An endless, desolate moonscape thousands of metres above sea level, mammoth mountains guarding rugged terrains that call for adventurous detours, monasteries that hark back to Tibetan mores and not a soul in sight for miles — Spiti is a wonderland. By Sushmita Srivastav
“This is going to be about the journey,” I had declared before we hit the road to explore Spiti — a land that feels like a slice of Tibet marooned in India. But the thought of driving through scattered villages on an ever-changing, serrated moonscape — a turquoise-grey ribbon of the River Spiti and steep gorges the only constants — made us get through the relatively uneventful NH44 on an overnight journey from Delhi to Manali.
There wasn’t much of a road left once we crossed the main town of Manali. With our permits in place and the usual traffic snarls missing, crossing Rohtang Pass took little time. Past the proverbial gateway to Lahaul and Spiti, the landscape changed dramatically and the temperature plummeted. The honking of cars stopped, as did the chirping of cellphones. The greens of the mountains turned into solid greys and browns and paved paths were replaced by rocky trails.
I had just started to curl up in the passenger seat when our Thar came to a screeching halt. Ahead of us, a convoy of cars, with their engines humming and windscreen wipers swinging, had queued up. A car was stuck in one of the notorious streams on the route. This was a common sight, I was told, at pagal nala — the ‘mad stream’ that runs alongside the Chenab River in Batal, its impish flow the bane of SUVs. After an hour of waiting, my friend Sumit — the man behind the steering wheel — took charge. Tethered to the stuck car with a rope, our four-wheel drive roared as its engine strained and the two rear wheels swayed up in the air. Both baffled and thrilled at once, I struggled to hang on to my seat as everything else was flung about inside the car. With a sudden thud, both cars were free, and a crowd of spectators cheered.
Dusk had fallen during the rescue, and we snaked through darkness for a couple of hours with no navigational help before a few lights finally gleamed afar. We had, somehow, managed to reach the camp site near Chandra Taal.
The following morning, I woke up to the patter of rain falling on my tent. We didn’t have the time to wait it out, so off we went trekking, to the crescent-shaped ‘moon lake’. By then, the shortage of oxygen at 4,250 metres had started to make itself felt and the easy trek to Chandra Taal felt rather taxing. But the pristine lake was worth the effort.
A surreal mist hovered over its crystal-clear waters, surrounded by Trans-Himalayan ranges standing tall and prayer flags fluttering in the mountain wind.
Once past Chandra Taal, we briefly rerouted to perform the ritualistic circling of Goddess Kunzum’s temple at the Kunzum Pass. Jaw-dropping views of the Bara Shigri Glacier and the Chandrabhaga Range kept us company. But once you leave Kunzum Pass behind, you are on your own. With nothing but craggy colossal mountains rising up all around and hardly a soul in sight for miles, Spiti appears as a no-man’s-land at first. But as you tread through it, you find there’s life hiding in the deep crevices of the valley. You can be driving for hours with nothing but mammoth mountains for company and suddenly, a little village pops up from nowhere — with shepherds herding rams and yaks, prayer flags adding colour to the otherwise monotonous landscape and Tibetan mani stones stacked up in the middle of the road.
After spending the day driving at a leisurely pace and soaking in the tranquillity, we decided to make a brief stop at the Key Monastery before it got dark. Perched atop a conical hillock, the largest gompa in Spiti looked like an ethereal citadel. By the time we knocked on the door of our Kaza homestay, the quiet valley had already turned in for the night.
Although weary from our travels, the allure of Komic was not lost on us, so we decided to leave Kaza at the crack of dawn. After a few wrong turns and detours, we finally managed to reach the world’s highest village at road’s end — perched 4,587 metres above sea level. A village with just over 100 residents, Komic’s most popular structure is an old building that houses a restaurant and a two-room guesthouse on one side and the Tangyud Monastery on the other. Be it the huge signboard announcing its credentials or the generous locals who serve you home-made barley wine to counter acute mountain sickness (AMS), the tiny township makes it abundantly clear that this is as high as you will get on a motorable road — anywhere in the world. When we arrived, Tangyud Monastery was playing host to a group that had come all the way from the United Kingdom to perform a play for the locals. With its mud walls painted in red and yellow and the hall dressed to the nines, the monastery was filled with giggles of the children who had gathered from the nearby villages of Langza, Hikkim and Kaza to watch their friends from faraway lands perform.
As for me, a hearty meal of stuffed Tibetan bread, barley kheer and a warm bowl of thenthuk put me in a state of deep slumber at the guesthouse. Sometime in the night, as a gust of icy wind woke me up, I peered out of the dusty window to see millions of glittering stars illuminating the pre-dawn sky.
Loud chater and a loud clatter of horses’ hooves woke me up this time. Outside the guestroom, the ‘highest village’, which had barely any visitors the previous day, was teeming with locals riding horses, as flocks of tourists sauntered about with their bulky cameras. A horse race from Komic to Langza through the rugged, roadless terrain was soon to start. But there was still time for the racers to hustle and we decided to head to the main village — a 500-metre walk down from the monastery. En route, smiling lamas dressed in red, hikers and backpackers engrossed in plans, motorcyclists riding their bikes and locals waving joyfully at passers-by made Komic a happy village, where life was rather simple. A total of 10 rustic homesteads housed villagers, who earned their livelihood partly by rearing sheep, yaks and horses and partly by growing peas and barley. A handful of homestays added to the locals’ income and offered basic accommodation, with three meals a day, to the tourists.
As the horse race was about to begin, I took my spot among the spectators to cheer for Sonam — a young local whom we had befriended the previous day. But Sumit suggested that we chase the horses in our vehicle to Langza instead of watching them from the starting line. We jumped into the Thar and waited. But there was no gunshot, no smoke — just a loud cry by a local, and the race was on. Dozens of neighing horses kicked up a dust storm and went past us in no time. Following no obvious routes (or rules), the horses galloped through wild terrain and disappeared from our line of sight in the first few minutes of the chase.
By the time we reached the finish — a sweeping land in Langza with a golden Buddha statue soaring in the backdrop — the race was over. The freshly-harvested farmland was brimming with excited riders, their horses and local women serving rice pudding and barley wine to all. Grinning eye to eye, Sonam gestured ‘three’ with his fingers — his position on the scoreboard. As we sat down on the grass amid the celebrating villagers, hands filled with pudding and wine to toast the race, it hit me — Spiti was the land of no one, because it belonged to everyone.
The only way to reach Spiti is by road, via Manali or Shimla. The distance between Manali and Kaza is 201 kms. A four-wheel drive is recommended.
WHERE TO STAY
There’s nothing better than pitching your own tent in the wilderness. If you want to save yourself the trouble, stay at one of the campsites, like Spiti Expedition Tour and Travels Camps (+91-9418401551) or Tenzin Camps (+91-8988313473) at Chandra Taal. Hotel Deyzor (from INR 2,600) is a good option in Kaza. Langza has plenty of options — try Banjara Camps (from INR 2,450). There’s only one guesthouse and few homestays in Komic. Ask your trip organiser to arrange the overnight stay.
The best months are June to September, as winters can be chilly and some routes are blocked.
It is best to plan the Lahaul–Spiti road trip with a travel company that has expertise in the region. Escape Route has tailored, luxury, and self-driven tours available.
A vehicle permit and an Inner Line Permit (for international travellers) are required to enter Spiti Valley. Keep medication handy for altitude sickness. Cellphone network is hard to get after Rohtang Pass, but Spiti’s locals always help you out.