by Neha Simlai
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
At the risk of a slightly disconcerted manager, I sit dreaming on my office desk sometimes… of the open road and clear blue skies, of getting away from the humdrum, of friendships forged, stories heard and memories created – the overused clichés of travel. I realize I’m blessed; I’ve been able to travel – to take time off, to find answers, to create memories and to ensure that I will never really surrender to the vagaries of routine.
Road tripping in the Spiti valley is among my most treasured trips. I’m almost waging a war with myself while writing this piece because there is no way I can do justice to its sheer brilliance in a 1500 word framework and a part of me doesn’t want to either. Quite honestly, I’ve avoided drawing too much attention to it because I don’t want too many people to go to Spiti and tarnish it. I want it to stay the way it is – unblemished – forever.
My first encounter with Spiti was in the August of 2011. I was in between jobs and there was time for a trip. My second trip was in March 2013. The second stemmed from a craving to get away taking the proverbial road less travelled.
Spiti surprises you when you least expect it to. At the end of summer Spiti is warm, often welcoming. At the end of the harsh winter, it is desolate and inhospitable. The people are friendly, the terrain is unyielding to the extent of being brutal often, the seasons are defined and infinitely different, the turns are sharp and the changes in scene sudden. But most of all, what strikes you is the scale. The scale is grandiose… Larger than life… Spectacular.
Trip planning is often a trip in itself. A road trip anywhere in the world requires some planning and preparation. A road trip in this terrain requires a LOT of planning and even more preparation.
It is necessary to prepare your vehicle – the bike or the car. Get a general servicing done – get it raised slightly for better ground clearance, check the tire tread, fix your shock absorbers – basically the whole hog. Keep spares ready. And leave the bravado behind. Please avoid attempting Spiti in a city vehicle. Not just is it not advisable, it is downright stupid.
Pick your travel companions well – go with a thumb rule of people who not only get along with you but also people who get you. Fix schedules, align on priorities – what to see, how much to push physical limits, food preference and the ability to cope with a variety of travel and staying options.
For both my trips I planned the itinerary to be easy and slightly more leisurely than a hurried striking off the checklist. I didn’t think I had had enough after my first trip which is why the second and now there is the hope of a few more. Spiti cannot be done in a hurry, and it is imprudent to even attempt it. Keep a couple of days extra because a landslide or a flat tire could completely throw you off schedule.
Remember to carry all the papers for your vehicle and valid IDs for each traveler. The Inner Line Permit allows you to enter and pass through the zone closest to the Tibetan border.
You can forgo the trip through Kinnaur by making your way into Spiti from Manali; the trip from Manali to Kaza (the main hub in Spiti) takes a full day. If you intend stopping around Tabo, you won’t need to procure an Inner Line Permit; however, if you are doing the following trip in its entirety in reverse, you can get the necessary documents in Kaza (any travel agent or hotel you decide to stay at should be able to assist).
I have procured the Inner Line Permit on both my trips from Rekong Peo. A number of websites I looked at advise travellers to hit the office by 10 am to have the Permit processed by lunchtime.
At the risk of repeating myself ever so often through this travel story, I’m going to go with the somewhat generic and definitely “great views throughout” statement.
Day 1: Delhi – Shimla – Narkanda
For both my trips, I’ve started from Delhi and driven past the Shimla clutter on NH 22 which is also known as Hindustan Tibet or the Old Tibet Road. After Shimla the road goes straight through to Narkanda, a somewhat boring and strangely quiet little town with one HPTDC hotel and a rather pretty buffalo pond to boast about. Although, in its defence, Narkaranda does offer some spectacular views from the Hatu peak (which is a short hike up) and some brilliant walks in the surrounding forest and cherry or apple orchards.
A drive to the Jalori Pass is another recommendation depending on the amount of time you have at hand. With an extra day, you could also stop by Thanedar for a spectacular view, a restful evening and some apples from the orchards if you visit in August/September during the apple harvest.
Interestingly, apples were only introduced to the region, recently, by an American missionary called Satyanand Stokes at Kotgarh, only 15km away from Narkanda. Locals say that Stokes came to India for a summer visit to Shimla and fell in love with the region. He started the famous Stokes Farm which has since gained popularity for varieties like Red Delicious, Golden Delicious and Royal Delicious.
Day 2 and 3 – Narkanda – Sarahan – Sangla Valley (optional)
After a restful time at Narkanda and Thanedar, starts the slightly tougher parts of the journey. A drive north past Rampur and Jeori as the road narrows a little and becomes fairly bad in parts lets you descend towards a rough road that runs parallel to the Sutlej.
There is the drive through the famous rock tunnel to enter the Kinner region. I believe about 4km of the highway was washed away last year so there is a compulsory detour that needs to be taken through a settlement called Urni.
The madness starts from here with the climb twisting into an intense drive on a hairpin-heavy road to a gorgeous detour that I discovered only on my second trip – Sarahan. Quietly beautiful Sarahan surprises you with its sense of tranquility and calm. There is a Bhimkali temple which has a gorgeous view of the Greater Himalayas and a fairly charming early morning ceremony if you are looking for things to do in Sarahan.
But detour is a detour and detours are optional if there is a shortage of time; The drive requires one to retrace back down to Jeori – a little ahead of Karchham (at Baspa-Sutlej Confluence), take a U-turn to come back to Karcham and then follow the steep mud road (the road from Karcham to Sangla has been widened with the constant truck traffic) of the Sangla Valley, with views of the somewhat daunting Baspa River. The Baspa is full of the Himalayan trout, should you decide to camp and go fishing in these parts.
The Banjara Sangla Valley Camp & Retreat just ahead of Sangla, is a great place to stay and also gives you an opportunity to head up to Chitkul for a day. The camp is in the middle of a beautiful meadow (with flowers blooming through July until Oct and then again in March and April). The camp is located along the Baspa River, beneath towering Khargala Peak. There are also a few other options to stay in Sangla.
I think my personal favorite memory involved a beer, a book and a hammock in the gorgeous sunlight, with the sound of a gushing river in the background. For dinner, you can choose a lovely grilled trout (at extra charge) – the catch of the day.
One of the Banjara founders Ajay or Rajesh is usually around Sangla and it is a good idea to check for good trek options and also the road conditions for the rest of the journey.
Day 4 & 5: Sangla to Spiti Valley
From Sangla, start as early as you can and find your way back to NH 22. Keep driving/riding east towards Kinnaur’s main town of Rekong Peo where you should aim to complete the paperwork for your Inner Line Permit. If you can, drive through into the Spiti valley the same day, although it’s about a 7 hour drive at best.
You could also take an extra day and spend it in Kalpa which gives you gorgeous views of the Kinner-Kailash. Just outside of Rekong Peo start the random waterfalls on every other turn if you are visiting in August. The air is crisp and clear and everything is suddenly pristine. Rekong Peo, locally called Peo, is the capital of Kinnaur district and is named after a group of people who used to own this place at some point
The drive ahead goes past small settlements like Spillo or Dubling and one is hit with the sudden realization that everything around has changed – drastically and dramatically. The fir, birch, oak and pine trees give way rather unexpectedly to rock and stone sloping up toward distant summits and down into the raging River Sutlej. The journey through Inner Line territory goes to the off-limits turnoff for Shipki-La Pass, which heads into China.
The Spiti river, that starts at the foot of a glacial peak marked K III on old maps, flows southeasterly direction up to its confluence with the Pare Chu at Sumdo (district border between Spiti and Kinnaur) before merging into the Sutlej at Khab further downstream. Geologists believe that the river has carved out a unique storehouse of shale and the rock faces date back to more than 500 million years.
A slight detour will lead into Nako Village wherever everyone wants to show off the half pretty and half disappointing Nako Lake. Right after the turnoff for Nako, the road again changes drastically from a drivable track to a bed of loose rocks and boulders hanging on to each other for some strange reason. Welcome to the Malling Nala, punctuated with landslides, gushing water and complete chaos. The first time I ever crossed the Malling Nala was on a bike and I genuinely think that the terrain restores faith in the Maker, more than any amount of worship can.
(to be continued)
Neha Simlai is a trivia buff, avid traveler and chai addict