A road trip to Kinnaur and Spiti

More than a century ago a Scottish-American naturalist John Muir observed, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.” In this time and day this statement rings even truer and if one is fortunate enough to be living in India then it becomes extremely hard to resist the allure of the mighty Himalayas. The Himalayas that can be snowy like the poles, lush green like the densest of forests or barren like the bleakest of deserts. And what better way to explore the Himalayas than with friends whom you have known for almost a decade.

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Meet the group, L-R: Ashrafi, Vijay, Ambuj, Vinayak, Parikshit, Mansi and Priti

THE PROLOGUE

In 2014, our group had undertaken its first `long-distance trip’ to Dharamsala and Dalhousie, two mainstream touristy cities with lots to offer. On that trip we were mesmerized by the white and green hues of the Dhauladhar range so this time we wanted to explore an entirely different landscape. Also, we craved to get away from the crowd and commotion of cities. The popular Ladakh region in the state of Jammu and Kashmir seemed to fulfil both our desires but we had to drop it due to logistical and monetary reasons. Our follow-up option was Spiti Valley (a place I had never heard of) suggested to us by Vijay and we immediately started with the research and planning.

Spiti Valley lies in Lahaul and Spiti, a district in north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh that shares the border with Tibet and Jammu and Kashmir. In terms of landscape, Spiti Valley was quite similar to Ladakh but for some reason it did not have the fame that the latter enjoyed. This was good for us as it ensured fewer tourists. The photos of the area were arresting and we were instantly hooked to it.

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View en-route Nako (pic courtesy Ashrafi)
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Dhankar
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View en-route Tabo

THE PLANNING

When to visit: As with most places in Himalayas, the best time to visit Spiti Valley is during summers. The region witnesses it main tourism season from April to October though the best time and thus the peak time is May to July. We planned a 10 days/9 nights trip from 3rd June to 12th June as that was the only time when all of us could take days off from work.

Getting there: There are two routes to access the Spiti Valley. The first is via Shimla. For this route you take the Hindustan-Tibet Road or the NH-5 (old NH-22) and pass through the beautiful Kinnaur Valley before reaching Spiti Valley. This road is said to be one of the deadliest roads in the country though personally speaking, all the mountain roads seem equally treacherous to me. What works in the favour of this route is that NH-5 is an all-weather road and is open throughout the year in addition to the fact that one also gets to visit the Kinnaur Valley.

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Hindustan-Tibet Road en-route to Sangla

The other route is via Manali and passes through Rohtang Pass and Kunzum Pass. This route remains blocked for a long duration of the year. It usually opens after mid-June (might be later depending of the snowfall that year) and gets blocked again by the beginning of October. The biggest advantage of this route is that it is less than half of the distance of the first route and hence is ideal for people who want to explore Spiti Valley in 4-5 days.

As we were travelling in early June we had no option but to take the Hindustan-Tibet Road. My advice is that if you can, then plan a trip in late June or July and take the Manali-Rohtang-Kunzum route. I am not suggesting this just because it is the shorter route but also because we didn’t exactly fall in love with the Kinnaur Valley. Yes, it was certainly good but the real magic started only after we entered the Spiti Valley. Also, if you go during this time-frame then you would not miss out on Chandrataal Lake – the most famous attraction of Spiti. We still regret the fact that we went all the way to Spiti and couldn’t visit the Chandrataal Lake. 

Itinerary: Preparing an itinerary was not a very difficult task as a simple Google search on “Spiti Valley itineraries” returns numerous results. There were different options like road-trips, adventure, hiking, camping, etc. The thing you have to decide on is what are the things you want to do and what you want to see since there is quite a lot to do and see in a limited time. A detailed trip to Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys can easily take around two weeks.

Our trip was primarily a road trip with couple of hikes thrown in. We started our journey at Chandigarh, went all the way till Kaza (capital of Spiti Valley) and came back to Chandigarh. We decided our halts based on the distances that we wanted to cover each day and the places we wanted to explore. Our itinerary was

Chandigarh (start) -> Narkanda (1 night) -> Sangla (1 night) -> Kalpa (1 night) -> Tabo (1 night) -> Kaza (3 nights) -> Kalpa (1 night) -> Shimla (1 night) -> Chandigarh (end)

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Our Route
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Hotel Deyzor, Kaza

Accommodations: There are no luxury hotels in Kinnaur and Spiti but most of the hotels we stayed at were clean, comfortable and more than decent. We had dinner in the hotels only (apart from Sangla and Shimla) and the food was pretty good in all places. We booked the hotels through their own websites apart from the hotel in Shimla which we booked via Makemytrip. There are also home-stays available in various places in Spiti for people who want a more authentic experience of the region.

Transport: We booked a Tempo Traveller as we were 7 people and wanted to travel together rather than in different vehicles. It was quite comfortable and also gave us freedom to eat, stand and move around a little during long hours on road. It cost us Rs. 45,000 to book the traveller for 10 days.

Budget: The biggest expenses for us were the tempo traveller, food and hotels. The final amount per person (Chandigarh to Chandigarh) came out to be around Rs. 15,000.

PREPARATIONS AND PRECAUTIONS

Poor road conditions and dust: The biggest issue for us during this trip was poor road conditions over long stretches and dust due to the blasting of mountains and road construction/widening work being carried out at many places. This came as a surprise to us as we had read numerous blogs while planning for this trip and none of them mentioned this. Due to the poor road conditions you can easily add an hour or two to whatever driving time is shown on Google maps though we will also provide the time it took to travel between places in our subsequent blogs. This problem was more prevalent in Kinnaur Valley than in Spiti and maybe was one of the reasons why I am not so enamoured with Kinnaur. 

untitled-2Harsh sunlight, cold wind and dryness: Carry all your sunscreens, moisturizers, lip balms because it might not seem so from those pretty photos but the climate of Spiti is very hostile. The direct sun and extremely dry wind tends to suck all moisture from your body. If you are planning on doing any hiking/trekking then cover yourself properly. We failed to take proper precautions and by the end of the trip some of us suffered with sun-burnt red noses and swollen lips which made us look like boxers who had just been pummelled and knocked out by their opponents.

Mobile Network: There is no network coverage apart from BSNL in Spiti Valley thus we bought a couple of BSNL cards (1 post-paid 1 prepaid) and shared them throughout the trip. My Airtel network worked fine till Kalpa but after that it was nowhere to be seen. I guess it is only the Airtel girl who is able to get the network in remote areas.

Monsoons in Kinnaur: While the Spiti valley lies in the rain-shadow region and doesn’t receive much rainfall this is not the case in Kinnaur Valley. Kinnaur Valley receives its fair share of rainfall during monsoon season and is quite prone to landslides and flash floods during this period. This is also one of the reasons why Hindustan-Tibet Road has the reputation of being among the deadliest roads. Thus, if you are planning your trip during the monsoon season then be extra careful and take necessary precautions.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): Kaza is situated at quite a high altitude hence sometimes people suffer from AMS after reaching there. Do some research on the symptoms of AMS, talk to your doctor and carry medicines for it. If you travel via Hindustan-Tibet road then your ascent is gradual and you get used to the altitude by the time you reach Kaza but the route via Manali covers the ascent pretty quickly and doesn’t give time to your body to adjust to the altitude. In this case the chances of AMS are more so be prepared.

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