- 1 Pin Valley National Park — beautiful valley, the best place to get a glimpse at the rare snow leopard in winter
- 2 Chandra Taal — origin of the Chandra river, a big and beautiful lake 7 km away from Kunzum Pass, ideal for camping in summer
Although Lahaul and Spiti are usually taken as one unit, they are two different destinations. Lahaul is mostly just passed on the way to Ladakh or Spiti but its temples and monasteries deserve a visit. Its valleys are green as the Monsoon rains leak across the first range of the Himalaya and are stopped by the next one. This fertile climate has its disadvantages though as the northern slope of the Rohtang pass as well as the highway to Spiti can become really muddy. Spiti in contrast is a very dry region where living relies on collecting water from the glaciers. Being a remote area it preserved many treasures in its old monasteries. On the other hand this remoteness means that there is hardly any infrastructure for travellers outside of the administrative centre, Kaza.
Pretty much every one understands and speaks Hindi. English is understood among people involved in tourism, but don't expect village people to understand English. The native language is Bhoti. If you are on a long break you can learn it at a monastery.
Starting from Manali towards Rohtang Pass and Leh, you arrive at a junction near Yari-Khoksar. From there, the eastbound road leads to Karcha, Spiti, Kaza, and, after a very long loop, bends southwards to merge into NH22 and continue far south to Shimla. The westwards route from Yari-Khoksar continues as NH21 to Lahaul, Keylong, a string of hairpin bends, and the More Plains, eventually reaching Ladakh and Leh.
The passes (Rohtang and Kunzum) on the road from Manali are usually closed until mid-May whereas Reckong Peo pass on the road from Shimla can usually be traversed year round.
In order to cross the Rohtang pass all vehicles need a permit which must be obtained online. A tunnel is under construction and scheduled to open in the second half of 2019.
Transit to Ladakh
Due to its importance for the military the road is now in pretty good shape. Most parts are paved and you should expect unpaved stretches mainly around the high passes. This does not mean that travel is without risks: landslides and falling rocks do occur and while the authorities do their best to remove the obstacle as quickly as possible you may have to wait for hours or even until the next day. There are two areas where water flows across the highway forming several fords. The first one is right in the middle between Darcha and Putseo and the second one is about 15km north of the Baralacha pass. It is advisable to pass these areas early in the day before the sun gets a chance to melt the surface of the glaciers above and raise the water level.
You will need to spend one night somewhere. There are a few hotels in the regional capital, Keylong. Fixed tent camps can be found around Jispa and Sarchu. Roadside stalls (dhabas) offer food and drink and are scattered along the road. Some even offer a stay overnight on the mattresses inside. Most of these services are only available during the summer months; this might be subject to change with the opening of the Rohtang tunnel.
If you are not well accustomed to the altitude it is a good idea to stretch the travel a bit and acclimatize yourself first before continuing. Beyond the Rohtang pass (3978m) you will travel across three more passes: Baralacha (4890m), Lachulung (5065m) and Tanglung (5328m).
Although no special permits are required for this road you will encounter several checkpoints where passports will be inspected and/or drivers have to pay a fee. In summer several bus companies offer daily services between Manali and Leh. They spend the night at either Keylong or Sarchu.
Access to Spiti
To enjoy the unspoiled beauty of Spiti enter from Manali via Rohtang and Kunzum La. The high-altitude desert landscape with virtually no civilisation till Kunzum La is a sight to behold. There is a bus service from Manali to Kaza subject to weather conditions (open passes), check with Himachal Roadways at Manali. After crossing the Rohtang pass (two hour drive from Manali) one is away from civilization until entering Spiti via the Kunzum pass, six to eight hours away. On the way one may encounter construction crews working on road or power projects and two small roadside eating places. The first one is at Chhatru with a government guesthouse and four shops where you can get an Indian meal which consists of roti (bread), rice, vegetables and dal (lentils). Sometimes they also offer sandwiches and non-vegetarian dishes. This is the last place to stock mineral water and soft-drinks. The other place, Batal is one hour further down the road offering a very basic Indian meal. Both places are summer settlements which only operate during the tourism season. The highest point on the road is the snow-covered Kunzum pass (14931 ft), nearly five hours from Rohtang pass, with a breathtaking view of Shigri Glacier. The entire journey and the landscape are a photographer’s paradise. Be aware that the poor and mostly unsurfaced road within Lahaul is often subject to flooding and impacted by falling rocks and thus unsuitable for small cars.
On the way just before the climb of Kunzum La (La means mountain pass) starts at Batal, the road splits for Chandra Tal (approx 10 km/2-3 hours), where basic camping facilities are available. If you have time, this lake deserves a visit especially during full moon.
Coming down from Kunzum La you occasionally encounter signs of civilization as you pass through the first villages of Spiti. At the entrance to the first one, Lossar, there is a police post which registers every car entering or leaving Spiti.
On these roads, distances do not count. The duration of your drive will be determined by road conditions and landscape - which will force numerous breaks. No mobile connectivity is available till Kaza which has only BSNL connectivity. (as of 2009-10)
Unless one is on shoe string budget, it is advisable to hire a SUV from Manali. Nearly all tour operators provide service, prices fluctuate so do bargain and ask for a deal with accommodation at Kaza and other places you intend to visit in the valley. Insist on an experienced local driver from the valley as he will know the weather and topography. Also ensure that the SUV is in good condition.
The alternative entry is from Shimla (capital of Himachal Pradesh) through the Kinnaur valley on a more comfortable all-weather road until Kaza. The route is longer (Shimla, Rampur, Zeori, Reckong Peo, Kaza) and captivating but the landscape is typical Himalayan, unlike the route from Manali. If you follow this route plan for an overnight stay along the way preferably at Reckong Peo. Please note that you do need an inner line permit for foreigners to travel on part of this road. While going from Shimla to Kinnaur one can visit Sarahan ( one hour from Zeori) and Kalpa 45 min from Reckong Peo.
Accommodation beyond Manali and Shimla is very basic (mostly homestay) although Kaza does offer some better options with the opening of a few new hotels, but don’t have high expectations.
If you look for a base to explore Spiti valley, Kaza is your choice. Having your own vehicle is a huge advantage. Himachal Roadways buses ply the windy mountain roads to nearby areas, contact Kaza Bus Depot for details. Local vehicles are available for hire. Motorcycles (Enfield) are also an option but make sure you're experienced and comfortable on a bike before heading up into these rocky high altitude areas. Another option in some areas is to walk between villages, which can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a whole day.
Lamas (monks) are the best guides to any gompa (monastery). Initially, they may be bit reserved, but a few questions and a smile will open them up. They will not only take you for a guided tour but will open up locked treasure troves and will probably end your visit with a refreshing cup of tea and lifelong memories.
Ask lamas before you start taking photographs of interior areas/prayer halls, because this will be prohibited in most places.
- Shashur Gompa – 350m up the slope on the northern side of Keylong this monastery is famous for its wall paintings
- Sissu – it is at an altitude of around 3130 meters, on the right bank of the Chandra River, on a flat ground. There is a very good plantation of poplars and willows on the both sides of the road of this village. This plantation is very dense and even during summer time sun rays cannot penetrate it.
- Triloknath – 50km from Keylong along Chandrabhaga or Chenab river this is a sacred place revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.
- Chandra Taal (Lake of the moon) – a beautiful natural lake surrounded by hills. There are campsites a few kilometers before you reach the lake. In order to preserve the lake and its surroundings staying overnight at the lake as well as swimming are no longer allowed.
- Dhankar Gompa – beautifully perched among the rocks 35 km from Kaza. The old (nearly 1000 years) monastery has been damaged due to rain. Historically Spiti Valley received hardly any rain but due to climate change the intensity of the rainfall increases. A Gompa can withstand heavy snowfall but not rain. Mudslide from the mountains and seeping rain water in mud walls slowly destroy this beautiful monastery. Ask Lamas (monks) to take you around and they will show you damaged wall paintings and tell you about their losing battle. Visit the attached museum, it’s a small one but the entry fee goes to the restoration fund and if you are feeling generous, please make a contribution to ‘Save Dhankar Monastery Fund’. Very basic accommodation is available in the new monastery for around ₹150 and basic food will be served at meal times.
- Gungri Monastery – a Nyingma monastery founded by Padmasambhava in 1330 AD. It is 18 km into the Pin Valley
- Key Gompa (Key Monastery) – an 11th-century monastery 12 km from Kaza.
- Saskyagongmig Gompa (Tangyud Monastery)
- 1 Tabo Monastery, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. – 50 km from Kaza, established 996 AD, one of the oldest functioning Buddhist monastery. Original wall paintings and artefacts are still preserved.
- Kanamo Peak (5964 m}, behind Kibber Village. This is an easy way to climb a 6000-m peak in less than 3 days (coming as you are from Kibber, the highest village in the world!).
- Spiti Safari: It’s a popular trekking place in Himachal Pradesh. This trek is surrounded by the Kullu Valley, Ladakh and Tibet with Lahaul and Spiti.
- Spiti Trek, provides a deep insight into the life of Spitian people. Visitors can experience local people life style, way of living, cuisine, livestock grazing machine, irrigation practices and agriculture. Spiti people life is very much balanced with the rare species of wildlife.
- Thangka Painting, Kaza, Spiti, ☏ . Take advantage of the rich monastic traditions in Spiti and join a Thangka painting workshop. Taught by professional thangka painter monks, you will learn the art by studying 1000-year-old murals in the main monasteries of Spiti - Tabo, Gomic, Key, Dhankar and Losar.
- Treks. Inquire locally in any village, there are several popular treks that can be done.
- Village Homestay Trek, Langcha, Komic, Dhemul, Lalung. 5 days 4 nights trekking between villages on the high plateau overlooking the valley. Great way to experience local culture and get in a nice 4-5 hr daily walk while sleeping in a real bed every night.
- Spiti Snow Leopard Photography Tour Raacho Trekkers is one of the trekking companies that provides guides for the Snow Leopard Trail.
There are restaurants at Chhatru and Betal village on the route from Manali to Kaza.
Indian food is available in and around Kaza although choice is limited. Have a word with the cooks; they will be more than willing to prepare dishes of your choice and provided personalised services. A few ethnic restaurants offer Tibetan food, but advance notice is required for them to prepare local specialities.
Sea-buckthorn, also called Leh berry, grows wild; ask locals before eating. At high altitude, fresh water from snow is refreshing, but don’t drink before consulting local residents.
There is a wine shop in Kaza and you can get Aarakh (local wine) and Chang (local beer) in and around Kaza.
Following are some phone numbers of Tourism Department. These can be contacted in case of any requirement for information:
- Old Circuit House, Keylong : 01900-222320
- New Circuit House, Keylong : 01900-222766
- Tourism Complex, Keylong : 0190-222393
- Circuit House, Udaipur : 01909-222252
- Tourism Office, Manali : 01902-253531
Bus drivers can be far less careful than you would like, especially on windy mountain roads. Government buses seldom get into accidents, as their drivers have experience on those roads, but private buses may be at risk.
Take care when heading out trekking: It's easy to get lured into thinking you're out for an easy stroll, but make sure you have enough food and water for the whole trip and then some. Be sure not to wander on unknown tracks, as you may get lost in cold desert, and make sure someone knows where you are going.
- Kinnaur Valley – if you're heading down into Kinnaur, make sure you pick up an Inner Line Permit in Kaza (free, good for 14 days) before setting out. Then take a bus east from Tabo to the landslide (about 2 hours). Once there you'll hand over your bags to be shuttled across on the wire by basket (₹5/ea), while you'll spend 45 min or so exerting yourself as you hike up and around the rockfall. It's not too strenuous, but expect to break a sweat, at least a little. If you're lucky there will be a bus waiting for you on the other side headed toward Reckong Peo (4-5 hours). If it's late and nothing is headed that far, the closest village with (limited) accommodation is Nako, about 45 minutes away.