Close to the sky: Spiti Valley

Spiti Valley’s landscapes leave you speechless, the roads that bring you there keep you breathless: Driving there, you are on the edge of your car or bike seat most of the time. Traveling to this secluded Himalaya valley is a unique experience in many ways. Once you reach, you feel reborn; once you leave, you will miss it immediately. One part of you will always remain in that valley.

Spiti is located in the North-Indian state Himachal Pradesh. It’s one of the hundreds of valleys of the Himalaya mountain range. It has – until now – preserved much of its unique and simple lifestyle, which is influenced by the mountain climate, Tibetan culture and Buddhist monasteries.

Traveling there you have to be ready to adapt to the pace of the mountains. Roads are often not in the greatest shape, one way only and crossing other vehicles can be challenging. A landslide might close the road down for hours or at the worst for days. See also: A bumpy road movie

Accommodation is basic, this is not a five star holiday. You can stay at home stays or also at monastery guesthouses. There is no central heating, however sometimes there is fans or even AC. The people of Spiti are extremely friendly and always ready for a chat with travellers and people passing by. Take some time to listen to their stories and to participate in their local daily life. It’s best to come with enough time and no fixed schedule, be taken in by the flow of Spiti Valley life. There is plenty of time since there is no internet connection.

By chance, I witnessed a puja – a religious ritual on a special occasion, like the baptism of a child or remembering the death of a person – organized by the Tabo monastery. People are happy to let you watch or even have you participate in case you wish to do so.

Some of the Buddhist monasteries in Spiti Valley have been around for centuries. Tabo monastery is more than 1000 years old and is a world heritage site. The fantastic wall paintings in the different prayer halls are impressive and reflect the importance of Tibetan Buddhist culture in Northern India.

Be aware that you as a tourist can support livelihoods in the valley by hiring local guides or drivers and staying overnight at homes. Be also aware that you become part of a precious ecosystem, which has been fairly well preserved until now and that you should do your share to keep it that way – for example by taking back with you all plastic waste, or even better by avoiding non-organic waste in the first place.

As a non Indian you need a permit to access the valley. You are as close to the Chinese border as its gets. The area is controlled by army check points. The so called „inner line permit“ can be acquired at Reckong Peo, local travel agencies will help you get it. They don’t open before 10 am and it will take some time. Also important for planning the trip: The only opportunity to tank up inside the valley is in the village Kaza. The amount of fuel is limited, you will not be able to tank up fully. Be aware while driving there and back.

Weather changes can be very abrupt, bring a set of warm clothes as well as summer shirts and trousers. Locals do fully cover their skin and head. They know why. The sun’s impact is very strong at an altitude of 3500 m to 4500 m above sea level.

I saw snow one day and experienced pleasant temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius on the next. The clouds‘ shadows rolling in and out of the valley make the rocky landscapes even more scenic: amazing photos are guaranteed. Even more than taking pictures, just enjoy observing the mountains.

Take your time. Take short strolls, sit on a rock and watch the beautiful scenery around you. Though the valley is a cold desert, you will see an amazing range of animals, from big mountain birds to snow bunnies. In the national park in Pin Valley, there are even snow leopards. However, you will need a lot of patience to actually observe them.

Spiti is arid land, and some vegetation only grows in places where locals have managed to divert water from the Spiti river, constructing a smart system of small channels to bring water to the soil. Water is clean, and if there is no village above you, which is often the case, you can drink it from the source.

Don’t miss the highest post office of the world at Hikkim village, where a busy postman tries to stamp all the postcards sent by the visitors to places around India and the world. Most tourists so far are Indian, so you will rarely see any white faces while traveling up and down the valley. Depending on your preferred travel-speed, you can stay there for days, weeks – or even months.

Have a coffee or a meal at the Himalaya café in Kaza; take a ride to Key Monastery in the morning or evening hours, when the light is just incredibly beautiful; enjoy the same view of the large Himalaya snow capped mountains as the Buddha statue in Langza. Dhankar village and monastery, the former capital of Spiti Valley, makes for one of the most amazing views.

I fell in love with Tabo monastery, also because of people like Anju, serving me a cup of tea in the monastery’s courtyard, or monk Sonam, answering patiently the dozens of questions, the boys attending the monastery school playing cricket on rocky grounds. Staying at the monastery guesthouse, you will become part of the monastery life. You eat in the restaurant run by monks, hear them pray in the early morning, listen to their debates in the evening. And: you can sit, rest and meditate in one of the most stunning prayer halls of the world. Even not being a particularly spiritual or religious person, you will be impressed by the vibes of the place: thousand years of accumulated prayers by countless monks and lamas will leave a mark on you as it has on me.

Being outside at night, sitting on a bench close to the white and golden monastery stupa, surrounded by Tibetan prayer wheels and flags, you watch the millions of stars above you: Becoming aware that this planet earth you are sitting on, is just one tiny part of an entire universe of planets and stars. You might feel very small, but at the same time totally connected to something very big. It’s a place of an incredible calmness, a place where you might be gently touched by the breath of eternity.

Sitting on a mountain rock, only the gigantic blue sky above you, nothing in between you and the universe: If you do not become quiet and peaceful here, then you probably never will.

So be ready not just to drive through, but to actually stop. Take a break from your life. You will return a different person.

Spiti Valley does offer outdoor activities, you will find trekking equipment and organizers of trips in Kaza, once you get there. Or you can plan ahead and look up travel agencies online. They offer weekly or customized travel packages. However, if you travel not just to do trekking and be close to nature, but at the same time dive into the unique Spiti culture, you will come back with memories you never forget.

How to get there: Northern India is best reached by flight via New Delhi. You can then drive or fly to Chandigarh, capital of Punjab and Haryana. Stay overnight, take a day to visit its architectural marvels like the capitol complex. Hint: First visit the museum of architecture, which explains the city’s structure planned by Swiss-French architect Corbusier in a comprehensive way. You then know exactly what you want to visit.

Spiti Valley can only be reached by road. However, you can avoid a one day drive by taking a domestic flight from New Delhi to Kullu. From Kullu, in one day, you cross Lahori pass to reach Rampur and your final destination for the day, Reckong Peo. Stay overnight and get the inner line permit the next morning. You can reach Tabo in Spiti Valley by late afternoon. It’s not advised to ride in the dark because of road conditions.

Driving from Chandigarh directly to Reckong Peo via Shimla will take at least 12 hours of driving (breaks not counted). Google maps shows less driving time, but is not aware of the road conditions. Mountain driving speed is at 30 km/h at its best. Be prepared to crawl behind a truck and be stopped by „Indian style jams“ passing villages or crossing local buses.

Whichever travel mode you prefer: from New Delhi it takes three days to actually get into the valley, always presuming that there is no landslide blocking the roads. At the moment (summer 2019) there is a lot of road construction between Rampur and Reckong Peo and between Reckong Peo and Pooh: It’s been advised by locals to drive through that stretch before 11 am. Alternative travel plan: Starting from Kullu, you take some time at the Lahori pass, a fantastic view point, and stay over night in Rampur; then start early for Reckong Peo the next day and continue to Tabo the same day.

Going up slowly also has the advantage of adapting to the heights and avoid symptoms of altitude sickness like bad headaches, difficulties in breathing. It’s simply not worth rushing through.

Best time to travel: Spiti Valley is snow and ice covered in winter and far into Indian spring. Traveling in May or June should be fine. Once the monsoon reaches North-India in July, road conditions can worsen and landslides could become more frequent. Alternatively travel there at the end of the monsoon season in August or September. In any case you always need to check local news to find out about the snow or rain fall and open roads. There is also online blogs for road information, that are run by local guides. If you want to cross to Spiti Valley from Manali, check for the opening of Rohtang pass and Kunzum pass. In summer 2019, due to heavy snowfall the previous winter, Rohtang pass (3978 m) opened at the beginning of June. However, Kunzum pass (4590 m) only opened by the end of June.

As always in India: Don’t just rely on your travel guide book, ask around. Most people are more than ready to help and give directions.

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