Spiti, means 'the middle country', it is the land of ragged and snow-capped mountains that reach out to the clear deep blue skies. Located along the Indo-Tibetan border, the district of Lahaul & Spiti is the largest in the North Indian State of Himachal Pradesh. It has been a forbidden land for most part of its history. The land route from Manali is barely open for three-four months a year, while the route from the Capital city of Shimla (which is open year round) takes two days to reach Spiti Valley. For most part of the year the region is covered in snow. Temperatures in winter drop to as low as minus 30 - 35 degrees Celsius and rains are minimal. Unlike Ladakh, it has no airport and suffers from little documented history. It is precisely these factors that lend the place its mysticism and make the joy of discovering its unrivalled beauty is indescribable.
Though Spiti is a cold desert terrain it is home to several perennial rivers - Spiti, Pin, Chandra - whose gurgling sounds will soothe you in the night and whose ferocity will awe you. Ah, and not to mention the placid, azure blue lakes like Chandra Taal, Nako, Dhankar. The observer would also be struck by some of the most beautiful canyons and the most unusual clay and rock formations along the river bed and in the mountains. The continuity of the landscape is only broken by numerous waterfalls and glaciers, including one of world's largest non-polar glaciers - Bara Shigri.
For the spiritual seeker, Spiti is home to some thousand year old Gompas (Buddhist Monasteries) and Tibetan art. There is also the mummy of a monk who meditated to death. It's a place which continuously resonates with the chants of Tibetan Buddhism (principal religion) and keeps you in a trance like state. The place also boasts of the world's highest motorable and inhabited villages. A place where lucky few can still find fossils in the valleys or manage to sight Snow Leopards, Ibex, Red Fox, etc. Finally, it is the beautiful people of Spiti who lend the valley its divine soul. These people, despite the harsh environment and poor living standards, are jovial and courteous. They live in match-box styled white coloured houses with lungtas fluttering from their rooftops and speak Bhoti and Hindi languages.
What do we do once we get to Spiti?
Base yourself at Kaza
Kaza (3,660 metres), administrative headquarter of Spiti. Kaza is the largest of all towns in Spiti (about 1,200 souls!) and has a bustling market place, bus-stand, petrol pump, hospital, and other facilities befitting a regional headquarter. Kaza also serves as the base for a number of mountaineers / trekkers who converge from all over the world to explore the Spiti Valley. In Kaza our home was Sakya Abode, the most popular hotel in the town (located next to the Kaza Monastery). Most travellers base themselves at Kaza and make a day trip to all the places around.
Visit Langza -
Komicto experience lifestyle at average height of 4000 meters
"I was eagerly looking forward to today as I have always wondered what life is like at great mountain heights. Our destinations for today were some of the highest inhabited and motorable villages in the world - all located at an altitude of 4,200 metres and more.
Our first stop was Langza (4,200 - 4,400 metres, 148 souls), the fossil capital of India. The fossils here are scattered across the entire area. While many have now disappeared due to looting and illegal sales, the villagers assured me that a keen eye could find one even today in the various nullahs. A drive towards Langza brings up a huge statue of Gautam Buddha (built at the edge of a hillock) on the horizon with the towering ChauChau Kang Nilda peak (6,300 metres) in the backdrop. This statue and a 500 year old monastery are the principal attractions of Langza. There is also a fossil centre (Chadua) in Langza, which we unfortunately could not visit. Langza is also home to the Langza monastery which was a quaint place where we lighted lamps.
There were a few farms scattered about the village, basically wherever a flat ground could be found. These were cultivated through ingenious ways of irrigation. Dharamveer informed us that bulk of the farming is of Peas. He also told us that during the winters when temperatures dip as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius, the villagers largely prefer to stay indoors, living upon the supplies collected during the few months of summer. It's really difficult for us (city dwellers) to imagine how people live at such heights. One needs to drive almost over a mountain to reach a place which is almost a mountain itself. Sparse air, clear skies, very few people and a lifestyle which seems to be going in slow motion. But people still live here. They cultivate their farms, have their monasteries, and celebrate every occasion in life.
In these parts I have realised, under the tutelage of Dharamveer, that a simple gesture like greeting juley (a kind of namastey in local dialect), with folded hands and slight bow, can help break the ice with locals.
From here we proceeded further towards Komic (4,275 metres, 114 souls), passing Hikkim village on the way. The old KomicGompa (monastery) situated at about 4,587 metres is perhaps world's highest monastery. After offering our obeisance here, we went to the grand new monastery, which also has several rooms for the monks to stay.
Visit the grand Kye Monastery
"The Kye Monastery (4,150 metres), is the biggest monastery and Buddhist learning centre in Spiti Valley. The Kye monastery complex is a closely packed congregation of white houses built on a hillock overlooking the Spiti River. It is also known as Little Tibet. It is just 8 Kms of walk from Kaza,
Inside the monastery, a monk showed us some 800 years old Thangka paintings, murals, musical instruments and several carefully preserved manuscripts - many of which were brought centuries ago from Tibet. Once here, people should also visit the upper floor / terrace of the monastery for a 360 degrees view of the valley and lungtas strung from ornately decorated pillars.
In the prayer hall of new Gompa, four monks were engrossed in a prayer and we stood there for a few minutes observing their rituals. Their singing and music elevated us to a trance like state.
The importance of monasteries in life of people here is very different than importance of temples in our lives. A significant portion of life revolves around monasteries. Each family would probably have a monk; important matters are decided with agreement of senior lamas. Each important occasion involves blessings of senior monks. Soaking in lifestyle of monks is a different experience all together."
Visit Tabo & Dhankar Monasteries
"Tabo is a quiet village that owes its popularity to the venerable TaboChos - khor monastery, which was founded in the year 996 AD!
Since the day was still good, we decided to tour the Old Tabo monastery after relaxing for a few minutes. Set against blue skies and brown mountains, the precincts of the monastery have a magical feel. The inside of the monastery is a virtual treasure trove of millennium old murals, Thangka paintings, scriptures and sculptures. After marvelling at the work of art I realised why the Chos - khor monastery is also referred to as the 'Ajanta of the Himalayas'.
From here we proceeded towards the nearby caves (phukpas) for which we had to hike a bit from the main road. These caves are used by monks for meditation and one of them also has an elaborate mural inside.
The place is also known for a German Bakery, which serves an assortment of pastries, cookies, breads and other delectable items.
Dhankar is at height of 3,900 metres. The Dhankar monastery, a near 1,00