Many travelers are disappointed by their experience in Tibet as the cultural suppression has left an indelible stain in the plateau and among the people, but at least there is the one that has remained as the Tibetan influence extends throughout the Himalayan arc, over 2000 km of inaccessible mountainous regions of northwest India to Bhutan, passing through the north of Nepal.
Himachal Pradesh is a paradise for lovers of mountain landscapes, and is often considered synonymous with North India. The diversity of scenarios in this state are endless from the foothills, the high-altitude valleys of Spiti and Lahul, to the eternal snow-capped peaks that exceed 7000 mtrs, the mountain villages and lush valleys of Kangra.
Day 01: Delhi - Chandigarh - Manali
The cultural trail begins in Delhi in a train to Chandigarh. From there a jeep wait for us that lead us to Manali along winding and adventurous roads that climb gradually along the Shivalik range of the Himalayas to the Banjaar Valley, where we walk up to the villages and lakes in this pristine valley still unknown to the masses. The route is very picturesque, along the Beas River for most of our trip.
Day 02: Manali to Kaza
If you were asked to think about the road to excellence, you answer the legendary Route 66 in the USA. But there is another way in India that is more remote. We are in the North on the Manali-Leh highway linking Leh at an altitude of 3505 mtrs in Himachal Pradesh. Ladakh it is part of the ancient Silk Road that led to the East from the Persian Gulf. The 500 km long Manali-Leh highway is one of the most picturesque roads of the world that is only viable between May and October. Its average elevation is more than 4000 mtrs above sea level with a maximum of 5328 mtrs at Tanglang La.
Carved along the Himalayan chain, it is virtually a scratch in the great mountains of the most beautiful in the world. Who decides to realize his dream to travel it by any means, whether in 4x4, motorcycle, bicycle, bus knows that the surprise is in the journey, and in the beauty of the landscapes, mountain ranges, rocks, sand and lakes parading all round.
In a kaleidoscope of unimaginable colors, at night, the starry sky is priceless. The route is one or two lanes, but complicated, often interrupted by landslides, frozen waterways or just split with the spring. The wheels, whatever they are, cling to the dirt by tapping the precipice because the road leans to the mountain but on the other side there is no guard rail.
The landscape is versatile and changes from green to rock and rock to green but the tops of the mountains are invariably covered with snow and sparkle in the sun. The Rohtang Pass, separating Lahaul valley from Kullu, located 50 km from Manali, is the first high peak we see, at an altitude of 3980 mtrs, and remains covered with snow in the months of May and June when the tourists arrive right up there.
During the journey in this magnificent uninhabited barren desert we stop at one of dhabas on the roadside, a sort of cheap and basic restaurant, that allows us to lie down to rest a bit. After Rohtang Pass, the steep descent to Baralacha La at 5030 mtrs begins to Zingzingbar at 4270 mtrs and, at the end, we come across an ice flow that crosses the road and that, during the hottest hours, melt, turning into a torrent.
The highway passes through some of the highest passes and mountain passes in the world, including Rohtang, Pir Panjal, Baralacha La, Lachulung La and Tanglang La. The Rohtang La Pass and Baralacha La receive more snowfall than Taglang, but all three passes are locked in winter. Among Lachulung and Tanglang La, the high plains are spectacular.
Once over the Rohtang pass, it presents a crossroads as one road goes on for over 30 hours, overcoming passes over 5000 mt and end in Ladakh, another road instead veers east and goes in the spectacular Lahaul Valley. We cross the famous and beautiful valleys of Kullu and Manali before entering Spiti. Located in the Trans-Himalayas, the region borders the Tibet to the east and Ladakh to the north and has strong natural and cultural similarities of its neighbors. We cross two passes to reach this valley and we understand why this region has remained cut off from the outside world for many years, finding there some of the highest villages of Asia.
From here we pass the Kunzum La, which divides Lahaul and Spiti, to reach the region of Lahaul, where vast glaciers and high peaks are in the spotlight, where we spend a full day in Keylong to visit some monasteries in the surrounding area.
After visiting Shashur Gompa, located right above the village, we climb then the Chandra valley and continue past Chhatru river valley, Batal, in a very wild environment where glaciers come to the valley floor and turreted mountains seem magical citadels suspended in the sky, that enchants for dreaming spiers, mountain towers of granite and glaciers that adorn the southern side.
We stretch our legs and admire the stunning views of the Chandrabhaga chain, and visit the Buddhist shrine and get back in the jeep to enter the even more spectacular Spiti Valley, the most remote region of India and the last Tibet, almost as arid and perhaps even more savage, meeting the first settlements in Losar to reach Kaza, the capital of the Spiti valley in the evening.
Day 03: Kaza
The over 100 km long Spiti valley, with many villages at around 4000 mtrs altitude, sometimes resembles a mini Grand Canyon, with the ubiquitous Spiti river that unfolds between the steep walls like a snake. At other times, the valley opens up becoming more of a sort of deep-sea desert changing colors. In one way or another, the size and impact with nature here reach immense proportions.
To give a more human appearance to the territory, the least densely populated in India, there are sporadic villages on the river sides. The white houses, with roofs made up of wood piles stacked high up to 2 mtrs, are built in typical Tibetan style, and wind along tiny alleys that run through the village. Green land with crops of peas and grains such as buckwheat, appear like a mirage among the barren walls.
We visit the village and Ki Gompa, the largest monastery in Spiti, where Dalai Lama gave a great Kalachakra initiation. After the visit we get back to the jeep to head to the high altitude village of Kibber, which is about 4200 mtrs above sea level and is located along a road that heads to Ladakh, crossing the Parang La pass.
A short hike in these places encouraged better acclimatization trek for the next few days. In the evening we spent wandering through Kaza, to its market where we find interesting local handicrafts and the traditional art of pottery.
Day 04: from Kaza to Langza
After breakfast, we head to the village of Langza, located in a large high mountain meadow with the spectacular massive Chau Chau Khang Nilda, which dominates the panorama. Once in Langza we visit the Lang (temple) and hear some interesting stories associated with it. After enjoying a delicious lunch in a local family, we continue with a short hike to the village pastures, the habitat of the Himalayan wolf and snow leopard.
Day 05: from Langza to Komik
After breakfast we cut through the Komik plateau. Various routes are available and based on your degree of preparation and forces you can choose the most suitable one. The steepest paths, as usual, have more to offer! Komik is one of the highest villages in Asia and is home to one of the highest monasteries in the world. We visit the monastery before going to the village. In the afternoon we explore the village.
Day 06: from Komic to Demul
Spiti is a high-altitude region and often trekking in these parts can be tiring, so we do this yak safari. The route gives us a breathtaking view of the highest peaks of Spiti that goes through mountain pastures with a wide range of varieties of flowers. We explore the trans-Himalayan pastures that are the hunting ground for the Himalayan wolf and snow leopard along with Blue Sheep herds.
Day 07: Demul
Demul is one of the most interesting villages of Spiti. A place that has given rise to many legends and stories. We have a taste of the local life by interacting with the villagers and attending to their daily chores. We continue with a trek of steep walk and take a yak safari reaching a vantage point from which we enjoy a stunning panoramic view of the Spiti.
Demul is also famous for a local brew called Arak and for its cultural performance. A taste of both, leave us truly enchanted. We participate in a cultural evening performance of song and traditional dance accompanied by musicians and their unique ways. The day offers a fascinating insight into the life of the Spiti Valley.
Day 08: Demul from the Pin Valley and Dhankhar
We leave the plateau of the Spiti region point to the Pin Valley, which is different from the rest of the region as it is greener. The Pin Valley is also the home of the famous Chumurti horses and Bhuchens, a unique and rare sect of Tibetan Buddhists, who are theater artists who preach religious, moral, social and ecological values among the locals through a number of different performances. We get the rare opportunity to witness their form of dance and share a meal with them.
After this wonderful experience we head to Dhankhar, the ancient capital of Spiti. Dhankar has the oldest and most important monastery that dominate on the high mountain sides, which are imperious when viewed up close, and tiny when compared to the epic scale of the valley, that make it visually perceptible the strong religious component in the lives of Spitian's and give it a mystical aura.
Beyond the confluence with the Pin river we leave the main road to climb down a small road on the northern side of the valley to the spur where, among multicolored mountains, perched on panoramic monastery at Dhankar, which originates from the eleventh century and contains several valuable objects. Standing in a truly spectacular location, it is situated above the oasis and dominates the confluence of the rivers Pin and Spiti; on top of the mountain are the remains of the old palace once used by Gyalpo of Dankar.
After visiting the monastery and fortress, we reach the Lake Dhankhar. Set in the rugged folds of bronze, the Dhankar Lake has its own story to tell and offers spectacular views of the Spiti Valley and the village. People are open but discreet and has the same physiognomy of the Tibetans, as well as the language, food and religion are rooted in western Tibet, and have managed to remain intact for hundreds of years, thanks to the geographical isolation of the valley. Welcome to the last cradle of Tibetan culture.
Day 09: from Dhankar Tabo, Down and Nako
After breakfast a jeep guide us to Tabo, famous for its monastery, which originates from the eleventh century. Here emerge the roots of an ancient history linked to the events of the ancient Tibetan kingdom of Gughe, the incomparable monastery of Tabo, which art lovers call the Ajanta of the Himalayas for the matchless beauty of statues and frescoes, and is a gem for the powerful spiritual energy that permeates it. The ancient Tabo Gompa remained from the times of Rinchen Zangpo.
We leave this magical oasis set among the wild Himalayan mountains along a dirt road that goes halfway up above the broad valley of Spiti and enter the north side valley leading to Lhalung. This beautiful perfectly preserved village guards a Gompa founded also in the period of the famous Tabo, around 1000, when the region was part of the ancient kingdom of Gughe.
The interior of this temple are virtually a very rare example of the metamorphosis of art that came from Gandhara and Nalanda that has had in the encounter with the Himalayan world. We pass by Chango, where on a spur above the village there is an old temple, while the Kagyu monastery is located within the large valley full of apple trees. Slowly we get on the plateau, stopping for the picturesque village of Nako. There are lesser known places, but equally valuable, from Tashigang and Lhalung.
We continued the tour by visiting other monasteries. In one I was allowed to take a few pictures, in the Tholing monastery. Here was one of the biggest and heavy prayer wheels I've ever seen. In the Khora Gompa ceiling hung three thangkas typical of Kathmandu shops of Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, and a third with the founder of Kagyu-pa sect, a mere supposition based on the fact that there had been stuck a sticker with the picture of the Karmapa.
I was watching a Chakrasamvara of infinite beauty, grace and delicacy, with soft colors a bit absorbed by time and then the Wheel of life, a sweet Milarepa, a rare dramatically distressing Gautama, an incredibly powerful Yamantaka and still many other saints and protectors of which in my ignorance I could only appreciate the visual value. Some were damaged, others almost completely vanished in time, and I am sure that almost all exceed the century old.
I've reached the pinnacle of joy discovering a thangka that was a very detailed map of the Kailash-Manasarovar Rakshas-Tal. I imagined how many people have watched and memorized the perfect guide, before walking along the banks of the Sutlej to perform the most sacred pilgrimages.
We take a small detour to visit the village of Down, the farthest and most isolated of Spiti, located near the border with Tibet. We see a rare relic of the human spirit of a monk that was self-mummified! Here we visit all the villages and the most interesting monasteries having the chance to admire, in addition to the natural wonder of deep valleys contrasted by colors and some of the most precious artistic relics of the Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Arriving in Nako (3600 mtrs) we find one of the most spectacular points of the path, with the road that winds higher and higher above the valley with exceptional views. Walking through the narrow streets of the village takes us back in time. There is a small lake, considered sacred, with several small temples and a historically important monastery of the Drukpa school, which dates from the eleventh century, where we taste an interesting recent example of ancient art and Gughe painting.
Passing through some of the oldest monasteries and Buddhist temples around the world, this trip was a thorough overview in Spitian life, its culture and its Buddhist heritage. Set on the heights of this magnificent valley, every village along this path was decorated with unique and ancient Buddhist monasteries and temples dating back to over 1000 years ago, wrapped in legend and folklore. The host families that we found along the way enriched the experience and give us a true understanding of the culture and life in a Spitian home.
Day 10: from Nako in Sarahan
After breakfast we follow the Spiti river until it meets the Sutlej river which follow us for the rest of the day. We notice a gradual change in the landscape, from barren deserts to much green valleys, coming to the confluence with the mighty Sutlej, a few kms from the border with Tibet, with the steep mountains that are now beginning gradually to have a tree cover, and we enter in the Kinnaur region. This ancient kingdom marks the transition point between the Hindu and Buddhist culture.
Day 11: Kalpa - Sarahan
We follow the mighty river passing by Morag, which marks the northernmost point of the historical region of Kinnaur, where we admire a fortified tower built by layering stones and wood, the typical style of this new region. The architecture is characteristic, with a mixed use of stone and wood, also finely carved.
The valleys are steep and the land becomes less arid, with forests that gradually begin to cloak the mountains, where we glimpsed several turreted and snowy peaks. Once in Reckong Peo (2290 mt), the current capital of Kinnaur, we climb to the scenic village of Kalpa (2960 mt), in the western part of the valley.
This pretty village preserves the typical character of Kinnaur, with mixed wooden and stone buildings, and there is an interesting temple complex. It was chosen as the place of stay by English colonists for the climate and the spectacular view on the offering. From here we admire the glacial peaks of the Kinnaur Kailash, a sacred mythical mountain at a height of more than 6000 mtrs. Some say this is the winter home of Shiva, hence the name Kailash, rather than an actual likeness to Mount Kailash.
Day 12: Puh
Following the indications of the local elderly I walked under the sky. I limited myself to enjoy the rugged landscape, visiting a porch that housed four small chorten, Tibetan version of the stupa and a myriad of small Tsatsa, small molds of tsampa or earthenware which generally reproduce stupa, or sacred images. The trail, as far as I could see, found the way to the monastery.
To reach the entrance of the gompa I had to make a very long lap, losing more than once through the alleys and stalls where goats and cows dazed me, and led me to visit the little dukla-kang. Shakyamuni, Padmasambhava, Tara, and an enviable amount of unknown deities were neatly lined up on an altar inside a small room. Some were clearly new, but many were obviously very old, and all were well executed.
After lunch we return to the valley, and continue for a while along the Sutlej and then we take a steep valley that overlooks the orographic right side, where a raging Himalayan torrent thunders. We explore the remote Sangla valley, with many traditional houses and some temples, typical buildings of Kinnaur, where flourished the ancient kingdom of Bushahr. Near the village is the Kamru, that we reach with a short walk and continue along the valley coming up to the wonderful village of Chitkul, a typical very well preserved Himalayan village with the settlement located at the highest point.
We return to the swirling Sutlej river and continue south past the deep gorges carved by the mighty waters, at the foot of steep and spectacular mountains. We arrive in the Rampur area (924 mtrs), that rises to Sarahan (2290 m). This little village was a capital of the kingdom Bushahr. There is the palace of the last Maharaja, but the site that attracts far is the Hindu Temple of Bhimakali whose oldest wooden building dates back about 800 years ago, an important Hindu temple that presents the pinnacle of the distinctive architectural style of Kinnaur.
Back at the river, we follow it for a while and then the road reaches and follows the crests of the mountains, coming to Manali, from where we reach Delhi by car with an overnight stop at Nalagarh. Lahaul and Spiti is a dive in the nature and spirituality which leaves the visitor breathless!
How to get to Lahaul and Spiti
You can get up to Manali in 15 hour overnight bus. A quicker solution lets you fly from Delhi to Kullu. Manali from here is two hours by bus. From Manali you can take a local bus to Kaza. The faster and more comfortable alternative is certainly to book a place on one of the many jeeps from Manali by going up to Kaza, the capital of the Spiti Valley.
Within the valley one can move in a private jeep, with local bus or through hitchhiking, for the more adventurous. To return to Delhi you can venture to the end of the valley, past another high deep water crossing, wandering into the neighboring Kinnaur Valley to Recong Peo, where you can find daily connections to Delhi and takes 15 hours by bus.
When to go to to Lahaul and Spiti and what to bring
The Spiti valley is accessible only between July and September, when the roads that climb the high mountain passes are passable. From October to June the valley is closed at each external point, because of the snow that blocks the passage and for the polar temperatures that goes up to -30 degrees. Anyway, even in summer the Rohtang Pass may be temporarily blocked by rain or snow, so it is always better to have some fleece and a duvet jackets or better yet a mountain jacket in reserve.
Although the valley is in the high mountains, at summer the low latitude guarantees pleasant days with mild temperatures, but tend to fall rapidly at night. The wind blows often and the sun at these heights does not forgive the skin or eyes. Therefore we recommend to bring warm sweaters, woolen caps, wind jackets and scarves for the night, but also T-shirts, shorts, sunglasses, sunscreen with a high protection and lip balm for the day. Bring a backpack.
Who has the time and inclination, can even challenge themselves with interesting 4/5 days trekking in the plateau on top of one side of the valley, through canyons, snowy peaks and forests of fossils. In this case it is recommended to also bring hiking shoes (already tested) and pills to purify water, to be used more generally throughout the trip.
For those who love photography, you may want to bring the polarizing filter.
Lahaul and Spiti Travel Tips
Between the exhaustion of the journey and the beauty of the place, you can also sleep in Vashisht, on the other side of the river, a small village equipped for tourists, with sacred temples and thermal sources and is also easy to spend a couple of days in Manali, taking advantage also to book a jeep to Kaza, for what will be one of the most spectacular journeys of your life.
August is the month in which the Spiti valley is colored with the Darcha Festival, in which the inhabitants of the surrounding valleys flock the valley of Kaza to exchange products and goods, but also to admire the horse races and the archery, the traditional dances, In this great event, you can see all the nuances of the culture and religion of the Western Himalayas.
Many have been successfully using the diuretic Diamox, administered in small but preventive doses before the climb at high altitude accompanied by ingestion of at least 2 to 3 liters of fluid a day. The drug has also proved useful also for a non preemptive use, following the onset of symptoms of altitude sickness. For the use of Diamox, however, contact your doctor. Consider, however, that thousands of people face these challenges without major disturbances.
The journey from ladakh is also very rich in content, perfect for any traveler who is interested in learning about the world, where you can meet with strong cultures, but very hospitable, with surprising serenity that is found in people that although possess very little from a material point of view. After the start at Nubra follow the military road that connects the Indus valley with southern regions of India and leads initially among the steep polychrome mountains south of the Indus River encountering the village of Gya, with a monastery on a cliff in the ruins of a large fort that surrounded the bold ridges.
It continues to rise with increasingly spectacular views coming abreast of Taglang, which opens on the plateau of Rupshu. You enter the land of nomads, and at different points you will see the fields and herds of yak, and sometimes even wild animals such as kyang, marmots, wolves and often eagles. A short detour leads to the salt lake of Tso Kar (4530 mt), an unmissable turquoise gem, whose salt was extracted and used for centuries as a bargaining chip in Ladakh.
Continue the journey to the tented camp at Pang and cross the Lachulung La (5060 mt) by going to the southern part of Karnak, one of the trekking reigns of these remote regions. Continue along the plateau to the pass of Baralacha (4883 mtrs) which opens on the territories of Lahaul, still quite a desert area but more arboreal than Ladakh. Besides Darcha, access point for a trek that brings in Zanskar, following the river you get to Keylong, the capital of Lahaul, located at 3100 meters above sea level.