Spiti – Far from the madding crowds: Part 1

No planning is the best planning – so said no one. But at times it works out well! We met on a Sunday for lunch and spoke about the possibility of a road trip to the hard to access Spiti valley. We weren’t sure how long a trip it would be, who all will go, and where we will stay. We only knew that there were some guys who wanted to go and 1 guy had a 4×4 which he was excited to take. No one spoke about the plan on Monday, some people back off on Tuesday, and then Wednesday two of us still decided to go. Fortunately, the other guy was the one with the SUV and even better, our ideas for a rugged trip matched pretty darn well.

A drive to Spiti is no child’s play and a lot of inexperienced adventurers who think otherwise come back on towing trucks. The roads are rugged, dusty, and littered with stones. Places to take a break are virtually non-existent though there are so few people around that you can virtually stop anywhere! There are several landslides in the area every year and it is a matter of luck how many you get stuck behind and for how long. There are long stretches with no cellphone signal and only a handful of hotels with a handful of rooms each.

We started at around midnight on a Wednesday night, with the target to pass Shimla before the local traffic picks up at about 7 am. The target was to heave breakfast in Narkanda and catch a shut-eye for half a day. Narkanda is a small town about 2 hours beyond Simla that sits on top of the hill and offers some stunning views of the Himalayas. There are only a handful of small hotels/ guesthouses. That makes for a lot of peace and tranquility. The drive was quite smooth – we had passed the plains and reached Chandigarh by about 4 with only short tea breaks. The uphill climb was on a wonderful road and we passed Shimla when everyone was still asleep at around 5:30. My friend knew the owner of a guesthouse in Narkanda and we confidently walked in there at about 7:30 expecting breakfast and beds.

The breakfast, sitting on a green lawn overlooking the mountains with a cold breeze, consisted of an omelet, parathas, and tea. It was delicious! However, there were no rooms to be had. Even the dormitory was full for the day. We tried several other places in the vicinity, with no luck. The option of sleeping in the car was just beginning to get real when we found a circuit house that was willing to give us a room for 4 hours as the guests had checked out early and the next lot wasn’t coming till lunch. A quick nap and a shower later, we were ready to go and start with the adventurous part of the journey…the road less traveled.

The road from Narkanda to Rampur Bushahr is consistently downhill going from 9000 feet down to almost 3500 feet. This is the last major town in the area and then the roads quickly change to crudely cut passes in the mountains prone to falling rocks and landslides. We grabbed a quick lunch and drove on with the idea of making it to the village of Nako by nightfall. We had planned to drive 12-13 hours every day, so we were expecting to get there. The road was getting narrower and letting opposite direction traffic by meant we were driving ever so much closer to the edge of the road, adrenaline was pumping. This was till we came across a bunch of stopped cars right ahead of us. There was a major landslide ahead everyone had to take a detour which was about an hour of drive on a different hill. To make matters worse the road was too narrow for bi-directional traffic and the traffic was being regulated to only go one side at a time. We had at least an hour to wait before we could move ahead.

There were Maggi and tea to be had while waiting and that always helps. The delay meant that we were not going to make it to Nako and alternate plans had to be made. A night in the car came up for discussion again. However, if we did cross the detour in good time, we could make it to either Kalpa or Sangla towns. Both much closer than Nako, but not really on the way. That detour seemed quite worth getting a bed to sleep on- probably only about an hour of a detour. The detour was a bit of an adventure that got us up to 14000 feet before getting us back on the road at about 10000, right after the landslide.

We passed by a beautiful dam and its spillways where the roads got better and the speed was high. We picked Sangla as our destination for the night as it was a little closer and the roads were less prone to landslides. The town of Sangla was stunningly beautiful but it was still a little bit of daylight as we were passing by. We could drive on to Chitkul – the last drivable town before the roads gave way to a trek to Gangotri glacier. This isn’t the side most people trek from, so it makes for a very quiet serene town with only a handful of structures and 2 places to stay, each with 4/5 rooms. We managed to find a room in a run-down building. There was no cell signal and food was a little hard to locate as the local eateries had shut for the night. We managed to pick some local food and a couple of bottles of Godfather beer – what more can one ask for.

The next morning was stunning! Right outside our hotel was a clear stream of water coming straight from the hills. It was a bit of a hike down to the bed of rocks around the steam. The backdrop was snow-covered mountains and beautiful greenery. We delayed our departure plane a few hours and relaxed at the riverside. This could easily have been a destination for the trip.

We drove back to the main road and drove towards Nako. There were several blasting sites around where a complex network of tunnels was being dug to generate hydropower. The roads always stayed next to the Sutlej river but the top surface of the road quickly changed from gravel to rock and dust. It was quite a treacherous drive with a crude rocky mountain on one side and a cliff straight into the river on the other. The road didn’t change much for a few hours though once we passed the town of Spillo, the cell signal disappeared. It was only after we passed the town that was called Pooh that the topography changed. The river alongside changed from Sutlej to Spiti, one of its tributaries as we passed the place the two rivers merged to then keep the name Sutlej. To the left was Nako and a turn to the right would take us to the Chinese border. We passed a few roads that were cut in the mountain such that there was also an overhang on the top and then came by this unbelievable set of switchbacks that would take us up to 14,000 feet – the majestic village of Nako.

I could write a book on this village, its unique architecture, and design. Needless to say, the view was stunning with views into the deep valleys as well as snow covered mountains as far as eyes can see. The only way to get to this place is via one of two crude roads – one that we had come from and the other that we were going to go on – the next day. There is also a helipad, but I believe that was used only in serious emergencies. The houses were all made with crude stones places one on top of the other. The gaps were filled with mud and twigs. Most houses were in two levels, the animals stayed on the lower levels and the people on the upper levels. The heat from the animal bodies helped keep the houses warm. There were small step farms around and a lake a short walk away. A monastery on one side of the village one on the only plain area with a cliff right behind and amazing views of the valley. Children played football in the field as the colorful frills all across the village fluttered in the breeze.

There were several small hotels, the same 5 or 6 basic but clean rooms each. Small eateries offered warm bowls of Thukpa, steamed momos, noodles, and other Tibetan specialties. There was always warm tea that just blended so well with the cool breeze. We spend most of the Saturday morning walking around the town and taking a well-deserved break. Today the drive was much shorter which an option to stay at Tabo, a monastery just 2 hours away, or going all the way to Kaza another hour down. A warm bowl of Thukpa with a chilled Pepsi kind of complimented the warm sun with a cool mountain breeze.

We started driving only late afternoon and it was one hell of a scary drive. While the drive up had been through several switchbacks, this was just a straight drive down the slope of a massive black mountain of mud. The road curves around the mountain with no guard rails and you think that one small skid or delay in turning would take you straight 2000 feet down. I should mention that guard rails were a rare sight for more of the drive as you need to get very close to the edge to let opposite traffic pass and that traffic can often be military trucks. The road got us down some 4,000 feet and then back up a little to Tabo at about 10,500. The monastery had some rooms but they didn’t look very clean and there was no power at the time. We were told that the power should be restored soon, but there was no timeline.

We decided to see the monastery a bit but then drive to Kaza, the final destination. It wasn’t too far away and we expected better places to stay and electricity. It was a fun drive that followed along the Spiti river going upstream. The road was mostly on flat land but climbed steadily to about 12,500 feet. The scenery was beautiful and we passed several villages on the way, a few with populations less than 100.

It got dark by the time we got to Kaza and while Google Maps was showing us to be just outside Kaza, we saw no sign of an upcoming town – no lights. It took us a while to realize that the power cut wasn’t limited to Tabo, Kaza had no power as well. A quick stop to ask a local and we found out that they hadn’t had electricity for over 24 hours and there was only one generator in the town…in a hotel around the middle of the town.

The hotel wasn’t too hard to locate, it was the only place with light. We stepped into the restaurant in the foyer and ordered dinner. It wasn’t much of a surprise but all of the 6 rooms were taken. The owner though had another hotel next door but that one didn’t have a generator. Without much choice, we took a room. At least it gave us access to a restaurant that was likely to be functional. We crashed quickly in candlelight. At 1 am, some sound woke me up – it was the electric grid coming back alive. The joy was short-lived as at 4 am the small night lamp went dark again. I couldn’t fall back to sleep after that.

The first crack of daylight brought its reward – the first sight of the stunning view of the Spiti river and a snow covered mountain from the window. We walked down for breakfast of delicious parathas and tea. Over the filling meal, we made plans for the day – this was the first time we were staying two nights at a place. There are two famous monasteries in the area, Ki and Dhankar. We were going to try to do both in the day. If you have seen one picture of Spiti valley, it’s probably a shot of the Ki monastery. Dhankar is not as pretty to click but the view is to die for…

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