Better late than never. After multiple attempts to convince my parents, I finally completed my FIRST ever solo trip to Spiti valley in frigid winters. 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 😓.
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.
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.
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.