Spiti means ‘the Middle Land’ that is the land connecting the Buddhist lands of Tibet and Leh. Therefore, we decided to go in search of Buddha’s ‘Middle Path’ in Spiti. Spiti Valley located in the remote northeastern corner of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh is a cold desert mountain valley perched in the Himalayan mountains. Spiti Valley immortalizes the travel cliche ‘it’s not about the destination, but the journey’. As you drive through its cliffhanger roads, you will be mesmerized by the windswept mountains, extraterrestrial lunarscapes, centuries-old Buddhist monasteries, mammoth glaciers, glacial lakes, time-warped hamlets, and most of all the poetic hospitality of the locals despite their harsh living conditions. There is so much to discover amidst these gargantuan mountains, stark valleys, and well-traveled rivers, let’s not wait anymore.
How to Reach Spiti Valley
Despite being a public transportation preacher, I preferred exploring Spiti Valley in a rented car. The two main reasons being the freedom to stop at multiple photogenic places and the ability to reach remoter parts. State-run basic buses serve the main points of Spiti Valley. These buses don’t run after sunset, therefore it could increase your overall travel time. But, it is entirely possible to explore Spiti via public transportation. Hitchhiking is quite common as well. Do know that the locals might ask for some money in exchange for the ride.
Spiti Valley Inner Line Permit (ILP)
Foreign nationals need an inner line permit to visit Spiti Valley which can be obtained from Shimla, Rampur, Reckong Peo, Manali, and Keylong. Keep photocopies of the ILP to hand over to authorities when asked. For more info check out How to get ILP for Spiti.
Indians don’t need an inner line permit to visit Spiti.
Manali to Spiti Valley vs Shimla to Spiti
Spiti Valley can be accessed from Shimla and Manali. Traveling from Manali to Spiti Valley via Rohtang Pass and Kunzum Pass saves you a significant amount of time since it is a shorter route. But, this road is open only from June to October. The road from Shimla to Spiti is open throughout the year and passes through Kinnaur Valley. It is a slightly longer route but one advantage is that you get to see the magnificent Kinnaur Valley on your way to Spiti. You can check Spiti Valley roads status at the state official website.
NOTE: Parts of Shimla-Spiti road can be temporarily closed due to landslides. Ask the locals about the road status before you venture forward.
Self-driven vs Chauffeur-driven
Three of us chose to self-drive through Spiti Valley. It is no mean feat since the roads are adventurous or in other words dangerous. So, if you are used to driving with the Himalayas on one side, a death-defying valley on the other, and a road just wide enough to fit your car then you can rent a car from Zoom Car in Delhi. It is better to rent an SUV – Scorpio, Mahindra XUV, Ford Endeavour, or Hyundai Creta. We rented a Scorpio. A Self-driven trip is slightly cheaper than a Chauffeur-driven trip. Approximate round-trip Delhi to Spiti distance is 1500 km so pick a ZoomCar plan accordingly.
Chauffeur-driven trips in an SUV cost about Rs. 2800 to 3500 (US$ 44 to 55) per day. Chauffeur-driven vehicles can be hired from Delhi, Shimla, or Manali.
Another popular way of exploring Spiti Valley is via a motorcycle. Motorcycles can be rented in Shimla or Manali. They cost about Rs. 1200 to 2000 (US$ 19 to 31) per day depending on the type of motorcycle. Fuel cost is extra.
Best Time to Visit Spiti Valley
We went to Spiti in mid-April and we thoroughly enjoyed it because there were fewer tourists and the winter snow was still visible on the mountains and side of the roads. April is the best time to go if you want to avoid the crowds, see some snow, and pay off-season prices with the only disadvantage being that roads to some attractions could be closed due to snow. May to mid-July is the high season because of the hoards of summer vacationers who arrive from the plains driving the prices higher. Manali to Spiti Valley road is open from June-October.
It is best to avoid the rainy season from mid-July to August. Road conditions during this time are horrendous and frequent landslides result in delays. The months of September and October are due to fewer crowds, lower prices, and road access to all the attractions. The only downside being barren mountains without a speck of snow. Traveling at any time between November to March is for the braveheart intrepid traveler wanting to experience the harsh lifestyle of locals during the snowed out winter months when Spiti Valley temperatures are at its lowest.
Eight Days in Spiti Valley in Search of the Eightfold Path
Day 1: Delhi to Shimla (350 km, 8 hours)
We started early morning from Delhi to cover the 350 km journey to Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh state. It took us 8 hours to reach Shimla. In the evening we walked around the Mall Road and visited the neo-gothic 19th-century Christ Church Shimla. After having dinner at Indian Coffee House (08:00 – 21:00), we went to bed early at Mountain Goat Bed & Breakfast.
Day 2: Shimla to Reckong Peo (244 km, 10 hours)
We started early from Shimla to cover the 244 km journey to Reckong Peo, the capital of Kinnaur Valley. The moment we entered Kinnaur Valley, the air attained a different romance. Lush green meadows, apple orchards, triple-halo mountains, rock-cut roads, and serene scenery to soothe the heart.
We stopped at the Shri Bhima Kali Ji Temple, one of the 51 Shakti Peethas in India. According to Hindu mythology, when Lord Vishnu cut through the corpse of Sati to stop Shiva’s dance of destruction. Sati’s body parts fell at 51 different places. There is a temple at each one of the 51 sights. Her ear fell where the temple now stands. A street vendor outside Gobind Ballabh College sells mouthwatering panipuri, aloo-tikki, and burgers. It is an excellent place to stop for lunch.
We reached Reckong Peo around 6 pm, just in time to catch the last rays of setting sun illuminating the snowy peaks of Kinnaur Kailash mountain range. Later, we shopped for some local handicrafts, especially colorful Kinnauri hats, in the Indira Market. We dined on delicious and homely thukpa soup and vegetable momos at Muskan Chinese Food Corner before heading to our hotel Shivling View. Reckong Peo is the ideal place to look for the mythical spirit called chang, a popular rice wine only available in these neck of woods. Its legality is controversial therefore tread carefully and ask locals to get your hands on a bottle of this snow-white spirit. Fuel up on both petrol/diesel at Kinfed Fillisn Station and alcohol supply at local wine shop since neither will be available for another two days until you reach Kaza.
Day 3: Reckong Peo to Nako (103 km, 5 hours)
“Adjust the zoom, you won’t believe your eyes since you’ve never seen God before. The Shivlinga of Lord Shiva meditating atop Mount Kinnaur Kailash, his winter home. The peak of Kinnaur Kailash is in the shape of a Shivalinga. Shivalinga belonging to Nataraja, the lord of the dances, performs the dance of the colors. It changes colors as the earth rotates on its axis. The Shivalinga attains the following colors – orange, yellow, saffron, crimson and hue – at different times of the day”
After checking out from the hotel, we headed to Kalpa. The primary reason to visit Kalpa was to get a panoramic view of the mythological Mt. Kinnaur Kailash. The secondary reason, well an unavoidable one, was that the road from Peo to Kalpa featured on IRT Deadliest Road episode. Certain stretches of the road are barely wide enough to fit the wheels. Guess the name of the road? Suicide Road.
Surviving the suicide road, we made it to the panoramic viewpoint near Hotel Golden Apple Kalpa. From the viewpoint, look at the leftmost peak with a pair of binoculars and start moving right. Shift your view a little to the right of the twin peaks, adjust the zoom, you won’t believe your eyes since you’ve never seen God before. The Shivlinga of Lord Shiva meditating atop Mount Kinnaur Kailash, his winter home. The peak of Kinnaur Kailash is in the shape of a Shivalinga and its color is distinctly different from the nearby bare gray peaks. Shivalinga belonging to Nataraja, the lord of the dances, performs the dance of the colors. It changes colors as the earth rotates on its axis. The Shivalinga attains the following colors – orange, yellow, saffron, crimson and hue – at different times of the day. If you give yourself enough time then you can see different shades of the Shivalinga.
After the date with the deity, we continued towards Nako. The road between Reckong Peo and Poo puts the aforementioned Suicide Road to shame. If you have time on your hand, I highly recommend visiting Poo, a beautiful Himalayan hamlet with ancient narrow cobblestone streets. 20 kilometers after Pooh marks the confluence of rivers Satluj and Spiti. The colors of the rivers are distinctively different and their confluence is one of the rare sights to behold. As you cross the bridge over the confluence, you officially enter ‘the Middle Land’.
Day 4: Nako to Tabo (64 km, 2 hours)
Crossing the bridge is a metaphorically crossing into a different world of ancient monasteries, different language, unique culture, simple lifestyle, indigenous cuisine, and most notably stark barren landscape, a far shout from the green valleys of Kinnaur. Historically, Spiti was part of Western Tibet until the 11th century when the king divided his kingdom among his three sons. This marked the separation of Spiti from Tibet. Over centuries Spiti fell under Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh rule but the locals never lost their own traditions and practices. People of Spiti follow Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelugpa order.
Nako (3,625 m/11,893 ft) is the first sizable village of Spiti we encountered. After spending the night at Moon Lake Guest House we visited Nako Gompa, a 11th-century Buddhist monastery with impressive artwork including a complete mandala. Walking distance from the monastery is the Nako Lake, a serene water body with bare mountains in the backdrop – a microcosm of Spiti. There is a helipad in town from where you can get superb panoramic views of snow-capped Manirang mountain range. And you can also play cricket on the helipad with the locals like we did.
Next day we continued onto Tabo. On your way to Tabo, you can take a small detour to Giu Thach to see the 500-year old mummy of a Buddhist monk named Sangha Tenzin. We reached Tabo in the evening and tired of our overtures, headed straight to the Tabo Monastery to lie down and relax. Yes, you got it right. We stayed at the Tabo Monastery. The experience of staying at a monastery was priceless. Yak butter lamps, rustic wooden rooms, delectable food, and morning chants to wake you up.
Day 5: Tabo to Kaza (48 km, 2 hours)
Next morning we woke up to the chants coming from the monastery. We got ready and headed to the monastery for the morning prayers. Tabo (3,280 m/10,760 ft) village is home to the oldest monastery in India. Tabo Monastery was founded in 996 AD by Rinchen Zangpo, the famous translator of Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. The old monastery has some exquisite murals stucco sculptures, and a large number of frescoes containing tales of Buddha, Llamas, and Tibetan kings. It houses priceless collections of thankas (scroll paintings) and ancient manuscripts.
“It has seen a thousand flurries of snow, withstood a hundred thousand storms, it has sent a million messages of Buddha through the winds blowing south and east, a billion bells have been rung to send ‘Om mani padme hum’ into the valley, the prayer wheels have been spun countless times with timeless wishes. Yet, the monastery stands in simple mortar and cement telling the tales of a thousand years of the golden past and blessing the travelers who take the road less traveled to the parts clad in barren beauty”
After meditating in the ancient hall of the monastery, we started our journey to Kaza. The landscape of Spiti transforms significantly as you leave Tabo. The lunatic landscape of Spiti, between Tabo & Kaza, is the crown of the devil. Saber-tooth peaks jutting out of silvery slopes. Rocks and pebbles sliding down as minions of the mammoth mountains. It felt like we traded our homely planet for inhospitable Mars or Moon. From far away, these saber-tooth peaks appear like a castle, a castle of the devil certainly.
On our way to Kaza, we took a small detour to visit Dhankar. Dhankar in the local dialect means ‘a place in the mountains unreachable for strangers’. Rightfully so, Dhankar is perched among mountains and not visible until you actually reach the entrance of the village. Dhankar Monastery is built on the edge of 1000-feet (300-m) cliff. The view from the monastery is postcard perfect, Pin and Spiti rivers flowing out of the shadows of the mountains to symphonically unify. It possessed us until we the hands of time forced us to leave for Kaza.
Day 6 and 7: Kaza and surrounding village
“It is here more than anywhere else, I felt like I was on the path that Buddha mentioned 2,500 years ago “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation, and path. That’s all I teach”
Kaza (3,650 m/11,980 ft) is the capital of Spiti Valley. It is situated on the banks of Spiti river. On the other side of Spiti river lies snow-capped mountain range that runs for more than 12 kilometers. Kaza is used as a launchpad to nearby villages. After checking into Hotel Deyzor, we went to the iconic Key Monastery.
Perched at the height of 13,668 feet (4166 m), Key Monastery was built in the 11th century in Pasada architecture style, which gives it the look of a fort. It has three stories and one of the monks present at the monastery will give you a tour of it. Notable features of the monastery are ancient murals, rare thangkas, musical instruments collection, and ancient weapons. Standing atop the monastery, your breath will be taken away by the silvery Spiti river, snow-capped peaks on one side and rugged barren mountain terrain on the other. It is here more than anywhere else, I felt like I was on the path that Buddha mentioned 2,500 years ago “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation, and path. That’s all I teach”.
After Key Monastery, we went back to our hotel to reflect on our journey and what we learned so far from this remote outpost of Buddhism. We bought some kangdi, a local barley wine to ease the outbreak of thoughts and emotions.
Next day we started early since we had to climb significant altitude to reach the highest motorable village in Asia – Komic (4580 m/15,027 ft). Centuries ago, frustrated by numerous bandit raids, villagers from lower villages decided to move further up into the mountains. They established the village of Komic. They were relatively cut off from the rest of the world until the last decade when a motorized road found their village. Hence, change is a new term around here. So, sit down to sip in the lifestyle and culture of a bygone era.
Hikkim, 3 km from Komic, lays claim to the title of the ‘highest post office in the world’. Send your loved ones a postcard. Further 8 km from Hikkim, lies the village of Langza with its idyllic whitewashed Himalayan houses and an enviable collection of million years old prehistoric marine fossils. Staying at a homestay in Langza is an authentic way to experience Spitian life. After Langza we drove back to Kaza and called it a day.
Day 8, 9, and 10 Driving home the four noble truths
If Kunzum Pass is open, then you have the option of traveling to Manali and then onward to Delhi. Or you can backtrack the way you came, which is what we did. For the return leg, it is better to break it down into three parts. Drive from Kaza to Pooh (144 km, 4 hours) and spend the night at Om Guest House in Pooh. Next day drive from Pooh to Shimla (296 km, 10 hours) and spend the night in Shimla before driving back to Delhi (350 km, 8 hours) the following day.
The blog post is originally published on Winds of Travel.