“Traveling. It leaves you speechless and then it turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn BattutaIt all began with discussing wanderlust with a bunch of friends on a Saturday evening and randomly throwing in Spiti Valley as a dream destination. A Whatsapp group was created that saw high attrition as always happens while planning a group trip. Two months later four of us actually ended up booking tickets to Chandigarh and accommodation in Kaza. Spiti was on!
The journey to Spiti was probably the most challenging yet beautiful part of the trip and definitely not meant for everyone. We followed the Chandigarh – Manali- Kaza route which is about 220 kms long and functional from June to October, i.e., the summer months. Spiti, being the cold desert that it is, experiences summer for 3 months with average day temperatures hovering around 16 degrees and night temperatures falling to 2 to 3 degrees. Our journey from Manali began at 4:30 AM in a Tata Sumo. Shambhu ji, our trusty driver insisted we leave as early as possible to avoid getting stuck before Rohtang Pass. We did get stuck, nevertheless, for 4 hours! Keeping ourselves entertained wasn’t a problem though. There were hawkers trying to palm off saffron and ashwagandha with fables, and there were over enthusiastic tourists in space suit like snow suits who would eventually end up rolling in the dirty ice at Rohtang. The roads enroute to Spiti are virtually non-existent. The rocky, rugged terrain with a steady view of the mountains and stream crossings all while you drive along the Spiti river is a far cry from the near perfect roads in Ladakh. We took two stops for food at dhabas in the middle of nowhere and loo breaks-behind the boulders.
Chandrataal (moon lake) is Spiti’s equivalent of Ladakh’s Pangong Lake. It is approachable via Kunzum Pass and offers a breathtaking view literally in the middle of nowhere. There are camps located at the base and involve a 3 km trek to the lake. This was our first stop and here’s when the adventure began. Two out of the four of us happened to wander off right before it started getting dark and lost our way. It is important to note that there is no mobile connectivity in the Lahaul- Spiti region, hence there was no way we could use GPS or reach out to the others who were waiting for us at the parking spot. Getting lost in the mountains with nothing but more mountains in sight can be quite scary especially when the temperatures are known to drop sub zero. The nerd in me remembered survival tips from Discovery Channel shows I gorged on as a kid (Thanks, Ma!) and decided to follow a trail- because that would lead to somewhere- it did! We finally reached the camp after an arduous trek only to realise our friends were still up there! The camp staff seeing our condition promptly fed us hot tea and parathas, and set out on a “search operation” to find our friends. This was just the beginning of the amazing Himachali hospitality we would witness over the course of the next 5 days.
Kaza is the administrative headquarters of Lahaul and Spiti. Due to the influx of tourists, it may be difficult to find accommodation here during peak season, hence it is advisable to book it before hand. We stayed at the Zostel in Kaza. The painfully slow wi-fi was the only way to tell family back home that I was safe and sound. The five days of tech detoxification were oh so refreshing. Kaza is also home to the highest petrol retail outlet in the world. A neck injury thanks to the treacherous roads got me a meeting with Dr. Dolma Yumtso at the Kaza Community Health Centre. Dr. Dolma could very well be the pahadi McDreamy. The kind doctor shyly admitted he doesn’t remember brand names of medicines but would prescribe salts that the only pharmacist in Kaza would be able to provide. Kaza has a number of cosy cafes offering cuisines to suit every palate. My favourites included the thukpa and tenduk at Dolma’s Kitchen, and seabuckthorn tea at the Himalayan Cafe, and live jam sessions at Cafe Zomsa.
Located at a distance of 14 kms from Kaza, Langza is one of the numerous villages in the gorgeous countryside. We stayed at Lara Tsering’s homestay and this was my highlight of the trip. The beautiful house straight out of a fairytale that provided a breathtaking view of the Himalayas during the day and a blanket of stars at night along with Mrs. Tsering’s amazing hospitality and culinary skills made this memorable.
Like Ladakh, Spiti too is rich in Buddhist heritage. There are a number of monasteries worth visiting such as Key, Tabo, and Dhankar. The Key Monastery is located at a significantly high altitude and offers a spectacular view of the mountains and the Spiti river. The sense of calm one experiences there is unmatched. It should definitely be on your itinerary.
Pin Valley National Park
Spiti Valley being a cold desert doesn’t have much flora and fauna. However, it is home to the elusive snow leopard, ibex and blue sheep. We didn’t see any of these on our way to Dhankar but did come across beautiful wild horses, donkeys, herds of sheep and sheep dogs. It isn’t uncommon for local kids to come and strike a conversation with tourists. My fun interaction happened with three kids named Kaza, Kimmy and Lotte. Kaza, the friendliest of the lot liked mathematics as much as she likes Bollywood; Kimmy, a champ whose been outside of her tiny village to participate in tournaments. Lotte didn’t speak Hindi or English because he was still in class two. They tried to get me to be friends with Lucky -the pahadi dog but he probably didn’t like my invasion in his territory.
Spiti was an unforgettable experience, something that I will cherish forever. And I can’t wait to go back!
Carry thick woollens irrespective of the time of the year you are visiting. Temperatures fall drastically and the winds are chilly.
Carry enough cash with you as most places don’t accept credit cards. There’s an ATM at Kaza though.
Carry a well stocked medical kit and get acclimatised to the altitude before undertaking any treks
Carry wet wipes and deodorants as you may have to go without a shower for days
Carry a DSLR. You don’t want to miss out on capturing the night sky.
Be prepared to shun connectivity and be one with nature.