Spiti bathed in white
Spiti in the winters is breathtaking. The changing scenery and mountains with absolutely no tourist as far as the horizon extends, is a breath of fresh air, and a classic opportunity to connect with locals. As the valley widens from Kinnaur into Spiti, you can see the culture shifting. The trees make way to barren naked mountains. In the winters, a lot of locals head out of the inhuman temperatures of the Spiti valley. And trust me, this is not a touristy time of the year. You typically find only true backpackers in love with absolute cold weather seeking adventure. When I mean cold – it is freaking -20 to -30 degrees with heavy snowfall!! Naked mountains everywhere, empty streets, ink blue skies and stars strewn over the sky – and I swear, you can see the milky way! Do not miss star gazing for anything!
As backpackers we truly love local transport, but a very crucial point for exploring Spiti in the winters is you gotta keep your dates flexible as roads may get shut for a few days. Even if you get a bus, the roads are extremely freaky and an adventure in itself. So brace yourself.
A very important point for travelling Spiti in the peak winters – drink plenty of water along the way. You will not feel thirsty. But make it a point to keep drinking water.
Remember to be prepared with good and sufficient winter clothing. It can get windy.
Another quick pointer, you cant be fussy about food. So be ready with some snacks and munchies to keep you going. Try to eat all the local food – the locals are even more welcoming. We had a very warm experience in the remote village of Hikkim. Not having eaten for a while, we were looking for any dhaba (small cafe). But well, though it was New Years, the village was empty – just 2 families in the village. A man stepped out of the house, and saw us hungry and cold. He immediately offered to prepare some maggi and tea. When we offered him money, he refused saying we were true travellers and were family. Brought tears to our eyes! We were too overwhelmed.
1. Tabo –
A quaint little village which houses the oldest monastery in Asia, feels like a forgotten place. With paintings dating back centuries is still preserved in its original colours. The old structure still stands proud next to the new monastery. Usually a bustling village in the summers, you hear the silence in its stillness. There are caves in the mountain behind Tabo where monks are said to have meditated for years. To ensure you get an amazing star gazing experience, go to the helipad after dark. Your head will spin with the sky and well, the cold! The guest house we stayed at served us a local berry tea and a snack made of dried apples.
2. Ki (or key) monastery –
A photo that many would have seen and dreamed of heading to, the Ki monastery is old and is in a very picturesque spot. It also houses a monastic school where children right from the age of 4 study and practice Buddhism. Do remember, you can stay here in the monastery in the summers. But it is closed in the winters. You can also volunteer here at the monastery teaching the kids. Most of the monks go on a holiday in the winters. So you would have very little company.
3. Hikkim –
The village that houses the highest post office in the world, is the cutest village you would see. The post office in the winters doubles as a home too. We were invited into what looked like a kitchen where kids were studying while we wrote out postcards to places around the world. Trust me people, the post cards do reach across the continent as well!
4. Langza –
You just cant miss Langza. The really really huge statue of Lord Buddha in the lotus position is truly magnificent. I do agree that in the winters, you are really okay to not take a picture with the statue. But to be at that spot overlooking the valley with Buddha, you do feel something special.
5. Kaumik –
The site that welcomes you in Kaumik is a little more heartwarming. There are children in the village who are out all day playing because of their holidays. The tiny rivulet that freezes over the winter is used for sledging (home made – I wouldn’t trust it with my life!), skiing and just sliding with swag. There are a few more houses in Kaumik, but well, don’t get ambitious, you wont find a lot of people.
6. Kaza –
The place with the highest petrol pump in India, Kaza is incredible. It is a town indeed, and well, the district HQ of the Spiti valley. This is more populated that Kaumik, Hikkim and Langza maybe. But it definitely is fantastic in the winters. The river is frozen – be careful if you decide to cross over it. We did spot the milky way right outside our hostel, and well, it did feel as surreal as watching the northern lights.
7. Chitkul –
A town in Kinnaur valley, Chitkul was another amazing place to be in the winters. Though it isn’t at a very high altitude it can become very cold and snowing all day with roads shutting out – well, it happened with us. So, be prepared. When in Chitkul, do take a walk to the river. It is breathtaking. The border check-post, as locals would say casually, is ‘just’ 3 kms away – I seriously doubt that – it is definitely not 3 kms people!!!!
The Himachal Road Transport is quite good to travel till Kaza. Thereafter in the winters there are no buses. Kaza is well connected from Reckong Peo (the district HQ of Kinnaur). In the winters, getting a bus is not easy. Bus drivers have been instructed to not drive the bus if they feel the road is unsafe. So buses may get cancelled at short or no notice. But usually the BRO (border roads organisation) clears up if the snow piles up. But ensure you are flexible. There are plenty of ways to reach Spiti. You can take a bus from Delhi or Chandigarh to Shimla. From Shimla you enter Kinnaur valley. We took a night halt at Narkanda. Narkanda to Reckong Peo. Reckong Peo to Kaza. Kibber, Kaumik, Ki, Hikkim, Langza are all accessible from Kaza as day trips – but there is no public transport there in the winters. Kaza to Reckong Peo and back to Delhi.
Where to stay:
Wherever you intend to stay in other places also, do ensure you call and confirm if it is open and the availability. Guest houses are usually closed. Yolosolo hostel in Kaza is a very cool place that is open in the winters. Monasteries are a great place to stay and experience the real Tibetan culture for really nominal prices. But do keep in mind, these are usually closed in the winters.