From picturesque Kinnaur to the cold deserts of Spiti

“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.” ~ Yates
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Himalaya

To find the true soul of the Himalaya and to feel its true essence, one must go exploring deep in the mountains. The famous hill stations of Kullu, Manali, Nainital, and Mussorie, are flooded with tourists, looking for short-term and inexpensive pleasures. When in Manali, you might have a delusional feeling, thinking you are walking through the Delhi mohallas. Therefore, next time you hear the mountains calling, pack your bags and head to some place where you can escape this crowd.

Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
The beautiful Spiti valley

The Spiti valley is one such place; but be prepared for a very rough ride ahead. The roads in Spiti are considered to be among the most dangerous roads in the world; so while the mountains mesmerise you with their splendour and magic, your body will go through some very torturous curves and jerks, making you wonder what the hell are you doing there. But then, travelling would be pretty boring without the muddy and stony tracks, narrow road, glacial waters gushing through your path threatening every minute to take you down along with them, sharp hairpin bends, and zero network connectivity unless you have a BSNL connection.

Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
The strange shapes of mountains seen all over Spiti. These are caused by air and water erosion over millions of years. 

Day 1

 From Manali to Jibhi

There are two ways to reach the Spiti valley: one via Manali and Rohtang pass, the other via Shimla through Kinnaur. If you haven’t seen the beautiful Kinnaur region, then taking the Shimla route would be a good idea. Even if you have seen Kinnaur, the Shimla-Rampur route would still be a better option, in order to avoid the massive traffic chaos at Manali, caused by a large number of trucks, tourists, and revellers, trying to visit the Rohtang pass. A permit is also required after crossing Manali to enter the Lahul-Spiti valley, which is again a long wait in that chaos. So, we decided to take the Shimla- Kinnaur route. Since we were in Manali and wanted to explore Sangla-Chitkul in Kinnaur first, we headed for the Jalori pass that would take us to our preferred road. Our first night halt was at Jibhi, which is just 3-4 hours drive from Manali.

Photo of Jibhi, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
In the land of clouds- Jibhi

Day 2

 Jibhi to Sangla

Jalori pass is almost 12 km away from Jibhi and takes around an hour or so to reach. From Manali, Jibhi is around 100 km, so if you start early you can reach before lunch. If you have enough time on hand, make a night halt at Jibhi.  It’s a pretty Himalayan village where you can explore the coniferous forests that surround it, or you can simply sit on the balcony and watch the clouds at play. Next day start early morning and head for Sangla via the Jalori pass.

When we had gone, the Jalori pass had closed down owing to landslides, so the route we took went via Jibhi, Gada Gushaini, Chaach Gallu, Chhatri, Karsog, Kotgarh, to reach Rampur Bushahr, where we joined the National Highway NH5 or the Hindustan Tibet Road 

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A typical Himalayan temple in the pretty village of Gada Gushaini. (To read more on Himalayan temples click here and here)
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Chaach Gallu, a small village having a population of just 21 people, is the topmost point here on this route and is at a little more than 8200 feet above sea level
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Chhatri village area starts
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Somewhere near Karsog, driving through woods, while going towards Rampur Bushhar
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Near Wangtoo, where the Kinnaur road starts

Sangla is almost 210 km away from Jibhi, and in the mountains this is quite a bit of a distance to cover in one day. It takes almost 10-12 hours to reach Sangla, with lunch and tea breaks in between. The route to Sangla once you reach Rampur-Bushahr turns scenic, and Kinnaur is cooler and prettier. In Sangla, there are many hotels, so finding a place to stay should not be a problem, though you can always book in advance. A little away from the Sangla town are the various luxury resorts, such as the Banjara camps among many others, which are located right beside the Baspa River. These have Swiss tent accommodations, catering to those looking for a camping experience.

Photo of Sangla, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
View of the Sangla valley on a full moon evening, with the Baspa River and Kinnaur-Kailash in view. The glimmering lights at a distance are from a dam built on this river; the dam is one among the many Himalayan hydro-electric power projects that provide electricity to remote areas
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The Sangla campsite where we stayed
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Apple season in Sangla

Day 3

Sangla to Chitkul, and back to Sangla again

Next day, early morning, head for Chitkul. The road that takes you there is rough, but the surrounding beauty keeps you enthralled. You will see glacial rivers coming down the opposite mountain slopes, bright pink fields of buckwheat, bugiyals full of green grass and boulders, stretches of wild flowers, mountain streams, clouds that seem to fly with you, and snow peaks. Sangla to Chitkul is around 55 km and takes around an hour to reach. The place is very close to the Tibet border, has a small village surrounded by towering peaks and gentle slopes filled with small white and yellow wildflowers. The Baspa River flows below, and the place is idyllic in its setting. After spending some hours exploring the place, you can choose to stay in Chitkul; or you can also go back to Sangla and spend rest of the day exploring the villages around Sangla and take some of the popular walking trails.
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The pretty pink fields of buckwheat in Rakchaam on our way to Chitkul.  The colour darkens as the crop ripens, turning almost a shade of red when ready to harvest.
Photo of Chitkul, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
Chitkul
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Wildflowers in Chitkul 
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Chitkul

Day 4

Sangla to Tabo via the Gue monastery

Early morning, next day, the trip would start for Spiti. Since the journey is a long one, you should start pretty early, right after breakfast. Your next stop can be either Nako or Tabo, preferably Tabo. While Sangla to Tabo is 190 km, the rough tracks and treacherous roads make driving difficult, and it takes almost an entire day to reach Tabo. In Sangla the rather violent Baspa River, which was always by your side, will leave you at Karcham, and you will now have the river Sutlej with you. The landscape is beautiful in the entire Kinnaur region, as you move across Recong peo, Pooh, and Khaab. As you inch towards the Spiti valley you will start noticing a slow change in scenario, with the mountains slowly losing their green cover and turning barren with rocky faces. The Lahul-Spiti valley starts after crossing Namgia in the Kinnaur district. The place where the Satlej meets the Spiti River is known as Khab, and it is here that the Lahaul- Spiti district starts. One crosses the Khab bridge and enters Spitiland! And Voila! The scenario changes completely! You leave behind all the good old tarmac roads, the pretty green mountains, and you enter an enchanted desert land of rocks of every imaginable shapes, sizes, and colours; something which is impossible to explain or even visualise, unless one visits Spiti. The first roller coaster ride in Spiti starts soon after Khab, with the loops of the Mallang La.

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A beautiful waterfall near Pooh on the way to Nako/Tabo
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Khab, where the mighty Satlej meets the Spiti river and one crosses from Kinnaur to the Spiti valley
Photo of The wonderland called Spiti by Monidipa Bose
Resting for a while after crossing Khab
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Some way from Khan is the climb up the pass, better known as the Mallang La: here the loops start
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Waiting for a landslide to be cleared up in Mallang La
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In Spiti the roads are rough, and the ride is tough: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”
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In the cold desert land
After entering Lahul-Spiti, it is compulsory to report at the ITBP check-post in Sumdo, in order to get an entry permit to the valley. Thereafter no such permissions are necessary. Before you reach Sumdo you cross a well-known village called Nako, where there is a monastery and an artificial lake. Preferably you don’t stop here, and continue with your journey, as there are more beautiful things ahead. After Sumdo, before reaching Hoorling, you can take a detour and follow a rather lonely and beautiful road that takes you to the Gue village, which is located very close to the Tibet border. The mountains that surround this small village are of varying colours that give the place a charming fairy tale look. The Gue monastery is famed for holding India’s only known natural mummy; desiccated body of a monk that is around 550 years old. From Gue, you will have to follow the same path back to the main road and continue up to Tabo, which you will most likely reach late in the evening.
Photo of Tabo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
Gue monastery
Photo of Tabo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
Tabo mud monastery

Tabo is a small sleepy town, at a height of 10,760 feet, and has a 10th c. CE mud monastery, and some old caves where the monks lived and prayed. The monastery walls have beautiful old frescoes; however, photography is not allowed inside the dimly lit rooms in order to save these paintings. Once the monastery and caves are explored, you can start your journey towards Kaza.

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Tabo, a quiet high-altitude Himalayan town

Day 5

 From Tabo to Kaza: via Dhankar Monastery

The drive from Tabo to Kaza is beautiful, with the road constantly getting a view of the meandering Spiti River and its valley below. From Tabo, Kaza takes only around 2 hours to reach (distance is about 45 km), so you can take a slight detour via a beautiful spiralling road that will take you up to the Dhankar monastery, an early medieval structure. Dhankar was the old capital of Spiti, and while the fort doesnt exist anymore, the old monastery still remains, perched on a high cliff top. Dhankar also has a village built on a bluff that opens out onto the main valley, ending in a sharp cliff. The view from top is  breathtaking, with an open view of the azure blue sky, patches of orchards, yellow mustard fields lining the hill-sides, confluence of the Pin and Spiti rivers down below, and the strangely patterned barren mountains surrounding it all.

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On our way from Tabo to Dhankar
Photo of The wonderland called Spiti by Monidipa Bose
Dhankar monastery
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Just after Dhankar comes this little  hydro-power project that produces electricity just enough to light up Dhankar village and its surroundings
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From Dhankar to Kaza

From Dhankar, Kaza is just about an hour away. It is a rather pretty, but congested town on the banks of the Spiti River, a place filled up with tourists on a hurricane tour of Spiti. Another place near Kaza, known as Ramrik, has few home-stays (the more expensive ones) where one can stay to avoid the tourists rush. You can enjoy the afternoon by sitting beside the Spiti river, and listening to its soft gurgle, as it flows gently by your side.

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Quiet flows the river Spiti

Photo of Dhankar Monastery, Sichling-Dhankhar Gompa, Dhankhar, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose

Kaza from top

Day 6

 Kaza

Next morning you can start the day at leisure and follow the curving roads that will take you uphill to the beautiful high altitude villages, such as, Langza, Komic, Hikkim, and Kee. Komic, which holds the record of being the highest motorable village in Asia at 15,027 feet, has a well maintained 14th c. CE monastery. Exploring the villages is an adventure by itself, seeing how people live and farm at such high altitudes; also the views are breathtaking at all times.

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The way to the villages
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Langza village
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The 14th c. CE built Tangyud monastery at the Komic village

Day 7

Chandra Taal

You can start very early next morning to either go back to Manali via the Kunzum and Rohtang passes, or you can take another detour to visit the enchanting Chandratal Lake, situated at almost 13500 ft. After Kunzum pass, which is the highest pass in this route, if you take the bifurcation from Batal you will soon find yourself in the camping site near Chandrataal. You can rest a bit and visit the lake in the late afternoon, which is around 3 km away. The car has to be parked in a place marked for that purpose, and from there the lake is a short and leisurely walk. Besides the main moon-shaped blue lake, which is the starting point of the famous Chandra river (that later becomes the ChandraBhaga also known as Chenab, after joining Bhaga river in Tandipule near Keylong), there are many other smaller water bodies. A camp stay in the camping site is a must in the Chandratal Lake, if you want to enjoy the tranquillity of the place and also want to view the lake in early morning light.

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On our way from Kaza to Chadratal, near Losar
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The rough road to Kunzum pass

Kunzum La..The coldest pass that I have come across among the passes that I have crossed while travelling in Spiti or Ladakh…we had gone in August and there was a sharp cold wind cutting through our warm clothes making us shiver uncontrollably
The road after taking a right turn from Batal towards Chandratal..seen here is the Chandra river
Walking towards Chandratal after parking our car at the allocated parking space, which is just around 300 meters away from the lake
Photo of Chandra Taal, Lahaul And Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
Chandratal
Photo of Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Monidipa Bose
Chandratal 
Tents at the camping ground near Chandratal

Day 8

 Chandratal to Manali

The next day you can start your journey back towards Manali that will take you across Batal and Chattru. The roads between Batal and Chattru are almost non-existent and covered with stones, large boulders, and mud, with glacial rivers flowing freely across the mud tracks. So it is advisable to start very early from Chandratal to avoid the melting snow waters that gush down heavily in the later part of the day, making driving a rather risky business.

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Glacier fed rivers run freely across the roads making driving rather a challenging task 
Such kinds of “traffic jams” are a regular feature here
Wildflowers light up the mountainsides
When clouds come down…during our lunch break while driving from Batal towards Chattru it started raining heavily
Nearing Rohtang la

Once near the Rohtang pass area, you will notice the change in scenario with the arrival of lush greenery, much to the relief of your eyes. However, you will also notice the sudden increase in traffic and human activities, signalling the nearing of civilisation and crowded hill stations. After crossing the Rohtang pass, in another one or two hours your mobile phones will again start ringing, and you know you are back to earth, after a brief stay in heaven.

Photo of The wonderland called Spiti by Monidipa Bose
Nearing the end of our journey: at Rohtang pass

Things to remember:

Lahul-Spiti roads are almost entirely made of mud and stones with very little signs of tarmac anywhere. Therefore, hire a car that is capable of travelling through such roads. If you prefer taking the bus, there are private buses available, but one must note down their timings carefully as their frequency is pretty low. Staying a day at Manali or Kullu in the beginning, and later in the various towns in Spiti is essential for acclimatisation, as the entire trip moves through high altitudes. The Spiti region opens up for travellers in May- June, but even in August-September these places are pretty cold, especially in the evenings, hence it is necessary to carry a jacket and light woollens. Carrying light snacks for the entire trip, and drinking water or any fluids at regular intervals is a must to avoid dehydration, as Spiti is a dry area. Filling up fuel is a headache and you will have to tank up in Karcham or Recong-peo, as the next available place with a fuel station is the far-off Kaza. Camping anywhere in Chandratal lakeside areas is strictly prohibited, and the forest authorities levy a steep fine if anyone is caught doing so, therefore, be a law-abiding citizen and stay in camps within the allocated camping site. Last but not the least; since there is zero network connectivity, your mobile phone will turn into a medium for only taking pictures; so while in Spiti, forget the earth and earthlings for few days, and enjoy the brief stay in heaven.

Post Script: Go to Spiti only if you really love the Himalaya and are ready to tackle the extremely tough tracks. The place often faces acute water shortage, and one must keep this in mind and do everything to minimise wastage of water; keep your garbage with you until you find a proper way to dispose of it (not roll down your window glass and just chuck it out to be carried away into the wilderness); and last but not the least, respect the locals, their customs, and traditions. 

This was first published on Tripoto  (a different version)

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