It is indeed one of the most beautiful and challenging road journeys in India and arguably, in the world. A road trip to Spiti valley from Shimla to Kaza is thoroughly entertaining and fulfilling. But it is entirely different from road trip to Lahaul valley, i.e. from Manali to Leh, although people often name them in same vain. Lets tell you about top 10 highlights of this route, which one shouldn’t miss while going to Kaza from Shimla.
At a distance of almost 290 kms from Shimla, these are seven stretches of zig-zag road between Khab and Ka villages. Often people will say that you have to see it to believe it. Deep into the Spiti valley, stretch starts right from bottom of the hill along the Spiti river in full flow and climbs the hill like a snake towards Nako. Once on the top, you can just admire while looking down. Icing on the cake is that the roads are fairly good even at such inhospitable terrain and you can actually enjoy the ride or the drive. Be cautious that downhill part, where actually zigs start from Khab side is quite narrow and one has to be mindful of any other vehicle coming from the opposite side.
Unheard of till a few years ago, this is said to be the only existing mummy in India. At least I haven’t heard of any such thing anywhere else except for some bodies of saints preserved in a few churches. Nobody actually has an idea of that whose and how old this mummy is. What looks most likely is that it is a mummy of a female monk who would have been sitting in a meditation position when she passed away. It has been preserved where it was and how it was, without any treatment whatsoever. A new temple has been built recently for the mummy to bring in more tourists. After 3 kms from the Sumdoh check post (it is 355 kms from Shimla), there is a branch road going towards Giu. GUI village is around nine kilometres from there.
Tabo is an ancient village just about 50 Kms before Kaza, on the left bank of the Spiti river at an altitude of 10004 feet. The biggest attraction of this village, for that matter of the whole valley, is the Tabo monastery, called Chogs-hkhor (‘doctrinal circle’ or ‘doctrinal enclave’) is a complex that holds nine temples, 23 chortens, a monks’ chamber and an extension that houses the nuns chamber. On the sheer cliff-face above the enclave are a series of caves which were used as dwellings by the monks and includes an ‘assembly hall’. Faint traces of the paintings that once embellished the rock face can be discerned. Even today, Tabo holds the distinction of being the largest monastic complex in Spiti. Constructed in 996 AD Tabo is famous for its exquisite murals and stucco sculptures which bear a striking resemblance with the paintings and sculpture in the Ajanta caves. This is why Tabo has acquired the tide of ‘Himalayan Ajanta’. Tabo is the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India and the Himalayas with its original decoration and iconographic program intact. The nine chapels, four decorated stupas, and cave shrines contain paintings datable to the 10-11th c. (Main Temple), 13th-14th c. (Stupas), and 15-20th c. (all other chapels). Except for the main Temple and the painted interior of the stupas, all other extant paintings are attributable to periods following the Gelugpa ascendancy.
On the left bank of the Spiti river at a distance of 32 kms downstream from Kaza, near Shichling at an altitude of 3870 m, nestles the citadel of Dhankar, the official capital of Spiti. The citadel is built on a spur which projects into the main valley and ends in a precipice. The location of this fort is strategic as Spiti always had to suffer innumerable aggressions by its neighbors. The location allowed the Spitian to keep vigil on the approaches and to submit messages to surrounding inhabitations in case of danger. Whenever the Spitians were attacked, they built huge fires to signal meeting in the safe sanctuary of rocks, i.e., Dhankars. In the meeting all men and women decided the course of action to be taken against the aggressors. According to the State Gazetteer, “(The fort) became notorious for housing a cavernous dungeon which the Nono used as prison. It contained a cell without doors having only a small opening at the top through which the condemned person was lowered and received his meals.” The fort of Dhankar now lies in ruins, but still is a place worthy of visit. From the remnants of the fort one can see vast expanses of the Spiti valley. Dhankar is also of art historical importance. Founded between 7th and the 9th centuries, Dhankar’s old temple complex occupies the southern part of the steep mountain slope of the village. It is known by the name of Lha-O-pa Gompa (monastery of the followers of Lha-O). The monastery consists of a number of multi-storeyed buildings perched together, giving a fortress like impression. There are five different halls including Kanjur, Lhakhang, and Dukhang where a life size silver statue of Vajradhara, the Diamond Being, is placed in a glass altar embellished with scarves and flowers. Most interesting at the Lha-O-pa gompa is the small chapel on the uppermost peak above the main monastery – Lhakhang Gongma. The building is decorated with depictions of Shakyamuni, Tsongkhapa and Lama Chodrag on the central wall Dhankar’s main attraction, although least publicised, is a fresh water lake about 2.5 km from the village at a height of 13500 ft. Dhankar is 9 kms from Schichling which is on Tabo-Kaza road.
At an altitude of 3660 m, Nako is the highest village in the valley of Hangrang surrounded by barren and dusty landscape. The monastic complex in Nako is situated at the western edge of the town and comprises four temples apart from other buildings. From outside, the monastery exude a very simple appearance, but this is in contrast to what you will see inside. Two temples are of utmost importance here, the Main temple and the Upper temple. Both these temples are considered the oldest amongst all the structures and still preserve their original clay sculptures, murals and ceiling panels. The largest temple or the main temple is also called the Translator’s Temple. It also happens to be the oldest monument in the village. The third structure in the complex is the Small White temple, which though not in a good state, is worth visiting for its wonderful wooden door-frame with scenes of the Life of the Buddha carved on the lintel. The fourth structure is quiet the same size as the Upper Temple and is also situated besides it. The temple is today known as the Temple of Wide Proportions (rGya-dpag-pa’i lHa-khang). Niko village is just 20 kms from Ka, once the zigs end.
Often termed as crown of Kinnaur, this seems a surreal place. It is one of the most remote areas of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Chitkul (alt. 3450 mts), on the banks of Baspa River, is the first village of the Baspa Valley and the last village on the old Hindustan-Tibet trade route. It is also the last point in India one can travel to without a permit. Of particular interest at Chitkul are its houses with either slate or wooden plank roofs, a Buddhist temple and a small tower. Once you reach Chitkul the spread of snow clad ranges right at the footstep is simply mesmerising. While going to Kaza from Shimla, there is a dam at Karchaam (205 kms from Shimla). From here a narrow hilly road goes deep inside the Baspa valley. Sangla is 18 kms from here and Chitkul is further 25 kms from Sangla. Road ends here. Trekking routes from Chitkul connect it to Tons valley in Uttarakhand. One can trek to Har-ki-doon valley from here, of course with a permit.
Its rather unfortunate for those who plan to explore the most beautiful state of Himachal only to end up visiting Shimla or Manali. What a lost opportunity to experience the the real beauty of Himachal which lies in locations beyond these popular towns. Kalpa is one of the biggest and beautiful villages of Kinnaur. One can enter Kinnaur district at Village Chshora and follow a straight line road constructed in vertical rock and it is a rare treat to travel on this road which is a great engineering feat. Situated at the height of 2758 m above the sea level and 110 km from Sarahan, Kalpa is a beautiful and main village of Kinnaur. Across the river faces the majestic mountains of the Kinner Kailash range. These are spectacular sights early in the morning as the rising sun touches the snowy peaks right in front of you with crimson and golden light. Reckong Peo is the headquarter of district Kinnaur. Just 12 kms from Karchaam is Powari which is actually the last fuelling station before Kaza. Reckong Peo is 6 kms climb off the main road from Powari and Kalpa is further 10 kms climb from Reckong Peo. Excellent roads connect both towns.
I mention this as one can see Sangla and Chitkul in one go. If a landscape had the powers of casting spells, then the Sangla valley would be a magician extraordinary. Once seen, it is a place that can never be forgotten. Even the rushing waters of the Baspa river, that flow through its 95 km length, seem to absorb some of the magic and slow down to savor its snow-frame beauty. 2 km from Sangla is the fort of Kamru (300 m) its tower like architecture resembles that of the Bhima Kali complex and this was the origin of rulers of Bushehar. Kamru Fort is one of the oldest Fort in Himachal. Standing at an altitude of 2600m above sea level, Kamru fort is set in a picturesque location and is entered through a series of gates. At the main gate of the Kamru Fort, a stunning image of Lord Buddha greets you. The graceful wooden balcony, at the top of the fort, and the idol of Kamakhya Devi, installed on the third floor of the fort, are worth seeing. There are a number of interesting myths attached to the fort. As I told earlier, while going to Kaza from Shimla, there is a dam at Karchaam (205 kms from Shimla). From here a narrow hilly road goes deep inside the Baspa valley. Sangla is 18 kms from here. But it is not an easy drive, mind it. Quite narrow, ever climbing road.
Often I would think that how impossible it would have been to even know about these far off places if there would have been no road connectivity. Many people have sacrificed their lives to built these roads. Actually the roads themselves are engineering marvel and it is worth visiting the area to see just the routes. Whether it is road to highest village in the world (Langza) or the Dubling bridge, they add beauty to the area. I am including here two stretches of roads for a special mention and believe me, they will enthral you as much as other things in the list. First one is the stretch between Rampur and Wangtoo. The small stretch of road carved between the rocks with a steep hillside on the right and a deep fall of hundreds of feet straight into Sutlej river on the left. You will just bite your lips in wonder. Second one is the stretch at Khab, just before the Ka zigs start. The whole road has been cut into a base of a mountain along the Spiti river. You have to see it to believe it. Something you might not see anywhere else.
One offbeat thing that interested me a lot. Beekeepers at Duttanagar, just before Rampur-Bushehar. As we move on the road, just on the roadside in very picturesque settings you will suddenly find many metallic boxes lined up, which many will be tend to overlook. These are the boxes kept by the beekeepers to culture bees in order to get honey. During early summer, just after the spring this whole area is laden with beautiful flowers. That’s what beekeepers will target to attract the bees and make honey in these boxes. Its a very interesting process. In winters when this whole valley starts freezing, these beekeepers will move to Haryana and Rajasthan to culture honey from bees on Mustard and Sunflower fields. Interesting, isn’t it!