I packed my bags for a road trip, still figuring out a perfect itinerary for Kinnaur Spiti, with little expectations and more of apprehensions. It had been raining quite heavily in the region I was heading off for, complete with landslide scares and more. So much so that friends were messaging me to ditch the trip for some time later. But then, I was waiting for the trip from past few months and the very thought of changing my travel plans was saddening me. So, yes, I packed my bags and left.
A very uneventful, boring and tiring 11 hours bus journey from Haridwar to Shimla was another dampener. Yet, I had one of the most amazing road trips of my life in Kinnaur and Spiti.
Every moment spent there is now a memory to cherish; like the drive through wild water streams that were freely flowing all across the roads, walking down the roads to get food while the rain poured, the silent prayers when the car wheels were more than half submerged in slush, plates of Rajma-Chawal becoming our main diet for days, running into a man who called himself an Everester, reading the numerous and humorous BRO (Border Roads Organisation) messages, watching stars grow into giant stars as the journey progressed, bumping into shy kids who would always approach with their left hand reaching for a handshake…
Ah… there is so much I can write here that you would stay reading for days. Thus, I have tried hard to contain the best of my experiences at Kinnaur and Spiti to a list. Still, it’s one of the longest posts I have written in months.
1) Witnessing the Dev Milan Ceremony with the wonderful womenfolk of Sangla, Kinnaur
I reached Sangla on an afternoon that narrowly escaped getting marred by heavy rains. Still, it was so foggy that my wish to get the first glimpse of the astounding views that Sangla offers was unfulfilled. With nothing specific in mind, we explored the tiny hamlet of Sangla. Picking a small trail, we reached the tiny yet gorgeous Kamru Fort, built mainly of rocks and wood.
Strolling around, we reached the quite ancient Badrinath Temple, where we ran into dozens of Kinnauri women. Dressed in their traditional attire, complete with the green caps that they wear as a gesture of respect for Himachal Pradesh’s ex CM Virbhadra Singh, lovingly called Rajaji for his connection with the royal family of the state. Drum beats could be heard in the distance, as we too flopped down on the rock cut stairs of the temple to watch the ritual.
It was a fascinating sight, locals gathering to welcome their deity, some carrying his palanquin. And then, they danced, the Kinnauri Naati dance.
But the best of all was when I chatted away with the women, who welcomed me as one of their own, sharing anecdotes, stories of the deity, infrastructure or the lack of it in the region, their kids, and even weather updates. The best of it though was the advice that we should leave before it gets dark, as the men when drunk get boisterous! What charming people.
And yes, I did leave before it got too dark to scare me away.
2) My first sighting of Kinner Kailash at Kalpa, Kinnaur
Skies were a cobalt blue as I neared Kalpa. There were a few but thick cloud waves dancing in the high Himalayan wind and somewhere in my mind I was scared of missing a view of the majestic Kinner Kailash. A lovely hamlet, Kalpa is one of the best places to watch the range. My eyes were keenly scouring the horizon for the clouds to part way. Monsoon clouds weren’t helping too as I was driving from amidst them from the gorgeously drenched Sangla and Chitkul.
Expecting the clouds to part, I loitered around the temple and the few bylanes that Kalpa has. Only to end up at this gorgeous little eatery that goes by the name of Jyoti Eating Corner. Some of the best fresh baked pancakes, a good cup of tea, momos (had my accidental first taste of mutton momos here :/), half a bottle of the astonishingly heady local apple wine and the very generous, ever-smiling lady who runs the eatery made it an experience to remember. Mutton momos included 🙁
Yet, as I relished the rest and headed outside after around an hour, my heart skipped a beat. That, for I saw shooting stars. A good number of those scurrying across the sky. Damn, what an evening. The next morning brought plenty of sunrise and this smashing view of the Kinner Kailash. After all that cloudy suspense.
3) Watching the Sun go down the hills at Tabo
I was so tired by the time we reached Tabo that I dozed off on the dining table after placing the order! So did my two friends. When the waiters arrived with the food, they found three guests sleeping so soundly that they had to wake us up. By the time we had our food, the high Sun had sobered and much of my fatigue was gone. Thus, I visited the Tabo Monastery. Built around 995 AD, this was one of the most well preserved monasteries I’ve ever visited. It’s one of the most unforgettable insight that you would ever have into Buddhism if it interests you.
After visiting the monastery, I took the short trail to the painted caves at Tabo. Though I couldn’t found any paintings in there, the tiny trek brought me amazing views of the whole of Tabo. I could see the grey waters of River Spiti, the shocking green fields amidst the brown barrens, and tiny houses, all painted in white and brown.
The landscape wore a very fascinating golden look for the dipping Sun had put a colored filter on everything. I sat on the edge of the tiny complex near the caves, feet dangling over, with the town sitting some hundreds of feet below my vantage point. I have never seen such beauteous landscapes; as for the experience, it was one of those days that make you feel lucky. Even when it was just for an evening.
4) The first glimpse of Chandratal or the Moon Lake!
Yay! I’m feeling cheerful even as I write this, remembering the time I had at Chandratal. A high altitude lake (14,100 ft), Chandratal has been on wishlist since forever. Dumping my bags at the campsite, I dashed towards the trail that leads to it. Blue, yes it really is blue (!), waters rippling in the middle of the high Himalayas was something that I cannot explain in words that are apt enough. As we drove from Kaza for Chandratal, I was visualising how the lake would look for real.
And damn, it surpassed my expectations. This was no photoshop wonder.
And in all that glee of mine, I jumped in its numbingly cold water. 10 minutes of splashing in Chandratal (tip – don’t do it!) were enough to make me chatter my teeth for an hour. Back at the camp, I kept fumbling for more woolens! Even cooked a chapati at the camp kitchen to be somewhere near the wood fire! Still, it was one of my best experiences at Spiti.
5) Watching rain “happen” at Dhankar Lake
I write “happen” because rain has never looked like a phenomenon to me before that afternoon at Dhankar Lake, Spiti. AMS had hit me hard while I was hiking up to the Dhankar Lake. Though the trek was easy both in terms of terrain as well the distance (around 5 km from Dhankar Village), I was gasping for breath as the oxygen content in the air was quite low.
The harsh Sun that was glaring down initially had given way to high-speed winds. So much so that I had to cover my ears to escape the almost deafening sound. Even then, I wasn’t expecting rains, for Spiti is a cold desert that rarely sees rain.
The huge rain drops that bombed me on the way up were thankfully carried away by the high speed winds. Yet, the lake water was turbulent and I could see the most fascinating phenomenon of rain formation across the lake. Blimey, it looked like a dream. Or a 4D National Geographic show, airing on the hugest TV that you can ever imagine. I’m not forgetting this scene ever in my life. Lucky me 🙂
6) Visiting Dhankar Monastery, cited as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monument Funds
The first glimpse of Dhankar Monastery made me think of just one word – Wow. More than the awe-striking beauty and surrealism of this sight, the fact that it’s an endangered site makes visiting it more of a must.
Though efforts are on to aid its conservation, the monastery is nearing a break down. More so because of its location. Built more like a fort, Dhankar Monastery stands true to its name, for Dhang means cliff while Kar stands for fort.
A 5 km trail from here leads you to Dhankar Lake, nestled from all sides by the high Himalayas.
7) Traversing across some of the most treacherous roads in the world!
Oh yes, some of the best experiences of a Kinnaur Spiti trip unfold on the roads here. It’s a very different thrill from any other road trip, for you have boards by roadside that read “You’re travelling on world’s most treacherous road”!
Blimey that, for there are no roads to be found on some of the stretches. As you leave Kinnaur and enter Spiti, the roads are mostly rocks and soil.
this is how the much-dreaded road stretch looks at Malling Nallah
Forget the word “metalled” here. You have a back-breaking journey, but without any complains for the landscapes around bring a surprise at every turn. You would love this trip even as the roads bring shooting stones, wildly-flowing water streams that flow right across the road, landslides that might happen anytime.
8) When I saw Cham Dance, all by sheer luck!
It was one afternoon, when I was loitering around Dhankar Monastery, that I heard somebody talk of an annual Buddhist ritual to be performed at Ki Monastery the next day. Hearing that, we scooted off and drove off to Kaza, letting go of our initial plan to stay at Dhankar for the day. Well, you don’t get to be a part of an annual ritual in the high Himalayan monasteries everyday. A motley group of people, consisting of monks, local villagers and a lot of foreigners made for the audience at the ritual. And then, it started, the Cham Dance.
Masked dancers, dancing to the tunes of traditional Tibetan instruments, took the centre stage at the govt school ground by the side of Ki Monastery. It looked like a scene straight out of some carnival, complete with hawkers selling food near the monastery. As they said, performing or being a part of this ritual keeps away ill luck. I hope!
Wondering what route I took for Kinnaur Spiti? Itinerary for Kinnaur and Spiti coming soon.
PS – Most of the rocky stretches of the roads in this region are still in various phases of construction. Thus, rocks are being cut through and blasted. As fascinating as it might sound, India is the only country in the world to use dynamite blasting to pave roads.
Raise your voice against the irreparable damage that’s being done to the Himalayan regions across the country. Spread the word.
Say no when you still can.