High rocky hills kissing the sky, muddy water streams cutting furiously through the hills and small villages popping-up their beautiful face every now and then. On this road trip from Delhi to Spiti, I succumbed to the magic of the Himalayas.
Driving on those rough terrains through mighty mountains during the day and looking at the innumerable stars on pitch dark nights have made for some of the best experiences of my life and left me wondering about my tiny existence in this whole gamut of Universe. The beauty of these gigantic mountains, the immensity of the lands on which they look down, the simplicity of the people living here all worked on my mind like a spell.
Journey to the Spiti Valley — a desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas, north-east of Himachal Pradesh, India, is the most beautiful drive I've done so far. It isn't a smooth drive – dangerous roads, no petrol pumps for hundreds of kilometres, low oxygen levels due to the high altitude – but it surely is worth all the effort. You get to drive through lush green pine forests in Kalpa with an amazing view of Kinner Kailash mountain ranges along the rivers Baspa and Sutlej and experience the tribal life of Himalayas in remote villages in Kinnaur valley. While driving towards Spiti, you'll be amazed to see how the scenery changes dramatically from green pines to rocky mountains and how the smooth drives get tough and then dangerous on the rocky terrains of high Himalayas.
This valley is one of the best geological sites in the world, as per them. You would be surprised to see how villages will suddenly emerge as you drive farther from just nowhere and the simple people of this region will make you wonder how they can be so happy and peaceful, living in such adverse conditions.
It has been said that everyone who visits Spiti begins a new life. Spiti plays an interesting, very different hand, luring you to its untouched surreal beauty and offering an introduction to the simpler ways of life — I can never forget my interaction with locals at Ribba, Hansa and Giu. There are some extraordinary stories too — of 500 years old mystical mummy that was discovered some 25 years back, of a peak changing colours every hour of the day, of painted caves where monks stayed some hundred years ago. Many a times, I wished that this trip to Himalayas would never end, that I never come back to the city.
Embracing the mountains at Matiyana
An early start ensured we were out of the city in good time (before traffic rush starts) and have our lunch in the midst of pine trees. Air got cooler and smelled of the green pines post Kalka. It was fun to play hide and seek with a hill train snaking up the Shivalik foot hills through a zig-zag narrow gauge and tunnels. There are 103 tunnels on the route of this hill train that runs from Kalka to Shimla. After a delicious lunch at Dharampur, bypassing Shimla, we reached Matiyana, a quiet, scenic town surrounded by apple orchards. The final leg of the drive from Shimla to Matiyana through the dense pine forests and apple orchards is awe-inspiring.
Matiyana is a quiet, relaxed small village with a breathtakingly beautiful view of the Shivalik ranges. It is known for quality apples (Golden Spur) that are grown here. We were taken care of like their own family members. Local food was generously served in kitchen-cum-dining hall. It was a big hall with angithi (fireplace) in the middle and a working shelf on one side and seating arrangement (on floor) on the other three sides.
Touching the dead end of India at Chitkul
Driving along the Hindustan-Tibet road which is cut into rocks and goes along the Sutlej River we reached Karchham. On the way, one must stop at Rampur to buy some fresh seasonal fruit. Plums, apricot and peaches were available in abundance in June when we visited. A stop at Rahul Dhaba, Bhavanagar is recommended for some authentic home-style cooking.
The drive along Baspa River past Rakcham was spectacular. Tall pines wanting to touch the milky clouds, cold stream of flowing water eager to reach its beloved, big round boulders relaxing and enjoying the gentle touch of water, a cool breeze trying to whisper a message it has bought from far-away lands and a deep blue sky smiling at this romantic setting of nature. There were a couple of tiny villages along the way where we could see women sitting in the front verandah of their wooden houses, busy in their evening chit chat and a gang of local lads enjoying cricket in the fields. Situated on the banks of Baspa River, Chitkul is the last inhabited village of India near the Indo-Tibet border with a population of around 600. The Indian road ends here.
As we could not afford to miss the beautiful sunrise in this little Himalayan town, we got up as soon as there was some light to show us the way. For a small village in the lap of Himalayas, it didn't seem lazy. There were men going for work, women were either busy in their daily chores in the small wooden houses or off to the fields and kids were getting ready for school.
Experiencing Kinnauri culture at Kalpa
It was one of the most picturesque drives of the trip. Driving along the ferocious Sutlej, we reached Recong Peo from where we were to get the inner line permits for our foreigner friends. By the time formalities were done, we had our lunch at the Peo market. It took a little more time than we had expected. Our destination for the day was Kalpa, some 12km from Peo.
Our tired souls got elated looking at the view from the hotel at Kalpa. Looming in front was an impressive view of the Kinnaur Kailash ranges that includes Kinnaur Kailash (elevation- 6,349m) and Jorkanden (elevation- 6,473m) peaks. Kalpa, at 2,960m elevation, is a beautiful town famous for its high quality apples and chilgozas (pine nuts). Walking along the narrow lanes of this village, we got a good glimpse of the Kinnauri culture. The women wear Dohru, which comprises a chhalni (skirt), a gachi (waist belt), a pattu (woolen stole) and a topi (cap) while men wear suthan (bottom), choba (woolen shirt), gachi (waist belt) and topi (cap). Kinner houses are made of wood and have storerooms for keeping dried fruits and separate wooden storage structures called kathar for grains.
We woke up to a mesmerising morning in the lap of the Himalayas. It seemed the mighty peaks were guarding this silent sleepy village and now when the day was breaking, its changing colours seemed signalling the villagers to wake up. As the bright day gradually took over the dark night, the snow covered mysterious hills changed their colours from black to grey to silver to white to golden. We couldn't take our eyes off the spectacular view.
Tasting local brew 'Angoori' at Ribba
Well known for its grape vineyards, plum orchards and the local brews made from a local variety of grapes called Rokh Dakhan in the local dialect, Ribba is a picturesque village travellers hardly know about. In contrast to the romanticism we left behind at Rakchham, the stretch from Ribba to Nako was harsh. There were huge rocky mountains staring at you, no habitation for miles after miles and a tough terrain seemed to be warning you to remain alert every moment. The elevation, blind turns and low oxygen level were making it difficult to remain in high spirits.
Tete-a-tete with traditional atmosphere and architecture at gorgeous little village Nako
Passing through Khab which is hardly 13km from Shipki La border to Tibet, we reached Nako, situated in the Hangrang Valley. It lies within the restricted zone along the border and therefore requires an Inner Line Permit to travel through.
A walk around the village absorbing the traditional atmosphere transported us back to ancient times. Cheerful villagers in their colourful woollen dress would greet you with broad smile, talk to you and might as well invite you to have meal with them. Mani walls which meander through the village and Chortens as well as vernacular architecture with richly carved timber verandas characterise the overall appearance of the village. The existence of the lake adds to the beauty. From behind the lake, we climbed uphill towards the Chortens. It was an ideal place to get an amazing view of this tiny village.
Celebrating life with monks at Tabo
Further on the trail was Tabo situated at an altitude of 3,500m on the north bank of the Spiti River. Famous for the ancient monastic complex that preserves some of the ancient paintings and stucco images that date back to the 11th century, the complex looked very different from what comes to mind when we think of a monastery. We roamed around the complex trying to absorb the serenity of the place. On the cliff-face above the complex were a series of caves that at some point were the dwellings of monks. Traces of painting can be seen in these caves as well. Tabo has some nicely maintained home stays that serve authentic Tibetan food.
Experiencing quietude at Kye and Dhankar monasteries, Kaza
Located at an altitude of 4,000m, on the left bank of Spiti River, Kaza is the largest township in the area. It being centrally located, we made it our base for Kye monastery, Kibber and Dhankar. Around 12km north of Kaza is Kye monastery built in 1000AD that is one of the main training centres for the Lamas in the region. There are narrow corridors, low rooms, dark passages, difficult staircases and small doors that lead to prayer rooms in the monastery. It has Thangkas (painted or embroidered Tibetian banners), valuable manuscripts, stucco images and unique wind instruments that are put to use in summers even today.
Driving through some magnificent landscapes, we reached Kunzum pass. The road to the lake from Kunzum pass (8km) is accessible only on foot. It was a demanding five hour long trek that became steeper towards the end. But the mere sight of Chandratal was reward enough for all the hard work. Situated at an altitude of around 4,300m in the Himalayas, this placid lake took my breath away. The silent valley, still blue waters and a clear reflection of the snow covered peaks. Our tired city souls were now fully refreshed to start our journey back to the city.
The trip guide
Route: Delhi - Shimla - Rampur - Chitkul - Sangla - Kalpa - Nako - Tabo - Kaza - Key - Kibar - Kaza - Dhankar – Chandratal - Manali – Delhi Duration: 10 days Best Season: June –October
Shailza Sood/The writer is a freelance travel writer and nature photographer based in India. She is the founder director of Chaloletsgo! (www.chaloletsgo.com) who left her corporate job to follow her passion to travel and explore unexplored places of beautiful India. The views expressed in the article are her own.