This is an article we wrote for the Ritz Magazine on Spiti.
On either side of the road the mountains rise up in vertical faces of rock, and create a violent, totally inhospitable, landscape. Like the ruins of an ancient civilisation. As far as the eye can is a sepia-toned world – all rock and sand. Even the river rushing far below with an amazing power, is murky, carrying tons of eroded soil with it. It seems ridiculous that anything could survive here, or would want to, and then suddenly, impossibly, you see clusters of purple and yellow wild flowers growing here and there, or a village perched high on a ledge in the rock face, and cultivating apples.
The road rises climbs steadily up all the way to the village of Nako, where suddenly the steep rock faces give way to more gentle slopes of sand and rock. And what a display of rocks it is! White, pale yellow, beige, chocolate brown, deep red, purple, and the darkest black – it’s a geology lesson in motion.
The bus ride to the Spiti Valley was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. The immensity of the Himalayas is awe-inspiring, and the landscape so alien in this high altitude desert, that you can only marvel at the tenacity of the people who live and work in such harsh conditions.
The journey itself is quite an adventure, and certainly not one for queasy-stomachs. The Hindustan Tibet Highway, which we took, runs from Shimla through the Kinnaur region of Himachal, right up to the Spiti valley, and being a border road it is kept open year-round, but only just barely. There are constant landslides and during the winter, this region is often under several feet of snow. As a result the road, despite being a national highway, is little more than a dirt track in some parts and the going is slow and bumpy.
Spiti is an area soaked in Buddhist tradition, so the main thing to see here apart from the stunning landscapes, are the five ancient monasteries – at Tabo, Pin Valley, Dhangkar, Ki and Komic.
The most accessible of these is the Tabo monastery, founded in 996, and one of the most beautiful monuments I have ever seen. Monument actually doesn’t describe it very well. From outside the monastery is a collection of unassuming, short, mud and stone structures with no colour whatsoever. There are nine temples in the monastery compound, all of which stay locked except for in the morning when the lamps are lit, and on special occasions. But there are plenty of people who are involved in the upkeep of the monastery and anyone of them is more than happy to open up the temple and let you have a look.
Entering the main temple, (the ‘Temple of the Enlightened Gods’!) was really like going back a thousand years. At the further end of the small room is a large four sided statue of Buddha, and on the walls surrounding it are paintings of a 1000 Buddhas, each one distinct in its appearance. Suspended on the walls of the temple are life-sized and statues of the Boddhisattvas. On every wall and all over the ceilings are delicate murals, apparently created by Buddhist painters who were brought from Kashmir.
The experience at the temple is enhanced by the fact there are no artificial lights inside the monastery. So the paintings are lit by streaks of sunlight that come from openings in the roof and the very faint light from the lamps. We were allowed to shine torches on whatever we wanted to see, but no photography is allowed even without flash, without special permission from the Archaeological Survey of India’s offices in Shimla.
Across the main road from Tabo are some steep sandy slopes and a ten minute walk uphill brings you to an old cave settlement. There is also another small monastery near the caves with paintings in similar style to the monastery below. This was apparently where the monks used to live and pray before the Tabo monastery was built. Some of the caves even have a door or a window built in, and some are still used for meditation.
About an hour and a half by road from Tabo, is Dhangkar. This old capital of the Spiti Valley is like a fortress city, a collection of whitewashed mud houses protected by forbidding spiky cliffs from above and a steep climb below. It was around six thirty in the evening as we drove in, and cows, yak, donkeys, sheep and goats suddenly erupted from every direction and came racing down the cliffs towards the village. All the hundreds of cattle of the entire village were all being herded home together. It’s a beautiful sight, and with a good vantage point you can see all the cattle criss-cross their way down the hill sides and find their way home.
The Dhangkar monastery itself is a very simple affair after the Tabo experience, but what makes it special is the way it is perched on top of a cliff at an impossible angle, threatening to fall off. This monastery is actually in danger of falling apart, and efforts are on to preserve its heritage.
The Spiti Valley is fast becoming a stop for people, especially backpackers, on the route to Leh-Ladakh, so trekking is a pretty well organised activity here, and there are several local companies who also provide organised tours of the region, but if you have time, this is also a region that you can easily explore on your own. The people are wonderfully warm and hospitable, and it is one of the most safe places I have come across, especially for women.
In most parts of the Spiti Valley you can get accommodation at homestays, and it is in fact wise to stay at one of the traditional mud houses, which are much better equipped to deal with cold than newer concrete constructions. These mud houses stay warm in the winter and remain cool in the summer. In winter, even though its freezing outside, with temperatures dropping to twenty or thirty below zero, once the fire is lit in the tandoor-like room heater, it is often a comfortable twenty or twenty five degrees indoors.
As a result, winter tourism is something that is also getting started here. In the months of summer, the locals are all busy on their fields from dusk to dawn, making use of the short period of warmth to grow what they can and earn their living. But the long months of the winter are reserved for celebrations – birthdays, weddings and religious festivities because conditions are too harsh for any kind of outdoor work. So to really see the living culture of Spiti, winter is the time to go.
The when and how:
The Kunzum Pass, which is the easier and shorter route to take into Spiti (10 hours to Kaza from Manali) usually opens sometime in June and stay open till September, so this is when most tourists make their way to the Valley. It is also when the routes within the valley are also mostly open. Daily buses run from Manali in the season, and there are also taxis available for hire, either on an individual or share basis.
In the off-season, the route we took (the Hindustan Tibet highway) usually stays open from Shimla, with buses from there stopping overnight at Rekong Peo before heading on to Kaza, the administrative capital of the Spiti Valley.
Getting around in Spiti: Two daily buses run on the main highway through the valley in the summer from Kaza in the north to Changpo in the South. But not all the destinations lie on this route and to get off the route, you have to hire a taxi or enquire locally about the timings and regularity of share taxis. The other option, if you’re fit and you have time on your hands, is to walk and hitch-hike, both perfectly safe options during the day.
Health advice: Spiti is a high-altitude desert, which means that the oxygen levels in the air are pretty low. It is very advisable to do the travel to the valley in stages and rest for a day or two to acclimatize before starting any trekking or other strenuous activities.