Abhishek ventures to Spiti valley on a road trip, only to realize that he doesn’t really want to come back to “civilisation.”
An absolute sense of calm engulfs us, as silence is broken only by prayer flags fluttering in the wind, while monks chant blessings on us. Just close your eyes a moment and imagine this scene. Welcome to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, perhaps one of the few places in the country that is still untouched for the most part – barren mountains that are covered in snow for the better part of the year and no real roads, as tarmac is scarce in this part of the country. In fact, you could say that time stands still in this part of the world, where the primary source of livelihood for the local population is agriculture. The concept of poor isn’t really valid here, as everyone seems to have the same sort of houses, wear the same sort of clothes and eat the same sort of food. As for beggars, well there weren’t any in the Lahaul and Spiti region. And that says a lot about a place I think.
Because of its high altitude and heavy snowfall, the Spiti Valley is cut off from the rest of the world for about eight months of the year. This isolation could very well be one of the reasons for the parity in this region, since it’s literally its own little world. So it’s not just the solitude and sanctity of nature that absolutely spoil you in the Lahaul and Spiti region, it’s also the peaceful nature of the people that makes your journey a very special one.
As you drive past the majestic Karcham Wangtoo hydroelectric plant on the Sutlej River, you suddenly feel as though you’re entering another world as the tarmac roads come to an end, traffic is non-existent and the intense green surroundings of Himachal Pradesh almost disappear completely.
The roads get narrower, and we cross signboards that read, “You are travelling on the world’s most treacherous roads.” By now, we’re driving on narrow mountain passes carved out of jagged rock faces – all the while wondering when a big lorry is going to come around the bend and leave us with no room to manoeuvre whatsoever.
Thanks to Hari Singh’s team, who were managing the third edition of the Mahindra Spiti Escape, we didn’t face any such problems. And I have to say that they did a flawless job throughout the expedition to ensure that our 20+ Mahindra SUV convoy moved around these treacherous parts in perfect harmony.
But, backtracking a bit, our first proper stop in Himachal Pradesh was just past the town of Sangla in a beautiful Apple Orchard – called, quite simply, the Apple Orchard Farm and Camping. Nestled in a valley with the river flowing in front of it, this really is the perfect place for a getaway. There’s a fair bit of greenery around Sangla and Chitkul. So, as we plucked apples from trees and gorged on them, all was well with the world.
But Spiti lay in wait and after a day of lazing around we hit the road once again for Nako. En route, we came across the inevitable landslide. But thanks to the BRO’s earth-moving equipment, the road was open again within the hour. This was our first glimpse at the dedication required to keep the roads functioning in these parts, where BRO employees literally risk their lives on a daily basis to keep the roads open.
As we started climbing higher, the Scorpio was beginning to feel strained due to the reduced oxygen at this altitude. But both man and machine soldiered on, and soon enough we were at the village of Nako at an elevation 12,014 feet. The weather, as expected, is rather extreme. As you’re closer to the sun at this altitude, the sun’s rays are rather warm.
The next morning, we were up and assembled outside the monastery at Nako where monks blessed us for the journey that lay ahead of us. By now, greenery was long left behind and it was just barren brown mountain ranges on all sides and an absolutely clear blue sky. And rocks, lots of rocks! Our Mahindra Scorpio’s were running new Ceat Czar H/T tyres on test, and they suffered some sidewall punctures – eight to be precise. But, while everyone was being a bit sceptical about these new Ceats, someone went and punctured the sidewall of one of the Maxxis tyres too. So it’s not as much about the tyre as it is about how careful you are while driving on this terrain. Thankfully, the Ceats on my Scorpio survived the entire trip – so they can’t be all that bad.
By now, the Scorpio’s suspension was working overtime to deal with the road undulations – and I realized that the new model feels quite a bit stiffer than the older car. I also noticed that the older Scorpio seemed to have better low-end torque, so I sneaked into one of these instead for the rest of the journey. The older car moves around a lot more in terms of body movement, but you feel as though you’re part of the car pretty quickly.
So, with the windows down and with CCR’s Up Around The Bend playing on the stereo, I found myself in a nice groove while driving around countless hairpin bends with the Scorpio kicking up quite a dust storm over these gravel roads. In fact, I was enjoying my drive so much that I was a little disappointed when we pulled into Kaza eventually. The hotel we were staying at was located a little outside of the town itself, and was quite isolated. Situated right in the middle of the valley from where all you can see are mountains all around you, with not a single house or person in sight, it feels like you’re literally living in the middle of nowhere. Not a bad place to be then.
There are quite a few places to go in-and-around Kaza, which include the world’s post office in Hikkim and the highest fuel pump in the world in Kaza. There’s also the Kye monastery, which is the largest monastery in Spiti. The air is so clean here that you can see the moon even at midday. It’s tough getting right to the top, but with four-wheel drive, our Scorpios had no trouble climbing steep and slippery slopes despite the lack of oxygen.
Later that day, back at the hotel, armed with a cup of piping hot tea, I walked out onto the vast plains around our hotel. There, in the middle of nowhere, breathing absolutely fresh air, and with no signal on my phone, I realized just how fortunate I was to be there.
Sure, the Ladakh region has better views from the high passes, but Spiti is still untouched. It’s still got its own essence, without noisy tourists littering with every step. For me, Spiti is another world – one that truly believes in peace and harmony. It’s a world that stays apart from the rest of the planet for most of the year and reveals itself in all its glory for just a few. This, in itself, is quite charming.