Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
~ John O’Donohue ~
This is how it all started…
I somehow managed to get out of that box to live life like a hobo for coming few days.
The Lahaul-Spiti circuit lures visitors with the views of rugged mountain ranges, sprawling valleys, sparsely populated villages at long distances and if luck is with you, even Himalayan wildlife. Lahaul is a landscape of glaciers and uniform high snow clapped peaks whereas Spiti, which means middle land that ties between Tibet and Ladakh, is higher in altitude characterized by stark terrain, hostile roads and bone-chilling temperature.
Spiti – ‘A World within a world’ as described in Kim by Rudyard Kipling, is a relatively unknown creation which is tucked away in the trans Himalayan belt. This region also houses Ancient Gopas or Monasteries which are unchanged since centuries and looks over each of its villages.
Sutlej River, which can be tranquil and equally turbulent any time, braids its way through the desolate and harsh terrains which later intersects with Spiti River. People and nature here are bound together by instinct and folklore of Buddhist heritage who bear cultural similarities with their neighbors in Tibet and Ladakh. They live a very simple life breathing between the blue skies and reflecting blue color river gushing through the stupendous landscape. However, the enchanting Spiti has a lot more secrets to reveal as we go further.
The extreme weather conditions are generally unpredictable, including snowstorms, sandstorms and sudden avalanches. The only affair that is consistent enough are Landslides.
Spiti is surely not for the faint hearted ones as the roads are ferociously frigid tracks that go winding around some of the preeminent mountains in the region. No wonder these routes are less traveled and are considered as one of the Seven World’s Riskiest Roads.
Best time to visit –
Each season, the crew uses GPS to find the road and dig it out again. It becomes even more crucial to be extra prepared as snow can make it impassable at any time given the erratic weather conditions. July – September is the best season to cover this circuit on a motor bike. You can also check what time will suit you the best here. In 2014, the roads were closed on Oct 5.
Eat and Drink –
Barley is the main grain cultivated in Lahaul – Spiti. The traditional array of cuisines includes Tshema for breakfast, Shod or chicken in the noon and Gongal for dinner. Typically, you will find Thukpa, Tsampa, Chowmen and Momos in local restaurants to devour. This valley remains cut off from the world for more than five months in a year due to heavy snowfall where the mercury drops below minus 20 degrees Celcius. Due to such weather conditions, the villagers stock the food for all the days they cannot step out.
Arack is a Tibetan delicacy, liquor made out of barley. Apart from Arack, Lugri, Chhang (beer) and salted tea mixed with butter are delight in Spiti’s extreme weather conditions. Smoking of Tobacco is a very common affair but is forbidden for women.
Do not expect any sort of luxury, not even hotels. The locals offer good homestay and is best that way to soak into their culture and make your experience infinitely richer. However, if you wish, you can book your local homestays here. 94188 60099 / 94184 39294
For emergencies, you can note down:
Police Station contact of Kaza: 01906-222253
Emergency Civil Hospital – 01900-222211
Must carry –
- Strictly only 2 set of clothes
- Hard Cash
- ID Proof
- One Good Jacket
- Good Shoes
- Extra Fuel. (No fuel stations between Rekong Peo and Kaza – 204 kms)
- Power Bank
- BSNL Sim
We decided to take the 1500 kms less traveled roads something like this –
Chandigarh – Shimla – Rampur – Sangla – Chitkul – Nako – Tabo – Dhankar – Gue – Kaza – Key – Kibber – Lossar – Chandratal – Batal – Manali – Mandi – Chandigarh – Delhi
It is recommended to go by this route rather than other way round to get your body acclimatize before you enter the 11,000+ feet valley and gain height slowly. In case you still face Acute Mountain Sickness, keep a medicine named Diamox suggested by locals but don’t take it unless verily needed.
The rush which you go through when you plan for your very first Himalayan trip is beyond describing in words. I could feel it beneath every bone that it is going to be one epic experience of my lifetime.
DAY 1 CHANDIGHAR TO NARKANDA (181 kms)
This was the time when anyone would do true justice with integrity to The Royal Enfield Thunderbird.
We hired this very bike from Delhi and were all set to en-route Lahaul – Spiti Valley which spans 13,835 sq. km at an average altitude of 3600 mts. with a population of 31,528 people.
After Delhi, we geared up at around 9 pm from Chandigarh and decided to have a hard stop directly at Rampur in pursuance of spending more time in Himachal rather than in the city arteries.
Wistfully, we ended up crashing in a Narkanda bus stop and tented our homes there for the nightfall. We lie low for the sun to rise.
DAY 2 NARKANDA TO CHITKUL (172 kms)
We wake up to the ring of heads who might be disoriented seeing a tent near a tea stall. Snickering at the situation, we started our journey towards our next unknown shelter.
As we leave behind the bustling towns and noisy population, we embark the roads curving along trees through the mesmerizing landscapes. As a photographer, you would want to stop at every turn, but we had deadlines to meet even out of office. Sigh!
I can never say no to Gurudwara and my mouth starts watering even while I write about it now. We were blessed to have a zestful meal in Langar and resume our excursion through the sky spearing mountains.
Floating higher up the intimidating altitude, we see a dramatic change in topography as we spin through frequent blind turns on the paths that are cut through giant boulders.
Soon the roads started converting into tracks with patches and loose pebbles. However, some valleys greet you with the awe-inspiring beauty of the mountains principally when shimmering aqua Sutlej is accompanying you throughout your way.
We witness the humongous dams while crossing the river. I learned later that how it is damaging Himachal Ecoshpere. Dams in the region like Luhri project, funded by World Bank, which will destroy the last remaining 50 kms of a free-flowing stretch of the river. There are 17 such dams adversely impacting on ecology, biodiversity, water availability, groundwater recharge, fishing, irrigation through smaller streams, climate regulation, tourism and protection of lands, forests and mountains.
One would also be amused by looking at the kind of pulls that are build in this part of the country. It’s an adventure in itself.
After riding on paths that will give a crick in one’s back, crossing a lot of bridges, boulders, mountains and towns, we felt gratified when we saw our first angel white snowcapped mountain. We freeze ourselves under a rock shed, shielding away from heavy rainfall and wandering our sight at that sky scrapping peak rested far away in some valley.
Chitkul, located on the banks of Baspa River is the last inhabited village near the Indo-China border. Sure you have to take a diversion of 40 kms from Sangla, but it’s fascinating to visit the last point in India towards Tibet where one can travel without a permit. We reached late at around 8 in evening and break our day here in a homestay.
DAY 3 CHITKUL TO NAKO (151 kms)
I was stirred by the austerity of the landscape that Chitkul had to offer.
Chitkul became even more endearing to us when we were enveloped by the spectacular range of snow peaked mountains against the skyline.
We spent a long time here taking the morning walk with shepherds and his herd of sheep along the river side. We helped the villagers in their local chores and gazed at those breathtaking mountain views as we gulp our delicious parathas. Bidding adieu to Chitkul was very difficult but not an option at all.
To reach our next destination Nako, we had to cross the rugged territories through Sangla, Reckong Peo and Puh.
One tends to await a lot of snow and greenery when you think of Himalayas, but as we rode higher, my expectations were turned down to a very dusty and barren Himachal, yet so picturesque. The roads were raw and ruffle in nature, if I may call them roads at all. But, whatever it was, it will surely take you places. Places, like you can never imagine and people like you have never met before. Talking about people, you would find such a deep sense of audacity in Himachalis that you might just end up thinking that either one of you is from another planet.
We had to take a diversion for Reckong Peo and it was crucial to reach this point before we move any forward as there was no fuel available literally for next 200 kms till Kaza.
While I was on a train of thought about how the survival game is played here, we bump into a few biking enthusiasts like Monster Bikes, Raid the Himalayas, Himalayan Rides etc. on these roads. You would regret if you do not exchange some conversations with them.
For this day we remorse that we missed capturing intersection point of Sutlej and Spiti while riding in the dark.
Gearing our bikes through the sharp turns of the valley, we finally reach our destination – Nako and break here after a very long day. Do look out for army camps for stay in case you are planning your break here.
DAY 4 NAKO TO GUE (47 kms)
We woke up to the view of rolling mountains looking like undulating hills where the River Spiti is flouncing this Himalayan ridge forming a gigantic canyon.
We see a tad bit more population than all other villages and momentarily felt like back to civilization. Nako district is known for its lake and monastery, yet the villagers boast more about the visit of Dalai Lama during festivals. We munch our meal with some fellow travelers from different parts of the world and gear up for the ride of the day.
We had spent several nights in Lahaul-Spiti region, some planned and some forced. This day falls under the latter category as we faced frequent bike breakdowns which was the precise reason of covering only 47 kms.
Running out of fuel, flat tires, spark plug and carburetor issues left us with a distinct experience altogether. We felt like Murphy was having a good time with us. Fortuitously, the luck favored us when we had our biggest breakdown right at the spot where the slope of at least 30 kms begins. Only a rider can understand the joy of such an affair where he is flirting like an artist with the gradual highland flawlessly and effortlessly.
Wistfully, there was a point when we had to start ascending the cliff again. That’s when a local left all his work to get our bike back in condition and tow it to the nearest service station without expecting anything in return. This experience sets a perfect example of the warmth of people residing in hilly areas. The nearest repair shop was 200 kms away in Kaza, so we started hunting for local engineers who can do a quick fix which took us coon’s age to get it started. Meanwhile, I try to explore the local ropeways something like this.
The best part about the day was that when these rumpled mountains were painted in Red and Green Apple Orchids 🙂 It got better when we plucked the apples from trees all across the terrains whenever I got a chance.
A little disheartened with the incident, we struggle to find our way in sleety terrains to Kaza. However, it got insurmountable to drive through the patches in the aphotic night and we met yet another local in this small village named Gue. He approached for help and we readily offered him a lift till his home. In return, he overture us for an accommodation at his place. Irked by the day’s episode, we unruly agreed to break here. This was not a conventional night stay, though. As we gait into the house late at night, we witness a colossal hallway and to our amazement, it turns out to be the room for panchayat meetings.
It also turns out to be the home of the person who own the key for the place where cryptic mummy is preempted. The man flashed a cheeky grin and told us he will take us there personally. I was also marveled to hear when he requested us to repair his tablet which was not functioning since past few days. We experience a very authentic home-loving environment and soak into conversations like old allies while we were savored delicious Thukpa and Chole. I have heard that 4 am conversations are the best ones; now, I know it.
“DAY 5 GUE TO HIKKIM (97 kms)
We depart to meet Sangha Tenzin. We erudite from the villagers that Sangha practiced a form of self-mummification that uses meditation and strategic starvation to preserve the body without embalmment in order to reach the highest form of enlightenment.
Steadily climbing over the graded hill, we arrive at one tiny box shape, a small room where lies the remains of the 500 years old Buddhist monk protectively kept in a thin glass box. The mummy was remarkably well preserved for his age. So well that it looked like some apparitional human figure, staring at me, is about to shake hands with its long nails. The teeth, nails and hair on the skull of the mummy are intact even today.
We notice some sort of construction going on which possibly means Sangha will soon be living in a new big home 🙂
As much as I wanted to interlude here for few more days, we demurely start our rickety ride on treacherous roads towards the sub-divisional headquarters, Kaza for the day.
Along our drive, we glared around the rugose and rough-hewn mountains with a sense of awe. They were looking craggy and mysterious under the bright sunlight.
We impasse at our next station – Tabo Monastery, a mud structure, which was built in 996 AD.
Tabo Monastery, often known as the Ajanta of the Himalayas, has got nine temples and a large number of frescoes displayed on its walls which depicts tales from the Buddhist pantheon. There are priceless collections of thankas paintings, well-preserved statues, manuscripts and extensive murals which cover almost every wall.
It is the oldest Gompa in the valley and is under UNESCO world heritage site. Opposite the town rises a northerly exposed cliff containing caves lying at the same height opposed to each other.
If you can have your halt here, don’t miss the opportunity to stay in the Buddhist Monastery or a Gompa rest house. In the interim, I didn’t miss a chance to continue filling my bag with the apples even from here.
A few kms from Tabo, our bike breaks down again and Kaza was still 40 kms away. By hook or by crook, crossing a gargantuan sand storm, with immense hardship and efforts, we finally managed to trace the mechanic in Kaza but lost our friend along the journey. BSNL too didn’t succor.
We reach Kaza safely and come across another new, yet beautiful monastery.
But, our quench to reach Kaza was completely different. It was time to refuel our bikes.
We thought of exploring Hikkim and Comic and head back to Kaza at night for the stay. But as the destiny ratifies, there was a lot more to combat. While we cross the storm we get lucky enough to spot the wild Himalayan deer crossing our way and hiking up the mountain at a very fast pace.
A sly hailstorm clutched at the elbow of the mountain as it passed. It became utterly difficile to whirl up the precipitous mountains even for 100 more mts. At 7 pm, struggling with the frost bites, we spot the first house in the purlieu and decided to ark in.
We were blessed to receive yet another warm welcome from a beautiful family of a grandmother, son, his wife and two kids. They insisted us to stay as the weather conditions were getting worse. While we gulp in our delicious dinner, we exchange our life stories till late night. We all sleep together in one room where they had lit the fire which keeps us warm whole night.
While I go gentle into that good night gazing at the moon from the small window, I wonder how much we have traveled from Gue homestay to this cordial home in Hikkim. I literally learned the true meaning of generosity here and found stronger connections than telecom networks on these Himalayan roads when all of us lost and found each other million times through the people passing by. I also love the feeling when we exchange a smile with fellow bikers or pageant a thumbs ups to unknown yet so known travelers.
DAY 6 HIKKIM TO LOSAR (70 kms)
One of the fact that convinced me to do this bike trip instead of Leh Ladakh was that we will be touching the highest motorable village in the world. Less did I know then that we will get a chance to nest at this height of 4440 Mts. (14, 567 ft.) The family shared a lot of stories including their snowfall parties, what they sprout, how conveyance is the most difficult part, how the 20 years old son married an 18 years old girl and what they want to achieve in life. We spend a lot of time together and offered them apples that I plucked on the way for their courteous welcome.
From here, it was a 3.3 km drive along a narrow path abutting the mountains to Komic. We find the snow from last night which looked like the first fall of the season.
Komic, perched at 4570 mts of height housing half a dozen of homes, a government school and a monastery was the village that we were wandering for. We found ourselves completely lost while enthralling the peaks rising from around the monastery. The fang-white mountains, soaring into the sky, were brooding and loomed all over us. We persuade ourselves to leave for our next destination.
As we crossroads with Hikkim again, we stopped by the world’s highest post office located at the height of 4440 mts and pin code 172114.
This also turns out to be postman’s home and before we ask any details, he yenned us to have a seat and sip a cup of tea. I was puzzled ogling at the attentiveness, if the development in cities means ditching all this generosity. In that case, I would love to surrender everything and reside amongst a more humanly habitat. We write post cards to our address, hoping to receive them soon and move on. We pitch our bikes all the way down crossing Kaza again and reaching Kyi Monastery.
Kyi Gompa, the biggest monastery of Spiti with over 250 monks, perched at the hill at an altitude of 4166 mts.
These monks reside within the sacred walls in winter and stay with their families working in the fields during the summer. We coincidently bump into our friend in this monastery whom we lost few miles back.
We learned from the villagers about a path made to a helmet higher than Komic named Gette which is not yet known to many people. We manage to reach the highest point of our journey with only 2 houses around on a bright sunny day. We babble up there like few friends catching up in a cafe and leave with immortal memories.
We reach to the same point form where we began for Gette and wait for one of our friends at the river bank. We miss to visit Dhankar Monastery and regret to visit one of the most spectacular settings for a gompa which is built on a high spur overlooking the confluence of Spiti and Pin River..
As we continue to ride for long we see the landscape changing the face drastically and turning into the plateau. A giant highland where no body rambles. We come across villages far apart from each other grazing their animals in the golden hour and wander in awe of the beauty of this place.
We stop by at Lossar to munch something and continue for our next destination Chandra Taal. But as we start at 8 pm, hard luck strikes again and we have a flat tire which doesn’t seem to get solved until morning. Our wings were clipped and we were arrested by circumstances at Losar this time.
DAY 7 LOSAR TO MANALI (147 kms)
Making our ways through those tangled trails, we started early in the morning.
Travel is not only about going to different places but also meeting incredible people from all walks of life.
What we were doing on bikes, this 48 yrs old man was doing it on a cycle. Sadanand Sahu manages to do all such trips when the college breaks for 2 months every year. While we scuffle to cope up with the shrill turns in this part of Spiti, he ascends as a duck takes to water and leaves us behind.
Just about 19 kms from Losar was Kunzum La, stationed at 4590 mts. It’s a connecting pass between Lahaul and Manali with Spiti. It also offers a magnificent view of Bara Sigri, the second longest glacier in the world.
We head towards Chandrataal Lake which is 7kms from Kunzum Pass. While crossing Spiti Wild Life Division of 38 sq km area, we saw many cyclists along our way and all of a sudden we were surrounded by many adventurers. We somehow managed to get the lake to ourselves for some time.
The Moon Lake is befitted at an altitude of 4300 mts. Mountains of scree overlook the lake on one side and a magnificent cirque presents a view on another. We found ourselves perplexed gazing at the sun light shimmering on the turquoise water as a group of trekkers cross to hike up the Baralacha Pass.
We struggle with yet another flat tire and this time it was cold sober breakdown. As the luck favors us one more time, the slope from Chandratal helped us to reach Batal where we finally decided to dump the vehicle.
We bide our time for at least 5 hours till an Army Officer in Xylo agreed to drop us to Manali.
During the interval, I sit beside the river bed and revisit the moments in my head.
Lahaul-Spiti has it all from gentle alpine slopes to rocky barren ranges, crystal clear lakes to melting snowlines into the river. Just put in a sprint of shadow play and there you have a nerve wracking masterpiece for your sight. I silently hunch if I was on another planet altogether.
What amuses me more about the valley is the contrasting characteristics of amiable, down to earth Himachalis and equally callous, sky-kissing mountains. I mull over the engrossed polar behavior of humans opposed to geography where, if one is downright pleasant and plain, the other has to be ruggedly barbarous.
A very strong rush passed within me of not leaving Himachal. I didn’t feel like going back to an immortal world, where there is no fresh air, where there is a daily rush yet you don’t reach anywhere and where there is an unending peripheral battle. I have heard that the Himalayas are addictive and hence bidding adieu was only temporary.
Due to very short period and lot of break downs, we missed on quite a few places. Rohtang Pass adds on to the list. We crossed Rohtang pass to complete the circut but unfortunately didn’t get a chance to stop by at this place. Rohtang which literally means “pile of corpses”, due to people trying to cross the pass in bad weather conditions. I can feel the gravity of the name when we struggle to ride on streams and not roads.
However, we spent an intimidating time in Xylo meeting fellow travelers, chit chatting with locals and listening to the stories of the cournel till our final destination to Manali. It would have been an amazing experience if we were to stay in Batal army tents. But, I had a flight to catch next day to Bangalore and join back office; which by the way, I didn’t quit.