Road to Kye, Spiti Valley

Tripoto
Photo of by Rahul Ganguly

I have always believed that you can only travel to the mountains when they call to you. For years, I had been fascinated by the hanging cliffside monastery at Kye in Spiti Valley, yet I could never make the journey. My earlier attempts at making plans with friends and negotiating leaves resulted in trips that had to be cancelled at the last minute. But when the call of the mountain got too compelling, I started out on a solo trip to Spiti in October 2015.

Cost: Under 10,000 Rupees ex-Delhi

Route

Delhi>Rampur>Reckong Peo>Kaza>Kye

Equipment

Since October was the start of the low season, upper Spiti would begin to freeze, so warm layers were essential. I had split my stuff between a 25L daypack and a 40L rucksack. Dry fit tee shirts, thermal layers, extra socks, and dry food, such as biscuits, took up most of the space in my backpacks.

(Note: All photographs were taken on my phone)

Day 1

Kashmere Gate ISBT, Delhi: A mad dash through the bus terminus saw me aboard the 7:24pm bus to Rampur (HRTC air-conditioned service; 1,200 Rupees). Soon the coach was speeding down NH 44 heading North. After a pit-stop for a wholesome dinner of roti, dal, vegetables, and yoghurt (130 Rupees) at Murthal, we were off again, racing toward the mountain destination of Rampur, my first stop.

Packed and ready

Photo of Kashmere Gate, New Delhi, Delhi, India by Rahul Ganguly

Kashmere Gate InterState Bus Terminal

Photo of Kashmere Gate, New Delhi, Delhi, India by Rahul Ganguly
Day 2

Rampur, HP: After crossing Shimla in the wee hours, the bus stopped at a small dhaba at 7am for tea. Two cups of milky chai (20 Rupees) later, we were back on the road to Rampur. The bus rolled into Rampur bus stand a little after 9am. I checked the timetable for buses heading toward Reckong Peo and saw that my next ride to Reckong Peo was 45 minutes away. A cloak room at the bus stand happily accepted my backpack for 40 Rupees, giving me a chance to walk about and admire the intricate woodwork architecture of the little capital of the old Bushair Kingdom.

Route to everywhere

Photo of Rampur, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Rampur Bus Stand

Photo of Rampur, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

River Satluj at Rampur

Photo of Rampur, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Reckong Peo: At 9:50, I clambered on to a rickety bus heading to the town of Reckong Peo (130 Rupees). The Sun was out, and the air was clean and chilly when I stepped out at Peo at 2pm. Shambala Hotel, 5 minutes uphill from the Bus Stand (600 Rupees, bargained to 500) proved to be a decent lodging option. They had clean rooms and hot water. Being a largely commercial town, Reckong Peo has little in terms of places to see. The main attraction is the smaller town of Kalpa nearby, serviced by the local bus network (10 Rupees). The 20-minute bus ride up to Kalpa revealed a picture postcard village with fantastic views of the Kinner Kailash range.

Landslides everywhere on the way

Photo of Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Wonderful local bus network of the HRTC

Photo of Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Sunset at Kalpa

Photo of Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Apple trees at Shambala Hotel, Reckong Peo

Photo of Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

On reaching Kalpa, I walked up to the impressive wood-carved Kalpa temple complex. This monument shows a blend of Indo-Tibetan design, merging Hindu motifs with intricate carvings of fire-breathing dragons. Walking around the little town I came to a tea stall with the most amazing view of the mountains. I sat around for a while, chatting with the shop owner and soaking in the sunset. Back in town, I headed to the bus terminus to figure out the bus to Kaza the day after. The gentleman at the counter asked me to reach the bus stand by 5:15am if I wanted a place to sit on the bus. I finished an early dinner of mutton noodle soup (70 Rupees) at a tiny shack at Peo market, bought a pair of extra gloves (50 Rupees), and returned to the hotel for a nice hot shower. By 10pm I was out cold, as the next day would have to be an early start up to Spiti Valley.

Majestic Kinner Kailash

Photo of Kalpa, Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Tea time with a view, Kalpa

Photo of Kalpa, Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

The sole ticket counter at Reckong Peo bus stand

Photo of Kalpa, Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

As with everywhere in the mountains, food becomes tastier with altitude

Photo of Kalpa, Reckong Peo, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly
Day 3

Journey to Kaza: The route to Kaza, headquarters of Spiti district, is one of the most dangerous and breathtaking roads on this planet. There is a single bus that plies till Kaza every day of the year and covers some of the steepest terrains you’ll ever experience. I reached the bus terminus at 5:10 in the morning, but was surprised at the crowd already swelling up in front of the shuttered ticket counter. A few chaotic minutes later, the counter opened and I was handed a middle seat ticket (Rupees 530). In half an hour, the old HRTC coach roared out on the road to Spiti.

Word to the wise, this is a 12-hour journey that can break your spine, quite literally. Splitting it up and taking a day’s rest halfway at Tabo is a better idea, unless you are desperate to reach the heart of Spiti Valley at the earliest. As luck would have it, our bus broke down near Mulling Drain halfway to Kaza. We were stalled for a few hours, left to sit on the side of the road and take in the views of the valley below. Most people flagged off passing cars, leaving the bus was half empty by the time it started out again.

The landscape changed soon from lush mountain forests to cold desert. Enormous hillocks of dry earth loomed in the distance like giant anthills, their forms shaped by the blowing wind. After a while the asphalt disappeared altogether and we were riding on bare ground with the river Spiti trailing way down below. The terrain became rocky and grey as the sun set. It was one of the most surreal rides of my life. If you want to experience the flavour of the road to Kaza, the HRTC Bus is the way to do it.

My precious: Ticket to Kaza

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Tea time at Nako

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Hardy ride

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Fuel for the road: Buttered Aloo Paranthe

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

The Kaza Bus

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

View from Malling Drain

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Julley! Entry gate to Spiti Valley

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Wind-carved rocks

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Kaza: We wheeled into Kaza town, past dusty roads at 8 pm. There was a power cut and I had to make my way through the pitch-black town, using a torch and GPS. I had booked a room at Hotel Deyzor (Rupees 800-1,500) which was the only source of light at the end of my 15-minute amble through darkness. It was the end of season, half their rooms were shut, and the hotel was running on backup power, so there was no hot water at this time of the night. Dinner was a bowl of hastily made soup, after which I called it a night. The end-October weather being exceedingly arid, I woke a couple of times at night with breathing trouble. Despite broken sleep, I woke up refreshed. Bright sunshine bathed the Spiti valley that stretched all the way across the horizon, as the craggy snow peaks loomed in the distance. The hotel owner, Karanbeer, is a treasure trove of information. He suggested I try my luck hitchhiking up to the monastery in Kye.

Cozy room at Hotel Deyzor

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Autumn in Kaza

Photo of Kaza, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly
Day 4

Reaching Kye: Daypack strapped in, I headed out into the morning sunshine. From the Kaza petrol pump I turned left, pausing for a quick breakfast of tea and noodles (Rupees 60) at a shack. I kept walking, taking in the clean, dry air and sunshine. The Spiti river snaked past to my left, a ribbon of pure azure. There were dust clouds in the distance, and the only constant sound was the wind. I took the road that forked off toward Kye and Kibber, and soon heard the sound of a large car behind me. The huge 4x4 with prayer flags and rally stickers screeched to a stop and out popped two friendly faces. These two gents were driving from Delhi till Ladakh but wanted to cover the high-altitude vilages in Spiti first. “Hop in, we’ll drop you till Kibber,” they smiled. Along the way, they offered rides to a couple of old ladies out carrying vegetables. Soon I was sitting alongside baskets filled with spinach and pumpkins, listening to the gentle sound of elderly laughter. At the first glimpse of the monastery at Kye I thanked the lads for the ride, and walked up to the village on foot. The 900-year old monastery against the backdrop of the inky blue October sky came into my field of view. It was breathtaking.

Inside Kye: A young Lama welcomed me inside the ancient mud fort. The inner sanctum of Kye was closed, but I was let in to light an incense. The monastery complex has been built into the side of the mountain over centuries. Each of its cavernous rooms, hewn out of mud and stone through many years, are interconnected through narrow steps and soot-lined passageways. I saw ancient meditation chambers built long ago, and sat in contented silence. The only sounds were the blowing wind and chants in the distance, the heady smell of Tibetan incense swirling around me. It was magic.

Lama ji invited me into the main kitchen of the monastery, a rare privilege. I sat in the stone-lined room, while the young monk poured me a mug full of warm herbal tea. I thanked him for the hospitality and promised to return someday. On my way out I saw something incredible. Two monks were singing a hymn while a third danced in a whirling motion. They were oblivious to the world, focused on the song and dance as if in a trance.

I watched and felt a deep sense of gratitude at being allowed a glimpse into the life of these gentle monks and their thousand-year-old monastic abode. To experience this life was a privilege, one that is perhaps best preserved in the mind’s eye. Taking photos felt like an utterly touristy, intrusive thing to do. So I sat and watched in silence.

Kye Monastery

Photo of Key, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Long walk

Photo of Key, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Kitchen at Kye Monastery

Photo of Key, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Sakya Gompha at Kaza

Photo of Key, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Breakfast of champions

Photo of Key, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Handmade candles, Kye Monastery

Photo of Key, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

After my return from Kye, I headed to Kibber, once the highest village in the world, from where I sent out postcards home. Two days later, I journeyed to the majestic Dhankar village, surrounded by snow peaks. Yet my most valuable moment in Spiti was reaching the footsteps of Kye monastery, and looking up at the impossible mud and stone wonder looming above me.

To experience Spiti is to see joy and beauty in stillness. It is not a place for people who want to “do things” on a holiday, but rather a space where given the chance, you might just find a bit of yourself. I for one surely did.

TIPS:

•Fill water bottles at the hotel or guest house, and carry extra plastic bags to clean up your own litter.

•Keep sunscreen, torches, UV eyeglasses, and essential medicines handy.

•Carry Diamox tablets to prevent Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

•If you’re planning on staying in smaller places, carry candles and matches, as power supply is erratic throughout this remote valley.

•Respect local customs and take permission before taking photos of people, wherever possible.

•Water pipes may freeze up, so be prepared to go without taking a shower for a while.

•Lodge in homestays to support the local economy wherever possible, and get a closer experience of Spitian life.

Kibber village

Photo of Kibber, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Spitian kitchen at Manirang homestay in Dhankar

Photo of Kibber, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Dhankar Lake

Photo of Kibber, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Wholesome lunch

Photo of Kibber, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Road from Kaza

Photo of Kibber, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly

Best travel companion

Photo of Kibber, Himachal Pradesh, India by Rahul Ganguly