Spiti Valley lays in a remote pocket of the Himalayas. Tibetan prayer flags hang from trees, bridges and roadside shrines called stupas. Snowy peaks dot the skyline. Villages are few and far between, and many are only accessible by foot. This isn’t Tibet, however. This is India at its wildest.
- Day 1: Fly Delhi to Bhuntar, drive to Manali
- Day 2: Drive to Kaza via Rhotang and Kunzum Passes
- Day 3: Drive to Mudh via Kungri Monastery
- Day 4: Drive to Tabo via Dhankar
- Day 5: Drive to Langza via Demul, Hikkim and Komic
- Day 6: Drive to Kaza via Key Monastery
- Day 7: Drive to Chandratal Lake
- Day 8: Drive to Bhuntar
- Day 9: Fly Bhuntar to Delhi
Dates: July 21-29, 2018
Our journey into the Himalayas and Spiti Valley began with our flight from Delhi to Bhuntar, in the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh. We arranged a private driver to meet us there and guide us for one week through the remote towns, ancient monasteries and mountain hikes of the valley.
Aarav was waiting for us when we landed. He had “Nat Geo Wild” decals on his car, a thin mustache and prayer flags hanging from his rear view mirror.
From the airport, Aarav drove us the quick 2 hours to the mountain resort town of Manali for a leisurely night before the next day’s arduous 12 hour journey into Spiti Valley.
If you’ve driven on mountains in North America or Europe, you might think you have an idea of what to expect on high mountain roads in this pocket of the Himalayas. But you’d be wrong.
Because the ground is so soft (not granite or another hard stone),the dirt roads collapse often and makeshift detours emerge in their place. In the summer when there can be heavy rain storms, the roads become muddy. In the winter, they’re covered in snow. At any time, Spiti Valley is not an easy place to get to.
The Drive to Spiti Valley
Aarav picked us up the next morning at 5am. Though the drive was long, the endless mountain views constantly gave us something new and intriguing to look at.
Buddhist stupas marking the Rohtang (3980 meters) and Kunzum (4550 meters) passes mimicked the shape of the rocky spires standing like stalagmites from the valley floor. Symbols of faith blended seamlessly with the surrounding landscape, suggesting that the mountains really are closer to the divine.
Every few hours we’d pass a small village with a tea shop serving basic meals of whatever they cooked that day and hot cups of delicious masala chai. The first tea house (really a tent) we stopped at was dark and cozy inside. Under the dim yellow light streaming through the tent, guests sat on rugs covering mats on the floor.
A few times during our trip through Spiti Valley, we drove through areas where the dirt roads were completely washed out. At one point, the road was so eroded that a group of men strategically placed large rocks in the sunken parts to help each car individually get through.
Eventually, around 5pm, we arrived at our destination, the town of Kaza. This is the largest town in Spiti Valley, and people from surrounding villages will often come here to do business, connect to the internet or buy anything they need. Even so, it’s still a very small town by most measures with a population of 1700 people.
We stayed at a lovely guest house called Hotel Deyzor. Our room was bright and comfortable, and the dinner was delicious! It was a great spot to rest up after the long day.
At this point, the altitude was also starting to get to me. I’d taken some altitude sickness meds in the days leading up to our trip into the mountains. I think they generally worked really well, but I still had a headache, a bit of dizziness and shortness of breath. By the next morning, though, I felt much better.
Before leaving Kaza we had to obtain our inner line permit. This permit is required for visitors traveling to certain parts of Spiti Valley that lay within a small region just before the Tibet border. The process to obtain it should be straight forward, but in practice it’s a little complicated.
The forms and copies of your passport can be obtained from a copy shop, but you actually file the forms in a dark unmarked conference room in the town hall. There seems to be some ambiguity about the number of copies of things you need, as different travelers we met there stated they needed different things. A few people had to go back and forth between the two buildings before getting it straightened out. We were thankful that Aarav handled most of it for us.
The process took us about an hour total and then we were able to go on our way. From Kaza we traveled towards Pin Valley National Park, and specifically the tiny village of Mudh.
Along the way we stopped at the colorful hilltop Kungri Monastery, which was founded in the 700s.
Pea fields surround the monastery’s hill. A woman working in the field offered us a few peas to try right out of their pods. They were the sweetest peas I’d ever had, and they almost tasted like candy.
As we got closer to Pin Valley, we also got closer to one of the most concentrated snow leopard populations on earth. These elusive cats are almost impossible to find any time of year, but especially in the summer. We didn’t expect to find any, and before you get your hopes up, we didn’t find any.
But just knowing they exist in the same physical space that we were near was incredible enough!
We arrived into Mudh around lunch time and checked into our guest house overlooking the valley. Purple wildflowers dotted the lush green valley, and mountains soared around it in so directions. It’s a breathtaking place.
From the outside table we enjoyed a typical meal of daal, beans and rice. We caught the attention of a cute beige dog, who came to sit by our feet. Though he was technically a stray, he looked well-cared for. We found this to be the norm in the mountains. Very few dogs are pets, but the village as a whole looks out for them. I think this is really great, and the dogs we met seem to have a happy life where they come and go as they please and don’t really have to worry about much!
After lunch we attempted to hike down into the valley. Our new pup followed us. He clearly liked both me and Tim, but seemed to stick by me the most. Walking among the wildflowers with my husband and a sweet dog, surrounded by stunning mountains, I couldn’t think of anything better.
When it began to rain a little we turned back to the house. Heavy rain can come on really quickly in this region and we didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a storm.
We rested in the room for a bit. When we saw it wasn’t really raining, we attempted our hike again. Our dog followed loyally, and we made it a little further before, once again, it started to rain.
Back up to house we went. When we got there, another couple was sitting at the outside table playing cards. We learned they are from Israel and played a few fun card games with them. It turns out that this region of India is very popular among young Israelis, especially those who have recently completed their required military duty. The vast majority of travelers we met up there were from Israel.
We made a third and final attempt at a late afternoon hike. This time our dog friend had two more dogs with him, and they all joined us this time.
We made it across a small wooden bridge and up to a ridge overlooking the fields when we realized that the women working in the fields were herding the cows in. They would be walking along our same path. Our dog friends barked at the first cow that came along, causing him to stop in his tracks.
Realizing we would accidentally hold up their work, we quickly went back the way we came. We crossed the bridge again and sat up on some rocks, our three dogs with us. A seemingly endless train of cows and goats emerged around the ridge, then came down to cross the bridge. The women herding them in to town carried baskets on their backs, filled with cow patties to use in construction.
After they passed we headed back into town, where once again we met all the livestock heading home for the night. We asked our guide how they know where to go, and he said they know where they live and faithfully return home every evening from the fields.
We said sad goodbyes to our dog friends and washed up for dinner.
We enjoyed dinner in the family room of the guesthouse. In the winter, the family is completely snowed in. They live the entire season from a few small rooms of the house, centered around the furnace.
This room with the furnace is where we ate, sitting on layered rugs on the floor. It’s surprisingly comfortable! And our meal (a Tibetan pizza) was great. The “pizza” is kind of like a panini, with tomatoes and a creamy yak cheese. We ended up ordering the same thing for breakfast too!
The beautiful view, great food and sweet dogs made Mudh our favorite overnight town on our tour through the Himalayas.
From Mudh, we left Pin Valley and made our way to Dhankar. We visited the incredible thousand year old monastery perched on the sides of the cliff overlooking the town. As you enter the monastery, you see a sign asking for donations, since the structure is in “grave danger of collapsing”. This is not exactly what you want to read as you’re standing inside of it, but it was quite effective in making us donate!
On our way out, a few monks were tying two ladders together with silk sashes. They asked us to help and told us they were going to repaint the top parts of the building. Later, we saw a monk on top of the ladders, perched on the cliff, dutifully painting the outer walls on the monastery.
While in Dhankar we also hiked up to Dhankar Lake. It’s a steep, one hour climb to the top, but the views along the way are worth it. The lake itself is pretty and simple. We enjoyed resting for a bit and even picked up some plastic trash we saw laying around.
On our way back down, we came upon the cutest young dog sunbathing on a rock. We joined him on the rock and it was instant love. This little guy was so cute and affectionate! When we got up to continue the hike down, we didn’t expect him to follow. But when we turned around, he was trotting after us! He walked with us all the way back to the town where we met back up with Aarav for lunch.
I don’t know what it is about these Himalayan dogs, but they seem to love playing tour guide to visitors.
On our way out of Dhankar, we came upon a Czech couple on a motorbike (which is really popular there despite the insane road conditions) with a flat tire.
A group of Indian men were trying to help them, unsuccessfully. Aarav pulled over and pumped enough air into their tire for the guy to drive ahead (quickly) to the next town. His girlfriend rode with us in the car. Aarav worked his magic to seal up their tire so they could get back to where they were staying safely. In an environment as harsh and unforgiving as the high altitude desert of the Himalayas, an unspoken culture of helping others out can prevent serious accidents and tragedies from happening.
That night we stayed in a small town called Tabo, which is the closest we got to Tibet itself.
The next morning we explored the ancient and unique Tabo monastery. The Tabo monastery was founded in 996 AD and is likely the oldest continually running monastery in India. Several mud-walled shrines are open to visitors. Shoes and cameras are forbidden inside, partly out of respect and partly to preserve the millennium-old wall murals inside. These paintings absolutely wowed us. They were so bright and colorful, and blended Tibetan, Indian and Kashmiri styles. It’s dark, cool and dry inside each shrine, which is probably why the paintings are in such great condition.
Inside the main assembly hall, 28 life-size sculptures of deities line the walls. Few photos exist of this place, but I did find one via Getty Images.
Palangri Mountain Trek
After exploring this mysterious and ancient mountainside monastery, Aarav drove us to a remote and little-known hiking trail near Demul where we hiked about an hour up to the top of Palangri Mountain (4990 meters). It was much less steep than the Dhankar Lake hike, until the last portion when the trail became steep as well as narrow.
It was a really fun hike the entire way. Tim and I were the only ones there, and the views in all directions were incredible. From the Tibetan Buddhist stupa at the top of the mountain, we counted 30 glaciers surrounding us. At nearly 5000 meters, this is the highest Tim and I have ever stood!
After this memorable and fun hike, I felt so much joy and confidence in my abilities to do longer high altitude hikes in the future. After my terrible altitude sickness in Peru in 2014, I’ve been anxious about being able to complete other treks I’d like to do in the future (such as long multi-day hikes in Nepal). Being in Spiti Valley at higher altitudes than ever before, I felt reassured that with the right preparedness, I’d be able to comfortably hike at high elevation in the future too.
Komic, Hikkim and Langza
From there, Aarav drove us to Komic, which claims to be the highest village in the world with a motorized road. This probably isn’t technically true thanks to a slightly higher village in Bolivia, but at 4587 meters, it’s still very impressive!
We also visited Hikkim, home of the world’s highest post office. The post office is actually in the bedroom of a mud home. The owner is very nice and had plenty of postcards on hand. Unfortunately he was out of stamps, and as you can imagine, it’s not so easy to restock up there.
We stayed the night in Langza, famous for its abundance of prehistoric sea-life fossils. Millions of years ago the Himalayas didn’t exist and the land was underwater. When the Indian sub-continent collided with Asia, the mountains formed and the fossils were pushed up to the tops of mountains.
The next day we returned to Kaza. Along the way, we spotted Himalayan Ibex grazing. As their name suggests, they are only found in the Himalayas.
We also visited the thousand year old Key Monastery. Perched atop a small mountain, it’s the largest monastery in Spiti Valley. The kind monks inside offered us a salty cup of butter tea and some candy before showing us around.
The next day we started heading back towards Manali and Bhuntar, with an overnight at a glampsite near Chandratal Lake. Unfortunately it was raining so we decided to skip the hike to the lake and just relax instead.
The next morning we left Spiti Valley. It was a long and stressful day, made more challenging by the fact that our guide had stayed up late drinking the night before. He was not in good shape for driving and we had to convince him to wait a bit before we set out. This was really disappointing. We’d generally liked our guide, but he put us in a position where we had to decide between riding on dodgy cliff-side roads with an impaired driver, or being stuck in Spiti Valley with no means to get back to the town. He was apologetic, which we appreciated. However, it definitely had us leaving an otherwise amazing trip on a very bad note.
Despite questionable sobriety, several washed out roads and bridges and incessant rain, Aarav did deposit us safely to our hotel in Bhuntar around 6pm that evening.
The next morning, after a bit of a debacle trying to get a taxi to the airport (even though we had prearranged one with the hotel the night before), we flew to Delhi.
While our time in the Himalayas and Spiti Valley was very different from our experience in Varanasi and the Golden Triangle, we still weren’t able to escape some of the stresses of traveling in India. Unlike most of India, Himachal Pradesh has a cool and dry climate, there is a large Buddhist population, and scams are generally fewer. But like our earlier experience in India, beautiful rewards only come of you’re willing to take on a little (or a lot) of travel challenges.
After three weeks in this complex country, we were eager to see what we would find in India’s southern island neighbor, Sri Lanka. Would it be similar to India, or completely different despite its geographic proximity? What we would learn completely surprised us.