Spiti Valley: All About the Cold Desert with Warm Hospitality

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“The Bed of the Spiti (River) is so deep as to prevent its water being of any assistance to the people in cultivating; they depend entirely upon the small streams from mountain feeding their kools… in some seasons when a great abundance of snow has fallen upon the range of mountains immediately above the level ground, cultivation is attempted, but it is very uncertain, and in taking revenue from the country, it cannot be accounted as productive soil.” –  Captain WC Hay, Report on the Valley of Spiti, Journal of the Asiatic Society, 1851

Well, this colonial account from 1851 more or less describes everything about Spiti Valley. It is what we now call a “Cold Desert” sired by the eponymous river. It is a high altitude area and the mountains even block the monsoon clouds. So, it is a “rain shadow zone” where water is always an issue and the land is not very fertile. Modern interventions have slightly improved the prospects but it still remains mostly barren and people cultivate a few things during the brief summer season while the winter is harsh as everything gets buried under snow. However, this is what makes it one of the most iconic Himalayan destinations in India.

Yes, Spiti no longer needs any introduction. It has become very popular in the last few years and a lot of people are dying to go there. Although I have been there many times and there are lots of posts on various destinations, I have not yet made a comprehensive post on it. So, I think, this is the time to do one.

In this post, I am trying to provide practical information that everyone can use but as usual, the focus is on the budget-friendly but sustainable options that backpackers can use. I have also seen the place gradually developing and adding new facilities every year. So, I think regularly updated posts are necessary.

 

Spiti Valley Travel Guide

Spiti Valley Tourist Route Map
Spiti Valley Tourist Route Map

Understanding Spiti Valley

So, the entire Spiti Valley is located at a high altitude, between 3000 to 4600 meters. It is cold and barren and this is what gives us the unique landscapes. It was not easily accessible until recently and proper roads have come up only in recent decades. So, this tourism boom here is pretty new. Nevertheless, people are known for hospitality and nowadays most of the families depend on tourism.

As you can see from the map above, it is sandwiched by high mountains of Kinnaur, Tibet, Ladakh, and Lahaul from all sides. Here, do note two things…

Spiti is a part of Lahaul and Spiti District. However, Lahaul is a completely different region centered around Keylong town located to the west of Spiti. They may look adjacent but these are such difficult terrains that you won’t even get a direct bus from Kaza to Keylong. The highway to Ladakh goes through Lahaul.

If you want to explore Lahaul region, I have a different post for that. 

Similarly, you pass through Kinnaur DIstrict to reach Spiti from the Shimla side, which is also a major attraction in itself.

If you want more details into Kinnaur, I have a separate post for that too.

Usual Spiti Travel Routes

Starting from Shimla, the primary travel route in Spiti is the following…

Shimla-Narkanda-Rampur-Jeori-Bhabanagar-Wangtu-Tapri-Karcham-Reckong Peo-Spello-Pooh-Nako-Sumdo-Tabo-Kaza-Losar-Kundum La-Batal-Gramphoo-Rohtang La-Manali

Everything else not mentioned above is located nearby, to be reached with short diversions from the highway.

How to Reach Spiti?

Spiti can be reached from two sides, from Manali via Rohtang La (3900 metres) and Kunzum La (4600 metres) and from Shimla along the Hindustan Tibet Highway that passes through Kinnaur. During the tourist season in the summers, visitors normally do a circular trip, i.e. enter via one side and exit via the other. However, in the winter, the Manali route gets closed due to snowfall in the high passes. One can still visit through the other route but it gets really difficult during the winters and only hardened adventurers venture into Spiti between December and March.

By Air

The nearest major airport is Shimla and Bhuntar (Kullu-Malani), depending on which route you take. From there, you will have to get a bus or hire a car.

By Train

The nearest major rail station is Kalka in the plains but you can also take the mountain railway (toy train) to Shimla and then again look for bus/cab. If you are going via Manali, the nearest Major station would be Chandigarh.

By Road

You get buses from Manali as well as Shimla to Kaza. However, Shimla to Kaza is a very long way and it is better to halt somewhere in Kinnaur en route.

Spiti on HRTC Buses

So, the most affordable way to explore Spiti is with HRTC buses. Buses are limited but they normally follow a reliable routine. You will also find local buses to many smaller villages from Kaza. I have made a separate post on bus timings as there are a lot of details.

Read this post on Spiti Valley HRTC Bus Timings for more details.

Spiti Road Conditions

When I first took the Hindustan Tibet Road back in 2014, the roads were horrible as a lot of construction was going on. However, things have improved of late as the work has been completed. Due to the sheer nature of the road, you will still have some heart-stopping moments, especially if this is your first time. The inner roads connecting Kaza to other villages are also pretty smooth. Still, I don’t think it is no longer as dangerous as it used to be. The only genuinely difficult portion is the one between Kunzum La and Rohtang La, where the road may disappear and you may find yourself driving through streams.

Where to Stay in Spiti?

Spiti has excellent stay options for travellers and the good news is that they are pretty affordable and there are some interesting options to choose from.

Hotels & Resorts

More expensive mainstream hotels are mostly centered in and around Kaza, which is the headquarter of Spiti. Personally, that is not my style and I never go for them.

Homestays

Homestays are the best ways to experience Spiti and they are present in almost every village in the valley. You stay with local families, try local food, and gain a better understanding of their lifestyle and culture at the homestays. Costs for the same are generally low. I once stayed in Dhankar for INR 300 including three times food! Prices differ from village to village and also from season to season. I have generally found the homestays in Tabo to be a bit more expensive. Also, do note that outside Tabo and

Backpacker Hostels & Dorms

In Kaza you will find backpacker hostels that are parts of India-wide chains. However, for a more local experience, you can ask around at the homestays too as many of them have large, shared rooms. I have stayed in such places in Kaza itself for as low as INR 400 (Including breakfast and dinner).

Monastery Guesthouses

Another unique and delightful option in Spiti is to stay in a monastery guesthouse. Of course, not every monastery has this option. As far as I know, Tabo Monastery, and Key Monastery have guest houses where you can stay for 200-300 per night. Facilities will be limited but it is a great opportunity to stay in the gompa itself and interact with the monks.

Camps

Camping is possible in Spiti and it is most prevalent at Chandertal Lake, which is a bit far from the villages. So, there will be tents set up by service providers already where you can stay and also get food for a night.

Top Places to visit in Spiti

Kaza

Kaza aerial view

Kaza is the headquarter of Spiti so this is where the bus will leave you. It is a growing town which itself is not exactly a tourist destination but can be your base to explore the region. Scores of hotels, homestays, restaurants, and backpacker hostels are available around the town. Local buses and shared cars to other places in Spiti leaves from Kaza. It is also one of the few places in the valley where you will get Wi-Fi in some hotels but the signal won’t be very strong.

Read my detailed post for Kaza and around.

Tabo

Tabo is widely known as the Ajanta of the Himalayas because of the ancient murals that can be seen inside the Tabo Monastery, which was built in 996 CE. The monastery complex looks innocuous from outside, with some scattered mudhouses and chortens. However, the moment you enter inside, you will be taken aback by the grandeur and enormity of the murals that have miraculously survived a millennium in extreme weather conditions. The paintings depict scenes from Buddha’s life and other events from Mahayana traditions and the amount of details and finesse in these artworks by the unknown artisans is comparable to the best in the world. Tabo is around 50 Kms from Kaza and if you are entering through the Shimla route, you will reach Tabo before Kaza. There are many homestays in Tabo but if possible, try to stay in the monastery guesthouse for a spiritual experience.

Read my post on Tabo here.

Dhankar

Dhankar Village

Dhankar is another thousand-year-old monastery in Spiti situated in the village of the same name. It is around 36 Kms from Kaza but the road takes a slight diversion from the highway. Another major structure in the village is the Dhankar Fort, which is not in a very good shape now and is believed to be even older than the monastery. The primary attraction of Dhankar through is the very setting of the village. It is located higher up from the highway and it looks like it is somehow clinging onto the windswept cliff. Words are hardly enough to describe this view. There is a high altitude lake called Dhankar Lake, which is around an hour’s hike further from the village. Dhankar also has many homestays that offer stay and food at nominal rates. Facilities offered are very basic although a couple of newer hotels are also coming up.

Read my post on visiting Dhankar Gompa and Village here.

 

Pin Valley

Pin Valley borders the Parvati Valley in Kullu. The famous Pin Parvati Pass Trek connects these two regions. The sparsely populated landscapes here are a photographer’s dream and it has now been declared as a national park. Mud is the only major settlement in the valley and is well connected to Kaza. It is actually a National Park and the possibility of sighting some Himalayan wildlife is also very high in this region including the elusive Snow Leopard.

Key Monastery

Key Monastery

Key or Kee Gompa is another major monastery in Spiti which was built in the 11th century. It is barely 14 Kms from Kaza and is easily visible due to its distinctive structure. One of the largest monasteries in the region, it houses several valuable artifacts including valuable paintings and manuscripts. This is another monastery that has a guest house where you can stay.

Kibber

Entry of Kibber

Kibber village is a bit higher up on the same road as Key. A beautiful village with many homestays, it also works as the entry point to the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, where snow leopards are sometimes sighted. It is also the starting point to the Kanamo Peak trek, a very difficult high altitude trek that is gaining popularity of late.

Langza

Langza, Spiti
Buddha Statue at Langza,

One can find million-year-old fossils lying around Langza, which tell us of an era when there used to be a sea in place of the Himalayas. Apart from that, one should visit Langaza for the sheer views of high latitude plains. The gigantic Buddha statue lording over the village is also an attraction. There are many homestays and restaurants in Langaza nowadays.

Komic

Komic Gompa

Komic is one of the highest motorable villages in the world at around 4600 meters. It can be really cold, especially if the day is cloudy. The monastery at Komic is also a very ancient one and is located even higher than the village.

Hikkim

Iconic post office at 4440 meters in Hikkim.

Hikkim is the world’s highest post office, which makes this sleepy village world famous. You can even visit the post office, meet the postmaster, and send a postcard from here to your friends or to your own place, and receive it after you return.

Chandertal

Chandertaal or Chandratal (Literally, Moon Lake) is a high altitude lake at around 4300 meters. You can hike to it or hire a car through a difficult road. You can camp near the lake for a night (Camps are already there). It is also the source of Chandra River, that eventually meets Bhaga at Tandi to form Chadrabhaga (Chenab).The views, as expected, are magnificent. While it can be difficult during the winter, one can camp here in the summer. There are multiple routes to reach the lake. One can trek from Batal or there is also a motorable road now that now leaves you just 2 KMs away from the Lake.

 

Top Offbeat Places and Activities in Spiti

Gue Mummy

Until recently, hardly anyone knew about Gue but it became suddenly famous as the news about the mummy spread. Basically it is the mummy of a priest, at least 500 years old, that has been preserved in the monastery. So, in short, you don’t have to go to Egypt to see a mummy. It can be reached through a slight diversion from Sumdo, just after entering Spiti from Kinnaur.

Mane

Mane is a lesser-known village in Spiti that can be reached after a short diversion near the road to Pin Valley. It has an ancient monastery, which is the main attraction. It is somewhat away from usual touristy circuit of Spiti, and that is why it is a good way to see Spitian life in its purest form.

Chicham

Chicham is a small village that was connected to Kibber with a very shaky suspension bridge over a deep gorge. However, recently the bridge was converted to a new motorable bridge. So, the Chicham Bridge is now the highest motorable bridge in Asia and this is what has made this village famous too.

Chicham Bridge

Tashigang

Tashingang is one of the remotest and highest villages in Spiti. It is a few KMs higher up from Kibber. Due to the sheer altitude, the wind is very strong here and it can be bitterly cold. Only a handful of families stay here to cultivate the land during the brief summer.

Demul and Lhalung

Demul and Lhalung are two beautiful nearby villages. They have been connected with the rest of the world through motorable roads only recently. One can also trek from Demul to Lhalung. The monastery at Lhalung is also a very ancient one. Built at around 10th century, it is as ancient as the ones in Tabo and Dhankar.

Snow Leopards in Spiti

Yes, snow leopard sighting has become a major attraction in Spiti but generally, you need to go in winter for the same as they come down to the villages in search of food during the harsh winter. Some agencies have special snow leopard tours but they tend to be expensive.

Top Treks in Spiti

Views you can expect in a trek in Spiti Valley

Pin Parvati Trek

One of the most famous and challenging treks in Himachal, the Pin Parvati trek connects Pin Valley in Spiti to Kheerganga in Parvati Valley. This trek lasts around 11-12 days and requires seasoned guides.

Pin Bhaba Trek

This is another major multi-day trek that connects Bhaba Valley to Pin Valley. So, you can hike from Kafnu and reach Mud in Pin Valley (Spiti), or do it from the opposite side from Pin Valley to Bhaba Valley.

Parang La Trek

Parang La trek connects Spiti to Ladakh. It is actually an ancient trading route that is challenging. It takes around 11-12 days. It starts from Chicham, a short drive from Kaza, and then it ends in Korzok in Changtang Valley.

Kanamo Peak Trek

Kanamo is a high peak in Spiti at around 6000 meters, offering you unforgettable panoramic views from the top. It is not far from the touristy village of Kibber, which is the base for this trek. It takes around 2-3 days for this trek to and from Kibber.

Spiti Left Bank Trek

Spiti Left Bank Trek is basically the one where you hike from village to village. It covers almost all the major villages in Spiti mentioned above such as Langza, Hikkim, Komic, Lhalung & Demul. You move from one village to another and stay at the local homestays. It is also easier to quit. In case you feel like giving up, you can simply come down to the main road and find a vehicle to reach Kaza.

 

What to Buy in Spiti?

Know where to go

There are some interesting things you can buy in Spiti. If you are into shopping, you will find some local woolen items, gemstones, dry fruits, roasted barley, etc along with Buddhist memorabilia like prayer flags and incense sticks. However, the coolest and most unique buy here is sea buckthorn tea and jam.

Phone and Internet Connectivity in Kinnaur

Phone and internet connectivity in lower Kinnaur has improved a lot of late. You should have no problems in Sarahan, Kalpa, or Sangla. However, the moment you leave Peo and start moving northwards, the signal begins to weaken. Especially after Pooh, it more or less disappears. BSNL may work for calls but nothing more than that around Nako.

ATMs in Spiti

ATMs are hard to find in Spiti. Kaza has one or two but they may not also work if luck is not on your side. It is better to get your cash before entering Spiti. Both Manali and Reckong Peo should have enough functioning ATMs.

Seasons in Spiti

November-March

This is the harsh winter season in Spiti. Everything is buried under snow in this season and the Manali route remains closed though you can enter from Shimla. Be prepared for extreme cold but it will be a different kind of adventure.

April

I find it a bit of an awkward month. The snow starts melting but it is still too early. The towns in Spiti still wear a deserted look as the tourist flow begins to pick up.

May to September

This is the brightest and most popular season in Spiti. As it does not rain here much, the summer season continues into the monsoon and then till early autumn. However, do note that in July and August it rains in other parts of Himachal. So, while Spiti may remain dry, there may be heavy rains in Kinnaur and Kullu, causing landslides en-route.

October

This is again somewhat like April. The tourist flow starts decreasing as it gets colder but it is too early for snowfall.

Spiti in Winter

So, visiting Spiti in Winter has become a major trend nowadays. You can do it too but you need to be prepared. Not all facilities may be open during this season, so collect some information beforehand and it is better to be in touch with a local guy. Apart from the snow-covered landscapes, winter is also the season to spot snow leopards.

History & Culture of Spiti

The early history of Spiti is not very well documented but it has always had a closer connection with Tibet, compared to the plains of India. I think most people became aware of it only after the arrival of the British and even as a tourism destination, nobody used to go there till 20th century. Anyway, Buddhism is the mainstay here and that is the best-preserved part of Spiti’s history and heritage. Some of the monasteries like Dhankar and Tabo are pretty ancient, more than 1000 years old.

Food in Spiti

Thenthuk

Food in Spiti is basically Tibetan food but there are some unique local items. Of course, due to tourism growth, you will find more mainstream foods too but if you want authentic stuff, you should ask around. Sometimes, the homestay owners can also offer you very good stuff. Interestingly, I have found better restaurants in Tabo compared to Kaza but that is just my opinion. Thenthuk, the “meatier” version of Thukpa, is the most filling budget option for a quick lunch.

Petrol Pumps (Gas Stations) in Spiti

On the Shimla to Kaza route, there are petrol pumps near Tapri and Reckong Peo in Kinnaur and then in Kaza. To be on the safer side, get enough of it even before you even enter Kinnaur. Also, on the Kaza-Manali route, there will be nothing else once you leave the town.

Altitude Sickness (AMS) in Spiti

This is a major concern in Spiti Valley but this is not a predictable one. AMS can always strike at such high altitudes and even I had a mild bout in Kibber once. I did not do anything though. I just came down to Kaza the next day and felt better. The thing with AMS is that it can suddenly strike and it is not always predictable. Some people use medicines but I have never used them. I think the best way is to take it slow and move up gradually. That is why Shimla to Kaza approach is suggested by many because that ascent is more gradual on that side. There is no sure-shot cure for this. In case you feel unwell, plz don’t go higher up and try to reach a place at a lower altitude.

Read my blog on Kibber where I had a mild AMS attack.

Spiti Itineraries

I am not a fan of itineraries but nevertheless, I made one 14 day Spiti-Kinnaur itinerary once on request. You need time for Spiti and you must not hurry up. As mentioned above, very quick ascent can also lead to AMS apart from making it hectic and unenjoyable.


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Jitaditya Narzary

Is a traveller disillusioned by the familiar and fascinated with the unknown... and of course the founder of this blog.

2 thoughts on “Spiti Valley: All About the Cold Desert with Warm Hospitality

  • 2020/06/22 at 3:48 pm
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    An exhaustive and informative post. There some misspelled names of places like Kundum(it should be )Kunzum and Tashingang(should be Tashigang).

    Joginder Nagar Railway station near Mandi is another nearest railway station from Spiti valley.

    You can add some more treks under the treks in Spiti valley section that connect Kinnaur to Spiti valley e.g.
    Manirang or Manerang Pass trek(Mane in Spiti valley to Ropa village in Ropa valley, Kinnaur
    Larsa we trek( Kaza to Lippa village of Kinnaur).

    Reply
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