September Spiti ride

Day 4 - 16th Sep (Sun)
Distance covered - 176 kms

Kalpa got pretty cold during the night. However, the morning was not so bad. I got up a bit later than originally thought and the sun was already making its way up from behind the mountains. The sky was already bright and the photos of the sun rising behind the mountains was not that great because of that. As I was getting ready to leave, I was constantly checking the position of the sun, so that I can see the first rays of the sun from behind the mountain. As if by design, the sun peeked exactly from behind the Kailash mountain that has the ‘shivling’. Because of all the photography and sunrise watching, it was 8am by the time I could leave Kalpa. I was hoping to catch breakfast at Peo, but being a Sunday, none of the restaurants were still ready. Rather than wait, I continued on the road towards Nako. The Hindustan-Tibet highway from Peo was quite rough after the first couple of kms. The scenery was good, riding beside the Sutlej river all the way. There were random waterfalls along the way and a couple of small water crossings, but nothing to worry about this time of the year. After an hour or so, I reached Ribba, where I stopped for breakfast at a small dhaba. The aloo parathas were made quite well and settled my hunger. The frequent bad stretches continued until a few kms before Spillow. From there on, the road was mostly smooth all the way until Tabo, my destination for the day. Mobile signals except BSNL stop working somewhere around Spillow. I tried switching over the BSNL prepaid sim that I had borrowed from my colleague, only to realise that I had borrowed a micro sim whereas my phone accepted only a nano-sim:-(

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The interestingly carved roads continue

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Delicious Kinnauri apples loaded neatly into boxes. These are at least on par with the imported Washington apples that are sold all over in Bangalore.

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Metal bridge over the Satluj, near Spillow

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Everything is brown, including the river

From Spillow until Khab, the road was in top condition with recently laid smooth tarmac that made the ride so much more fun, aided by beautiful scenery and the Sutlej. The Sutlej was cement coloured everywhere and comes from Tibet, from somewhere near the border at Kaurik. Just before Khab, there is a road that goes to the right, which leads to ShipkiLa. ShipkiLa is a pass that leads to the border with Tibet, where it is possible for vehicles to cross over between the two countries. It is apparently one of only three border passes that exist between India and China, the other two being NathuLa in Sikkim and the other near Darchula in Uttarakhand that trekkers use to cross over to Tibet for the Mansarovar Yatra conducted by the GOI. I wanted to travel to ShipkiLa, but unfortunately the army doesn’t like the idea so much and do not allow civilians near the pass. At Khab, there is a confluence of the Sutlej with the Spiti river, the latter flowing in from the Spiti Valley (Tabo, Kaza etc.). The Spiti river is better looking and has a slight greenish tinge to it. The two merge and then flows downstream as Sutlej towards the Kinnaur area from where I came this morning. There is a small restaurant/store at the confluence run by a charming gentleman. He is very friendly and focused on serving customers with a smile and with great enthusiasm. Over a cup of tea, he told me that he stayed at the nearby Namgiya village which is on the ShipkiLa road. He rued that there was very little snow this year in the mountains, which led to a very low water level in the rivers. Kinnauri apples are grown in his village as well and I bought one from him, as I didn’t want to leave Kinnaur without eating a Kinnauri apple. He and his village folks sell a box of apples (each box weighing 12 kgs) and get around Rs.1000, which is a good price. These apples are considered premium as compared to the J&K apples and apples from some other parts of Himachal. Most of the good grades get exported, hence the good price.

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Route to Shipkila, just before Khab

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Confluence of the Satluj and Spiti at Khab. Satluj is the muddy one on the near side and Spiti is the green one on the far side.

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The charming gentleman who runs the dhaba at Khab, with his granddaughter

Crossing the bridge from Khab over the confluence, I continued towards Nako, with the altitude rising steadily. The scenery turned jaw-droppingly good. The greenery on the mountains had vanished after Spillow and they were now bare, just like in Ladakh. Some of the scenery around Nako were at least as good as any in Ladakh, if not better. I ended up stopping at nearly every turn to click photos. As a result, it was past 1:30pm when I reached Nako, a small village with a monastery and a man-made lake. The new looking monastery was closed (because of the Sunday?), so all I could do was look around. The lake was visible from near the monastery and it was half dried up and didn’t look interesting at all. At the monastery, I met a young couple from Bangalore, who were visiting the Spiti valley using public transportation. They had come to Peo after visiting Amritsar, all the way by (multiple) buses and had reached Nako the previous afternoon. Since then, they were just spending time doing nothing other than staring at the beautiful mountains at Nako, which was by the way one of the better choices you could make. They were planning to take the morning bus the next day to Tabo, before heading to Kaza. Bus connectivity is highly infrequent in these areas and one needs to plan for a lot of extra days if dependent on them for transportation. After a simple lunch with the couple, I bade goodbye and started towards Sumdo and Tabo. The (in)famous Malling Nala comes right after Nako and its adjacent village of Malling. I was looking forward to it, but it was a big letdown as the water was just a little more than a trickle. The altitude starts reducing after the Malling Nala and at Sumdo, one officially enters the Spiti valley.

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Switchbacks are called Kazigs here. They are referred to as Loops in Ladakh.

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Awesome views near Nako

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Nako Monastery, was closed

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This must be dreaded Malling nala, barely a trickle now

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Black barren beauty

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Welcome to Spiti Valley! At Sumdo.

At Sumdo, an entry needs to be made at the ITBP post before continuing towards Tabo. A km down the road, a motorcyclist whose vehicle had a puncture flagged me down, asking if I had a puncture kit with me. He was from Kerala and was traveling with his wife when he had the puncture. His friend, traveling on another motorcycle left more than two hours ago to fetch a mechanic from Tabo, but hadn’t returned still. They didn’t have telephone connectivity either and were getting restless. They were riding from Chandigarh on rented motorcycles, which are more prone to getting punctures and other problems. I offered them my apologies and continued, feeling really bad that I could not help them. A couple of kms later, I took the detour to see the Gue Mummy, which is 8kms from the road to Tabo. The views from the Gue village are beautiful and the road was decent too. On reaching the complex, I found a new grand looking building, which was still under construction and a smaller one. The mummy is currently housed in the older small building and once constructed, the plan is to shift it to the grander building. After a quick visit to the well preserved mummy (of a lama), I rejoined the highway to Tabo and continued on my way. Eventually, I reached Tabo as the sun was on its way down. At Tabo, I looked for the Kesang Guest House and easily found a room. The guest house was called T-Kesang Guest House, but I assumed it was the Kesang I was looking for. I tried Thukpa for dinner and it was hot, spicy and tasty. The room was small and there was no TV or internet, hence I took the opportunity to check out the photos so far. Many of them looked good. The ride on this day was thoroughly enjoyable, and by itself made the trip worth it.

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Gue Monastery - small old one on the left, the big new one is still under construction

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View from the Gue Monastery

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Well preserved skull of a lama

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Lone horseman with his herd
 
Day 5 - 17th Sep (Mon)
Distance covered - 140 kms

The plan for the day was to leave Tabo early and cover Dhankar, Pin Valley and reach Kaza by evening. Originally I was thinking about staying over at Pin Valley, but thankfully for some reason I changed my mind and decided on reaching Kaza. The person at the homestay told me that the monastery does not open before 9am. While chatting with him the previous evening, I learnt he was from Dharamshala and had just recently come to Tabo a couple of months ago. He would go back to Dharamshala once the winter kicks in. I didn’t want to hang around too long at Tabo and decided to check out the monastery earlier, at 8am. It was open and I could visit the monastery inside as well. It was well decorated and there were a lot of statues of various buddhist gods including a large one of Gautama. There is a helipad right next to the monastery, not sure how frequently it is actually used.
Close to the monastery, I noticed that there was a Kesang Homestay, turns out, the place I actually wanted to stay at. I realised that I had stayed overnight at a duplicate homestay (called T-Kesang). I went in and spoke to the lady who ran the homestay, informing her about the confusion that led me to the other similarly named place. I asked her to fix the board on the highway that announced her homestay, adding an arrow indicating where to turn. If the arrow had been there would have been no confusion at all. She seemed like a very nice lady (as mentioned in several TripAdvisor reviews) and she offered to make me tea and breakfast. She was aware of the potential confusion and accepted the feedback that adding a clearly visible arrow would help.
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Helipad next to the Tabo monastery


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At the Tabo Monastery

My next stop, Dhankar is a short ride from Tabo and the road was smooth. As I was riding, a middle aged person waved me down. I was expecting him to ask me for a ride, but instead he offered me an apple! I guess he had plucked it from one of the apple orchards that lined the road on that stretch. I ate it later in the night for dessert and it was delicious. It did not take me long before I was on the ascent to Dhankar. There is a diversion of 8kms to the right from the main road to Kaza to reach Dhankar. There is a new monastery which is a modern looking building and an old monastery/fort which is the main tourist attraction. There is also a small structure at the highest point and I managed to go right on top of that. The valley widens quite a bit near Dhankar and the views of the mountains and the valley were splendid from there. It was a 360 degree view and equally good on all sides. At the monastery I met a young Israeli couple who were traveling with three Malayalis. I chatted with them over tea and a light snack at the restaurant next to the monastery. A lot of Israelis visit Himachal and Spiti is one of the popular spots for them. They were talking about visiting another popular spot for Israelis, Gokarna, later in their trip. Not surprising, as I had been to Gokarna last year and the place had more Israelis than Kannadigas.

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S for Spiti - The Spiti river makes an (inverted) S turn

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View of Dhankar Monastery and the village around it

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Breathtaking view from atop the old Dhankar fort/monastery

On the advice of the person at the restaurant, I took the road running opposite to the one I came by to ride in the direction of Kaza. It was an isolated untarred stretch for the first 2-3 kms, but was smooth after that and it saved me a few kms. A few kms after reaching the main road, I took the left turn over the bridge, towards Pin Valley National Park. The road to Pin Valley was reasonable and mostly tarred, except for the last 8 kms before Mud village, the last village on the road. The views were consistently good all along, with many tiny villages perched up at different heights. I came across very few people during the entire ride and most of the people I encountered were road repair workers. I reached Mud village around lunch time and the only hotel/restaurant that was open in the village was the popular Tara Homestay. None of the others were operational. I got the impression they operate when there is a group (typically of trekkers) that book with them, else they shut shop as the season was at its fag end. There was already a large group of bikers and other visitors who were waiting for their order. The food options were very limited - Maggi or Rajma Chawal, I opted for the latter. I learnt over lunch that the biker group was from Mumbai and had rented from Chandigarh (all Himalayans). There was also a couple from Bangalore, who were traveling in a car along with the biker gang. Mud village is the starting/ending point for a number of popular treks, the most famous ones being Pin Parvati trek and Bhabha Pass trek. The former goes all the way to Manikaran, which is accessible from the Kullu side. The latter is a shorter one and connects to Kafnu and then Wangtoo on the Kinnaur side. In hindsight it was good that I changed plans and decided to stay at Kaza instead of staying back at Mud. The town was mostly closed with the exception of Tara and it might have been a challenge to get accommodation there.

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Spiti river, from the bridge that connects to Pin Valley

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Welcome to Pin Valley National Park!

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The road into Pin Valley

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Beautiful Pin Valley!

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There is enough greenery for these chaps

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A small hamlet at the foothills of a mountain - at Pin Valley

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More views of Pin Valley - nice colours

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View from the Mud village


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Tara Homestay at Mud Village

The ride to Kaza was uneventful. There were some interesting needle-like formations by the side of the road in one place, just before Kaza. As Kaza nears, the valley widens substantially. Soon, I was in the busy market area, trying to find accommodation. It took me a few minutes to figure out that most of the hotels were on the other side of the town, closer to the monastery. The market area was very busy, with rather narrow roads. The first hotel on my list did not have a room available for me, but the second one did. I soon checked in at the Spiti Heritage hotel. After a cup of tea, I walked over to the monastery, only to find it closed earlier than scheduled. Later I went to the market and got myself a BSNL prepaid sim, so that I could call home. Dinner was the Tibetian combination of momos and thupka at the popular Himalayan Cafe. There was some kind of a festival happening in Kaza that night and I was thinking of spending some time there. However, night got surprisingly cold and I was under protected to deal with it. I quickly headed back to the hotel after dinner.

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Interesting needle rock formations just before Kaza

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Having to stretch

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The most happening restaurant in town - favourite haunt of foreign tourists
 
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