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Walking on a frozen lake in Spiti Valley

Our six-day adventurous trip to Winter Spiti begins. Trecherous roads, out-worldly views and snow-capped mountains make for a perfect start.
Walking on a frozen lake in Spiti Valley

Prologue

For me, traveling has always been about the road less taken. In winters, most people go to Manali, Shimla or other such lower Himalayan regions. For us, these were just overnight halts!

Spiti Valley is probably the only place in upper Himalayan cold desert regions that is accessible even in winters. In summers, roads are mostly good and easily accessible with any car. However, in winters, the situation changes drastically. Temperatures can plummet to -30 degrees, black-ice on roads makes them extremely slippery, and chances of heavy snowfall and landslides are pretty high. Any sane person would not dare to try this route in winters, especially not self-drive there. For me and my wife however, the aura of the heavenly beauty of the valley covered in snow was too high to be feared by all the risks associated with taking this trip. It took almost a year of pre-planning and months of research and wait to finally execute this trip! And, for sure, this will remain the most memorable trips of our life for a long time!

Thick blanket of snow covers villages in Spiti Valley in winters
Thick blanket of snow covers villages in Spiti Valley in winters

Planning

Spiti Valley in winters had been on our bucket list for a very long time. In April last year, when we were buying our new car, our main criteria was, "Will we be able to do this trip in that car?" We even asked the same question on Team-BHP forum too. We ended up buying Duster AWD. It was not as good an option as the likes of Thar, Compass or Fortuner. However, it was the only one that checked the most boxes for us.

Fast-forward January 2019. It had been only 3 months since we had done our first Spiti Valley trip in October and I had already started planning for our return in winters. I used to see temperatures in Kaza almost every day, which were averaging below -30 degrees in January. This is the peak time of winters there. Since this was going to be our first trip in winters and we had no experience in driving in such terrains, we decided to not dare this trip in the peak time of the season.

By late February, temperatures had started rising. It was still very cold. However, we had started gathering all the necessary items, so that, we are ready to go whenever there is a perfect window of opportunity. Good winter jackets, woolen socks, food items stocks, snow chains, and emergency gas stove were some important items. We even had a good number of blankets packed, so that, in case we get stuck somewhere overnight, we could just sleep in the car in that extreme cold.

February ended and March started - and we started getting feeling - "If not this time then will have to wait for one whole year!!!" In March temperatures are still way below zero degrees, but not as much as the previous two months. They lie somewhere between -10 to -20 degrees. Roads are comparatively less dangerous and snow is relatively less. Also, Holi was coming in the second week of March. The Corona Virus pandemic hadn't hit India yet. We enquired a couple of homestay in Spiti and they said that roads were open and we can come easily. So, we, finally decided that we will go for it!

Itinerary

So, we had two plans on our cards. First one was for the case if there was snowfall in Shimla and we could travel lesser during the day. Problem with this was that we had to take a halt at Nako, which we wanted to avoid as it is extremely cold there. The second was when everything was okay and we could reach Jeori so that we could reach till Tabo the second day.

Plan 1

  • Day 1: Delhi to Narkanda
  • Day 2: Narkanda to Nako
  • Day 3: Nako to Kaza
  • Day 4: Kaza / Ki / Langza / Kibber
  • Day 5: Kaza to Pin Valley
  • Day 7: Pin Valley to Recong Peo
  • Day 8: Recong Peo to Delhi/Shima

Plan 2

  • Day 1 (8th March): Gurgaon → Shimla → Jeori - 570km - 12 hr 24 min
  • Day 2 (9th March): Jeori → Nako → Tabo - 213 km - 6 hr 18 min
  • Day 3 (10th March): Tabo → Dhankar → Kaza - 48.1 km - 53 min
  • Day 4 (11th March): Kaza → Ki → Langza → Kibber
  • Day 5 (12th March): Kaza → Rangrik → Other places
  • Day 6 (13th March): Kaza → Kalpa - 197 km - 5 hr 16 min
  • Day 7 (14th March): Kalpa → Shimla → Gurgaon

Day 1 : Gurgaon to Jeori

Ride on the first day was pretty straight forward. We left around 4 AM, keeping in mind that snowfall anywhere could delay us. We had breakfast at Amrik Sukhdev in Moorthal. We encountered some snowfall in Shimla with some slippery roads, which were easily crossed in Duster. We had lunch in Narkanda at a local Dhaba. It was a Sunday, so, many hotels were closed. Also, it was quite cold there. When we were outside in sunlight, it was comfortable. As soon as we entered the dhaba, we were shivering in cold. Water was too cold to wash hands and even drink. God, we had started thinking if this was condition here, what would be in Tabo?

After Narkanda, we didn't find any snowfall. We reached Jeori around 4.30 PM.

Magnificent view of Sutlej river after crossing Narkanda
Magnificent view of Sutlej river after crossing Narkanda

Day 2: Jeori to Tabo

Here is the vlog of this trip:

Jeori to Tabo is about 7 hours according to Google Maps. However, you could not blindly trust Google Maps' estimate on such roads. Add to that ongoing highway construction by BRO. So, we had planned to leave as early as possible, so that we had ample buffer time even if we got stuck somewhere.

We were up around 5 AM. We had a bath, because we knew our next bath would be only when we come back here. All in all, we were moving by 7 AM.

We refuelled at Tapri, as this was the last petrol pump before Kaza.

We hadn't had breakfast and were feeling extremely hungry. Our first stop was at Spello, where, during our last visit, we had stuck for about 8 hours due to a landslide just ahead. Thankfully, the road was clear this time. We ate paranthas at Himani Bhojnayalaya, the same one where we had been munching the whole day last time, waiting for landslide to clear. They serve very tasty paranthas! Highly recommended. Spello has decent washroom facilities and eating options. Also, note that after this, at most places you will find either dry toilets or no toilets at all. In winters, because of freezing of water, most paces close their toilet facilities. So, you should take a stop here, before heading for Nako.

Delicious butter-laden aalo-paranthas at a dhaba in Spello
Delicious butter-laden aalo-paranthas at a dhaba in Spello

Soon, we were on the road again. As we progressed, the landscape around became more and more barren. You could easily spot snow covered peaks all around, some of whose ridges appeared blurred because of strong winds blowing snow near their peaks. Apart from a few glaciers and a few narrow sections of under construction roads, we did not face any issues while driving. Shooting stones is a big problem on this road, however. You can see a lot of fallen stones on the road as you drive. So, you have to be careful. Don't drive too fast and keep a spotter looking for something fishy falling down. If you see something falling, best is to stop and drive back a few meters an wait for it to stop. We, luckily, weren't hit by anything. The best thing was that it didn't feel like we had been on this road before. The valley had a completely different look from last time!

As we were progressing, we spotted a couple of vehicles observing something with their telescopes by the side of the road. We stopped to see what it was. Guess what - they were Himalayan Ibex! They were far away and we could only see them through our camera zoom lenses. Still, their sight was pretty amazing!

A group of Ibexes gazing on the ridges in Spiti Valley
A group of Ibexes grazing on the ridges in Spiti Valley

Our next stop was Khaab Bridge - which is over the confluence of Sutlej river and Spiti river. Last time we were here after sunset and hence could not see anything. This time, however, no problems at all! The confluence of two mighty rivers coming from distant lands deep in the Himalayas was wonderful to watch. Their water was in purest shade of teal, and we were surrounded by tall mountains all around. The sound of flow of water was music to our ears. We spent some 15-20 minutes there.

Turquoise water of Spiti River at Khaab Bridge
Turquoise water of Spiti River at Khaab Bridge

Till now we had been driving beside Sutlej river, but now we would ride beside the Spiti river and enter Spiti Valley finally. Road after Khaab bridge is like a gateway to heaven! You gain altitude pretty quickly, and as you do, the mountains around you become even more grand and beautiful! The Spiti river becomes more and more distant and the sight of it flowing deep in the valley is something to behold. Snow clad mountains are all around and you will not be devoid of spots to get photos clicked. Moreover, we did not find any issue on the road, especially no black-ice which we feared the most!

Enjoying views on the way to Nako on NH-505
Enjoying views on the way to Nako on NH-505

Soon after climbing Ka - Loops we reached Nako. And that was one of the most beautiful sights we had seen till date. It was almost like landscape had only two colors - white snow and blue sky! We were already awed even though it was just the start of the trip.

As soon as we parked our car and came out, we were approached by this cute kid who was very curious seeing camera in our hand. He very sweetly asked how does it work and wanted to click photo from it. My wife calmly told him how to - and he clicked a pretty sweet photo of her. Satisfied, he hopped away happily. (Don't miss his sweet voice in the video above!)

Photo clicked by him. Nice capture!

Nako has a few spots to visit - Nako lake, Nako prayer wheel, helipad and monastery. However, we were short of time as it was 1 PM already. So, we skipped everything and went to the lake. Nako Lake freezes in winters with a pretty solid sheet of ice - so much so that you can drive motorcycles on it. We however, were not sure if we will find it frozen, as it was March second week and peak winters were gone. Thank god, we were not disappointed. Frozen Nako Lake with a backdrop of snow-clad Himalayas was an insanely beautiful sight. Totally a wallpaper material! We spend about an hour there enjoying the views and getting photos clicked.

Out-worldly view of snow covered Nako
Out-worldly view of Nako 

It was 2 PM already. As sun sets, even around 4 - 5 PM it starts getting at bit cold. Also, we hadn't booked any hotels, so hunting for that in Tabo was also on cards. Our plan was to go to the homestay we had stayed during our last visit and hope that it was available.

So, we continued our journey. We made entry at Sumdo check-post and later crossed the tri-junction, one of which goes to Gue village. As expected, the views around were completely different from last time. Firstly, sun was quite low already, so many parts of the valley were in shadow. All the tree cover, which was in bright colors of autumn, was now dry and dead-brown. Color of Spiti river was clear as usual. Snow could be seen at some-places along the river, but nothing on the road as such. And yes, how can we forget the snow-clad peaks all around! There was a sense of calmness in driving on that road. We were alone, only accompanied by sounds of nature. Journey, however, ended a little too soon and we reached Tabo at around 5 PM.

Surprisingly, it was quite dark already. Sun was hiding behind the tall mountains around and infamous bone-chilling winds of Tabo had started blowing. At noon, our duster was showing temperature of 20 degrees, and now it was 0 degrees already!!!

Beautiful sunset at Tabo
Beautiful sunset at Tabo

We went straight to Phonstook homestay. He recognised us straightway, but unfortunately, his homestay was full. Still, he invited us inside for a cup of tea, and meanwhile tried to arrange a room for us somewhere else.

In the end, we settled for While Lotus homestay. It was a bit expensive, around Rs 1200 per person, but it had quite decent facilities, including electric bedding!!

By the time we unloaded our luggage and freshened up, it was 8 PM already. And man, it was cold!!! Without woolen socks and 3 layers of clothing, we couldn't stay in room, forget what would be condition outside! Owner called us in the dining room for a cup of tea. As soon as we entered it, the warmth of the room embraced us in its comfort. The reason was - tandoor at the centre of the room.

Tandoors are an essential part of Spitian homes, and life without them is impossible in winters. They burn wood inside them which keeps the whole room warm. Interestingly, the wood, without which Tandoor cannot function, isn't found in spiti because there is no vegetation here at all. It needs to be bought from Kinnaur and stockpiled before the onset of winters.

Another important aspect of life in winters is that there is no running water. Before winter starts, all water pipes are emptied and toilets closed. Freezing water would burst them. Only sources of water are huge water storage tanks kept inside homes. These need to filled from time to time with water from river and used judiciously. Because, bringing water from the river is a tough task!

Anyway, it felt so comfortable in that room, that I dozed off for a few minutes waiting for the tea. There were some other people in the homestay, which had come with a travel agency. They were quite surprised that we had driven here ourselves without any help! We chatted with them for sometime, told them about our YouTube channel (which they could not access because there was not network). We had dinner soon, and then went to bed to spend our first harsh-cold night in Spiti.

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