I’m cramped in the back seat of a Jeep—not to be confused with a four wheel drive— silly me for assuming. We’re heading up, up, up through one of the world’s starkest, steepest, most stunning places that is still accessible by car—if only barely.
We are entering the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh on the Indian side of the Himalayas, on the border of Tibet. This is far away from the hoohaa of Nepal and even farther from the hot and crowded urban India we’ve just escaped from. The mustached and turbaned, silk sareed India of postcard recollection is several hundred kilometers south of here.
Forget the curries, the red dots, the hindu temples, the paranthas, the heat, the sweat, the millions and millions of people competing for air, and most importantly, the noise and the smells.
In its place imagine Tibetan prayer flags tangled around ornate gompas atop mountain passes. Frescoed monasteries and thick robes. Prayer wheels and meditation. Picture the bluest mountain stream you can carving out the valley floor, massive desolate mountains imposing all around.
The Hindu and Muslim influences of India hardly register in this bleak high altitude desert, and the only unpleasant odor is the scent of fresh tar where teams of people, including women with babies on backs, are repaving the single lane mountain road, melting the black tar with an open fire as they go.
The only sign of vegetation is the thick moss that lines the flat rooftops to absorb the precipitation.
You can get here on a rickety local bus if you dare, but we’ve chosen the other option—a jeep with a skilled driver. My Aussie companion and I are sharing the jeep with four Israeli tourists in an effort to lighten the cost.
After nearly four full days of infallible blue skies, as crisp and clear as they come, a mean streak has descended upon the Spiti Valley so swiftly we didn’t even see it sneak up. The wind has picked up hurling tunnels of dust across the desert floor. The sky has darkened and the bulls meandering down the dirt road have turned feisty.
Soon this already foreboding place will become even more desolate—winter is encroaching and from October 15 the government officially closes the road over the mountain pass. What that means in real terms is that if you go missing, ain’t nobody coming looking. Travel here by road is an adventure at the best of times, but in winter it’s downright risky. We hedge our bets that the bad weather will hold off until it’s supposed to.
What do you do here? One of the other tourists in the jeep asks as our driver pulls around a sketchy section of road to a remote lake.
It’s a fair enough question in some regards. This place isn’t for everyone. It’s sparsely inhabited and its cold desert climate is not exactly one of the world’s most hospitable. Fresh produce is minimal, meals are basic, luxuries such as internet access are only available in high season and only by satellite. Suffice it to say the Spiti valley isn’t built up for tourists. But what the valley lacks in infrastructure it makes up for with rich culture and history and some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes. If you’ve got the time, you’re fit enough and you come at the right time of year (not winter!) you can do some serious trekking here.
Villages balance precariously on steep hillsides—the village of Kibber in the Pin Valley is the highest permanently inhabited village in the world that you can access by car. Deep blue glacial rivers carve through the valleys. Along with spectacular scenery and natural wonders, you’ll also find some of the most important Buddhist monasteries here. The statues and murals painted on the ancient walls of Tabo Monastary, built in 996 AD, are extraordinary—and it’s not just one journalist’s opinion—the monastery has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Dhankar monastery near the hub village of Kaza was once a castle, and the architecture there is also breathtaking. Another monastery is famous for the fossils that surround it. And although their English language skills are minimal, there is opportunity to interact with the monks at some of the monasteries.
As for safety and scheduling, we make it back unharmed and on time. The tour vehicles that left the day after us weren’t quite as fortunate—a snow storm hit and they were forced to drive back the long way round.
You can book tours to Spiti and the neighbouring Lahaul Valley from Manali, which is a great place to spend a few days if a bit of outdoor recreation is up your alley. The French-owned Himalayan Extreme Centre offers pretty much anything adventurous you can think of from rock climbing to skiing and snowboarding to trekking and even paragliding. You can hire all your equipment from them, and the experienced guides are patient and multi-lingual. The river running through town has several flying foxes if you feel the urge to splash around, and as Manali is really a tourist town there are lots of restaurants catering to western tastes, plus plenty of shopping on the main strip. It’s an ideal place to relax over some yummy meals and catch up on email before you take off into the much more remote valleys. The little village of Vashisht just to the northeast even has hotsprings if you want to indulge a little.
If you go:
There are plenty of agencies in Manali that book tours to Spiti and Lahaul; many offer set tours while some allow you to create your own itinerary. Many tours finish in the monkey-populated hill station town of Shimla where there’s even a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey-god.
We used Himalayan Caravan Adventures in Old Manali: www.himalayancaravan.com.
If safety is a concern, check to see if your company uses vehicles that have four wheel drive.
For climbing, skiing or snowboarding around Manali try http://www.himalayan-extreme-center.com/ which is based in Vashisht
Altitude sickness can be a problem for some people so make sure whatever company you choose takes the right precautions such as sleeping as returning to lower elevations to sleep after sightseeing at high altitudes, and not trying to do too much too quickly.
Medical Observer, 2009