A month in Kinnaur and Spiti – Part 1: Road Trip

Himalayan mountains near Sangla, Himachal Pradesh

This post is a travelogue of a solo month long trip to Kinnaur and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. It started with NW getting really excited about going to the mountains for some reason. I didn’t take it seriously at first because if you go by his grand plans, you’d have seen the whole world. But somehow he was serious this time and roped in G & A from Shimla too. They were as surprised as me and probably believed that NW was still larping about the trip till we landed at their house. I was planning for a longish trip to anywhere a few weeks later and their plan was to go see Chitkul and come back within 3-4 days. Since I didn’t have much time for planning or research, I just packed in some camping gear, camera and other essential stuff and settled on going wherever I end up reaching. I wanted to visit Kinnaur and Spiti in October last year too, but couldn’t go past Shimla or Manali because of corona related travel ban by local villages. It was lifted a few weeks back and I wanted to make most of it.

NW and A doing a movie shoot in snow
NW and A doing a movie shoot in snow

Bus to Shimla was mostly empty and I slept through most of it. We reached G & A’s home in Shimla early morning and rested for a while before leaving in the afternoon with G driving his car with Karnatka number plate. When were were near Chitkul, some Kannadiga people tried talking to him in Kannada but were disappointed. There was some sleet during most of the journey, but nothing serious. NW and A had some fun in the snow though. The drive was mostly uneventful and we reached a place called Bhav Nagar for nightstay around 8-9 pm. We had a bit of trouble locating the sarkari guesthouse as the main approach road was closed due to some construction, darkness and faulty directions but found it after a bit of wandering around.

We woke up the next morning to find that the guesthouse was close to Satluj river with steep mountain cliffs on the other side. Pretty nice view to wake up to and the day was very clear and sunny. G had arranged our stay in a property in Rakcham, around 10 km from Chitkul. Our plan was to reach there around lunchtime, but we changed it a bit to see Kalpa first. We passed Reckong Peo and Kalpa to reach Roghi, supposedly one of many “last villages” in India. It had not changed too much from my last visit in 2017. Only this time I noticed 2-3 tourist vehicles and guesthouses. I don’t suppose many tourists stay there or for long. One disappointment was the so-called Suicide Point. Last time I had no idea of its existence and had just noticed the steep drop after passing it. Now there was a high railing, a water tank and a signboard with I Love Chitkul painted on it. As expected, there was a crowd of tourists trying to get a picture at the spot. All that construction, crowd and noise were quite disappointing really.

Suicide Point
Suicide Point

In Roghi, we requested two locals to identify Kinner Kailash peak for us but couldn’t get a clear answer. One of them seemed a bit offended for some reason, but can’t be sure. After that, we reached Kalpa village, saw the beautiful wooden temples and had lunch of pretty bad thupka noodle soup and momos in a small eatery overlooking the local prison. After lunch, we reached Reckong Peo and I visited the local hospital to get a corona test which was needed to reach Spiti. There were around 25-30 people, mostly labourers already lined up and it took a bit longer than expected. After collecting my corona free certificate, I met up with the rest and we reached our accommodation in Rakcham in the evening. It was at the far end of the village right next to the road and about 3-4 minutes walk from Baspa river. The sky was a bit cloudy by the time we reached and the weather was quite cold, mostly due to higher altitude. We had seen a bit of piled up snow every now and then, but there were big piles of it in Rakcham. NW stayed behind in the room with his extra tea, while the three of us walked to the river. 2020-21 had not seen much snow and I heard from many locals that they were worried about the water situation. The river was not supposed to have much water in late March, but even then it was barely a stream.  As we were starting to walk back, we heard 2-3 foxes yelping on other riverbank but couldn’t see them. 2 dogs from the village came running and started barking from the water’s edge and kept at it for quite some time. If they wanted they could have crossed it easily, the water wasn’t that deep or fast flowing.  

A beautiful mountain somewhere around Karcham
A beautiful mountain somewhere around Karcham

We visited Chitkul next morning and stopped at two places along the way to take in the sights and photography. Tourism in Kinnaur had opened up only a few days ago and I was surprised to see so many tourists there, quite a few of them from Bengal. At least 2 hotels were advertising specialied Bengali food. Additionally, almost every building near the road was some sort of accommodation, restaurant or seemingly involved in the tourism business. There were some tourists back in 2017 too, but not this many. We walked to the river bank and stayed there for 30-40 minutes before walking back to the main village for lunch. From there, I spotted an Indian flag on top of a high ridge overlooking the village and asked about it. Everybody had a different story and including one that it was installed by a movie crew for their shoot here. We went a bit further past the village monastery towards the source of the water stream that flows through the village. During my last visit, the whole place was full of crops and wildflowers and loads of water. No such luck this time. Farming had not started yet, the flowering shrubs didn’t even have leaves on them and the beautiful waterfalls from the last time were bone dry. Still, the views of mountains and open skies were quite nice.

Old stone and wood building in Kalpa
Old stone and wood building in Kalpa

As we were walking back, a tourist came up and asked us the way to flag above. He was listening to our conversation during lunch and I have no idea why he thought that we knew anything more than him. Like a true pahadi, G showed him the way anyway. On our way back, I noticed a signboard of a homestay and considered staying there. Our phones were not working there and I found it by asking around. Technically it was a guest house with 6 rooms but advertised as a homestay. Majority of so-called homestays in Himachal Pradesh are guesthouses and in some cases more like hotels with no feature of a homestay. The owners got the certificate of a homestay when the state government was promoting the concept and now most such properties have been sold, leased out or expanded beyond recognition. No one cares about the misleading terminology though. For those curious about the difference; Homestay is usually a family house in which 1-3 rooms are rented out to the tourists with the owner living in the rest. Guesthouses can have 5-6 rooms with the owner staying in the same premises or elsewhere.

G posing with his car on a bridge near Chitkul
G posing with his car on a bridge near Chitkul

Anyhow, the villagers were preparing for a festival and no one was around or knew where the owner was. So the only option was to go back to Rakcham and call from there. After we reached Rakcham, all four of us walked to riverbank. NW was reluctant after all the exertion, but we dragged him along. He seemed happy enough once we reached there though. From there, we walked through the village and went across the river by a bridge. Remains of one old ropeway were right next to it. It was constructed over the most dangerous part of the river too as it dropped a few feet between some huge rocks. I was curious about checking out the location where foxes were yelping from last evening. NW declared that he didn’t want to explore anything else and walked back to hotel from there.

Pine cones with Kinner Kailash range in background
Pine cones with Kinner Kailash range in background

There were a few accommodations which go by “campsites” (Usually semi-permanent tents erected on a concrete base. The only thing differentiating them from a regular room is that outer walls are made of canvas or in some cases there are concrete walls covered by canvas and presented as a tent.) on the other side which hosted some tourist groups. A lot of them were busy taking selfies and making videos, so we didn’t go much further. I called a few accommodations in Chitkul and checked if any had rooms, finally settling on the one I had found near the monastery. Other guesthouse (or homestay) I called was right next to the main street and I wasn’t really keen on staying so close to the noise. One issue was that neither of them had running water as the water in pipes was still frozen. As I was not planning on taking a bath every day in freezing weather, it was not a dealbreaker. Other options were a few hotels, including the one in which I had spent a night last time. But I was not really keen on them because of their crowds and location next to where most tourists and their vehicles were.

The next morning, my three companions went home to Shimla while I stayed back. I had planned to take the bus to Chitkul which was only 10-11 km away but the owner asked two of his biker guests to take me along. Again like the truck ride in 2017, a pillion ride carrying a heavy rucksack and camera bag on bumpy mountain roads was not really on my bucket list but good to have done that. It was one thing strolling up to that corner of village the previous day, but climbing that somewhat steep slope with all that weight without getting used to thin air was a bit difficult. The villagers were performing some rituals related to a local festival and I was told to avoid taking a certain path. I still managed to accidentally knock off a cap off a man’s head who was beating drums in a small procession.

View from Roghi
View from Roghi

As I reached the guesthouse, I realised I was their first guest of the season as the owner was still cleaning it. There was a water pipe carrying water from a nearby stream which he used to fill two buckets and left it for my use. The bedding and other stuff in the room were comfortable enough and the view was pretty nice. Since they had no staff to run the kitchen, the owner (let’s call him Sunny) said that he could bring me food from his place in the village below. I ended up going to eateries in the village market below most of the time, but that’s another not so important story. Since my phone was not working, he gave me one of his local BSNL SIMs for calling which started working partially after 2-3 days.

This is the end of first part. More later.

2nd Part

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