Spiti, Pin and Baspa Valley - India Himachal Pradesh Reviews
High altitude trip in a CamperVan May 01, 2010
Though I have been on a road trip to Ladakh driving all the way from Delhi but going in a camper van was altogether a different experience. I heard about this camper van from my traveler friend Rupa who not only works for a travel company but also is a travel enthusiast. She surely enjoys her time travelling to various properties her company owns in north India. Daulat Deshmukh is amongst the first few who made this service available in India. He is a true traveler and less of a commercial trip organiser. I thank him for manufacturing such a wonderful vehicle which adds luxury and novelty to the breathtaking scenery of Himalayas.
I proposed my school time buddy, Rakesh, from boarding days, to come along with me on this scenic and life changing journey in the purest regions of Himalayas. These areas are not frequented by most tourists as they flock to Manali and make a day’s trip to Rohtang pass and turn back. I have always believed the ‘real thing’ lies beyond the Rohtang pass. Rakesh has always lived in Mumbai and was more used to hotels, reservations, conveniences and organised way of travel which he did with kids and family. Although we had done lot of short treks in school days but all the years in between had rusted up his enthusiasm for adventure travel. Thankfully he agreed and set out for a life-changing expedition and so did another senior gentleman known to him Madhukar Salvi from Mumbai. Interestingly, he was going to travel to high altitudes for the very first time.
Day 1 Journey: Manali – Rohtang – Gramphoo – Chhatru – Chhota Dara – Batal – Chandratal lake (100 km approx – 5 hours)
This journey seemed so familiar to me as I had walked this path 5 years back with another set of friends. So we knew what to expect next. I am sure those who have been on this trail would remember the cosy Dhaba at Chhatru. They had now put up a parachute outside which would act as a roof over the chairs kept outside the Dhaba to protect from direct sunlight. The frugal lunch was welcome given the chilly wind that blew in our face. We sat inside, had Rajma Chawal, Sandwiches and hot tea. As we drove past the Chhota Dara guest house seemed neat like always but seemed locked. We didn’t stop. We had another vehicle trailing us in which our adventurer friend Daulat and his team sat with him. The road had soon disappeared after Gramphoo and pot holes kept us company.
We finally reached Batal by 3 PM, a desolate Chandra Dhaba, welcomed us with hot tea and snacks. This dhaba is the only structure that acts like a mile stone for travelers indicating Batal. It is surprisingly geared up with stocks that one can hope to find on a regular highway eatery. I remembered my previous trek to this place from where we had hopped on to a truck carrying cement dust after completing the trek all the way back till Manali.
From here the famed Chandatal Lake is around 20 km but the road is very narrow and bumpy at some points. Daulat was unsure whether the campervan would make it to Chandratal. So we all decided to carry all bag and baggage for the night and hopped on to the Sumo that was trailing us. In no time we reached the pristine aqua green lake of Chandratal. The winds blew into our dried frozen faces as we struggled to even speak. The cold winds made a wheezing sound and we had to shout in order to be heard. Before we descended on to the banks of the lake from the hill top we clicked pictures and took video coverage of the panoramic scenery that lay spread around us. As we pitched our tents barely six feet away from the lake the night descended rather soon and we anxiously awaited the cooks (in the other tent) get our evening soup while we waited for the dinner.
Day 2 Journey: Chandratal – Kumzum La-Takcha – Losar (35 Km approx, 2 hours) This was the most unforgettable morning which we would remain etched for the rest of our lives. I remember having being fully clothed with socks and woolen cap in my sleeping bag inside my tent and freezing !! Little did I know that while I struggled to get warmth our tents were being showered with light snow flakes. We all slept in the freezing temperatures. I was in one tent and Rakesh and Madhukar in the next tent. While Daulat and rest of his team stayed in two tents pitched slightly away from our location. I was the first to get up and was greeted with the mystic morning. The whole lake had a haze of clouds that had descended almost on the water surface.Our tents were blanketed with an inch of snow and they sagged in a bit. I switched on my video camera and started waking up everyone to view the early morning mist and snow.
Soon the place was up with activity. Everyone including the cook, helpers, drivers etc. were ecstatic with delight. We were clicking pictures, shooting videos and making the most of the moment. It had probably just stopped snowing as the snow felt soft when we walked on it and we could scrape it off with our fingers. The path around the lake was well blanketed with whiteness. Chandan, our cook, had prepared hot steaming tea which we gladly had huddled together in a larger tent.
The sky looked loaded with clouds as if blessing our journey with an unexpected snowfall. We all decided to take a walk around the lake. It was barely 7 AM. The walk must have been 3 km circumferencing the lake. It was a truly soul searching walk in the lap of nature. After an hour of walking, our back-office team was ready with hot steaming breakfast of Bread, Omelet and hot milk. We couldn’t thank them enough for the timely breakfast. Soon we packed our tents and were ready to move on.
We packed our backpacks and helped the crew to pack up and load stuff on the waiting vehicle. Realising they would still take some more time, I and Rakesh started walking down the trail towards Batal. It was a refreshing walk while we talked about our lives basking in the morning sun. We almost came walking half the distance to Batal when our vehicle caught up with us. We got on to the vehicle and it sped off for Losar (13,382 feet) where we were to camp for the night. Enroute we found our equipped Campervan waiting for us. We had to cross the highest point on our travel the Kunzum Pass (14,931 feet). This could have given us high altitude sickness due to low oxygen despite being on preventive medication. Though some of us did feel a headache but it subsided by the night.
Bypassing Takcha, we reached Losar. A stream of water flowed at 200 m distance. Our crew started setting up their tents and preparing for the night. Madhukar, Rakesh and I went around inspecting the site. It was a flatland close to a river stream flow. We could easily cross the stream without wetting our shoes. When we were back a proper camp site had been set up. Folding chairs were put outside while Jigmit (our attendant) served us tea. A campfire was lit at dinner time. It was a welcome warmth. The night was very comfortable as the campervan was warm and even immune to the howling gushes of night winds. Jigmit woke us up with bed-tea.
Day 3: Losar - Ki – Kibber – Kaza – Shego [90 km 5-6 hrs] We almost felt guilty to be in better comforts than our crew but I believe our costs were justifying the inequality. Jigmit, originally from Ladakh is a good and sincere worker. We three set out for our morning walk while the crew got ready with its chores. We must have come a km away from our camp site clicking pictures. When we returned the camp was abuzz with activity while breakfast was ready. Campervan was folded back and we started for our next destination Shego.
We cleared the camp site of any leftovers and left it cleaner than before. It seemed people had camped here before. The engine roared towards the Ki Monastery. It soon showed up perched at a hilltop overlooking the Spiti river. The Ki Monastery is the oldest Buddhist monastery where 300 Lamas receive religious training. It is a collection or rooms and narrow corridors built over the years not to a particular plan though. It houses rare paintings of gods and scriptures and Dalai Lama’s picture is prominently displayed on the altar. A Lama soon welcomed us and showed us around the place and served us tea that he made in front of us while we sat in the ancient kitchen looking up its smoked black walls. After a brief photo session we left for Kibber, the world’s highest village.
Basking in the peace of Ki monastery we drove past Kaza towards Kibber. There are only 295 people living in about 80 houses. This place seems well connected given its far-flung nature. It has its own post office, school, dispensary, telegraph office and a community TV service received through satellite. We found little activity here and found a few workers making bricks out of black sand to be used for construction purpose. One needs a permit to trek from here to Ladakh. From here we drove to Kaza 16 km away and stayed there briefly to fill up our replenished stocks of food. Surprisingly Kaza is a well fed place. It is like any mountain township with shops, guest houses, petrol pump, hospital and a few government buildings. It even caters to foreign tourists exclusively as was evident from the eateries there. They even had internet cafes where we quickly checked and replied a few mails. We had been away from civilisation for a few days now. We were told BSNL provides cell phone access here but since none of us was on BSNL we could not check. We made calls to our homes telling our folks about our welfare and the journey we were doing.
We camped for the night at a place called Shego. It was a flat land available next to the road. The Piti river flowed about 150 m away to be accessed by walk through a thick cover of shrubs. There was a small house which could be seen from our camping site and Madhukar was tactful to buy some wood from them to set up a campfire on the chilly night.
The flatland was ideal for setting up the camp. Our van looked tiny in the backdrop of a huge mountain. Rakesh even walked up the slope while it was daylight and he waved at us from the near top. We set up a bath tent next to the van. We warmed up some water in the van and had the luxury to take a bath inside the tent whilst the winds roared outside. The local folks were kind to lend us a bucket for the day. While our cooks were setting to work we freshened up and awaited the hot tea on our folding chairs outside the van. Soon we were joined by local kids who were curious to see the one-of-a-kind van. We shared some sweets with them and shot some videos with them. They left happily and the night descended real soon.
We lit the campfire and chatted away till 11 pm under the brightly lit sky. Our crew was with us sharing stories from other travels. Panditji (driver) shared some eerie folklore based on hearsay. The campfire was so good on our skin. The night was comfortable. We could hear sound of two foxes which had been loitering around our camping site to find some food. The morning saw us walking towards the river through the thick bushes. We trudged a mile after the morning tea. The river was gushing all around. Without wetting ourselves we could cross one stream to another and soon we were back to a hot breakfast of milk, eggs and paranthas.
Day 4: Shego – Tabo - Pin Valley - and taking a U turn: We were soon cruising along and were on our way to Tabo Monastery which is about 50 km from Kaza. Soon we were there taking some breath taking pictures on the way. We would often stop the campervan when we would find a good view. Our driver who was affectionately called Panditji would oblige us by not only stopping the vehicle but would also click us against the scenic background. It was bright afternoon when we reached Tabo Monastery.
Tabo monastery complex holds 9 temples, 23 chortens, a monk's chamber and a nuns chamber It can be rightly considered as ‘Ajanta’ of the Himalayas’ as it houses 36 life-size statues . Lights are usually kept off inside the main hall as it may harm the ancient and rare artifacts decorating the walls. Our eyes soon got used to the dark premises and we could see the statues in dim daylight. The Archaeological Survey of India has taken over the maintenance of this rare site so lots of dos and don'ts are being followed. We briefly sat in quiet meditation in dark hall and felt peaceful. Soon there were more tourists to break the quiet session and we moved on to see the rest of the monastery.
We were slated to camp that night at Pin valley. We had to cross the Piti river to get to Pin valley. When we reached the Pin Valley we were told that we were to camp adjacent to a guest house. Neither there was any water body next to our camp so we persuaded Panditji to take a U turn and find another place for camping. We kept looking for a flat land close to the river. We had come a real long way back towards kaza by now. Piti river could be seen flowing to our left and just just short of Kaza we found the road had a smaller tributary road going towards the river bed.
Perhaps local used to dig out sand from the river from this place. Hesitatingly, the two vehicles, our camper van and a Sumo were descended along the stony ramp. We drove practically next to the water body and parked there. It was mindlessly windy there. It still didn’t deter us from camping there for the next two nights. It seemed like we had the entire river for us. There wasn’t a soul for a mile.
These two days were going to be remembered for a long long time. Our cook Chandan, Jigmit the helper, Sumo driver and Panditji soon got to work and pitched up their tent before it got dark. We pitched the tent between the two vehicles to shield against the howling winds. Once the tent was set up our crew was quick. Soon we were sipping hot soup sitting next to a roaring Piti river. We managed to get some wood for the night in whose warmth we sat till midnight talking and discussing spiritual things in the lap of nature. The camp view had a backdrop as if we were living in a painting. The highway was half a mile away from where we were and an aqua blue colored Piti river flowed next to our van. Assured of all comforts by our crew we never felt we were camping in inhospitable conditions of temperature and wind.
Day 5: Piti riverbed off Kaza: Halt day: The bright morning next day gave us a fresh impetus to go and explore the surroundings. Since we knew we didn’t have to travel that day and the camp would be as it is. We had a lot of time on hand. So we decided to walk along the river till we could no longer walk. The Van seemed like a dot from where we were. Looking for a few bushes we answered the nature’s call and walked back to a waiting breakfast. We shot some wonderful videos there. As the sun shone on us we spread out our canvas sheets, applied a thick layer of UV cream and settled down with our respective books. It was such a peaceful time. No TV, no cell phones, no newspapers, no responsibilities… just nature and us. The books we carried were also inspiring ones which were being read by us with utmost calm mind. Chandan and Jigmit made one of the most delicious vegetarian Biryani. The weather and water were very supportive of our digestion. My otherwise sensitive bowel friends had no problems given the purity of air, water and mind that existed all around us.
Day 6: Return: Piti Riverbed – Kaza – Losar - Takcha – Kumzum la Pass – Batal – Chota Dara – Chhatru – Gramphoo – Rohtang Pass – Marhi – Kothi – Manali (200 km approx – 8 hours)
Being our last day we decided to throw caution to the whistling winds. We took the plunge.. literally though. We stripped to our undergarments and jumped into the icy cold waters. It was so refreshing, Although we spent just 10 minutes inside the chilled river, it really took our breath away for a while. But the experience was exhilarating. We even rolled in the warm sand and again dipped into the river. It felt like being cleansed to the bone and the soul.
After the bathing session we got ready to leave for Manali. We must have travelled the entire day. This stretch seemed so familiar since we have trekked before. The Rohtang was as usual not without its hiccups of waiting. We finally reached the Mountaineering Institute by 6 PM. Our campervan driver was quite good with is driving skills. He got us quite fast to Manali. We settled down in our rooms only to get nostalgic about our trip. On our way from Rohtang we could see people do paragliding. We had our next travel plan done while we saw the hang gliders gradually descending in to the valley.
I realise mountain travel is always a learning experience. Mountains make us humble with their enormity and their invincibility. The serene and pure air, starry nights, gushing blue waters, uncertainty of a rock moving towards you from a hill, the morning sun revealing itself in various hues, the soft snow slowly warming into a trickle, the multi colored valleys with and without vegetation… the list is endless.. they all have a profound effect on us. Its said if one cannot get education one can just travel to distant lands. I feel calibrated back into life after such trips into the lap of nature. These high peaks despite their strength and might are so very quiet and beautiful. A river actually looking blue even from six feet speaks of its purity.
One last thing I will emphasise. We must preserve what we have. Its not going to be there forever. All fellow mountain travelers must clean the camping site before they leave. After all ‘There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew’ Lets spread eco education and make travelers wise.
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Not yet becoming another LEH ---- but pure and untouched region Jul 25, 2009
I have been to mountians across India many times in last 16 years and himalaya has this strange thing that it makes you addictive......
Alwas wanted to do this part of lovely unspoiled region before i becomes another leh...
Meeting Philip last year at Leh with Steve was one of the nicest thing ......and this year the vacation with him and his dad...its kind o good to be around his dad as I can share some afternoon beer with him, Philip is useless when it comes to vices !!!!!!! LOL
We all had lovely trip and for me ..it was one of the best vacation in last few years
200 nice pictures at http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/album.php?aid=2026704&id=1530337945