Every traveller to Himachal Pradesh invariably has a visit to Spiti right on top of his itinerary. I was no different – the city enthralled me! A cold, barren dessert way up high in the mountains, so high that even oxygen is scarce. Surrounded by lofty snow-capped peaks, sleet grey rivers and inhospitable terrain with patches of shrubbery that can sustain no one – not man nor animal… sounded like a world within a world.
Yet, this barren land in a remote but picturesque part of the Lahaul-Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh has a lot to offer. Ancient Buddhist monasteries on top of the tallest hills that make you wonder how they were built hundreds of years ago, when the valley must have been even more inaccessible than it is now. Adventurous rides with jaw-dropping landscapes after every pin-curved turn. Tiny hamlets of not more than 30 houses located hundreds of miles apart – making you imagine the kind of close-knit societies these people must live in, cut away from modernization in every sense, be it in terms of transport or phone signal.
My much-awaited trip to Spiti did not go as planned. Rather than being an adventure of a lifetime, it was a journey that made me want to pull my hair out. Let me tell you how it began.
There are two routes to travel to Spiti – one, via Shimla, and the other, via Manali. While the Shimla route offers paved roads, tiny highway restaurants and tinier shops, the route we chose, which was via Manali, offered nothing but rocky, bouldered terrain for as far as the eye can see. This adventurous ride of over 150 kms is what brings adventure junkies and bikers through the Manali route. This journey offers no restaurants, no toilets, no shops – no anything for the entire duration of the journey, so if you’re stuck – you are well and truly stuck.
We departed from Manali at 5 am and planned to be in Kaza, the capital of the Spiti district, 200 kms away, by nightfall. However, we inched our way forward through rocky terrain under the harsh sun, and by 7 PM, almost 14 hours later, we were exhausted to the bone and still a few dozen kilometers away. And so, we decided to stay the night at Tenzin Camp in Batal, the first spot where we had seen civilization in the entire day. We had no network or phone signal the entire day and as night fell, the temperature dropped drastically, the wind howled and worst of all, one of us started showing symptoms of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness, caused due to lack of oxygen. We counted the hours until daylight and then started off towards Kaza again.
The ride to Kaza was mesmerizing and some of my best photographs of the incredible landscape is here for all to see. But my unfortunate tale doesn’t end there. We finally found and checked-in to a hotel called Winter White in Kaza, one we had painstakingly sought out due to the promise that they had Wi-Fi. It may sound funny, because people travel to a place like this to cut-off from the world. But as digital nomads, we needed just a little bit of network to monitor our work and check that everything we had set-up in the digital space was going well. That was not to be.
We learnt that, while many places promise internet connectivity in Kaza, Spiti, there is none. We spent the day recuperating from the tiring journey, yet immensely worried that our second day without connecting to the internet was at a close. That night, we dined at Hotel Deyzor – and the spectacular food did make me forget about our worries for a while. Oh, and my friend and business partner, who was also driving me around, was still suffering from AMS – vomiting, dizziness, exhaustion, nausea and the like.
Day 3! It was getting serious – we had to connect to the internet! We learnt that BSNL has intermittent network in some pockets of Kaza and so we embarked on a journey to find a SIM Card without having a local address in Spiti (which is one of the prerequisites to getting a SIM Card). We pleaded and pleaded with the people in the BSNL office, and managed to buy a SIM Card on showing them our hotel bill. It would take an hour to activate – and now that the ball wasn’t in our court anymore, we set off to see Key Monastery, one of the biggest attractions in, not only Spiti, but also in the mountains in general.
Walking around this ancient monastery located on one of the highest peaks in the region was surreal. We watched the prayer flags flutter in the wind, stood in awe in the shadows as the monks chanted their prayers in the prayer chamber over and over again, in their sing-song voice, while a giant, gold statue of Buddha looked straight ahead, out the door and into the distance. We walked through cool, dark passages that echoed the monks chants eerily, warmed our hands in the sunshine and sipped some fragrant Green Tea with another maroon-robe clad monk who offered us a cup. A good one hour later, we made our way back down the hill.
Finally, our SIM was activated – but, of course, the internet didn’t work. On trying to secure network for another hour or so, we had had enough. Spiti was beautiful, no doubt, but the prospect of neglecting work, losing clients and ending up bankrupt wasn’t appealing. It took us an hour to pack up and leave, this time, via Shimla, as we knew that the Manali Route would leave us devoid of phone signal for yet another day. We departed at 11 AM, and finally, it was in a village called Spello, 170 kms away, when our phones finally pinged. Network, at last! All it took was a ride through the most treacherous roads in the world!
So yeah, I just zipped through Spiti, cutting short what was to be a 10 day trip to 3 frantic days. While it wasn’t my idea of an immersive travel experience, unfortunately, such things can’t be helped when you’re on the road, trying to juggle between running a full time digital marketing agency and pursuing a passion for travel. This time, work won. Next time, I’ll be ready.
Read about my 2 month trip to Himachal Pradesh in this amazing travelogue!