Located at a formidable height, the cold desert mountain valley of Spiti is a realm monastically secluded from the rest of Himachal. Unlike Leh, Kaza, the sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti has no airport, and the absence of roads keeps the world at bay. Last September, in the good old pre-COVID days, my friend Vasu and I planned a dash to the Spartan valley.
One can reach Spiti through Shimla or Manali, for easier acclimatisation, we entered through Shimla. September is the season of the apple harvest, and the entire Himachal valley was bright red. We had a farm-to-table experience thanks to our driver, Arun, who took us to his apple orchard to feast on the delicious fruits straight from the trees.
The road to Spiti is not meant for the faint-hearted with frequent landslides and stones that come tumbling down at you.
As we entered the valley on the third evening of our journey, a mystic moonscape stared at us. The night was cold at Tabo. Our host, the owner of the Namsay homestay, told us that during winters, when the mercury drops to minus 18 degrees, only one member of the family stays back here. The rest shift to lower Himachal for work. Due to the extreme cold, houses are made of mud with a symmetric design, red bands and flat roofs with white flagpoles believed to thwart evil spirits.
The proximity to Tibet has led to a strong influence of Hinayana Buddhism on Spiti. The sound of young novices reciting Buddhist texts echoes everywhere.
After Tabo, our next destination was Dhankar Gompa, a 1,000-year-old fort-cum-monastery which looked fragile, yet it had withstood inhospitable weather for centuries. We sat down and meditated at this serene and captivating place.
The Green Pin
Pin valley is a national park with rare flora and fauna. After the drive on rocky roads, we came across a vast stretch of green valleys reaching out far into the horizon. The place is an unusual combination of the meandering Pin river, snow-peaked mountains, and isolated villages on the green carpet-like valley. The road ends at Mudh village, but many go on from here for the Parvati Pass trek. Since Pin had cast its spell on us, the plan to return to Kaza that day was cancelled. At Tara homestay, the night was spent listening to stories of elusive snow leopards spotted during the winters in the valley.
The next day we refuelled at Kaza which has a single fuel station in the whole of Spiti. On a lookout for internet, we landed at Dezore restaurant which could not offer connectivity, but its owner, Karanveer, recommended we visit Demul. The place was away from the usual tourist itinerary and our driver was hesitant to go, but the offer of extra money worked. After a sumptuous lunch at the Spiti Organic Kitchen in Komic, probably the world's highest cafe, it took a choppy ride and a few missed turns to reach Demul. Although a village of merely 250 souls, it produces one of the best varieties of potatoes in such harsh weather. To be among the locals and feasting on their heavenly potato dishes was an experience. The next morning, on our way back, we spotted the rare Ibex and Redfox, a lovely parting gift from Demul. Remember that booking a homestay can be done only after reaching Demul.
(Note to self: Buy a BSNL SIM card before entering the Spiti valley.)
Finally, we were able to witness the magical Chandratal lake but not before six hours of perilous driving. Before crossing the magnificent Kunzum pass, the customary halt at Kunzum Mata Temple infuses a dose of divine energy for the last leg of the journey which requires a challenging trek. Although I was breathless and felt like giving up, the first glimpse of the tranquil lake diffused all pain and frustration.
Situated in Lahaul district at a height of around 14,000 feet, the lake derives its name from the half-crescent moon. Inspired by the legend that Yudhistir from Mahabharata had quenched his thirst at this lake, we tasted the water. It was freezing cold. As the day progresses, the lake changes its colour, from turquoise blue to emerald green. turning greyish with the fall of dusk. Since it was a full moon night, we were desperate to stay back but had no prior authorisation. Miraculously, Mr. Khan, a glaciologist stationed near the lake on a government project, agreed to help us. Despite the unbearable night cold, it was an experience of a lifetime to witness the surreal confluence of the moon and Chandratal.The Exit
The next morning we started for Manali, oblivious to the nerve-wracking journey that lay ahead. Suffice it to say, in 2018 the Indian Airforce had to airlift stranded tourists from this region. Since the road is at the Chandra river’s bed, one has to negotiate dangerous river crossings with rocks and boulders strewn all over. Crossing Chhotadara and Pagla Nala without damaging the car gave us a sense of achievement.
Despite the perils, breathtaking glaciers, the gushing Chandra river, and the twisted roads through mountains will beguile you. On the way, we stopped at Chatru village and filled up at Prem Dhaba with soul-lifting Maggi and a break for our weary limbs. After a roller-coaster ride of six hours, we touched the Leh Manali highway. Getting back to the land of smooth roads and connectivity meant the end of the trip was upon us.
Though bereft of the basic amenities of a city, life in the cold desert demonstrates warmth and contentment. Spiti can push the limits of physical endurance, but the reward is witnessing those rhythmic rivers, glistening peaks, placid waters, and being among friendly people. The memories will stay with us forever.
This article is a submission by one of our readers, and part of our series #OTReadersWrite.