“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” Bilbo had warned Frodo. And so you should be warned, before we went to Spiti, literally ‘The Middle Land’ between India and Tibet, which is no less adventurous than the Middle Earth of The Lord of the Rings.
Imagine an arid land set high in the Indian Himalaya, a high-altitude desert punctuated by small patches of green and miniature villages of white, flat-roofed houses perched below stark rocky hillsides and jagged snow-covered peaks. Picture high passes blocked by snow and ice for half the year, and scattered stabs of colour from fluttering prayer flags and precariously perched Buddhist monasteries.This must be Ladakh, you might be thinking - the legendary Himalayan playground for lovers of extraordinary landscapes, wilderness adventures and spiritual horizons. But no, I'm talking about the wild valleys of Spiti and Lahaul, abutting the rugged western fringes of the Tibetan Plateau, and overlooked by thousands of travellers who rush headlong towards Ladakh in search of their own little piece of Shangri-La.
Spiti have historically fallen more under the influence of Tibet than of India, and they remain far less known to the outside world. Travel here remains one of Asia's great adventures, whether you get around by car (4WD essential), on bone-shaking buses, or by motorbike, on some of the world's most challenging mountain roads.
Many travellers approach Lahaul and Spiti via the 3978m-high Rohtang La pass, which rises north of the tourism hub of Manali– a spectacular experience in itself and only passable from about May to October .
The drive from Manali to Spiti does require every kind of self motivation as it can be graded as the most treacherous road in the world. The remarkable difference in landscapes of dense green all around Himachal to those barren rugged dead mountains of Spiti is awe strucking.This strikes you with its suddenness as you enter the valley along the Spiti River and its numerous tributaries – from the fruit-abounding Kullu valley to the fruitless, pathless, treeless, fearless and people-less Spiti, one of the least populated regions of India. You will pass villages with a population board stating “25 souls”. Predominantly Buddhist, Spiti has a culture quite reflective of Tibet and Ladakh. It is dotted with gompas, around some of which small human settlements exist. The 1000-year-old Dhankar, perched precariously on jutting rocks on a mountaintop, is the most fascinating. It is losing its battle with the elements. It is on good terms with snow, but can’t stand rainfall, which has increased due to climate change. The revered dead animals that hang from its walls or the three skeleton-faced gods standing guard on tridents seem at a loss to halt the impending doom.
The best guides to any gompa are its lamas. Even if you had a working network in the remote Himalayas, Google cannot substitute talking to a lama, telling you that from each family they send the second son to become a lama to avoid division of family property. Or sitting in a wooden home in Sangla Valley, with the wife of the household asking one of her husbands to take care of the children while she talks of the fraternal polyandry practised by the locals — one wife with several husbands — to avoid division of family property.
Paul Theroux wisely noted that tourists don’t know where they’ve been, and travellers don’t know where they’re going. And you too never know where these conversations will take you – to the deep recesses of timeless cultures or to the progressiveness of those supposedly left behind by progress. Another popular monastery of the region is Key. Famous for it's perched on Hill top figure overlooking the huge valley.
Kaza in itself , the capital of the valley is the biggest town here and has mostly all facilities close to making you feel a city life on serene mountains. Good and vibrant cafes, amazing travelers walking around and plans for adventures building up in every corners.
If you like hiking , then connecting the high villages of Spiti , walking through Langza , Comic , Diksum and ending up in Dhankar , living and experiencing the local life is a prominent thing you can do. For rest, every breath you take here will be a word written in your story of life surely.
Photos - Trekkers - Priyanka Bhavan & Swapnil Kambli & Myself.
Note from the Author
" Travel made me rich and free. Magic and miracles are true , once you wander on the roads to places different and divine. Sharing with you all, those memories and stories , and wishing you all , that someday you guys travel far and wide too. I am not a great writer , so ignore my grammar and spellings, read it with feelings, and you might just be affected with the wanderlust to hit the road"