Spiti Valley: Meeting High Himalayas, Travel Guide

Spiti Valley High Mountains

योगीश्वराय महादेवाय त्रयंबकाय त्रिपुरान्तकाय
त्रिकाग्नि कालाय कालाग्नि रुद्राय नीलकण्ठाय मृत्युञ्जयाय सर्वेश्वराय सदाशिवाय
महादेवाय नमः महादेवाय नमः महादेवाय नमः

I have explored various parts of the Himalayas in India. The chardham in Uttarakhand, gardens and lakes of Kashmir, Buddhist ambience of Sikkim, amazing hospitality of Himachalis – the diversity and mountain environment make a rich experience. I have also been to high altitude places a few times but it was only in Spiti that I truly got acquainted with the ‘high’ Himalayas.

This was a trip where I spent 4 days completely in over 10000 ft. Snow clad peaks became common sight. To the extent that after 3 days, we even stopped clicking pics all the time, because every where we looked was a picture worthy, totally fantastic view.

Little Tibet

The proximity to Tibet and the geographical landscape makes this place unique. Tibetan plateau is the world’s highest plateau. And this geographical aspect is breath taking, because even at 15000 ft you feel like strolling on the rolling plateau and you are not on a conical shaped mountain terrain.

Moreover this is desert area – mountainous desert area which makes it a completely unique experience from the other mountains which are generally greener and wetter. There is also a difference in the rock and overall structure of the mountains.

I don’t know what all to write about this place, and also when I write this I am really concerned that increase in tourists in this remote area will not be good for it.

So here is a request,

if you are planning a trip to Spiti I request you to keep in mind that you are visiting a place where the lack of human-noise is what truly makes it different. This is a place where you can absorb, be lost in and ‘hear’ the land, mountains, animals, river….. because less humans. And the few native humans have learnt to live with the land.

By human-noise, I mean all signs of human entitlement to the land – litter, loud noise, troubling the ecology, honking and so on. Once in Sikkim I saw a tourist guy scolding two native kids because they weren’t smiling and looking cute enough for his picture. In Gaumukh, the origin of Maa Ganga river, considered so holy and pure, bunch of Indian family was shouting around trying to get the best photograph of the group. And this was not even the time when mobile photography was commonplace. Humans think they are entitled to all this – good photographs, food options, working toilets, heaters and what not because all this land, the environment, the animals and other people are all here only for them to have their thing. This is human-noise. Please be conscious and put a plug on it. All these areas have a local culture of how to cope with the climate and remoteness. Understand them, and adopt them when you are there. And maybe even imbibe some and bring it back with you.

Please be mindful of this ecosystem. And maybe this place will give you a true inner experience of heaven. Otherwise you will be someone who just puts up heavenly pics on Facebook but the same old crap You from inside.

(And this is true of every place you travel, but specifically some of these regions which are away from human encroachment and have environmental importance due to river origins and so on)

Spiti Valley Tour - A Quote in Dhankar

This is one of the frequent quotes that you will come across in Spiti (and Ladakh). We had no idea what ‘Gama’ meant. But finally the mystery cleared up on Instagram as another Himalayan local and traveller Tarun goel clarified, Gama refers to Gama Pehelwan a very brave and strong fighter in the 1940s. Most of us won’t know him, but you can Google him to know his story. There is a reason this quote says, don’t be a Gama here… because this terrain can be dangerous especially for us urbans.

Heard a few stories of how non-locals make a total fool of themselves and put themselves (and others) in danger. For example, this person had a really loud horn in his car and he ended up honking loudly in one of the very quiet, remote roads. The loud horn scared some cattle grazing high above in the mountain slopes and they started running. This caused a landslide right on top of this honking fool.

So don’t be a Gama, in this land. Listen to locals, be mindful of your surroundings, don’t disturb anything.

So, holding you to higher standards of behaviour and eco-friendliness, here are my trip details.

8 Days, 7 Nights Spiti Trip Details

This was a self planned trip with another 3 women of my family. So all women group of 4.

A special mention here for devilonwheels.com because I relied on it for most of my bookings and itinerary. And we found all these choices were really good ones. They have reliable, crowd-sourced information for Spiti. Moreover, there is even a forum where you can ask doubts, queries and so on.

This was a 8 day trip from 5th June to 12th June. This is less than the recommended number of 10 – 12 days for Spiti. But as my cousin had office pressures, we did this in 8 days.

The itinerary

Mumbai -> Shimla – Kalpa – Tabo – Kaza – Kaza – Langza – Manali – > Mumbai

Shimla:

We were here only for an evening, but I was stunned cause it is the biggest Hill town I have ever seen.
Stayed at: AirBnb near mall road.

Kalpa:

I think this was one of the most understated places. I kept reading that it is a good stop for the night, but no one said it is stunning! It is STUNNING! 🙂
Stayed at: Golden Apple, highly recommended.

Khab – Satluj and Spiti river confluence, Nako Lake, Gue monastery – you can visit these when on your way to Tabo.

Spiti valley technically starts a little after Nako lake.

Tabo:

Whoa, into Spiti valley already. Tabo is small, remote, rustic. There is a 1000 yr old monastery there and you can ask the monk to give you a detailed tour. Or just meditate there. Whatever…. 🙂
Stayed at: Siddharth hotel, it was good. Seemed to be the best place for vegetarians.

Make a stop for the Dhankar monastery and dhankar lake trek when on your way to Kaza. A lot of people find this trek pretty hard because it is also at high altitude, so one has to be careful. So I was very happy and surprised that my cousin and I managed to reach the lake and back, pretty comfortably. 🙂

Kaza:

Here you are in the heart of Spiti desert. You can trek around if you have days. Or just take the car to little villages around. It is beautiful.
Stayed at: Sakya Abode highly recommended. You can also contact Tsering bhai of Sakya for car, driver, trip planning and other services.

We visited a bunch of villages like Kibber, Key monastery, Hikkim, Komik and so on. There are even more villages like Chicham that you can visit if you have the time.

Losar:

A small, picturesque town with a monastery and temple. Usually night stopover for people looking to cross the passes and/or go to Chandrataal.
Stayed at: Tenzin gyatsel

Chandrataal:

Enroute to Manali from Kaza you cross the Kunzum pass and then there is a road detour to Chandrataal. The road is in very bad shape, and often motorcycles don’t get through said the driver.

Chandrataal is beautiful for sure but as usual too hyped by Tourists (grrr). It is the most famous place of Spiti, but there are other many beautiful places of Spiti. And I have hardly even explored this area. So as usual no clue what these tourists are up to, when they just keep raving about one place amidst so much other beauty.

Suggest you go for a walk around the lake, instead of just clicking selfies. 😀

Most famous in Spiti Valley - Chandrataal

And if you know any, sing some Shiva bhajans.

Why?

Simply.

😀

Spiti is a region of the Tibetan plateau. You will see the Tibetan culture and Buddhist religion predominant here. Tibet is also the region of Kailash and Mansarovar, so Shiva’s land. 🙂

So a place for Shiva bhajans, tibean/buddhist songs and pahadi (mountain) songs.

Tip: Go loaded with these songs in a USB or mobile. Don’t blast it anywhere, but you can hear in the car or via headphone.

Getting back to the itinerary,

All in all this is a doable trip in these many days, but there is only 1 buffer day. So if you get stuck because of landslides or something else, then you basically got to make some tough calls. You can either head back the way you came, or extend your trip and move ahead when the conditions clear up. Another reason why you shouldn’t (and can’t) move too quickly through this land is Altitude sickness or AMS. It can get dangerous.

This itinerary also includes some very long drives. And the road conditions aren’t great. And at times, you will wonder whether there is actually a road, or is it just rocks pushed down a bit due to tyre tracks.

This is a fairly standard Spiti itinerary when you are not trying to squeeze it in very few days along with your Ladakh trip. 🙂

Spiti Weather in June

Our trip dates were 5th June to 12th June. The passes open generally by second week of June. So if you want to travel the passes then plan your trip in end of June. I feel June might be the best time to travel given the road conditions. Because once rains start in July, then chances of a landslide increase. However, the BRO is very active here, so it may only cause a days delay in your plans.

The temperatures in June were pretty cold. There was at least one day when we were wearing all 3-4 layers of warm clothes. And it is recommended that we should have one extra layer in bag, so it was a good estimate of how much warm clothing to carry.

Rain jacket – very important for cold winds (and rains), thermals both up and down, a sweater, woollen cap, gloves, scarf and socks. This was what most of us were carrying. I didn’t have a sweater, but the thermal + t-shirt + rain jacket layering works well for me. And I could manage with a woollen cap and warm socks.

To travel in other seasons you can read up this blog on DOW, and go prepared.

How to Reach Spiti Valley

There are basically two motorable roads into Spiti.

One is via Shimla, the NH5 which later also called the Hindustan-Tibet highway. This route is open all year round, unless of course there are landslides and such.

The other one is via Manali, the NH505. To go via this second route you have to pass through Kunzum Pass and Rohtang Pass. They are not always open.

We were fortunate that by the time we reached Kaza, Kunzum pass (and Rohtang) was open and in *ahem* a good condition. It was easily the worst official road I have ever travelled on, but the drivers kept saying it is in pretty good condition currently. *yikes*

Kunzum Pass & Rohtang Pass Opening Date

Kunzum pass generally opens in early June and Rohtang in second week June. So by 8th June when we reached Kaza, it was all open so we headed back via Manali route. Note: for Manali to Kaza, Rohtang and Kunzum passes both need to be open.

Shubham Mansingka, who is an avid himalayan traveller told me that usually the passes open earlier by a week or so than the previous year. This is a trend. And so even though people on DOW and Dilip bhai were very sceptical that the passes will open by the time we reach there, I kept the option open.

In fact I actually got to know that Kunzum pass had opened up via a tweet by Shubham, this was even before the authorities declared it.

It was good that I had pinged him on this because, I didn’t plan the accommodations for the route back via NH5. But if it would not have opened by then, we would have headed back the way we came, maybe with different night stops.

Not planning accommodation, and finding a place when you reach there should be okay here I think, but you need to have time to reach your destination a bit earlier so you can find a good place. Also sometimes you can’t book on the way because of the bad network.

Kinnaur

The NH5 Shimla route has the additional region of Kinnaur valley that can be explored. But as we had just 8 days, we skipped the route that diverts into Sangla – Rakcham – Chitkul. But with more days in hand, you can take more time exploring Kinnaur valley. Rakcham and Chitkul are supposed to be amazing.

Shima and Manali Traffic Jam

Also be aware that in Shimla and Manali both – there is a very high probability that you will get a good bit of traffic. After a long drive from Langza to Manali via Kunzum and Rohtang pass, we actually got stuck for 2 hours while entering Manali. Our driver after dropping us, took another 5 hours to get out of Manali. This is common.

Spiti Tour Via Car

Considering the road conditions – irrespective of long or short rides, I would suggest you take a big wheel car. Scorpio is the most rough and tough one from what I heard. Innova is also good for the people inside the car, but it apparently gets conked more frequently and so not very useful in such region for the owners. Sumo Spacio has apparently really bad suspension, so I suggest you avoid those. Again, I didn’t sit in all these cars, but my driver who had experience riding all of these was saying. And the road conditions warrant that you take the best car you can manage. Though I did see even small cars driving around, but I really wonder how they managed.

Self driving may be okay if you are really seasoned driver. Seasoned in mountain roads. But otherwise I just suggest you avoid.

Spiti Valley Car

Getting a good, local driver:  I have to say our trip was amazing largely due to the kind of drivers and people they are. One can’t really enjoy in such a place if we can’t rely on the driver, or keep feeling he will fleece us etc.. Knowing their lives, other experiences in the region, their rapport with locals goes a long way in creating an intimate experience of the place.

DOW has a list of recommended drivers.

I finalized Dilip bhai from this list. He was caught up so he sent Arvind with us (he is also on this list) and very passionate. His Facebook profile states his profession as ‘Devil on Wheels rider’. 😀 Surprisingly, while he has spent many years driving in Spiti, he is also pursuing a bachelors degree in music. And can sing and play the Sitar. What a combo! 🙂

It was Dilip bhai who very enthusiastically, got every one excited about the return via Kunzum – Chandrataal and Rohtang pass. We were still unsure whether the roads would be good to go because the pass has just opened up a few days back. So all in all felt really good to be amongst these people. Same about our hosts at Kalpa – Golden Apple Hotel and Sakya Abode – Tsering Bhai. Tsering bhai ensured that we got the best bookings in our budget for the further destinations – Langza and Manali. We hadn’t planned for this part, as we weren’t sure the passes would be open.

No Network

Remember somewhere between Kalpa and Nako lake – your network will completely and utterly disappear. I thought it would be flaky, but no – it will be zilch, zero. Only BSNL works, that too in a flaky way. So you need to rely on the people around you. And if you want, remember to take a BSNL card from Shimla or Manali.

Vegetarian Food

So we are vegetarians and Jain. This means that we avoid onion, garlic too along with being strictly vegetarian. Indian vegetarian – means we have milk but no egg. So the food was a bit of concern because generally when traveling we don’t eat in mixed restaurants. We always prefer pure veg restaurants, because we worry that something non-vegetarian might get mixed in the kitchen. Or sometimes they may use the same oil to fry meat and then some vegetables and so on.

But it was all ok. We didn’t really get ‘pure veg’ places outside of Shimla & Manali. But we told the staff that we want pure veg and no onion, garlic. And they made every thing accordingly. And at no time did we feel like some mixing had happened. It never smelled weird or such. Moreover, in Losar we wanted to cook Maggi our style, so Mom and me went into the kitchen and we were amazed – it was cleaner than even our home kitchen at times. The cook even wore a head cap and there was no sign on any meat at all. #phew

The Budget of This Spiti Valley Trip

Finally it came up to about 17,000 INR per person Shimla to Manali. Adding flight fares from Mumbai/Bangalore then it was about 25,000 INR per person.

The accommodations were in the range of 800 – 1500 INR (per room for two people)

Car with driver was roughly 26,000 INR. If you planned a longer trip then per day rates are lower. Typically for a 12 day trip the rate is about 3,000 – 3,500 INR per day.

About 500 INR per person for food daily.

There isn’t really any other expense. Maybe a few souvenirs from Tabo.

And you may want to donate to a few causes – because there are some really old monasteries in this region. Key monastery and Dhankar are two monasteries over 1000 years old. And need repairs and upkeep funds. You can donate via Spiti Ecosphere (<- they also have interesting eco-travel options) and Sakya Abode. There are no proper payment gateways, but there are donation boxes there. Or if you want to do online, you could do by getting in touch with them.

That’s all for now. I may write individual blog posts and will link them here when they get published. If you need more information I have linked to DOW, Tarun, Shubham and other blogs above, so you can head there. Or just ping them on Twitter. And of course you can ping me too 😉

Happy tripping.

And remember – “Don’t be a Gama, in the land of the Lama” 🙂

Spiti Valley