Backpacking solo across Spiti

[P.S: You can read my first post on Spiti here.]

I ran away to the valley of Spiti for a couple of weeks this August. As you will see from the pictures, words can’t do justice to the splendour of these Spitian villages (if it doesn’t seem so, blame my photography skills). But Spiti isn’t for the weak hearted; you have to travel on few of the most treacherous roads, ride through high altitude passes and walk across ice-cold nalas at times (on one occasion we did so by forming human chains). I was alone and thrown out of my comfort zone – I changed plans on the spur of the moment, hiked for hours on mountains and forged new friendships .

What follows is a long list of my experiences at Spiti but I promise you will love the Spiti you see through my lens and live through my travel tales.

Kaza – Day one, two and few days in between

Zostel, Spiti. That was Kaza for me as the rest of the town seemed too crowded. Mornings were for hot chai and reading ‘The Hobbit’ on the corner bench overlooking the pea fields, mountains and Spiti river. Altitude acclimatization was my excuse to laze around in the common room conversing with other travellers or to walk down to the river or fields and chat with the locals.

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My favourite reading spot: the bench in the corner (PC: Zostel website)

Nights were mostly spent staring at the stars or trying to get a perfect picture of the milky way with fellow Zostelers. After having a sumptuous dinner (the buttery Dal Makhani is my favourite!), we would end up playing mafia or watching a movie in the common room.

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Zostel, Spiti

Dhankar

The mid-day sun shone bright on the yellow-green fields surrounded by a half-bowl shaped mountain with noticeable ridges. Tiny houses were pinned to the mountain and the Pin and Spiti rivers converged in the background. I sat in the balcony of the monastery restaurant adoring the view and savouring my food. Realizing I had only 4 hours to finish the Dhankar lake trek, I asked a Lhama (monk) for the directions and began my trek. Within 10 minutes, I was puffing and panting, thanks to the sun, altitude and low levels of oxygen. The vivid colors of Dhankar that looked more hypnotizing with every few steps I took, kept me going.

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View of Dhankar village while on my trek downhill (the one good thing that came out of losing my way).

I religiously followed the directions drawn along the way (not heeding them on my descent almost put me on the highway to hell – a story for another day). The stone filled barren mountains were replaced by brown hills with scattered deep green bushes and wild flowers, as I got closer to the lake. Atop, I could see only mountain peaks around me and it took me a while to spot the greenish lake. Tranquility reigns in that part of Dhankar and I gladly submitted myself to it.

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Dhankar Lake

Once I got down, I didn’t have enough time to explore the Dhankar fort. But I did lose myself watching the Dhankar sunset light up the sky with captivating colors (how I wish I had one decent picture of the sunset!).

Key – The Monastery

Yes, that’s the monastery you saw in ‘Highway’ movie. A backdrop of gorges, fort-like construction, Lhama’s in bright red robes and the whole valley below: Key gompa stands proud as the crown jewel of Spiti.  The essence of the monastery is the main prayer hall that leaves you with no choice but to indulge in the calm and feel the energy within.

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Key gompa from a distance.

Kibber

We sat in the balcony of a little restaurant soaking in the postcard views of Kibber. The wind made the willows and prayer flags dance in tune and the wind chimes tinkle with joy. We could see pretty Spitian houses with colorful windows and the ice-capped desert mountains in front of us. Somewhere to the left was a Stupa hid from our view by the pea plantations and mustard flowers. And to the right a bunch of kids were enjoying the summers playing Cricket. Apparently the cricket fever runs everywhere, even in a place as remote as Kibber. Later, we walked in the barley fields of Kibber, trying to capture Chichum village on our lens.

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The view from the balcony of the restaurant.

Batal & Chandrataal 

The best part about solo travel is that your plans can change on a dime! At 3:30 Am, I decided impromptu to leave for Chandrataal on the 4 Am Manali bus. Complete credit to my Zostel friends heading to Manali: they held back the bus for a few minutes till I packed my bags and reached the bus station. Thanks to an almost dramatic turn of events (Manali bus breaking down near Chandrataal), even they ended up visiting Chandrataal that day.

Chandrataal is straight out of a dream: the vivid blue waters, wild yellow and pink flowers on the carpet of grass and fat woolly sheep grazing on the greens.

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Chandrataal lake in all it’s glory!

We agreed that camping at Chandrataal would mean extremely chilly weather. So we headed to the famous Chacha Chachi dhaba at Batal (which is at a lower altitude) and stayed there that night. See the picture below? We slept in that room made out of rocks and I used three razais that night to beat the cold! And I didn’t even dare put a step outside my room that night.

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I stayed in those little houses made of rock and covered with tarpaulin..

Hikkim & Komic

All I did in Hikkim was send postcards to my friends (they loved the postcards!) and myself from the world’s highest post office. Soon after, I started my hike to Komic, the world’s highest village. Hiking is  the best way to enjoy the splendour of Spiti: little by little, see one village appear and the other disappear.

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That’s the worlds highest village. Charming, isn’t it?

I was tired from the hike; so after lunch and a few minutes of rest, I headed straight to Langza for night stay. I returned to Komic the next day with a traveller I met, so I could explore the age-old and less known Komic caves he had mentioned. And I got a chance to visit the monastery too (don’t even think of skipping this when you’re there!), where a monk offered us some delicious butter tea and bread. We later bribed (with chocolates) a little Lhama and his brother to take us to these caves. At some points, the path was narrow and had a fall to the sharp rocks below but the pro-kids had our backs. The caves are much like the ones at Tabo although the panoramic views of Komic made our trek worth the risk.

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On the way to Komic caves

Langza

The sun had just began to set when I walked towards Langza. I wonder how these seemingly alike mountains, fields and houses create such strikingly different sceneries. My homestay hosts were amazing folks and I had fun teaching numbers to their super smart three old kid, Tenzing, while Takpa’s wife prepared dinner. Over dinner, Takpa told me stories of snow leopards and the kids talked about themselves.

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Sunset beginning in upper Langza on one fine evening 🙂

The terrace of the homestay was perfect for star-gazing. I will tell you a secret: Langza has the most stunning night sky- it will allure you with shooting stars, shining galactic center of the milky way and quaint moonlight on mountain peaks. I jumped with joy like a two-year old each time I saw a shooting star. The cold sent shivers down my spine but I was keen on clicking the clichéd picture of the Buddha statue with milky way. So in that pitch dark I took my camera and left for the statue (thankfully it was only 500m or so away) along with Takpa.  And that’s how I ended up with the cover picture for this post.

Mudh & Pin Valley 

If I missed mountains of any color in rest of Spiti, I found them all in Pin Valley. Pinks, greens, yellows, whites – you name it and it’s there. My one day trip to mudh extended to two days (partly to blame are the cheese paranthas and Tibetan Pizza at Tara homestay). What did I do there? Nothing! That’s the beauty of Mudh; you don’t have to do anything – sit down, relax and stare at the mountains or the night. Or just exist.

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‘Chasing angles or fleeing demons, go to the mountians’ ~ Jeffrey Raley. En-route Paagal Naala.

I hiked 30 kms till Pagal nala, all the while singing ‘Ain’t no mountain hiGggggh enoughhhhhh’ like a retard. The nala was inconsequential but it was the journey to the naala that mattered. Just me, the mountains, the sound of rivers and wind and Mudh far far away. At times, the silence was threatening and I was scared (and excited) about some animal appearing in the wild. Sporadically, I found  some fields and I cheerfully agreed when the locals there invited me for a tea. It is surprising how the mere presence of another human soul in such lonely places can make you feel safe and encourage you to continue your journey.

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Sad attempt at capturing different colored mountains on either side, Mudh village in front and the Pin river in between in one frame. Again En-route Paagal naala.

Tabo

I reached this quite little town full of apple orchards and apricot trees on a pleasant Tuesday Morning. What’s great about Tabo is, it wasn’t crowded with tourists like most other places. I chose to stay at the Tabo monastery dorm and have my meals at Kunzom top Cafe on the advise of other travellers. I met some travellers at the Cafe and ended up trying everything on the menu (all the dishes were delicious) whole afternoon along with them.

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Tabo vilage as seen from the Tabo caves. Yes, all those trees you see are apple orchads.

We visited the old monastery in the evening. The monastery and stupas made of mud are so modest on the outside for prayer halls  on the inside that can take your breath away. Gorgeous sculptures, alluring paintings and faint sun rays through a small openings on the roof – it had the perfect ancient touch to it. The other travellers sat there drawing the monastery on their sketchbooks, inspiring me to sketch inspite of my poor drawing skills. Thanks to them, I was convinced I don’t really have to be good at sketching to enjoy it (an important lesson).

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I wish the fine weather, lovely breeze and aura of the place reflected in the picture!

At night, we came back to the monastery and lay on that plank floor watching the vast sky and the twinkling stars over the mountains and basking in the absolute silence. It was one of the best moments of the trip. The next morning, I hiked up to Tabo caves where I got a panoramic view of the whole Tabo village. It was just me and nature. The silence was so beautiful and I was just living in that exact moment; not concerned about the past or the future. Nirvana?

Losar

I love Losar and it was as good as, or even better than, other villages in Spiti. But I shall remember Losar for this: the place where I was indefinitely stuck for hours every time I crossed the Losar bridge.  The volume of water near the Losar bridge is very high most times. Vehicles get stuck in the water frequently, blocking all other vehicles that are behind. So everyone has to wait till the block is cleared. No complaints though, Losar was splendid and I wish I could have stayed there for a night.

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Every freaking time at Losar..

And here are few more pictures for you…

Coming Next: A travel guide for Spiti

 

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