India is known for its large population, but did you know that some of the most remote and least populated villages in the world are also found here?
The Himalayan Mountains need no introduction, but not many people know about the quiet, peaceful valleys in the Himalayas where you don't need to be a hardcore trekker to connect with nature or experience the tranquility and amazing hospitality of the natives who live in this rugged terrain.
The three Himalayan Valleys: Spiti, Pin and Kinnaur, located in the northern part of India in the Himachal Pradesh region, are a must visit before you die!
On a cold morning we woke at 5am sharp. Our driver Bitu, showed up on time and by 5:45am we packed up the car and we were eager to start our next adventure through the Himalayan valleys.
When we left Manali it was still dark outside, and the city was just waking up. Shortly after leaving we began climbing up some steep mountains. The views opened up and we could tell that this trip was going to be epic.
Everything seemed to be easy until the road started getting more winding and bumpy. Around this time I, (Marta) started to feel car sick. We had to stop for a short break for some fresh air and well, vomiting. My stomach was not ready for this. Luckily the nausea went away quickly. My body was able to adjust and the rest of the trip went without any stomach problems.
Rohtang Pass and pile of corpses
Before we left on this trip we'd heard that the roads in the Spiti Valley can be very dangerous. Sometimes the internet can make things more dramatic than they really are. The roads seemed fine to us and before we knew it, we'd passed the "scary" Rohtang Pass. However, we understood why this road remains closed in the winter. The road was narrow and at some points had huge cliffs on the side.
As long as you/or your driver is sober, doesn't speed, and the weather conditions are optimal this road is totally safe. If you are traveling by bus, you might want to close your eyes at some points. Having said that, we are well aware of the dangers when it rains or snows. Fatal landslides are notorious in this region so make sure to check the weather before heading out on your trip.
The pass is open May to October and after that if you are crazy enough, you can travel at your own risk. Hence the name Rohtang, which translates in english to "pile of corpses".
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: Make sure you bring a bandana or a face mask when you visit these valleys. Not only is the sun strong, but the roads are extremely dusty. Something to cover your face will make the trip much more enjoyable.
After a few hours of driving, everyone got a bit hungry. We stopped at a Dhaba (a roadside restaurant) in Chhatru for breakfast. We had Paratha (stuffed flatbread) served with pickles and Chai to drink.
Paratha is a breakfast staple in India. Parathas can be stuffed with veggies like potato, cauliflower or cheese and are usually served with curd and sour pickles. Our Indian friends laughed when we told them that in America we eat parathas with main dishes like dals and curries.
A few kilometers after Chatru we saw an official sign welcoming us to Spiti & Lahaul aka "the middle land".
Chandra Tal "Lake of the Moon"
In the afternoon we reached Chandra Tal Lake, located at 4,300 meters (14,100 ft) above sea level. At this point we started to feel small symptoms of altitude sickness: shortness of breath, tiredness, dizziness (it was definitely not from drinking), but we managed to go for a short walk to the lake, which was beautiful.
We almost camped near the lake but due to the altitude sickness, and the campground being short on supplies because it was closing the next day, we decided to move on. Our next option for accommodations was Losar.
Before we reached Losar there was another big pass to cross, the Kunzum Pass. This pass connects Kullu and Lahaul Valleys with the Spiti Valley.
After a long day of driving, we finally arrived in Losar. We could't see much of the town because it was already late and the power was out in the whole village. We ate a simple, warm meal and we were ready for bed. Since the power was still out, there was no hot water for a shower. That night we feel asleep to candle light under thick blankets, dreaming of hot water back home.
Waking up early was not easy but this was something that we had to get used to on this trip. Our room was warming up from the strong sunlight beaming through our windows. There was still no warm water due to the power outage that lasted the whole night. The cold shower woke us up fast.
Before we left we had a chance to enjoy the views in Losar. The town looked peaceful and beautiful in the morning. Frost was still on the ground and you could definitely feel winter approaching...
We were ready to leave by 8am, in order to reach the SDM office in Kaza before it closed. Kaza was our last chance where we could obtain the ILP (Inner Line Permit), which would allow us to enter the Spiti Valley.
As soon as we arrived in Kaza, we drove straight to the SDM office. Unlike in Shimla and Manali, the officers in Kaza easily issued us the "single person permit". We only had to pay 50 rupees each for processing our permit. After about 30 minutes we both left the office relieved, and happy to have our ILP permits in hand!
The Tipsy Gypsies Tip: All foreigners visiting the Spiti Valley are required to get the ILP (read Part 2).
In Kaza we just needed to find a hotel for one night. Despite being late in the season, almost all the guesthouses were either closed, booked or wanted too much money. Eventually we found a room for 1,200 rupees (after negotiation) at the "Snow White" hotel. The hotel had decent rooms, very slow wifi and some hot water. At this point we didn't need much to make us happy.
It was getting late and the temperatures were getting colder every day. This made us a little worried since we did not have proper winter clothing with us. The rooms were never heated. We had to layer on everything we owned and we always requested extra blankets.
Day 03: Kaza
In the morning we found out that the only gas station in town was out of fuel. We had enough gas to see the nearby monasteries but not enough to leave Kaza. We continued on with our plans.
Visiting Komic Village & Monastery
Komic Village, located at an altitude of 15,027 feet above sea level, is apparently the world's highest village that can be reached by car. There is only one bus that goes from Kaza to Komic twice a week, which is why you will see many villagers along the road trying to hitchhike. Since there were only three of us in a big car we picked up hitchers many times.
At Komic Monastery, there are two building structures. The old Tangyud Monastery, where the monks pray and a newer (pic above) monastery where the monks reside. Women are not allowed to enter the old monastery durning prayer time. We weren't sure exactly why and the monks weren't too keen on talking about it. We have been told that the majority monks practice celibacy, and some of them might even refuse to be in a presence of women, but apparently some of them have open relationships.
The Buddhist monks were very curious and friendly. We had the honor of sharing a few stories with this monk from Komic over hot Chai.
On the way back from Komic we stopped in Langza to see the statue of Lord Buddha overlooking the valley.
Day 04: Kaza
In the morning we tried again to buy gas at the station (or from the locals) but we had no luck. We were supposed to be on our way to the next town, but it looked like we would be in Kaza a little longer. Nobody expected the gas shortage to last this long.
Key Gompa was founded around the 11th century. It was destroyed multiple times by the Mongols in the 11th, 14th and 17th centuries. Then in the 1800's, it was raided and sacked by the Sikhs, followed by a fire and a severe earthquake years later. However, the monks did not give up easily and somehow they managed to rebuild the monastery. Impressive!
The "boxy" structure developed because of the many destructions this monastery suffered. The monks wanting to rebuild as fast as possible, built simple box like structures clustered together, which resulted in a unique, fort-like look.
On the way to this monastery, Nate and I talked about how much we admired the monks life-long dedication to Buddhism. We've contemplated what would it be like to be a young child, far away from home, living with "strangers" and devoting your entire life to God. To an outsider, the buddhist religion compared to other religions seemed superior... unscathed... incorruptible....
When we reached the top of the Key monastery, we met some other tourists from America. One of the guests started to chat with us and without telling him about our conversation, he flat out asked us if we thought that the Buddhist religion was better than others, to which we shrugged our shoulders implying a "maybe/yes". It felt like he just either overheard our private talk or he was reading our minds. Since I was raised Catholic, I pointed out problems with the church: the political power, pedophilia, bigotry to name just the few, to which the man said that it does in fact happen in buddhism as well. He raised some interesting points about the Dalai Lama, probably the most famous buddhist teacher of our time, being a very rich man. Many people criticize the Dalai Lama for being a celebrity and profiting from the religion and not being the most honest man. What was more interesting, is this conversation happened in front of the head monk who gave us a tour of the monastery, who didn't seem to mind what this man was telling us. The man himself was a follower of buddhism, but it was refreshing to hear him admit that sometimes things aren't what they seem, and that it's good to question not only what we don't know, but what we think we already knew.
When we were leaving we looked round the monastery with a new perspective. This time we saw many villagers working hard on a new addition with a private room for the Dalai Lama. They were carrying and moving massive, heavy rocks with primitive machinery. These men, women and very young children, as poor as they were, volunteered their time to improve these old structures for no money. I would think that with all the donations these monasteries receive they could afford to pay them even a measly salary...
We left the monastery with more questions than answers. I guess that is the point of traveling; that we learn from others, experience new perspectives and be reminded that the world is not black and white, but also many shades of grey between. We still have enormous respect for buddhism and many it's followers. But it was refreshing to be made aware of the things you don't hear about as often.
From the Key Monastery we also visited the town of Kibber. On the way we saw the highest bridge in India being built by men and women. These people had no harness on them while they were working! They were probably were paid but defnitelly not enought for the type of work they were doing.
Before there were bridges, the way to cross the huge valleys was by basket. People, as well as animals and goods were transported this way. Somebody needed to be waiting and willing to pull the rope on the other side of the hill. This system still exists in many areas where roads and bridges have not been built.
The picture above is a close up and it might not look so bad, but the drop was huge. You defintely needed to have some strong nerves to use this for of transportation.
We drove back to Kaza to refill our tank and bellies!
While our driver waited in line at the gas station, we tried a small local food joint. This place was run by a cute little lady and her husband. We tried the veggie chow main, thupka soup and momos. It was all delicious!
Chinese food in India is infused with tibetan and indian spices, which gives it a unique taste. It's hot and flavorful.
After lunch we found out that the gas wouldn't arrive until the next morning. We were forced to stay yet another night in Kaza.
Day 05: Kaza to Mudh
Our driver Bitu, had been waiting at the gas station since 6am. After many hours of anxiously waiting, our driver finally returned with great news. The tank was full! We enjoyed our time in Kaza but were ready to drive to the next town, Mudh.
Arriving in Mudh was like love at first sight. The air was cold but the sun was shining. In the dusty valley, already covered by the shadows, we saw and heard yaks being rounded up by the villagers.
Later we found out that a big festival was going to take place the next day. The Lama of the region, for the first time in probably more than 50 years, was going to visit Mudh and we were there to witness it!
The whole village seemed to be doing something to help with the preparations for the next day. Cooking, cleaning, decorating the town and washing the animals. We were so excited about what we were going to see the next day!
Day 06: Arrival of the Lama
In the morning, the whole village woke up early for the Lama's arrival. The ladies had been cooking meals for the entire town, the yaks and horses were now decorated and the villagers wore their best clothes. This was the the first time these villagers were able to meet the Lama, but somehow they knew exactly what to do. It's like they prepared for this moment their whole life.
Women and men in traditional outfits awaiting the Lama's arrival.
Around noon, the Lama and his entourage finally arrived in Mudh. There was a big crowd of people surrounding him. He proceeded to a special room, where only the most elite were able to accompany him.
Some etiquette that we learned while taking pictures of the Lama was that we couldn't stand higher that him and technically weren't allow to take pictures of him. He had his official photographer and a camera man and only they had the privilege of capturing the young, 27 year old Lama's image.
The people from Mudh brought offerings in the form of food and money. There was also a "shaman" in a costume, who ran down the street, chanting and huffing and puffing to scare away evil spirits. At least, that is what our interpretation of it was.
Shortly after the Lamas arrival we were invited to join the rest for a communal meal. We had never felt so included and welcomed, especially for something we knew so little about. An enormous thank you to the village of Mudh!
Day 07: Mudh to Tabo
Still overwhelmed with the feeling of what we had witnessed the day before, we left Mudh broken hearted. We hugged and thanked our lovely hosts from Tara's Homestay! They were amazing to us! Not only this lady saved my ear from a piercing infection, (story coming soon), but I would travel anywhere again to taste her homemade meals and chai around a hot stove!
On the way to Tabo, we stopped at another monastery to say a quick hello and have a chat with the monks.
Many people visit Spiti Valley in the summer, which we want to do in the future, but the colors of the fall are absolutely beautiful here.
Day 08, 09, 10: Tabo-Kalpa -Raksham
After spending a night in Tabo, we headed to Kalpa. This was our last night with our driver Bitu, who was going to leave us in Raksham with some new friends. We had a flexible schedule and we weren't in a rush to get back to Delhi.
Raksham is located in the Kinnaur Valley, a region known for the most delicious apples in India. This village is a perfect spot for bird-watching, bouldering and hiking. The terrain is very different from the dry and rocky Spiti and Pin Valley's. Raksham is surrounded by evergreen trees and massive rivers run through the valleys.
Besides the famous apples, try the fresh apricot oil that you can use for massages. Your skin will smell and feel amazing!
If you are staying in Raksham, you MUST visit Chitkul, another quaint village only a short drive away.
Day 11&12: Returning to Delhi
We spent the last 2 days with our friends in Narkanda, learning about birdwatching, but we preferred to do beer-watching. It was great to relax for 2 days before we got back to hectic Delhi for the biggest holiday in India, Diwali.
We are already planing to return to this region durning the summer with our tents and do some camping. Let us know if you have been to the Spiti Valley before and what was your experience was like. What must we do next time? Share your stories in the comments below!