Monday, 31 July 2017

Cruising through Spiti Valley!

                                          Cruising through Kinnaur - Spiti 

The Trans-Himalayan belt encompassing the northern states such as Himachal and Uttarakhand are by far a rider’s and a driver’s best litmus tests. Having the fortune of being married to a person so passionate about driving and exploring the unexplored, Kinnaur - Spiti was only but our natural choice for a drive. The carrier being Maruti Ertiga, it was still a drive of and a fight for a lifetime! A few tips for those following a similar route.
The best entry point if you choose to do Kinnaur valley first would be Shimla. Alternately, the Leh Manali highway has a cut at Grampho once you ascend the Rohtaang from Manali. This road will take you to Bataal first and you can then descend the Spiti. First things first, choose your carrier wisely. Ample ground clearance is a must for the Chandrataal-Bataal stretch as this segment has practically no roads and you will need to literally cruise through a river bed. Go for sturdier and heavier vehicles. A habit to have driven your carrier over varied terrains will only help. People do pool in and take cars on rent but you need to be an ace driver to pull something like that off in this dangerously treacherous terrain. In the end however, the effort will be all worth it!

Kinnaur valley – 

Shimla – Sangla
The Shimla-Kufri-Narkhanda stretch is ornamented with pine trees on both sides and slightly peeking rocky terrains that make a perfect backdrop for photography enthusiasts. The bird-chirp against this backdrop amidst all the quiet is so soothing; a quick halt is recommended. You will need to look for other halting places to get that panoramic view of the valley, not yet so far below, for Spiti will make you miss all this vegetation.  NH 22 with its beautiful curves and pleasant weather prepares you for the onward journey. Hold on to your excitement for the river belts are yet to come in sight. 

Shimla-Kufri-Narkhanda stretch

A driver's paradise!

Naarkhanda onwards, the Kingal-Sainj-Nirath-Rampur stretch is pretty unadventurous but you can enjoy the drive! The 412 MW Hydroelectricity Project at Rampur comes as a surprise with artificial facades built over the river bed completely contrasting the natural landscapes. Sutlej now comes into full view somewhere around Sainj, flowing platonically and diminishing in size as you gain altitude. 
A particular Café Sutlej at Rampur can be a good halt to satiate hunger pangs and besides, it overlooks the Sutlej; so the view is terrific! 
The man-made amidst the mightly nature! @Rampur

The Sutlej!
The next stretch is the Jakhri-Dhar-Jeori-Wangtu axis. Beautiful roads again and you bless the local transport authority for having given this region a lifeline, its roads and the HP State Transport buses. Himachali drivers are touted to be one of the best in the country, what with having to man such enormous vehicles on miniscule roads and turns that will make you go weak in the tummy! Give them the right of the way. 
That click in the rear-view mirror was an achievement! Take a bow HRTC!

It is best to keep within all limits, be it lanes or speeds. Some of the stretches of the roads are so smooth that you will get carried away. You must therefore not, get, carried, away. 

Wangtu will again surprise you with a 1000 MW Hydroelectricity Project and a left turn thereon takes you to Karcham. The project has diverted the road and you need to cross the river to be able to proceed. Be satisfied that connectivity has been provided. This is a rough single lane dirt road so drive carefully. Besides, you will gain significant altitude and lose it all again to get near to Karcham. This is where HP State Transport buses will be a great morale booster! If they can do it, so can you. Besides, your vehicle is one third the size of theirs!

For adventure enthusiasts, take a right from Karcham where Baspa meets Sutlej to go to Sangla, Rakcham and Chitkul. Such scenic and beautiful vistas are not to be missed, both in summers and winters. Lush green or serene white blanketed mountain slopes will welcome you. 

En route to Sangla..
A sumptuous meal at Rakcham!


En route to Chitkul!
As Chitkul welcomes you..
These views are replaced by slightly barren terrain as you approach Chitkul, the last Indian village and one of the smallest ones of the valley. At 3480 m, complete barren mountain peaks with pointy tops now come into view as you reach Chitkul. With the ITBP guarding this border and China now a nearer neighbour, this little wonderland looks straight out of a fairy tale! From a driving perspective, this can be the best stretch of the journey with gushing waters way below and miniature settlements pecked neatly into the mountains.
Spot those tiny settlements!
Sangla onward to Chitkul..
You also get to see pink paddy plantations and tons of apple orchards on the way. A few camp sites could be a good halting place. Try and trek down to the river bed around Sangla. Baspa has ravaging waters and sitting by the bank will be an experience of a lifetime. There are homestays in Rakcham and Sangla too. Foreigners choosing this axis for biking and cycling expeditions come by as a wonder!
By the Baspa!

Apple orchards in Sangla!
Back on the main axis, continue Powari onwards to Rekong Peo, one of the central places of Kinnaur. Fill up your tank at Powari for there is no petrol pump till Kaza. Visit Kalpa for Mount Kinner Kailash pe(e)ak and a smaller place called Kothi where thrives Hinduism, is a must halt. Also, one of the few places where polyandry is still practiced. 
Bhairav Mandir, Kothi, Rekong Peo!
Winding roads through pine forests to reach Kalpa is a delight for the one at the wheel although descend carefully. Once you start towards Pooh again, cut-mountains will start coming into view. The road gets difficult now and hereafter called the Hindustan Tibet Highway, will change your parameters of a highway

Pooh-Namgya-Khab axis is quite comfortable though. Stop at Sutlej-Spiti confluence just before Khab!
Spiti-Sutlej confluence at the Khab bridge!
Landscapes go for a makeover from vegetation to wretched and barren ones and start resembling Hunder from Ladakh. Tip : A common practice here is for locals to ask for lifts. The remote places see buses plying only once or twice a day. Be generous and offer help.
Molling onwards, you can take a detour to Nako. The climb is sudden and challenging. Nako houses a monastery and a beautiful lake! 
Locals at Nako!

Nako Lake!
And then comes the most deadly stretch ever. The Molling Nalla. No point in suggesting a slow drive for you will not have another choice but this is one great experience! The descent is quite bad as you are at almost 15000 feet and you can see the valley. The co-navigator has to have a cool head for he or she is the one who sees the valley. Motivate thy driver and make this experience an unforgettable one! 

Spiti Valley

And begins the Spiti valley! Leaving Kinnaur behind.
Back on the main axis, next destination is Sumdo. Spiti valley begins here. Go off axis again and visit Geyu, the closest village to China that also houses a 500 year-old Lama mummy. Rare sighting! A picturesque village with about 250 habitants, cover yourself up before getting here for it is very windy at the monastery. You can take your vehicle right up to it. 
At Geyu Monastery. Beyond the sunlit ridge is China.

Tabo monastery!
Sumdo-Hoorling-Tibda-Tabo has motorable roads and Tabo has good homestays for taking a halt and a monastery.  

Tabo-Dhankad-Attargo-Lidang-Kaza can be a one day journey. Dhankad is 8 kilometers off axis but not to be missed. The climb is again altitude-gaining and winding. Dhankad monastery, cut out in a hill with monks staying on the top floor and Spiti looking hair-like far below is an unforgettable memoir! A 2 hour trek will also take you to Dhankad lake nearby. You may descend via the same route or an alternate one from the other side. Once you reach Kaza, fill up your tank and you can stay put here. It’s a bigger town with a market place and other essentials.
En route to Dhankad, a random click!

Kaza – Langza – Komik – Kye – Kibber - Losar
Supposedly the highest village of Spiti, Langza has much more to offer than that. Kaza-Langza drive is again a sudden climb and you can get altitude sickness. Hereafter, you will gain altitude as you ascend Spiti. A diversion mid-way to go to Komik first can also be taken. Langza houses a big open space Buddha statue on an elevated mound, right in the middle of the village. You can drive right up to the spot, circle it as if in a temple while the towering figurine gives you its blessings for the upcoming Batal adventure! The village is also famous for fossils and you may collect some. Continue to Komik via Hikim that houses the world’s highest post office. You will need to park and walk into the village to get here. Be attentive with turns and navigation for GPS might not function in most of the places in Spiti and you will not see a soul to ask for directions unless you walk in to their habitations.
A few houses and habitants and the valley comes alive!

The huge Buddha statue sitting tall to guard the locals.
The drive ahead to Kye and Kibber are a breeze. Roads are in good  condition. The last few kilometers to Kibber is dirt road but the view atop is mesmerizing. Very windy and cold here, so be prepared. Drive back to Kaza on the same axis and continue to Losar. The vistas all along the Spiti are barren and yet so beautiful! Strokes of rouge and browns make you wonder what mineral these mountains house! The Hanse-Losar stretch of the road is in not a good shape but again, motorable. 
A peeping peak!
Komik village. Nothing funny about the village but the board sure is. ;)

World's highest post office!

Losar – Chandra Taal – Bataal – Grampo
This is the last stretch of your travel and the one that can give the Molling Nalla a competition. Although, admittedly, this route is safer as compared to the Nalla for you are right in the middle of the river bed. Losar onwards, you first cross the Kunzum La. The scaling up the pass is slightly tough. Again, encircle the stupa at Kunzum La, going by popular belief and continue towards Bataal. This is a long dirt road with a few tricky curves.
A diversion en route to Baatal will go to Chandrataal. It’s a 13 kilometre drive from the main road. Again, risky business so keep your cool. Vehicles are not allowed post the camp sites at Chandrataal so the actual lake is accessible on foot post a 2 kilometer walk. Travel in local gypsies or trek the first part of the route and then walk it up to the pristine clear waters. Something close to Pangong Tso! Try and catch a glimpse of it in the morning rays, an unforgetful sight!
The breath-taking Chandra Taal!

Day break at Chandra Taal!
En route to Bataal!

Once you join the main road, continue towards Bataal and this last leg will need the most of your patience. There are no roads and river bed is the only route to be taken. Hence, avoid a pillion if you are riding. Forceful gushes of water might at times make navigation difficult. Also, higher ground elevation will become a necessity here. Road construction ahead of this stretch is a continued affair when the region opens up to traffic, so be co-operative. The BRO and its JCB’s are doing a wonderful job in the region just ensuring connectivity. Besides, the whole purpose of a great drive/ride would have been defeated were there to be good roads all along the way! Once you reach Grampho, you can either take a right and continue Leh-onward or the left will take you to Rohtang and you can further descend towards Manali.

The Do’s
-          Service your vehicle well before leaving. Have a spare tyre, a puncture kit and an air pump ready to use and know how to use them!
-          Keep dry snacks, plenty of water and high altitude medication handy. Carry an oxygen cylinder if required. If you have a medical history, consult your doctor before embarking upon the journey. The highest point you will reach is around 15000 feet.
-          Read well about distances and inquire about the road conditions on a daily basis. Chat with locals for they are your best guides.

The Don’t’s – 

-          Do not over speed or cut lanes for the entirety of the terrain is hilly and new to you.
-          Do not disrespect the local culture, traditions or beliefs of the people. Remember, you chose to go there!

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Home stays in Spiti

Simplicity, surrealism, splendor and scare! Frightful even..That’s the surge of emotions that the Kinnaur-Spiti has up its sleeve. Go behold and attempt. A drive through the valley is a bold initiative; the trans-Himalayan belt has the most treacherous curves and notorious patches of roads to offer, 13,000 feet above mean sea-level. From the perspective of tourism, one of the virgin lands, nestled in the northern state of Him-Achal, this heavenly abode, also known as Little Tibet, will not fail to enchant you. A fantastic blend of Buddhism and Hinduism with the former reigning for obvious reasons, the green lushes of Kinnaur, followed by the sudden change of topography, to that of a cold desert in the Spiti valley leaves you utterly speechless!

Drive down on your own provided you have the required skillsets (here, these will be much required) and the passion to cover these 800-1000 odd kilometers within a span of a few days. For travelers coming from coastal areas or having little experience with high altitudes, carry the necessary medicines to fight breathing trouble and other associated ailments. Unless you plan to spend a longer time, these preparations for a week-to-two-long travel will also prove to be a morale booster. Whatever the carrier (if on a bike, avoid a pillion), Lahaul Spiti will surprise and inspire you, both at the same time!

Variety in topography is the main spice here!

Such scenic vistas are in abundance!

Homestays in Spiti

The heart of any region lies within the local cultures, beliefs and traditions of its populace. For a region as tucked away from mass tourism as Spiti, this could not be any truer. Most of the villages ornamenting the Spiti valley like Tabo, Dhankar, Kaza, Losaar have homestays. A homestay is literally a ‘home stay’ where you can accommodate yourself with a local Spitian family, either in their own house or a guesthouse, if they have catered for one, for tourists. It’s one of the best ways to closely connect with the cultural and religious vein that ticks in the valley. Bigger towns like Kaza do have hotels but luxury and comfort is all that you can look for there. For a heartfelt connect, go for homestays over the usual commercialized accommodations. I will talk about 3 in Tabo, Kaza and Losaar where we (husband and self whilst on a road trip) tried to capture the real essence of the region thanks to the hospitality of the families we stayed put with.

Tabo – One of the bigger villages in Spiti, we could hardly spot it as there was no electricity. We drove past the entirety of it in a couple of minutes and decided to take a U to stay put. Came across a few homestays and chose Namsay Homestay at the farther corner of the village towards Dhankad.
The entrance!
The guest room!

The Indian seatee!
Mr. Schchot Tchering, Mrs. Tchering and their daughter Suman (the other 3 children were away for studies etc..) welcomed us. A tastefully-done up garden (we could spot this only in the morning but what a sight!) with a cemented entryway led to guestrooms right adjacent to the house. Even in complete darkness, they served us tea and promised a great dinner in their living room with the family. This was to be a thrill! The homestay was nothing short of a well maintained hotel room (for those used only to these) with a comfortable bed and warm bedding. Much required. Solar lamps are a savior (ecologically too) in the region that often plunges into darkness. Although ill-lit, we could see and manage ourselves so as to freshen up after the tiring drive.
Mr. Schchot Tchering, our host!

By around 6.30-7 pm, we were seated in the garden below a star-lit sky and a fantastic full moon that looked so big and close enough to be up for grabs! The silence and the fragrance of flowers was so eerie and soothing at the same time that we soon felt at home. Mr. Tchering fixed dinner and served us Timok, the Spitian homemade bread with fresh cauliflower vegetable, straight from the garden. Add to that the dash of lemon pickle and we were in seventh heaven. We were joined for dinner by their boy-servants, a trait you will notice quite commonly in Spiti. Lot of young boys from Bihar have migrated to this part of the country and work in the fields of the locals and live with Spitian families as house help.
Timok, the Spitian homemade bread with a dash of pickle by the side!
What followed took us by surprise. Mr. Tchering strung his Khoppo (a smaller sitar-like instrument) and sung a local melody transpiring us to some other universe, or so it felt by the time he had finished the song. His wife then made me wear the local bridal costume and offered a white pearls necklace as a fond souvenir. Upon inquiring about the price, I was stunned to know that the real pearls (red in colour) cost around 30 to 40 thousand a pearl and are inherited by the eldest girl of the family!
Spitian weddings are a very expensive affair and the daughter-in-law too is gifted in gold and pearls by the groom’s family. A surprising revelation was the fact that this affair was felt less expensive by the Spitians as compared to their Kinnauri counterparts. Their elder son was however sent to the local monastery for life, a practice followed by one and all under the Tibetan Buddhist faith. Mr. Tchering too worked in the same monastery as a care-taker and showed us around the following morning. 
Mrs. Tchering, busy with her beads, making pieces of lovely jewellery!

Before departing, he prepared Thinthuk, Spitian homemade pasta and vegetables! All gone within minutes! We then saw his ‘mandir’ upstairs which was an amalgamation of what looked like Buddhist statues and Hindu deities. Goodbyes are never good but we had to leave, with tad too heavy a heart!

The local staple breakfast, Thinthuk!

{Namsay Homestay – Mr. Schchot Tchering (}

Kaza – Proceeded Dhankar onwards and the next night halt was at Kaza. A lesser homestay and more of a guest house by the name of Nyingma Guest House. One of the very few places with a wi-fi and a hot water connection. After a complete cut-off for 4 days, this being a welcome change could not be denied. This place owned by Urgian Chhering is managed by a caretaker who has shifted base from Solan. He not only cooked for us but also offered help with a bit of car maintenance. The homestay is located in the heart of Kaza with the local market a few steps away and if you are lucky to meet a few travelers along the way, this can be a good crash pad. Also, with the Internet connectivity, you can better plan your upcoming journey and get information about current weather conditions as you scale higher up in the valley towards Kumzun La.
We met Urgian the following morning and he generously offered help with planning the itinerary for the rest of our day, over breakfast. A visit to Kye, Kibber and Komik villages followed by a tip on homestay in Losaar was all chalked out by him and we couldn’t thank him enough! A sumptuous sandwich-coffee breakfast at the typical Spitian low-lying tables’ set-up was a perfect start to the day!
{ Nyingma Guest House – Mr. Urgian Chhering
Urgian – 9459909191 / Indu – 9418609191 / Kusang – 9418556344)}

Losaar – Losaar is a smaller village as compared to Kaza. You scale altitude Kaza onwards and might have to fight altitude sickness here. We looked for Shambala Guest House as suggested by Urgiang in Kaza and soon found it. Located in central market place, the owner is a local couple who stay in the same building. They have built twin-sharing and single rooms and offer just a bed too for travelers running on pocket string budgets! We met a Taiwanese girl here who had rented a bed for as little as Rs. 100 a night. Hot water for washing up was made available on request and local cuisine, as anywhere else, was heartily prepared.
The owners also ran a café downstairs. This was a great place to meet travelers as they come for meals and catching up. We met a few Israelians and some fellow Indians here and shared experiences. A cozy little place with all essentials and good meal options. Fight the cold, meet like-minded (or preferably not) people and bathe in the sun on the terrasse during daytime! This was one place where we had a 2 hour-long conversation with the 22 year old Taiwanese girl who was so intrigued by India that she had travelled across the length and breadth of the country for over 6 months by then! All in all, great ambience, pocket-friendly, local food and some long-lasting exchanges with people!
Jia Ling, our Tiwanese counterpart thereon!
{Shambala Guest House – Mr. Angdui}