Spiti, translated means the middle land. It is a mountain desert valley, nestled between the mountains of India and Tibet.
For centuries, it has been a trading route for goods passing between the Indian Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. With modern political boundaries, such movement of people, cultures and produce might have stopped. But the rugged charm remains.
This middle land, lies on the northeast side of the Himalayan range, as such the South West Monsoons, which make India green every year, are entirely missed out in the Spiti Valley. As a result, in stark contrast to the neighbouring green Himalayas, this valley is surrounded by barren brown desolate mountains.
Vistas are not to the liking of every traveller. Yet, the alluring landscape is an adventurer’s dream. Especially for the simple bicycle.
Spiti Valley is accessible from two sides, Manali and Shimla. While the former is shorter, it has far more hostile conditions, it is closed in winter and gains altitude rapidly. The latter is longer, gains altitude gradually has decent roads and is open throughout the year. For cyclists coming from the plains, the gradual ascent from Shimla is the preferred route, which ends in Manali.
There were two of us who rode the Spiti circuit on our bicycles. Starting from Shimla, we climbed almost constantly to the village of Kufri. A quaint village which is filled with an abundance of apple orchards. The scent of fruit trees mixed with the fumes of diesel trucks leaves you perplexed!
The first day of riding ended in Narkanda, a village at the top of the mountain. From there you have to make a decision. Either descend to the Sutlej River andride along the National Highway or take the Old Hindustan Tibet Road. We chose the latter and found that nobody in the village knew about it. After much humdrum, we found an old gentleman who could direct us on our way to an incredible adventure.
ஒட்டுமொத்த விகடனுக்கும் ஒரே ஷார்ட்கட்!
Where the road ends, the adventure starts. The Old Hindustan-Tibet Road was less of a road and more of a broken path. We barely saw any other sign of humanity once we made up some distance from Narkanda. After a day filled with mud, slush and intermittent rain, we wound up in a non-descript, one-shop village of Nankhari. The locals stopped us from proceeding beyond in the evening since it was a path known to be filled with leopards. Fortunately, we found dwellings in a Forest Guest House. The caretaker told us, that no government official ever bothered visiting the village because it was so far from anywhere!
The third day of riding from Nankhari to Taklech saw me losing one buddy and gaining another. We were riding on a rocky path with dense forest cover. A steep climb with not a human being in sight. The only living being we met was a dog, who befriended us and jogged alongside us for 30 km. While the doggy joined us on the ride, my riding buddy had a mechanical. His luggage rack broke and he was unable to continue the ride. We had to bundle him up onto the roof of a passing roadways bus, after walking to the nearest village. From thereon, it was a solo ride for me.
The fourth day saw me riding solo from Taklech to Dharanghati. It was a mind-boggling route, with the first part of the day riding up a mountain in direct harsh sunlight. It was depressingly dehydrating. I was riding to the top of a small mountain pass called Dharanghati, it was a full day of continuous climbing. As I neared the top, it started raining and I went from dehydrated to shivering in a matter of minutes! But it was all worth it, as I got to stay in a century-old bungalow all alone, with nothing but forest lands on either side. Money can’t buy you experiences such as this!
From Dharanghati, I descended all the way to a town called Jeori, on the banks of the Sutlej River. From thick forest in heavy rain to bright sunshine by the riverside, the day constantly changed, as did the flora. By evening my fellow rider had caught up, after having repaired his bike in a nearby town. We spent the evening there gorging on a hill staple food of Maggi and momos!
Post-Jeori, we entered the green hills of Kinnaur, the gateway to Spiti Valley. We just needed to climb another mountain range before we could feast our senses in the middle land. We rode along the main highway for a few kilometres, before cutting off and climbing a big hill to reach another unheard-of village called Urni. We reached there after dark didn’t get any food and ended up spending the night in a government resthouse.
The route from Urni to Kalpa was to die for. And risky enough, that if we made a mistake, we would be dead. Literally! We were back on the Old HT Road, on a narrow path with no habitation or traffic. This route hasn’t been used for many years and is completely overgrown, blocked by falling rocks and trees and filled with adventure and trepidation. At the top of the hill, we found one small secluded temple. We enjoyed the serenity there before moving on to the popular tourist town of Kalpa.
The day started with heavy rain, punctures and upset tummies, as we had our fair share of adventure. We left the trail and once again got back onto the national highway. Riding along the mountainside to the village of Spillow. An uneventful day which was much needed after the jangling of nerves from the previous few days.
From Spillow, it was a descent all the way to Khab, the confluence of the rivers Spiti and Sutlej. From thereon, the unbridled magnificence of Spiti would shine upon us in all its glory. We were headed to the picturesque village of Nako. But to get there we had to navigate the mighty Ka Zigs. A bunch of switchbacks, which you need to climb under the burning sun. There is no food or water available along the way to alleviate your suffering!
Nako was so good, that we stayed a day there. Absorbing the food, culture, language and vibe of the place. It was a day of recharging our mental and physical batteries before moving on to Tabo.
Tabo is one of the most well-known villages of Spiti. It is home to one of the oldest Buddhist Monasteries in that area and tourists flock there. We stayed in the monastery guest house, to enjoy the full feel of the place. Because the place caters so much to tourists, t loses out on its serenity. It has more of a hipster vibe to the place rather than the tranquillity you would expect in a monastery.
From Tabo, we went to the famous Dhankar Monastery. A monastery sits perched at the tip of a cliff and nobody knows when it will all come crashing down. The monastery has incredible views of the Spiti River, the Spiti Valley, and the road winding its way to Pin National Park. It is a must-visit just for this view.
After leaving Dhankar Monastery the next day, we rode to the district headquarters of Kaza. The only town in the entire area and the only place which could lay claim to the title of ‘town’. The rest are proper villages. As such, Kaza feels weird. It is much bigger than the places we had been through and is much smaller than the cities we belong to. It is a great place to replenish your supplies. If you can’t get it in Kaza, chances are you aren’t getting it anywhere!
Two weeks of pedalling later, we left Kaza for Losar. There are two routes which you can take. We of course took the adventurous route! This route climbs past Key Monastery, which is the most iconic monastery in Spiti. It then goes up to Kibber and then to Chicham. The latter is home to the highest bridge in Asia. It is a sight to behold, both for its natural beauty and its engineering marvel. From Chicham we descended all the way to Losar, the last halt before you start making your exit from Spiti Valley.
From Losar, you climb almost immediately towards Kunzum La, the highest point in this entire trip. The top of this pass is the end of Spiti and where Lahaul starts. But not without a visit to the magnificent Chandra Tal or Moon Lake. Not as big as the more famous Pangong Tso in Ladakh, it is far more charming.
After spending a night by the side of this holy lake, it was time to finish our ride as we rode from Chandra Tal to Batal and then onwards to Manali. The route from Batal to Rohtang La is treacherous. Cars and motorcycles struggle the most in those raging streams. To make matters worse, the water is frigid, since it is literally melted snow. As the rain beats down on you, it takes a mental and physical toll on the rider.
The ride might have ended in Manali. But you lose a part of yourself to Spiti and take a tiny morsel of Spiti with you for the rest of your life. Experiences, which we will take to our graves…