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Crossing the Himalayas: From Leh To Kathmandu

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The 28-year-old French adventurer Eliott Schonfeld, winner of the GEO Adventure contest, crossed the Himalayan chains on foot and on horseback from August to December 2017. After four and a half months of trudging in trans-Himalaya, he gradually got rid of the modern comforts & paraphernalia. The aim was to replace the products of modern civilization with their natural alternatives adopted by the local communities of the Himalayas.

Drinking water from a mountain stream in Ladakhb
A return to nature. Drinking water from a mountain stream in Ladakh

My body is tossed in all directions as Rinpoche, a horse farm owner, maneuvers his 4×4 on the broken stone roads that crisscross the Ladakh range. My heart and head hurt like being caught in a vice. Going from Paris(with an elevation of 35 m) to the 3,500 meters of average altitude of this high desert plateau, it takes time and I think I am not yet acclimatized. But for now, it is not vertigo that worries me than the new world around me. 

August 10: Choosing The Horse in Ladakh 

I spent a few days in Leh, the regional capital of Ladakh Union Territory of India, to find someone to sell me a horse. I witnessed the Trans-Himalayan mountains up close.

Changthang Plains of Ladakh
Changthang Plains of Ladakh
A lady from Changthang plateau of Ladakh
A lady from Changthang plateau of Ladakh
A child playing with his father in Ladakh
A child playing with his father in Ladakh
Tso-Moriri Lake
Tso-Moriri Lake in Changthang plains of Ladakh
Stok village of Ladakh
The village at the end of the road. Stok village of Ladakh.
Ladakh is a magnificent high altitude cold desert… but very sparsely populated. Before clicking this image, I walked for weeks without meeting a single soul. Then, seeing the village of Stok – the green patch at the end of the gentle slope – I felt immensely joyful.

They are no longer on the horizon, but vertically, erected like a tangible wall, and too high, much too high. Why did I decide to tackle such monsters? For me, who had spent all my life at sea level should have started with the lower altitudes. After two hours of driving and deep contemplation, we reached the horse farm. I see a tent in the shape of a teepee, and all around, thirty horses grazing peacefully.

Ladakhi horse standing on meadows
My Ladakhi horse

The introductions were brief & the farm owner offered me a horse. The horse was white & not very big. Rinpoche helped me to saddle the horse, gave me some pieces of advice and the animal’s rope, then left me to my fate. 

In front of me, around 2,000 kilometers of trail awaits me to Nepal. I calculated that it would take me five months to get through it. Before I start, I decide to baptize my steed. He needs a name that is familiar & comforting in the midst of the unknown universe that I am about to explore. It’s decided, his name will be Robert. My Ladakhi horse would be called Robert.

Drinking water straight from a river in Ladakh
Drinking water straight from a river in Ladakh. We walk about 8 hours a day, so we are often thirsty.

September 4: Robert’s fall in Spiti valley

We had been progressing on high altitude trails for a month now. Robert never gave up. As for me, I ended up taking the plunge and felt at ease when we reached Spiti valley, a cold mountain desert in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the most perilous mountains since the beginning of the expedition. 

Base of Parang-La pass
Climbing towards Parang-La pass. I arrived at the base of the Parang La pass on the afternoon of August 28, 2017. In front of me was 5,600 meters, a high rock giant. I would have preferred to start the ascent after a good night’s sleep. Problem: It was impossible some grass at the base which was essential to allow Robert to sustain himself. So we had to climb, on sheets of ice melting. After skidding and sliding for four hours, we finally arrived safely at the top of the pass.
Climbing Parang-La pass
Climbing Parang-La pass with my horse
My horse reveling in abundant tufts of grass in Spiti valley
Robert reveling in abundant tufts of grass after descending from Parang-La pass. After descending from the top of the Parang La pass, Robert was able to revel in abundant tufts of grass, and I admired the breathtaking view. I was lost on the roof of the world. There was an ideal place to pitch the tent and get a good night’s sleep. The crossing of the Parang La pass also marked the end of Ladakh and entry into the state of Himachal Pradesh.

I crossed the Manirang pass(also spelled as Manerang) on one fine morning, a pass at an elevation of 5,590 meters. The landslides on this route are normal, and you have to remain focussed on each step. Four hours walking continuously… and an obstacle blocked our path — a gigantic rock was in the middle of the descending route. To move ahead, there was no choice except to climb over it.

We ventured on the rock surface and progressed a few meters when suddenly the rope that connects me to the horse yanks me back. Robert had lost his footing, he was sliding down the slope. Panicked, he struggles to get up, but that only accelerated his fall. My heart was racing. At this rate, it would fall permanently into the abyss and crash 20 meters below. I pulled the rope with all my might, but to no avail, I had to let go of the fear of being dragged myself into the void. 

But a miracle happened: Robert landed on a narrow ledge from where he can no longer move or risk falling into a deep gorge. I tried everything possible to get it out of there but with my 60 kilos weight did not make the cut. There was only one thing to do: descend to the last village I encountered, 20 kilometers before, and 1,000 meters of elevation drop. 

I reached there at night, exhausted and in tears. Watching me in distress, the villagers decided to organize a rescue mission. Two men, Tanzin and Karma, offered to accompany me with ropes.

After an exhausting return trip, we left for six hours of night climb. We arrived at the accident site, at 2am, I pointed my flashlight on the ledge, I scanned the light beam down the slope, expecting the worst. Robert was there, unharmed. He quietly turned his head towards me, with an air that seems to say: “But what have you done for the past ten hours?”

Bewildered, released from an immense weight, I exploded with laughter and went to hug my trek partner. I’ll never know how he got out of there alone, getting away with a few scratches. As for me, I had walked 60 kilometers, 20 hours straight, with 3,500 meters of cumulative elevation… for nothing! Whatever. Considering the relief I felt, it was worth it.

September 27: Waking Up From Oblivion In Kinnaur

But what took me? How can I be so stupid? I’m going to cross the roof of the world and I’m not carrying a pair of gloves… As I climb the frozen mountain range(Kinnaur Kailash range) that separates me from the pass of Charang-Chitkul pass or Charang La, I curse myself out loud. I’m paying for being thick-skinned. Because I was using my bare hands to climb, I no longer felt my fingers. Of course, I did not take crampons or ice axes either and I had to kick in the ice to create required traction.

Glued against the wall, I assessed my progress. It took me some hours to climb just 200 meters from a vertically packed ice slope. I told myself that I did well to sell my little Robert to a horse breeder a few days earlier. No matter how well he showed his talent as a tightrope walker, he could never have climbed such a thing. I finally reached my goal, at 5,300 meters above sea level, I was at Charang-La pass. 

Climbing the steep Charang-Chitkul pass
Climbing the steep Charang-La pass

As I caught my breath, I observed the thick layer of snow covering the ground. I was not the only one to have successfully climbed that day. Pugmarks of a snow leopard, all fresh, dotted the ridge before disappearing on the other side. Amazed, I touched the imprints of paws’ of the grey ghost, so beautiful, so pure. Then I scanned the surroundings, hoping to catch a glimpse— not a single soul found in sight. I hoped I didn’t scare him off. The Himalayan grey ghost lurks, I can feel it. Even invisible, he accompanies me. 

Pugmarks of a snow leopard near Charang-Chitkul pass
Pugmarks of a snow leopard near Charang-La pass

October 1, 2017: Going Incognito in Baspa valley

I had been walking very close to the Indo-Tibetan border for three weeks now. I had absolutely no permission to venture in these troubled terrains. Because of the territorial conflicts between India and China, the region is tightly controlled. Tourists and Indians are required to obtain permits to do any activity on the border areas. Traveling alone is prohibited. 

I managed to sneak through the last military posts by walking during the night. It seemed to be playing a cat and mouse game with the Indian army patrols. More than the detours that I was forced to make, the anxiety of getting caught made every step more painful.

According to my maps and the villagers of Chitkul, the route is restricted up to the Lamkhaga pass (5,280 meters).  After crossing Lamkhaga pass, I would be back in the free zone. The weather was perfect, the sky was of a serene azure color. I was walking at a leisurely pace, at a distance, I saw two silhouettes. Two trekkers, bags on their backs, were heading in my direction.

As I was about to greet them, my head spun. They were not trekkers, but soldiers. They were not two, others were behind them. I ran towards a big boulder. A minute later, I heard the sounds of the boots of the first patrolmen, around 20 meters from me, in camouflage dress, weapons on the back. It was the Indian Tibetan Border Police(ITBP), the sentinel of the Himalayas. 

I curled up as much as possible in my hiding place. Getting caught here would be fatal, I was aware of it. I was trekking without due authorization, with a satellite phone and a camera. I could never make them swallow that I was unaware of the restricted area. I would have ended up in prison. I was trying to calm down. The march of the soldiers continued. Twenty or thirty men had already passed.  When will it stop, damn it? It was like the whole army of the subcontinent was hidden in these mountains.

After a while, silence fell. I stood still for another fifteen minutes, then got out of my hole. At a distance, the Indian army men went up the valley and trekked to the exact place where I had planned to pitch my tent. I realized that this situation, which could have turned serious, has become a godsend for me — the army men had mapped a track in the deep snow, which made my ascent infinitely easier. One soldier even dropped food just before the summit: caramels & a packet of noodles. The army mend does it to lighten the load and use it on their return journey. 

Summit of the Lamkhaga pass(5280m)
Summit of the Lamkhaga pass(5280m). The pass forms a drainage divide between the Baspa valley of Kinnaur & the Harsil valley of Uttarakhand.
snowfields below Lamkhaga pass
Immaculate beauty of Lamkhaga snowfields. Jalandhari Gad glacier of Harsil valley. This soft white coat is not only pleasant for the eyes, it marked for my a return into the unrestricted zone. For several weeks, I had been traveling along the Indo-Tibetan border. An area prohibited to tourists unless accompanied by a permit authorized by the Indian government. From now on, our adventurer will no longer need to play hide and seek with the military patrols of the region. Phew!
A nomadic man near Harsil village.
A nomadic man I met near Harsil. I met this Indian nomad as I was walking towards the village of Harsil, in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Oddly, there was only this gentleman and his son, I do not know where the rest of his family was.
Himalayan goats near Harsil
Himalayan goats near Harsil. These are the biggest goats I had ever seen! This herd of extraordinary herbivores belonging to the Indian nomad, I decided to help him milk them. A nice way to thank him for his hospitality.

October 20, 2017: Paradise found in Nepal  

On my raft, I assume myself for Tarzan. The langurs &  the white and black monkeys that populate the jungles of the middle Himalayas, jump from tree to tree while I raft on the Mahakali, river marking the border between India and Nepal. 

Rafting in turquoise waters of Mahakali River
Rafting in Mahakali River. After the high peaks, the rapids. I traveled 200 kilometers on the Mahakali River. A trip made on a raft which I built himself using pieces of wood and some tubes.

I started my descent a week ago, letting myself be carried by the currents. I still had 200 kilometers to sail to Banbassa, the Nepalese border post. I finally landed in Nepal on a riverbank.  I started my exploration deep into the forest, where I came across natural pools, large holes in the polished rock filled with turquoise water, and linked together by the pearled necklace of the waterfalls. Paradise, I tell you.

Turquoise waters of Mahakali river
Turquoise waters of Mahakali river
 Sun rises over the Nepalese jungle near the Makhali river
The sun rises over the Nepalese jungle near the Makhali river

I loved to explore, like a tracker, for the traces of wildlife that swarmed around me. Here, a wavy line on the ground indicated the passage of a snake. There, handprints, tiny feet: probably a bunch of macaques. Farther on, between the trunks, the gigantic web of a Nephila Pilipes, a spider with long legs, capable of capturing small bats in its nets. 

Nothing makes me happier than blending in such wilderness. I certainly feel very small, vulnerable amidst nature. But the feeling of this insignificance, instead of frightening me, releases me. It teaches me not to make humans the measure of everything anymore.

Rafting in Mahakali river of Nepal
Rafting in Mahakali river of Nepal
A raft on Mahakali river banks
The Naked Explorer & his raft on Mahakali river banks. It was the simplest device that went down the Mahakali river, stopping regularly on deserted beaches. 
Perfect places to pitch the tent and observe the traces of monkeys … or tigers!
Natural pools in Nepal
Natural pools

What terrifies me would be an entirely “civilized” world, where the city, the road, and the cement would have thrown their grip on everything. And where a man would only meet himself. That’s what I was thinking, lying on a bed of palm leaves, by the fire. A string of green dots lit up in the warm air. The fireflies had started their ballet of stars, while hundreds of little beings, carpeted in the trees, were singing the big night concert. That evening, I slept well.

November 10, 2017: Meeting the people of Rautes: The Last Nomadic tribe of Nepal 

Before I started this expedition, I had a dream: to meet the Rautes. This nomadic tribe, whose name means “kings of the forest”, lives in the remote jungles of western Nepal. These are hunter-gatherers who track down the monkey and feed on wild fruits and tubers. 

After ten days of research & miles & miles going around in circles, I was on the verge of giving up when luck struck me. From the top of the hill that I had just climbed, there was indeed one of their encampments that I discovered at the bottom of the valley. Shelters, made of branches and foliage. Under one of them, a man was cleaning peppers. A woman came back from the forest with some trunks under her arm, and a  teenager who was cutting something out of a large piece of wood.

Children of Raute tribe bathing & playing by a stream
Children of Raute tribe bathing & playing by a stream

The children, who were playing in the river, finally noticed my presence. Intrigued – I must have appeared to them as an extraterrestrial – they surrounded me. It provoked the adults, who looked suspicious and started talking. They were very small, dressed in a light dress that revealed parts of their body. They finally lead me to the royal tent – because the Routes have kings. A man even more naked than the others came out and stared at me straight in the eyes. I greeted him in a solemn way, then shook his hand, impressed. It is the first time that I shake the hand of a king. It is also the first time that I have seen royal testicles. What a day!

Children of Raute tribe of Nepal
Innocent children of Raute tribe of Nepal
A Raute tribe couple harvesting the wheat crop
A tribe couple harvesting the wheat crop. These two villagers I met near the Rautes camp were harvesting wheat without machines, they use the oxen to crush it, and the wind to separate the grain from the chaff.
Raute tribes' camps
Raute tribes’ camps
An old Route tribe man with a child
An old Route tribe man

December 6, 2017: The Final Offload

I left the wood and stone hut that I built for the night and extinguished the brazier ignited by friction. Handmade bag on the back, goat skin on the shoulders, the bamboo fire starter, on one hand, I feel metamorphosed. I had set myself a challenge: replace all of my Western things with their natural counterparts. Not only did I manage to take it up, but in addition, I absolutely did not have the impression that it is limiting. On the contrary, I felt more free, independent. I learned to settle for the basic & minimum, to build what I needed to survive.

Terraced fields of wheat in Nepal
Terraced fields of wheat in Nepal. Terracing allows the Nepalese to practice agriculture on the steep slopes of the mountains.
A Nepali lady & her wooden pipe.
A Nepali lady & her wooden pipe. In this photo, it is not Captain Haddock, but a Nepali woman. I met her in the Dailekh district, in the western region of the country. The venerable lady was taking a break to smoke tobacco packed in an artisanal pipe.

If I had been told a few years ago that I would be able to manage on my own in nature (and what nature!), I would not have believed it. After three days of a final ascent through the rocky peaks of the Dolpo region, in northern Nepal, I finally reached the Phoksundo

Dolpo Shey Phoksundo lake of Nepal
Dolpo Shey Phoksundo lake of Nepal

Phoksundo is the most beautiful lake I have ever seen: an aquamarine crescent moon set like a relic in the galaxy of the Himalayan mountains. I sat in front of this splendor and allowed myself all the time it takes to soak up this moment. I felt good and would have gladly stayed there for days to meditate … if only I could. But the first snowflakes began to fall. Winter was coming. I was thinking about going back, going back to college, and going on with my life. Once again in Paris

Undulating ranges of the lower Himalayas of Nepal
Undulating ranges of the lower Himalayas of Nepal
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My solo trip to Spiti Valley in Winter

Home » Spiti valley

Better late than never. After multiple attempts to convince my parents, I finally completed my FIRST ever solo trip. Like every first thing, it was special.

So, I chose a special destination for this, SPITI Valley.

Yes, the most beautiful, serene, and one of the most exotic places in the world. Spiti Valley is one of the top-rated destinations in the Himalayas. Being a desert land, far away from the noise & bustle of city life, it provides an altogether different view of life.

But wait, aren’t the summers the best time to visit Spiti? Yes, they are. Most of the tourists visit Spiti during the months of May, June, July since the roads are covered with thick snow during the rest of the months. But as I said, it had to be special. And if you’ve ever been on a trip with me, then you’ll know that I like to visit places where there are fewer people 😅. Hence, Spiti valley in winter came out as the perfect destination for my solo backpacking trip. With the growing advent of social media especially Instagram, “SOLO trips” and “Travel bloggers” have become buzz words, but believe me people have been doing this for long, and it’s much more than some thousands of followers and hundreds of likes.

After getting the heads up from parents, I started figuring out logistics for the trip. Since Spiti is not advisable in winters, a lot of pre-planning was required. Quest started with me first approaching my all time guide, Prof. Goblin (remember him from the Kerala Travelogue 😜?). Prof. Goblin has been to Spiti thrice and visited last in February 2018. His advice came in handy for planning out what all needs to be there to fight the chilling winters in Spiti with the temperature going as low as -20°C. But that wasn’t enough, snowfall this year had been much more than last few years, hence it was necessary to check if roads were accessible or not. And at this time, the old scavenging skills came to help. I started searching social media for people who had recently visited Spiti. I was able to reach out to 4–5 people who confirmed that some of the roads were accessible while some were closed. That was great news and I finally breathed a sigh of relief. Though I had been trekking and roaming around mountains since 2013, the altitude and temperature of Spiti is much more extreme than all of my past experience and I was bit doubtful since I had been away from mountains for the last 1.5 years.

Planning For Winter Spiti Expedition

Other than most of pre-planning regarding the clothes, medikits, gear, and a brief outline of the route, I was going to keep rest of the trip un-planned. The only plan I had was to pick the bag and reach the farthest I can go and then return back. Keeping this in mind, I only booked the bus tickets from Delhi to Reckong Peo. Being in Hyderabad, I had to first fly to Delhi, from where my journey would begin.

Day -0

I flew back to my home in Delhi and damn, you could feel it in the air that you have landed in Delhi 😪. The city has been growing like anything over the past few years making it worse than before. But God knows why more people are still interested in moving to this city.

Day -1

The day started with me shopping around the stores of Decathlon for the stuff that was still missing from my backpack. Since my bus was in the night, I had plenty of time to buy things and pack my bag. There’s only one bus that runs from Delhi to Reckong Peo at 20:15hrs. It’s an ordinary HRTC bus so in case you are looking for comfort, then sorry, boss it is not for you 😛. The bus journey is around 575kms and takes around 19–20 hours depending on the conditions of roads. HRTC has a well-maintained network of buses across the Himachal and tickets for most of the long route buses can be booked via this link.
With every second slipping and hands of the clock ticking around, my excitement was growing to the next level. I was speculating a whole lot of things thinking about all that was going to get unveiled during the trip. It was 5 in the evening, and I made some final checks of my stuff, added batteries to my cam, and I was all set to leave.

I reached the bus stand well in time and had to wait for half an hour until the bus arrived. This bus was a bit different from the regular HRTC buses that I had traveled in. It was smaller in size, having only 29 seats. The roads in upper Himachal are quite small, narrow & have sharp turns, which makes it difficult to drive big buses. Hoping to get a great view, I had booked the window seat. After settling down my stuff, I met two guys who were also traveling to Reckong Peo, and they warned me of not visiting Spiti valley this time.

Shit, did I make the wrong decision? Was my first solo trip going to be the worst?

These thoughts came to my mind for a minute but then quickly went away since the people with whom I had talked were quite affirmative regarding the roads. With great expectations of tomorrow’s adventure in my mind, I had my dinner and tried getting some sleep on my bumpy ride.

Day – 2: Delhi to Reckong Peo

It was somewhere 5.30 in the morning and we reached Shimla. The easy half of the journey was done but the difficult one was yet to come. Though the highway from Delhi to Shimla is quite good yet I hardly got any sleep. But it was ok, the view of mountains along the roadside, the air of Himachal had refreshed me and made me nostalgic about my college days.

After stopping for half an hour at the Shimla bus stand, the bus started towards Reckong Peo. It was only a few minutes since we left the bus stand, and the driver stopped it. There was some problem with the bus, and it couldn’t go further 😥. Now we had to wait until the next bus came. This free time gave me the opportunity to interact with fellow passengers. It was during this time, I met Nikhilesh. And oh man, this guy is a hell lot of a traveler. Though he is a year younger than me but is way too elder in terms of confidence with which he has traveled to multiple places. He had done the Spiti-Leh circle way back in his first year and had recently visited SriLanka and Kashmir. And this time he was going to Kinnaur to witness the famous Holi festival of Sangla village. While I was still listening to his stories, another bus came and we boarded it.

The journey continued, the altitude increased, roads became narrower and the view kept on becoming more serene. I have spent most of the time-traveling in the regions of Parvati Valley but the Kinnaur region was altogether different. I am sometimes surprised by the fact that how can there be so much contrast in the regions of a single state. Hours passed and I was getting closer to my destination, but wait, it wasn’t going to be that simple. Just about an hour & a half away from Reckong Peo, we came across a roadblock. Huge loads of stones along with water was falling down the mountains and had blocked the complete road. The traffic on both sides of the road was struck and all we could do was to wait for it to stop. It was only after an hour, that it slowed down and JCB machines came to clear up the way.

5.30 in the evening and I was at Reckong Peo. As soon as I reached Peo, the exquisite view of Kinner Kailash was right there in front of view and I kept on staring it.

Sunlit Kinnaur Kailash peak and moon
Kinnaur Kailash peak(6050m) as seen from Reckong Peo. The shivling peak is behind the tree.

One of the main characteristics of high altitude villages in Himachal is that everything closes very soon and the town turns to almost dead by 8 p.m. So, whenever you are at such a place, figuring out a place to stay & eat should be your top priority. Though this wasn’t the case for me. While on the way, I & Nikhilesh had talked with Rohit (our host) via Couchsurfing and had got a place to stay. So, I used the rest of the time in enquiring about the next day bus to Kaza. I was hoping to get the tickets as well, but since the bus comes from Shimla, I could get the tickets only in the morning.

The bus to Kaza leaves at 7 a.m from Reckong Peo and in order to get a good seat one should reach the bus stand by 6 a.m. That meant that I had to wake up early the next day. After roaming around the streets for a while, I went to our place of stay where Rohit told us interesting stories about various places he had been to. And the day ended with the delicious hot dinner of Kinnauri chowmein and momos.

Day – 3 Reckong Peo – Tabo

In order to reach the bus stand by 6, I had set the alarm for 5 a.m but laziness overpowered me. Thinking that not many people will be traveling to Kaza in this season, I got a bit relaxed. The bus stand was 2kms away from our place of stay which gave me a good option for an early morning walk at 2300m.
But, I was wrong. By the time I reached the bus stand, all the seats were gone and the bus was totally packed. Now I had no choice rather than going the whole way standing. There was no point in getting disappointed since it was not going to help. So, I cheered myself up and stood by the pole near the engine area of the bus to enjoy the scenic beauty of the mountains.
Though my initial plan was to travel till Kaza and then explore the nearby villages. But the last night’s conversation with Rohit & Nikhilesh, made me change the plan. The bus usually takes 12 hrs or more (depending on the roads) to reach Kaza. That meant my whole day will go only on the bus. So, I changed the plan and decided to de-board at Tabo.
The whole route from Reckong Peo to Kaza is just magnificent. The roads, the valley, the mountains, it’s just amazing. At one point you are the bottom and at the other, you are the top of the mountains. Though we faced two roadblocks on the way, the PWD & BRO teams were quick enough in clearing out the routes and we were able to pass through them in half an hour.
The route from Reckong Peo goes via the villages of Spello, Pooh, Nako, Chango which falls in the Kinnaur district and the Sumdo village marks the beginning of the Spiti district. I didn’t take a pit-stop at Nako since the lake was totally frozen at that time. However, the bus did stop at Nako for half an hour which gave me some time to capture the air of the place. But in case you are visiting Spiti in summers, do take a moment to visit it.

Fun Fact: Nako was the name of my hostel in pre-final & final year at IIT Mandi

House of Nako village
Nako Village

11 kilometers from Sumdo, there’s a village called Gue, which is famous for India’s only Mummy of a Buddhist monk. It was excavated around 550 years ago and is a mystery in itself. Since Gue is a bit off-route from the usual Spiti route and the whole road is covered with heavy snow on both ends, it’s very difficult to get public transport to the village in this season. Excited by the stories, I had planned to visit the place in case I could get a lift but hard luck it didn’t happen.
After a journey of 10 hrs & 150km, I finally reached my destination for the day: Tabo. Often referred to as “Ajanta of Himalayas”, the village is famous for its 1000 years old monastery. The Tabo monastery is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as a national historic treasure of India.

Tabo Gompa(monastery) & Chorten.

Roaming across the streets of the village, I was trying to encapsulate the maximum beauty of the place. It was very different from what I had imagined and it reminded of the villages shown in the movie 3 Idiots.
The next task was to find out a place to stay. Locals on the bus had told me that the monastery has a guest house where one can stay at affordable rates. Unfortunately, they hadn’t started the services this year yet.

After chit-chatting with locals, I landed up at Namkha Homestay. Not many homestays are open during the winters, but luckily I was the only guest at Namkha for the day. The homestay is run by Mr. Bittu and his wife and is only a few meters away from the monastery. After settling up my stuff and having the warm tea, I went for a walk around the village and the nearby mountain & caves.

Inside Namkha homestay of Tabo
Inside Namkha Homestay

The day ended with dinner in the traditional kitchens of Spiti and chat with Mr. Bittu & his family. I got to learn about their lifestyles, culture, and experience of living in a place like Spiti. They also told me that a doctor was also going to visit their homestay in the night and will be going to Kaza the next day. This meant that I wasn’t the only one who will be searching for a lift in the morning 😅.

Day – 4 Hitchhiking from Tabo to Kaza

Though I am not used to sleeping early in the night, I slept around 9 last night. Consequence: I woke up before 5 in the morning 😝. It was still dark outside and I couldn’t do much. I waited for the light to come out and then went for another walk around the village. By the time I came back, everyone was up and I realized that some other guests had also come last night. I got the chance of interacting with them during breakfast. They were a group of 4 friends who had come all the way from Bangladesh to visit Spiti valley.
After talking with them for a while, I bid farewell to Mr. Bittu and his wife and left for the main road in search of a kind soul who could take me up to Kaza. The luck wasn’t bad that day. I had to wait for half an hour after which I found my ride. A shopkeeper from Tabo itself was going till Kaza to deliver some stuff and there was some vacant space in his pickup truck. It took us 90 minutes and I was in Kaza by 10.30 a.m. The whole route was totally different from what I had seen on the last day. There was snow, more snow and more snow on both the ends of the road. All the mountains were covered in thick snow.

Kaza in winter
Kaza

I spent some time roaming around the streets of Kaza. The streets were covered with snow as well. I did slip a couple of times but managed to maintain the balance 😅.


Most of the people in the Spiti valley are either Govt employees or self-employed in the business of homestays or taxi. This provides them the option of earning while staying in the village itself. Kaza is comparatively a big town and people from nearby villages come here for their daily work. Kaza houses the highest petrol pump in the world at an altitude of 3800m. The town is also the district capital of Spiti and is used as a pit stop by tourists since it has a large number of homestays and hotels. But I had something else in my mind.

Gypsy ride to Key monastery


Having wandered around the complete town, I decided to continue the journey and go towards the Key village & monastery. The hunt for asking about the rides started again. Had it been summers or sometime in the evening, I would have easily got some shared taxis or lift from local villagers but it didn’t happen. Most of the people working in govt offices return back to their homes by 4 -5 in the evening. I was alone and a personal taxi would have cost me a lot. It was somewhere around 12.30 in the noon. On locals’ advice, I went to the petrol pump and started asking from the vehicles going in the direction of Key monastery. Half an hour passed like that.

Driving car on icy roads of Spiti valley

The wait finally ended when 4×4 gypsy coming from the petrol pump stopped and asked me where I wanted to go. The guys were going till Kibber and agreed to drop me on the way near Kee Monastery (Kye Gompa). They run a trip planning company by the name of Aventurah and organize group trips in and around Spiti valley. They also have a homestay in Kaza, so in case you are planning a trip in summers, then you can DM them on their Facebook page.

They dropped me near the main road, from where I had to walk for about 2kms to reach the monastery. The weather had become clearer by then. The clouds were less dense and the sun was much brighter now. Covered by snow on all the ends, the monastery was looking stunning. The monastery has a great history of its own. It had been attacked by Mongols, Dogra army, Sikh army in the past and faced massive damage by an earthquake in 1975. But it stands still as the biggest monastery of the Spiti valley.

Key monastery gate covered in snow
Key monastery entrance

I spent a couple of hours exploring the whole monastery. Meditated for some time, picked up woods along with student monks and had warm Spitian/Tibetian butter tea. I also met some of my fellow passengers from the bus last day who had directly come to Kaza.
Having spent some quality time at the monastery, I decided to move further. Next up on my map was the Kibber village.

Kibber village and wildlife sanctuary

Kibber used to be the highest motorable village in the world till the time Komic & Hikkim got connected via the roads. As usual, I was dependent on the vehicles to get a lift. But, this time rather than waiting on the road, I started walking towards the village. Kibber is about 7kms away from Kee Monastery and guess what I didn’t get a single vehicle going in that direction 😛. A lot of cars did cross me but everyone was going back to Kaza. As a result, I had to walk all the way up and I ended up doing my highest altitude hike ever 😄

Distance: 6.8 km | Altitude change: 3860 m to 4120 m |Temperature: Around -10°C | Weather: Cloudy with snowfall.

This hike was an experience of its own. Initially, the elevation was quite flat and I was enjoying the view along the walk. But after 3kms, the elevation increased by 250 meters. There were about 10 hairpin bends on the road and thanks to my to fate, it started snowing as soon I entered this area. Now I had two choices, either to stop and get my rain cover out or to keep moving until I reach the village. I chose the latter 😅. After the long tiring hike of 2.5 hrs, I managed to reach Kibber alive. While on the way, a car driver had told me about the Namgyal homestay which was open these days and I headed directly towards it.
The architecture of the homestay was quite similar to the one I had stayed in Tabo. And just as last time, I was the only guest at their homestay 😅.

It had already been a long day, it was snowing outside and I was tired too. So, I avoided going out and decided to sit with the family. Now, this is the best part of traveling alone. Instead of having a conversation with your friends, you get a chance to interact with people who you don’t know. The people in Spiti are way too nice. They treat you like their own family members. The uncle & aunt at the Namgyal homestay were great hosts. Their stories were as good as the food they made.


Other than the famous Kibber monastery, Kibber is also known for its Snow Leopards. Kibber has a wildlife sanctuary that spans over an area of 2200 square kilometers. Wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, tourists from all over the world come to see the Snow Leopard in its natural habitat. Though they live near the mountain peaks, during the winters the come down in search of their prey(Ibex 🐑) which comes near the lake in search of the food. This gives an easy option of spotting Snow leopards. And this was the reason why I saw so many cars coming from Kibber to Kaza. But I didn’t have any plans of going and seeing the leopard. I had come to the mountains and I was already more than satisfied 😊

Day – 5

Just like the last day, I woke up early in the morning. The plan was to visit the famous Kibber-Chicham bridge in the morning and then leave for Kaza. At an altitude of it is Asia’s highest bridge. But God had different plans.

It had snowed heavily last night and roads were covered with 1-2 feet thick snow. Though the bridge was only 2kms from the village, snow would have covered the footsteps making it difficult to spot the way. I still decided to give it a shot. Uncle gave me a brief idea about the route and with my cam in my hand, I left the house. Since there is no mobile network in Spiti valley except that of BSNL, I had already downloaded Google maps offline for the worst.

The route was quite clear up to a point though it was covered with heavy snow. But after a point, I lost the way. I tried creating some way myself and ended up putting my foot in 3 feet deep snow. I wasn’t carrying any trekking poles which made it difficult to figure out the depth of snow. Moreover, there was no one around who could have helped me in finding the correct way. In the end, I surrendered to the situation & decided to return back to the village.

Snowy trail from Kibber to Chicham bridge
Kibber to Chicham bridge trail

After the early morning struggle with the snow, I was back at the homestay. Most of the families in the villages were clearing snow from rooftops. It was Holi that day but not many people were as excited about the festival as we are in Delhi and other north Indian states 😝. Though there was something more important for me to ponder on. Holi being a public holiday meant that local people will not be going to their offices i.e few chances of getting a ride back. I had to rely on the fellow tourists but since most of them travel in groups, there’s hardly any chance that they will have vacant seats in their cab. I also had the option of walking all the way back to Kaza, though covering 19km by foot would have taken away most of my day.
And then my hosts came to rescue. Uncle’s mother went to talk with a group of people who had come for filming Snow leopard and had been staying in the village for the last 8 days. The group was leaving for Langza. Though they were eight people along with the driver and had a lot of equipment, they agreed to take me along with them. Since they were going up till Langza and it was one of the villages on my checklist, I decided to accompany them till there instead of deboarding at Kaza. Thanks to my conversation starter deadlock, I couldn’t interact with them much 😓 . We reached Kaza around 10 a.m after which I had to de-board since someone else was going to join that group. During the way, I had made my mind to visit Langza but looked like it was not going to happen. I tried inquiring about shared taxis but no luck.
So I changed the plan and decided to visit Dhankar instead. Dhankar houses one of the five monasteries of Spiti valley. I sat near the bus stand with some locals basking in the sun who were also waiting for the cab to Dhankar. While I was still waiting at the bus stand, one of the guys from the group I had traveled in the morning came looking for me and asked me to follow him. He introduced me to his friends who came from Kalpa and were planning to go to Langza. They had some space in their car and were fine with me accompanying them. And they were going to return back the same day so the return was also not an issue. What could have been much better than that 😄?

I immediately picked up my backup and got into their car. Other than three new faces, there was one familiar face in the car. A girl from the morning group was there as well which I later got to know was a popular Instagrammer, Prakriti Varshney. I did get a bit of doubt since all of them were talking about visiting different places in Himachal, which is only possible in two cases: either you run a travel company or you are mad for traveling. But being low on confidence again, I was silent during the whole ride & didn’t talk with those guys 😓.

Buddha Statue at Langza

After a short journey, we reached the fossil village of Langza. The weather was much better than the last day. The sun was bright & clear and the cool breeze was flowing slowly. The view of Langza village with the tall statue of Buddha was looking heavenly. This was my favorite spot of the whole trip. There was a positive and soothing vibe at that place. Though the surrounding mountains were similar to yesterday, still there was something different about this place. I sat there for awhile enjoying the mesmerizing scenery until my mind came up with the idea of visiting Dhankar as well. The roads to Hikkim and Komic were totally blocked with snow and there was no way of reaching there. Dhankar was the only option that I was left with.

Since the folks with whom I had come were going to leave late, I decided to walk back to Kaza. Locals at Kaza had told me that there was a shortcut by which I could reach back in 2 hours instead of taking the 16kms road route. But just like Kibber, it had snowed here as well and villagers at Langza advised not going by the shortcut and I resorted back to the road route.
It had only been a few minutes since I left Langza, after which 2 traveler vans coming from the village stopped near me and offered me a ride till Kaza.
And the only thought that I came to my mind was:

Hey bhagwan, aaj itna meharbaan kaise 😄

I thanked those guys and hopped into their van. That was a group of people of varied ages from cities all across India who were on Winter Spiti Expedition with Spiti Holiday Adventure. Though the journey wasn’t that long, I tried interacting with some of the folks in the van. And with that group, I again met a popular Instagrammer: Shramona Poddar which I only realized after de-boarding the van 😝.

Serendipitous stop at Shichling


It was already 3 p.m by the time I reached back Kaza. The search for the next ride started again and this time it ended quite soon. A guy was going back to his village Mane with his family. The guy was going to drop me at Shichling from where Dhankar is about 8kms by road. We got late in leaving from Kaza since the guy got occupied with some stuff. It was 5 in the evening by the time I reached Shichling village. Getting the lift now was difficult. I waited for some time but it had started to get dark and chances of reaching Dhankar were also getting dim. I also had a thought of walking up to the road but that wasn’t going to help.

Evening at Shichling village
Chilling Shichling village

Disappointed and disheartened, I had to return back to Shichling. Shichling is not a popular village among the tourists, hence I was afraid of getting any homestays. Luckily I found the one and only guest house in the village. And guess what, I was the only guest this time as well 😄. But this time, the stay was bit different. Unlike other homestays where the kitchen was on the ground floor and room on the first floor, this time the room was in another building. Some sort of pooja was going on in their home, due to which the main space was occupied by monks.
I thought this would limit my interaction with the family but I was wrong. Uncle himself came to my room. Having already gone around the village after settling my stuff, I still had a lot of free time available. I had a long chat with Uncle about how their lifestyle evolved over the years and what all has been going around the valley over the past few years. The dinner that I had that day was probably the most delicious one from the whole trip.
Now, it was time to make the decision for tomorrow. On one hand, my mind was struck with the thought of visiting Dhankar and the other part was like let’s start the return journey and extend the trip to some more places. The fight finally ended and I decided to board the morning bus back to Reckong Peo. There’s only one bus that runs from Kaza to Reckong Peo. It leaves at 7.30 a.m from Kaza and reaches somewhere between 8.30–9 a.m at Shichling. So, in case you plan to board the bus, plan accordingly.

Day – 6 Dhankar monastery and return to Reckong Peo

My body had become habitual of waking up early over the past few days, and I was already awake by 5.30 a.m. Having nothing much to do, I was lying in the bed, revisiting the memories of the past few days. While I was lost in the thoughts, uncle came up with the tea. I quickly did the morning routine, had breakfast, bid farewell to the family and was out on the road in wait of the bus. It was already 9 and there was no sign of the bus. I had no choice rather than waiting. I pulled out my camera in search of capturing something new & different and look what I got.

Dhankar monastery

Though I wasn’t able to visit the village, I was able to feel its beauty while standing kilometers away from it. Thanks to God, my zoom lens and the weather that day 🙏. Another half an hour passed and there was no sign of the bus. While I was waiting, an uncle from the nearby house brought tea for me. Oh, Man, who does that for a stranger. Remember, I told you people of Spiti are too good. One can only expect such gestures in a place like Spiti.
After waiting for 2 hours, the bus finally arrived. There were not many people on the bus this time. I grabbed the window seat and went back to capture the charm of the mountains. On the way back, I decided to take a detour from the trip and make a visit to my college campus at Mandi. I checked with the bus stand at Reckong Peo about the direct bus to Mandi. There was a bus at 5.30 in the evening and the next bus was in the morning at 4.30. The journey from Reckong Peo to Mandi was going to take 14–15 hrs, so I was aiming to catch the evening bus. But that didn’t happen.
My bus from Kaza to Reckong Peo got punctured halfway and its compressor pipe started leaking. Salute to our driver who somehow managed to drive the bus until we reached Pooh. It took an hour for the bus to get repaired after which continued our journey back to Peo. It was already 6.30 by the time I reached back Reckong Peo. The evening bus was already gone and I had no choice rather than staying up in the hotel overnight and catching up on the morning bus. I got a room in a hotel near to the bus stand and had the Kinnauri chowmein for the one last time.