“Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains”
– Jeffrey Rasley
At a south Indian cafe on mall road in Shimla, I’m blankly staring at my friend, waiting for her to finish the bland idlies on her plate. Her stomach is not doing so good today. I only hope this healthy grub gives her the much needed dose of energy. This is the first day of our road trip to Spiti – a desert mountain valley in the trans Himalayan region. Two of us have started from Chandigarh in a rented Ford Figo and she is the poor soul who is going to drive during our entire trip on one of the deadliest roads in the world.
Here are some of the bitter and painful facts about our trip,
It’s her first long drive, she has never driven in mountains before. And here, it’s all mountains for more than a thousand kilometres.
The car we have, has almost no ground clearance, which is vital for Himalayan roads.
We need to complete our trip in 5 days, starting from Chandigarh, reaching Kaza – the district headquarters in Spiti valley – via Shimla and Kinnaur; and return to Chandigarh through Manali by crossing two majestic mountain passes covered in heaps of snow – Kunzum la (4590 meters) and Rohtang la (3979 meters).
Despite all this, we are lured by the surreal beauty of Spiti, the promise of an amazing adventure and a chance to travel through some of the remotest and breathtaking villages of the world.
She has finished the idly on her plate and we set out to reach Rampur today, a small town on the banks of Satluj river which is a 250 kms drive from Chandigarh. We have driven almost half the distance, yet to cover the last 130 kms.
The traffic suddenly disappeared as soon as we got out of Shimla and it is just us who are driving through high forests of Shivalik range. Just before Rampur, we got a much needed companion – the river Satluj who will be with us the next day as well.
On day 2, we start our drive to reach Nako – a village near China border. The mountains have started changing their colour, turning grey and brown from lush green. Vegetation is getting sparser, altitude higher and roads worse. But the amazing view of the snow clad mountains, almost zilch traffic and nature at her best keep our spirits high all through. Soon, an eerie silence descends the air, as we reach a rocky patch where we’ll need to bid adieu to our now, constant companion Satluj. True to the adage ‘every ending has a new beginning’, we will get a prettier one – the river Spiti. This is the place where Spiti meets Satluj after draining the deserted Spiti valley.
After a tiring but enchanting drive of 200 kms from Rampur, through hairpin bends, gorgeous snow clad mountains and Spiti river flowing in a deep ravine just along the road, we reach Nako – a small charming village at an altitude of 3625 meters. Nako is a tiny settlement surrounded by barley farms, bordered by the beautiful Nako tso lake with the backdrop of the Rep Purgyal mountains. Here we had a multitude of options to tickle our now already dead taste buds back to life. After filling ourselves up at a small eating joint which served freshly made food we called it a day.
The next day, after visiting Nako tso lake, we start for Kaza. On our way we are awestruck by the natural carvings on mountains resulting from hundreds of years of slow erosion due to melting water and winds. We are in these mountains and these mountains are in us, in every cell of ours now, and we fall for them over and over again. There are hardly any settlements in this area, no network and no fuel stations. We pay homage to some of the oldest monasteries related to Tibetan Buddhism – Tabo and Dhankar.
Dhankar monastery is breathtakingly beautiful and the way it is constructed, defies science and logic. It is built in between pointed eroded rocks overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers.
The spectacular views of carved eroded rocks, barren snow clad mountains, charming small villages and impressive monasteries keep the essential adrenaline rush in us at a high level. We reach Kaza in the evening, the district headquarters of Lahaul and Spiti.
Day 4 drive, from Kaza to Khoksar, is the toughest one. We need to cross the soaring Kunzum pass and then drive through the melting glaciers to reach the base of Rohtang pass before the sun goes down.
After Losar, the last village of Spiti, there is literally no road. We are driving slower than a herd of snails travelling through peanut butter. The path is very dangerous but incredibly stunning. We somehow reach Kunzum pass and celebrate thinking it’s the end of the no-road situation. Little do we know the worst is yet to come. After crossing Kunzum pass, the road turns into a death trap. High patches of snow, path full of giant boulders and fast flowing water streams, the path seems unmotorable. At every difficult stretch I get off the car and guide my friend through the seemingly safest path among none. As we drive through the slippery bridges, melted glaciers and huge rocks, the key for us is to keep our engine chamber safe. Remember, we are driving a Figo which is not really suited for this terrain. After getting stuck at a lot of places, battering our car and travelling through this deadly path, we reach Khoksar past sunset. My friend is thanking all the gods for getting us through the nightmarish place safe and sound. Looking back now, this was the best part of the drive and can keep us ranting for hours.
On day 5, we cross the Rohtang pass and reach Manali. Smooth roads, mobile connectivity and crowded town bring us down to the earth again. After relaxing at a cosy Korean cafe in Vasishth village just before Manali, we say goodbye to the majestic mountains with a promise to return, very soon.
Itinerary followed by us
- Chandigarh to Rampur Bushar via Shimla, 250 kms.
- Rampur Bushar to Nako via kalpa, Pooh and khab, 200 kms
- Nako to Kaza via Sumdo, Tabo and Dhankar, 130 kms
- Kaza to Khoksar via Losar, Kunzum Pass, Batal and Chhataru, 150 kms
- Khoksar to Chandigarh via Rohtang, Manali and Mandi, 380 kms
How to reach Spiti
Spiti can only be reached by road. There are two ways to reach Spiti. One is via Shimla and Kinnaur, an almost all weather road. The other is via Manali and Rohtang which is open only for about four months in a year during summer.
Delhi to Kaza (Spiti) via Shimla and Kinnaur – 780 kms
Delhi to Kaza via Manali and Kunzum Pass – 760 kms
Places to see
There is no better way to explore Spiti other than driving through it. The best things to see are on the way while driving – the carved eroded mountains, snow clad peaks, charming villages and the beautiful Spiti river.
- Confluence of Spiti and Sutlej River
- Nako village
- Gue Mummy Lama Temple
- Tabo Monastery
- Dhankhar Gompa
- Hikkim and Kaumik villages – among highest villages in the world
- Key Gompa
- Kunzum Stupas
- Chandra Taal lake – the source of the river Chandra (Chenab)