Spiti Valley | Strangers in the Hidden Himalayan land
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Early in 2019, I stumbled upon a region called Tibet and was blown by its landscape images over the internet. Though very little information about Tibet exists for the world, I came across an Indian territory so close to Tibet and its cultures. This place happens to be Spiti Valley, a trans-Himalayan cold-dessert on the north-eastern Indian border, landlocked by India and Tibet. The name Spiti thus means 'the Middle land'!
When we zeroed on the destination and booked our tickets for the summer of 2019, we had little idea about the most dangerous and treacherous road trip we unknowingly signed up for! We explored Spiti along with Kinnaur Valley on a 10-day road trip to Spiti Valley in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
Starting from Shimla, we reached Tabo in Spiti on the third night of the journey. Though I had seen the numerous Instagrammed 'World's highest places' and monasteries from Spiti, I was otherwise clueless of what more should I be expecting in the valley!
And finally when Spiti unwound in front of our eyes, I was more than amazed by the land, its people and its cultures.
An Indian land, yet nothing Indian!
So, if you are someone looking for experiences of offbeat Himalayan destinations, Spiti Valley will definitely amaze you!!!
An Overview of the route to Spiti Valley -
Spiti valley can be reached either from Shimla or Manali in Himachal Pradesh. The route you chose depends on the season you travel and the present road conditions based on the snowfall the region received that year.
How to reach Spiti Valley from Manali -
Manali to Spiti is via the Leh Highway and NH505. One needs to cross the Rohtang Pass and the Kumzum La pass on these routes. Though this can be the shortest and fastest route via Chattru and Batal, it is also the most unpredictable route. The mountain passes are mostly covered in snow throughout the year. So, it is best to check the status of Rohtang Pass and Kunzum La before taking this route.
The routes are usually open during the summer months of June to September. However when we went in late June, the roads were still inaccessible due to heavy snowfall in June. Please do plan accordingly.
How to reach Spiti Valley from Shimla -
The route from Shimla to Spiti is usually accessible throughout the year. This route is via the old Hindustan Tibet Highway and NH05 Highway. Like us, you can plan to explore other regions of Himachal on this route. The Shimla - Spiti route is via the villages of Kinnaur valley.
There might be occasional delays on this route due to unexpected traffic jams caused by landslides or heavy showers.
This is a longer route and is suggested to halt for a night in-between.
Note - The roads are highly dangerous and treacherous. So always plan to travel in an SUV with good ground clearance and with drivers well aware of the terrains. Most importantly, listen to your local guide's or driver's instructions.
Best Time to Visit Spiti Valley -
Apart from the major hiccup of transport challenges, you have to plan your travel time.
Most of Spiti is covered in thick snow in the winter months from October to March. The temperature drops up to -30 degrees Celsius. April onward, the snow starts to melt but still may not be accessible to all the regions. June to September are the summer months and quite comfortable to see around the location in Spiti.
However, adventurers and wildlife enthusiasts do venture around Spiti during the winters. Also, many traditional festivals take place during the winter here. Life is otherwise tough and people spend their days mostly indoors during the winters.
Come on-board on a memorable Spiti Valley Road Trip-
Have a glimpse into my most adventurous journey of 2019 below. You can too include these among the things to do in Spiti Valley when you plan to visit Spiti.
The First Night in Spiti Valley -
The night we reached Spiti, we hurried for dinner after dropping our luggage in the hotel room. Tabo was pretty lively outdoors because of backpackers' hostels and cafes. A 5 minutes walk led us to an open area further from the cafes and under the dark sky. All I could see in that darkness was the shadow of the stupa in Tabo monastery. When we looked up, we found ourselves standing below a galaxy of shimmering stars and the aura of the milky way. I stood in that darkness for some more time and saw the stars multiply and a clearer vision of the universal beauty unfold.
*Tip - Don't miss a stargazing opportunity in Spiti valley for the sky looks so clear at this altitude. Tabo, Kaza, Langza, Hikkim, Kibber may offer some of the best stargazing experiences.
Tabo, Town of the oldest active monastery in Spiti -
Highlight - Tabo Monastery
The next morning we were walking around the town, but this time in the bright daylight. A few kids were walking with their parents to schools and the Tabo monastery was yet to open to the visitors. We walked to the only helipad of Tabo, next to the Spiti River overlooking giant barren mountains.
The Tabo monastery opened in no time. This most ancient monastery in Spiti should never be missed from the places to see in Spiti Valley. We walked around the premises reading the framed verses of the Lotus Sutra and preachings of the Dalai Lama. Interiors were colorful with the Buddha statue and an image of the 14th Dalai Lama in the center. Images of other Buddhist scholars adorned the surrounding walls. We spend a few minutes there before walking towards the old monastery complex.
The old monastery of Tabo is a treasure trove of Buddist wisdom. These are mud caves, thousands of years old and many efforts are being made to preserve them by the Archaeological Survey of India. Every cave has beautiful handmade wall paintings that you are instructed not to touch. It is pitch dark inside with only a single beam of sunlight penetrating from its roof. A handheld torch helped us see the paintings. The monks looking after the place, explained to us the significance of each statue and painting. The Maitreya Buddha statue is the main attraction here.
Looking beyond the monastery premises are the views of green fields and the local Tabo village.
Driving past Tabo village, we were amidst the barren mountain ranges shadowing us on both sides while the river flowed in its own calmness. The only colors in these deserts were the pink and purple cacti blooms which looked so pretty despite the harsh surroundings.
Dhankar and its fortress -
(Highlights - Dhankar Monastery, Dhankar Lake)
As we neared Dhankar, the increase in altitude, the moonscape surroundings were more prominent. The rocks seemed to have been eroded due to the intensity of strong winds thus providing a strange landscape I had never seen.
This place is known for the Dhankar monastery on the mountain cliff overlooking the spectacular confluence of Spiti and Pin rivers. The cave-like structure had sculptures, many ancient scriptures, colorful thangkas, a prayer room, and a meditation room of the Dalai Lama. A monk inside, helped us understand some insights into the Tibetan traditions and significance of the monastery. Dhankar Monastery is listed among the 100 endangered monuments of the world.
Dhankar is also known for the beautiful Dhankar lake which needs to be trekked for around 3 hours through the barren mountains further uphill beyond the monastery. The pristine lake draws many trekking enthusiasts there. We however skipped it, since we were a bit breathless with the increasing altitudes.
We sipped some herbal tea and ate a few momos (dumplings stuffed with cheese and potato) at a restaurant outside the monastery before our onward journey.
Lahlung, the forgotten land of Lamas -
(Highlight - Lahlung Monastery)
Lahlung is a small village between Tabo and Kaza with hardly 45 houses. Lahlung Monastery is an offbeat place to visit in Spiti. It is possible, many might skip this place. It is said to be one of the oldest schools of Buddhism in the valley but you can hardly spot a monk there today. We explored the surroundings until two ladies from the village unlocked the monastery for us. We loved bonding with them over conversations about their day-to-day life and some stories about their lives. A baby accompanying the ladies amused us with her cuteness.
Bright colorful prayer flags and large pebbles carved with prayers adorn the surroundings of the monastery. Locals here believe that the mountains change into colors of red, blue, or yellow. based on the moods of the Gods residing in this region. Local folklore around Spiti will always amaze you.
Pin Valley and the striking landscape contrasts -
(Highlights - Beautiful Landscapes, Kungri Monastery, Mudh Village)
Driving through the serpentine roads (or sometimes no-roads) we crossed the beautiful Pin Valley national park. The diverse geography displayed harsh, lonely mountains running parallel to the Spiti river for some kilometers and then, sudden change of landscapes with colorful little villages of green fields stretched between giant rocks, overlooking snow-clad mountains. Numerous chirping birds and colorful wildflowers added the extra charm to the valley. The Pin valley is also home to Snow leopards and Siberian Ibex when the region is covered in the winter snow.
We reached the Kungri Monastery late afternoon and were lucky enough to visit it at a perfect time. We witnessed the young monks reciting their evening chants inside the monastery. It was surreal to sit with them for some time. When we stepped out with calmed minds, we were charmed by the little lamas practicing for a Cham dance performance. Cham dance is believed to drive away evils from the village houses.
A couple of more hours on the road and we were in Kaza now, the headquarter of the Spiti Valley.
Kaza, the headquarter of Spiti Valley -
We headed to the Kaza market after dropping our luggage at our hotel. We spent a few hours here before the sunset. We planned three nights in Kaza but the AMS was starting to hit. Simultaneously, breathing and walking even a few steps were making us breathless. So we followed the locals and bought a face mask each and woolen beanie caps. I picked one especially because the caps were colorful and handwoven by the local ladies.
After having some vegetable chowmein (noodles) and a cup of tea we wandered around the market until sundown.
Spiti Valley, a place like none other -
(Highlights - Key Monastery, Kibber Village and Wildlife Sanctuary, Chicham Pass, Hikkim, Komic and Langza Villages)
The next day was tough to start as we had been woken up a couple of times the previous night by some breathing discomfort and dry throats. Our chauffeur was a bit annoyed since we were late. After multiple layers of clothing and the face mask on, we first reached the Key Monastery.
Key Monastery -
Key Monastery looked like a fortress on the mountain because of its building structures, stacked along the descending slope. The main monastery building comprised of three stories at the top, surrounded by the monk quarters below. It is a school of Buddhism and can accommodate around 200 monks at a time. A prayer hall, a stupa with the relics of Guru Rinchen Zangpo, and an old study of the Dalai Lama with 1000 years old Buddhist scriptures brought from Lhasa, Tibet are the main attractions there.
The monastery is situated at a height of 12,800 feet above sea level, overlooking the Spiti river and valley.
We felt breathless even though we had to climb only a few steps to reach the Monastery. We were so grateful to the monks for welcoming us to their kitchen for some herbal tea. The tea instantly relieved the pressure we had been experiencing.
We then visited some of the world's highest inhabited villages in Spiti Valley.
Kibber and Chicham Villages -
We then embarked on the arduous routes of Spiti to explore some of the highest villages in the region. Kibber village and Wildlife Sanctuary was only a few kilometers from Key monastery. The Kibber region offers some stunning natural views of the snow-clad Kanamo peak. We drove through some deserted roads to the high-hill passes of the wildlife sanctuary.
Delighted by some stunning landscape views of distant snow-covered mountains and surreal green meadows, we hopped out of the car for a few breaths in the meditative atmosphere, devoid of any human existence.
We drove through the stunning views of the Parilungbi Canyon, a 1000 feet deep gorge dividing the Kibber and Chicham villages.
We crossed past the mud houses of Kibber village and further along the gorge to reach the Chicham Bridge which has gained its popularity as the highest bridge in Asia at a startling height of 13596 ft. Tourists photograph on this bridge as a bucket-list destination. The Chicham bridge, built in 2015 has been a boon for the locals to connect these two villages, which was otherwise connected by a risky single string pulley or an alternate 80-kilometer long route.
The locals around Spiti have to go through a lot of hardships for even the basic amenities but it is surprising to think how they never think of running away to the cities.
By afternoon, we drove back from Chicham, to check-off some more bucket-list places known for their heights. After some lunch and my first encounter with the seabuckthorn tea (a local herbal tea tastes like a warm orange juice), we wrote a couple of postcards for ourselves and family, which we dropped into the highest post-office of the Hikkim village.
From Hikkim, further higher we reached the Komic village which is famously known as the Highest village to be connected by a motor-able road. The place offers a breathtaking view like none other. It felt like witnessing the view of the lower regions from the airplane windows. However, it was too cold to stand there for longer than a few minutes. Komic has a monastery called the Tangyud Monastery situated at the edge of a canyon and one among the very few Sakya sect monasteries in Spiti. The monastery is surrounded by unusually tall red walls which also has boarding for the monks studying there.
Another well-known village in the region is Langza and is famous for its marine fossil reserves dating back to millions of years, which must have been submerged under the Tethys ocean. One can plan to stay at the local home-stays in Lhangza and star-gaze at such a height. We however missed Langza because of time limitations.
We stopped at the monastery in Kaza town and then proceed to the market for some savory and evening snacks.
Day excursion to Kunzum La Pass -
Following day we were out very early, as the plan was to visit the Kunzum La pass which had just been opened for tourists after unexpected snowfalls in June. We started early and took multiple stops on the way. Some halts were just to admire the surroundings or photographing the stunning geography. The stretches of cold-dessert mountains, scattered mud-houses, blankets of vibrant green peas and barley fields, and the many crystal-clear streams (known as nallahs), flowing amidst the fields, offered many picturesque views throughout the journey.
We halted at the last village on this route known as Losar. This village is close to the Indo-Tibet border and also the closest to Ladakh. Apart from a few hotels, guesthouses, and local houses; the calmness in the lap of the moonscape valley disconnects you from the world.
Driving beyond Losar and towards Kunzum La Pass, we were entering into the land of glaciers. The stretches of glaciers multiplied until we could see only white-sheets of snow all around. The Kunzum La pass is a very high mountain pass connecting Manali and Lahaul Valley to the Spiti Valley at a height of 15000 ft. We spent some time jumping and playing in the snow. The Kunzum La is named after the Goddess Kunzum temple at this pass. Stunning views of the Bara-Sigri Glaciers, known as the world's second-largest glacier, is worth a lifetime experience.
We were lucky to have accessed the region after recent snowfall but not lucky enough to drive another 15 kilometers to the Chandratal Lake (the Moon Lake) as our initial plans. The snow was so thick in these locations that the vehicle seemed to be passing through snow tunnels, thanks to the efforts of the Indian Army trying to clear the roads after the snowfall. However, please travel as per the instructions of local guides, as these regions are unpredictable. The roads may turn mushy and slippery when the glaciers start melting.
We took a few halts on our way back. It was mid-noon by then and could see herds of wild cows, sheep, and yaks being grazed on the green patches under the clear blue sky. After lunch we proceeded back to our stays for the last night in Spiti Valley.
The Return Journey -
The next day we were on our way back leaving behind this strange terrain of the moonscape cold-desserts. A million memories of Spiti would be in us forever and a desire to come back someday to see the Chandratal Lake. There is also a curiosity to explore this harsh dessert in the winters when the temperature is way below -30 degrees and go on a wildlife safari to see the rarest snow leopards.
I know that is too much of dreaming!
Ouch!! Pinching myself back to reality.
Gue Monastery -
Let me tell you about the last mystery of the land of Lamas!
On our way back from Kaza to Shimla, we halted at the Gue village. Otherwise just another village of the Spiti valley, tourists halt here only to checkout a mummified monk in Gue.
The mummy of the Buddhist monk, Sangha Tenzin is 500 years old. This monk had attained self-mummification while meditating for years in this place. The mummy was only discovered in 1975 when a stupa covering him had collapsed due to the earthquake. Several researchers have been attracted to this place just to examine the mummy which has been intact for so long without any artificial chemicals. The mummy was in a seated position inside a glass enclosure, with barring teeth and hollow eye sockets.
We then left for the onward journey to Shimla. An adventure-packed 10-day tour had come to an end.
Books that describe Spiti Valley -
A book lover that I am, I picked up the world-famous book, Seven Years in Tibet by the adventurous traveler, Heinrich Harrer. I was very fascinated by the author's journey and the Tibetan culture portrayed in the book. I highly recommend this book to every travel enthusiast. This book mentions the journey through the Shipki La pass which the author took to travel into Tibet.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling was among the very first books which first referred to this region. I had read this classic as a kid. Kipling described the Spiti valley in Kim by these words - “At last, they entered a world within 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”
I can tell you, nothing has changed from what Kipling had said so many years ago. Spiti is indeed a world within a world. Disconnected from the rest of the world, a land hidden in the Himalayas, basking in the same glory of the hundreds of years old classic. It is in no hurry to adapt to the modern world.
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