Winter Spiti Travel Guide
Websites, blogs and travel guides on the internet might make one believe Spiti valley is inaccessible in the winters. For the adventurous soul, this might turn out to be the best time to visit Spitis. There are hardly any tourists around and one can have all of Spiti to themselves. Winter is a perfect time to see local life in Spiti as it has existed for centuries.
Winter in Spiti is harsh and temperatures are known to plummet to lesser than -35 degrees Celsius at night. Winter travel in Spiti is all about cold, (brrr. colder) and coldest. It is quite likely that everything is frozen and there is no running water in the taps. If you are lucky, there is a huge possibility of experiencing snowfall in December/January/February/March in Spiti and also sighting a snow leopard along with other wildlife like Tibetan fox, blue sheep, ibex etc.
While this winter travel aims to guide and help prospective travellers prepare, it is better to know that things can still go wrong in Spiti valley in the winters and no amount of planning can help. It is best to think practically and trust the locals when it comes to a difficult situation. Follow this guide and have a holiday to remember.
A word of caution : If you are someone who doesn’t like the cold or cannot bear extremely cold temperatures, please give up the idea of visiting Spiti in winter. Also, it is a good idea to know the weather status before embarking on a trip to Spiti in the winters.
How to reach Spiti Valley in the winters?
Travel by the preferred route from Manali isn’t possible in the snowy winters of Spiti due to closure of Rohtang Jot and Kunzum La pass. Flying to Spiti isn’t an option because there is no airport in Spiti. A few years ago, people thought of Spiti as a summer destination and very few still dare to venture out in the bone-chilling cold of the winters. The only possible way of arriving in Spiti is by the road route from Shimla via the NH-22 highway crossing Kinnaur and then entering Spiti Valley.
The road from Shimla to Kaza is kept open throughout the year. Only in case of a major snowfall the stretch from Tabo to Kaza is closed from a few hours to a few days. It is also to be noted that this route automatically helps with gradual acclimatisation if the journey is broken in parts. Rohtang Jot and Kunzum La are officially closed for the season from October 15th and open only around May-June.
Chandigarh ISBT at Sector 43 and Shimla Inter-State Bus Terminal (ISBT) have excellent connectivity to Rampur and Reckong Peo in Kinnaur. SUV’s and other vehicles can also be rented from Shimla for the entire duration of the trip. The charges for the same may be a bit higher than in the summer months because the engine needs to be kept warm in the cold nights and extra fuel is burnt thereby. Shared taxis (sumo) also ply from Rampur to Kaza and also from Kaza to Rampur and the charges are 1000 per seat.
How to Travel within Spiti Valley during the winters?
There are very few buses that ply in the winters in Spiti. Kaza bus stand has only 1-2 buses to connect it with the outside world. Local bus connectivity to other small villages in Spiti valley is not possible due to ubiquitous snow on the roads.
Depending on the snowfall at various places, there are shared taxis that ply to remote villages in Spiti. Although they charge a very high amount, it is the only way to travel on those dangerous snow filled roads. Even the locals travel in the same and they will make sure you are safe and sound. Shared taxis are mostly sumos crammed with 10-15 people but warm interiors in the cold and conversations with locals make up for the same. Travel by motorcycle is quite difficult and not advised due to the unbearable cold and also due to the possibility of slipping on snow.
If you are looking for a comfortable mode to travel, then hired taxis (SUVs) are the best means of transport for travel in Spiti, in winter. Although the taxi fares turn out to be quite expensive, it is the most convenient option because it also gives the flexibility to stop as often as required, for photography and sightseeing. Also, usually the drivers are well travelled locals and will know someone at the destination to provide for a homestay in the bitter cold.
Shared taxis sometimes go to Losar and leave from close to the Kaza bus stand. It is best to reserve a seat in advance for the same.
Kaza resembles a ghost town in the winters and there are very few taxi drivers who are game to drive you around. Ask the locals and it may be a much better idea to book a taxi through a travel agent, because if you are stuck somewhere then it becomes the responsibility of the travel agent to send another car to get you out safely.
A recommended tip for winter travel within Spiti is to make sure that you arrive before dark and make prior contact to arrange for accommodation and food.
Places to Visit in Winters in Spiti Valley
Depending on the amount of snow, most internal roads in Spiti are open in the winter. So it is possible to visit almost all the villages in Spiti, even in the stark cold winter of January and February. Roads to Demul, Langza, Kibber, Hikkim, Komic, Gue, Pin Valley, Nako, Kungri, Tabo etc may be open and accessible. One may also visit Lhalung, Dhankar and Losar if the roads are not deemed too dangerous to ply on.
One of the most important things to know for winter travel in Spiti Valley is that in case of heavy snowfall, there are chances of the road being closed for a day or two or even a week which may hamper your plans. It is better to keep a buffer of a day or two and keep flexible plans as snowfall at over 4000m can cause the road to be shut for vehicular traffic.
The weather is bitterly cold in the high altitude villages of Spiti valley and the unbearable cold (sometimes -40 degrees Celsius) makes visiting the villages a difficult proposition in the winters. While travelling, it is also advised to keep the window panes in the vehicle closed so that there is minimal contact with the frigid air.
Remember to always check with locals in Kaza and nearby villages about prevailing weather and road conditions for the places you are heading to before embarking on a journey to Spiti in the winter.
Distances of monasteries & attractions in Spiti Valley from Kaza :
Kaza to Kee Gompa – 16 Kms
Kaza to Kibber Village – 22 Kms
Kaza to Komic Monastery – 26 Kms
Kaza to Dhangkar (Dhangkhar) – 35 Kms
Kaza to Tabo Monastery – 48 Kms
Kaza to Lalung Monastery (Lhalung) – 31 Kms
Kaza to Langza – 16 Kms
Kaza to Gue Village (Mummy village) – 82 Kms
Kaza to Losar Village (Lossar) – 56 Kms
Kaza to Kungri Gompa (Pin Valley) – 32 Kms
Kaza to Mudh Village (Pin Valley) – 52 Kms
Are Hotels, Homestays open in Spiti Valley in the Winters ?
In entire Spiti Valley, almost all the guesthouses, homestays and hotels are closed for the winter and the ones that are open are mostly simple and basic options. Since Kaza is the district headquarters, most travellers choose to make this as the base to travel to other places.
Recommended places to stay in Kaza in the winters are located near the bus stand. Sakya Abode is a good place to stay with a very helpful owner – Tsering. It is situated close to the world’s highest retail outlet of Indian Oil, in Kaza.
Hotels may quote exorbitant prices in the winter of Spiti. Depending on your bargaining skills and ability of managing the cold, the prices can be brought down to around 500 – 1000 Rupees per night. It is best to stay at a homestay where a family lives too, it ensures that the cold is made bearable by the warmth of a bukhari in the kitchen. Warm meals and endless cups of tea are also usually included in the homestay price.
Accommodation options in Spiti Valley that are open during Winters :
Accommodation options in Losar : There are two homestays (Samson Guest House & Singaling) near the police check post at the entrance of Losar village. Both are owned by local Spitian families and charge very little amounts for adventurous souls who make it out there in the winter. Nomad’s Cottage is a cosy choice but is deep into the village and may require advance booking. If you do make your way to Losar (Also spelled as Lossar) in the winters, then it is highly recommended that you stay near the road itself; for the worst case scenario of the road being closed in case of snowfall.
At Kibber: One of the easier-to-access high altitude Spitian villages; it is possible to stay at a homestay in Kibber. Norling Homestay is one of the oldest homestays in the village and other homestays are open too – with their owners living in the same structure.
In Langza, Hikkim, Demul, Komic : Although it may be difficult to access these villages, if you do manage to find a way to reach any of them – then because locals inhabit these villages all year round, you are most likely to be invited to a local homestay to savour the warmth of home and legendary Spitian hospitality with endless cups of butter tea and chaang. Tenzi Homestay in Langza and Anmo homestay in Lhalung are open in the winters (their families live in the same home.) Contact Lara Tsering for a homestay in Langza. He is a local in Spiti and is a very helpful person.
In Pin Valley : Homestays are possible in the villages of Kungri, Gulling, Sagnam and Mudh in Pin Valley. Tara Homestay in Mudh village is a recommended choice. If you happen to meet Kunzang Bhutia in Mudh, show him my hat picture and you might get a mug of chaang for free!
Homestays and other options to stay are easily available in the towns of Tabo, Nako and Dhankar too. Except the few options suggested above, it may also be possible to stay at PWD rest house, IPH rest house, HPSEB rest house and circuit house in rare circumstances. Among all the staying options that are available, my vote is always for a a local homestay because of the warmth it provides and the possibility of local Spitian food that will also help a traveller combat the cold weather.
Enroute Spiti, a good place to break the journey with regards to acclimatisation is Reckong Peo. There are a few hotels open in the winter in Peo near the bus stand and for backpackers and solo travellers the bus from Reckong Peo to Kaza begins from Peo at 0730 am.
Attractions to see in Spiti in Winters
The change in landscape means it is quite possible to think of Spiti as an entirely different land from summer to winter. There are frozen waterfalls, azure blue skies, trees devoid of leaves, pristine freezing rivers that make winter in Spiti a beautiful and adventurous experience. It is also advised to travel with a local in Spiti in the winter; just in case anything goes wrong the locals have been living here forever and will surely know how to find a way out of any situation.
It is a good idea to first acclimatise to the bare cold and high altitude of Kaza (3700m) before attempting to explore various sights in the region. While coming from the only possible way – NH-22 (Via Shimla), spending some time at the monastery of Nako coupled with a walk to the frozen or semi frozen Nako Lake will help in acclimatising and in getting used to the cold. One can also stay at Tabo because it lies at a considerably lower altitude (3000m) and explore Tabo Monastery which is the oldest monastery in India. It is best to be in the pink of health before making the final run to Kaza and onward to the high altitude villages like Kibber, Langza etc.
Apart from these places, there are other noteworthy monasteries in Spiti; viz. Sakya Gompa in Kaza, Ki (Kee) Monastery, Dhankar Monastery, Komic Gompa, Giu monastery, Lhalung Serkhang Gompa and Kungri Monastery – which are all amazing experiences in the winter but depending on the amount of snow, the roads to these places may or may not be open. If the roads are closed, it is possible to trek to these villages on foot like the locals do. It is thus advised to not attempt the trek by yourselves and always to have a local guide or villagers around.
Another attraction of visiting Spiti Valley in the winters is the possibility of walking on the frozen Spiti river and also frozen Pin river. (It is advised to be very careful as in the past there have been instances of people drowning due to breaking of ice.) A visit to one of the high altitude Spitian villages is another huge attraction, to see local life and how it goes on despite the unbearable freezing temperatures.
Losar (Lossar) is the biggest and farthest of all the Spitian villages and is a cultural delight. Reaching the village of Losar will be a big upcoming attraction in Spitian winters. Locals celebrate festivals and folk dances by singing traditional Spitian songs. To preserve the age-old traditions of Spiti, the locals have taken care by organising various activities. Winters also see young men learn the art of carving Buddhist prayers on mane stones. In Kaza, locals can be seen playing the favourite Spitian game of ‘Cholo’.
The road to Losar is almost unbelievable in the winter and the landscape is covered in a blanket of white. There is also hopeful news of some adventurers trying to reach frozen Chandrataal Lake in the winters in the near future.
While the poplar trees are bare in Spiti, along the NH-22 Highway route in February/March, depending on the season there may be blossoms of various colours of almond, plum, peach and apricot trees. Celebrating Losar and other winter festivals is another big attraction for people visiting Spiti in the winters.
Precautions & Tips for Visiting Spiti in the Winters
While a winter trip to Spiti can be highly rewarding, there are some precautions to be kept. To be honest, traveling to Spiti during the winters means a place where the weather is unpredictable, basic amenities are bare minimum, chances of getting stuck anywhere are high and if anyone in the group falls sick, it could mean serious trouble.
Some Simple and Practical Tips for making the trip a success :
Do not venture into the cold immediately after being indoors for a while. Make sure every part of your body is covered before going out in the chill of the winter air. The air in Spiti is frosty and is largely devoid of oxygen. Try to not have a bath during the duration of your stay in Spiti in the winter. Remember that the kitchen is the warmest part of the homestay and it is better to spend more time there. Consult your doctor about starting a 3 day course of Diamox medicine (to prevent AMS) before starting your journey. Carry camphor for sniffing and a mask to prevent dust while breathing on the road.
Stay hydrated by drinking tea and water at regular intervals. Do not disregard warning signals even when your health doesn’t seem alright. Keep a moisturiser ready and ensure that the skin is not dry. Eating dark chocolates and nuts is recommended to maintain energy levels. Do not hesitate to ask for help from locals if there is any kind of trouble. A troublesome feat is to keep the fingers guarded while clicking pictures, it is a good idea to make the camera settings inside the car and then go ahead and click and cover the fingers immediately.
Water supply in toilets won’t be there and expect to use Spitian dry compost toilets in remote places. These are traditional toilets with just a hole in the ground. Make sure your hands are not left wet in the cold; otherwise even a leftover droplet will freeze and will leave a blue dot on the skin. Also once you are warm in bed, remember try not to go to the loo in the middle of the night when the cold air can really hit you.
Although the above might points seem very simple, they have been penned down from my personal experiences and might make the difference between a mistake and a successful trip.
Some not-to-forget-things : Sunglasses are a must at all times to protect from the reflection of the snow, the sun’s glare is unusually high in Spiti. Apply sunscreen generously and always carry medicines with you. It is advised to carry a flask of warm water at all times.
Packing for a Winter Trip in Spiti
While you may have heard of ‘dress in layers’ for travelling in Ladakh, it is also absolutely true for all of Spiti. It is also a much better idea to wear clothes in layers rather than wearing a single bulky jacket. As most of us are not used to travelling in these frigid conditions, the only way to survive is by staying warm. Also remember to carry toilet paper rolls and hand sanitizer in Spiti.
Jacket : It is ideal to have a down jacket or duck-feather jacket which is warm enough to withstand temperatures of lesser than -20 Degrees Celsius. A recommended way of dressing in layers would be : a thermal inner (or two), comfortable tee shirt, sweaters, a warm jacket and then finally, the down jacket.
Lower : It is very important to keep the lower part of the body insulated from the cold. A warm inner, or 2 inners if you still feel cold and a jeans or lower is recommended.
Shoes & Socks : A trekking shoe or high ankle length shoe is good for winters in Spiti. The Quechua Forclaz 500 is a highly recommended product. It is warm enough for winters in Spiti and also does the job of walking on ice/snow. It is a must to wear either one layer or two layers of warm woollen socks. There are most chances of cold seeping through the feet, so they must be kept warm at all times. Change socks immediately in case they get wet. Normal socks won’t help in the extreme cold of Spiti valley; it is advised to have either hand-made woollen socks or socks that are made for sub-zero temperatures.
Gloves & Cap : Do not forget to carry a pair of warm gloves on a winter trip to Spiti. Also necessary is a warm cap that covers both the ears and neck and does not allow any cold air to get in. Keep two kinds of caps so that you can use both of them simultaneously, as need be with regards to the cold winds.
Most Common Itinerary for Spiti Valley in winters
Day 1 : Stay at Reckong Peo – Acclimatisation is required whichever part of India you are coming from. On the Shimla (NH-22) route, staying at Peo (Dist. Headquarter Kinnaur) will help you get used to the cold and altitude. It is a big town and there are options to stay.
Day 2 : Tabo – Seeing the sights of Nako Monastery and lake on the way; walk slowly and drink lots of water to acclimatise perfectly so as to have no AMS trouble for the rest of the trip.
Day 3 Kaza : The dramatic fort and monastery of Dhangkhar (Dhankar) can be visited before reaching Kaza.
Day 4: Kaza & nearby excursions to Ki Monastery & Kibber village and beyond if the road permits.
Day 5: Accessing the villages of Lalung, Langza, Hikkim, Demul, Komic (or as far as the vehicle goes) and witnessing local Spitian life as it has existed for centuries.
Day 6: Check the possibility of reaching Losar and stay there. Monastery visit, walk through snow and witness cultural performance of the villagers in the evening.
Day 7: If Pin Valley road is open, visit Mudh village and start the return journey and stay at Tabo/Kaza. Kaza is the best place to be in case you are stuck in a snowfall/or if the road is closed.
Day 8: It is a good idea to keep a buffer day in case of closure of any roads and sudden turn of weather.
Day 9 : Return from Spiti via Kinnaur and to Shimla.
AMS and Hospitals
While it is important to make the most of your holiday and see as much as you can, it is in the rarified air of Spiti that even the most well laid out plans can go for a toss. Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) along with the life threatening cold is the biggest challenge for winter travel in Spiti. Most of Spiti and the Spitian villages are located at an average altitude of 3500m-4400m, and winter means no vegetation and hence there is even lesser oxygen in the air.
Some tourists are guilty of trying to see everything in a limited time, thereby increasing the chances of getting hit by AMS. AMS can progress to potentially life threatening situations of HAPE & HACE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema & High Altitude Cerebral Edema). If timely action is not taken, even death may result.
It is therefore advised to monitor the health and oxygen levels and acclimatise for 2-3 days and only then think about seeing the sights. It is recommended to drink plenty of water, butter tea and local garlic water to gauge the progress with regards to acclimatisation.
Kaza has a hospital in case of troubles with AMS and otherwise. The charges are almost zero but it is likely that there is limited space in the hospital. While you may see locals playing cricket at the deserted Kaza bus stand, remember that ‘Haste makes waste’ and let your body get used to this extreme temperature slowly but surely.
Local medical shops and PHC’s (Primary Health Centres) are present in other towns of Spiti but may be closed in the winter. It is a must to carry all kinds of medication and oxygen cylinder with yourself at all times for any kind of emergency.
Shopping in Winters
Although only a handful of shops that are open, it is still a good time to shop for some products that are available at reasonable prices.
If you have insufficient winter wear when you reach Spiti, then warm jackets, lowers and other clothes can be brought in Kaza. A few shops in the main market are open and hand woven sweaters and socks are available. Rough shawls woven by the villagers that keep quite warm can be procured.
Some areas of Spiti produce top quality apples in the summers; locals dry them and they are an excellent buy to eat while travelling. Locals store those apples and they are still fresh in winter.
There are one or two shops in Kaza that sell a fine variety of socks at a steal at 150-200 Rupees. They make for excellent gifts to be carried back home.
Yak cheese (churpe) can be brought from locals, apple and seabuckthorn jam may be available.
Where to eat in Spiti Valley in Winters?
Eateries are few and far between in the winters in Spiti and most hotels and dhabas are closed. For breakfast and dinner, it is always advised to eat at your homestay or hotel and not to venture out after dark. Dogs on the streets rule and can be a real menace in all towns and villages of Spiti in winter.
In the main market in Kaza, there are only 2-3 restaurants that are open, located near the bus stand and serving basic foodstuffs such as momos and thukpa. Along the route to Spiti, good food is available at cheap dhabas in the towns of Spillow, Hoorling, Narkanda & Reckong Peo.
If you are travelling in buses, make sure to eat whenever and wherever they stop – they usually stop at good places. If you are travelling in a hired SUV, it is almost certain that the taxi driver will know where to stop and eat. Do not think that you will find food everywhere, it is better to travel on a full stomach in the Spitian winters.
Wherever you happen to stay, food can be possible at the homestay and will be a basic affair; because of the remoteness. Please make sure you don’t waste anything.
It is highly recommended to carry high energy food like almonds, dates, dark chocolates etc. for eating at regular intervals.
Budget and Cash
There are hardly any ATMs outside of Kaza, and even the one at Kaza may not work in the winter. Therefore, it is a must to be on the safe side and carry plenty of cash with you at all times, also considering any case of emergency. SBI Bank Branch in Kaza may provide limited cash with their POS machine in case the atm is not working.
There may be a freak scenario of being stranded in a remote area for 2-3 days in some village, at that time the extra money will be handy and may prove to be the difference in getting out safely. In cases of emergency, Himachal Pradesh Government has the services of a helicopter that can be requested upon a huge payment; but it may be useful in case of dire circumstances.
Electricity supply is erratic and unreliable in the winter in Spiti and a snowfall can cause all electricity to be shut down for weeks together. At that time, solar charged bulbs and torches will come handy and solar batteries may also enable charging of mobile phones and camera batteries. Usually electricity supply in Spiti in winter is for 4-5 hours per day (at least.)
Due to the extreme cold, phone batteries and camera batteries die out quickly. A tip to save the charge is to keep them warm, which can be done by keeping them in the blanket when you are sleeping and carrying them in pockets otherwise.
Surprisingly BSNL phone network means that mobiles work in most towns in Spiti even in the winter. Other networks like airtel, vodafone, idea hardly have any connectivity after crossing Pooh. Internet services are slow but sometimes BSNL internet works in Losar & Kaza and may even work in the remote towns. The army camps enroute have internet and may allow you to use it if requested. You can connect to a wifi and access the internet at an internet café in Kaza for around 60 Rupees per hour.
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