Ladakh’s lesser-known neighbor, the cold mountain desert of Spiti, is for travellers who dare to drift from the tourist trails. Spiti’s postcard villages remain remotely tucked away in the lap of the mighty, barren Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh, and it is here that you can hike along Snow Leopard and Himalayan Wolf habitats, visit monasteries dating back over a 1000 years, sample a fascinating culture and cuisine different from the rest of India, and meet the kindest of people who live the harshest of lives. This is a world within a world, as Rudyard Kipling once described it.
When you decide to make your journey to Spiti, these are things you should know before you go:
1. Weather in Spiti and Best Time to Visit
Spiti remains practically cut off from the rest of India for 6 months of the year. Thick Himalayan snow blocks the mountain passes, making it almost impossible for road transport to pass through, even on the Shimla-Kinnaur route. The summer months from late May to late September are therefore the best time to visit Spiti. As the weather warms up, the snow slowly melts and gets cleared away to open up road travel to the valley.
With only 250 days of sunshine in a year, winter in Spiti is a harsh affair. Temperatures on average drop to -30 degrees Celsius, and the lack of any modern form of heating means most families cuddle together in a single room in the house and keep warm around wood fire.
To survive the harsh conditions, the Spitian people celebrate festivals and most family affairs (birthdays, weddings) in the winter months, stocking up on food and local alcohol; the winter months are privy to Spiti’s unique and introspective culture, though survivable only by extreme adventurers!
2. How to Reach
There are 2 road routes leading up to the Trans-Himalayas of Spiti; one from Shimla via the Kinnaur valley, and the other from Manali. The former takes a minimum of 2 days, with a night’s halt in Kalpa or Reckong Peo, and though longer, gives more time to gradually acclimatize to the altitude. The latter takes 12-14 hours, depending on road conditions.
3. What to Pack
As a cold mountain desert, the weather in Spiti is almost confusing! The sun’s rays are harsh enough to burn your skin, while shaded areas remain cool enough to wear a jacket.
It’s best to pack clothes in layers, and carry full-sleeve T-shirts, sun hats, sun glasses and any other sun protection you can find. Good walking shoes are a must.
4. Going Solo or in a Group
Whether you travel by yourself or join a group trip is a personal decision. The villages of Spiti, though remote, are home to some of the kindest, friendliest people in India, and very welcoming of solo travellers. You do need a heart for adventure though – from the precarious journeys on rickety state buses, to hitchhiking with strangers, to travelling without a plan (most guesthouses or homestays can’t be pre-booked online).
Alternatively, you can join one of HipTrip group/solo trips to Spiti, designed in collaboration with a local organization with varying degrees of adventure, hiking, culture and sightseeing, planned such that your carbon footprint in this ecologically sensitive region remains low.
5. Getting Permits
Indian identity holders going to Spiti, from Shimla or Manali, do not require permits to enter Spiti. Foreign identity holders entering Spiti via the Kinnaur route from Shimla require inner-line permits, since this route takes you very close to the Tibetan border. Permits can be obtained at Reckong Peo near Kalpa, and take upto a few hours to be issued.
Only BSNL Sim cards obtained in Himachal Pradesh work in Spiti, and that too only in Kaza (Spiti’s administrative capital) and some of the lower villages.
There is a single cyber cafe in Kaza, that draws on the army satellite to offer an internet connection whose speed reminds you of the dial-up days!
7. Acclimatization and Fitness
The high altitude of Spiti (3300-5000 meters) needs considerable acclimatization for every traveller, whether or not it’s your first time to such an altitude. It’s best to make your journey up slowly, either via Shimla, halting halfway in Kinnaur, or by spending the previous night in Manali on the route via Rohtang Pass.
Those with lung or heart conditions, or known breathing problems, are advised to consult their doctor before journeying up to the valley.
8. Homestays in Spiti
Some Spitian families, in the higher, more remote villages, have opened up their homes and hearts to travellers, with the help of Ecosphere, a social enterprise that works on the sustainable development of the region. Though basic, Spitian homes are roomy and spacious, with the mighty Himalayas in their balcony! The Spitian toilets are dry and de-composting in nature; you have to squat over a hole in the ground, and throw hay through it once you’re done with your business. It decomposes naturally and is used as manure.
9. Money Matters
You’ll find an ATM or two in Kaza, but their functioning is often erratic, so it’s advisable to carry enough cash from Manali / Shimla. There are no money exchangers in Spiti.
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