I am guilty of being stuck in a mundane 9-5 corporate job trying to convince myself that this is what I am going to do for the rest of my life, somewhere inside me I always knew that I am not cut our for the ‘regular’ life that everyone expects me to lead. In order to satisfy this urge I travel to Punjab and Himachal Pradesh once every year with my childhood friend Nitin (it was one of those emotional pacts we had made a couple of years ago to travel together every year no matter what)…we used to save our leaves for that one trip that makes us believe that we still have a soul and that we can pursue our passion of travelling across India while keeping our jobs and hoped that maybe someday we will be able to build a cottage and run a restaurant somewhere high up in the magical hills of Himachal…
Though most of my travels thus far have been to the popular hill stations such as Manali, Shimla, Dalhousie, McLeodganj etc., I always wanted to venture onto an unknown path without any preconceived notions about the place…and go solo for a change!
The idea of my first solo trip to Spiti valley and Kinnaur came about in a rather unconventional way –
I was watching the movie ‘Highway’ which is a pretty much shot on the roads and little known locales in the Himalayas…I was instantly hooked on and pulled into this new world. Though I could not identify the exact place where majority of the movie was shot, I knew it was in Himachal Pradesh; in one of the scenes I managed to notice a police station sign board behind one of the actors which read “Judicial lock up – Kalpa” and later on I noticed in another scene at a bus stand where in a small corner of the screen I saw the name of the bus depot – Reckong Peo…that was it, this was going to be the destination for my first solo trip!!! I felt a bit like a detective who had cracked his first case without any help from anyone…cheap thrills, I say!
One thing led to another, after some planning and deliberation – I had the final plan in place for my solo trip from Punjab to Kinnaur/Spiti and back; of course this was possible due to some research and detailed information that I got from several blogs and travel websites. I decided to pack light and travel to “explore” and not just visit these places like a typical tourist, I booked nothing apart from my flight tickets and a cab for 7 days. During the initial days of browsing the net to get to know about the places – I realized that I actually enjoy the process of planning for a holiday quite a bit as well!!!
Day 1 – Mumbai to Chandigarh by flight, around 2 hours and 15 minutes…
I have this theory that if something starts well it will end well too and likewise if it doesn’t start off well it most likely will not end well too, however this theory of mine was going to be put to the test soon on this trip. The owner of the cab that I had booked called me the night before I was going to Chandigarh to say that the cab had some problems and could not be taken for this trip and that he would ‘upgrade’ me to a better car, I was fine with this since it was a better car he was giving me at the same price…bring it on! Upon reaching Chandigarh airport, I get another call from him, this time he said that the other car that was going to pick me up was stuck in the town from where it was going to come to Chandigarh that morning…at this point of time I started thinking that this guy was going to mess up my trip and I panicked a little. He quickly gave me an alternative and offered to pick me up in a temporary car that will take me to the town where my cab was stuck and promised that there would not further changes from thereon. I had to wait for around 20 minutes for this cab to pick me up since it was a last minute change and I thought probably this driver didn’t get enough notice to be there on time to pick me up. I was getting a little impatient however I was mildly amused while waiting at the airport with all the ‘Punjabiness’ around me…I love the audacious nature of the Punjabi’s and the way they freely express themselves especially the local people residing in Punjab not the Punjabi’s from other parts of the country who are just visiting… it’s different!
I saw a small bus with around 10-15 people that I assumed was probably a big family going on a vacation…I see all the men dressed in loose Hawaiian shirts, cool eyewear, tight t-shirts and khakhi shorts (some of them were wearing black formal shoes) alight from the bus adjusting themselves as they were coming out one by one, I knew these men along with the entire entourage were heading towards Goa for sure; they were followed by their loud wives who looked hassled rounding up their inquisitive kids and gathering all their belongings at the same time managing their hair and gaudy makeup. I heard one of the men say in a calm tone (in Punjabi) to the ladies – “Oye, don’t worry, the plane will not leave without us…and don’t forget the bag that has the parathas and aachar”
Luckily, my car was there in a few minutes and I headed towards my friend’s house before I began my journey.
Day 1 – Chandigarh to Rampur via Shimla – around 7.5 hours due to heavy traffic in Shimla and some bad road patches. Bunty the cab driver and my friend for the next 7 days was a young fun loving chap from Kufri, a small town near Shimla…he ensured that he provided me with all necessary information about the places we were going to visit.
After an unexpectedly long drive due to traffic snarls at Shimla, we reached Rampur and I quickly checked into a hotel without much fuss just to spend the night and leave for Sangla the next morning.
Day 2 – Rampur to Raksham (near Sangla) – around 4.5 hours; the roads started getting worse 30 mins after leaving Rampur as we approached the entry point of Kinnaur district all the way till the Karchham Wangtu hydro project plant area, the hilly roads to reach Sangla were quite narrow and I had quite a few ‘scary’ moments on this route – there were some really sharp blind turns and many trucks speeding down the hill. Bunty was driving with one hand on the wheel and seemed surprisingly calm on these roads!
On the way to Sangla
Upon reaching Sangla I decided to stay a little away from the hustle bustle of the market at moved towards the river side village of Raksham which had some very beautiful views of the snow clad mountains and the river bed…
Later that evening, I asked Bunty if there was any famous local alcohol that the people here consumed during winters, he was quick to reply with a slight enthusiasm in his voice. I requested him to arrange for a bottle if possible…he got the bottle after an hour or so and told me it was alcohol made from apples mixed with a local spirit; I spent the next few hours sipping on this delicious new spirit that I just discovered and decided to call it a night after having a simple meal at the restaurant.
Day 3 – Raksham to Chitkul – around 40 mins by cab.
I must say I was a little disappointed with Chitkul – which is the last Indian village before the China border, I thought it was the same as Sangla or Raksham with just the unique “last Indian village” factor working for it. Anyways since I was there, I clicked a few pictures and explored the tiny village, also managed to click the famous picture near the board that says “Hindustaan ka aakhri dhaba” (Last Indian restaurant) I was told that this dhaba is actually not operational for quite some time now and people just click a picture and move on.
Chitkul to Kalpa – around 3 hours with a 20 minutes stop for breakfast, the drive is quite scenic once you start ascending towards Reckong Peo and get the first glimpse of the famous Kinner Kailash mountain ranges. Peo is a bustling town with a lot of people and vehicles moving around, it is also one of the major bus depots in Kinnaur district which makes it more populated and noisy. I decided to move up towards Kalpa which is a quieter and more scenic town, I stayed at a hotel which had an awesome view of the mighty Kinner Kailash right in front of the room balcony.
Kinner Kailash mountain view from Kalpa
Around Kalpa – I went for a short spin to the ‘ancient’ village of Roghi around which modern towns like Kalpa and Peo have supposedly developed in the past few decades, the drive to Roghi was quite an adventure with very narrow roads and a deadly drop should you make any mistake while driving.After a good walk around the market area and narrow by lanes I got to see a lot of little shops selling apples, apparently it was harvest season in the valley…had to buy some, couldn’t resist.
Day 4 – Kalpa to Nako – around 6.5 hours
This route is surely not for the faint hearted. I was completely blown away with the constant change in landscape and rising altitude levels within a matter of hours. The landscape around the roads leading to Spillo, Pooh and nearby villages was harsh, intimidating and unwelcoming at first with hardly any sign of vegetation and huge sharp stones forming the sides of the steep mountain. The only color I could see at this point was the brown mountains and dark blue sky, it took me some time to get used to this harsh environment and start appreciating the actual beauty around me.
The route from Kalpa to Nako is absolutely breathtaking and also a little scary – though the roads in this patch are comparatively better than the other roads but there are a lot hairpin bends that elevate you by a couple of feet with every turn in terms of the altitude, exposing you to more amazing views and ever changing hues of the mountains. At this point of time I started getting affected a little by the change in the altitude and just managed to breathe hard enough to compensate for the lack of oxygen…most important tip to counter altitude sickness is to keep having water through the day and keep a consistent breathing pace.
After 3 litres of water and a couple of hours later we entered Nako which marked the end of the hairpin bends and steep turns around these fabulous mountains…we stopped here simply because I was quite overwhelmed with the stark difference in the landscape and sheer natural beauty around me; I just wanted to get out of the car and take a deep breath and soak it all in…I was in complete awe and felt a natural high as I slowly breathed out!
I was told that the trees in this area were planted by the local residents in order to generate some oxygen as it is not available naturally at this height…how cool is that!
I walked up to the famous Nako lake which was a little ahead of the beautiful monastery that transported me into a different world altogether…a surreal experience, must say!
We then drove towards Tabo – our destination for the day which was around 2 hours away…I was thrilled to know that this was a downhill drive into the plains; my breathing pattern was now getting consistent and I was slowly getting used to the low levels of oxygen.
I experienced absolute tranquility during this drive till Tabo, I barely saw a couple of cars passing by…it was just me on the road for most part of the journey going through some beautiful river side curves and narrow roads by the mountain.
Upon reaching Tabo I checked into a lodge and decided not to waste any time and walked out towards the mysterious Tabo monastery established in the year 996 AD!
Tabo experiences frequent power cuts and that too for the entire night at times…I wasn’t complaining, as I had quite a good time listening to music and browsing through all the photos clicked in the past few days, I simply surrendered to this alien but stunning world around me and slept off with the excitement to start journey the next morning.
Next morning I left for Kaza after a heavy Spitian breakfast and the famous salt tea at a local joint near the monastery, it was quite cold that morning – probably 2-3 degrees celsius with the sun shining bright already at 8 am.
Day 5 – Tabo to Kaza, around 2.5 hours
The roads leading to Kaza were a little better than what I had experienced the previous day; we took a little detour and visited the Dhankar monastery tucked away on top of a hill. Upon reaching the monastery, I got a fantastic view of the village below and the beautiful Spiti river flowing against the backdrop of the majestic mountains.
Near Dhankar monastery
The monastery was quite old and had huge columns of wood supporting the roof, I entered one of the prayer rooms and sat there for a minute; I could not hear anything at all, at first I thought it was due to the altitude that my ears were popping however I realized that it was actually so peaceful that I could faintly hear myself breathing…I had just experienced what I’d like to call the “Sound of silence”
I continued my journey towards Kaza and checked into one of the most interesting and charming hotels around the outskirts of Kaza town…Hotel Deyzor run by a cool young trekker/businessman/philanthropist/art lover from Chandigarh, Karanbir…my stay at this hotel was one of the best experiences I have ever had in all my travels in the past. The long passionate conversations with Karanbir and his partner about the local life in Spiti added a lot of perspective to my journey.
Day 6 – Around Kaza
I had planned for local sightseeing the entire day and started by driving up to a small village Langza which is known for fossil excavation.
Buddha statue at Langza
We continued to drive towards Komic, a village situated high up in the mountain at 14, 800 feet and is inhabited throughout the year irrespective of the harsh winters and lack of basic amenities! The monastery there was quite well maintained and the monks were quite friendly, one of them was kind enough to show me around and also offer salt tea…apparently this monastery holds the distinction of being the only one at this altitude in the world!
I moved on towards Key monastery which was a couple of minutes from Kibber – it is one of the oldest and most sacred monasteries in Spiti, the pictures of Key that I had viewed on the internet were the reason I had sleepless nights; finally I was there and it gave me a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction just to stand inside the monastery.
Key monastery from a distance
Inside Key Monastery
Spiti river, view from Key
It was time to get back to my hotel at Kaza where I met Karanbir and shared some of my experiences over a cup of coffee and asked him if there was anything I could do over the next couple of hours that I had in hand, he suggested that I visit the local Kaza monastery as there were some holy celebrations planned that day and so I walked across to the monastery to see what was going on. To my utter surprise, I happened to reach the monastery gates and a group of ladies broke into the traditional Spitian dance that is quite rare and not filmed quite often…I was lucky to be able to experience this event just by chance. I was thrilled to be the only “non local” out there at the same time was quite conscious about it too…
Cultural event at Kaza
I walked around a bit and ensured that I soak in the sights around me as much as I could; I knew it might not be soon before I could come back to this spellbinding land.
Day 7 – Kaza to Manali, around 8.5 hours with breakfast and lunch break
We started early at about 6 am since we were aware that this route could take longer than expected. After having breakfast at a small town called Losar which is usually the only place where travelers can get a decent meal before the next big town a couple of hours away, we continued towards Kunzum pass which would help us cross over and go towards Manali via Rohtang pass.
At Kunzum top
This drive is absolutely stunning and makes one feel completely cut off from the rest of the world, upon reaching Kunzum top the highest point at the pass one could see the magnificent mountains around with little bit of snow dotted along the way.
I stopped at the monastery at Kunzum top, apparently it is customary to go around this monastery and then head towards one’s destination…we complied and headed towards Rohtang pass and passed through some really awesome sights that I will never forget. A couple of hours later we reached Rohtang pass, it was great to know that there were hardly any vehicles around and hence no traffic jams. Rohtang is known for terrible traffic jams and landslides however I was lucky enough to pass through without any such issues…Manali was a hard hitting sight that made me realize that my journey was almost over and that I was coming back to reality!
Hadimba temple at Manali
Day 8 – Manali to Chandigarh, around 9 hrs
Left early morning to beat the traffic going out from Manali…as I looked outside my window I thought to myself that these 7 days that I spent alone will always be carved in my memory as a very special experience, very close to my heart, like a prized possession – my first ever solo trip and that too at such remote places without any issues.
I saw new sights that changed me forever, met some interesting people, drove through some really amazing terrain across 1200 kilometers, overcame some of my fears…and discovered a little bit of myself along the way…looking forward to another trip to Spiti; till then…
(Spitian word for goodbye)