Surreal Spiti - FAQs and Things you need to know.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Somewhere close to the Indo Tibetan border, lies a spectacular valley about which many haven’t heard of.  The largest and unquestionably remotest, hence striking district of Himachal Pradesh is known by the name of Lahaul & Spiti and those who have been fortunate enough to be charmed by this Himalayan Desert valley swear by its splendor. 
Situated in the rain shadow of the Himalayan Mountains, this valley with its pretty hamlets, patchwork fields, golden hues of barren landscapes and colorful monasteries perched on impossible climbs make Spiti an enchanting exploration. Spiti makes for an ideal destination for people with any preference, be it adventure, culture or just gaping with mouth wide open at the surreal landscapes. And if that is not interesting enough, there is this whole interesting history of Spiti which states that this area was under Tethys sea millions of years ago. Remnants of this past can be realized in the unique landscapes, sedimentary rock formations caused by the tectonic forces and fossils found here and there. And even if that doesn’t interest you, one could always indulge in a wildlife exploration to spot some of the rare, endemic and endangered species such as the elusive Snow Leopard or the age old Tibetan wolf among many. 

Before I start with the very detailed posts, here is a ready reckoner to plan a trip to Spiti.

Where the hell is Spiti anyway?

Spiti is part of the combined districts of Lahaul and Spiti located in northern most part of Himachal Pradesh sharing the Indo – Tibetan Border. To the north of Lahaul & Spiti lies Ladakh, to the west lies Chamba and Kulu districts and to the south lies Kinnaur. 

How to reach Spiti?

You can reach Spiti only through roadways or on foot, trekking. One route joins Manali with Spiti and the same route extends down via Kinnaur to Shimla.  So you can either reach Manali and head to Spiti or reach Shimla and head upwards to Spiti.

Manali – Kaza - Shimla route 
This is rugged routes starts at Manali. After approximately 60-70 kilometers, after crossing Rohtang, you will find a diversion at Gramphoo.  The road heading straight leads you to Leh while the u turn would take you below to Spiti Valley. The total distance from Manali to Kaza is 200kms and can be done in a day if you start early.

The roads are just about okay until you reach Chattru, from here the roads take a positively rugged turn. Spiti river flows wildly just by the road side and things cannot get prettier than this. Slowly as you descend into the valley, the greenery from Kulu gives way to barren desert landscapes and clear blue skies. 

The same route extends from Kaza to Tabo to Sumdo and enters Kinnaur district.  This road ends at Shimla. If you have time, it would make for a good round trip to start from Manali, visit Spiti, enter Kinnaur and end at Shimla. And if time is a constraint, you can always start at Manali and traverse the same route back to get out.

What are the places of Interest?

The case with Spiti is as with most mountain places, the journey is better than the destination.  Yes, it does have lot of monasteries , pretty hamlets, crystal clear lakes, amazing culture and history.  But the journey itself a pleasure passing through some remote lands and scenes. 
I shall try to put down the important places though in the order of their appearance.

1. Kunzum La – Gateway to Spiti, after Batal, the road climbs by the Chandra river side to reach Kunzum top at an altitude of 4551meters.  As with any pass in India, you’d be sure to be find a small temple on the top of the pass. The views are excellent from this vantage point.  Shigri Parbat rising right in front of this peak offers splendid opportunities for photography.

2. Chandratal – The moon lake, the elusive moon lake which can be only reached on foot. Not for long, but for now it can be only by trekking either from Batal or Kunzum top. There seem to be few expensive resorts by the lake side or your best bet for accommodation would be few of the camps runs by the shepherds. Better yet if you have your own camping equipment.  The trek from Batal is apparently long but rewarding and the trek from Kunzum top to Chandratal is for the lazy bones.

3. Ki Monastery – Ki/Key is a  hilltop monastery located 12kms before Kaza at an altitude of 4,166 meters. The setting is wondrous with the sweeping valley views and the Spiti river flowing down below. Ki is one the biggest monasteries of Spiti and a must visit.

4. Kibber – Kibber was the erstwhile highest inhabited village at an altitude of 4200meters but the now the honors have been taken by some other village. The road from Key winds up alongside a narrow valley gorge while Kibber sits pretty atop the climb. There is another village on the other side of the valley and that looks pretty as well. As I said earlier, the journey takes away the cake while there is nothing touristy about this village other than the pretty colored houses.  If you are interested in more rugged terrain, you might proceed towards Gette and Tashigang. It is located 16kms before Kaza.

5. Kaza – Kaza is the largest township of Spiti valley and makes for a good base for your travels in Spiti. It is located at an altitude of 3800meters by the river side. Kaza houses the colorful Monastery. It is the only place in Spiti which has one SBI ATM and a dispensary.

6. Pin Valley National Park – The road from Kaza diverges at Attargu, one heading to Tabo and the right diversion across the river is your entry to Pin Valley NP.  Pin river flows gently and wildly cutting through the mountains and that paves the way to reach the interiors of this remote land. You will pass by villages where the population can be as low as 50. The road is bad and goes all the way till Mudh, the last village in the National Park. Mudh is a small hamlet with few houses and fewer shops.  A pleasant place to stay to escape the crowd. Kungri monastery, which is one among the oldest can also be visited.  Do not expect a full fledged safari to be taking place, none exists here.

7. Dhankar – As you come out of Pin valley at Attargu, you might notice a monastery dangerously perched on a rickety hill top. That, is Dhankar Gompa. Dhankar can be reached by taking a diversion uphill between Kaza and Tabo. 5 kms from Dhankar lies the Dhankar Lake which can be accessed only on foot.

8. Tabo – 46kms from Kaza lies the ancient village of Tabo at an altitude of 3050meters. Tabo houses one of the oldest monasteries dating back to 996AD. The monastery sure enough looks nothing like what you have seen before. The chortens are made of mud and most of the structure seems to be made of mud. It has lot of history for those inclined and the interesting thing is, the main temple has a statue of Lord Ganesha inside, go figure! Apart from this, Tabo is also famous for its apples.

9. Gyu – I write this in good spirit hoping the sanctity the place is still maintained. 2kms before Sumdo, a road goes high above to your left. 9kms from here lies the small hamlet of Gyu which houses a 500 year old mummy perfectly preserved till date.
Gyu was where my trip ended last year but if you wish to continue further down, after Sumdo, you reach Nako and then you enter Kinnaur district at Reckong Peo.  From here the route is not as remote as Spiti but there are few places worthy of a visit such as Kalpa,  Chitkul, Sangla, Sarahan, Narkanda, Kufri. The road will end at Shimla. 

Do we need permits?
While Indians do not need inner line permits, I believe foreigners will have to take one at Reckong Peo.

What are the options for transportation/ accommodation?

Transport is best arranged by any of the SUVs or personal vehicles. Public transport is also available between the villages. 

Accommodation options are limited. While you can find quite a few tented luxury camps here and there, your best bet would be homestays, local tents and small lodges.  
Chattru and Batal – tents run by locals. Bedding and a blanket is all you will get here.
Losar – Has small lodges with dingy rooms.
Kaza – Decent accommodation can be found at many homestays/ lodges here
Mudh – Very few options. Decent and just about manageable. By the time I was there, few were under construction.
Tabo – The Tabo monastery itself has stay options in the dormitory.
Demul, Komic, Langza – If you’d like to experience typical Spiti homestay, accommodation can be arranged here through travel agents. These are small hamlets situated off the main destinations.

What is the average altitude? 

The average altitude of Spiti valley is around 3800meters or so which makes it high altitude. Acclimatization is necessary before you embark on any adventures. Makes sense to climb from Shimla to get used to the altitude slowly. 

What will be the temperatures?
Quite similar to Ladakh, the sun will be hot while the winds can be cool. Nights do get very cold.

What is the best season?
Sources all over internet say June to September is a good time.
Although the locals say June and August is the best time with awesome weather.

The road from Rohtang and Kunzum is open only for a short duration(June - September) of time due to snowfall. The valley stays cutoff from Manali side rest of the time while the road from Shimla is open all through the year since it does not cross any pass.

What to look out for?
Buddhist Monasteries, awesome lunar landscapes, Chandratal, Pin Valley National Park, Kunzum top, Glaciers – Chota Shigri and Bada Shigri

What are the lakes in Spiti?
Chandratal and Dhankar Lake are the lakes that I know of.

Suggested itinerary?
Day 1 – Manali – Rohtang – Chhattru – Batal – Kunzum –Losar - Kaza  (or )
Day 1 – Manali – Rohtang – Chhattru – Batal – Kunzum – Chandratal(if you are heading out of Shimla)

Day 2 – Kaza – Ki – Kibber - Komic/Langza/Tashigang/Demul - Kaza
Day 3 – Kaza – Pin Valley NP – Mudh
Day 4 – Mudh – Dhankar – Tabo – Gyu - Tabo
Day 5 – Tabo – Sumdo - Nako --> proceed towards Shimla or retrace the same route back.

How many days are required for a comfortable visit?
To do the whole trip from Manali to Shimla, 10 days would be comfortable else only Spiti can be done in 5-6 days Manali – Manali.

While I have tried to give information to the best of my knowledge, correct me if I am wrong and let me know if you need more information.
Happy tripping! :)

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  1. Superb... every bit is covered. Was missing such a post since long and thanks for reminding me my ride 3 years back...

  2. Thanks Debarpita, with the planning season ahead I thought this post might help. :)

  3. Pretty comprehensive, just like a real travelogue should be...
    Will be helpful for my planned visit...

  4. Hi Neelima thanks for the detailed info. Had a few questions:
    1. How did you commute? Do you think the manali-kaza-shimla route is do-able using public transport?
    2. Do you think the area is conducive to solo travel and if so would you recommend that one arranges accomodation prior to starting or can this be sorted on-the-go?

    Thanks !

    1. Raghav, first time we hired a jeep. Second time I cycled half way through and hitchhiked the other half. :)
      Yes, the entire route is doable by public transport. Everyday there's one bus from Manali to Kaza and one more towards Shimla from Kaza. Find out the timings and you are golden.
      Spiti is the perfect place for solo travel, small villages, super friendly locals and travelers from all walks of life come here. Manage acco on the go, no need to book early. Everywhere you should get rooms for about 200-400.
      Happy Travelling!

  5. thanks for this wonderful post..will be looking forward for more in future!!!

  6. Hi Neelima

    thnks for d detailed post. on my fav and most coveted destination.. i hav never been to spiti but wanted to go there for d longest time. Maybe next yr. now to my ur travels to the western himalayas, have u been to tirthan valley? do u have any info abt how wud it be to visit d place in november? climate and scenery wise? We were almost decided on d place along wth naggar, manali n thanedar, but hav heard that it may not be so great as it would be autumn and d scenery wud not hav much to boast abt.

    Wud appreciate it u wud share some thots abt this.


    1. Hi Kavita, haven't been to Tirthan valley, don't even know where it is. :)

  7. Hi Neelima,

    Have you been to Sagnam Village, Spiti, in one of your journeys? I came across one of your picture in flickr, of that village. Can you please tell something, about the village, and how far it is from kaza or the communication available from kaza ?

    Thanks :)

    1. Info regarding Sangam village and mud,

  8. Shimla to Kaza is a really long route and only advised during winter when access to the valley is restricted from Manali side. You need to take a day-long bus journey from Shimla to Reckong Peo, stay overnight at Peo and then take the early morning bus from Peo to Kaza - reaches some time around 5 PM.

    A couple of places worth stopping over are Nako (has a lovely lake) and Tabo (for its monastery). I did the trip in early March this year when winter was just coming to an end and it was an awesome experience.

  9. For bikers, you can get the info here


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