“Spiti valley backpacking & hiking (Tabo, Dhankar and Lhalung)
‘You mean to say we are walking between villages in Spiti?’, I asked, making a puzzling face.
‘Yes, as much as we can’, Arpita replied with conviction in her voice.”
I debated between waiting for hitching a ride, but considering that it was already past 4 PM, chances were slim.
If we wanted to make it up to Dhankar monastery before sunlight faded, we had to really rush through. We were standing right after the village of Sichling where the road to Dhankar village started climbing up. Eight kilometres and 450 meters height gain awaited us as we started our walk on a freshly built zigzag road.
We had reached Sichling after hitch-hiking from Tabo, some twenty-five kilometres away. In the magical land of Spiti, our plan was to stay in local villages and hike from one to another. Using public transport would help keep our costs low.
Highlights of our Spiti valley backpacking journey:
- A grueling start towards Spiti
- Tabo – Ajanta of the Himalayas
- Dhankar, the hill fort of Spiti
- Dhankar to Lhalung trek
A gruelling start towards Spiti
Our journey to the mountain kingdom of Spiti began, as arduous a trip to the remotest Himalayan place in the 21st century can be. Taking an early morning flight from Bangalore-Chandigarh, we headed straight to ISBT for taking a bus to Shimla.
The sweltering heat of June could not deter us from taking a non-AC bus, as waiting for an AC bus might have made us miss the next bus to Reckong Peo. We heard a loud burst after 50 kilometres past Chandigarh city as one of the back tires was gone.
Almost an hour, bucket load of sweating and cursing global warming, our bus moved again. The weather seemed to improve a bit as we left the plains and headed into the mountains.
By the time we made it to Shimla ISBT it was already close to 6PM. Inquiring for seats on the 7PM Shimla-Reckong Peo Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) bus, we were told that only the last two seats were left.
While we debated how to face this stomach-upsetting fiesta, a weathered-looking man approached us. He told us about another private bus for Reckong Peo of which he was the conductor.
He informed that not only would it run along with the HRTC bus, but we can also have our pick of the seats! We were ecstatic and immediately took the offer.
Later, we introspected our decision upon finding the private bus to be over-stuffing local passengers for stops along the way. But being the only two buses on that extreme route, people had no choice.
A hair-raising night drive in which neither of us could manage even a 10-minute sleep ensued. After many pit-stops, we found ourselves in Reckong Peo bus stop around 3AM.
The scene at Reckong Peo bus stop was a throwback to our childhood. It resembled how we would queue up early morning for making train reservations outside ticketing windows. The waiting room around the small ticket window was packed to the brim, as it was chilly outside. Everyone was trying to be on the 5AM bus to Kaza.
I and Arpita joined the line as soon as it started forming, taking turns to hold our position. This strategy worked cause as soon as the window opened we found that people who were on the Shimla – Reckong Peo HRTC bus had a priority to buy tickets.
We could either buy tickets to the available seats or wait for the rest of the passengers to buy theirs. Surprisingly, we found that there were two empty seats. We booked these for Tabo, despite wanting to halt at Nako first, but the booking agent wouldn’t allow that.
It could have been the two seats that were coming empty from Shimla itself, which we had passed up earlier. We were destined to be in those last two seats!
Thus began our third bus ride in this non-stop voyage towards Spiti as we managed to load our backpacks behind the bus. Reckong Peo-Kaza route is considered one of the most treacherous Himalayan routes in India, being highly prone to landslides.
Just 30 – 40 kilometres outside Reckong Peo we were halted by a huge cavalcade of vehicles. There had been a landslide last night and a giant machine operated by BRO personals was clearing the path. An hour later the route was open and off we started bumping along on the treacherous route.
Arpita was both terrified and glued to the window as bend after bend the landscape transformed at a hair-raising pace. Around 1 o’clock the bus, which was running late by 3 hours by then, reached Nako which was the first village of Spiti valley.
In the 20 minutes halt, we ate omelettes and tea at a dhaba, clicked few snaps of Nako and returned to our seats. Like an age-old leviathan, the bus continued slowly crawling around in its familiar grounds.
Making some more stops, it finally reached Tabo at 4PM. Checking many guest-houses, we decided to stay in one attached to the monastery. It was affordable yet having luxuries like hot showers. After cleaning up ourselves, we grabbed dinner in the restaurant within the guest house premises and dropped dead for a much-needed sleep.
Tabo – Ajanta of the Himalayas
More than a thousand years ago, in the year 996 AD Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, the head priest of Tholing monastery which was the state monastery of Guge Kingdom constructed the magnificent monastic temple complex at Tabo village.
Upon receiving education at Kashmir and Vikramshila in his formative years, he ushered in a new wave of Tibetan Buddhism art after his appointment as head priest at Tholing.
Employing artisans all around from Srinagar, Chamba, Kinnaur and Kullu, endowed with the ruling king’s patronage, he is credited to have constructed 108 temples such as Tabo monastery, Lhalung Golden temple, Alchi monastery etc.
Encompassing several smaller temples and stupas within its enclosure, the unrivalled jewels are the amazing murals and the main assembly hall, which is essentially a Vajradhatu mandala.
The walls of the assembly hall are studded with 37 life-size clay statues of deities and gods and presided by a golden statue of Mahavairocana. Stunning frescoes depicting tales of Buddha and other deities adorn the inside walls of the hall and the passageway.
A newer monastery complex, built after 1983, sits right next to the old one, housing a stunning Buddha statue and a Kalachakra Stupa inaugurated in 2009.
We also visited several caves in the adjacent hills from the village about 15 – 20 minutes hike away, which provide some stunning views of the Tabo village and its surroundings.
It is considered that several monks throughout the ages have used these caves for mediation and attaining of enlightenment.
Just before lunchtime, we got to witness a prayer ceremony in the new Tabo monastery.
Our fondest memories of Tabo would be meeting these adorable kids who were playing on their own while the parents were busy with prayers.
Dhankar, the hill fort of Spiti
Waiting at the main road for the daily bus, we tried to get a lift to Sichling, a small village 25 kilometres away. Quickly we realized that most of the vehicles were of local people who weren’t heading all the way that side. Or else of tourists that weren’t comfortable with the idea of giving a hitch-hike to an Indian backpacker couple.
Our luck changed when after an hour wait, a Mumbaiker couple stopped their hired car and offered us a ride. A quick photo stop, and we had reached a gate that welcomed us to Dhankar village. The catch being the village perched atop a steep, jagged hill, reachable only by an 8 kilometres hike.
After walking for an hour, we luckily got a lift from a tractor to the very edge of Dhankar village. After checking out many places, we decided to stay right next to the old monastery in a home stay that offered tantalizing views of the panoramic vista around us.
‘Dhankar’, established as a capital of Nono kings back in the 17th century, literally means a cliff fort. One can very well dissolve the boundaries of time and travel to a foregone era just by standing atop the cliff side of Dhankar fort while admiring the expansive views of the confluence of Pin river with Spiti river. The fort served as an excellent vantage point to guard and administer the whole Spiti valley.
We woke up early next day as we had planned to hike up to Dhankar lake. Situated 400 meters elevation above Dhankar village, the lake is reached by an easy 3 hours return hike. One can also pause to admire the views of the valley and catching one’s breath in the meantime.
Spending an hour near the considerable dried up lake, we returned to Dhankar village by lunchtime.
The new monastery houses a good restaurant, where we had Thukpa soup for lunch while admiring views of the old monastery.
Visiting the Old Monastery of Dhankar is an amazing experience in itself. The monastery houses several rooms for prayers, some for common monks, some for senior lamas and even a special room that holds tantric masks and festival decorations.
There was even a meditation cave which the monks retreat to during winters. But the crowing glory is the main prayer room, housing an ornate Buddha statue dating back to the 9th century AD. With countless supernatural stories surrounding this statue, monks were quite obstinate to let historians examine the statue.
An inscription at the bottom details the origin of this statue to Gilgit in Kashmir. At that time, it was a hot spot for Buddhist art due to royal patronage.
Although not connected directly to the monastery complex but very much a part of it, there are many prayers rooms built atop the cliff looming next to the monastery. These rooms were still adored with extraordinary murals, the ones showing Amitabha Buddha being most hypnotic.
We stayed outdoors for as long as we could, making videos, walking around the village punctuated with jagged peaks that gave it a troglodyte setting. We also visited the dilapidated fort, which badly needed repairs.
Sadly, it was time to move on from here tomorrow to our next destination in Spiti valley.
Dhankar to Lhalung trek
Stuffed with an early breakfast of thick aloo parathas with curd, we left Dhankar to start our walk/hike towards Lhalung village at around 9AM. We started walking on a dirt road behind the Dhakar fort that is often used by locals and bikers to take a shortcut to Lhalung, without the need to descend to the main road running towards Kaza. Almost immediately after starting our walk, we were stunned by the amazing view of Dhankar fort ruins in the panoramic surroundings. The road less travelled surely bestows some breathtaking view.
While the road skirted around mountain features, we found several shortcuts via shepherd trails. Thanks to maps.me app having a marked trail, we found a shortcut route that reduced 6 kilometres gruelling walk. It also provided some majestic view of both the Spiti-Pin river confluence below and foreboding mountains around us. Also, it was much comfortable walking on trail rather than on roads.
The trail joined back into a road coming from the main Kaza road, some 5 kilometres shy of Lhalung village. We decided to have a quick stop to eat our packed lunch here and continued walking.
We were joined by a local lady from Lhalung who was also walking back home. Seeing us walking all the way, she was curious and spoke to us. We told her about our hike all the way from Dhankar and chatted about her village life and its tribulations.
She mentioned visiting several Buddhist pilgrim centres in India such as Sarnath, Bodhgaya etc. with her family group during winter months few years ago. It was heartening to know that in spite of elemental challenges, she still preferred the village life over city hustle.
It was almost 4 o’clock in the evening when we first lay our eyes at the Lhalung village. Situated on a gradual slope, a small stream to which it got its name flown below, while multicoloured rock cliffs towered over it from two sides. An almost wave of refreshment swept over us, making us forget our long walk.
A small rest stop of fifteen minutes, and we decided to check out the monastery that was very much visible over the village with the road directly leading to it. However, destiny had other plans.
A local lady, who was walking down from a stone moving site nearby, saw us walking towards the monastery and inquired if we had a place to stay. Upon being told that we planned to search for one after visiting the monastery, she invited us to check out her newly opened home stay.
Tired as we were, our spirits lifted seeing the tasteful traditional home stay and that too with an inviting family. Also, it was right below the monastery. After washing up and having some tea, we made our way towards the monastery.
While researching about Spiti, most of the travel blogs had failed to detail about the Lhalung monastery or just mentioned it in passing. We were in for a surprise.
Finding the monastery compound locked, we were directed by some locals to seek the temple priest who had the keys and lived nearby. Not only did he agreed to open the temple for us at such an odd hour, but proceeded to tell us about the historical and mythological significance of the temple. Lhalung monastery is also called ‘Serkhang’ or the Golden temple. If the priest’s tales are to be believed, it was created by spirits in one day itself.
The temple complex had two temples, the older one being the Serkhang which was supposedly erected by Rinchen Zangpo as well. There was a newly made bigger temple cum prayer hall next to it, but we proceeded to visit the Serkhang first.
A small gallery led us into a square, dimly lit room. As our eyes adjusted to the low light, we were absolutely stupefied. From the floor to the ceiling, every inch of the room was covered with life-size statues of gods, deities, spirits and demons. They all seemed to protrude out from the walls, appearing to float in mid-air, and turning the small room into a giant meeting hall. Such was the magnanimity that it felt as if this chamber existed in a different dimension of itself. On the central wall was Buddha Sakyamuni, flanked by two elaborate groups of five figures on either side, where each was dominated by a deity–identified as Dharmadhatu Vagishvara, a complex form of Manjushri on the left, and Vajrasattva on the right. The priest told us about how no one is supposed to touch the statues and cleaning only happens once a year.
Even after leaving the room, the fantastical images seemed to have had a firm grasp on us. Lhalung would be our most unexpected find in Spiti.
We were then led to a small chamber opposite to the entrance of Serkhang, past a small garden area. This was the Vairochana chapel, housing a complex statue combing four statues of Vairocana facing different directions, each in a different pose. The priest told us that they are guarding the four directions. Compared to this unbelievable trip down a millennium, the new temple was a let-down. We exited the temple complex through a second gate leading out towards the Lhalung village.
While many houses in the village seemed to have been renovated, there were several in dilapidated condition as well. After spending half an hour we found our way back to our home stay, to be treated with an amazing local staple dinner and quickly took to bed.
Tomorrow was going to be an early start as we were going to catch the early morning Lhalung – Kaza bus and head to Kaza town, the biggest in the whole of Spiti region.