So on a whim my friend and I decided that we should travel to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh – BEST decision ever.
Having arrived at middle age and questioning our lives and corporate slavery coupled with my recent ‘i quit my job to travel’ decision-making, we thought we should definitely rough it out backpacker-style, avoid luxury and travel frugally.
Disclaimer: Neither of us are impressive trekkers or mega fit, so this was an especially fantastic journey to take on. I also discovered altitude sickness. Oh boy!
We had 12 days – May 20 till 31 – including travel time. Here’s what our plan and outcome looked like:
- Flight to Chandigarh and then bus to Shimla (6 hours, Delux buses available). Airport to sector 43 bus stand is about 20 minutes, INR 300 by autorickshaw. We chose flights via Chandigarh over Shimla based on advice from other travelers about iffy flights via Shimla, crowds, etc.
- Halt for 1 night in Shimla. We stayed at Mountain Goat Bed and Breakfast.
- Bus from Shimla to Reckong Peo (9 hours, ordinary bus only). No Delux buses available so we had to take the local HRTC bus. That was rough and given it was labor season, that bus in particular was stuffed to the gills with out of state labourers inside and on top of the vehicle and people using each other’s bodies for support and as beds.
- Reckong Peo bus stand to Kalpa is a 30 min drive by taxi. We had pre-booked a taxi – thank the heavens – since our arrival was at 330 am. Costs INR 500 one way.
- Stayed 2 nights in Kalpa – a stunning locale with incredible scenery and views. We stayed at this up and coming guest house called Tab Exotic.
- Kalpa to Kaza by taxi. Buses and shared taxis are available BUT the buses are those ordinary ones and take 12 hours. Shared taxis are faster but there need to be enough tourists to fill the seats. That morning this wasn’t so. We ran into two other travelers and luckily our destination and place of stay matched up! We struck a deal with our taxi driver to drive us to Kaza at INR 5500 and we arrived by that afternoon after about 8 hours. Regular taxi union price is at INR 7500-8000 one way if you want a small hatch back to yourself. Bus tickets cost INR 300 or so. Shared taxi costs around INR 500-600.
- Stayed 5 nights in Kaza. We stayed at Zostel hostel. Making Kaza our base was a great move and I recommend you consider doing the same if planning Spiti. It works out well if one is dependent on public transport and luck.
- Intended return was planned via Manali to Chandigarh which would have taken a day but turned out that that route via Manali was closed off (unusual in late May-early June). We decided to route our way back to Chandigarh via Rampur – the best way to break up a 2-day journey and avoid 16 straight hours in a moving bus.
- We booked two halts along the way, 1 night in Rampur at Rattan Regency Hotel (great views and food) and 1 night in Chandigarh (Treebo Mint Premia). Van from Kaza to Rampur at INR 1000 per person was a 12-hour stretch and then the bus (again, ordinary because the deluxe bus runs once a day at 5pm) from Rampur to Chandigarh at INR 870 or so per person, took a mind-numbing 11 hours with several stops on the way.
Temperatures during the day varied between 6-7 degree Celsius, getting quite warm during the day. At 6 pm and after, temperatures would drop, not too drastically, but you would need layers to stay comfortable if outdoors.
What we carried:
Decathlon Zindabad! We had our backpacks (mine is a 60L which I’d recommend as the ideal size); waterproof trekking shoes; rainproof Jacket that comes with an inner fleece layer which is removable (this was my all day – every day jacket and has seen me through all kinds of weather).
Uniqlo inners are life savers – their HEATTECH series is the best.
Other clothing items included T-shirts, denim pants, winter leggings, socks and another pair of sneakers and you’re set for the mountains. Don’t forget sunglasses (essential) and sun screen.
What we ended up buying there and ideally should have carried with us were face masks (the dust is incredible most times). If you have a good mask, just carry it instead of buying the stretchy cloth ones in Kaza.
No camera gear. No badass hiking gear. The shoes are sufficient.
I saw the best sceneries and landscapes of my life in this place and by far this was the best trip of my life. I am not a mountain person but I had no idea what I was missing out on. We learnt many things in this trip.
For starters, if you need information about buses, taxis, costs, timings, directions, ask 10 people to get at least 2 similar versions which should be your best bet in any given scenario.
Altitude sickness is real. Tourists make the ascent relatively quickly and don’t really leave much time to acclimatise. To tackle altitude sickness, take a DOMAIS – one pill a day. If you have the slightest hint of feeling out of it, or tired, or bloodshot eyes or even the mildest of headaches, talk about it, mention it – don’t ignore. Most importantly, give yourself enough time to rest and sleep. You may find yourself sleeping longer than usual, so just go with the flow. If you need to cancel a hike because you are not feeling a 100%, that’s indeed the smart thing to do. At such high altitudes, don’t take your health for granted and be real about risks involved with headaches, nausea, sugar levels, BP, etc. Eat chocolates, take real sugar in your coffee or tea, eat carbs and RELAX. That’s the best way to make the most of your time in the mountains. We met several people who simply had a list to tick off and had back to back itineraries which is plain silly.
Shimla bus stand has the one shop on the bus stand level who charge INR 10 for charging your phone for 30 minutes – this made our veins collectively pop and we walked away in a huff from the scheming shopkeeper.
It IS possible to ride along several parts of the valley for short and sweet day trips – Kee Monastery, Kibber village and Langza village – on a non geared scooter. Our mistake was to blindly trust the petrol pump guy who convinced us that we can cover off our route 3 times over on the scooter but we actually ended up getting lost by 15 odd kilometers and running out of fuel. The geniuses that we are, we didn’t carry an extra bottle of fuel.
For most parts of our time in Kaza, there was no electricity. The hostel would switch on the generator at nightfall so the cook could prepare dinner and we could mooch off the weak wifi to share posts with the world.
Himachali stray dogs are BEAUTIFUL. They are good looking, big, strong and utterly friendly beings. At the same time, those that roam the valley in packs can be severely vicious and territorial and rip their own to bits if in a disagreement.
The monks make awesome cardamom tea and are supremely helpful. They know where you can get network to make a phone call. They may even offer you fuel. The locals address them as “Llama Ji” but it’s appropriate to just call them monks. Llama is the senior most designation in monk-hood and the regular monks are not actually Llamas. [open to corrections]
It is customary to eat Maggi – India’s favourite instant noodles – when on the mountains along with your daily portion of momos (veg, chicken or mutton), Thukpa (soupy noodles with meat and veggies) and Thenduk (similar soupy noodles but this one contains chunky bits of flat noodles with meat and veggies). We couldn’t get enough of the food.
We do not recommend the area’s specialty – Tibetan Butter Tea. Unless you have a thing for very fatty salty broth with a few drops of milk floating in it.
The tourists who make it to these parts are Bengalis. We came across mostly bongs everywhere we went. So adventurous, this community.
The monasteries – Kee, Komic, Tabo, Nako, Kaza – all offer a place of stay to passing travellers. No photography allowed inside Kee – which happens to be the largest monastery in Spiti but has very little of the interior open to tourists. Komic lets you take photos inside the main prayer hall.
We met several photographers, bloggers, instagrammers who were our best source of information. It is great to see how young Indians are taking to travel and are confidently taking the path least known. We came across bikers, backpackers, hikers, climbers, writers and photographers. We even met a celebrity Radio Jockey who is shifting base from Dubai to India. Then there was this family of four who simply drove off from their home with no plan and are carrying on based on how they and where they want to go.
At Nako, if you are taken to a green-coloured slimy lake-like water body and told it’s Nako lake, know that it is not. The area around though has lots of small home stays and farm animals.
At Dhankar, know that when the locals say it takes 1.5 hours one way, what they mean is it takes about 2 hours to climb by foot to view the lake and 2 hours to come down. One of us that day was getting pummelled by a terrible headache and we chose not to start a hike that would potentially take us 2.5 hours.
From Kaza, it is totally possible to do day trips to Dhankar and Tabo (INR 1200 for the two locations) and Pin Valley (INR 1800 for the day). You can hike out into the valley after your car drops you off at Mud Valley which is the last stop in Pin Valley, about 34 kms from the start of the valley. It is here that the famous Tara Cafe is. Their lemon ginger tea is brilliant. Don’t think twice about ordering their stir fried noodles for a quick meal.
Local buses can be easily booked on the HRTC website. HRTC bus drivers are vetted and are known to be the best for that kind of hill driving; their skill is live saving. Having said that, Spiti is best explored with your own vehicle. Your car WILL take a beating as the roads are pre-historic in most parts. You can also rent self-driven cars at Zoom. We spotted a couple of Zoom SUVs in that terrain.
A key highlight was the post office at Hikkim. They sell postcards and stamps for a base cost between INR 15 and 20, depending on national or international addresses. Get your postcard stamped and posted from here. We assumed it’d take at least a month for the cards to reach their destination and were pleasantly surprised (and impressed) when two of my postcards made it to Pune in less than two weeks’ time!
Don’t be shocked if your minivan driver is stopped by the cops and then realises he is sans his driving license. This happened to us on our way from Kaza to Rampur. There was a fine involved, then we drove on for a couple of minutes to halt again so our driver could calm his nerves with a cigarette.
STAY IN KALPA
2 nights – INR 2668 per person
Tab Exotic is run by Sanjay Thakur – quite an enterprising, honest, pleasant personality. We got along great and he was very helpful. He even gave us presents on the last day – a white silk buddhist flag of sorts. The cook at Tab Exotic makes delightful dishes of your wish to perfection. We were amazed at the talent that Panditji (the chef) turned out to be. Neetu, the boy who manages everything else and is seen running around, was pleasant and has a sense of humour. They are building another floor and Sanjay hopes to have a chain of Tab Exotic properties in multiple locations in the mountains. I recommend you pick this place in Kalpa – rooms are well lit, spacious and overall it’s a pleasant stay (not fancy).
STAY IN KAZA
5 nights – INR 2995 per person
Zostel is a hip little hostel and is run by a couple of jovial – sometimes a bit too jovial – lads, Vishal and Negi (I forget his first name). The cook here – also known to us as Panditji – was whipping up delicious fare. The hostel has one private room for families, and two dorm rooms, each for 6 humans and with a large attached bathroom. Zostel has 4 outdoor small tents, and the occupants can use bathrooms which are built out separately for them. There are also two large (and quite fancy) tents which come with their own attached bathrooms – which was pretty cool.
We made new friends, and dormed up with people with different stories and backgrounds. The hostel is maintained really well; they wash linen daily, clean up all the time; provide fresh towels (INR 40); and is a well oiled machine. Our only note of caution would be to rent out a scooter at your own risk, carry extra fuel no what who says what and also triple check location/ distance related information they give out with the internet and Google. Solely depending on local advice is not going to be the brightest approach.
We heard that they are now building an airstrip in Kaza which will make it that much more accessible and tourists will arrive in hordes. Likely the case in about 6-10 years from now.
STAY IN RAMPUR
1 night – INR 1500 for the room
For our return leg, the Kaza Panditji hooked us up with his contact at Rattan Regency and we got an air conditioned room for INR 1500 for the night. Our room had the following view and some lovely food.
Rampur has two bus stops and all the inter state buses leave from the new bus stop.
STAY IN SHIMLA
1 night – INR 1105 per person
Shimla basically has gone to shit. Overrun with hotels and resorts and guest houses and what not, this is no longer what the old Bollywood movies portrayed. The town is crowded, dirty, and loud. It was a bit of a nightmare trying to get to Mall Road (the main commercial/ touristy spot) through the Lift/ Elevator. In general, Shimla left a bad taste in our mouths and we intend to avoid this place. Having said that, we selected to stay the night at Mountain Goat which is about 35 mins away from Shimla bus stand, on the fringes. It was like staying with some relatives at their house. At a very quiet corner of the mountains, we had a restful night.
STAY IN CHANDIGARH
1 night – INR 1778 for the night
Our intent was to just crash for the night and head to the airport first thing, so Treebo Mint Premia turned out to be a decent option. It’s proximity to Sector 17 bus stand and the airport worked well for us.
EXPENDITURE – The costs came to around INR 34,000 including flight costs, food, etc.