Centuries-old monasteries perched on cliffs, barren moonscape, a rich history... Spiti presents a fascinating canvas.
Between stark, bare mounts, through spiralling rivers, quiet in the trans-Himalayan belt lies Spiti, meaning “middle land”. The Spiti that meanders through the valley is a large tributary of the Sutlej. Under the delicious spell of the Buddhist chant ‘om mane padme hun’ (may every being that lives, live well), the valley has never been closer to its name than now. The middle land, in the middle of changing times, influx of people and ideas and global climate change, the valley might be moving towards times that threaten its own survival.
Classified as a tribal area, one of the richest geological sites in the world and with an extremely fragile ecological balance, the valley commands to be taken seriously. Kaza is the unofficial starting point here. There is a bus terminus from where buses connect to all villages in the valley. Though Kaza itself might seem a bit too crowded and unclean, it is the best place to find information and travel mates in Spiti. Alternatively, some prefer driving or trekking around. There are trekking routes from one village to another and the visuals the landscape offers make you feel no one else exists on the planet but you. Biking on both motorcycles and bicycles gives a feeling that comes very close to flying.
Starting with the Ki monastery is a good idea. It is the largest monastery in Spiti and lies between Kibber and Kaza on the left bank of Spiti river. It was built in the early 11th century and belongs to the Gu-Ing-Pa sect of Lamaism. It suffered heavily from fire during the Dogra invasion in 1834 and now looks like a fort emerging from the earth, holding its own.
Of the earth
Lower Spiti is home to the Tabo monastery. Nearly a thousand years old, the frescoes along the walls here depict the stories of the Bodhi-sattva prince Nov-Sang and that of Sakya Muni. The clay-like structure of Tabo has a feeling of soft-moulded mud, delicate yet embodying a strength that only being there reveals.
The Lha-Kun monastery in Dhankar is an important monastery of the original nine temples built during Rin-Chan-Sang Po’s time. Eight were destroyed by Mongols in the 17th century, this is the only one that remains and preserves a wooden Buddha at the centre. Trekking upward from Dhankar, the route has a Lord of the Rings feel to it. Serpentine paths that seem like narrow open air tunnels lead to the Dhankar lake. Now almost dry, the lake is surrounded by hills reflecting in the water, the scene looks like an Escher painting.
Going higher, the desert transforms into almost neon green meadows, a sign that Langza village is near. From a distance, a tall figure becomes visible and reveals itself as a 100-feet Buddha sculpture that gives its shade to the entire village. A panorama of uninterrupted vastness makes this farmers’ village perhaps one of the most idyllic in the world. When I reached there, the entire village was circling the Langza monastery, praying for the well being of the village. Men, women, children, rosaries and chants made my first impression of Langza more surreal than it already is.
Higher up, Kibber, like other villages, has a monastery, farm land and inhabitants who will take you in as hospitably as the valley. But the very purpose of Kibber, it seems, is night. At nightfall, stepping out and looking up, all one can see is the thickest blanket of stars that seem a few feet away. It is an experience that can mesmerise, even make you want to wish there was something between you and the limitless.
The neighbouring Pin valley is a stark contrast to the barren and sandy Spiti. Lush, abloom and older, the valley is made of hamlets like Mikkim which have a population of 25 people. Geologists say that pollen travelling from Pin is likely to make Spiti also green in the next 50 years. Pin is also ideal if you wish to go rafting in the heavens.
Although a snow desert, Spiti is also home to the Ibex, snow leopard, the Tibetan wolf, blue sheep and some of the world’s rarest plants and herbs. They are as ancient as the caves that emerge in Spiti’s nooks where people have been meditating for centuries. Spiti is a pure geological and historical treasure.
Once there, try and walk around the valley as much as possible. There is no better way to soak up its divinity. Always carry water and better still seabuckthorn juice which can be found easily in Kaza. It hydrates and energises the body superbly and is considered to be an elixir, like the valley itself.
Getting there: The best way is to go by road from Delhi to Manali and spend a night there before heading for Kaza. The road trip acclimatises one to the increasing altitude gradually.
Packing for Spiti: Good, soft trekking shoes, sleeping bag, moisturiser and lip balm (skin gets very dry there), sunblock cream, sunglasses, thermal innerwear, scarf to cover the neck, hat or cap (must), full-sleeved comfortable t-shirts, easy track pants, woolen and cotton socks.
Staying options: Hotels in Kaza, Home stays in nearly all the villages (the best way to experience life in Spiti). Get the rucksack out and get there.