Spiti Valley-Manali adventure: Tips for the uninitiated


We learnt a lot on this adventure to Spiti Valley and Manali.

Was August the best time to go particularly as we had rains, flash floods and landslides leading up to the adventure? Sure, it is an adventure and one can expect disruptions and changes of plans. We were almost prevented from going to Spiti Valley after a major landslide, that took 13 precious lives a day before we were to cross the site of the tragedy. Traffic resumed in a regulated manner and we could drive past the site cautiously and go on with our adventure. Sandeep and the others had back up plans in case we couldn’t go ahead. All this is part and parcel of a Himalayan adventure and we need to take it in our stride. As it turned out the weather was very good and we had no major problems enroute. If you are planning a tip in August go ahead with it.

The weather was good as I said. No rains and not too cold either. We had carried layers of clothing to cope with warm and cold conditions. Warm inner wear, a light sweater and a fleece jacket and a warm jacket were more than adequate for us. A windcheater would be good but we didn’t need it. The coldest temperatures were at night at Nako and Kaza where it dropped to 7 degrees. Day temperatures were around 20 degrees. A sun hat and a warm cap for the head are necessary as well.

We carried all the contingency medicines including paracetamol, anti-loose motion tablets, broad spectrum antibiotics to cope with illnesses and Diamox for prevention of high altitude sickness.  As a precaution we took a tablet of Diamox for a couple of days before reaching high altitudes. Most of us were in good health throughout the adventure. Three of us developed mild symptoms due to high altitude at Kaza but this was sorted out with Paracetamol. Staying hydrated is most important. We ensured that we had adequate supplies of mineral water all through the journey. Along the way you can get water and other requirements at most places so it is not a concern. Our highest points of stay overnight were Nako and Kaza at about 3600kms. During the day we visited paces that reached altitudes of about 4500 kms.

We had no problems locating a decent place to stay at all our night halts. No prior bookings gave us the flexibility to change our plans at any time if it became necessary.

At several places in the Spiti Valley connectivity was poor. I managed most of the way with an additional Jio sim along with an Airtel sim.

Food along the way or at places of stay was never a problem.

The all important decision was which car to take along. We finally choose the Maruti Swift against all advice only because it was the most convenient and cost effective for us. The roads were reasonably good at several places and very good, thanks to the Border Roads Organisation at some places. It was awful on the Losar – Kumjun La – Gramphu stretch and dirt tracks for most of the way to Chitkul after we turned off the national highway. The roads leading to places of interest at Kaza were off the highway and bumpy poor quality roads. The Maruti Swift is certainly not the appropriate car and we were just lucky that we got away with it unscathed. The Innova Crysta that our fellow travelers used was a very good option. An SUV or 4- wheel drive with good ground clearance should be the vehicle of choice.

The stretch from Rekong Peo to Nako and on to Kaza had no petrol stations on the way. We filled our tanks at Rekong Peo and then again at Kaza as there were no further petrol stations till Manali. We had no problem of lack of petrol at any stage.

We took along a small 12-v operated tire inflator which was most useful. We also carried a puncture repair kit but had no need for it. Ready to eat emergency food packets is good to carry although we had no need for it on this trip. An electric kettle was most useful and is a must on such travel.

I toyed with the thought of carrying a D-SLR camera but finally settled for a mobile phone camera as my primary camera. This was more than adequate and I may never consider a D-SLR in future. My nephew had loaned me an iPhone 12 which I simply loved. I’m a convert now but ruing the high cost of the phone.

Finally take along oodles of high spirits, a willingness to take the rough with the smooth and an open mind for adventure and you will love this adventure.

Spiti Valley-Manali adventure:Winding down at Manali


Manali was the ideal place to unwind after a torturous drive from Kaza. We found a decent hotel at a reasonable price and decided to spend two nights and a day here.

The Mall Road was a short walk away leading to leisurely strolls during the day and later in the evening.

 Vashisth hot springs was a mandatory visit and we drove along the banks of the River Beas but not for a drink of coffee besides the flowing river.

We had lunch at the Mountain View Noodles and dinner at Chopsticks. Both had great ambience and the food was good.

At the early hour of 5.15am 0n 19th August 2021, we left Manali for the long drive to Delhi via Chandigarh.

It was raining and visibility low when we slammed into a boulder on the highway just outside Manali and the front bumper came loose. It didn’t create too much of difficulty and we could get repairs done at Bilaspur. Thankfully, all of us had seat belts on and avoided injury.

The road till Mandi, about 100 kms from Manali, was quite bad due to road repairs but improved after that.

We halted at Chandigarh for butter chicken and rotis at Pal Dhaba, a must do for Akshay, before driving on to Delhi. We reached back safely quite thrilled with the adventure and the much needed break.  

Spiti-Manali adventure: Challenging conditions


There were challenges a plenty all through the adventure. None more than the drive from Kumjun La to Gramphu. Here is a video that will give you a fair idea of what we went through.

Frequently we encountered busses and other large vehicle head-on on the narrow mountain roads. This called for backing off and careful maneuvering by all vehicles. Here’s a video of one such face to face encounter.

The road conditions at several sections were challenging, both narrow at times and also rough, muddy and stony roads. This video will give you a feel of the conditions.

At times we needed to navigate carefully past landslide prone areas and zones where falling rocks and shooting stones are common.  On this occasion we had to traverse a zone where a major landslide had taken place just a day earlier. Thirteen precious lives were lost and a bus a few other vehicles washes over the mountain side by falling debris.

Here are a few more photos randomly taken of some of our encounters on the mountains.

Spiti-Manali adventure: Memorable moments


In an adventure trip of this nature there will be many many memorable moments and it is a challenge to pick just three.

The time we spent at the Key Monastery as we were treated to herbal tea is unlikely to ever leave our memory.

Another memorable experiences was at the Chacha -Chachi dhaba. The ambience was a pleasant surprise at this little village and the pleasant manner of Chacha added to the experience.

Likewise, our experience at the Siyaram Siddu dhaba was memorable. The first experience of Siddu was special enhanced by the cheerful disposition of the owner.

I’ve added a few random moments that were special for us on this adventure.

Spiti-Manali adventure: The changing landscapes


The landscape kept changing as we drove along the mountainous terrain on the Spiti-Manali adventure.

This video is a graphic description of the stark and rocky nature of the landscape as we exited the Spiti Valley from Kaza.

The mountains around Kaza were also barren but seemed less rocky and stark and it looked less likely that rocks would come hurtling down at you.

Further ahead at Nako as we entered the Spiti Valley it was a lot less green than in the Kinnaur Region but not quite as barren as at Kaza and certainly at Kumjun La.

The landscape around Kaza.

In contrast the mountains were a lot greener in the Kinnaur belt.

When we think of an adventure in the Spiti Valley it is the stark and bleak mountain ranges that epitomize the adventure.  

Spiti- Manali adventure: The torturous road to Gramphu


Every account on the internet and advice from knowledgeable friends told us that the Kumjun La – Gramphu stretch would be the most dangerous and difficult. We were advised to postpone our journey because they said that the recent floods and landslides would have increased the degree of difficulty beyond reasonable levels. Besides the Maruti Swift may not be able to withstand the rigours of the journey. At the start of our adventure, I felt we should go up to Kaza and then return to Chandigarh via Nako. Akshay and Hemant wanted the thrill of a difficult drive and were convinced that we can do it and it would be a shame if we did not take up the challenge. My wife said she would put her foot down and not allow the journey to proceed on this treacherous route. As it turned out we all decided to go ahead via Kumjun La and Gramphu. Our experience on the journey till Kaza, the road conditions and weather, shifted our perception of difficulty. The Hotel Manager, Sahil, had straight advice for us – start as early as possible. A reassuring observation was that in recent times cars stalling due to water crossings was not happening though it was very common earlier.

On 18th August 2021 we headed out towards Kumjun La at 8.45 am, way after the others, as we had to wait for the petrol station to open to fill petrol. The others had prudently filled their tanks the previous day. The delay meant that we were on our own on this stretch, hoping for the best.

The drive to Losar, about two hours away from Kaza was pleasant as the roads were properly tarred. We stopped for a loo break and hot tea before we geared ourselves for what was to follow. The road grew dusty and bumpy and at one point we were at a fork and couldn’t decide which way to go. We selected what seemed appropriate but the car got stuck in a ditch and we had to get off while Hemant drove ahead and waited for us. We were near Kumjun La and soon saw the iconic milestone and signage. We had reached one major landmark but there was about 40 kms of torturous driving ahead.

Just after Kumjun La at Bartal, we stopped for lunch at a memorable dhaba called Chacha-Chachi dhaba. The atmosphere was wonderful and the food good. We enjoyed that brief halt.

The road beyond was awful. At several stretches we couldn’t call it a road. It was just a muddy path with loads of stones and boulders along the way. Many times, we had to maneuver our way allowing oncoming vehicles to pass or faster moving vehicles to overtake. At times the car got stuck in muddy and rocky patches and fellow travelers in other cars helped guide us out of the jam or move away rocks that was impeding us. The entire landscape was nothing but barren rocks. Luckily the water crossings were not difficult to navigate although we needed at times to get out of the car. The drive after Kumjun La was along the Chandra River but the treacherous nature of the drive gave us little time to enjoy the scenic beauty.

The images on this post will best describe the adventure we had.

It was such a relief when we reached the Leh -Ladakh Road and turned towards the Atal Tunnel. The roads were impeccable and the experience of driving through the Atal Tunnel was ultra special.

The Maruti Swift performed admirably. It certainly isn’t the appropriate car for this journey and we were lucky to come out of it unscathed.

Spiti-Manali adventure: Enduring signages along the highway


Signages add a touch of character to the places we visit on our adventures. It also adds to the several associations we retain in our storehouse of memories.

On the way to Chitkul from Sarahan we stopped at a wonderful view point of a deep gorge in the midst of the mountains. Strong winds made us clutch on to each other for fear of being blown away. This was the site of a dilapidated cable car, a tourist attraction that now lies rusty and disused. Take a look at the signage and gorgeous view.

Several signages greeted us as we approached Chitkul. A reminder that this was the last village in India before we enter Tibet and also the presence and sacrifices of the sentinels who guard our borders.

This martyrs memorial on the route from Chitkul to Nako, was a grim reminder of the many precious lives lost in the construction of these mountain roads and in their maintenance.

I loved this little signage that announced, out of nowhere, our hotel in Nako.  

Equally appealing is this little signage at the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti Rivers of the dhaba we stopped by for lunch on our way to Nako. Very unusual but superlative location for a dhaba which we could have easily missed.

Buddhist symbolism was present all over the Spiti Valley. An unusual symbol on the mountains at Nako was the horn of a ram. Perhaps it represents immortality or strength.

Here is a quotation from the Buddha which we saw at the Dhankar Monastery.

At places of interest around Kaza we saw several interesting signages. The locals seem to have a pride in the facilities they have at these high altitudes.

The Chacha- Chachi dhaba at Bartal just after the Kumjun La was a wonderful experience we had. Here are the associated signages.

The signage announcing Kumjun La is a favourite photo opp for adventure travelers.

Harry Porter fans would love this signage outside a café near the Mall Road in Manali.

Finally the sight of the Atul Tunnel as we headed to Manali was so welcome after the torturous roads from Kumjun La to Gramphu.    

Spiti-Manali adventure: Kaza and nearby places of interest


Kaza is the sub-divisional headquarters of the Spiti-Lahaul region, Keylong being the divisional headquarters. We entered via the downtown section of the town and saw a bustling market place teaming with people and vehicles. Facilities for tourists are considerably better than at Nako. Kaza boasts of the world’s highest petrol station. We made the mistake of leaving refueling till the morning of our departure only to find that the petrol station opens only at 8.30am. We were forced to wait as there are no further petrol stations along the way till we reach Manali. Nako too didn’t have a petrol station and we were advised to fill our tanks at Rekong Peo on our way to Nako from Chitkul. Kaza also has a hospital that can attend to emergency care. We were able to watch the England -India 2nd test match from our hotel TV and watched the historic win.

Mobile connectivity was very patchy as we approached Nako and the only service provider who enabled connectivity in this belt was Reliance Jio.

We stayed at a decent place called Hotel Winter White and Restaurant, a little away from the downtown area with more open space. The Manager Shahil was cheerful and helpful. Old timers in our group said that the elevation at Kaza would be less than at Nako, however the elevation was almost the same at 3650 metres. Kaza is snow bound and inaccessible from the middle of October till the end of March.

Our 2nd day at Kaza was spent attempting to visit the Pin Valley National Park, a sanctuary for several mountain species of animals including the Snow Leopard. We drove along the Pin River to the town of Mud but seem to have missed the path and found ourselves at a beautiful spot but a long way from the National Park. We decided therefore not to go to the park and returned to our hotel instead.

The mountains along the Pin River were majestic with amazing patterns created by fierce winds on the face of the mountains. The drive was along rough mud roads most of the time and was an arduous journey but the views were breathtaking.

We spent a day going to several interesting places near Kaza. Hikkim claims to have the world’s highest post office. Some of our friends sent postcards to their families back home and received them about three weeks later. Komic has a sign board that claims that it is the world’s highest village at 4587 metres. Langza was another quaint place. It was a massive stature of the Buddha and a nice little café called Space Ship were we had a sumptuous snack of cheese toast and lemon tea.  

The view as we drove to these places was stark but awe inspiring. The roads were typically off-road and rough at several places.

Spiti-Manali adventure: Onwards to Kaza- The Buddhist influence


We left Nako a little after 7.00 am on 15th August 2021, Independence Day. We visited the Tabo and Dhankar Monasteries before reaching Kaza. Enroute we had breakfast at Sundo. The little dhaba was impressive. It was clean and served aloo parathas for all 13 of us and the 3 drivers in very quick time. They were geared to serve fairly large groups quickly, something that the hotel we were staying at was not able to.

The road to Kaza was not very good but in the context of what was to follow from Kumzun La to Gramphu, it was a reasonably motorable road.

Tabo monastery was founded in 996AD by the great translator Rinchen Zangpo and the ruling monarch of western Tibet. The monastery is known as the Ajantha and Ellora of the Himalayas because of it’s wall paintings. It is the oldest continuously running Buddhist monastery in India. It’s wood and mud construction gave it an ancient look.

The Dhankar monastery is situated in the Dhankar village surrounded by eight mountains in the form of a lotus flower. The monastery follows the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Key monastery which we visited a couple of days later also follows the Gelugpa order. The original monastery was built in the 11th century but later shifted to the present location after attacks and destruction. The road was motorable for most of the way and we just needed to walk a short distance. No high altitude and dangerous trekking involved here. The view all around was gorgeous with the Spiti River flowing down below. We were served herbal tea at the monastery in unforgettable and memorable surroundings and also listened to recitation of the scriptures from palm leaves at the prayer hall.

The Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism was founded in in the 15th century by Tsongkhapa. The sect achieved its peak power in the 17th century with the support of the Mongols and under the 5th Dalai Lama. The Gelugpa sect remained in power in the Central Tibetan plateau until the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. Tsongkhapa was considered by his disciples to be the re-incarnation of Boddhisatva of Wisdom (Manjushri). The Gelugpa sect is also known as the Yellow Hat sect because of the distinct yellow headdress that they wear.

My interest in the origin and teachings of this sect arise from my practice of Nichiren Buddhism. A teaching established by the Japanese monk, Nichiren in the 13th century. Nichiren Buddhism is a vibrant form of Buddhism with a following of about 12 million in 192 countries across the globe. The growth and popularity of this form of Buddhism is largely because of the lay cultural and spiritual organisation Soka Gakkai International. The Indian arm of this organisation is Bharat Soka Gakkai.

A major difference in the teachings of the Gelugpa sect and Nichiren Buddhism is that the former emphasises strict observance of the monastic way of life. Nichiren Buddhism advocates a path to enlightenment by all people in the midst of the trials and tribulations of daily life. It focuses on the human revolution or inner change of each individual to become a better human being.

Spiti-Manali adventure: Close encounters on the highway


Some interesting encounters that are to be expected on the highway.

Here is a herd of cattle meandering along the highway. They had no intention to give us way and didn’t pay any heed to our persistent honking. The cowherd was far away and didn’t seem concerned. The cattle were of a unique breed. They had unusually bushy tails.

Lot’s of motorcyclist are on adventure rides on these roads. Several are solo or two to a motorcycle. We even got to see an intrepid lady motorcycling alone. Here is a large group. When they rev up their engines you just step aside and let them vroooom through.

We had a little conversation with two motorcyclists on a journey from Tindivanam to Ladakh.

More frequent than one would like, we go face to face with heavy road repair vehicles. We had to wait patiently for this concrete mixer to finish a task before it stepped aside and let us pass.

Much more frequently you encounter large vehicles face to face on narrow roads and need to back off precariously along the narrow road to a broad area that will allow the vehicles to cross.

Sometimes several good samaritans get down to help clear the way and their conflicting instructions can drive you crazy.  

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