The Spiti Valley - Tribal Circuit in the Himalayas

Trip Start Aug 28, 2008
Trip End Sep 05, 2008

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Are you tired of the teeming crowds and invariable encounter with some familiar face in the Malls of Nainital and Shimla?  Do you want to have the desolate feel of a desert and the wintry chill of the mountains at the same place? Do you want see 1000 years old Buddhist art in a gompa (monastery) and have a look at the highest inhabited village in the world? And in case you have that adrelin for extreme adventure - then next time head for the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. 
Situated in the northern part of Himachal, Lahaul and Spiti is geographically the largest district of Himachal Pradesh.  The western part forms the Lahaul valley and the eastern part is the Spiti valley.  Located on the Tibetian border it is flanked on the south-east by Kinnaur district, north-east by Tibet, north by Ladakh, west by Lahaul and to the south by the district of Kullu.  Spiti gets its name from 'Si' meaning Mani and 'piti' meaning the place.   'Om Mani Padme Hum' - is the sacred utterance of all Tibetan Buddhists and its chanting is considered the panacea for all problems, real or imaginary. 
To capture the full flavour of the valley, you need at least 8-10 days time and go either from Manali to Simla or the other way round.   This route is referred to as the Tribal Circuit.  Since energy levels are usually lower by the end of the trip and I wanted to get back home as soon as possible, we chose to end the trip at Simla from where Delhi is only about 370 kms than Manali, which is 570 kms away.  Though it can be visited anytime when the Rohtang and Kunzum Pass is open from the Manali side, the ideal time to visit is in September when the rains are almost over and it is not too cold, although beyond Kunzum Pass it is rain shadow area with very little rains.  For this trip, I joined 4 photographer friends of mine from Bombay at Manali. 
State bus services are available on this route, but it is advisable to hire a four wheel drive vehicle from Manali for the entire trip.  This saves more of time and less of money.  The rates vary between Rs.1500 to Rs.2000 per day irrespective of the distance covered.  Being a bit arduous, this circuit is traveled mostly by foreigners.  After a light breakfast, when we set out for our journey, it was almost noon - ideal would be start as early as possible to beat the Rohtang downward traffic.  The first thing to notice are the shops renting out snow jackets and boots on way to Rohtang.  Strangely, most of these shops do not have any names, but just numbers - that too very interesting ones - as one was numbered 786 (remember the billa number of Amitabh Bachhan in Deewar!!).  It was drizzling and the road was full of mud, slush and stuck up cars.  The distance from Manali to Rohtang La is 51 kms (La means pass and Rohtang means 'pile of corpses' in Tibetan language - frightening, isn't it?) and normally it takes about 2 hours to reach the top.  But on that day, it took us almost 5 hrs.  We crossed Marhi (about 12 kms below Rohtang) where the shops hardly had any customers due to the inclement weather.  A typical shop would sell Chainies Fast food where you can get anything from egg prantha to sand vich and meggi  to butter tose  - your phonetic intelligence to decipher the identity of all these items will be put to acid test here.  Then there was the occasional bhuttawalla and the ponywallahs who will promise to show you snow even during the no-snow season.  For the more adventurous, there is a hang gliding joyride which in fair weather glides you from Rohtang to Solang valley below.  Rohtang is at 13,400 ft and the view of Lahaul valley from there is breathtaking and inspite of the light drizzle I got down from the jeep and took a 'been there' shot near the cluster of prayer flags which are characteristic of all the passes in the region. 
The road divides into two at Gramphoo from where the National Highway goes into the Lahaul valley towards Keylong on the left and then on to Leh; on the right, the State Highway takes you to Spiti.  There are some high waterfalls streaks en route as we trudged at an average speed of 20kmh alongside river Chandra.  At around 5.30 pm, dusk was fast approaching and Jeevan, our man behind the wheel for the trip, told us that both the terrain and the weather is bad and we can't go beyond Chhatru (30 km from Rohtang). 
It was dark but moonlit when we reached Chhatru at around 7.30 pm.  I was expecting at least a small hamlet but it was a 3 dhaba place each having an adjacent room with 5-6 makeshift beds - the standard rate is Rs.50 per bed per night unless you have a tent of your own which you can pitch in the backyard at Rs.20 per tent. Jeevan's fav was the Chandra Dhaba where we parked ourselves.  One hygienic thing which you are sure to get at all of these places is our good old 2 minutes Maggi noodles - though at those altitudes it takes more than 10 minutes to cook.  Being the first night out, we took no chances and ordered Maggi for all - only that we asked for some additional vegetables to be put in it. After dinner, I casually asked Bodh, the owner-cum-caretaker-cum-cook of the place, the way to the toilet.  He was perplexedly amused and with a meaningful smile and a 360 degrees swing of his hands said, 'shaab, ish khula aasmaan ke neeche kahin bhi ja sakte ho!!' - it was fine with the menfolks but Didi (a retired doctor who worked in US and now settled in Bombay who was part of our group) was not amused!  Nighttime was fine, but I put a double snooze alarm and made sure I was the first one to wake up at 5 next day morning when the chances of finding somebody busy with his morning chores behind a secure boulder was rare - and I was right !
We had planned to start early at around 6.00 - maybe that's why we could start at 6.45 - the delay may appropriately be called a 'toi-late delay'!!  The 24 km distance from Chhatru to Batal was bumpy and took us 2.5 hours!  Batal again is a one dhaba place where we did not stop and headed for the picturesque Chandrataal lake which is 14 km down a left diversion a little ahead of Batal.  Before the trip, I searched hundreds of websites, but none of could tell me whether there is a jeepable road upto the lake.  The answer is 'yes' - though the road is very narrow, jeeps can go right upto 200 m from the lake or in the worst case sometimes when the last stretch is closed you may have to walk only about 1.5 km.  The landscape at Chandrataal reminded me of Pangong Tso in Ladakh - only that it was much smaller with a circumference of only 2.5 kms.  At 14,225 ft the reflections of the barren mountains on a non windy day is any photographers delight.   The lake got it's name from the crescent shape which is similar to that of a moon.  At 14,000 ft the atmosphere is a bit rarified here, so be a little extra careful in not exerting too much.  The only living being besides us were some churus grazing (churu is a cross between a yak and cow and mostly we mistake it as a Yak which is rare).  Then there was Mr Rangchup, the caretaker of 5 tents which were up for hire (all were empty) for Rs.700 per night (including food) the reservations of which are done from Kaza.  He served us the much needed hot cuppa tea.
We left Chandrataal at noon and reached Kunzum Pass (15,000 ft) at 1.30.  This is a flat pass and surprisingly among the cluster of chortens there is a temple dedicated to Durga.  Being an open area, expect biting chilly surface winds there.  All the vehicles crossing the pass take a mandatory round of the small complex (similar to our mandir parikrama) - a religious ritual which everyone religiously followed.  Just like another custom of giving a small honk before and after crossing every bridge - notice it the next time you visit any mountains.  Beyond Kunzum Pass, the landscape becomes more arid and there are absolutely no signs of any green.  We stopped for lunch at Lossar - a small village with a population of only 1000.   There are a couple of restaurants and we had authentic thukpas and porridge sweetened to our taste by adding more honey at a place called Samsong. The restaurant complex even had rooms available for Rs.150 and Rs.250. 
From Lossar the road condition improved and the landscape was very scenic.  We passed through wide valleys and roads cut out of rock.  A little ahead watch out for a small village called Hansa with green cultivation land - courtesy the water available from the passing Spiti river.  Setting sunlight provides the ideal setting for photographers and we got some spectacular light and shade shots of the Ki Monastery from the far side.  The occasional sightings of mobile towers told us that we are approaching Kaza, which is the district headquarter and the only town with a dispensary-called-a-hospital.  It is 200 kms from Manali and there are two buses which ply from Manali every day taking about 10 hours.   The Banjara group has one of their upmarket resorts here though we checked into a much economical Mountain's Paradise Guest House which was a little inside but had all the basic amenities at Rs.500.  End of day two in Spiti valley.
There is nothing to see in Kaza itself so we checked out early in the morning and went backward 10 km to see Ki Monastery. One good thing in all monasteries is that photography inside the main prayer hall is usually permitted.  The meadows down below looked fabulous.  After Ki, further up 11 km we reached what the guide books described as the highest inhabited village in the world - Kibber at 14,200 ft.  Though the sun had helped bring up the temperature a bit, the wind chill factor forced us to cut our stay there.   Surprisingly, a lot of cultivation was taking place even at those heights.  A word of caution here - do not come from Manali and stay at Kibber the same night; follow the cardinal rule of altitude travel which is to travel to higher heights but always sleep at lower heights.  So do not plan to stay at Kibber unless you are physically very fit and acclimatized as in these places medical help is scarce and insufficient.
We returned to Kaza's main marketplace which has many multicuisine restaurants and after having a continental lunch at we headed for Tabo (47 km at 10,000 ft) - the major attraction of our trip.  Raju, our team leader and a professional photographer, had already developed mild acute mountain sickness (AMS) - a severe headache and refused to eat anything.  After Rohtang all our mobiles had become music players.  Rahul had a BSNL connection which came to life for a short while at Kaza.  Those with Airtel connection made calls back home from an STD booth. 
On way to Tabo, we saw Dhankar Monastery part of which was once used as a jail but now has a school for monks. The road from Kaza to Tabo is fairly good and straight as we moved alongside Spiti river and reached there late in the evening.  At Tabo, if you can manage to get accommodation, it is best to stay at the Monastery Guest House within the complex.  We were fortunate to get the last of the double bedded rooms with attached baths (Rs.250).   Dinner was at an adjacent restaurant that served Italian, Chinese, Ladakhi and Indian cuisine.  Chicken chowmein is ok but if you want any paneer dish, you have to inform a day in advance as it is to be specially brought from a faraway market.  We reached a place where civilization existed even 1000 years ago.  End of day three.
To catch and capture the local lifestyle of a place, always wake early.  Here, the first thing to do was to attend the prayers at 6 am at the main prayer hall located about 50 meters from the main temple complex.   The Buddhist chanting with the occasional cymbals' gong is really refreshing.  I met Sonam Wangdu, the main priest whom I found very accessible and a down to earth person.   The Tabo complex is considered so sacred that Dalai Lama is said to have expressed his desire to retire here.  We did not go the nearby mountains which houses some cave paintings.  The main complex opens at 8 in the morning and there are 9 temples which were built between the 10th and the 17th century -it was the meeting point of Tibetan and Indian cultures.  There are ancient murals and frescos with a touch of Kashmiri art paintings.  The complex takes about 2-3 hrs to see depending upon the level of your interest.  
After leaving Tabo at around noon, we headed for Nako but on reaching Chango, we were told that the infamous Maling Nalah road was closed again due to another landslide - so we could not complete our circuit to Kinnaur, Chitkul, Sarahan and then to Simla.  Little sad but we relived the breathtaking landscape once again on our way back to Manali by the same route stopping only at Kaza for the night.
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