As I walk along the green fields of Pin, I smile in delight at the pink, purple and yellow flowers in bloom; I haven’t seen greenery for the last 3 days in the mountain desert terrain of Spiti. I carefully walk the fragile bridge across the Spiti River, to the village of Gulling, where I hope to hitch-hike my way back to Kaza, Spiti’s capital, instead of waiting for a bus the next morning.
I have never hitch-hiked in India before; it would be a parent’s worst nightmare for their 23-year-old daughter in the northern cities of India. But 2 weeks in Spiti have convinced me that there isn’t a safer alternative to travel the region. The mountain people welcome you with big hearts, space or no space, and it’s a great way to meet fellow mountain travelers.
As I reach Gulling, I’m greeted by a gorgeous view of green slopes topped by snow-capped peaks, some of which have melted into swift waterfalls. The aroma of freshly cooked breakfast draws me in to a little dhaba. I chat with the cook as he beats some eggs, and ask him if any cars will be heading to Kaza soon. Immediately, he calls out to an elderly gentleman, who in turn, summons some boys to find me a ride; by the time my breakfast is done, the entire village is scrambling around to find a way to get me to Kaza.
The cook invites me to take refuge in the shade of his dhaba for the few or many hours before a car passes by their humble village, but I insist on taking my restless self to walk the single road of the village under the trees. As I stroll along, every passer-by has a smile to give and help to offer. A young man tries to initiate a conversation in English. I oblige, and gradually break into Hindi, to which he seems surprised. Immediately, he insists that I join him for tea, and as I run out of excuses, I follow him into a shed by the roadside. He calls a boy and tells him to make us his best tea, and as the boy heads out, I look at the tattered, isolated surroundings of the shed. Over the next hour, I hear everything about this man and his family, his entrepreneurial spirit, and his move to Pin from Manali. It’s only in Spiti, I think to myself, that my eyes didn’t subconsciously dart around for escape routes.
I find a ride just after noon, and as we drive through the precarious mountain roads, with the majestic Himalayas watching over us, I feel glad, yet again, that Spiti has salvaged the notion of atithi devo bhava for me; all the world has heard of Indian hospitality, but living in the cities made it seem like a hoax.
Traveling to & in the Spiti Valley:
I am charmed by the landscape in some of the highest villages in the Himalayas; the sky seems to get bluer as I go higher, and surprisingly, the mountain slopes get greener. Typically, these mountain villages have a population of merely 50-100 people in a dozen or less households, and are 5-10 hour hikes away from Kaza, Spiti’s administrative headquarters and a good base to explore the region. Perhaps it is this unique geography that hasn’t allowed the peculiarities of urban India to seep into its hospitable culture.
Recommended: The villages of Langhza, Komic and Kungri.
I am convinced that life couldn’t be easy in these villages during the winter months, when temperatures dip below -30 degree Celsius on average, practically cutting off the valley from the rest of India. The locals must hoard food and wood during the summer to be able to survive the extreme conditions. Despite their hardships, the spirit of the locals is heartening. They derive much of their conviction from the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, some of the oldest monasteries of which are perched precariously on hills in the valley and associated with fascinating folklore & legends.
Recommended: The monasteries of Key, Dhankar and Tabo.
Spiti’s location on the leeward side of the Himalayas has deprived it of much rainfall, but the Spiti River and the Dhankar Lake can charm any traveler.
Summer (May-October) is the best time to visit Spiti, either via the 20-hour paved road from Shimla or the 10-hour dirt road from Manali. While the journey is not for the faint-hearted, it is certainly one of the most spectacular routes I’ve ever traveled.
It is upon every independent traveler to protect and conserve Spiti’s fragile ecology.
Travel can also be organized via India Untravelled; our partners in Spiti ensure that all trips into the trans-Himalayas are carbon neutral. Volunteering options are also available.