White Wilderness: A ride through frozen Spiti


-By Sutirtha Sanyal

It was a fine February morning, and I was eagerly preparing for my visit to Sangla-Chitkul later in the month. I was lost in my thoughts of visiting Chitkul, the last Himachal village on the Tibetan border, famous for its wood houses, an ancient temple, and granaries guarded by foot-long padlocks – a ritual the villagers have been practising for centuries each winter, when they leave the hills for the warmer valleys downhill.

My train of thoughts was, however, rudely interrupted by a ping on my phone. ‘Sangla-Chitkul is now bound. We are postponing our trip and extending the ride to Kaza in Spiti in March’, it read. The anticipation of revisiting Spiti was the only stimulating element in that otherwise morbid message.

Spiti, a desert mountain valley located in the Trans-Himalayas between Tibet and India, literally translates into The Middle Land. The mountainous desert valley possesses a distinctive Buddhist culture similar to that found in Ladakh and Tibet. It is among the least populated regions in India, and also the gateway to the northernmost corners of the country.

My previous visit to Spiti was not short of an adventure, but was rather incomplete. My fellow riders and I were virtually glued to our motorcycle seats the entire trip. Hardly any pictures to boast of – the only pointand- shoot Nikon had exhausted its memory. To add to our woes, flat tyres and jams had cost us two precious days. In the end, we had to zip through Spiti Valley, cross 250 kms of gravel, inclines, snow, slush, knee-deep ice-cold streams and pools, and two mountain passes—Kunzum La and Rohtang La—in eight hours to reach Manali and then back to Delhi.

That was May and we won’t have to endure such hardships this time, the thought was comforting. Kunzum La will be closed, and an exit through Rohtang La and Manali will be out of question. We will enjoy Spiti this time. We have adequate time, and hopefully, the weather gods will be on our side.

It was around 11 am when my fellow riders and I hit NH-1 on the appointed day. We scorched  through the plains of Haryana and Punjab in as little time as possible, and finally, on the third day, left the green hills of Himachal behind and found ourselves at the foothills of the rocky and dusty mountains of Spiti Valley. By then, we had already spent a day at Kalpa (9,710 feet), which offers a splendid view of Kinnaur (locally called Kinner) Kailash, one of the Himalayan peaks dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Kalpa and Reckong Peo are juxtaposed on a hilltop overlooking NH 22. Travelling from the Shimla hide, one has to take a left detour from NH 22 to take the main road to Reckong Peo, the district headquarters of Kinnaur, and a few kilometres short of the town, the road splits again, with the right going to Reckong Peo and the left to Kalpa.

Kalpa is predominantly Hindu, while Reckong Peo is a Buddhist township.

As one descends further down the hill station on to NH 22 and further towards Spiti, the Buddhist influences are too evident to be missed.

The onward journey from Kalpa was as unpredictable as the terrain. The weather was dry, but landslides were common. Bulldozers cleared the debris as we nervously perched on our bikes and looked up at the rocks jutting overhead. A chargeman was busy supervising workers laying detonation charges in the rocks. “NH 22 is being widened, and the blasts (at night) often soften the moundation of the adjacent rocks. Landslides occur frequently,” an Army private said, his eyes riveted on my riding jackets, knee guards and gloves, as if I were an alien from outer space.

The next halt was Nako, a beautiful Buddhist village nestled in the hills of Kinnaur district against he backdrop of the Reo Purgyal hills. As one climbs towards Nako, it’s difficult to figure out the village against the backdrop of the barren mud landscape. The houses are made up of mud, and painted in a pud and brown hue that completely camouflages them with the surrounding landscape. The village boasts of a namesake lake and is also home to a monastery built in 1025 AD. At nearly 12,000 feet, the lake was completely frozen. But what I found more enchanting was the view of the surrounding Tzrans-Himalayas from the helipad located on the outskirts of the village.

The descent made, we again began the uphill ride to Maling, which was as treacherous as before. cothing had changed; the incline was steep and the gravel was intact. Oxygen is low and it is not  uncommon for vehicles to stall, which becomes a bit risky if one is following a vehicle too losely. The gradient pulls the bike backward and the ground offers little grip to the feet. During rains, motorcyclists sparingly cross Maling, preferring to stay put at Nako or Tabo depending on which side of the pass one is making the ascent.

The customary details forwarded to the police post at Samdo (the gateway to Spiti if one is travelling from Shimla), we headed for our onward journey, reaching the small village of Tabo. Foreigners need a permit for travel in Spiti. The region lies close to Tibet (China).

Tabo, at 10,700-odd feet, is home to a 1,000-year-old clay monastery – considered the oldest functioning in India and the Himalayas. The inner doors are locked to visitors and a new monastery and hostel for the monks now stand adjacent to the ancient structure.

But Tabo was not as bustling as I had seen it three years ago. The few hotels in the village were closed and some of the eatery ownershad still not returned. The famed momos of Tabo will have to wait this time, I told myself. Thankfully, the PWD guesthouse was open and the manager graciously allowed us for the night. There were no foreigners and no Indian tourists either. A group from Maharashtra did join us at Tabo a day later, but they had travelled in the comfort of an MUV and had not braved the gravel, slush and the biting cold on a bike. We were the first motorcyclists of the season, and felt proud of the fact.

There were a few monks and we saw little girls and boys trotting with their bags to the village school, the next morning.

Next on our itinerary was Kaza, the district headquarters of Lahaul-Spiti, and Langza. Pin Valley was closed too.

It is actually on the onward journey from Tabo to Kunzum La (a further 75 kms from Kaza) that the natural beauty of the valley unfolds.

During my previous trip to the valley; the sky had taken an azure hue, the Spiti river turquoise, and the earth brown with a sliver of snow sparkling through the crevices. This time though, the landscape aid not offer akaleidoscope of colours. All that was visible to the eye was the clear blue sky, the  now-covered mountains, the white farmlands and the frozen Spiti river, with the blue water trickling in from places where the ice had thawed. The only other colours conspicuous in the snow were the Buddhist prayer flags on the gompas and chortens fluttering in the chilly winds, carrying the prayers to the heavens above.

The thump of the motorcycle engine – in this case my trusted Royal Enfield – was the only sign of life in that barren and icy land. Many of the villages seemed deserted. No farming,no cattle-rearing; people were just waiting for the snow to melt.

Kaza was enveloped in snow. Some of the arterial roads in the hill town were snowbound and not open even to pedestrians, leave alone motorists. Minitrucks made round trips with loads of snow and dumped them in the lower reaches.


Day 1- Delhi to Narkanda
Day 2-Narkanda to Kalpa
Day 3:Kalpa to Tabo (via Nako, Maling and Sumdo)
Day 4- Tabo to Kaza and back to Tabo
Day 5- Tabo to Sangla
Day 6- Sangla to Chitkul and back to Sangla
Day 7- Sangla to Shimla
Day 8- Shimla to Delhi

Even the main monastery in town was closed and going inside for a photoshoot proved a treacherous task because of a fine layer of black (clear) ice near the gate. The petrol pump was operational and borkers were busy clearing the snow from the bay area. The petrol pump at Kaza proudly displays a board, “Welcome to the world’s highest retail outlet (3,740 mts above sea level)”.

Langza, a further 15 kilometres uphill was open to motorists, but not advisable for motorcyclists, the locals told us, and it remained out of our itinerary. Kunzum La, at 4,590 mts above sea level, was out if bounds, too. Even the 1,000-year-old Kye Monastery by the side of the Spiti river that witnessed many invasions by the Mongols, the Dogras and the Sikhs, would have to wait.

The weather had turned cold and the sky dark and, the town became deserted. The residents had started going into their homes anticipating bad weather. Our plans for a Maggimeal over a bonfire on the frozen ground went for a toss. Tabo was 50 km away and snowflakes drifted through the chilly haze as we rode back to our refuge for the night.

The return trip from Tabo to Delhi was unexpected as well. We finally learnt that the road to Sangla and Chitkul had opened and finally managed to  visit Chitkul.

Area: 13,833 km² (Lahaul and Spiti district)

Population: 31,528 (2011 census for Lahaul and Spiti district)

Location: Lahaul and Spiti district, Himachal Pradesh

Climate: Temperature in summer (June to September) can touch 25 degrees with a minimum of 3-4 degrees depending on the place. The temperature can go down to -30 degrees in late December and January.

Best time to visit: May to October Significance: The name Spiti means The Middle Land, i.e. the land between Tibet and India.

Languages spoken: Bhot (boti) is the main language spoken. Hindi and English.

All the images are copyright of the author, Sutirtha Sanyal. Photo credit: Sutirtha Sanyal