Me and my friend went up to the terrace and the view of mountains surrounding our home-stay was just mesmerizing after couple of clicks I realized I can’t capture it enough, the wise thing would be sit calm and just soak into the morning freshness. While the landlady was preparing breakfast for us, I tried to have communication with their shy kids in my own version of Spiti -Bhoti language which I learnt from Dinesh bhaiya during the journey. We started our day by visiting Key Monastery or Key Gompa (at approx.13,600 ft). Surrounded by mountains and with clear blue sky Key Monastery looked picturesque from every angle. The route to the monastery is equally breath taking. I wanted to capture the signature image of the monastery as it is shown on Spiti tour websites, so had to take a short trek that took me to the perfect spot. From there we headed to Kibber village (at 14,200 ft.) civilization of roughly 100-120 houses and we were on our own to explore the village. I strolled through the village spoke to the kids played with them, visited monasteries, interacted with the local people- got to know about their routine and life at such place. Young men and women were rehearsing dance for an upcoming local fair. While strolling through the village and adjoining green peas’ farms, I reached at the Chicham bridge- one of the highest bridges in Asia connecting Kibber and Chicham villages… 120m tall at an altitude of 13,596 ft- simply marvelous view. That evening we spent in Kaza market – shopping local stuff and a must visit to The Himalayan Café- a place for satisfactory food, good music and interesting graffiti murals.
Next day after breakfast we left Kaza and headed to our next destination Dhankar via Tabo. We visited 1000-year-old and UNESCO heritage site Tabo monastery, interacted with the monks who in detailed explained us about the Buddhism and murals and paintings depicting the stories on the walls of the monastery. We visited the meditation caves and post that had delicious local lunch followed by tea made with yak’s milk. After that we did a 5km one-way uphill trek to Dhankar Lake (at ~13,600 ft.) has source of glacier water. It was little tiring trek on muddy and dusty path- as the weather turned up quite fast from warm to windy to cold and low oxygen levels made it difficult. I took short breaks to for rest and to capture the awesome view of Dhankar village and gompa. The view of pristine blue waters made me forget my strained legs. Slope being too steep ascending was equally risky. We had hot soup near gompa and was about to leave for home-stay that’s when our guide gave a disclaimer “Kaza badi jagah thi waha home stay acha mila, jaise jaise aage jayenge aisa nahi milega”. And soon we realized what he was trying to say- it was an old monastery turned into home-stay with very basic amenities. It was freezing cold outside I preferred to sit in dining room where there was traditional heater and passed my time chatting with a German co-traveler, she shared her interesting travel experiences in India.
After Dhankar next destination was Langza via Demul, Komic and Hikkim. At Demul- we explored the village on our own. An elderly gentleman invited us in his house showed us their prayer room and where and how they store food for winters when the roads are inaccessible, and the village gets disconnected from rest of the valley. From Demul we headed to Komic -one of the highest motorable villages in the world (at 15,050ft) we had our lunch break here. Our next stop was at Hikkim – has the world’s highest post office (at 14,400 ft). It was overcrowded when we reached, as the Leh-Laddakh route was closed due to Kashmir situation. After ages I wrote and posted letters to my family and friends from this world’s highest post office. It felt so nostalgic posting those hand-written letters.
Our next homestay was in Langza aka Fossil Village (at 15,500ft) is the most picturesque village in the Spiti Valley. Surrounded by snow clad mountains, green pastures and barren landscapes the village has a giant statue of Lord Buddha overlooking the valley. Every frame of it seemed like Windows wallpaper. Evening spent in this village was the most memorable one- at times it feels relaxing to be without any checklist in mind. I ambled in and around this small village of around 80-100 families doing whatever I felt like- trekking a little to catch closer look of snow clad mountains, watching clouds floating up in the sky and using my imagination to see things in cloud formations – like we all did in our childhood. I met a young girl Tanzing who studies in Shimla high school and her family runs a home-stay in Langza. She was friendly and talkative she took me and my friend for fossils searching. I asked her whether she liked city life of Shimla or here in Langza? “Langza”, she replied with twinkles in her eyes – she wants to be a tourist guide and shoot a documentary on Spiti villages for National Geographic. She voluntarily answered the ‘why part’ as- “here the life is real though not luxurious as in city”. I asked, ‘what do you mean by real’ she said – “people here care for each other and are united, there is trust and they’re pure just as the nature around”. I was surprised to know that she is aware of these things and moreover with the clarity of her thoughts at such young age. As we were conversing our guide joined us “madam ji, yaha k saare log ek dusre ko sath le kar chalte hai pariwar ki tarah, kisi k yaha shadi ho ya dukh ki khabar sara gaon unki madad k liye jata hai. Yaha k log bari bari se gaon ki saare bhedbakriyon ko charane le jate hai. Bolo aap, k shehar me aisa milega?” I couldn’t answer and kept looking at their pure smiles. There was something special about people in Spiti and especially in Langza. It felt that the so-called modernization has not touched them, yet they are more open towards life than us. During dinner everyone was trying the local beer made from rice. I am being no alcohol person was kind of skeptic to taste it but the landlord’s kid- a boy in his early teenage offered me a sample. I asked him has he ever tried it? He said yes, like medicine in small portion during winters. Curiously I asked, don’t you ever feel like having it regular? He replied with a sense of responsibility “Didi, ye chij jitni jaruri ho utni aur jab jaruri ho tab hi leni chahiye; maje karne k liye ko toh mera music hi kafi hai”. I found his thought process quite matured not sure was it due to the adversities they have to face living there or something else.
Next morning, I felt bad while leaving Langza I wanted to stay there little long but…kahin pohochne k liye kahin se niklna jaruri hota hai… and we were on our way to Chandratal Lake (at 14,100 ft)– trekker’s paradise!! The name originates from its crescent shape. The trek and route are an absolute delight for eyes and mind but crazily windy. The location, the view is so beautiful that I found it difficult to stop clicking pictures. While doing lake parikrama- a 5kms round, it felt like the lake changes its appearance with every passing moment and looks different from every angle. It was the day of 15th August -Independence Day and I was at this serene lake so “Tirange (Tri-color) k sath ek photo toh banta hai”- it is the most favorite and emotionally charged pic of mine from this trip. That night we did camping – a mesmerizing night- was still soaked in the serenity of Chandratal lake and it was full moon night, temperature ranging from 3 to -2, noisy wind and calm mind.
On my return journey to Manali all these moments were running as slide shows on my mind screen. I recalled Dinesh bhaiya’s words ‘you’ll get answers to all your questions when you’ll meet Spitians’. Scant precipitation makes Spiti a high-altitude desert with extremely scarce vegetation over most of its area. For many years these remote valleys lived largely isolated from one another, preserving homogeneous and distinct cultures and traditions. Spiti Valley has always drawn wanderers and explorers. Undoubtedly Spiti valley is scenic, however I think,beyond the mighty mountains, landscapes, blue skies apple orchards, pastures;what makes it more beautiful is its people, their pure souls and happy faces, their rich cultural heritage and spiritual prosperity. To quote in Rudyard Kipling’s words :
“At last they entered a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here. Beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. This place is no place for men”