Working as a freelance journalist in Asia didn’t give me much time to indulge in tourism. Often I ended up travelling to beautiful, scenic places to chase stories about human rights abuses, conflict etc.! So I was more than happy to take a couple days off in Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state on the foothills of the Himalayas.
The state is rich in cultural and natural beauty, but Spiti valley stands out. Spiti means ‘middle land’ – the valley in between India and Tibet. It is a sparsely populated mountain desert with a fascinating landscape located above 3000m. Most in the valley have Tibetan roots and follow Tibetan culture and way of life. Mahayana Buddhism has a large influence in the valley. There are several important and old monasteries, such as the Key monastery. A monk in the monastery tells us that his Holiness the Dalai Lama wants to retire here. Farming is the main occupation here but the tourism industry is soon catching up. We were told that until ten years ago, the place had no guesthouses, but today there are over a dozen, some with Internet accessibility. Spiti valley is very difficult to access since snow and ice often block off the passes. The best time to visit is between June and October. During the 12-hour drive into the valley, the landscape and light changes constantly. Gigantic formations of rocks and ice dominate everything. Small villages, constructions sites, and military bases seem misplaced here. Out of nowhere, we meet a group of cheering locals, part of a wedding procession — all happily drunk, making music out of their jeeps. Once they leave, there’s only the sheer endless wonder-world of rocks, ice, clouds and blue sky.
In Kaza, a village were we stayed the first couple of days, we discovered a German bakery. I must admit the cinnamon roll was rather dry, but who can complain about a cinnamon roll in a village in the middle of the Himalayas? What is definitely not disappointing are the mountains. Several long hikes offer incredible sights of the valley itself and the surrounding peaks. The pure size of the mountains humbles you. If you plan to go, make sure you have enough time and an alternative plan (in case the valley is shut off because of snow and ice). Generally you should keep the huge distances and the inadequate transport facilities in mind. You also need a permit to enter the valley. Since you should go hiking, make sure you acclimatize and not walk too fast. Many treks bring you above 5000m, do everything to avoid altitude sickness. There are several simple, nice guesthouses and home stays in the different villages along the valley.