Lahaul and Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh

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October 27th 2017
Published: November 5th 2017
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A trip to heaven and back - Himachal Pradesh, India :-

As you enter the Himachal Pradesh from Punjab side, you notice a big board put up by HP tourism department – Welcome to “Deo Bhumi”- Land of Gods.

It has its own typical high density tourist places like Shimla, Manali, Dharamsala etc but what is still hidden away at other side, is where the real heaven is. This side is open to tourism only for a short period of about 4 months in a year as during rest of the year it remains inaccessible due to heavy snow with temperatures at many places falling below -30*c.

This tour is offitially called Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul tour, a part Alpine Zone of Greater Himalayas. “Lonely Planet” has ranked it as 2018 one of the ten top regions to visit in the world. The tour can range between 5 days to 10 days depending on what places one wants to cover. The area has opened up to tourism just about 10-12 years back and more so in last 3-4 years when Border Roads Organisation started building roads all along to remote places. The average height is about 3,500 meters with a high roller coaster ride ranging between 2,500 meters and 4,600 meters+. The tour takes you to the last village of India on the Tibetan side, the highest village in the world with motorable road , the highest post office in the world, most difficult road to build in the world, monasteries over 1,000 years old, a lake at 4,500 mtrs with crystal clear water and which changes its colour as per sun’s movement, another lake which turns into a ski zone in winters, huge landslides which have wiped off miles of mountain sides, and on top of all the man’s strength to live in such difficult terrain and still be happy!

We (my family) decided to take a 10 days tour of this world. Ice locked mountain passes donot allow anyone to enter this world till about mid June and again lock it up end October onwards. Further rains after 15th July bring its own share of land slides which can cause roads to close down for hours/days. So we decided to take the trip starting 1st of July to be on relatively safe side from weather point of view.

The trip is in a circular fashion either starting from Shimla and ending in Manali or reverse way. Circular since that is the only way one can go through as no roads exist to go diagonally across Himachal Pradesh due to high altitude mountain range for hundreds of kilometres. We decided to start from Shimla instead of Manali to better equip ourselves against High Altitude Sickness. This hits many when one moves suddenly from low altitude to high altitude resulting into nautia, headache, loss of breathing etc and may even result in deaths if the affected person is not given immediate medical response/ taken down to low altitude. Even taking small walking steps becomes difficult. A gradual ascent gives more time to body to accelematise. While start from Manali takes you immediately to a height of 4,000 meters (Rohtang Pass) , starting from Shimla instead , you go gradually up level over eight days journey. And we from Mumbai at sea level were starting from absolutely zero level.

Something about Himachal Pradesh (HP)

Himachal Pradesh literally means land of Snow (“Him” - snow and “Achal” - mountain in Sanskrit language) and has been lived by humans even before Rigveda times i.e. more than 5,000 years back.

Mythology says it was first ruled by Manu, the giver of Hindu Law. After the great deluge, Manu stepped down from his celestial boat at this place and it is from here that human race came into being. Infact the famous holiday town of Manali derives its name from “Manu” and “Alaya” – Land of Manu.

Hence its called land of gods (Dev Bhumi) and has always attracted pilgrims from Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism and Sikhism. It’s a great attraction for spiritual seekers. While the upper side has Kailash Parbat (believed to be home of Shiva) , down below is another home of Shiva - Kinnar Kailash mountain with its own natural stone Shivlinga at the top of the mountain at height of 6,700 meters.

A notable thing is that 2017 report shows HP to have overtaken Kerala to become the least corrupt state in India!

Day 1

Decided to take early morning flight from Mumbai to Chandigarh from where a car was booked for all the 11 days to take us around. The early morning flight would have allowed us to reach Shimla by late afternoon, have a look around and then go further to Narkanda for the night stay.

However the flight was about 5 hours late. So we reach Chandigarh airport in afternoon, a nice newly built international airport , landing on whose runway one notices a lot of different kind of air force planes including huge AN32s parked on one side (photography is strictly prohibited even from inside the plane one is travelling in, crew announces this specially). Noticeable are also air force hangers which are built in such a way as to be seen as mere natural hillocks if seen from air.

We get out of airport and start our road journey at 2 pm, too late to see Shimla (115 kms - 4 hours drive) and decide to go straight to Narkanda – another 65 kms, 2 1/2 hours drive away where we were booked for our night stay at Himachal Pradesh Tourism department hotel “Hatu” . The driver is an expert on mountain roads – means overconfident from our point of view! Takes all the hair pin sharp bends at high speeds and believes that no vehicle should be driving in front of him even if the road is a single lane road with a deep valley on one side, My wife murmurs something about his driving and he says proudly – “don’t worry, I have been a bus driver on these roads for over 15 years and last five years have been driving tourists around on this and Leh routes. Well, we are in land of gods as per state tourism and I decide to leave our lives in hands of gods and let this driver drive his way.

Story time :

All Indians know that best apples come from Himachal Pradesh but few know how apples came to Himachal Pradesh! For this we have to thank an American Satyananda Stokes! American with a name of Satyananda? Yes originally he was Samuel Stokes and came to India early 1900s as a Christian missionary to work in a leper colony. He settled down in Himachal Pradesh in Narkanda area and also married a local girl. While he went about converting locals to chirstianity, one day he received a letter from his mother wherein she asked him whether it was right for him to convert locals without first he himself knowing what he was asking locals to give up and why. So he started studying Hinduism and slowly he got attracted to it and became a sort of sanyasi taking the name of Satyananda. It was he who introduced apple strain to Himachal Pradesh and also helped others farmers to take to growing of apples. This gave a big economic boost to Himachal Pradesh. He was also deeply involved in India’s independence and was the only American who was member of All Indian Congress Committee. In 1921, he was jailed by British for promoting hatred against it (as part of India’s independence struggle).

Back to present

The road to Narkanda luckily bypasses main Shimla and we reach Narkanda (height 2,700 mtrs) at 9.15 pm. Its a small place which becomes a skiing resort in winters for crowd which come to Shimla. A quick dinner and decision tosleep early as next day was a long further drive. The hotel is clearly built long time back and in need of urgent renovation and upgradation. The winter chill of 12*c has hit us after Mumbai heat of 31*c on the same day morning. So we pull in our blankets and go off to sleep.

Day 2

Since we lost time on first day, it was not possible for us to visit Hatu peak in Narkanda which is about 8 kms away but needs steep trek up the mountain. The view from top apparently is heavenly and has a small devi mandir.

The destination is Sangla , 240 kms – 7 1/2 hours drive away. Until 1989, outsiders needed special permission from Government of India for entering Sangla valley due to its proximity to Tibet China border. The road goes along Sutlej river on which lot of private sector hydro power projects are coming up. So road is quite in bad shape at many a places. The newly built residential colonies of power projects are quite impressive and well planned. On the way karcham Dam comes up where two rivers Sutlej and Baspa meet. While Sutlej is all grey in colour, Baspa is bluish green!

The climb up to Sangla (2,700 mtrs) is steep, single lane cut along rocks of mountains at some places almost in cave tunnel fashion, thousands of meters deep valley on one side If one vehicle comes from other side, one may have to back up few hundred meters to allow the other vehicle to pass. Who has to back up is decided on basis of mutual understanding and is not a matter of ego. Photos of some part of this road is used by HP tourism department as its USP. Experience of travelling on such roads itself is a good attraction. While the driver is driving at his typical confidence level, we need to keep our heart beats in control everytime (which is too many times) the tyre is inches away from the thousand meters fall on one side and rocks jutting out from other side.

Reach Sangla by early evening and stay at Prakash Residency a newly built extension of Prakash Hotel. The place is small and so is the hotel. But its a nice quiet place mainly used as night stay for onward journey to Chitkul and treks. A good dinner and a quiet small walk along the main road ends the day. While the day temperature was fine, the night chill has started affecting us used to Mumbai weather. A heavy pullover is must in evening when going out.

Day 3

Drive to Chitkul (3,450 mtrs, 22 kms – 1 hour) which is the last village on Indian side along the Tibetan border. The road is steep with Baspa river flowing down on one side. Village is small but big attraction for tourists as it also offers trek to various points in HP including a 13 days trek all the way to Hrishikesh. The view is beautiful with first view of snow covered peaks all around. Baspa valley is supposed to produce world’s best apples due to weather and soil conditions. There is relative prosperity all around due to cash crops like apples, walnuts and apricots The apple orchards are heavy with small apples growing up to be delivered to market starting September. There is a military checkpoint just before Chitkul where one needs to show IDs and travel and personal details are recorded. At Chitkul, one can walk around for some time specially on a single road which goes all the way upto border 24 kms away. After Chitkul , movement is allowed only with express prior military permission. The weather is chilly and wind force is quite high as its an open place. Village has small dhabas (small road side eating joints), one of which proudly has put up a sign board that it is the last serving dhaba on the Hindustan side.

After two hours of strolling around, we get back into car for the return journey along the same road which we came. It takes you down from height of 3,500 mtrs back to river valley level and to our next destination – Kalpa (height 2,960 mtrs– 60 kms - 4 hours drive away). On the way one comes across yet another power project on Karcham Dam. The power project building has requirement for frequent blasting and road signs showing road closure timings are displayed prominently. Thrice a day in morning/afternoon/evening roads are closed for blasting.

We are now in Kinnaur district which borders Tibet on the east. Reckong Pio is the district HQ and serves as central public bus transport point for the area and to much higher up Kalpa.

Not many know that it was a Kalpa resident, Shyam Saran Negi, who became the first voter in Indian elections! First elections in independent India were held in 1952 but in Himachal Pradesh they were held five months earlier as later on the areas would remain inaccessible due to heavy snow. So the first elections of India took place in Kalpa in October 1951 wherein the first person to reach polling station and vote was Shyam Saran Negi.

We are staying at Alpine Crest in Kalpa, a newly built hotel set among apple orchard. The place is still in start up mode with interiors still being built but offers beautiful spacious rooms which offer apart from usual double bed, a sitting space with sofa set and a small dining area. Ask for 3rd floor rooms as the three rooms there open up to a common big terrace which offer breath taking 180* view of snow clad tall peaks all around. The tallest three in front are all above 6,000 mtre one of which is Kinnaur Kailash, considered by Hindus as winter abode of Shiva and has a natural rock linga formation at the peak . It is honoured both in Hinduism and Buddhism and second most revered shiva home after Mount Kailash at Mansarovar, Tibet. Many a devotees trek all the way up to Shiva Linga (a 40 odd feet tall rock at peak which changes colour as sun passes, ranging from golden to black to yellow apparently due to crystalline rock) at 6,050 meters though it is considered as one of the toughest of all pilgrimage treks requiring minimum one night stay at caves in between. My younger daughter declares she can feel presence of “Shiva” all around!

Story time

Kinnar kailash has various legends attached with it.

1) There was a rakshas (demon) who worshipped Shiva. Pleased with his devotion, Shiva told him to ask for a boon wherein he asked that whosoever’s head his hands touch should turn into ash (bhasma). Shiva granted him that boon and thats how the rakshas came to be called Bhasmasur. However once he got the boon, Bhasmasur tried to touch Shiva’s head itself to turn Shiva into ashes as Bhasmasur wanted Shiva’s wife, Parvati. Shiva had to run around to save himself and hid himself at Kinnar Kailash. Later on Vishnu got Bhasmasur to die by appearing as a beautiful lady (Mohini) in front of Bhasmasur. Bhasmasur fell in love with her but she said she was fond of dancing and only if he could match her all dance moves, she would marry him. Bhasmasur agreed and they started dancing with Bhasmasur duplicating every dance move of hers. Suddenly Mohini put one hand on her head and other behind her as one of the dance moves and this was faithfully duplicated by Bhasmasur having let his guard down. This ofcourse let to Bhasmasur himself turning into ashes.

Till date, this particular dance move (one hand on head and other behind the back) is very common among ladies in Himchal Pradesh, Bihar etc and is called Mohini Bhasmasur naach.

2) It is also said that Pandavas spent the last year of their vanvaas at this location. And at that time, Shiva to test Arjun called him to fight with self. Arjun realised that this was no ordinary warrier but Shiva himself and instead of fighting offered his worship. Pleased with this, he was blessed by Shiva

3) Krishna’s grandson Anirudha married Usha at this place.

Kalpa easily can be said to have most beautiful view in Himachal Pradesh. My family who have been to Switzerland, declare this is better than Switzerland! The view of mountains is right from their base deep down in the valley below to top at 6,000+ meters. Just sit on terrace and soak the beauty. Except for our sleeping time, all our time was spent on terrace for viewing/chats/dinner/breakfast/playing cards/photo sessions or just chilling.

Hotel being new, we are the only guests staying there and the owner himself came down to greet us. The staff is very friendly and arranges very tasty and sumptuous food though of limited choice in absence of offitial kitchen yet to start.

Evening walk takes us on a windy small path. By now we have realised that all settlements at high altitudes in Himachal Pradesh have street dogs. One of them takes a liking to you and starts following you! The following is till wherever you are going, if you stop on the way, he/she also will stop and wait patiently. Then after a certain distance, the dog will stop and another will take over. Its like clear demarcation of boundries. If you are returning back, the dog will return back with you. All they want is love and my family is a big dog lover. So every place, we had dogs coming over to us as they sensed the positive energy from our side. These dogs are fat and carry a good covering to withstand the minus temperatures of winter.

The dog who joined our team at Kalpa was apparently the alpha male of the area (alpha dog is the natural born dominant leader of the area and all other dogs must respect his authority if they want to stay in that area). My family promptly names him suitably and a lot of cootchi cooing is offered to him. An old dog, he comes along grandly with us for entire walk to and fro. All other dogs wag their tails from side and show their respect to him.

The village has a special religious function on the day. Kalpa residents follow mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, Infact the temple complex in the middle of village has both Buddhist gompa and hindu temple. That day the deities (version of Vishnu) had been taken out on Palkis in procession and put in an open terrace near our hotel. As per the custom, the deities will stay in open the entire night and next day will be taken back to the temple. There is a lot of dancing and music all around and villagers also staying in the open the entire night.

Every village in HP has its own Devta or local deity and no fair or festival is complete without the presence of the local Devta who is taken around in Palki. Locals have complete belief in the local deity and all decisions are made by the deity (through an oracle) whether it be a land dispute or mental health suffering.

Mesmerised by the all around beauty, we promise ourselves to come back some day only to stay here for few days and relax, somewhere around September just before the winter lock sets in but with additional beauty of all the trees laden with fully grown red apples.

The day is very long here, almost 13 hours of sunshine. At 5 am, sunrise has already happened and sun light is still there at 7.30 pm. With no pollution the sunlight is extremely bright and harsh. Your skin tans immediately if you are not protected and wearing of sun glasses is necessary for protection of eyes. One does notice high incidence of spectacles among locals here.

The days are hot and night chilling. Incidentally winters see temperatures falling upto -20*C with 5-7 feet snow all around.

The net and mobile connection is good at kalpa (which we were missing at Sangla/Chitkul). Another realisation – breakfast is same at every place, choice of two parathas (aloo or paneer) and Omlette.

Day 4

The place has its magnetic view attraction but we have to leave. So we leave after breakfast for our next destination – Tabo – about 7 hours drive away. Kalpa to Nako is about 100 kms and Nako to Tabo another 60 odd kms , distance wise not much but the drive is slow and tedious as road is rough snaking up the mountains.

The road now has become indeed dangerous, warning road signs are at every few kilometres. Border Road Organisation warning road signs declare it to be most gruesome roads in the world to build and maintain. The reason is clear, frequent land slides. The road is so narrow that at many a places one of the vehicle has to back up few hundred meters if a vehicle comes from the front. The entire distance is covered by huge landslides sometimes taking away half of mountains. The view has totally changed. Upto now it was all green around with tall pine trees and apple orchards. But now it is all bare. The mountains have been eroded away constantly due to snow and weather. The weather is sub artic with annual rainfall less than 50 mm. At one place, few years back entire stretch of over 20 kms of road was washed away in landslide. So now they have built a road at much higher altitude of 4,000+ mtrs. So you climb up to that level and then again come down to average of 3,000 mtrs after a distance of about 30 kms. It has added a distance of over 10 kms (which is a long distance in these terrain where you are travelling best at the speed of 10-15 kms per hour) but apparently now is much safeguarded against landslides.

The Sutlej valley is deep on one side of the road. To drive on this road requires strong stamina, patience, concentration and blessings of gods.

After the climb up, we stop at a small Kangra dhaba which offers Kangra style simple Daal rice and Kadhi. The village next to that is Nako (height 3,700 mtrs) which has a small new monastery and Nako lake which is famous for freezing over in winters offering skiing to visitors in winter. The path to the lake is through the old stone and mud houses which are now being rebuilt with government aid. The lake is small but beautiful. There is a small stone path built along the lake and one can walk around it in about 20 odd minutes. Surprisingly not a single soul is seen in the village itself, almost like a ghost village.

We set off further for our destination of Tabo and on the way a vehicle coming from front stops alongside our car. The drivers know each other and the other driver puts in a bombshell to us. Informs that at Rohtang pass at Manali, the road is closed due to landslide. He had to return back after waiting for 8 hours and still not knowing when the road will open up. This is worrying for us as if it doesn’t open up by the time we reach, it will mean a return journey of more than 400 kms along the same route that we came, a huge distance in this part of the world. Catch 22 situation indeed! In god we trust, so we decide to keep going and take the chance.

Mountains totally bare, devoid of any vegetation, are of different colours. One moment they are black, then turn to brown, white, or mix colours and of different shapes like conical, claw shaped etc.

We reach our final destination of the day “Tabo” at about 5 pm and check in “Maitrey Regency” hotel, a recently built pleasant hotel. There is old Maitrey hotel further down the road along the Monastry.

Even at 3,280 meters height, Tabo is hot and requires a fan even in the night. There is no mobile coverage and same will be the situation for next 3 days all along what is called Spiti valley and Lahaul valley. Only BSNL network works here and that too with lot of disturbance. The hotel wifi also doesn’t work optimally and speed is too slow for any meaning.

The hotel is nice, small and cozy and has one of the most friendly staff eager to offer best of service. Most attractive part of its restaurant is sitting area on floor where one sits on cushions with raised tables in front for dining. The Tibetan influence is clear. Food is quite tasty and cook cooks whatever you want. For the first time in this tour, we had the complete range from piping hot soup to ice-cream for dessert.

Day 5

We are now in Spiti Valley formed by fierce Spiti river and where average height is 12,500 feet. Rudyard Kipling in his novel “Kim” wrote “world within world......Surely the Gods live here. Beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. This place is no place for men”! Heavy snow after October closes down both Rohtang pass ( at 4,000 mtrs separates kulu Valley from Lahul and Spiti Valley) and Kumzum Pass (at 4,600 mtrs separates Lahul and Spiti valleys) cutting off this part from rest of the world. This part of tour is now in the land of Monastries.

The locals numbering just over 10,000 across entire route have close connection with Tibet and Ladakh in their looks, culture and religion.

Spiti Valley has three major Buddhist monasteries, Tabo, kee and Dhankar all over thousand years old. This side of HP was mainly controlled by Ladakh Kings though long time back it was originally controlled by Indian side Chamba rulers. Spiti river flows between Himalayan and Zanskar mountain ranges with mountain ranging from 3,000 mtrs to 6,500 mtrs high . Spiti name consists of two words – Si in local language means “Mani” (precious stone) and Piti meaning place, so Spiti means “place of precious stone”. The valley is famous for severe winter with heavy snow fall. Mountains are devoid of any vegetation due to high erosion by wind, sun and snow over millions of years.

Tabo village is small and revolves around its Monastry which is over 1,000 years old (established in 996 AD) and is the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India. A new Monastry building has just been completed but was yet to open to public. In the centre area, there is a huge Kaal Chakra built. On the right side there are three old Buddhist old temples. The middle one has Ajanta and Ellora style wall paintings. No artificial lights including from camera is allowed inside. So it takes sometime for eyes to adjust to beauty of what is in there.

Daily there is a chanting by resident monks from 6 am to 7 am. We attend this and are greeted with hot tea. The chant is good but without any instruments (as is normal in other monasteries). You just sit on cushions along the wall, close your eyes and enjoy the chanting even if you are not religious kind. The actual chant is just about 40 minutes starting from 6.10 am or so.

The breakfast provided by the restaurant is good with juices freshly made from Papaya and Mango, a welcome surprise for us as none of the fruits are locally grown. It also gave us yummy grilled sandwiches and Puri Bhaji a welcome deviation from routine Paratha and Omlette.

After breakfast, we walked up to the caves at the mountain at the back of the present day Monastry. The caves were used long time back for the monks as their residence and praying hall. Caves take about 20 minutes to climb upto. Smaller caves were used for residence while there is one big central assembly hall with a opening on top for sunlight. This central assembly hall has a wooden door which remains closed but not locked. So you can go in, have a look around and then again close it when you come out. There is a proper stone path built all the way up with sitting benches in between for rest. From the caves, one gets a bird eye view of entire village with present Monastery. Up In the front mountain, on a steep slope, the Buddhist mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is written big in white colours, visible from kilometres apart.

At 9 am, Tabo monastery opens to public. This monastery is also called “Ajanta of Himalayas” due to the ancient wall paintings (thangkas) on its walls. There are various sites but main to see are three temples side by side. The central temple has four sided Virasana statue behind which is a huge pillar with 1,000 buddhas painted all over. All along the walls are statues of Tibetan gurus and demi gods. A surprising part was a metal statue of Ganapati at the entrance, the caretaker informed that Tibetans recognise Ganapati as one of the gods and defence against evil. The next temple on the side has a huge Buddha statue.

Maitrey incidentally is the name of Buddha yet to come. It is interesting to know that many a religions of the world say that there is one more and last of saviours to come. Hinduism says Kalki (Vishnu’s last avatar), Buddhism (Maitrey), Christianity (Jejus reborn) are part of the thinking.

We leave at about 11 am to head deep into spiti valley. The road is now good, no going high and coming down roller coaster kind, all along river bank, almost straight without any sharp bends except for climb upto the monastery which is at a height of 3.100 mtrs.

Dhankar was the ancient capital of Spiti Valley kingdom, the early rulers of which were “Nonos”. Dhankar literally means “place in mountains unreachable by outsiders” and so it was for till recent times. Folklore believe geographically this site was chosen for monastery as it is centre of a lotus flower whose petals are formed by eight surrounding mountains.

Dhankar’s heighest point is the fort. The old fort is demolished but its next version exists. Below the fort level is the old monastery, a small place which has a terrace which you can climb up to for a photo opportunity. Below the old monastery level, is the new monastery (relatively) which is multistoried high. A still newer monastery has been built further down the road (about half km away) where tourist vehicles are parked but this monastery always remains closed except for special functions.

Dhankar also has a lake, a trek of about an hour further up from Monastery. Going up and down again is a trek of about 2 hours. Afternoon sun is too harsh to take it so if you want to go, better take morning or evening timing.

Dhankar Monastery offers grand view of two rivers joining at the deep valley below, Spiti river and Pin river. Its a major earthquake zone and the monastery has been repeatedly damaged by earthquakes over the years.

A hour drive from Dhankar, we reach Lahlung about 15 kms away. Its a very small place famous for its, what else, monastery. We are staying here for the night at Home stay.

Every village in HP on this side has home stay arrangements for tourists. These are recognised and encouraged by HP tourism department so that the locals get a share of tourism boom. It helps to supplement their income which during 8 months of winter time is next to zero. They must stock up during summer time for winters as during winters they remain totally cut off from rest of world.

Lahlung home stay was in a traditional home, two rooms of which are allotted for this. The owner has himself constructed this house. The rooms are neat and clean with basic furnishing. Interesting part is a layer of kind of grass between its roof and rest of house. This grass level insulates the inner of home from winter cold. The mud walls keep interiors cool in summer and hot in winter. The dining area is in kitchen itself, sitting on floor on cushions. Welcome drink was hot mint tea from mint grown at home, big fragnant leaves much different than the mint we get in Mumbai. For dinner we were offered rice and daal and roti (made of stone grind wheat flour). Delicious simple meal made by the lady of the house with generous support from her husband. The breakfast was roti and omelette. The common bathroom offers heated water (heated by a heating rod inserted in bucket) and there is common loo. The common loo is a hole in floor where the waste falls deep below! There is no smell of any kind and the owner has put some kind of dry fragment grass on the side of the hole which one is supposed to put down on the hole with a shovel after the job is done.

Nothing much to do here. With hindsight we can suggest that instead of spending night here, after visiting Lahlung Monastery one can drive down further to Mudh, Pin valley and stay there for the night. This can save a night.

Lahlung is the last village on this side of the country.

Lahlung Monastery is a very small but one of the best ones to see! Its a one man show means only one lama or priest is there. An old but very informative and helpful person. When you reach, if you find the monastery closed, you can just call him and he will come down to show you around. The central room has three statues of Padmasambhava, Buddha and Tara. On the left wall, 21 statues of different versions of Tara are there while on the right wall, different statues of Buddha are there. There are paintings all around showing the karma philosophy. If one has done good karma, his after death life will be good and for bad karmas, after death life will be governed by hell.

The priest shows you all for about 45 minutes with his torch light. He also takes you further down to another side where in a room a huge four faced Buddha statue is there which is called “Disha-Buddha”. He doesn’t allow you to take photos in old monastery but here he may allow you if you request.

The monastery is over thousand years old. It was established by one of the Tibetan gurus who found this place to be holy. It’s difficult to understand why in the first place the guru was travelling around to these kind of high altitude place closed for 8 months of year under 5-7 feet of snow without any proper roads. Even now when roads are there, one finds it difficult to go.

Anyway so as the story goes, the guru was here for a night and before retiring for the night, he put his walking stick in the ground. Next day, he found that the stick was growing leaves! That was the sign that this place was a holy one and so he decided to build this monastery. The stick has become a big tree which is still growing in the front of the central room of the monastery.

After seeing all the monasteries on the way, my opinion is that this monastery is the best for its interiors, paintings, statues etc followed by Tabo. Other monasteries are more famous just for their size and more convenient location. Even though this is little out of way, try to visit this if you are visiting this part of the world.

However you need not stay here for the night and can go straight to Mudh (about 2 ½ hours drive), Pin Valley to save a day. As far as I am aware there are no hotels in Mudh also but it offers lot of home stays. While at Tabo, one sees lots of Home Stays sign boards but which I suspect are actually commercial establishments under guise of home stays , Home stays at Lahlung and Mudh seem to be genuine Home stays.

Day 6

We get down from the high altitude to go to Mudh in Pin Valley, Mudh is again the last village on the interior side of the massive mountain range. Then for next few hundred kilometres , there is nothing but mountains. While there are no further roads, there is old travellers’ path which crosses over at Pin Parvati Pass at height of 5,350 mtrs to go to all the way to Manali about 200 odd kms away. It’s a very popular but risky trek for highly adventurous kind. These mountains slopes are heavily dependent on sun warmth and its all no man’s land biting cold once the sun has gone down.

On way to Mudh, one can briefly stop at Kungri Monastry which is relatively newly built. Earlier times, it was inhabited only during summer times and monks apparently used to come down to more civilised areas during winter times. But now few monks stay back even during winter times but the school for young monks remains closed.

At Mudh, one can have delightful local lunch (yummy momos) at a restaurant called Tara right on the main path.

Pin valley through which Pin river runs, is a wide valley which till recent times was quite isolated. But now that roads have been built all along, new villages and settlements have come up and small farms getting built in and around the river banks.

Since Mudh is the last village on this side of the state, one has to drive back on the same road from which one came to go further down to our next destination which is Kaza, a relatively big town and Central division. Mudh to Kaza is another 3 and ½ hours journey.

Day 7

Kaza is central district headquarters and relatively quite big. It has a newly built monastery and across the road are eight stupas to honour eight major events in Gautama Buddha’s life (birth to nirvana). The monastery central worship hall is quite big and very well decorated. But frankly, I didn’t get the high spiritual vibes there as I got earlier in ancient monasteries of say Tabo or Lahlung maybe because the earlier ones being built over 1,000 years back have got more high saturated energy.

Its Dalai Lama’s (Tibet’s spiritual head who had to leave Tibet when China occupied it and who now lives in India) 82nd birthday and all over the valley it is being celebrated. Kaza Monastry had organised full day cultural programme with children from various school participating.

The first to go to in morning was Kee Monastry about an hour drive away. It has a very impressive look when seen from valley level. There we participated in Dalai Lama’s birthday celebration with resident monks including child monks.

Kee Monastry has seen repeated devastation over the centuries under different armies (Mongols, Dogra, Sikh) and by earthquakes and fires. The successive trails of destruction and patch-up jobs have resulted in a haphazard growth of box-like structures, and so the monastery looks like a fort, with temples built on top of one another.

Next was drive to Kibber which earlier held the world record of being highest village (4,200 mtrs) in world connected with road. Nothing much to see or do here except for the satisfaction of having visited such high altitude village.

From Kibber, one drives down again to almost valley level and then again goes up all the way to 4,400+ mtr level to visit Langza. At the top, Langza area is surprisingly quiet flat.

Suddenly our drivers stops and parks on the side. He asked us to get down and takes us across to a small shrub growing by the side of the road. Pulls it out, shows us the total black root, peels of the black root covering and inside is bright red blood coloured! His fingers are all blood red coloured as if he has just killed an animal. He explains that this shrub is called “Ratna Jyoti” which grows only at this place in the world. It is highly valued in Ayurveda and is also used as colouring agent for cooking. Being rare, it also carries high price in market. So our driver pulls out a few shrubs whatever he can find around, to take back to his village.

And why should one visit Langza? Well the answer is quiet interesting. Even though it is situated at height of 4,000+ meters, one finds fossilised sea creatures (shaligram) here! The moment you reach the village, you find village resident ladies and children selling these fossils at a cheap price.

So what’s the story behind this? For it, one has to go back about 70 million years back when formation of Himalayas started. Yes, Himalayas for all its glory is a very young mountain range just about 50 – 70 million years old. Compare that with say Satpura/Vindhya/Nilgiri mountain ranges of India which are over 1,000 million years old.

About 70 million years back, the Indian plate (which has been named as Gondwana Land) collided with Euro-Asian plate and enclosed the vast sea (named Tethys Sea) in between. The continued collusion made the land rise up to form the mountains and emptied out the sea. And in the process some sea creatures left behind got fossilised. As the mountains continued to rise up, the fossilised creature also went up all the way upto 4,000+ mtrs now. Its because the two plates are still pushing into each other, the mountains keep rising up and thus are very unstable and succeptible to earthquakes.

At Langza, a huge meditating Buddha statue has been recently built on a mountain top and this is the last destination point of the visit to the village. From here one can also take a small trek of about half an hour to a small stream which apparently brings down the fossils from much higher up.

From Langza, the next destination is Komic, the current record holder of world’s highest village connected by a motarable road. Its a small village with pretty sharp bends on the road. As one come downs from the other side, a little bit below is village of Hikkim which has another world record to its name – world’s highest post office.

Then its drive back to Kaza, the total trip of the day doesn’t take more than 6 hours.

At Kaza, we are staying at Snow Lion Hotel which markets itself by saying the film unit of John Abraham movie stayed here for 35 days of shooting in the area. However the hotel is old and compared to hotels that we stayed at earlier other places, looks run-down. The room service is almost non-existent and restaurant prices quite expensive. However the restaurant manager Khan is quite helpful.

An interesting answer he gave to my question. When asked what do they do for balance 8 months of years as the tourist season here is only 4 odd months (due to weather), he answered they go to Goa for work!. Its a perfect complementary arrangement. Offseason in Goa (June to September due to heavy rains) is summer tourist season here and offseason here of 8 months of winter are tourist season months of Goa. In between they take a month or two holiday to go to their native villages and families.

Day 8

A day of much excitement as its the day we go to Chandrataal, a lake at height of 4,300 mtrs. The drive from Kaza to Chandrataal (80 kms – 5 hours) is along what is called Lahaul valley.

About 2 hours from kaza, at a very sharp road bend, our driver stops and shows us an image naturally formed midway between the high mountain slopes just below the bend. It does look like a lady holding a baby. Apparently this image was not there few years back till an accident happened. A state transport bus fell down this gorge while taking the bend and all the passengers died. There was a young mother too with her baby. While all the bodies were found one by one in the deep gorge, the baby’s body was never found possibly due to gushing waters having carried it away. For many months later, passers by reported a wailing cry of a woman and then suddenly one day it was noticed that the image of woman and the baby appeared on the cliff. Since then the crying also stopped.

Another one hour, one reaches the highest point of the area, Kunzum Pass at 4,700 meters. Here a small temple to local deity Kunzum mata is built along with few stupas and lots of Tibetan flags flying around. At that height, its quiet windy with high chill factor.

Kunzum mata temple has got something mysterious. There is a small stone placed in front of the small idol. On this stone face, one sees few coins sticking but lot of coins otherwise fallen around. It is said that coins put by a pure hearted person will get stuck to the stone and rest will fall. Well, we all turned out to be not so pure hearted though we did see few coins were sticking to the stone. So there are indeed pure hearts in this world after all. And the sticking is not due to any glue or anything, the moment the coin I tried to stick fell, it took along few which were earlier sticking to the stone.

The view is fantabulous all around, what with all snow capped mountains. But the chill factor is high and one is forced to get back into comfort of the vehicle inside.

Even though its peak summer time, one finds large chunks of snow on the road slowly melting away. Entire road on an opposite mountain is seen as abandoned as a land slide two years back took away much of the road. So the road we are travelling now is the newly built after that.

About half hour drive further down, we reach a point where a small dirt road breaks off in direction of Chandrataal. But driver suggests we continue going down the main road to have our lunch, so we go down another few odd kms and stop after crossing the river at a very well known road side dhaba called “Chacha Chachi ka dhaba” at Batal. It means uncle and auntie’s food joint and is apparently over three decades old being the only one for all those years providing food to travellers. It’s been honoured by HP state government for this purpose and also been provided with a satellite phone at government expense. Almost all travellers on this highway including state transport buses stop at this for their food and loo break. Its a very small joint manned by who else but a elderly couple (the chacha and Chachi). The food on offer is simple and staple Daal Rice or Rajma Rice.

From Batal, we turn back to go up the same highway that we came down and reach the point where a small road goes in direction of Chandrataal. There is no signpost here and nobody you can ask for direction. Its only the driver who knows that this turn is to be taken for going to Chandrataal! This dirt road was excavated on mountain side just few years back after tourists started coming in greater numbers. Earlier one had to trek all the way if one wanted to visit Chandrataal.

The road is all dirt rocky track and treacherous with streams flowing through in between. At one side is deep valley. Its about half hour drive and soon you see tens of tents at one flat land. This is where we are going to stay for the night. As part of environment conservation, the government doesn’t allow any permanent construction here. So only tented accommodation is there and these tents and everything else there is left as it is without any security , all packed properly for 7 months of winter every year when the whole land is under few feet of snow and no tourists come. It is so, since it is next to impossible and highly expensive to take back and bring again all the items along the treacherous road.

We continue our journey to Chandrataal another few kms up. Few who stay for more than a day, trek up from the tented area to Chandrataal. Again at Chandrataal, the vehicle can go only upto about 2 kms away from the lake, purposely done to prevent vehicle and road pollution affecting the lake. One has to compulsorily trek rest of the way. Trekkers also treak all they way to Kunzum pass about 8 kms away.

Chandrataal literally meaning Moon lake has been named so as its shape represents the crecsent moon. It has been mentioned at many a places in Indian mythology.

While there are different claims, one claim is that this is the place from where Yudhishtir, the eldest of Pandavas brothers was taken to heaven in his human form by Indra (the king of gods) in his flying chariot. The story goes that when it was time to bid farewell to this world, all the Pandava brothers decided to walk up Himalayas to go to heaven in their human physical form. Along the way, a dog joined them (please read my earlier mention in this blog about dogs even now joining you on your different treks in Himalayas).

Along the way, one by one the brothers fell down and got left behind as others carried on. Finally only Youdhistir was left as he was the most pure hearted. And the dog too as it faithfully followed youdhistir. When Youdhistir and the dog reached Chandrataal, Indra himself came down in his celestial chariot and took both of them away to heaven.

Well that is mythology, but Chandrataal itself is nothing less than heaven on this earth. All surrounded by tall snow capped mountains, the lake water is different shades of blue , the colour changing as the sun goes across the day. It is also the source of Tara river which flows down in valley below.

Most of the tourist spend the time at the very first spot after the trek path ends at the lake side. But if you have time and energy and inclination , do take the walk around the lake circumference. It is about 4 kms and takes about 2 odd hours depending on your speed and how many and how long stops you take in between to absorb in all the beauty. The lake being cresent shape, one end is not visible from other end as its totally surrounded by tall peaks. While the right side is a dirt tract, the left side now has a proper stone path built. This is most probably because on left side one can see lot of land slides happening over the years. Left side offers more photo opportunity mainly because all the streams from uphill mountains flowing into the lake are on left side.

One can see hundreds of big and small stone monuments built all along over the years by locals and tourists. These are simple one stone kept on top of other, all beautifully balanced and of many levels and I understand that these are built as request to gods to grant a wish or as thanks giving.

Carry heavy winter clothings including gloves and sun glasses. It gets very chilly and windy even though it was peak afternoon and sunny.

We spent about 4 hours there and just as sun was about to set down, started our return trek back. A drive down to tented area and we moved into our side of the tent. The tents are of two kind, one smaller and cheaper which can sleep two people on floor and nothing else. Other bigger and more expensive with four steel beds and attached toilet. There is a common toilet also outside. No bathroom is required as nobody dares to take bath here due to freezing temperatures. Incidentally swimming or even entering Chandrataal waters is strictly not allowed. Though do take a sip or two of it (it’s too cold to drink more!), the purest natural mineral water in the world!

Our campsite is the oldest on the site. Now few more have come up and apparently a fight goes on between different camp owners over who can put up how many tents. They have to pay a certain fees to the government for putting up the tents.

The dinner is early and we all residents of that tent area were asked to step into a larger tent which serves as dining area. A large wooden oven is burning providing welcome heat all around. On it is a big vessel of piping hot soup. The camp owner himself serves us the soup and informs that this soup is a local delicacy made of sattu atta (flour made from sattu root), butter and garlic. Sattu gives the energy and garlic acts as a blood thinner, perfect combination for high altitude sickness. Its very tasty and we each have two bowls of it. The dinner is simple but tasty. Rice Daal, Roti and mix vegetable. Nothing grows here and has to be brought in all the way from nearest town which is 100 odd kms away.

We wanted to stay up late but it was so cold that immediately after dinner, everybody disappeared in their respective tents for a well deserved sleep under layers of thick blankets.

Day 9

As earlier said, the sun rise in this part of the world is quite early and its all bright and sunny by 5.30 am or so. Those who are not staying, are told by their respective drivers that they must leave the site by 6.30 or so. The reason?

The road too and from Chandrataal has many streams running across. As the sun rises, the snow on top starts melting more and more and that increases the water flow in the streams. So by afternoon, the risk of vehicle getting stuck in one or other stream is very high.During monsoon, there have been cases of vehicles getting washed away with heavy stream of water. So it is better that one crosses these streams before the afternoon melted water heavy flow starts. And all the vehicles try to leave in a convoy form so that if any one vehicle is stuck, the other vehicles occupants can help to pull it out. A single stuck vehicle stuck would be very helpless as the travelling vehicle frequency is very less for rest of the day.

We leave by 7 am and are on our way to Solang, our final destination of the trip.

Our destination is 7 odd hours drive away. Distance wise it is not much but the average speed is just about 10 kms or even less per hour. The road is almost non existent, very rocky. The gushing water streams on the roads look very pretty but as the vehicle goes through them, one can hear tyres scratching. And as we approach one more stream across a turn, we see a traffic jam! All vehicles stopped as a vehicle has got its tyres stuck between rocks in the stream. Apparently the driver has been struck there for last three hours unable to move his vehicle. Finally all the people gathered around decide to actually try to lift the vehicle out. But stepping into that icy cold water is not easy. People get in water and after few seconds are forced to come out of the water, forget trying to lift the heavy vehicle. Another adrenalin generation event! Finally a Sumo Vehicle manages to somehow go across in front of the stuck vehicle, a rope is attached. With the sumo pulling from front and tens of people pushing from back, the stuck vehicle finally manages to free itself. But as it comes out of water, one sees its tyre has been totally cut off one side from the sharp rocks in the water. The driver is almost on verge of crying but luckily is helped by others to change it. This is why it is advisable to travel in convoy system on this road.

When this is happening, one also notices that there is no traffic coming from front side. Since this jam was there for more than 3 hours, logically it means there is another jam built up from other side also somewhere further down the road! Our driver is quite worried now but keeps driving.

We do reach this next jam point where yet another vehicle from on coming side is stuck in the stream and this time the jam extends on both the sides of the road. Most of the able men from different vehicles have got down to somehow help the stuck vehicle to move, Finally somebody finds a crowbar in one of the commercial vehicles which has just arrived. He uses it to dislodge few stones from the side of the road and others help to push them down the deep slope on other side of the road into the valley below. This makes enough space for vehicles to bypass the stuck vehicle and traffic moves on. On asking what will happen to the stuck vehicle, our driver explains that soon the border road organisation team will come with heavy machinery to remove it. But when it will come is a matter or patience and luck and all that one can pray is that it comes before the night and darkness and temperatures fall. And many a times, people have had to spend entire nights sitting in those stuck vehicles waiting to be rescued.

No further adventure and we soon climb up all the way to Rohtang pass. This is one of the most important passes of the area and its like dividing two entirely different areas. One side of Rohtang pass (Manali side) is all green, lush with apple, pear and peaches orchards and people with typical Indian features and other side totally barren , devoid of any greenery and people with typical Tibetan features. The religion, the language, the customs also change between the two sides even though both belong to same state and are just few tens of kilometre away from each other.

This is because the height of mountains between the two sides made it sure that there was not much exchange possible between the two sides. The absence of greenery on the Tibetan side is simply because it falls under what is called Rain Shadow area where it just doesn’t rain. This is because the monsoon clouds coming from India side cannot cross over the tall mountains. At the same time, erosion over millions of years have taken away all the soil from the mountain sides leaving behind barren rocks over which nothing can grow.

So one side always remained prosperous (the Kullu State side) and other side remained barren and devoid of human settlements (Lahaul and Spiti Side). So mythology says, people prayed to Shiva to provide them something so that both the sides could be connected and also a path opened up to go all the way to Tibet. Shiva used his Trishul to open up the mountain at this point. Those days the mountain was called Bhrigu Tung (Bhrigu, one of the famous sapta (seven) rishis, was one who gave India the famous Bhrigu Sanhita which foretells horoscopes of over half million people and combination working of which can foretell horoscope and analysis of another 45 million people but much of this has been destroyed over centuries). Bhrigu Tung name slowly got distorted to Rohtang and now the pass is called by name of Rohtang Pass and is at height of 13,000 feet (lesser height than the other two passes in the area , Kunzum pass and Baralacha Pass) nevertheless a very important pass strategically.

We missed one important milestone, i.e. travelling through heighest and one of the longest road tunnel in India, the Rohtang Tunnel simply because it has not got completed and its completion date keeps getting postponed from one year to another year. Its a 8.8 kms long tunnel tunnel project connecting Manali Leh highway on one side and opening up across Rohtang side thus avoiding climbing up all the way to Rohtang pass which is open to traffic just about 5 odd months in a year due to heavy snowfall. The project was first conceived almost 40 years back but construction could start only in year 2000 when then PM, Shri Atal Bajpayee took active interest. However later again it took a back seat till almost 2013 when work started in earnest as government took serious decision to connect all border areas with road infrastructure. Latest is that it will open for emergency traffic by end 2017.

The moment one reaches Rohtant Pass, One knows one has come down to civilisation with all its dirt. Hundreds of cars parked on the side have brought thousands of tourists from Solang and Manali side. Even if its summer time, there is still snow at some of the point and all the commercial activities of winter times are pushed down on gullible tourists. One can see ladies walking around in heavy snow suits as if walking on moon. Another car parked on the side shows passengers sitting on its bonnet and drinking liquor. One only hopes that the driver didn’t drink, how could people be so callous about the risk they take.

We don’t stop. We have seen enough of heaven to find this “tourist” attraction actually nauseating. We quickly cross over the pass and now are on the other side, driving downwards now. As written earlier, this side of the pass is all green and picturous. Soon you see many a tourist enjoying sky diving from various points.

We are finally at Solang and staying at Iceland Hotel. We could have gone to Manali and stayed there for the night but who wants to stay in Manali kind of commercial tourist place when Solang just 14 kms before offers much more still natural location.

Iceland Hotel location is wonderful facing the valley with a broad roaring mountain stream passing in the backyard. The owner Mr. Khemchand himself was a Sherpa earlier helping mountaineers to go for high altitude treks and climbs. He and his brother have been to various European cities to participate in various skiing championship and this Iceland hotel is built on a typical European Skiing hotel architecture. Now he organises regular skiing training camps during winter times and takes hard core high altitude climbers across. He is also the one who organised the entire trip for us.

Evening time we walked across the road to the ground which turns into skiing point in winters. A ropeway has recently been built there to take you all the way up to mountain top from where one can ski down. From that point one can also para glide down. There are two kinds of para glides , one which is much higher up and another a shorter trip. Depending on your money spending power, enthusiasm and adrenalin rush, you can choose between the two. There you also are offered Zorba riding, where you are pushed inside a plastic transparent ball and then rolled down a steep valley.

Nothing of that kind for us, we have had enough of adrenalin rush of more natural kind in last 9 days. So we just went around.

Day 10

The trip can be completed in 9 days but I kept one extra 10th day in hand as one had heard so much about unexpected road problems. If nothing happens, fine, just chill out and enjoy the rest day but if something does goes wrong (we did experience it but were lucky not to get stuck for hours and days), atleast one is not worried about missing the flight or train back to the home city.

So the 10th day was our rest day but who wants to rest when there is so much to look around. First we went across to the gushing stream just at the back of the hotel. One has to cross a wooden small bridge across and then is rewarded with a soothing view as one sits by the bank of the stream. If one goes further along the stream, there is a wonderful waterfall.

However what we wanted to do was to go back up the road and trek to Anjani Mahadev. This is about 2 kms trek up. One can also take a horse ride or ride a dirt bike all the way up. For trekkers, a stone path has been built till the very end, Trekking up is recommended to absorb in all the good things on the way. At the top one has to cross a small stream using a wooden plank.

Anjani Mahadev is named after Anjani, mother of Hanuman. It is said that at this place she worshipped for shiva and as a blessing , shiva manifested himself in form of shivalinga. Like Badrinath where natural ice linga forms every winter, here also about 6-8 feet high linga forms in winter. Actually there is a waterfall falling from high up and where the water hits the ground, a shivlinga has been placed in open.

An Ashram has been built slightly below the waterfall and includes a small meditation room built in the cliff. An interesting thing here is that all over the path and around the ashram, big boards have been put asking tourists and devotees not to put any money anywhere as donation or pay anybody in ashram. No donation box of any kind is placed anywhere including inside ashram temple. This is the only religious place I have seen in entire India where no money is wanted and people are forebade to even donate.

Afternoon we go to Manali. First stop Hidimba temple and then a walk over the mall road. Holiday is never complete with local shopping so family buys few shawls, Himchal Pradesh caps, dry fruits etc.

Day 11

Last day of our trip. We start early by road for Chandigarh , a drive of 8 odd hours (280 kms). On the way we stop by just after Manali to buy fruits. The first crop of apples and pears has just arrived and naturally is bought by kilos to be carried back to Mumbai with us. The journey is uneventful otherwise. The entire road till Chandigardh is beautiful with Sutlej flowing around on one side most of the way. But after some time it gets repetitive. Also it is last day so now one is actually looking forward to reaching home as early as possible. We just hope that our return flight at 7 pm is on time and thank god it is. Landing at Mumbai is welcome one way but it has its own problem. We were warned about High Altitude Sickness. We never suffered from that but as we are landing, we are suffering from Low altitude sickness! The sickness gives you sinking feeling that your wonderful heavenly holidays are over and soon you will be in midst of all cacophony, pollution, negativity, politics, work pressure blah blah. Why oh Why we couldn’t have stayed back forever in Deo Bhumi hoping that like Yudhishtir, we also might have been whisked away directly to heaven in Indra’s celestial Chariot!


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