“A hidden isolated world”, is the first thing most travellers have to say about Spiti. What else could one say about a world that was forbidden to visitors for about 30 years. A visit to Spiti Valley is like Time Travel. You get in a time machine and travel to a world and time unknown.
Spiti lies across the main range of Himalayas, called the Trans-Himalaya. But wait a second! Let’s just reflect on what comes to our mind when someone mentions ‘Himalaya’. Soaring high snow peaks, pine forests and green meadows. Pretty much that, right? What if I told you Spiti is the complete contrast of all that, but just as beautiful.
Spiti is a cold desert mountain valley with barren hills, grey scree slopes, pristine lakes, some of the world’s highest inhabited villages and beautiful monasteries perched dramatically over its landscape. The touch of barrenness and a sense of ancient civilisation are some add-ons.
A place that was cut off for 30 years from the outer world has to be really special. A perfect place where India and Tibet blend graciously, this protected civilisation has lately transformed into an exotic tourist destination. Let’s find out why!
The most interesting aspect of Spiti is its Gompas, and the most interesting aspect of these Gompas is their unique location. Perched high atop mountains, these monasteries are isolated from civilisation, which evokes a special kind of interest in a traveller’s mind. These Gompas are considered as the centre of Buddhism and are a major guiding force in a Spitian’s life.
Almost all the villages have a monastery on the ridge above the village. Apart from the many village level monasteries, there are five major monasteries in Spiti: Key Monastery, Tangyud Monastery, Dhankar Monastery, Tabo Monastery and Kungri Monastery.
You can feel the true presence and essence of Buddhism inside these Gompas in their vibrant thangkas, murals, scriptures, paintings and prayers of the red robed lamas.
Visiting Spiti valley gives you a chance to visit the world’s highest motorable village. Komic village is situated at a soaring altitude of around 15,027 feet above sea level. Being a storehouse of ancient fossils with a monastery at its entrance and small hills to hike around the village, Komic will be the high point of your trip, quite literally.
Komic lies at a distance of 18 - 20 km from Kaza. The best way to get to Komic is by hiring a private taxi from Kaza. There is a government bus that can take you to Komic, but because the villagers hardly venture out of their villages on a day-to-day basis, these buses run only twice a week (Tuesdays & Saturdays). These buses are not frequent or dependable, but they are economical.
Here is the biggest surprise of all. Around 33 km from Tabo, in a small village named Gue, rests a 500 year old mummified body of a Buddhist monk, named Sangha Tenzin. What is surprising is that the process of mummification of the monk’s body is completely natural and no chemicals were used in the process.
Despite natural mummification, the mummy’s head is intact with hair, his darkened skin looks tight, he still has teeth and he sits upright with his chin resting on his knee in a meditative posture. He has a meditation belt (gomtag) running around his neck and legs which might have kept him in the same position till his death.
The mummy rests in a box shaped concrete room near the few mud houses of Gue. Unlike artificial mummification where several layers of glass are used to preserve the body, this mummy is kept inside one single glass layer.
The Hikkim village of Spiti valley is home to the World’s Highest Post Office. The idea of sending yourself or your people postcards from 14,567 feet above sea level is quite unusual and cool.
Hikkim is a 15 km uphill drive from Kaza. There are two ways to reach there: one is hiring a private taxi from Kaza, the other is taking the local HRTC bus from Kaza to Hikkim. This is the same bus that goes all the way to Komic. The problem is, it only runs twice a week. Just check the bus schedule properly a day before you want to make your journey.
There are quaint and compact villages scattered all across Spiti. These villages are located at a considerable distance from each other and they only have a handful of box shaped houses each. Villages in Spiti are set at three levels of altitude: lower, middle and upper. Kaza, Dhankar, Lhalung, Demul, Komic, Kibber, Tashigang, Mud, Key, Langza and Gete are some well-known villages of Spiti.
The location and the view of each village is a sight to behold. Visiting these villages adds a great value to your trip and truly gives you an insight into the life of Spitians.
The great part is that some of the Spiti villages namely Komic, Langza, Kibber, Demul, Lhalung, Dhankar and Hikkim offer homestays to travellers. Its great because visiting an exotic region like Spiti without exploring the villages and living the lives of the locals is just half the experience.
Homestays let you understand many aspects of a Spitian’s life like: what it’s like to live in a remote location, what food do they eat, what do they do when the harsh winters keep them on house arrest for months and what do they seek in this life.
The people of Spiti valley do not believe in wasting anything which is quite evident in the dry composting toilets these homestays have. It generates manure which they use in their fields. Although these homes provide basic facilities, they are clean and spacious, provide delicious local food, and the kindness of the people is worth taking back home.
High altitude lakes are the most beautiful embellishments on the crown of Spiti. The lakes are just unlike anything you might have seen or experienced. What makes it more thrilling is the fact that you have to trek your way to these lakes because of their exotic locations and high altitudes.
Chandratal, Suraj Tal and Dhankar are some of the popular lakes of the valley. Chandratal particularly is the most favourite spot within the tourist groups and Camping at Chandratal under the star studded sky is considered as an ultimate life changing experience. Sopona lake is another hidden gem that not many travellers know of.
If you are on a quest to explore the most unseen parts of our country, you must include a high altitude lake of Spiti valley in your itinerary.
Spiti offers a lot of scope for all you adventure junkies. Every year there are people taking the road to Spiti to try out a bunch of activities like Biking, Cycling, Mountaineering, Trekking, Camping, Ice Climbing and Overland Jeep Safari for the entire Spiti valley tour. With its numerous high peaks, Spiti offers tremendous opportunities for Mountaineering and Trekking. Spiti’s dry barren landscape is conducive for Camping. Spiti is also an upcoming destination for Ice climbing in winters.
Whichever adventure activity you opt for, it is very important to give yourself the required time for proper acclimatization and carry precautionary medicines to be able to enjoy your trip without any hassle.
The places you must visit in Spiti totally depend on the nature and span of your itinerary. We are listing a number of places that definitely are worth a visit. You certainly can’t do it all at once, but you can gauge and understand what you want to do on your trip and what places you want to visit from the following:
|Tabo Monastery||Founded in AD 996, this is the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in India & the Himalayas. Located on the main road to Kaza, the Gompa has priceless collections of thangkas, ancient statues, manuscripts, rare wall paintings and wide murals.|
|Key Monastery||Located on top of a hill, around 12 km from Kaza, this whitewashed monastery is the largest monastery of Spiti valley. The location of this Gompa is stunning and the view of surrounding hills are amazing. The Gompa has medieval prayer rooms, including one that has a bed on which the Dalai Lama is known to have rested in 1960 and 2000.|
|Tangyud Monastery||Located at 4 km above Kaza at the highest village of Komic, this monastery is built on the edge of a canyon. What is special is that this monastery is built like a fortified castle and is patronised by the Nonos of Spiti.|
|Dhankar Monastery||Built in the 12th Century, this monastery lies on the edge of a cliff. In 2006, it was listed as one of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments. The monastery has a few rooms, including one where the great Dalai Lama slept, a meditation cave and a prayer hall on the top of the hill. It is extremely beautiful.|
|Kungri Monastery||Built around 1330, Kungri is the second oldest monastery of Spiti valley. It is the chief monastery of the Pin valley and is believed to be founded by Padmasambhav. This monastery is a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist texts, culture and art. This monastery is famous for its ‘Cham Dance’, a two day event that happens in July. A lot of tourists come to Kungri in July to witness it.|
|Kaza||Known as the headquarter of Spiti valley, Kaza is the most urbanized part of Spiti and also the commercial centre of the valley with a lot of stay options and modern facilities available. It makes a good base for your further travels. It is the only place in the entire valley that has a Fuel station, a cyber cafe (not very fast speed), proper mobile network. It also has an ATM and amazing eateries and restaurants.|
|Langza||Around 16 km from Kaza, lies this stunning village at 14,500 feet. It is a rich treasure house of marine fossils. Fossils of marine creatures and plants that are around a million years old. Surrounded by high peaks all around, this village only has about 33 houses. These houses offer homestays to travellers.|
|Komic||Located at a soaring height of 15,027, Komic is the highest motorable village in the world. This village is a storehouse of ancient fossils. There is a monastery at the village entrance and a lot of small hills to hike around the village. The option of homestays is available here.|
|Hikkim||15 km from Kaza, a little detour from the road to Komic, lies the village of Hikkim. It houses the world’s highest post office. Sending a postcard from this point will be a cool highlight of your trip. The post office is also a house, where travellers are served tea.|
|Gue||The village of Gue is located at a distance of 33 km from Tabo. The village has a few houses and in one of them lies a 500 year old mummy of a Buddhist monk named Sangha Tenzin. It will be an unbelievable experience.|
|Rohtang & Kunzum la Pass||Rohtang Pass (13,050 ft) and Kunzum Pass (15,060 ft) are high mountain passes that come on your way to Kaza via the Manali route. Crossing these high altitude passes on your way to the Spiti valley adds on to your experience. These passes connect the Kullu and Lahaul valley with the Spiti valley. The journey from Kunzum to Kaza has spectacular views to offer you.|
|Chandratal Lake||You could do a 10 km trek from the Kunzum top or a 14 km trek from Batal to reach this glacial lake. When you reach the glorious Chadratal, you are rewarded with the most breathtaking landscape of blue waters and herds of sheep. Camping at the Chandratal Lake is known as a life changing experience.|
|Dhankar Lake||To spot this gem, you have to take a 2 km steep trek from the Dhankar village. Once you reach the lake, you are gifted with magnificent views of the valley and also the Manirang Peak which is one of the highest peaks of Himachal Pradesh.|
|Pin Valley||Pin valley is the only oasis of green in the otherwise brown and barren landscape of Spiti. The Pin river flows in from the West to join the Spiti river, forming the Pin valley. Because of its rich biodiversity, this valley has established itself as a wildlife reserve named the Pin Valley National Park. This valley is all about the transformation from a cold barren desert to an extensive surface of green. In summers, you may spot some rare birds like the Himalayan Snowcock, Snow Partridge the Snowfinch.|
|Himalayan Cafe||This cafe in Kaza is an absolute hit, from its variety of delicious food and free wifi to its positive and colourful ambience. You can find a variety of food items here from fresh fruits, salads, pancakes, momos, muesli to a whole range of Indian cuisine.|
|Sol Cafe||This pretty little cafe in Kaza serves great coffee, different kinds of teas and light meals like pancakes and French toasts. It also has a bundle of books that you can pick your read from. You can relax here with a good book and some delicious hot pancakes.|
|Chandra Dhaba||If you’re coming to Kaza from Manali, don’t forget to stop at the famous Chandra Dhaba in Batal district. The owners of this place are lovingly called Chacha and Chachi by everyone. Chacha and Chachi have been serving great food, hot tea and lots of love to all travellers since 41 years.|
|Taste Of Spiti||This is an interesting eating place in Kaza. You get authentic Spitian cuisine here. They also take up Spitian staple food items, combine them with international ingredients and cook them in a unique way. Their home made icecreams are a treat for the soul.|
|Tiger Den||This is a multi cuisine eatery located in Tabo. They serve all kinds of Indian and Tibetan food items. The food here is delicious with indoor and outdoor seating options.|
There are 2 routes to reach Spiti: One is via Manali route (having 2 high passes, Kunzum la & Rohtang) and the other is via Simla route.
The Manali route is much shorter with 201 km, whereas the Simla route is much longer with 450 km. However, the Manali route quickly gains high altitudes because of its 2 high mountain passes. This means you will have very little time to acclimatize properly which increases your chances of getting hit by AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). The Simla route gains altitudes gradually, giving you a lot of time to acclimatize.
However, both the routes are equally preferred by travellers and are equally tiring because of road-blocks and unpaved roads ahead.
For the Manali route, it is advisable to reach Kullu first, take a day break, and get on the early morning bus from Kullu to Kaza. It is very difficult to get a seat on this bus from Manali. Another convenient option is reaching Manali and hiring a shared cab to Kaza, a slightly costlier affair but a lot more comfortable.
For the Simla route, you can reach Reckong Peo and take an early morning bus to Kaza. There is a lot of rush for tickets, so it is advisable to reach the bus stand much early.
The best time to visit Spiti are the summer months of June - September when the temperatures are lovely with no frozen roads.
Winter in Spiti is a harsh affair with the temperatures dropping to as low as -30° Celsius. Also, the Manali - Kaza highway is closed in winters. The route starts clearing up in the months of May - June. According to the locals, the months of June and August get the best temperatures, which is exactly when most tourists flock to the valley.
“A world within a world”, is what Rudyard Kipling had to say about the beautiful, isolated valley of Spiti in his book. It couldn’t have been described better.
It’s a hidden world. A world that is a blend of ancient Buddhist monasteries, untamed barren land, quaint and remote villages, pristine lakes, fascinating stories, rich culture, kind people, mesmerizing views and extraordinary lunar landscape.
Spiti is not like any other travel destination, it is a life changing experience. I hope you get your experience soon.