Nestled in the trans-Himalaya mountains in the north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh (India), the Spiti valley is literally a cold desert that lies between two of its better-known neighbors – Tibet and Ladakh. Aptly described as “A world within a world” by Rudyard Kipling, Spiti is bestowed with abundant blessings of nature in the form of snow-capped peaks, rugged mountain ranges, tranquil rivers, pristine lakes, sprawling valleys, and endangered wildlife. Culturally, it is dominated by Buddhism and has some of the ancient and finest monasteries.
Best time to visit:
The Kunzum pass opens up by the second week of June and remains open until mid of October. This results in a 4-month window to do the Shimla – Spiti – Manali circuit along with other remote regions. If you love snow, then June is the month to venture out for this circuit. But September is the month to go to Spiti for its vivid autumn colors – bright yellow-green poplar trees, turquoise water bodies, colorful chotens, and above all, a deep blue sky.
How to reach:
The Hindustan – Tibet highway, that traverses through Shimla – Kinnaur – Nako – Tabo – Kaza, is the most popular route into the valley. Spiti can also be accessed via Manali – Rohtang pass – Kunzum pass – Kaza, in late summer and autumn. For exploring the valley in its entirety, it is recommended to take the full circuit tour starting from Shimla and ending at Manali. The other advantage of this popular route is its steady ascent to high altitude that protects travelers from headache and mountain sickness.
Both Shimla and Manali are well-connected to all major cities in India. From Shimla, it is advisable to hire a taxi (or self-ride for the more adventurous ones) for the entire circuit. You don’t need a 4-wheel drive SUV, but a vehicle with high ground clearance is highly recommended. One would find ample taxi operators in Shimla offering the full circuit tour services. However, low-budget backpackers can use the unreliable services of the Himachal Pradesh Roadways or shared taxis by local operators.
Here is a seven-day road trip itinerary from Shimla to Manali covering the following route – Shimla – Kalpa – Nako – Tabo – Kaza – Kibber – Losar – Kunzum Pass – Chandrataal – Battal – Rohtang Pass – Manali.
Day 1 | Shimla – Rampur – Kalpa
The journey begins with a 225-kilometers stretch of scenic drive from Shimla to Kalpa along the Hindustan Tibet Highway passing through the hill towns of Narkanda, Rampur, Jeori, and Kharchham. The road meanders along the Sutlej river passing through apple orchards, waterfalls, deodar forests and big hydroelectric plants built on Sutlej and Baspa rivers.
The destination Kalpa is a little hamlet located at an elevation of 9,711 feet. Surrounded by deodar, apple, and chilghoza trees, it offers a magnificent view of the famous Kinner Kailash in all its splendor. Watching the lovely sunset/ sunrise, visiting the beautiful Roghi village, Sapni fort, ancient temples and a huge cliff called Suicide Point are some of the key activities to do in Kalpa.
The Himalayan Dhaba (Negi Dhaba) at Narkanda and HPTDC’s motel at Rampur are some of the recommended eating options while on the way. The HPTDC’s tourist lodge at Kalpa is a good option for both stay and food at Kalpa. It also offers a great view of the Kinner Kailash when the sky is clear.
Day 2 | Kalpa – Nako – Tabo
On second day, leave early to cover a distance of 150 kilometres to Tabo over the Hindustan Tibet highway. After crossing the small hilly towns like Pooh, Spillow and Khab, the route starts following the Spiti river and enters into the Spiti valley. The landscape starts turning barren with isolated green patches around water bodies and far-away snow-tipped mountains providing a lovely background. Make a stopover at Nako village and visit the 11th-century old Nako Monastery and Nako lake just to break the monotonous journey.
Moving on from Nako, cross some of the dreaded mountain streams like Maliing Nallah, and reach Sumdo, the gateway to Spiti valley. An 8-kilometre detour from Sumdo, leads to Guye village, famous for a 500-year-old mummy of a Buddhist monk, Sangha Tenzin.
The long, arduous journey ultimately culminates at the beautiful village of Tabo on the banks of Spiti river at a height of 10,760 feet. In the afternoon, walk to the famous Chogshkor monastery that also houses a museum, shopping complex and Buddhist monuments like Maitreya Temple, Mystic Mandala Temple, Temple of Dromton and Enlightened Gods. You would be extremely lucky if a monk guides you through this sacred Buddhist heritage.
There are plenty of eating joints around the monastery that serves both Tibetan and Indian food. Kunzum Top Café at Sonam Homestay is quite popular but almost every homestay at Tabo do serve good local cuisines.
Day 3 | Tabo – Dhankar – Kaza
If you have missed the Tabo Monastery on the previous day, you can take the tour in the morning before you set out for Dhankar and Kaza. Moving on from Tabo, take a detour to Dhankar village just 17 kilometers away from Tabo to visit an ancient monastery and fort. Though in their ruins, Dhankar still attracts a lot of tourists during the high season. A three-kilometer uphill trek will take you to Dhankar lake, a pristine high mountain lake.
A relaxed two-hour drive from Dhankar, would take you to Kaza, the district HQ of Spiti and is the largest commercial center of the Spiti valley. Situated at a height of 11,980 feet, Kaza is heavily influenced by Tibetan culture and is a good place to bargain hunt for Tibetan knick-knacks. The Sakya Monastery at Kaza is also quite impressive with big prayer halls and rustic background.
A number of decent eating joints are available in the market serving authentic Tibetan and international dishes. Some of the recommended places to try out are the Sol Café, Himalayan Café, Deyzor and the restaurant at hotel Sakya Abode.
Day 4 | Kaza – Hikkim – Komik – Langza
Another relaxed day when you will explore the offbeat destinations around Kaza. The first such destination is Langza village with the beautiful Chau Chau Kang Nelda peak as its backdrop. A huge golden statue of Buddha believed to be 1000 years old dominates the village. Langza is also well known for its rich fossil reserves and you can collect some from the villagers.
The next one to visit is Komic – the highest village in the world connected by a motor-able road as proclaimed by a HP PWD board in the village.
Though the first claim is suspect, the Tanggyud monastery at Komic is indeed the highest monastery in the Spiti valley. The only eating place is the Spiti Organic Kitchen restaurant at Komic serving the perennial favorites of the Spiti valley – thupkas, momos, Maggie, butter tea and seabuckthorn tea.
The next stop is Hikkim village whose claim to fame is its post office – supposedly the highest in the world. Don’t forget to send a postcard to yourself from this post office. If time permits, do proceed to explore Rama and Lingti valleys that includes Demul and Lallung.
Traversing the region, visitors do often get to see some of the exotic wildlife like Ibex, Himalayan brown bear, musk deer, blue sheep and red fox.
Day 5 | Kaza – Ki – Kibber – Gette – Tashigang
Within a radius of 30 kilometers from Kaza are the beautiful villages of Ki, Kibber, Gette and Tashigang. The road to these picturesque villages meanders along the Spiti river and then starts its upward journey to reach a height of nearly 14,000 feet.
Surrounded by dark and bare hills, the Ki monastery appears like a jewel with its sparkling white facade spread over three stacked stories. This famous monastery is an important center of learning for the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism.
Kibber village, at a height of 14,200 feet, holds 80 odd tightly knit houses located on the sunny slope of a limestone spur. An overnight homestay in this beautiful village Kibber is highly recommended to experience the local culture and cuisine of these remote mountain villages.
Day 6 | Kibber – Losar – Kunzum Pass – Chandrataal
Today’s destination is Chandrataal lake, a 120-kilometers journey over the famous Kunzum pass at a height of 15,060 feet. This beautiful route passes through the Spitian villages like Chicham and Losar. The beauty of the serene crescent-shaped Chandrataal (the Moon Lake) with its jade green water surrounded by denuded and bleached hills presents a picture that is bound to stay in one’s memory for a long time.
The overnight stay would be in the Chandrataal camping ground that is dotted with temporary tents – both basic and luxury varieties. The nights are extremely cold here and the tent operators provide tea, garlic soup, and hot food to keep their visitors warm.
Day 7 | Chandrataal – Manali
The last day of the tour is to drive back to Manali – a 150-kilometers long scenic drive through villages of Battal, Chattru, Gramphu and finally the Rohtang pass. Soon after Rohtang, the landscape becomes emerald green dotted with wildflowers ultimately culminating in the deep, dark green of the stately pines and deodar on the road all the way to Manali.
The famous Chandra Dhabha of Dorje uncle at Battal is worth trying for a quick break. There are numerous small eateries at Marhi just below Rohtang serving all kinds of food and refreshments to the visitors.
The trip ends at Manali from where you can get back to your home destination, either through Chandigarh or through Delhi.