by Neha Simlai
Part I can be read here.
Day 6, 7 & 8: The Spiti Valley
About 6 hours from Rekong Peo is Tabo – probably the most frequented stop in Spiti, Tabo is a largeish village by Spiti standards and has a 1,000-year-old monastic complex, said to be among the oldest functional Buddhist monasteries. It is also the place where the present Dalai Lama will retire. The monastery has nine temple buildings, chambers for monks and nuns, 23 white chortens, and piles of stones, each inscribed with scripture.
Tabo is quite pretty in a simple, rustic sort of way – replete with thatched houses overlooking green fields with the Himalayas rising in the background. A number of small and relatively clean staying options are available in Tabo including staying within the Monastery complex itself. The entire village wakes up to soft chanting and the sound of temple gongs in the distance – a fairly spiritual experience. Tabo also provides the opportunity to sample the unpretentious Spitian cuisine – the slightly nutty roasted barley tsampa porridge or a tsampa pancake, yak butter tea (not everybody’s cuppa), the Spitian thukpa and timok (a variant of the steamed tingmo bread). Tabo also has bunch of home stays and eco-lodges or camps.
Tabo serves as a great vantage point for views of the rugged mountains, sparsely populated villages in the distance, clear blue sky and the reflections in the changing colors of pristine Spiti. Tabo is also the base for the traditional Spiti monastery circuit which starts with the Pin Valley and the Ugyen Salag Choling Monastery and goes into the Mudh village. Needless to say, the surroundings are gorgeous and there is an overwhelming need to take in as much as possible especially the area overlooking around the confluence of the Pin River and the Spiti River.
A recent study by the Geological Society of America shows that Spiti houses various unique and rare fossils of marine life (Trilobites, of the Palaeozoic Era are some of the earliest legged creatures, relatives of crabs, centipedes and spiders). Portions of the Pin Valley National Park lie in the Parahio Valley which is also regarded as the most fossilforous region in the world, dating back to over a billion years.
Further on is the rather commercial and relatively boring town of Kaza. Kaza has everything – PCO, loudspeakers, lodging, transport and a market hub for the entire region. Kaza is an ideal base to head up to the fort like gompa of Kee and Dhankar and the high-altitude villages of Kibber and Comic. The 13th century Kee monastery perched on a mountain top is the largest in Spiti valley with the drive up to Kee offering spectacular views of the expanse below. The Comic monastery is among the most welcoming ones in Spiti and interestingly the Lamas generate Comic’s electricity by a cycling machine. They even maintain a greenhouse chamber. Simple but most pertinent to the Spiti region is the 16th century Dhankar monastery, built like a fort on the face of a cliff hanging over the river valley below. The monastery is old and falling apart in places but it is the views of the surrounding mountains, plain and valley below that put Dhankar on a Spiti checklist (if one could ever create such a thing). This was partially destroyed in an earthquake and efforts are now being made to rebuild the monastery.
If you have the time and inclination, Kaza is also a great place to start treks through the Pin Valley, a national park inhabited by endangered snow leopard and Siberian ibex, as well as rare birds such as the Himalayan snow cock, snow partridge and Tibet snow finch.
Kaza has a number of staying options and a fair tourist orientation. Remember to bargain for everything from room rates to Israeli food. I’ve stayed at Kaza Retreat and the Spiti Sarai which are just outside Kaza across the bridge.
An optional trip if there is additional time could be hikes up to Kibber & Lanza villages. There is a large Buddha statue in Lanza which makes it unexpectedly impressive.
Day 9 : Kaza to Chandrataal
Start early from Kaza and head to Bataal on the loop back to Manali. Bataal allows you to venture into the Chandrataal area – about 13 kilometers of a treacherous detour after the Kunzum La and a short walk of about 2 kilometers. Chandrataal is probably the prettiest of the high altitude wetlands. It can also be approached from Losar near Kaza. There aren’t any fancy staying options and you can camp near the lake or stay at a small tea stall near the Bataal road. Please do remember to pick up any food waste, cigarette butts, etc. The area is pristine and it should be kept that way.
I still look back at Chandrataal as the place with the clearest waters and my own personal moments of complete clarity. I think on both my trips I ended making some very significant life decisions on the shores of Chandrataal and it will always be my special place.
Day 10: Bataal to Manali
North of Spiti is Lahaul which is cut off from the rest of the world for almost 8 months in the year. Connected to the rest of Himachal by the ever crowded, supremely noisy and mostly disappointing Rohtang Pass, dotted with villages of flat-roofed houses, fluttering prayer flags, and whitewashed chortens, Lahaul is arduous.
Visitors traveling by road to Leh in Ladakh, farther north, pass through Lahaul. Moving on from Kaza, you can either head for Manali (a full day’s drive) to catch your breath, or travel directly to Leh.
As you drive from Bataal towards the Rohtang Pass you will encounter the crazy Rani Nala and maybe even some Spiti horses running wild in the meadows that you drive through. Drive straight through to Manali.
I’m ending this travelogue at Manali, because everything else is literally and metaphorically a downhill journey. Through the roadtrip, it becomes critical to remember why Spiti was the choice you made and the journey undertaken. It is unlike any other journey or terrain – even the much hyped Ladakh stretches. Spiti promises a change of scene – around every turn – quite literally. Spiti is about cloud shapes reflecting against the vast expanses of mountain desert, stark moonscapes, pristine lakes and the lack of vegetation. Spiti is also about back/axle breaking non-roads, high altitude sickness, headache inducing sunshine, and is a test of both patience and perseverance. Prepare yourself.
(All photos in Parts 1 & 2 by Neha Simlai)
Neha Simlai is a trivia buff, avid traveler and chai addict