Did you know that “Spiti” means “The Middle Land” – the land between India and Tibet. Once closed for centuries to the outside world – Spiti is still the least populated region of India, surrounded with ferocious mountains, wild glaciers, thunderous winds, but really simple Buddhist people. The roads to Spiti valley opened on 17th May this year, and will remain operational until the end of October.
There are only two routes to reach Spiti – one via Manali, and the other via Shimla. Ideally, the suggested route to cover the whole valley is to reach Spiti via Shimla – which is a better constructed road but a longer one – and then come back via Manali. Even though a lot of travelers prefer off-roading the valley via Manali – please remember this route is a lot more dangerous to come in – than going out.
Recently I visited Spiti valley through Manali, and experienced a lot during my stay. As mighty as the valley can be – Spiti is not an easy destination to travel to and requires a lot of planning and precautions to start with. The loose gravel roads and the high altitude makes this trip difficult for a lot of people – and hence should only be planned well in advance, with proper research.
Learning from my experience, good and bad – below is a comprehensive list of the Do’s and Don’ts one should focus on to make Spiti a safe and memorable trip:
#1 – Expect bad road conditions: Before you plan your trip, please remember that Spiti has no proper roads as they are made of materials such as sand, gravel, riverbeds, mud, snow, rocks, and other natural terrain. In this case you will be mostly off-roading into the valley and hence you need to book a vehicle that is meant for such roads and also opt for a safer option of traveling with a local driver who knows the roads well already.
#2 – Plan well with a good vehicle: Most people in Spiti look for an off-road experience and therefore carry their own cars or motor bikes. But please remember to do so only if you are an experienced adventure seeker. If off-roading has never been your thing, please go with a group, book a bus (from the Manali bus stand), or a shared tempo traveler or a shared taxi (from Kiran Guest House, Manali) – being navigated by locals.
“My experience: The day we headed to Spiti we got stuck into a very bad landslide and all roads got closed. But having a local driver with us gave us the advantage of route and he actually got us through to the other side with another vehicle waiting for us to take us to Kaza, as promised. All the other travelers with their own vehicles had to head back to Manali. Although it wasn’t easy – as we had to cross the landslide on foot and our shoes got really wet. One of us even lost her bag, and one fell really sick with fever.”
#3 – Acclimatize properly: Spiti valley is situated at a height of 12,500 feet above mean sea level, and is also home to the highest motorable village in Asia – “Komic” located at a height of 18,000 feet above sea level. If you are planning to visit all the landmarks in the valley, please make sure you give yourself enough time to acclimatize in Kaza. Carry a common medicine called “Diamox” with you which is meant for altitude sickness and take it while traveling – twice a day.
#4 – Take precautions with the right ingredients: Drink the garlic water and garlic soup prepared by the locals. You will find this water filled in bottles for free in most cafes and all you need to do is to take a sip or two at each stop during the day. As stated in this article clearly, “Garlic is known to make the blood thinner, that enhances the blood circulation and removes the high-altitude symptoms. It is helpful to regulate the intake of oxygen in the body and hence decreases the breathlessness. Thus, garlic can help solve breathing issues while you are at a height.”
#5 – Be prepared to stay rough: Don’t expect fancy or luxurious hotel stays in Spiti. The terrain still being treacherous, and the mountains still being mighty – even though a lot of people visit Spiti during the only 6 months it is open in an year – still it is not a developed tourist destination. And I would certainly not recommend it for a fancy family vacation with kids or a visit with your oldies.
Also, the food along the way is really simple – tea, coffe, dal-chaawal or maggi; and don’t expect a washroom – most of the times – its all in the open. So carry extra toilet paper if you must.
# 6 – Plan your stays in advance: But Spiti is also home to some very welcoming homestays that are not luxurious – but comfortable. So if you are looking for a camping or a homestay experience – you will love Spiti for its pure simplicity. And if you were wondering – there is also a “Zostel” in Kaza, but I would suggest booking it way ahead in time to find your spot.
#7 – Indulge in a “monastery under the stars” kind of experience: All monasteries in Spiti valley provide stay options (Rs. 250 to Rs.500 a night) – which include a comfortable bed and blanket for the night, along with the food cooked inside the monastery itself and also a chance to attend the chants of the morning prayer by the monks. Staying in a monastery – be it in Kye, Tabo or Dhankar – you will certainly experience something out of the box – away from the busy and noisy city lives we are used to.
#8 – The right and “dry” footwear is key: Spiti being a valley of unpredictable weather conditions and more than common landslides – expect to be crossing river streams and waterfalls by foot. As most natural water in Spiti is coming from glaciers and melting snow – the water is extremely cold and in case your shoes get wet – you can be quickly prone to a frost bite. Remember to remove your wet shoes ASAP and dry your feet immediately. Carry extra pairs of socks and also a pair of slippers for emergency. Carrying a good waterproof pair of trekking/hiking shoes or floaters is an excellent idea too.
#9 – Carry everything on your shoulders:Spiti is a backpacking destination clearly and for that you need to carry a proper 350 ml to 500 ml backpack as your only luggage. A suitcase, or a duffle just wont work. Due to the unpredictable weather you will be required to walk or trek for varying distances with your bag and it is only wise to carry everything on your own, on your shoulders.
#10 – Keep your cash with you: There are hardly any ATM’s in Spiti, and the ones that are there are heard of as – unsafe to use. Also because of a NO network situation in your smart phones – mobile banking and Paytm are highly unlikely to work too. Your best bet with money in Spiti is to carry enough cash with you in advance.
#11 – Be prepared to stay disconnected: Miles before you enter Spiti – your phones will go off the radar and show you the “no service” message for days. Note that there is only one network that works in Spiti and that is BSNL. Also, there is no internet, wifi, 3G or 4G available. Before you start your journey – buy a BSNL sim card which will only work in the villages and not in between – enough for you to make a few phone calls back home each day to inform your family about your whereabouts. There are a few internet cafes available at longer distances – but they do not guarantee that you will be able to actually surf the net.
#12 – Be kind. Ask nicely. Be humble: Remember Spiti is a valley of really simple people who have lived in a happy isolation for centuries. They find happiness in little things and have welcomed travelers into their homes with love and kindness. They don’t ask for much other than respect and are willing to help beyond expectations – only if you ask NICELY.