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Driving Escapes - Spiti

28th Sep 2009 7:00 am

If Spiti doesn’t leave you awestruck, you aren’t normal

If Spiti doesn’t leave you awestruck, you aren’t normal. It’s as simple as that. All your life you’ve heard that the Gods reside in the Himachal Himalayas - while driving across the Spiti district, you realize that this unbelievably scenic land had to be the obvious choice for celestial residence. It is now possible to drive to Chandra Tal, which makes things ideal for those who want the camping experience without the ardour of a trek. From Chandra Tal, we’ve driven to Kaza across the majestic Kunzum La and the high-altitude plateau after Losar. We’ve passed through magnificent gorges and huge canyons that look straight out of Mackenna’s Gold. The road is broken and bumpy and you need to exercise caution at the wheel most of the time, but the splendid vistas more than make up for the journey. Using Kaza as a base, we’ve visited interesting places, including Tashi Gang, the world’s highest road-connected village and the seemingly precariously perched 1,300-year-old Dankar Gompa.


Driving there - Manali - Rohtang - Gramphu - Chattru - Chotta Dara - Batal - Chandra Tal - Kunzum La - Losar - Kaza.  We’ve mapped the route from Manali onwards. While the road is easy to follow, the surfaces aren’t very accommodating. There are streams to be crossed, boulder patches to be negotiated and herds of sheep to be tackled. Drive to enjoy the land you’ll be passing through rather than keeping to a timetable. Tank up to the brim at the Sood and Company Petrol Pump in Manali. This BPCL fuel station stocks all premium fuels and accepts credit cards. You’ll be doing about 210km in mostly the first and second gear, so if your car doesn’t have a 200km range in these conditions, then do carry spare fuel. Also carry an extra spare wheel. Be warned that if you’re running tubeless tyres, there is no place you can repair a puncture. It is advisable to carry two spare tubes which can be fitted into the 'flat' tyres as a last resort. Manali to Chandra Tal: 130km.

The tripmeter has been set on the east bank of the Beas at the main bridge across the river. So, if you’re facing the road to Rohtang, the river will be on your left. (The figures indicated in brackets by each direction is the height in metres at that point.)

  • 1.2 Right T-junction. Continue straight. Right to Vashist.
  • 8.7 Palchan Village (2241m).
  • 9.3 Fork on road. Bear right towards Rohtang. Left goes to Solang Nallah.
  • 12.5 Kothi Village.
  • 20.6 Gulaba (2782m).
  • 21.6 Rahalla Falls (2944m).
  • 33.6 Marhi - dhabas and restaurants - is a good place to breakfast (3208m).
  • 50.2 Rohtang Pass (3820m).
  • 64.3 Gramphu. Right T-junction. Turn right for Chandra Tal and Kaza. Straight goes to Keylong and Leh Note: The road is now unsealed. Be careful especially while crossing streams.
  • 81.4 Chattru. Dhabas here. Sample the lemon tea with honey, the omelettes along with freshly baked chapattis (3272m).
  • 82.1 PWD Rest House, Chattru.
  • 98.6 Chotta Dara. Dhaba here serves good masala tea (3651m).
  • 113.7 Batal - number of dhabas here. The climb up to the mighty Kunzum La starts here (3889m).
  • 116.5 Fork. Left goes to Chandra Tal 13km away and right goes to Kunzum La. Bear left for Chandra Tal (3975m). Note: The 13km road to Chandra Tal is supposed to be only for 4WD vehicles. But all cars with reasonable ground clearance will be able to traverse this road. The trick to driving this road is to be very careful.
  • 118.5 You are now at 4000 metres above Mean Sea Level -13,124 feet!
  • 129.7 Chandra Tal (4152m). Chandra Tal to Kaza: (83.6km) The tripmeter has been reset at the fork (at 116.5km above) on the road from Losar to Kunzum La.
  • 9.2 Kunzum La. Remember to negotiate the Chortens (Buddhist prayer stones) in a clockwise direction (4320m).
  • 11.4 Caution! Very weak bridge.
  • 26.3 Tarmac begins (3954m).
  • 26.6 Police checkpost - Losar. Car and driver details have to be entered here.
  • 27.4 Losar PWD Rest House.
  • 76.5 Rangrik town.
  • 80.8 Bridge over Spiti river ending in T-junction. Turn right for Kaza. Left goes to Ki and Kibber.
  • 83.6 Banjara Kaza Resort. Note: The fuel station at Kaza is not a 24-hour one. In fact, its timings are arbitrary. Top up as soon as you get there and then top up again once before your return trip. The pump is open only for half a day on Sunday and shuts by 7pm on weekdays.

This should be ‘on the dirt’ actually because that’s the surface you’ll be driving on for most of the time. The views are fascinating and the road bumpy. Remember to start early from Manali. The road to Rohtang gets very crowded as hordes of holiday-makers head to the pass for a picnic. This translates into serpentine jams on the winding mountain road and the start-and-stop routine spells doom for the clutch. And a strong clutch is something you will definitely need on the roads ahead. While there is enough room at most places to let oncoming vehicles to pass side-by-side, there might be times when you’ll need to back up to a wider place. Remember that the 12km ‘road’ to Chandra Tal is hardly more than a wide walking track on which the Innova we drove just about fit. There was absolutely no room on either side. We were fortunate to meet the one car we passed in the opposite direction at the only place where the road widens onto a broad plain. The last kilometre to the lake has narrow hairpin corners where you might need to back up to get around. It is advisable to ask one of the passengers to step out and guide you as the road shoulders are crumbly and the drops long.

Besides being the obvious residence of holy beings, Spiti leaves the visitor spellbound, thanks to its stark mountainous and rugged landscape. This is the perfect locale to witness the effects of wind and glacial erosion, the land having being shaped by these two powerful forces. It still possible to see the valleys and the rock formations created during the ice age.

Camping at Chandra Tal The recent construction of the road right till the lake makes it more convenient to visit but we fear this will also spell doom for it. At present, there are no dhabas, permanent structures, or garbage and the lake is picture-postcard perfect. It is up to visitors to ensure that it remains pristine. Imagine hotels and restaurants coming up here! Also, burn or bury biodegradable garbage and carry away what cannot be destroyed. Chandra Tal is at a height of 4,152 metres and you need to get acclimatised before reaching there. It is definitely not advisable to drive straight from Manali to Chandra Tal. You will certainly be hit by AMS (acute mountain sickness) and won’t enjoy your stay. We suggest you camp the first night en route, either at Chotta Dara or Batal as both have fabulous campsites. Alternatively, you can also stay in the dhabas.

There are also gentle walks in the area where you can gradually get used to the high altitude. If you wish to enhance the quality of your stay at the lake, it helps to hire the services of a trekking agency.They will probably send a cook and a helper along. This twosome will select suitable campsites, pitch tents and cook for you, thereby ensuring you enjoy a relaxed and truly rejuvenating holiday in the lap of the gods. Here's how you can work out the logistics. Ask the agency to prepare a kit for you including all provisions, utensils, stove and kerosene. All you need to bring along is a sleeping bag. You can then take the kit with you in your car and the cook and helper can take the bus to the place where you decide to spend the first night. You will just have to take them along from this place to Chandra Tal and then from Chandra Tal to Batal where they can hop onto a bus back to Manali. You can then drop off the kit in Manali when you return from Kaza. Alternatively, you can hire a car for the guide and the cook and the kit but this would be considerably more expensive. In addition to the charges to the camping agency, do remember to generously tip the cook and the helper as they work really hard in that high altitude and cold clime.

A recommended agency is: Natural Travels
Muneer Suri (Micky)
Mobile: 09816045725
Tel: 01902-245125/245725
email: surimuneer@yahoo.co.uk

Kaza This town, surrounded by rugged mountains and bordered by the vast basin of the Spiti river, is the district headquarters of the Spiti district. It is a good place to base yourself for a five-day stay . However, remember to get used to the height before attempting any serious excursions.

Ki, Kibber and Tashi Gang Twelve kilometres to the north of Kaza is the fabulous Ki Monastery. Dramatically built on the summit of a hill, it looks straight out of a fairytale complete with a winding driveway up to its entrance. Located at a height of 4,112m, this gompa is the most important one in the region and counts amongst its treasures some ancient Buddhist texts as well as five-metre-long musical horns that are brought out on festive occasions, their notes resounding across the valley. Kibber at a height of 4,205m was the highest road-connected village in the world until a few years ago. Subsequently, a new road was constructed to link Gete and then Tashi Gang which are higher. Kibber has a gorgeous amphitheatre-like setting and as it is contained within a depression with no inhabitation around, it attracts birds and other fauna. A local also told us of a recent snow leopard sighting. The sleepy hamlets of Gete and Tashi Gang are worth visiting for the views they afford. However, the drive there is harsh with broken roads and sharp rocks strewn across.

Dankar Gompa This 1,300-year-old Gompa seems precariously perched as it is built entirely on large stalagmites formed by wind and glacial erosion. Honestly, I was a little apprehensive visiting this place of worship, thinking that it would come tumbling down any moment. But then it has survived 1,300 years… The visuals from its terrace are astounding. Huge mountains with the Spiti river meandering by their bases make a heavenly sight.

Tabo Forty kilometres down the road lies Tabo, which also houses a very important Gompa; it is the one the Dalai Lama was going to retire to until recently. Then at the hilltop village of Gyu is a monastery with the mummified remains of a child. This mummy is worshipped and is not a site for people with weak stomachs. Text & Photography: Rishad Saam Mehta.



Hotel Chandra Tal
Run by the Gurungs, this cozy guesthouse is an ideal hideaway in Manali. Being housed within the premises of the Mountaineering Institute on the east bank of the Beas, there is no hustle bustle or the cacophony found in other hotels in Manali. The food is home-cooked, the hosts charming and gracious, and the views from each room refreshing.
Contact: Madhu Gurung
Ph: 09816093122

Both these places have Banjara Camps & Retreats properties, so you really don’t need to look elsewhere. Both the resorts have clean rooms, comfortable beds and guests are provided with quilts and blankets during cold nights. The food is wholesome and varied, especially the breakfast spread. What’s more, on an advance request, they will even serve the local delicacies — tastebud-tingling momos and thungpa.

For bookings contact:
Banjara Camps & Retreats Pvt Ltd 1A, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110 016 Phone 011-2686 1397, 26855153, 09810040397 Telefax 91-11-2685 5152 Email: info@banjaracamps.com, banjara@vsnl.com http://www.banjaracamps.com

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