Somewhere close to the Tibetan border, lies a land only a few know about, and even fewer visit.
Rudyard Kipling has described Spiti as ‘A world within a world’. It is perhaps the most peaceful, and one of the least populated areas in India. Spiti is a part of the Tibetan plateau and has an average elevation of over 3500 meters.
Read : Sleepless in Spiti
Spiti, a part of the Lahual & Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh is situated in the rain shadow of the Indian Himalaya. Kaza is the district headquarters of Spiti while for Lahaul, it is Keylong. It sees little by way of annual precipitation. It offers a small window of opportunity to visit, as the roads are closed for 7-8 months in a year, due to snow at the high passes. Spiti is a cold desert where time seems to have stood still for a thousand years. The people here predominantly preach the Buddhist way of life.
Tabo Monastery is the crown jewel of Spiti. Spiti is home to the crescent, moon shaped – Chandrataal lake at 4300m, a pristine and one of the highest lakes in India; without a doubt, the prettiest. Hikkim holds the title for the world’s highest village with a post office. There is a Tantric Gompa at Komic which at 4587m is one of the highest in the world. Spiti will astound you, enchant you and encapsulate you first with the desolate ruggedness of the mountains and then the snow clad peaks as the road climbs higher and higher. Bara Shigri Glacier, one of the longest in the Himalayas is in Spiti too.
Spiti valley caters to varying tastes & makes for an ideal getaway for people. If you’re a cultural enthusiast, a history buff, an adventure junkie or simply a starry-eyed nomad looking at the surreal landscapes, Spiti is the place for you. It can be explored in a week or two, at leisure. The geology buffs might amazed to know that Spiti was under the Tethys Sea millions of years ago.
The Spiti river gives you company, along the road, for most part of the journey. Spiti is all about abundant clean mountain air, freshly grown food and nature in all its glory. The locals take pride in being self-sufficient. Nobody knows of, or uses, pesticides. ‘Organic’ is the only way food is grown here.
Spiti has azure blue skies that make every photograph enchanting. The night sky is very clear as there is no sign of any pollution. One can easily spot the Orion and view the sheer magnificence of the Milky Way, while enjoying the chilly winds.
‘This is no place for men, for the Gods must live here.’ Rudyard Kipling so famously said about Spiti.
List of important towns and must see sights :
Note : Some of these towns geographically lie in Upper Kinnaur – for travel sake they are enlisted here.
Chango : Buddhist temples as part of Rinchen Zangpo’s original 108 Temples. Large image of Avalokiteshwara carved in stone. Old Nyingmapa complex of temples on cliffs 5 kms farther is a collection of religious buildings. Chango’s apples are the best in Spiti.
Gue : Kept in a glass chamber in Gue are the mummified remains of a lama recovered while digging, its finger nails still grow & hair too. Quite a lovely village with fascinating stories.
Tabo : Tabo Gompa is a world heritage site. (Dalai Lama’s favourite!) Founded in 996 AD by the Great Translator – Ringchen Zangpo. Fine Indo-Tibetan art, buddhist murals. Also known as Ajanta of the Himalayas. Huge Gompa with stucco statues of Bodhisattvas & exquisite wood carvings. Beautiful Mandalas and a 6m high Maitreya statue. Meditation caves in the mountains above town.
Dhankar : 1200 Year old Dhankar Gompa built on a cliff with barren rock face slowly sinking into a river. Impossibly perched with views that inspire euphoria. Dhankar was the former capital of Nono Kings of Spiti. Endangered site as the river is slowly eroding its base every year. Confluence of Pin & Spiti river seen from top. Museum containing costumes, instruments, saddles of horses & Buddhist devotional objects. Ruins of an important fort. Dhankar Tso – scenic lake, a 2 hour uphill climb.
Kungri : One of the most important Monasteries in Pin Valley and the largest too. Ugyen Sanga Choling Gompa is 600 years old and has vivid murals of protector dieties. There is a huge new monastery & a museum too in the same complex.
Mudh : Most beautiful village in Pin Valley with the Pin river flowing by. Trailhead for the trek over Pin-Parvati pass (5319m). Picturesque landscape with all possible colours, purple flowers bloom. New road being constructed to Pin Bhabha pass. Snow might be visible even in end of July. The last motor able village in Pin Valley. Great views.
Kaza : The biggest settlement in Spiti located on the eroded flood plain of the Spiti River. Sakya Gompa is colourful and has interesting Thangka(s) inside. Kaza has good hotels and a local market with many restaurants. A hospital too in case of AMS trouble.
Ki : The towering Ki/Key Gompa (4100m), a cluster of photogenic white-washed buildings is the largest gompa in Spiti. Residences of monks are here too. The views from top are awe inspiring. Thangkas in the original prayer rooms are very old and hold great historical and cultural value. Famous for Ki Cham, the masked evil dances held every year in July.
Kibber : Once claimed to be the highest village in the world at 4200m. Pretty white washed houses mostly made of mud and stone. Home to Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary.
Langza : Medicine Buddha statue with views of the peaks named Chau Chau Kang Nilda. There’s also a fossil park nearby.
Hikkim : Highest post office in the world at 4360m.
Demul-Komic-Lhalung : Seemingly unreal high altitude villages. Roads coming out of the skies. Komic lays claim to the highest gompa in India and a tantric Mahakala temple with a stuffed snow leopard. Located in the Lingti Valley, Lhalung has a fine monastery called the Serkhang (Golden Temple) with old treasures and a gold leaf covered statue of Sakyamuni. These 3 villages can be visited in one day as they lie not too far from each other.
Losar : Grand views of surreal landscapes. The last place with staying facilities before crossing Kunzum La. Small monastery on top of the village. Nearby lie the famous Yangchen Choling Nunnery at Pangmo & Sherab Choling Monastery School at Morang.
Kunzum La : The gateway to Spiti, Goddess Kunjum keeps guard over the 4551m Kunzum La. It receives much snowfall and was hardly open for 90 days in 2014. There is a scenic temple built at the top and the vehicles pass by from the left for good omen.
Chandrataal Lake : A jeepable track (14km) runs from Batal to lovely and tranquil Chandrataal Lake. Also called Moon Lake it is set among mountains at 4270m. The last 1 km has to be walked – cars are not permitted to drive further as it is a wildlife protected area.
Batal-Chhota Dara-Chhatru : Rudimentary dhaba type shelters available with basic food. This stretch is scarier than any other roads where the drive is in reality on a dried riverbed. The Chandra river criss-crossing the way numerous times makes it a pure adrenaline rush.
Wildlife Sactuaries of Pin Valley National Park known as ‘land of ibex and snow leopard’, and also Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary known for sightings of tibetan wild fox and snow leopard.
Read : A glimpse of Spiti in winter
Hikes, Walks and Treks :
Easy – Tabo to the Meditation Caves (1 hour)
Easy/moderate – Dhankar to Dhankar Tso (2 Hours)
Moderate/Difficult : Lhalung-Demul-Hikkim-Komic-Langza-Kibber : These places are each approximately 2-3 hours (walk) away from each other and can be covered on foot or yak-back over a period of 2-3 days. High altitude trek, all villages in the 4200-4400m range.
Quirky Experience : Chicham – A bit farther than Kibber lies Chicham village and to get there is a feat not meant for the faint hearted. A trolley will take you overlooking a 900 metre drop.
Difficult : Pin-Parvati Trek (7-8 days) Beginning at Mudh in Pin Valley and ending in Parvati Valley, acclimatisation is necessary for this trek to cross Pin-Parvati Pass at 5319 m.
Difficult : Kibber – Gete – Tashigong – Thinam – Dumley – Parang La (5580 m) This trek goes across the head numbing Parang La into the heart of Changthang overlooking the magnificent Tso Moriri in Ladakh.
Food Recommendations :
Tabo : Just behind the Tabo Gompa on the way to the caves is the best place to sample authentic Spitian Cuisine. The variety on offer will take your breath away. Try the barley pancakes!
Nako : Lovon Hotel on the way to the lake has unbelievably fresh spring rolls. They use ingredients from their own garden. Their Shabalay has to be eaten to be believed.
Dhankar : Millennium Monastery Guest House is being run by passionate travellers and is a great place to savour food while being starstruck by the views of the Dhankar Gompa amid the incredible vistas. Hand made thin crust pizzas will make you woozy with happiness.
Mudh : Tara Home Stay, wonderful hospitality and pure Spitian goodness in the fresh food made by the family. They have a cozy place to sit downstairs too. Ask for Chhang & Arak!
Kaza : Sakya Abode run by Tsering is arguably Kaza’s best place to dine and stay. A comfortable indoor space and tables can be arranged under the skies too. Tsering has an enviable collection of books on the Himalaya and is a treasure-trove of knowledge. German Bakery bang in the middle of the market has perfectly baked cakes and real cappuccino. Deyzor Hotel is a relatively new place run by a traveller and has an inviting cafe.
Kibber : Norling Home stay is a trusted travellers favourite and there’s also a new swanky restaurant & homestay (that looks like a hotel) that has come up at the start of the village. With views so divine, is food really so important?!
Batal : Chandra Dhaba run by the lovely old couple Dorje & Chandra auntie simply cannot be missed. Listen to crazy stories over helpings of dal-chawal that never tasted so good.
Indian food dhabas at Spillow & Hoorling for some rajma chawal for the homesick.
Glossary of local dishes :
Local Food : Tsampa, Thukpa, churpe, buckwheat chiltas are some of the names of Spitian dishes. Momos or steamed dumplings are incredibly delicious in all of Spiti.
Salt tea is consumed mostly in the winters as it is warm, locally called cha-cha.
Chhang (a kind of beer) made from barley is available at mostly every home. The distilled form of the same called Arak is very potent.
Yak cheese is bitter but very healthy and can be bought at any of the yak rearing high-altitude villages. Sometimes available at the market in Kaza.
Shopping and art :
Turquoise is available in the markets. Hand made carpets using Tibetan motifs and designs to be perused at homes and local markets. Jewellery, finely carved cups, hand-held prayer wheels, idols of Buddha & various Bodhisattvas.
Shawls made from the finest goat hair by skilled artisans in the villages, also made from yak wool and sheep wool. If you are lucky a rare pashmina shawl, although coarse might be yours for the taking.
Festivals and culture :
Losar : Spiti’s biggest festival, also known as the Tibetan New Year. Held between late January – to early February. Special food, changing of juniper wood on the rooftops. Nights pass in feasting, dance and song as the entire village is in very happy spirits and Chhang flows freely and the ladies dress in their traditional best.
Dachang : Winter’s last festival. Held for seven days to a month around late February & March. Dances in traditional dress, sword dances, comic charades and archery games are organised among the village folk.
Namgan : Colourful, pre-harvest fair. Depending on the location it takes place between mid August to mid September. One or two day event. Horses are an integral part of this festival. Dance, music & good food is in abundance. Skills of Mane village’s horsemen & colourful cavalcade around Demul are renowned.
Ladarcha : In August, Spiti’s biggest fair is held in Kaza. Buchen performances, folk dances & traditional equestrian & archery competitions are organised. In the traditional times it used to be a barter trade, where traders from Tibet & Ladakh met and exchanged pashmina, wool & borax with barley and horses of Spiti & the textiles and iron goods brought by Kullu Traders.
Cham Dances : Elaborate masked dances, performed by gorgeously attired lamas. Dances depict the victory of good over evil. Villagers from far and sundry come to attend and it resembles a sort of ‘mela’. Nyingmapa Kungri Monastery – Cham dance is held in late June or early July. Ki Monastery’s cham dances are the most famous and are held in July. Tabo in first week of October followed by hardly known Tangguid festival. Dhankar cham dances are held in November.
Buchen Dance Performances – usually in winters in the remote Pin Valley of Spiti. These Lamas perform a rare puja in dance form to drive out evil from the village & houses.
Practical information :
Phone connectivity : BSNL works best. Rest all work sporadically. Even small places may have BSNL connectivity. Airtel works till Spillow as of February 2016.
Petrol Pump : Non-existant except at Kaza. Antique filling station from the old times used when there is no electricity.
Best time to visit : June-October, check the status of Kunzum La. The road via Shimla to Kaza is open around the year except in the case of heavy snowfall.
Temperature : 5-28 degrees C for the above months. At over 4000m, be prepared for snowfall anytime.
Clothing : Light woollens required, carry some heavy ones too for sudden changes in weather at high altitudes.
AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) : The feeling of breathlessness at over 3000m. The trick is to drink lots of water and acclimatise by slowly ascending, say around 400m every day after 3200m.
Spiti is only accessible by road. Not by train or flight.
From Manali : Spiti can be accessed from Manali across Rohtang Pass, turning right at Gramphu & then crossing over Kunzum La (if open). This route is generally not advised though as Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) can be a serious issue as this ascends quickly to 4000m.
From-Delhi-Shimla-Kinnaur-Spiti : Shimla is 345 km from Delhi and a comfortable 6-7 hour drive. From Shimla take the NH-22 to Narkanda, which passes through Rampur, Wangtoo & Karchham. Road condition on the Wangtoo – Karchham stretch is bad and may sometimes result in a delay of 1-2 hours. This road will continue straight to Nako theoretically entering Spiti at the checkpost at Sumdo.
Local HRTC (Himachal Road Transport Corporation) buses ply everywhere in Spiti. Connectivity is fairly good to Spiti from Shimla, Reckong Peo and Rampur although the times may be erratic. ATM facility available in Kaza, but advised to keep cash in case of emergency. Hitch-hiking is easily possible on this route, with helpful locals around.
Any points that I may have missed? Any information that you would like?
This guide has been complied on the basis of my many slow travelling trips to Spiti in the last 6-7 years.