Spiti Valley – India’s Little Tibet

Rudyard Kipling wrote about Spiti Valley in his book ‘Kim’ ‘At last they entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains…Surely the Gods live here. Beaten down by the silence and the appalling sweep of dispersal of the cloud-shadows after rain. This is no place for men.’  But despite the barren landscape, there is so much to love about Spiti: the warmth of the people, the magnificent monasteries and the incredible mountain landscapes make it a special place to visit. 

The drive from Manali’s Kullu Valley to Spiti Valley goes from a lush, tropical mountain forests to barren mountain deserts. On the drive we crossed 2 mountain passes. It was our 3rd time over Rohtang Pass and this time we had a beautiful sky and amazing views of mountains and waterfalls. The second pass, Kunzum La, marks the entry into the Buddhist region of Spiti. There is a group of large Tibetan chortens at the pass with prayer flags blowing in the constant wind. It’s a great spot to view the gorgeous high mountains around.

Spiti Valley is an extension of the Tibetan plateau and has the same arid surroundings as Tibet, Ladakh and Upper Mustang. Spiti is another mini-Tibet with much of the same cultures and strong following of Tibetan Buddhism. The people in Spiti are some of the kindest we’ve met anywhere. They great you with their friendly “Julley” (which means Hello, Welcome and Thank you) and a warm smile. In the apple growing regions we received at least 8 free apples each from people we didn’t know. Even sitting on the side of the road, waiting for a bus, a local man stopped his car to give us 2 delicious apples.

The landscape is harsh though. Winter temperatures can reach -25 to -30°C and with so much snow that the area is cut off from larger centers for 2 – 3 months. People live in mud homes with no insulation and only a yak dung stove for heat. They are living like pioneers from the Canadian Prairies, but it’s 2018 not 1818. From a distance the villages appear uninhabitable in the god forsaken land. But, when we take a closer look you can see how the people not only survive but thrive.

Key (also spelled Ki or Kye) Gompa has one of the most spectacular settings. The white-washed monastery buildings and red temple crowd together, taking over a small hill overlooking the Spiti River. The monastery dates from the 11th century and is the largest monastery in Spiti with over 300 monks. There’s a room at the top of the monastery for the Dalai Lama.

The access town for the Key Monastery is Kaza which has a gorgeous setting along the Spiti River surrounded by mountains.

Further southwest down the Spiti River is the village of Tabo with a unique monastery. Tabo Gompa was built in 996 AD and looks like a Mexican adobe with low, flat roofs and unpainted walls that are the colour of mud. Inside the main temple are dozens of original, 10th century Bodhisattvas hanging on the walls. They are molded out of mud and colourfully painted which gives them a fascinating appearance. As well there are many original frescoes of Buddha and Buddhist gurus. It’s the most interesting and most beautiful temple interior that we have ever seen. The monks no longer live in this monastery as they have a new building.

The village of Tabo is very cute with clean, organized sidewalks, well-kept Tibetan-style homes and apple orchards all around. We were there during apple season and had many apples during our stay. One of the lamas gave us a tour of the main temple and when we were leaving he gave us free apples.

Above the village are ancient temple caves that were once used for meditation and as dwellings during the harsh winters. Some of the caves are still used by monks today for meditation.

The village of Nako is further southwest and is very close to the Tibet border. It is set beside a sacred lake, but the state of the lake makes it seem less than holy. The water is covered in a film of green algae, and the concrete sidewalk surrounding it is in ruins. Away from the lake is the Old Town of Nako which is very interesting. It’s very similar to the towns in Nepal’s Upper Mustang with narrow, meandering pathways and old mud or stone houses built right up to the paths. The houses are very old and in poor condition, but a large population still lives here.

High on a hill above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers is the fascinating Dhankar Gompa. Built between wind-swept hoodoos, the picturesque gompa looks like it may topple over at any time. Above the gompa is the original village and another small temple. At one time Dhankar was the capital of the kingdom of Spiti and they built the town and the gompa around the hoodoos to hide from potential invaders. The more recent homes and new gompa are scattered around the mountain cirque below.

In the hills above the village is  Dhankar Lake. It is a holy lake and is quite small but offers great views of the high mountains.

The Pin Valley branches off from the Spiti Valley, but because of its location it receives more precipitation. As a result, there is more vegetation on the mountain slopes. The valley is more colourful because of these plants and the purple and red rocks on the mountains. We saw farmers collecting shrubs and grasses high on the mountain side and carry it down in large bales on their backs. The farmers will dry the grass and use it to feed their animals over the long winter. On the other side of the Pin-Parvati Pass is the Parvati Valley where it rains 300 days a year. We could see large storm clouds forming over the pass, but they never quite made it to the Pin Valley.

A funny thing happened to us at most restaurants in Spiti. The staff gave us menus, let us make our meal selections and then as we ordered, the staff would tell us one by one that our selections are not available. In the end there were usually only 3 choices for the meal and 2 are always rice and dal (lentils)!

Read about our adventures getting out of Spiti Valley in Stranded in a Blizzard… in India.

Coming up next: The Strange and Unique Parvati Valley

For extra pics from this trip go to Gallery/Northern India. For extra pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca

To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.

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