It was dark in the room as I lay cozily tucked inside warm cotton quilts and blankets replaying the day’s events while my sister was fast asleep right beside me. It always takes me a while to fall asleep and this wasn’t unusual but today I wasn’t bothered as all I could see was the rugged roads and the radiant mountains. I smiled my way to sleep and couldn’t wait to be up the next morning.
The cold desert of Spiti Valley, with its austere barren mountains, deep gorges, emerald green river, ancient monasteries, gorgeous villages, and unique culture has given me a lifetime of memories and experiences. Here’s an attempt to capture the essence of Spiti through a brief outline of the places we visited.
Kaza – A Tiny Little Commercial Hub
Kaza brings memories of walking through narrow lanes of the busy little market area that sits right at its center. Surrounded by jagged mountains, and situated at an altitude of 3,800 m. above sea level, Kaza is the capital of Lahaul and Spiti district. It is like a central place which connects all other places in the valley. On one side of the market area is a series of Chortens or Stupas that face the 14th century Tangyud Gompa. Just besides the Chortens is the only petrol bunk in the valley, which also happens to be the world’s highest retail outlet. The only ATM in the valley belonging to State Bank of India is also located in Kaza.
Solitude at Rangrik
While Kaza was bustling with activities, Rangrik’s solitude appealed to the nature-lovers in us. Situated at an altitude of 3699 m. from sea level, the quiet and sleepy village is marked by the large golden Buddha statue and prominent prayers written on the mountains. The village has a couple of good schools that attract students from all across Spiti. Our hotel, Spiti Sarai, was located a few meters away from the village homes just across Spiti river with sprawling open spaces. Initially we were disappointed about being 5 Km away from Kaza, but it turned out to be just as we would have wanted. We did things that we love to do, which wouldn’t have happened had we stayed at Kaza.
Walked in the open fields while watching the sun set behind the mountains; climbed up the long flight of stairs painted in white across the road to take a look at the Chorten up in the mountain but discovered a temple instead; clambered up the mountain looking for the cave with a magnetic rock that the hotel bell boy had talked about but took a wrong turn and ended up on a cliff overlooking the river on one side and the cave on the other and had to be satisfied with only a view of the cave from a distance. Most importantly, we spent a considerable time lazing on the banks of Spiti River.
Autumn Colours at Mane Village
The most notable thing about Mane was the vibrant Autumn colours in various shades of yellow and gold. Situated at an altitude of 2926 m, the village has a small Gompa that did not appeal much to us. Other than this, there is nothing much in this village. We spent most of our time here interacting with the village kids. Later, we got to know that there is a lake known as Sopona Lake, which is a 2-3 Km trek away from the village.
The Buddhist Mummy at Gue
The intriguing mummy at Gue had captivated my imagination right from the first time I had heard about it. After I landed in Spiti, I could no longer contain my curiosity and kept asking about it to everyone I met. Finally, I was at Gue and as I knelt in reverence, it was a moment of awe that no words can describe. The remarkably well preserved mummy in a sitting position with intact hair and nails left us astonished. That no chemicals are used, the natural mummification just left us marveling. At a distance of about 80 Km and a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border, Gue is the furthest village from Kaza. Situated at an altitude of around 3200 m, Gue is famous for this 500-600 year old naturally preserved mummy of a Lama that was discovered by the army after an old tomb containing the mummified body had opened up following the earthquake in 1975. The mummy is now kept in a separate chamber inside a glass casing just beside the village Gompa. Locals believe that the mummy is of Lama Sangha Tenzin, who had sacrificed his life to free the village from a menace of scorpions. They say when the Lama’s soul left his body there was a rainbow in the sky and the scorpions had disappeared. Carbon Dating has scientifically established the mummy to be of a 45 year old Lama from the last quarter of 15th century. The Lama apparently belonged to Gelugapa order who are practitioners of Zogchen, the highest form of meditation. This is the only Buddhist mummy in the world and also the only known naturally preserved mummy in India.
Apple Orchards & Mud Monastery at Tabo
The extraordinary Mud Monastery at Tabo took us by surprise as I had not heard/read about this before. Tabo is situated at an altitude of 3279 m. and the monastery dates back to 996 CE, the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape, when it was founded. The monastery, consisting of temples and Chortens, is completely made of Mud and is surrounded by tall mountains that supposedly have a number of caves carved into the cliff face that are used by the monks for meditation. That’s why Tabo Monastery is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’. We read about the caves in the description provided in the signboard but didn’t have the time to go see them. We got to know that the Dalai Lama considers Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest and has also expressed his desire to retire in this ancient monastery. He has also held Kalachakra ceremonies here in 1983 and 1996.
The same compound also has the new monastery, which is concrete and of modern architecture. We were fortunate to attend a prayer ritual that was happening at the new monastery when we were around. Tabo Gompa houses many ancient and priceless Buddhist manuscripts and is considered second in importance to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet.
Tabo also fascinated us with its apple orchards, which start off many miles before reaching the village and continue many miles beyond it. To top it all, the apple trees were covered with ripe red apples and it was with great difficulty that we controlled our desire to just go and pluck off a few. Even the monastery has a garden of apple trees with the tonnes of apples hanging from the trees.
The Quaint Villages of Kibber, Lhalung, & Chicham
We experienced the local culture through our homestays at Kibber and Lhalung village. The enriching experiences at the homestays demanded a separate post altogether. An important highlight worth mentioning here is catching a glimpse of the red-eyed fox on our way to Lhalung as it quickly passed by our car and went down the mountain.
While at Kibber, we went to visit the newly inaugurated bridge that connects Kibber to Chicham village – a bridge that took 17 years to complete. It is unnerving to think that before this bridge, people would use a trolley tied through a ropeway between the deep gorges at a drop of about 150 m. to go to Chicham. It’s not surprising that many people have lost their lives during this commute, which was the only mode of connectivity to Chicham.
Dhankar Gompa from a Distance
Dhankar village is famous for the 1000 year old Dhankar Gompa and the mesmerizing Dhankar lake, which can be reached only after a steep climb of about 3 Kms up the mountain. The quiet and solitude at the lake made all the climb totally worthwhile.
The Dhankar monastery is built on a high spur of the mountain overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Dhankar was the traditional capital of Spiti Valley and the monastery is like a fort that also served as a prison. Dhankar literally means fort on a cliff (Dhan: cliff, and Kar: fort). Most of the fort is in ruins now after the 1975 earthquake. A new Gompa has also been built but the old one is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore the fort and had to satisfy ourselves with the view from a distance. However, we were lucky to have spotted a few blue sheep grazing up in the mountain on our way to Dhankar. You can’t have it all…can you!
The Pristine Beauty of Pin Valley
Pin Valley mesmerized us with its gorgeous landscape. Pin River, with its majestic greenish-blue color runs throughout the length of this fascinating valley before merging with Spiti River. Pin also houses the ‘Pin Valley National Park’. We took a drive down the valley upto Mud village but did not have enough time to visit the National Park.
Our Pin Valley drive can be summed up as a sunny day with azure blue sky alongside the graceful and sinuous Pin River through the enchanting silence of miles and miles of isolation accompanied by stunning views of the mottled desert mountains.
We crossed several villages on the way of which Mikkim is worth mentioning as its population of only 30 amazed us. We also walked on a hanging bridge over the river and visited Kungri Gompa on the way. Kungri is the second oldest Gompa in the Lahaul and Spiti Valley and has the distinction of being the only monastery, which belongs to the Nyingmapa order of Buddhism.
Looking for Fossils at Langza
Situated at an altitude of 4400 m., Langza village is dominated by a large statue of Lord Buddha, overlooking the valley. Langza is also the place to find fossils of marine animals and plants, which is attributed to Spiti Valley being submerged in the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. We expected to see a few but got to know that they can be found only if we trek higher up in the mountains.
Seabuckthorn Tea at Komic
Situated at a towering height of 4587m, Komic’s distinguishing feature is that it is the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road. However, our memories of Komic is associated with Seabuckthorn tea as this was where we had tasted it for the first time. Seabuckthorn are orangish berries, the shrubs of which are scattered all over Spiti Valley. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin-C and due to their therapeutic properties are used in traditional medicines. The dried and crushed form make amazing organic tea that tastes like hot Fanta though we enjoyed eating them right off the plants too!
Posting Letters at Hikkim
Hikkim was super special – after all not everyday you get to post letters from the highest post office in the world. We sent post cards back home to our parents, which they are yet to receive and which is a surprise. Can’t wait to see their reactions. We also posted cards to our own addresses in the city and which have already arrived. At an altitude of 4440 m., Hikkim also has the highest polling booth in India. While driving back from Hikkim, we got lucky again and this time witnessed two Ibexes looking down at us from the mountain top.
Praying at Kee Monastery [or Key Monastery]
Picturesquely perched on a hilltop, Kee Monastery appears like a fortress with its haphazardly stacked rooms and temples. At an altitude of 4,116 m., the over 1000-year-old monastery is the oldest training center for Lamas and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Besides invaders, it has also dealt with natural calamities of fire and earthquake. It has a vast collection of ancient murals, books and centuries old thangkas. We had expected to see a flurry of activities in the monastery with Lamas of all age groups busily carrying out their daily activities. None of that happened and the monastery wore a barren look as all the Lamas had gone over to Kaza that day for attending a ceremony. Also, we had plans of spending a night at the monastery but our amazing homestay experience resulted in swapping it with another homestay instead. So, we explored the monastery, prayed, and chatted with the only Lama available and headed for Gette.
Tying Prayer Flags at Gette
Dozens of prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind tied around an old Chorten on a hilltop is what greeted us at Gette. Surrounded by tall mountains and situated at a height of 4270m., it is also a viewpoint for Kee monastery that lies on one side of the valley. On the other side is the Gette village, which has only 2-3 houses. There was nobody other than us at Gette at that point of time and we spent our time leisurely tying prayer flags and clicking selfies while reveling with the wind in our hairs.
Kunzum La and Chandrataal
It was afternoon and the wind was blowing strong when we reached Kunzum La on our way to Spiti. The prayer flags were fluttering and the landscape around it breathtaking. Situated at an altitude of 4,590 m. Kumzum La is the gateway to Spiti being the only motorable route that connects Kullu valley and Lahaul Valley with Spiti Valley. It also offers a spectacular view of Bara-Sigri, the second the longest glacier in the world. A series of Chortens and prayers written on flat stones are prominently displayed. All vehicles passing by this route stop here and pay respect to Kunzum Devi. The stunning Chandrataal is at a distance of 9.5 Km from Kumzum La and the more I say about Chandrataal the less it is and definitely demands a separate post.
Spiti Valley feels like a dream. The surreal landscapes that remain cut-off by snow from the rest of the country for at least 7 months a year is a different world altogether and has completely enthralled me. I have already written so many posts on it but it still feels like I have so much more to share…..And now I can totally relate to Rudyard Kipling’s description of Spiti –
“At last entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here.”