By Ayush Jain (LMB)
What would your answer be if you were asked that one place which could befittingly be called “Heaven on Earth“. Your answer would probably be the Swiss Alps, Niagara Falls, the Hawaii Islands or Leh-Ladakh in India.
While the above may be the most sought after places for most people, Spiti Valley is a hidden gem in Himachal Pradesh, India which certainly feels like “Heaven on Earth“. Spiti adds that element of risk and adventure as it is relatively unexplored and while this was a road trip for me, there are hardly any motor-able roads in the valley. All you find are narrow paths cut through gigantic mountains with winding turns. While there is risk of humongous boulders from one side, you have the roaring rivers of Sutlej, Spiti and Beas on the other. And this is what makes the journey through the valley all the more enticing.
The valley is almost a cold desert, where you can access the beauty and serenity of nature in its purest form. The landscapes will leave you astounded. Different landscapes appear after almost every turn (never knew such a variety even existed) and, each unique and breathtaking in its own way. The enormity of hills & the mountains, the churning flow of rivers, the clear skies, the intricate shadows of clouds caste upon the mountains in the valley makes you wonder about nature’s allure and leaves you in awe at the same time. Once you visit Spiti, trust me, you will never want to return to these urban jungles.
The valley is approachable from 2 routes, first through Chandigarh, Shimla and Narkanda and the other through Chandigarh, Manali and the Rohtang pass. While you can take either route, I would recommend starting through the Shimla route and returning via Manali. This route ensures you get accustomed to the altitude, to driving on the treacherous roads, to the low oxygen content and more importantly, this route ensures you save the best for the last i.e. the Chandra Tal lake. If one wishes to see the valley properly, I suggest you go in a group and take at least 8-10 days in hand to explore the valley properly. Though the distances from one place to another may seem small, the treacherous & winding routes ensure you move at a snail’s pace, so keep sufficient time in hand while travelling.
While I would love to give a day by day account, it will seem like an eternity to read all of it. So instead, I will describe the highlights of Spiti which have left me in awe and amazement.
Chandra Tal Lake
Though Chandra Tal is towards penultimate leg of the journey (starting from the Shimla route), I’d like to first describe this wonder that is the crown jewel of Spiti valley. So much so, that some people just visit Chandra Tal and return.
It’s not only the destination but the journey to Chandra Tal which makes it so sought after. The road to Chandra Tal is virtually non-existent with a narrow pebble strewn path to take you to your destination. While the views are outright brilliant, the steep slopes and the precarious corners will make you gasp for your breath.
Another feature which adds to the risk are the jharnas (waterfalls) which flow across the path. These jharnas are max. 1 feet in depth for max distance of 200-300 m. But what makes them difficult to cross are the smooth pebbles and rock underneath the flow of water which it impossible to have any sort of traction for the vehicle to move forward. Mind you, if you are not a local, everyone except driver will have to get down to guide and see your vehicle through these jharnas.
After much struggle and the Oohs & the Aahs, we finally reach the campsite where we booked our tents for the night (yes, there are no hotels here). Thereafter, it’s a short journey of 1-2 km from where you have trek for about a km for see the wonder.
Our first sight of the lake took our breath away. Crystal blue, clear waters set within sloping mountains is a treat for the eyes. The chilly nip in the wind made the experience all the more pleasant. One could never image that such a wonder could exist amidst this cold desert of Spiti valley. It was actually paradise to walk around this lake, enjoy its chilly waters and take in the vistas the lake has to offer.
Located in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, Kalpa is a small town with quite a bit to offer. The HPTDC guest house can be booked in advance and is one of the best accommodation the place has to offer. With a direct view of the Kinnaur-Kailash mountain range in front of your eyes, it feels as if one is sitting in the lap of the mountains. It seems as if the beautiful snow capped peaks are at a arm’s length and it is just blissful to admire this view in the serene environment. One can also walk down to visit local monastery through a narrow off road path which really works up your appetite.
Don’t forget to sample the local Apple wine (not available commercially, but you can enquire with the locals to get your fix) as the Kinnaur district is famous for it’s apple plantations.
Situated approx. 150 km from Kalpa, Tabo is a quaint little village surrounding the oldest functioning Buddhist monastery in India. But before I go on to describe Tabo, I must describe the journey leading to this town. As one drives from Kalpo to Tabo, there is where you start to witness and appreciate the sheer magnificence and vastness of Spiti Valley and its mountainous terrain.
Our first major stop was what is called by the locals as the “Paagal Jharna” (Mad Waterfall), called so because of its flow, which is so wild that you cannot escape its splash even though a small bridge is built over it.
As you move further, one can stop at the bridge which serves as the official entrance to Lahul & Spiti. The bridge provides a spectacular view to the river below and the gigantic mountains that rise beyond the bridge.
On the way to Tabo lies the village of Nako, famous for its quiet & peaceful lake. It is a treat for eyes as you can relax near its cool and calm waters and just enjoy the beautiful setting of the place.
Our next stop was the “Mummy” which is highly recommended by the locals. Though you will take a detour of about 12 km from the path to Tabo, it is worth the extra effort. On the way, we passed the beautiful village of Geyu. Geyu lies amidst eye-pleasing greenery and a strong chocolate shake color river flowing between the mountains. The Geyu Mummy is more than 500 years old and is preserved inside a small cabinet without any chemical. The Mummy is located besides a colorful monastery and snow capped peaks in the background.
Tabo is a lively town with the modern and the ancient beautifully intermingled. On one hand, you have the historical and the architecturally beautiful Tabo monastery and on the other hand, you have these pleasant modern-day cafes and a giant helipad. I would highly recommend at least half a day’s stay to explore the town of Tabo.
Dhankar is situated between the towns of Tabo & Kazaa. Hardly a 2 hour drive from Tabo, Dhankar is famous for a stunning lake and is located at an altitude of almost 4200 m. The lake is accessible only via a 4.5-5 km trek. The trek is perilous to say the least with loose pebbles and a steep climb to break even the toughest of souls. But the lake is worth the effort and even if you feel daunted by the trek, I highly recommend you continue with trek.
Once the climb is over, one shall across a vast expanse of flat land surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see. The vastness makes you feel dwarfed in the midst of these nature’s creations.
Beyond this, lies the picturesque lake with absolutely clear waters and a great place to relax and unwind from the trek. Take in the serenity of the lake, feel the cool water and just admire this natural wonder.
There is a diversion of 34 km from the main path on the way to Kazaa for the Mudh village. Mudh is one of the most picturesque villages in the Spiti valley. Set against a lush green backdrop of the Pin valley & the scenic Pin river, Mudh is the perfect place to enjoy all colors and aspects of Spiti valley. A lovely evening in this town coupled with an morning exploration of the place was just splendid.
Key, Kibber, Langhza, Hikkim & Komic
These towns/villages are located in and around the capital city of Kazaa in the Spiti valley.
Key is home to the largest monastery in the Spiti valley. Built and restored after successive trails of destruction, the Key Monastery looks like a mountain of haphazardous box like structures and is certainly a sight to see. Don’t forget to ask for the refreshing herbal tea with the monk! A short walk from the Key monastery and you will be face to face with 3 bright golden Buddha statues gleaming in the sunlight and a lovely 360 degree view of the valley.
Kibber is the nearest village to the Key monastery. The village is peaceful with a delightful assortment of cafes. Don’t forget to try the local dish of ‘Shakshouka‘. It is a mouth watering must try dish. And Kibber is a great place to witness the starry night sky.
Hikkim is famous for the “highest post office” in the world at an elevation of 4440 m. It’s a cute little post-office and sends out more than 500 postcards a day. I was astounded after hearing this little fact. Send out a postcard to yourself or your loved ones to receive the same as a souvenir.
Langhza is famous for a giant Buddha statue erected on the top of a mountain. The statue which is surrounded by prayer flags , fits perfectly in the colorful background of the valley. One can also venture down from mountain on which the statue sits and explore the area.
Komic is highest motor-able village in the world at an altitude of 4587 m. Like all other villages in Spiti valley, Komic is scarcely populated and has 1-2 home stays available for accommodation. Surprisingly, Komic has a large & relatively flat area where you can play volleyball and even camp for the night.
On the way to Chandra Tal lake, connecting the Lahaul and Spiti valleys is the Kunzum pass at an elevation of almost 4600 m. Kunzum pass is a sight in itself. The path leading up to the pass is adorned with colorful prayer flags on both sides. The pass seems to be surrounded by snow capped mountains peaks and amidst the colorful prayer flags fluttering in the strong winds, it is a not-to-miss wonder.
After Kunzum pass, we made our way towards Chandra Tal Lake. The journey from Chandra Tal to Manali is as treacherous as described earlier. Narrow pebbled paths, more and more jharnas across our path keep up the adventure in the journey till the end. The co-passengers need to be alert and on their toes ready to disembark as soon as these jharnas appear to guide the vehicle.
Finally, we reached Manali and is was time to head back home.
Spiti is still relatively untouched by civilization and commercialization. Nature exists here in its absolute beauty and this ‘Heaven on Earth‘ is a must-visit. Apart from the mountains, waterfalls, valleys and rivers, the journey through Spiti feels like paradise.
Book your calendars and take a trip to Spiti valley. This world has many wonders to see and don’t miss out on this one while you still have the chance!