The Spiti Valley: In the Middle of the Mystic Himalayas
Story and photos by David Rich
The Spiti Valley and its neighboring valleys are among the most remote in the world, lying on the border with Tibet in a seldom-traveled corner in the far north of India, smack-dab in the middle of the mystic Himalayas.
The valleys are accessible a few months of the year when receding snow allows traffic over 15,000-foot-high (4551M) Kunzum Pass. The only other entrance for sometimes-motorable access is habitually blocked by mud and rockslides.
I entered the Spiti Valley by jogging rapidly across a few-hundred-meter-wide avalanche, ricocheting my attention between slippery footholds and the near-vertical slope above while dodging whizzing boulders larger than me.
Though an armored bulldozer worked valiantly to clear the continuing landslide, on this day no vehicles entered the Spiti Valley. For those without a helicopter the third and only other way in is also by foot: over the spectacular Pin-Parbati Pass at 17,552 feet (5319 M), often trekkable in July and August.
Why go to such a remote place? The reasons are multiple, from the unending procession of awe-inspiring glacier-snagged peaks to a flurry of ancient Buddhist monasteries chocked below, above and hanging off granite-hewed cliffs.
The oldest and holiest monastery in the Himalayas is in the Spiti Valley, the Tabo Monastery dating from 996 CE. This and other monasteries are the stomping grounds of the Dalai Lama, whose colorful hangers-on packed the Valley during my week there.
Though his extreme Holiness was very much in rumored evidence, the best I could muster was a photo of a waving hand and glimpse of his bespectacled face as he swept by in a red SUV.
For those planning an assault on the Spiti Valley it’s best to headquarter in Manali, mountain-vacation refuge for those sweltering in India’s lowland cities. Indians visiting Manali are the rich ones, the barely one percent who can afford to escape Delhi and every other big Indian city during the malevolent monsoon that covers the non-mountainous part of India with water, doubling the price of Manali hotel rooms.
Upon arrival in Manali you’re confronted with a hundred hotels scattered over precipitous hillsides surrounded by glaciers and granite, by unique weirdness and remarkable beauty.
The weird is represented, among other examples, by the near-by dinker village of Malana, even by non-dyslexics not to be confused with Manali. In Malana the villagers shun all strangers as untouchable, which is real progress. A decade ago strangers were barred from Malana.
Walking through Malana is like wondering whether you really exist. Villagers look right through you, around you and over you, or run and hide, except the little ones with grimy hands unabashedly begging for chocolate.
The remarkable beauty resides in Manali-area treks fragranced by dense pine forests. My first trek challenged a pass freshly covered in white stuff, a May snowstorm that the night before had literally buried my tent at a mere 10,700 feet (3200 M).
This trek then weirdly led down through the untouchability of Malana, 6000 feet (1700M) almost straight down a freshly muddied and thus very slippery slope to the closest road for a bus back to Manali. Knees past their use-by date took three days to recover.
The next three-day trek over 14,084 feet (4268M) Hampta Pass was spectacularly gorgeous, what most any pass would be with 100 feet (30M) of snow on its traverse, allowing a ski-like descent into the green-meadowy valley below. There I crossed raging glacier-fed torrents on precarious bridges of snow: a pale warm-up for the grandeur of the Spiti and its neighboring valleys.
I decided to tackle the Spiti in a uniquely weird fashion, by taking local buses for two or three dollars a day instead of shelling out thirty or more for a jeep and driver. So what if it took a week to get all the way to Spiti? And so what if the first night was spent in a tent?
Modern and up-to-snuff isn’t exactly how you get to some of the remotest valleys on the orb. However, the tent came with a wall-to-wall-plushy mattress and a waterproof rain-fly. Thus I survived the only deluge of the two-week journey.
Before tent-time I’d piddled away two hours waiting for dinner while chatting up the earthy cook and listening to her unending witticisms about the ferocious nocturnal bears that wander the local Great Himalayas National Park, looking for tasty tidbits nestled in canvas.
Surviving the bears, I explored out-of-the-way places beginning with the recent headquarters for human sacrifice in Sarahan, heads tossed into the Sutlej River a vertical mile below the grand twin towers of the combo Buddhist and Hindu Bhimakali Temple.
Blood from the decapitated body was placed on the tongue of the Temple goddess and used to wash her feet, now faded to orange. Leftover bodies were dropped into an adjacent well from which you still oughtn’t drink the water. However, Sarahan beer is nicely chilled at 6300 feet (1920M). But don’t over imbibe because the raucous Temple loudspeakers wake everyone at six am.
The next day required six bus changes to cover fifty six miles (92 Km), taking almost seven hours, the last hour up to Sangla among the most frightening of my life. Every Indian bus requires a conductor and driver. The conductor sells tickets and blows a supersonic whistle full blast in your ear, ostensibly to start, stop or guide the bus so it doesn’t fall off a cliff because all the roads in this part of the world are narrow ribbons snaking along sheer cliffs.
Meanwhile the driver is preoccupied with selecting the loudest shrillest tape of Indian “music” to share with those not already deaf from the conductor’s whistle, a task far more important than watching for oncoming trucks. When a bus meets a truck on these single-track roads, which occurs every sixty seconds, one vehicle hugs the cliff wall while the other tracks the edge of the quite slippery cliff.
Villagers in Kungri
The driver this day harbored a death wish and visions of Formula One stardom. He’d stick his head out the window to see how close he could drive to the edge that dropped five hundred feet straight down. On one occasion he opened his door to double-check his acuity, which wasn‘t that precise.
I sat on the cliff-side and could usually see the Sutlej River straight below, unobstructed by the inconvenience of a road’s edge. Blind corners failed to discourage our hurtling-projectile of a bus though its front end cornered over the verge while the back end reluctantly and sloppily followed, swinging a crumble further for particularly inspiring views of the shattered hillside below, dizzily seen as if through the wrong end of a telescope.
It had been sprinkling for an hour, lending excitement to riddles of bus maintenance and the slithery mud track to Sangla. Meanwhile the lady next to me leaned over and was sick out my window while the music pounded and the slick bus tires fought for purchase on the next blind curve around the gray-granite blasted cliff.
Exactly one week later this bus missed a curve and landed five hundred feet below, in the Sutlej River, the latest version of human sacrifice. By the time would-be rescuers reached the canyon bottom the bodies had disappeared without, one assumes, the intervention of a temple goddess or close-by well.
Sangla was separated into an older ancient village with a seven-story fort overlooking the high valley and “modern” Sangla right below where I found a slightly strange hotel. Every evening the sheets and towels were washed by tossing them into a huge vat, adding soap, water and stomping feet for an experience similar to crushing grapes. The washer-man exited with clean feet while sheets and towels remained dingy.
The Sangla road dead-ended at Chitkul a few kilometers from the Tibetan border, which is legally crossable nowhere within a thousand miles. To legally enter Tibet you must fly in from a Chinese city or cross overland from Nepal.
This dead-end remoteness rendered Chitkul charming and amazing, largely because it’d been open to foreigners for only a dozen years. The locals wore green-felt hats and lived in ancient wooden hayricks with slate roofs surrounding the mandatory defense-tower, which was dwarfed by the surrounding white-capped peaks.
Every evening the local men got liquored up and toted Chitkul’s sacred ark from the little village square to the temple complex, going into a trance and swinging the ungainly apparatus to simulate the presence of spirits already over-partaken.
The next chore was obtaining the seven-day “inner-line” permit required for entry into the Spiti Valley, an operation requiring three passport photos plus a copy of passport and Indian visa, taking a day of bureaucratic dawdling in the regional center of Recongpeo: grand cost $1.15.
The map legend for the Spiti Valley might as well read, “Monsters be here,” but all maps instead describe India’s borders with Tibet, China and Pakistan as unofficial, which is to say unknown and seriously disputed. Clutching a fresh “inner-line” permit I hopped a bus that immediately broke down upon approaching the Spiti Valley, forcing an unplanned night in the strangely-named town of Pooh.
Next morning I was allowed to step off the substitute bus and gingerly rush cross the avalanche-zone with my fellow passengers who waited for a bus that never arrived.
After walking a few miles I found a bus in the first Spiti Valley village and over-nighted in the venerable Tabo monastery, the sprawling monastery complex having been freshly painted for the imminent arrival of the Dalai Lama. Every four years he rededicates the complex of five temples and four shrines with rites of Kalachalena, consisting of instruction, rejuvenation and prayer, the latest from June 12-14, 2004.
I spotted his Holiness during his arrival to dedicate the new monastery down valley at Kungri on June 8 where Tibetan Buddhists and monks thronged, most sleeping in freezing-cold tents at 11,000 feet. Meanwhile I managed to find a sparse guesthouse in Sangam, a couple of miles away in the incredibly beautiful Pin Valley surrounded by mountains folded, spindled and seemingly stapled into fantastically-shaped fissures and wads.
Next morning the Dalai Lama landed in a private helicopter on the Sangam helipad and SUVed to Kungri. There monks in red-pointy helmet-hats fringed with golden manes lined a thoroughfare mobbed with true-believers and an exuberant time was had by all.
After a week exploring the Spiti Valley and somehow missing the Dalai Lama’s every other appearance I returned to truly strange antics above Manali. There lowland Indians, who’ve never seen snow up close, thronged to rent overshoes, ratty fake-fur coats, gloves and hats to brave the sparse dirty snow left on Rohtang Pass, a bare 13,000 foot (almost 4000M) affair.
The Pass attracted Indians like a magnet, creating one of the world’s highest perpetual traffic jams as they wandered the narrow road, careened down practically barren slopes in faux sleighs and posed for group photos in front of grotty snowmen. I was already missing the peace and tranquility of the incredible Spiti Valley.
David Rich has been an international traveler, writer, and photographer for the last 16 years, living in 135 countries to date. Here he is shown on top of Villarica in Chile
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