In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.
This is the 2nd part in the series. By the end of the first part, we had laid down the basics. This, Part 2, is where we immerse ourselves completely in the journey. There are tons of beautiful pictures too.
THIRD LEG: KUMARSAIN TO KALPA
Suggested Route: RAMPUR to KALPA
Again, the distance isn’t much, but the roads get very tricky at the fag end of this route. Since this would be the first day of your trip when you tread a difficult mountainous course, doing smaller distances is recommended.
For most parts, you will find concrete roads, reasonable traffic and you would traverse at good pace. We led the group ahead and and took a few minutes break to wait for the rest to arrive. That spot was about 30-40 kms before Reckong Peo which in turn is about 10 kms from Kalpa. It took us close to 3.5 hours to cover that distance.
The concrete roads gave way to rock laden pieces of land which we call roads. Thick mud lined the roads. Our overloaded bikes squelched and squealed as we navigated our way through it at a cautious pace. The pillion kept mum lest they distract the rider. The bikes' lower-sides took the majority of the brunt of the stones scattered by the wheels. We narrowly missed two shooting stones which shot down from the hills just a few feet ahead of us.
Eventually, it got better. We climbed mountains and then came back down again, only to climb up again into Kalpa. Slow moving trucks ahead of us threatened to slip back down. Sharp turns, overlooking the steep drop into the valley below, waited for us longingly. Young school kids waved us goodbyes with a smile on their chubby cheeks.
A river to our left was a welcome sight. We relieved ourselves of the dirt with the cool, refreshing water, took a status check, and went on ahead to Reckong Peo and further ahead to Kalpa.
Kalpa is located at a height of 2960 metres. Height is important throughout this journey because we climb high enough to cause altitude sickness in the city-dwellers that we are.
Like most hill-towns, it is remote and not easily accessible. However, it is still untouched by the mass commercialisation that you find creeping in most hill stations. Our navigation for most of the journey (at least till our cell phones worked), was a friend who had stayed back in Gurgaon, fondly named Chunnu - the one who knows it all. Chunnupedia told us that the best place to stay would be Kinner Kailash, a Himachal Tourism guest house named after the mountain it overlooks, and boy was he right.
Kinner Kailash is at the dead end of Kalpa. Seriously. There is nothing beyond it. Thus, it provided us with an uninterrupted view of the imperious mountain ranges. The Kinnaur Kailash mountain stood tall, majestic and wore a white snow cap which was partially visible through the clouds engulfing it.
The guest house has spacious wooden cottages which we negotiated down to 3000 bucks for a company of 6 (2 cottages). The host is a chirpy, good-natured middle aged man with one glass eye. His hospitality was genuine and warm. At night, when he came out in his monkey cap and pyjamas, he looked liked a caretaker of a Dak Bungalow from a scene in a dark Bollywood movie about snakes and rebirths.
The food is delicious. They have a nicely placed garden where you can rest your tired asses and talk with fellow travellers. Just sitting there filled us with energy. And what do you do when you are filled with lots of energy without anywhere to let it out? You drink. A word of caution though, you won’t find any thekas near the guest house. You would have to climb down 10kms, to find the first sign of a market. Thus, be well stocked.
What not to miss: Sitting outside your cottage at night, looking at the well-lit starry sky, soaking in the light reflecting from the mighty mountain snow-cap. Talking about your little place in the Universe is also recommended.
4TH LEG: KALPA TO TABO
Distance: 150 km
Time taken: 7 hrs (including multiple stops for rest, food, and a long stop at a beautiful lake just before Tabo)
Via - Pooh, Nako
Make sure to get your petrol cans, and bike tanks filled up at Reckong Peo since this would be your last petrol pump before Kaza. Moving out of Kalpa, the roads improve at Pooh and are lovely to drive all the way to Nako and then some.
The landscape changed quickly from light vegetation to completely bare mountains
You can stop to eat at Pooh at a small dhaba. It is closed on Tuesdays and guess which day we went there - yes, Tuesday. But, we found the lady who runs the place walking nearby. And she was kind enough to make Chowmein and Parathas for us. You can also get your water refrigerated at her shop since you are going to be driving in scorching heat. But, if you have reached Pooh, you would have realised it by now.
Some pictures of the route
Some people also stay at Nako lake camps. But, we overlooked that even though it was on our itinerary. One reason was that we were short of time and secondly, that place isn’t that great anyway.
So, we went straight to Tabo.
What not to miss: A few kilometres before Tabo, you would find a river to your left. Park your bikes on the side of the road, and walk down the hundred metres to the lake. The water is cold and clear. The surrounding mountains are smoothed by years of flowing water and the rushing winds. It is a good spot to chill for a while.
Suggested: Spend a full day in Tabo
You know what, Kalpa, Pooh, Nako are all fine. They are all great places, no complaints. But, the careless abandon of travel that you unknowingly long for would present itself to you, for the first time, in Tabo.
You should enter the hard to miss, huge Monastery gate on your left to find a rest for the night. The first place you find to park your vehicles would be your resting place. That would be Tiger's Den Guest House.
The moment we arrived there, we didn’t even unload our bikes to keep the bags in our rooms. Straight up, we headed to a theka nearby to buy some Beers. Then, we pitched ourselves in the Tiger's Den cafeteria.
It was evening and the faint light of the overhanging bulbs reflected against our oily, dirty and happy faces. There were smiling faces. Or maybe it was just me. But, the point is, it felt great to be there. The beers were opened, the food was served, and the conversations resumed.
What not to miss: Visit the monastery. Lounge around the garden for hours at length. Meet the fellow travelers who stop by at Tabo in their journey to nowhere.
5TH LEG: TABO TO KAZA
Next is a short 3 hour ride from Tabo to arrive at Kaza. You will be climbing down into the valley for most part. Here are some pictures.
You have arrived. The first big town, or, the only relatively big town in Spiti Valley. This would be your base for the next 3 days. A lot of places to visit nearby, good places to stay, and great food all around makes this a perfect place for you to pitch base.
As you enter Kaza, the Spiti river will run along your side. The roads leading up to the town have a lot of trustworthy straights that you can race your bike on. The river bed would make you want to climb down off the road and lie there for hours at a stretch. And sure enough, one amongst us did do that in spite of the searing heat of the afternoon.
The local market welcomes you inside with its narrow lanes, lined on both sides with sundry shops, cafes and hotels. We stayed at Hotel Deyzor which is quite popular among the travellers. The free WiFi probably has something to do with it.
A word of caution: Everything about Deyzor is cool, except the food. No, I don’t mean that it’s bad. Rather, it is quite delicious. But the slow service is a pain in the ass. And your abdomen. We had not ridden a long distance but had alighted on our bikes with a light breakfast. So, we were super hungry by the time we reached there. Upon reaching Deyzor, we left our bags on the bike and went straight to their garden cafe. But, the service was so damn slow. It didn’t help that the altitude was high enough to cause headaches in some of us. Sadly, this trend remained for the rest of our stay at the hotel. So, just be sure to not be hungry to the point of becoming cranky. Your food will arrive in its own due time.
You would meet a lot of interesting folks at Deyzor. Some who organise bicycle tours, others who go on bicycle tours, writers, an Israeli group with a guitarist among them (not stereotypical at all), a military trained dog, a group of high school Australian graduates traveling the world and riding bikes in Spiti when only one of them actually knew how-to, and the rest of them learning as they go - on only the most treacherous roads in the world. Weird world.
What to do in Kaza:
Your first excursion from Kaza should be to Key Monastery. It is about an hour’s drive from the hotel and the route is picturesque. Literally. I mean this route inspired my intro to this series of posts (ref: Part 1). I found myself lost in the surroundings even as I was driving. It is so easy for that to happen to you. And if you try to bring your focus back on the road, which you should, your head spins around itself. Luckily, the roads are predictable and smooth winding up to the monastery.
Key Monastery is situated at a height of 4166 metres. I wonder why they make monasteries so high up. Last one I went to was in Paro, Bhutan which we reached to after a particularly taxing hike of 2 and a half hours. You don’t really do anything in such places. Just soak in the peace and the quiet. Have a chat with the monks, get some water into the system. Sit inside the prayer hall and watch the monks do their preparations. It doesn’t sound much, but trust me, it is a lot. My friends had to pull me out of the trance to ask me to go back to base.
This is where you will again have one of those - ‘What’s this life for?’, ‘Why do we work so hard to make money’, ‘What should we do with our lives?, ‘Let’s quit our jobs and settle in a monastery’ - moments. I’ve been told that the food inside the restaurant adjacent to the monastery is particularly fulfilling. You might want to give it a try.
Kibber is a tiny village close to Key. Ride into the village, go as high up as you can and then park yourself in the restaurant there. Have tea in their cafe, look around as you see small houses you can count on your fingers, and people which you cannot since there won’t be any. Seriously, there was not a single soul to be seen when we arrived there. Only after some time did we see a few people milling about, probably coming out of a conference since they all appeared from the same corner in a beeline.
There isn’t much to do in Kibber (sleeping in the wide open fields is a recommendation which comes from a friend) , which itself is quite a nice thing to have on a vacation. But, it can get old soon, so you can come back by the evening. Here, I would like to highlight that driving at night isn’t a good idea anywhere in Spiti. They call these roads the world’s most treacherous ones and not without good reason.
Couple of other places that we couldn’t go to were Hikkim (apparently, India’s highest post office, send your loved ones postcards from here) and Gue Monastery (where a 600 year old Mummy of a monk resides; legend has it that it still grows its hair). Google will tell you more about it than I can.
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