Starkly, dramatically beautiful, relatively unknown and much off the tourist tracks, Spiti valley in Himachal is neither a breezy weekend getaway, nor is it in any way like that restful trip you last took to a sheltered hill resort. Most of the trip is spent bumping along the Hindustan-Tibet Highway, and this mad, crazy drive is as much a part of the experience as are the breathtaking landscapes that will have you scrambling for your camera at every turn.
Geographically, Spiti has cold, desert-like conditions where rain is a rarity and snow rules. The terrain is bleak and inhospitable, but you will find spotless blue skies dotted with cottony clouds that perfectly set off the snow-streaked, matte brown ranges of some of the craggiest mountains that you might have ever set eyes upon.
You will seldom venture far from the Sutlej or Spiti river, or one of their tributaries, since most of the roads run along the valleys that the force of these rivers have carved out over centuries. And if you’re pining for blue rivers, you won’t find them here, at least in the month of May. The waters are a muddy brown and only much later in the year do they turn a clear blue.
Our road-trip began in Chandigarh, where we rented a Ford Ecosport for the 17-day trip. Driving in Spiti is extremely challenging and it is best to have a driver who is experienced with mountain roads. Especially in May, when the season starts, most of the roads are in a rather terrible state; they aren’t much more than dirt tracks strewn with stones, not to forget the billowing clouds of dust that add to the traveller’s discomfort.
If you aren’t already unnerved by your jolting ride while manoeuvring your way around rocky precipices, there are signboards on the side of the highway informing you in no uncertain terms that you are travelling on one of the most treacherous roads in the world. Gulp! The rugged terrain, significant winter snow accumulation, constant landslides and sparse vegetation all are responsible for these conditions, as are the road repair, widening and massive power-generation and construction projects on the Sutlej river.
Stop 1: Narkanda
After a stop in Solan to attend a family wedding we set out for Narkanda, which lies beyond Shimla, at a higher elevation. The drive was smooth and the only thing we stopped en route for was a late tea-time treat of freshly fried pakodas and sandwiches.
The drive up from Narkanda to the Agyaat Vaas adventure camp where we were staying, was our first taste of the rough roads. We had a really tough time getting the car up the narrow, crumbling roads and finally had to call the camp for help since it was getting dark.
The camp is located near Hatu temple, which is constructed in a neo Indo-Tibetian style, and a must-see if you are in these parts. There are some lovely viewpoints around the temple, rocks to climb and plenty of monkeys to pit your climbing skills against. From the benches around the Hatu temple, you can enjoy sweeping views of the apple belts of Kotgarh and Thanedar, and this was where we caught the first glimpse of the snow-covered peaks that we were to encounter often during the rest of the trip.
A drive to the small and pristine Tani-Jubber lake, and stops at cherry and apple orchards occupied the rest of our time. This area is where Samuel Stokes, an American, planted the first apple saplings in India, and from here started the cultivation of the famous Himachal apples.
- Agyaat Vaas – This camp is located at a secluded, beautiful spot, close to Hatu temple. Though the rooms are large but they are very sparsely furnished and not really comfortable, therefore we wouldn’t recommended for families. The camp often hosts school kids on adventure trips and be warned that though you might anticipate a peaceful time you could well be sharing your stay with a bunch of kids doing what kids do best!
- Hatu Hotel – Run by HPTDC, this hotel has clean and comfortable rooms, a good restaurant with limited outdoor seating options. It is close to the town market, yet peaceful and well-run.
Tadka Tip: Take along a stock of non-perishable foods with you, like khakhras, nuts, dried fruit, energy bars, chocolate and namkeens. These can be life savers when you are stuck on the road. We also drank the local water everywhere, filling up our stainless steel bottles from the hotels where we stayed, and were chuffed that we didn’t buy a single plastic bottle during the trip.
Stop 2: Sarahan
The Bhimkali temple complex in the centre of town is gorgeous, and the lanes around it have a number of eateries, and shops bursting with trinkets.
If you are an avid bird-watcher, there is also a bird sanctuary here but unfortunately it is closed to visitors during the breeding season – April to September. We did spend a good couple of hours in the lane that runs alongside the sanctuary though, spotting a variety of hill birds.
- The Shrikhand – This is a charming hotel run by HPTDC, with the option of staying in vintage style cottage rooms (recommended). The architecture of the main building is inspired by the Bhimkali temple nearby and it is flanked by rows of beautiful flowers.
A sprawling, open terrace with swings and white wrought-iron chairs is a picture-perfect setting to enjoy the glorious views. The restaurant offers some excellent local food, do try the Himachali dishes in the menu here.
Tadka Tip: Stop at the nearest HPTDC hotel or office and pick up maps and travel brochures for all the places that you are visiting. These are very informative and come in handy when there is no internet service, which happens pretty often.
Stop 3: Rakcham
Around Wangtu is where the roads start deteriorating into rough tracks but don’t let that deter you from taking the detour to Rakcham. A tiny, laid-back village where finding even a tea stall can be a challenge, Rakcham’s setting is a revelation.
Perched on the pebbled banks of the Baspa river, this valley is tucked away in the depths of the mountains and is one of the most beautiful nooks on this route.
There are plenty of rambling paths to enjoy scenic walks around the river, cows and frisky goat herds to keep you company, huge boulders to climb on just for fun, proverbial bubbling brooks with makeshift wooden bridges, grassy meadows and quiet marshes.
The mountains fringing the valley are tall and rugged, and there’s a good chance you’ll find patches of snow or ice even in May. There are no marked trails here, but don’t hesitate to wander around, and you can spend your days peacefully soaking in the peace and loveliness around.
A day trip to the village of Chhitkul is the thing to do here and this is the last inhabited village before the army-manned Indo-Tibet border. A walk around the village with its traditional houses and temples, a walk down to the Baspa river to build a snowman, and a plate of Maggi with masala chai at a small eatery rounded off our day at Chitkul.
Look no further than the Rupin River View Hotel. Located right on the edge of the Baspa river, with amazing views, this hotel has spacious rooms with tiny balconies. Enjoy the sound of the gurgling river, fresh, wholesome food in the restaurant, and the excellent hospitality.
Tadka Tip: Phone and internet connectivity in the area are pretty good except for remote stretches on the road. Once you cross Recong Peo only BSNL is available, so it is good to have a phone with BSNL service.
Stop 4: Nako
Back on the road, once you cross Pooh, you leave the banks of the Sutlej and travel up the valley of the Spiti river. This road runs high for a while, through the tiny, picturesque village of Nako, at an altitude of 3600m.
The Nako lake is a well-known feature here, and warrants a visit in the early morning hours to catch the reflections of the bordering mountains and trees in its still waters. A visit to the Nako monastery, walks around the quiet village lanes and up some rocky mountain tracks is all you’d want to do here.
* There aren’t too many hotels in Nako but Kinner Camps has a line of well-equipped tents (with attached baths) and a restaurant with basic and tasty food. The campfire at night and star gazing after dinner are magical. The tents can get pretty cold at night, so don’t say no to the hot water bottles that they offer!
Stop 5: Kaza
For us, Kaza was pretty much as far as we could go up into Spiti valley, since it was May, and the road that connects to Manali via Rohtang Pass was still snow-laden and closed.
Kaza is the regional headquarters of the Spiti district and as large a town as you will encounter in these parts. There’s a petrol bunk, well-equipped bazaars, restaurants, There are several day trips that one can take while based in Kaza, and many options for camping around here too.
About 15km from Kaza town is the Key Gompa or Monastery, a truly spectacular sight, built high above the Spiti river, on a rocky hill. The ancient 11th century monastery is a joy to visit, and the monks are friendly and chatty. One can visit the holy rooms and prayer halls that are lined with precious paintings and sacred artefacts. A short walk away is a small shrine with three huge, golden stupas, and you can catch some amazing views from here too.
The quaint village of Kibber is another attraction that can be reached through steep, winding roads further after the Key monastery. The traditional architecture of these houses is very interesting, with interlocking wooden beams and roofs tiled with beautiful sheets of grey slate. The edges where the roof meets the walls is stuffed with piles of hay, and this prevents the mud walls from getting water-logged.
If you have the time, there are more villages to explore, among them Hikkim, Langza and Kaumik. The drive to these villages takes you deep into the mountains. The views of the barley and peas farms spread out in the sunshine, and the charming countryside make these drives truly memorable. Remember to pack a picnic to enjoy in a sunny spot since there may not be too many eateries in these tiny hamlets.
A trip to Pin Valley is also a must-do while you are here. This is a national park that is known for its wildlife, including the ibex and the snow leopard. Much of this area is only accessible through overnight treks, and even though we could only spend the day, some of the most arresting and dramatic scenery that we saw was here.
Another must-see is the village of Dhankar, which is situated high above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. There is an ancient monastery here at one end of the village and above that, the ruins of a fort on a craggy cliff. We had plans to stay at the guest house in the monastery but ultimately decided to stay an extra night in Kaza and visit Dhankar en route to Tabo.
The views as you approach the area are just phenomenal, and the rugged, scraggy landscape is eerily lunar-like.
The village itself is spread out all over a shallow valley unlike the more compactly spaced dwellings that we encountered earlier.
High above the village lies the Dhankar Lake and this is a long, strenuous trek over a steep, wind-swept mud path. The lake itself is in a harsh, desolate setting, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, and we found its blue-green waters still partially frozen when we finally huffed and puffed our way up there.
There are several hotels and homestays in Kaza to suit every style and budget.
We totally loved the Deyzor Hotel where we spent three very comfortable nights. This hotel is charmingly done-up and the perfect place to soak in the serene Spiti atmosphere.
Most importantly, they have the best coffee (French press) which is like Nirvana after the milky, weak brews available in most of Himachal. A garden seating option for breakfast, amazingly delicious international cuisine, the friendly, hands-on, knowledgeable and efficient owner, free wifi and super efficient laundry service, all make your stay here pretty wonderful after those long hours spent on the road.
Tadka Tip: It makes sense to stick to the local cuisine here since that is what is freshly cooked and super delicious. We stayed on a steady diet of rajma-chawal, dal-chawal, kadhi-chawal, roti-subzi, stuffed parathas, pakoras, sandwiches and omelettes, interspersed with the occasional plate of momos, chowmein and thupka.
Stop 6: Tabo
Finding your way back from the heights of Spiti can be a let-down, but when there’s no way around it, a stop at Tabo can be so uplifting.
The Tabo monastry does take visitors for stay, and there are a few small hotels located around the town. We spent a comfortable night at the Tashi Khangsar, a small establishment with basic facilities. This is located in the midst of apple orchards and is walking distance from the monastery. The home-style meal of dal, mixed vegetables, salad, rice and rotis that they put out was much appreciated by our travel-weary tummies, and they were sweet enough to give us a wholesome breakfast of porridge, eggs, fruit and toast the following morning before we left.
Tadka Tip: The monasteries have prayer time in the mornings and evenings where visitors can join in. Listening to the monks chanting can be an enriching and moving experience, so do try and make time for this.
Stop 7: Kalpa
You could make a quick stop at Kalpa on the way to Spiti Valley but we chose to stay a couple of nights here on our way back. Kalpa is a peaceful suburb close to Reckong Peo, and is utterly ravishing. The elevation here makes for fantastic views of the Kinner Kailash range, and brings you close to the majesty and grandeur of these mountains.
We chose not to visit any of the local sights, and instead opted to explore the countryside and hills near the hotel. A narrow rocky path that ran next to a bubbling little brook fed by snow-melt led us to some rustic cottages, groves of pines, apple orchards and lush patches of green. This was heaven, indeed, and just what we needed after the long, cramped hours spent driving.
There are many great hotels in Kalpa and we were pretty happy at the newly refurbished The Grand Shamba La (Earlier called Shangri La). Our room on the 5th floor (no lifts) had French windows and a balcony looking straight out to the mountains.
One can’t really ask for a better view, and we reveled in it right from the comfort of the hotel bed. The next morning, the dramatic sunrise view from a favourable spot on balcony was sublime. The food was the regular paratha-dal-subzi-roti that we had been enjoying, with the option of room service.
Tadka Tip: Taking on hitchhikers in your car can be a great way to interact with people. We learnt so much..from the woman looking to get home from a hard day’s work in the orchards, the Frenchman who had been travelling in India for 4 months, the sisters on their way to a funeral who shared with us a handful of home-grown pine nuts that they had tossed in their pockets to snack on, and the Russian couple who could barely speak English but were gamely taking on the remote corners of Himachal.
Our Spiti adventure ended here as we took to the highways to make our way back to Shimla and Chandigarh. The crowds, pollution and traffic served as a rude jolt back to reality, but we definitely appreciated the smooth asphalt of the roads.