The magical Himalayan world of Kinnaur, Lahaul-Spiti
I had visited Himachal twice before – Simla in 1988 and Dalhousie & Chamba in 1997 but this particular trip, to Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti regions, was quiet challenging to me. Challenging, since the journey traversed through the Upper Himalayan mountain ranges with altitude ranging between 3,000m to 5,000m above sea level (just for comparison Bangalore is about 900m above sea level). So far, Cusco (Peru) at 3,500m, was the only high altitude place I had ever visited and it was here that I had experienced AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness leading to severe dizziness and nausea. But since this time we gradually reached heights of 10,000+ feet after days of travel, the acclimatisation happened automatically.
We were a group of 24 travellers from across India (Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kochi & Delhi) and Gulf countries (Oman and Bahrain), with the youngest being 8 years old and the senior-most being 75 years old. This proved that age was no barrier to visiting the upper Himalayan ranges, considered to be the most treacherous road journey in the world. The unique thing about this journey to Kinnaur, Lahaul & Spiti was the rapid change in mountain landscape as well as the weather, flora and fauna, as we moved from one place to another. We started the journey from hot and sultry Chandigarh (40 degrees celcius), which was our assembly point. As we moved towards Shimla, the weather was salubrious (20 degrees celcius) and the mountains wore a coat of dark green thanks to pine trees all around. Since Shimla was facing severe water related issues in the month of June, our Tour organizer did not want to take any risk and hence had booked our first night’s stay at Kufri. Kufri, located 20 kms from Shimla, is a small hill station at a height of 2,600m above sea level and it derives it’s name from the word kufr meaning “lake” in the local language. Kufri is also a famous as a skiing centre during the winter months.
From Kufri we moved towards Narkanda (2,700m above sea level) covering a distance of about 50 kms. The Hatu Peak at 3,400m above sea level is 8 km from Narkanda, where we visited the famous Hatu Mata Temple dedicated to Goddess Kali. From Narkanda we moved on to the beautiful village of Sarahan (2,100m above sea level) after covering a distance of 125 kms. Sarahan is perched high above the river Sutlej and is home to the famous Bhimakali Temple, dedicated to Goddess Bhimakali. Since photography is banned within the Temple premises, the photo of the grand Temple from outside has been embedded. Sarahan is also known as the “Gateway of Kinnaur”, being near the Indo-Tibetan border.
After a refreshing stay at Sarahan, the group started for the beautiful Valley of Sangla early in the morning. Known as the ‘Land of Gods’, the 80km stretch of exquisite beauty following the mighty Sutlej River, through the Sangla Valley, is quite a sight to behold. This region is also known as Baspa Valley since the River Baspa flows through this valley. We stayed at Rakcham (3,000m above sea level), a small village situated between Sangla (14km) and Chitkul (10km) on banks of River Baspa. We were fortunate to get tented accommodation in Parasol camp, which was located right besides the River Baspa. The luxurious tented accommodation has an attached toilet and the hospitality we received from the staff was simply awesome. We were served hot tea at regular intervals with occasional rounds of hot vegetable fritters (pakoras).
The early morning walk in the green forest surrounded by orchards of apricots, peaches and apples, is an invigorating experience for city dwellers. The beautiful Sangla Valley is south of the Kinnaur Kailash Range, from where you can view the majestic snow clad peaks on a clear day. We stayed at Rakcham for 2 nights since we had to visit Chitkul the next day and also prepare ourselves for the arduous journey ahead in the Spiti valley. During our stay at Rakcham, we witnessed the local Temple fair. Animal sacrifice, though banned, is very common in this part of the world and the meat is offered to the local deity.
So far, during the journey, we had simple food comprising of rice, dal, paneer dishes, vegetables & rotis. Breakfast consisted of eggs, bread toast, poha, upma and puri bhaji. For lunch we stopped at local village joints and enjoyed steaming hot momos, chowmein, maggi noodles or dal-chawal, rajma-chawal etc. The tasty theplas and puran polis (Gujarati/Maharashtrian food items) and other South Indian savouries brought from home, were devoured in no time. Being at high altitude our appetite too was at an all time high. The best time to visit this valley is from April to October and for rest of the year, the road up to the Sutlej Valley is closed due to heavy snow. The houses are mostly of Tibetan style as Tibet is not very far away from here.
Next day we visited Chitkul, which is 26km away at a height of 4,500m (1m = 3.28ft) above sea level and is considered to be the last village on the Indo-Tibetan Border. This village consists of about 100 houses with population not exceeding 800. Here, river Baspa flows with a murmuring sound through the pine forest and starts from the Nee-La pass not far away. This side of Nee-La pass is India and on the other side is in Tibet- China. Here you will find apples, peaches, nuts and lots of Primula, Poppy and Birch trees. For a nature lover, the exotic, serene and tranquil atmosphere is really enjoyable and memorable. There are two attractions here – the wooden fort and Temples dedicated to local Goddess, which are more than 500 years old. Chitkul is a true experience of nature not ravaged by the widespread encroachment of man, and the beauty of the hills that speckle the Baspa Valley are testaments to this fact. The 2 evenings at Rakcham were indeed fun filled, what with indoor games like Tambola, Antakshari, Dumb-charades and a gala evening with dance performances by the young and old.
After 2 days at Rakcham, we headed towards Kalpa via Reckong Peo, the capital of Kinnaur district. Reckong Peo is a small town, that offers great view of the mountains (height of 2,000m above sea level). The drive to Kalpa (7 kms from Reckong Peo) was dotted with apple orchards and scenic mountains. This gem of a little village, where modernity is only just beginning to make an appearance, one can see a wide range of snow clad mountain peaks and amongst them, the center of attraction is the Kalpa peak. The prominent Kinnaur-Kailash (height of 6,000m above sea level) looks like a Shivalinga. It is said that on a sunny day, the colour of the Kinnaur-Kailash changes along with the movement of the Sun. According to popular legend, during the winter months of Magha (Jan/Feb), the Gods are said to come here to meet Lord Shiva. If the legend is true, Lord Shiva couldn’t have found a more remarkable abode for himself, with enthrallingly majestic views of the Kinner Kailash and Himalayan peaks looming right above the village and by its side is a 80 foot rock formation that resembles a Shivalinga, that changes color as the day passes and is visible to the naked eye on a clear day.
After an overnight halt at Kalpa, we started for Dhankar, which is the ancient capital of Spiti and the seat of the Spitian Kings. As we moved towards the Spiti valley, there was a complete change in the landscape as mountains changed colour from green to brown with barely any vegetation like a barren desert. Not just the flora and fauna even the looks of looks people changed (Tibetan stock) and Monasteries were now replacing Temples. We continued our journey through the Hindustan-Tibet Highway, often called the world’s most treacherous and beautiful road for the magnificent scenery. We drove past Puh, to arrive at Nako. Nako, originally known as ‘Kyangoh’ or ‘Gateway to the Holy Place’, is a village in Western Himalayas, situated at 3,600m above sea level. This village is the embodiment of Buddhist culture and traditions, evident in the various monasteries and practices of the charming locals. The village is exquisitely beautiful with an oval shaped lake, protected on all sides by adjoining mountains (picture of group enjoying a dance gig at Nako Lake)
On the way to Tabo, we took a short detour of 7 kms to visit the Giu Monastery, which houses the mummy of a Lama in a sitting posture, preserved in a glass case. Since we reached the place post sunset around 7:30pm, the monastery was closed to public. However a friendly villager handed over the keys of the room in which the mummy was kept, so that we do not leave the place disappointed. We were completely surprised to see a naturally preserved dead body, not wrapped in any bandage, but had completely dried up with the eyes, teeth and hair on its head still intact. It is believed to have hair and nails that are still growing. The mummy is believed to be of Sangha Tenzin, a monk from Gelugapa order and carbon dating has revealed that the Tibetan mummy could be over 550 years old. In fact the Mummy was discovered by the ITBP in 2004 during a road excavation project, in a sitting position with a rosary in one hand and all body parts intact. One of the most interesting facts about the mummy is that there are no modern methods of preservation used, for it is housed in a simple glass case. The place is is slowly becoming very popular with Tourists.
Normally the sun sets around 7:00pm in this region and we were quite late as we passed Tabo (40 kms from Giu Monastery), around 9:00pm. Tabo is know for the famous Tabo Monastery, which is more than 1,000 years old and is an abode to many precious Thangka paintings, including the famous Pillar of a thousand Buddhas. The entry to the monastery complex, covering in total 6,300 square meters, is made of earthen walls with a dark interior shading the many marvellous and colourful frescoes inside. The ancient paintings depict the life cycle of The Buddha and legends from the Jataka Tales and were made in the Tibetan style by artists from Kashmir. Called the Ajanta of the Himalayas, the Tabo monastery is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Tabo is also an internationally known meditation center and is often visited by dignitaries like the Dalai Lama.
We reached our destination Dhankar, situated mid-way between Tabo and Kaza (30 kms either side) quite late into the night. From Dhankar onwards, we started feeling the dry chilly weather as we were surrounded by barren snow peaked mountains. The care taker of our lodge in Dhankar, named Tenzin, ensured we got hot water to freshen up as tap water was unbearably cold. Tenzin is a very popular name in Spiti. Incidentally his son too was called Tenzin. Maybe if they call out the name Tenzin, almost the entire male population of a typical Spitian village may stand up. The Dhankar Lake and Dhankar Monastery are two important places to visit. (In the picture, view of Himalayas from Dhankar)
After a well deserved rest, we started off for Kaza early next morning (30 kms from Dhankar). On the way we stopped at the Kungri Monastery near Pin National Park. The large Prayer wheel at the entrance of the Monastery cannot be missed. The Pin National park is home to snow leopards and Siberian ibex (wild goat). Unfortunately we did not encounter any of these wild animals throughout the journey but we accidentally came across a dead Ibex, whose skeleton was lying on our way to Chandratal from Kaza.
Kaza is a small town with lot of eateries and shops to buy souvenirs and Himachali handicraft items etc. The bikers who come from every nook and corner of India including foreigners, prefer Kaza as a stopover. Hence we could see so many Bullets and KTM Dukes in this town. Even during our journey we encountered more bikes than 4 wheelers. Post some shopping, the group spent the evening with fun, games and a musical program consisting of mandolin and bollywood songs. The tour organizer, who also knew astronomy other than scaling Himalayan peaks, gave us a wonderful peek into the world of stars and planets that night. The unpolluted and cloudless sky at night, offered a glimpse of zillion stars, requiring no telescope.
Early morning, the next day, we visited the famous Sakya Tangyud Monastery at Kaza before we embarked on an exciting journey to explore some of the highest inhabited regions of the world. We first visited the world’s highest post office at Hikkim, which is 4,440m above sea level. Since the Post Office was manned by just one single Post Master, we had to queue up to get our self addressed letters/cards stamped. The friendly Post Master served every request with a smile. None of us missed the great photo opportunity, while dropping the cards/envelopes in the post box perched upon a wall. From Hikkim , we visited the highest village in Asia, called Komik, which literally translates to ‘eye of a snow cock’ (situated at a height of 4,600m above sea level). This farming village has a population of 80 odd people, living in utter isolation, cut-off from the rest of the world for most parts of the year. This little hamlet ensures to bring you thousands of miles away from your familiar settings to a place of soft brown pastures and snow-white mountain peaks. At Komik we visited a Monastery where we encountered a stuffed snow leopard, hung near the roof. After Komik, we headed for the picturesque village of Langza, where one can visit the ancient Lang Temple, estimated to be around 1,000 years old.
Later, we visited the world famous Ki or Key Monastery, situated at a height of 4,200m. It was founded by a disciple of the famous Atisha, in the 11th century CE. Belonging to the Yellow Hat or Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, this monastery is famous as a prominent Centre of learning as well as refuge for Tibetans. Being remotely located atop a hill overlooking endless plains, the Ki Monastery is an obvious choice for those seeking peace and calm. We then moved farther up the valley to the picturesque village of Kibber, located at a height of 4,200m above sea level. Just as we approached Kibber, we drove past the highest road bridge in Asia at Chicham village. Kibber is also a popular base camp to embark on adventure and treks to adjoining mountains of high altitude. J
After a stay of 2 days at Kaza, we commenced our journey back home but not before taking one last stop at another Spitian wonder, the Chandratal Lake. There is practically no metalled road to Chandratal from Kaza and the entire stretch of about 100 kms is through pebbled roads interspersed with flowing river streams or waterfalls. On the way to Chandratal, we came across a Branch of State Bank of India at Hansa, a village with barely 200 people. Before we reached Hansa, I have to make a special mention of a small inhabited village called Kyato or Kiato. To me this place was a canvas of colors and the landscape was absolutely breath taking to be described by words. It has to be experienced. My mind went back to Western classics like Mackenna’s Gold, which portrayed a similar mountainous landscape. The Chandra Bhaga river flowing through the valley added to the charm. I thought to myself: If I have to shoot an adventure themed movie, it will be here and nowhere else.
We reached the mystical and beautiful Chandratal Lake in the evening, well before sunset. Chandratal means Moon Lake and it is located at a height of 4,300m above sea level. The Chandra Bhaga mountain range forms a striking backdrop for the lake, which changes appearance according to the pictures painted in the sky. The lake is considered holy and visitors are actually not allowed to swim or bathe. We could not attempt the 5 kms long “parikrama” or circumambulation of Chandratal Lake, as it was getting dark and extremely cold and chilly. We were put up in a tented accommodation at Chandratal, which had all amenities including attached toilet. Due to strong wind, the weather was extremely chilly. The hot meals served at Chandratal was extremely delicious and despite the harsh conditions the helpful staff ensured we enjoyed a comfortable stay. Here we met a couple, who had come to Chandratal by cycling all the way from South of India. At such a high altitude, where oxygen is less, it was difficult to even walk long distance without gasping for breath and here we had long distance cyclists !!
We planned to start the final leg of our journey to Manali by 7:00am, since the travel time was about 10+ hours. Secondly it just started to rain, which made things worse, as the roads turn slushy and slippery. From Chandratal to Rohtang Pass (about 45 kms), the road is nothing but rocks, pebbles and mud. We encountered extremely bad roads, sometimes alighting from the vehicle to reduce the load. On the way we passed Kunzum Pass and reached Rohtang Pass around 4pm. From here the road to Manali (50 kms) was good. Thanks to heavy rains around Rohtang Pass, we could not stop our vehicle to enjoy the beautiful view of the valley. The clouds were floating at the same height that we were. From Rohtang Pass it took us less than 2 hours to reach Manali, where we ended our Spiti Valley tour.
The journey to Chandigarh from Manali, the next day, was just filled with memories of our trip that traversed mountains ranges i.e. Greater Himalayas and Dhauladhar and Rivers like Sutlej, Spiti, Baspa and their tributaries – Pin, Chandrabhaga ; the Shivalinga at the peak of Kinnar Kailash mountain ; the lofty Kunzum Pass and the stillness of the Chandratal Lake ; the legendary Ki Monastery and the spartan route to some of the highest villages of the world covering the world’s highest motorable road enroute Langza with a view of the sinuous Spiti River below.
However there were some things we could not experience during this trip viz. tasting the yak cheese and apples, although we were in the heart of Yak country and the Land of Apples. We had traversed a total distance of 1,200 kms from Chandigarh and back in 11 days, using 3 vehicles in total. The 24 members of the group lived like one big family throughout the trip. The Tour was organised by Treks, Trips & Trails, a Mumbai based company run by Satish Menon, who had been to the Himalayas multiple times and is extremely passionate about preserving the fragile environment for the newer generations to come.
To sum up, the trip provided us a peek into the magnificent cold mountain desert, the azure blue skies with no sign of pollution, the land of Lamas, prayer flags dancing in the wind, healing mantras in monasteries, the simplistic rural life, heart-warming natives, some of the world’s highest inhabited villages, a river flowing amidst shinning grey sand, pristine lakes, clear night sky with billions of stars and the aroma of momos. Spiti was absolutely timeless and leisurely followed its own rhythm; least impacted by the modernisation and fast-paced city life. It’s a “World within a World” as Rudyard Kipling once said about the beautiful Spiti, that nestles between India and Tibet, offering overwhelming hospitality and providing us the taste of it’s unique culture.
Acknowledgement: To the Tour Organizer ; To all my fellow group members for bearing with me and for also sharing their snaps ; The Drivers of all 3 vehicles, who ensured we had an accident free journey ; The Owners and Staff of all Lodges and Campsites, where we stayed, for providing us cozy accommodation and excellent lip-smacking meals.
Journey Dates: 23rd June 2018 to 4th July 2018
All the wonderful 200+ snaps can be viewed by clicking on: Best Photos of the Trip