Author: Ravi Kailas
Breathtaking (a touch of altitude sickness induced pun intended), the apt adjective for my visit to the high altitude, the trans-Himalayan cold desert region of Spiti, in September last year. As is typical on my trips, the focus was on the region\’s wildlife and I had great hopes for plenty of Himalayan Ibex and Blue Sheep sightings, and perhaps of a glimpse or two of Siberian Weasel and Stone Marten disappearing behind a boulder or the like, as well as a marmots and pikas, likely favoured prey of the aforementioned mustelids. And there are Snow Leopard here too (still hunting Bharal and Ibex, on the treacherous higher slopes though, at this time of the year), among the best places on Earth to see these big cats, and Tibetan Wolf, but I did not entertain realistic hopes of seeing either. As it turned out, I did see Blue Sheep aplenty, a distant herd of Himalayan Ibex and Red Fox, but surprisingly no pikas or marmots (so abundant in neighbouring Ladakh) and no stone martens and weasels, despite trying in the appropriately rock strewn slopes along streams of snow-melt. Birdlife was a lot quieter, both in abundance and diversity, than expected (in comparison to the riches of Ladakh, albeit that visit in July – so likely that many of the summer visitors to the trans-Himalayan region had already left), with only Lammergeier, European Goldfinch, Himalayan Griffon, Eurasian Kestrel, Common Buzzard, Rock Bunting, Hill Pigeon, Brown Dipper, both Choughs, Indian Blue Robin, Eurasian Crag Martin, Blue Rock Thrush, Chukar, Bluethroat, Desert Wheatear, Tickell\s Leaf Warbler and a handful of others on view (including from Spiti and from entry and exit routes via Manali and Simla respectively). There were also a a handful of butterflies and a species of skink, active in the mid-afternoon heat, in meadows as high as 4600m. The landscape of the Spiti Valley is as spectacular as it is stark, scoured by wind and eponymous Spiti River, resulting in dramatic relief, packed into a small area – a microcosm of neighbouring Ladakh, where such drama is interspersed with gentler, vast open plains. The transparent, star-studded skies that this region is known for, however, eluded for much of the visit, marred by fast moving clouds or worse, barring a couple of nights, when the heavens shone from above. Then there are ancient Buddhist monasteries, oasis of serenity in the, harsh windswept landscape, among the treasures to savour in this region, along with its natural history riches and spectacular landscapes. Six (when two of them are sub-optimally spent nursing headaches and nausea) nights in Spiti, is not nearly enough to explore and appreciate this vast landscape and its unique wildlife and this trip, was, I imagine, just a precursor to a few more to this region. This visit to Spiti also reminded me of the potential unpredictability of travel through a \’Himalayan\’ wilderness, where travel times are dictated not just by distances, the raw beauty that mesmerises you to linger longer than you planned (or wise) or the automobile at your disposal, but also the unexpected twists that put you are at the mercy of nature for a safe and timely passage and Spiti is perhaps one of the few nooks left in the world, where mother Earth is still the steward of such matters, even deep into the 21st century.
18th to 26th September 2019
Manali Wildlife Sanctuary (from Manali); Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary (from Chicham Village & Key); Pin Valley NP (from Tabo)
Day 1: Arriving a day earlier, by road (8 hrs, busy road, nice scenery after Kullu) from Chandigarh, an altitude acclimatisation day in Manali (1900m) for the 4000m plus days ahead in Spiti, with a side visit to the Manali Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary, difficult to locate (Google Maps, helped broadly, and the rest was walking around in the vicinity and stumbling across a sign pointing to a bridle path into the sanctuary) turned out to be an extent of Deodhar (a type of conifer) forest on the fringes of the town. Arriving there around 7 AM on a cool but sunny morning, and walking a trail for about 2 hours, turned out to be productive for Indian Blue Robin, Yellow-breasted Greenfinch, Bar-tailed Tree Creeper, Scaly-bellied & Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Spot-winged & Green-backed Tits, Yellow-billed Blue Magpie, Black-throated Thrush and Rock Bunting, among a handful of butterflies and (the ubiquitous around Manali) Kashmir Rock Agama basking in the warming morning sun. Much of this bird activity was concentrated around a little stream, where the forest opened out into meadows and bordered a rural landscape of apple orchards, overgrown with wild shrubs.
Manali, at least in the lean tourist season when I visited, was unlike most other overwhelmingly crowded, but otherwise underwhelming, Indian hill stations, located, superbly, in a valley where the refreshingly glacial meltwater coloured Beas River is a constant companion, and surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks rising above forested hill slopes.
Day 2: An early start (0535, negotiated from 0430 with my driver, who was worried about potential traffic snarls at Rohtang Pass), on a cool, clear morning, towards the village of Chicham in the heart of the Spiti Valley. The initial part of the drive through montane forest in the valley, climbing into the alpine meadows, with views of jagged snow capped peaks and waterfall infested slopes, while approaching the 4000m Rohtang Pass, was botanically interesting for a number of wild flowers on display (in the meadows especially) and a handful of birds including Himalayan Griffon, Red-billed Chough, Brown Dipper, Upland Pipit and White-capped Water Redstart among them. Although we did not connect the dots then, the fast developing misty clouds, within touching distance from the road leading to the pass, as the morning warmed, seemed to be a sign of changing weather in the region.
Reached the pass, completely snow-free at this time of the year, around 0815, in time for a breakfast of aloo paratha and tea (Punjab’s influence extends beyond its plains!), before entering an increasingly sparsely vegetated, Trans-Himalayan landscape, greeted by bright sun and the deepest blue skies imaginable. A little beyond ahead of the pass, the dirt road leading to Spiti bifurcates from the one leading to the Lahaul Valley and Ladakh beyond. Views here of the icy blue Chenab River, carving its way through sparsely vegetated slopes that rise above the valley we traverse, along a road that is reasonably road-car worthy but for a handful of crossings of mountain streams that blend into the road (even these were negotiated adroitly by locals in their puny Suzuki’s), which, however, promised to be a sterner test for man (I mean human, for those sensitive to these things) and machine at other times of the year. This stretch leading from the Rohtang to beyond the Kunzum Pass (4500m), about a 5 plus hr drive, was also quite isolated, barring sparse traffic and from where I have very little recollection of any settlements of note. Lunch was at a Dhaba at the turn-off to Chandra Tal, the first significant settlement for a while, and well stocked with such incongruous ‘goodies’ like packed potato chips, instant noodles etc to go with the (not quite) local fare of rajma-chawal and aloo gobi. From here it is a descent into the scenic, relatively populated Spiti Valley, onto better roads (tarmac after the village of Losar), and an ascent into the dramatic Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, best known for its regular Snow Leopard sightings in winter, before reaching the charming village of Chicham (4200m) at 1630, duly tired from the bone rattling long drive and the effects of thinner air. Sadly though, despite a motivated occupant looking keenly, there were only a handful of relatively common birds, including Blue Rock Thrush, Alpine Chough, Black Redstart, Common Buzzard and Eurasian Kestrel and no mammals, to go with the dramatic scenery.
The next thing I remember was the drama of the Milky Way rising above the barren mountains around Chicham, as seem from my (comfortable) bedroom window at the Nomad’s Cottage – my host for the next three nights – on a cold, windy night.
Day 3: A fitful night duly followed by that dreaded combination of altitude induced headache and nausea in the morning. Dragged myself though, with the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary at my doorstep, for a short excursion to a dramatic gorge that divides the Kibber and Chicham villages. The drive upto the new bridge across the gorge and a few minutes taking in the raw beauty of the chasm – the sheer sides of which are known to be regular sites for Snow Leopard and their prey – produced only Eurasian Crag Martin and Black Redstart on this cloudy, windy morning. Later, mid-morning, looking from the balcony at Nomad’s Cottage, a distant herd of Himalayan Ibex traversing the upper slopes on the far side of the gorge and a pair of Lammergeier riding the thermals in the relative warmth of the late morning, as I sipped on warm water infused with garlic – a local cure for altitude sickness as suggested by the landlady.
Later that afternoon, an excursion back to the gorge, adjacent to the slope we had seen Ibex earlier, in hope of more and photo opportunities, turned out very quiet, with only Lammergeier and Hill Pigeon on show. After an hour or so looking here, a drive to the edge of the sanctuary boundary, towards Losar, presented an opportunity to appreciate the dramatic path that the Spiti River had carved through the landscape from high ground, but did nothing to improve wildlife sighting luck, with only Eurasian Kestrel and Desert Wheatear among the spartan birdlife on show.
Day 4: A cloudy, cold, windy start to the morning, and evidently snowing in the upper slopes – a bit of weather that we seemed to have brought with us from Rohtang Pass a couple of days ago, and, according to the locals, a precursor to their harsh winter. While the village was a scene of frantic activity to stock up for the winter, we had other mundane problems and had to drive to Kaza, the district headquarters, about an hour out to fix a puncture. An opportunistic, delicious breakfast at Hotel Deyzor, where the friendly host turned out to be a walking encyclopaedia on the Spiti’s natural history. Upon his advice, we headed back towards Kibber WLS and onto to the ‘Tashigang Meadows’ named of the eponymous village, reputedly the highest permanent settlement (4650m) in Spiti. The couple of hours spent driving around barely traversed dirt road through these high altitude meadows, with a smattering of light snow, heavier winds, and heady views of the valley and surrounding mountains, with eyes peeled for Tibetan Wolf (a known site for the species), proved productive for two herds of Blue Sheep, one comprising exclusively of adult males, and modest birdlife, all seen earlier in the trip, barring the addition of a very skittish Bluethroat around a marsh. There were also a few butterflies active in meadows – a pleasing multi-hued scene, when viewed from afar, contrasting against a dark topsoil (which seemed characteristic of these high altitude slopes). The extensive, undisturbed grasslands here, and pockets of standing water suggests excellent habitat for fauna and given sufficient time looking, should be productive for a variety of wildlife, characteristic of this region.
PM activity, with a drive towards Losar to the boundary of Kibber WLS, and productiveness (or lack of) akin to previous evening and barring the addition of the attractive European Goldfinch from around the village, not especially noteworthy for any sightings.
Day 5: Acting, once again on the (good) advice from our breakfast host from the previous day, we spent the morning exploring high altitude (upto 4600m) meadows, in a loop from Kaza, via Komic and Demul, hoping especially for Stone Marten, the mix of habitat here inclusive of rock strewn slopes and streams, in addition to the meadows that resembled the ones at the Tashigang from the previous morning. The largely undisturbed, habitat, barring a couple of small settlements, a few nomadic herdsmen and their cattle, promised a productive day for wildlife, on what turned out to be a clear, sunny, even warm, window of weather. These expectations were met to an extent, with four large herds of Bharal and a trio of Red Fox in a seemingly playful display of chasing each other around a marsh, a still modest birdlife which included, Horned Lark and Robin Accentor as additions to the trip list, butterfly activity similar to previous morning and even a species of skink (Mabuya sp.?), revelling in the relative warmth of day, at 4600m!
Reached the accommodation, located on the banks of the Spiti River and close to the Key Monastery, late in the afternoon and the early part of the evening was spent on a brief visit to the spartan monastery, ravaged by weather and wars, in its 1000 year history (imagine this landscape a 1000 years ago, almost entirely disconnected from rest of the world, a planet unto itself for all practical purposes!). The rest of the evening was spent savouring the sun going down and the core of the Milky Way rising from behind snow-capped peaks, from the windy banks of the Spiti River.
Day 6: A latish start to the morning for the final leg of the journey, with an aside at the Pin Valley National Park, before exiting the Spiti valley via Tabo. Reached the borders of the Pin Valley NP after about a 2 hr drive from from Key, on a bright, sunny morning. The drive from the park entrance to the village of Mudd, where the road car worthy road ends, provided some great views of glacially scoured mountains, adorned with multi-hued vegetation/soil (mostly of yellows and reds), but no noteworthy wildlife from along along the road, which only traverses partial wilderness, via a series of small villages along the Pin River. This park, as I understand, is best explored on foot, but there was no time to do justice to that effort on this brief visit to Spiti.
From the NP, it was onwards to the town of Tabo (3000m) arriving early evening, but not before our first sighting of Chukar on the trip and another Kashmir Agama, basking in the intense late afternoon sun, en-route. Later that evening, a visit to the ancient Tabo Monastery, which while not as richly adorned as some of the others in Ladakh, is among the most spiritually enticing – with an indescribable vibration – that I have entered into (especially the old prayer hall). Later that night, a couple of hours spent, observing and photographing a wonderfully transparent night sky, the first one completely clear of clouds on this trip, from a dark helicopter landing area, adjacent to town, but not before wolfing down a delicious, juicy with tahini & fresh veggies, falafel sandwich for dinner.
Day 7: The day was spent exploring the banks Spiti River, a few kilometres out of Tabo, starting in a boulder strewn area, where we had seen the Chukar the previous evening. Once again, this turned up only modest results for wildlife, with no mammals and only a handful of birds, including Chukar, Tickell’s leaf warbler, skulking in the clumpy bushes along a rivulet (summer breeder here?) and Rock Bunting, to show for the effort. The landscape too changes around Tabo, with a few more trees around villages, and more vegetation around water, but the slopes, seemingly more barren and arid, and less dramatic than around Kibber. The evening though, turned out rather more satisfying, with the night sky’s splendours showing through transparent skies, once again.
Day 8: A longish travel day to the hill station town of Kalpa (6-8 hr drive estimated from Tabo), turned out even longer thanks to a landslide near the town of Spillo, where we spent 6.5 hrs in the vehicle waiting for the typically efficient Border Roads Organisation, to clear the debris from the road. For a while there, though, it appeared as though the rubble, constantly replenished with loose soil and rock, falling from the adjacent slope, – this stretch road along the Sutlet River, reputedly especially prone to landslides and, scarily, shooting stones – would prove insurmountable, but success at the cusp of sunset, much to the relief of the long line of vehicles (and some hardy long distance cyclists!) waiting to cross. On the other side, at Spillo, the best roadside samosa, its quality rating, (very) likely questionable, given that this was my first bite of food since breakfast, some 10 hrs earlier. Earlier in the day, the climb on some of the diciest mountain roads, narrow, with sheer drops, to Nako from Tabo, and the equally hairy descent into the valley where the Spiti River confluences with the Sutlej.
Day 9: Another travel day, this time from Kalpa, all the way to Chandigarh, via Shimla, with very little time to look around, given the distances to cover. A pity, having already been deprived of an evening here with delay from the landslide, considering there was healthy extent of coniferous forest around Kalpa, and excellent Himalayan views. On the descent, along the Sutlej, going past its confluence with the Baspa River, the lure of the Sangla Valley up-river ….
Road Travel & Associated:
While the original plan was the retrace from Pin Valley (staying in the village of Mudd as against Tabo) to Manali, upon the suggestion of my driver, Rakesh (+91 85804 87591, safe driver and an experienced hand in these parts), I decided to travel the loop and exit via Simla, which despite the longer distance, offers better (not necessarily safer) roads that the Manali-Spiti stretch. While mine was way too rushed to savour all the natural delights en-route, I would spend more time at Kibber and surroundings, Pin Valley, Kalpa and planned a visit to the Sangla Valley in a 15-20 day itinerary, if I were doing this circuit in the future. While the Manali to Spiti Valley route is scenically spectacular, it is only open for a few months every year, its dirt roads and high passes, closed for traffic in winter. The route via Nako, however, is open through the year and is the only conduit available for tourists arriving in winter for Snow Leopards around Kibber.
While not the most economical nor eco-friendly option of travel available, given the logistics involved (travel distances, time and road conditions), I hired a Mahindra Xylo (ground clearance an important consideration for tackling sections of the road from Manali into Spiti Valley) from Manali to Chandigarh for this trip (rates about 10% higher than what you would expect to pay while hiring in less inhospitable terrain).
While Spiti has (and has had for a few years now) a regular influx of tourists, this is still a remote region and takes considerable time and effort to get in and out of. Mobile connectivity (no/poor data when I visited, but that was due to change in 2020, I understood) is limited, especially in the Kibber area, as along the route from Manali. Things start getting a bit more ‘civilised’ in the Kaza-Tabo stretch, with some modern conveniences (ATM, fuel station, falafel sandwiches, mobile connectivity, puncture shops) at hand.
Chicham Village (for Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary): I stayed at the comfortably furnished, quaintly located, Nomad’s Cottage, with superb views of the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary from its rooftop (I understand Snow Leopards have been seen from here, but I only saw Ibex from this perch. Also convenient for astrophotography and clear nights here can be quite spectacular). While the top portion of the house, where I was hosted is marketed by an outsider, the place belongs to a kindly local family, who also have a few rooms available as part of a homestay option.
Key Monastery: While I was originally scheduled to stay in Kaza (at Hotel Deyzor) for this night, an oversight in the booking process meant that I had to break journey somewhere towards Tabo, but still within touching distance of Kibber WLS. The charmingly located Spiti Village Resort, kindly arranged for free by the gentleman who owns Hotel Deyzor, on the very windy banks of the Spiti River, was the host for one night and as it turned it a comfortable affair in their cozy cottages with modern amenities and restaurant which served a mix of Indian and global cuisine.
Tabo: In an ideal world, I would have spent these two nights at the Tara Homestay in Mudd (no availability on those dates), but instead ended at a the Hotel Maitreya, close to the Tabo Monastery. Nothing to complain though, about this modern hotel with comfortably furnished rooms, cozily insulated from the elements, and overall good value for money. Do try the Falafel sandwich at Tiger’s Den, if you are ever in Tabo.