On this road trip from Delhi to Spiti Valley I succumbed to the magic of the Himalayas. Driving on those rough terrains through mighty mountains at days and looking at the innumerable stars at pitch dark nights has made for some of the best experiences of my life and has left me wondering about my tiny existence in this whole gamut of Universe. The beauty of these gigantic mountains, the immensity of the lands on which they look down, the simplicity of the people living here all worked on my mind like a spell.
Journey to the Spiti Valley – a desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas, north-east of Himachal Pradesh, India, is the most beautiful drive I’ve done so far. It isn’t a smooth drive – dangerous roads, no petrol pumps for hundreds of kilometers, low oxygen levels due to the high altitude – but it surely is worth all the effort. You get to drive through lush green pine forests along the rivers Baspa and Satluj and experience the tribal life in remote villages of Kinnaur valley and while driving towards Spiti you’ll be amazed to see how the scenery changes dramatically from green pines to rocky mountains and how the smooth drives gets tough on the rocky terrains of high Himalayas. If you are lucky as we were to travel with geologist friends, they will explain you how these mountains might have been some thousand million years ago and how they have evolved to the present state. This valley is one of the best geological sites in the world as per them. You would be surprised to see how villages will suddenly emerge as you drive farther from just nowhere and the simple people of this region will make you wonder how they can be so contented living in such adverse conditions. The whole drive offers such vast and mesmerizing landscapes that you don’t want to close your eyes even to blink. Quaint old monasteries, prayer flags fluttering in the wind and monks in their ochre robes, add to the mystic charm of Spiti. The scenic mountain villages perched on mountain crests, pristine rivers, the vast landscapes and harsh conditions are all a part of this adventurous Himalayan Journey.
It has been said that everyone who visits Spiti begins a new life. Spiti plays an interesting, very different hand, luring you to its untouched surreal beauty and offering an introduction to the simpler ways of life– I can never forget my interaction with locals at Ribba, Hansa and Giu. There are some extraordinary stories too – of 500 years old mystical mummy that was discovered some 25 years back, of a peak changing colors every hour of the day, of painted caves where monks stayed some hundred years ago. Many-a-times I wished that this trip to Himalayas would never end, that I never come back to the city.
An early start ensured we were out of the city in good time (before traffic rush starts) and have our lunch in midst of pine trees. Air got cooler and smelled of the green pines post Kalka. It was fun to play hide and seek with a hill train snaking up the Shivalik foot hills through zig-zag narrow gauge and tunnels. There are 103 tunnels on the route of this hill train that runs from Kalka to Simla. After a delicious lunch at Dharampur, bypassing Simla we reached Matiyana, a quiet, scenic town surrounded by apple orchards. The final leg of the drive from Simla to Matiyana through the dense pine forests and apple orchards is awe-inspiring.
Matiyana is a quiet, relaxed small village with a breathtakingly beautiful view of Shivalik ranges. It is known for the quality apples (Golden Spur) that are grown here. Our friend Sunil and his family gave us a warm welcome. A beautiful traditional low-floor seating arrangement was waiting for us. The people here are simple and truly signify this old saying in India “Atithi devo bhava” meaning “Guest is God”. We were taken care of like their own family members. Local food was generously served in kitchen-cum-dining hall. It was a big hall with angithi (fireplace) in the middle and working shelf on one side and seating arrangement (on floor) on other three sides.
It was one of most picturesque drives of the trip. Driving along the ferocious Sutlej, we reached Recong peo from where we were to get the inner line permits for our foreigner friends. By the time formalities were being done we had our lunch at peo market. It took little more time than we expected. Our destination for the day was Kalpa, some 12 kms from Peo.
Our tired souls got elated looking at the view from hotel at Kalpa. Looming in front was an impressive view of the Kinnaur Kailash ranges that includes Kinnaur Kailash (elevation- 6349m) and Jorkanden (elevation- 6473m) peaks. Kalpa, at 2,960 m elevation is a beautiful town famous for production of high quality apples and Chilgozas (Pine nuts). It’s interesting to see how Hinduism and Buddhism have undergone a religious mixing here, along with some indigenous shamanistic practices. It was clearly evident in the architecture of Narayan-Nagini temple and Hu-Bu-Lan-Kar Monastery. Walking along the narrow lanes of this village we got a good glimpse of Kinnauri culture. The women dress in Dohru which comprises of Chhalni (skirt), Gachi (waist belt), Pattu (woolen stole), Topi (cap) and men wear Suthan (bottom), Choba (woolen shirt), Gachi (waist belt) and Topi (cap). Kinner houses are made of wood and have storerooms for keeping dried fruits and separate wooden storage structures called kathar for grains.
We woke up to a mesmerizing morning in the lap of Himalayas. It seemed the mighty peaks were guarding this silent sleepy village and now when day is breaking its changing colors seem to be signaling the villagers to wake up. As the bright day gradually took over the dark night snow covered mysterious hills changed its colors from black to grey to silver to white to golden. We couldn’t take our eyes off the spectacular view.
Well known for its grape vineyards, plum orchards and the local brews made from local variety of grapes called Rokh Dakhan in local dialect, Ribba is a picturesque village travelers hardly know about. We were fortunate to have found Dharam Kumar Negi who took us around the wonderful trails through the fruit orchards to visit Kasuraj ji Temple where Hindu gods and Buddhist deities are worshiped side by side. He took us to his house as well for tasting Angoori. He was quite reluctant in selling as they want to stock it for those 6 months when the whole village is covered with deep snow and cut off from the whole world.
In contrast to the romanticism we left behind at Rakchham, the stretch from Ribba to Nako is harsh. There are huge Rocky Mountains staring at you, no habitation for miles after miles and tough terrain seem to be shouting to remain alert every moment. The elevation, blind turns and low oxygen level was making it difficult to remain in high spirits. While most of us were busy fighting fear, we were surprised to see our geologist friends, Sam and Monamie so excited over something. Those were the white marks (we later learnt that these are called volcanic dikes) on the rocks that had attracted their attention and now with full vigor were discussing how they might have formed in this region.
Passing through Khab which is hardly 13 km from Shipki La border to Tibet, we reached Nako, situated in Hangrang Valley. It lies in the restricted zone along the border and therefore requires an Inner Line Permit to travel through.
A walk around the village absorbing the traditional atmosphere transported us back to ancient times. Cheerful villagers in their colorful woolen dress would greet you with broad smile, talk to you and might as well invite you to have meal with them. Mani walls which meander through the village and Chortens as well as vernacular architecture with richly carved timber verandas characterize the overall appearance of the village. The existence of lake adds to the beauty. From behind the lake we climbed uphill towards chortens. It was an ideal place to get an amazing view of this tiny village.
Sun seemed to be in happy mood and chose to treat our eyes with a breathtakingly beautiful view. Its golden rays touched snow kissed silver peaks one by one turning them golden. And what pleasure it was to witness gradual conversion of this beautiful evening into a gorgeous starry night!
Further on the trail is Tabo situated at an altitude of 3500m on the north bank of the Spiti River. Famous for the ancient monastic complex that preserves some of the ancient paintings and stucco images that date back to 11th century, the complex looked very different from what comes to mind if we think of a monastery. We roamed around the complex trying to absorb the serenity of the place. Prayer flags fluttering in the wind and glowing jovial faces of kids, youth and old alike, we felt as if we have reached some different world altogether where people knew no sorrow. Smile was a part and parcel of everyone’s appearance.
On the cliff-face above the complex were a series of caves that at some point were the dwellings of monks. Traces of painting can be seen in these caves as well. Tabo has some nicely maintained home stays that serve authentic Tibetan food.
Located at an altitude of 4000mt. on the left bank of Spiti River, Kaza is the largest township in the area. It being centrally located, we made it our base for Kye monastery, Kibber and Dhankar. Around 12kms north of Kaza is Kye monastery built in 1000AD that is one of the main training centers for Lamas in the region. There are narrow corridors, low rooms, dark passages, difficult staircases and small doors that lead to prayer rooms in the monastery. It has Thangkas (painted or embroided Tibetian banners), valuable manuscripts, stucco images and unique wind instruments that are put to use in summers even today. Standing on the roof top of Kye monastery I couldn’t stop myself from wondering how life is so different here. Far from the complexities of city life, living in this quietude is a distant dream for most of us. Around 11kms farther is this village Kibbar that is amongst the highest villages in the world (4270mt.) Located in such a spectacular location surrounded by peaks this village is definitely worth a visit.
We had already visited many monasteries in the region and expected something similar at Dhankar as well. But I was totally taken aback by the beauty of this place. The monastery is dramatically located on a cliff overlooking the confluence of Spiti and Pin Rivers. One the other side of the mountain was Dhankar Lake. A well defined steep trail of 5kms will take you there. It is something not to be missed. There are some spots on this trek from where one gets amazing view of Dhankar village. It took us around an hour-and-a-half to reach the lake. Sun was about to set when we reached the place. It was a cloudy day and somewhat dark. I still have a clear picture of the magic moment we witnessed there – Dark sky with black clouds, cool breeze coming from north and that time of the day when slowly darkness takes over the day. When we were about to leave the place a magic happened – Golden light trickling from behind the clouds lit up the lake turning it from dark grey to deep blue with golden light spread all over the place… as if some fairy has waived her magic wand. The serenity of the place was attracting me to stay back in Dhankar village for some more time but my engagements in city pulled me back.
Driving through some magnificent landscapes, we reached Kunzum pass. The road from here till the camps are bumpy and can be very tiring but the mere sight of Chandratal is a reward enough for all the hard work. Situated at an altitude of around 4,300 mt in the Himalayas, this placid lake took my breath away… silent valley, still blue water and clear reflection of snow covered peaks. We set our tents on the vast meadows on the bank of the lake. It was one the most memorable nights of my life sitting on the bank looking at reflection of stars on the divine lake. We woke up to a beautiful fresh morning.
Our tired city souls were now fully refreshed to start our journey back to the city.
————————————————————–THE TRIP GUIDE———————————————–
Route: Delhi – Simla – Rampur – Chitkul – Sangla – Kalpa – Nako – Tabo – Kaza – Key – Kibar – Kaza – Dhankar – Chandratal – Manali – Delhi
Best Season: June –October
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