The one place that single-handedly kept Spiti on the very top of my travel bucketlist! This will probably sound silly, but then most of the things I end up doing are silly so what the hell. Remember Highway, the scene where Alia is sitting and staring at the mountains on the other side. “Aisa lag raha hai ki woh mujhe bula raha hai, kaash hum waha jaa paate”, and Randeep Hooda very lovingly agrees to take her across. I’m not talking about those mountains, but the monastery in the background – that’s Key Monastery.
I have been lusting over that sight ever since I saw the movie, and I had never imagined that the actual place could be thousand times more spectacular!
Key Gonpa!!! The crown jewel of my entire trip to Spiti. I ended up staying here more than at any other village, and given a choice I wouldn’t have ever left! Technically, all the monasteries in Spiti have lodging facilities for travelers, but none come even close to the experience you’ll have at Key. For one thing, at Key you’re not put up in a guest house, you live in the existing Lama quarters, at Rs. 200 per night, including meals that will be cooked by and for the resident monks. The kitchen at Key Monastery beats every café, anywhere in the world, because here’s where conversations flow over endless cups of butter tea. When I visited, the Lama incharge of the cooking duties was Kunga ji, and he is the most adorable Lama I have ever met. Always smiling, always up for a chat (over a cup of chai, mind you!).
The evening I reached the monastery, I entered the kitchen to try and meet someone who could tell me what are the lodging facilities, and I met Kunga ji running around, serving all the monks. It was only 7 pm, but that’s regular dinner time at the monastery, and the tiny kitchen was bustling with more monks than it could accommodate, and one tiny traveler who looked utterly lost. Kunga ji noticed this and immediately came over with a plate of piping hot rajma and tingmu (Tibetan bread), “baitho baitho, pehle khana khao (sit sit, eat first!)”, and immediately 2 monks got up from the only bench in the kitchen to offer me a seat. I resisted, but I was overpowered by 5-6 monks “aap humare guest hai, aap baitho! (You are our guest, you should have a seat!”).
And I knew in that moment that this place would steal a piece of my heart forever.
I was lucky to be at the monastery on one of their most important days. It was the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye (Khetol), – a tradition of the Gelugpa religion of Buddhism, wherein all the 300 monks from Key Monastery visited each and every house in the village to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I was lucky to accompany them through this pilgrimage, visiting houses, indulging in the lovely hospitality of the locals, and chai – lots and lots of chai.
My fascination with Spiti Valley began when I saw Alia Bhatt pointing at a mountain and asking Randeep Hooda, her knight in shining armor, if there was any way they could go there! It wasn’t so much the scene than was the gorgeous monastery in the background that caught my attention, and I’ve wanted to visit the tantalizing valley of Lahaul-Spiti ever since! But what I didn’t expect is, not only will I get to see this monastery, but also live there… cooking, laughing and living with the monks.
Well, no points for guessing who is the over-elated city girl who just returned from Spiti!
Rudyard Kipling couldn’t have been more accurate when he called Spiti “a world within a world”. The valley has the most incredible landscape that’s green and blue and brown at the same time! You encounter a new sight at every turn, and every sight makes you wanna sit and stare in silence, until the end of eternity! But the real charm of the valley begins when you get over its exterior beauty (which is not so easy to do, I mean just look at that place!!!) and notice the exceptional purity the locals live with. Being low on budget, I opted for hitch-hiking (Dad if you’re reading this, it’s not as bad as it sounds), in cabs, in jeeps, in trucks – behind trucks, in buses – on buses… and not once did I have an unpleasant experience (which being a solo female traveler came as quite a surprise!). The people in Spiti literally open their homes and hearts for you, they all want to hear your story and share their own, and more often than not – they go out of their way to make sure you feel at home.
Stay at Key Monastery – Undoubtedly the most beautiful experience from all my travels – staying at Key Monastery! Spiti boasts of a purely homogenous Buddhist society belonging to the Mahayana sect of Vajrayana Buddhism, and is home to numerous monasteries with history dating back more than 1000 years. While each one of these monasteries is worth a visit and is glorious in its own way, Key monastery holds a special place for how incredibly inviting it is! You walk into the kitchen at the monastery and are invited by monks for a cup of chai, no matter what time of the day it is, you can live in the Lama quarters of the monastery (at just Rs. 200 per night, including meals!), indulge in their irrefutable hospitality, sleep under the gorgeous starlit skies in the veranda, and I was lucky to also attend the annual Gaaye celebration of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism! I may always recommend things on my blog, but never before have I been this confident about my recommendation. Take my word on this – this is an experience you shouldn’t miss!
Go country with lovely homestays – I met this incredible lady from Mane village, who welcomes travelers to live at her house, and shares the finer way of living the Mane life! You can learn weaving, making chhang (Local beer prepared with semi-fermented barley), or simply experience the country life with her assistance. Similarly, you will be able to find humble homestays at Lhangza, Gomik, Demul, Dhankar, Lhalung, Cyoto or Tashi Gang, and I personally feel this will be the best way to discover the charm of Spiti!
Finding Fossils – The Spiti we see today is an incredible sight of monstrous mountains with rock formations made by the force of wind and water over epochs, and the serpentine Spiti river adding a touch of elegance to the rather rugged landscape! It is also a known fact that the Tethys Sea ran through this mountain desert till about 60 million years ago, and in Spiti you can still find proof of this geological past. Step into Lhangza village and you will see kids running to you with stones in their hands. Look closely and you’ll realize they’re not stones, but actually fossils of maritime life, that probably died 100 million years ago. Innumerable such fossils can be found with a short walk to the Lhangza naala, all you have to do is walk 🙂
Meditate in Caves – A visit to Spiti will be incomplete if you don’t visit Tabo, which has the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monument of India, famous for its wall paintings and murals. In its millennium of existence, the gonpa boasts of not having seen a day without prayer. But that’s not the only treasure Tabo holds, walk across the mountains adjacent to the tiny village and you’ll come across many meditation caves, some with interesting artwork inside.
Rent a bike – One thing about Spiti, traveling locally can be quite expensive if you don’t have your own car. Cabs charge approximately Rs. 1000+ for 10kms, and while that pricing is totally justified considering the wear and tear these vehicles are subjected to on really difficult (or at times, non-existent) roads, not everyone can afford the luxury. So what do the rest of us do? While I chose to hitch-hike as I didn’t feel fit enough to do this, I came across a few people who rented a bike (which are easily available in Kaza), mounted it on a local bus while going uphill, and cycled their way back to Kaza on the descent. I can only imagine how exhilarating and challenging that experience must be, adrenaline rush max!
So that’s about interesting activities in Spiti. You can also go on an wild-life exploration trip, but for that you have to visit later in the winters. The best person to guide you with this will be Karan Bedi, who owns Hotel Deyzor (which, btw, is also the best hotel recco I can give even though I didn’t stay there myself). Just go to the cafe and ask for him, he organizes many culture & adventure tours in and around Spiti that you can easily be a part of.
I have so many stories to share from my short affair with Spiti. Working on a few photo-essays to take you through my journey, stay tuned 🙂
Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!
Sleepy-eyed, tortured by the harsh temperatures, shivering to the bone despite four layers of clothing and 2 blankets – that would be me through the first half of the drive. But once I saw the sun rising in the mountains, leaving a shimmery gold trail all across the snow-capped peaks, and sprinkling peach pixie-dust over the clouds, sleeping was not an option anymore. You read it in the travel blogs and see it in a few movies, but it’s only when you see it yourself that you realize how magically overpowering a sunrise in the mountains really is!
We were driving towards the sole motivation behind my entire trip to Sikkim – The Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim! Situated in the northern-most part of the state, Gurudongmar is one of the highest lakes in the world, and the second highest lake in India. At an altitude of 17000 ft, this place is a MUST bucket-list site for all Indian travelers!
Our journey had started just a day earlier from Gangtok, where we had to acquire our permits to visit the lake (being extremely close to the Indo-Tibetan border, tourists can’t go here without permits and have to go via authorized tour operators). Our driver, Arun, was the most rocking chap you can ever come across. He rapped to Yo Yo Honey Singh songs and kept us entertained throughout with interesting stories about Sikkim and his experiences with various travelers. This was a huge blessing, considering the 8 hour odd drive from Gangtok to Lachen, though very scenic and beautiful, did take a toll on us!
We reached our guest house at Lachen right in time for dinner! Our guest house was a small little home-stay of sorts, with the most beautiful arrangement for meals. We devoured on the humble feast served to us, and ran to our rooms, getting ready to wake up at 3 am the next morning!
Now, while waking up at 3 AM on any regular day is a task in itself, when you’re sleeping cuddled under 2 blankets, waking up at 3 AM is next to impossible! Had it not been for the unavoidable lure of the lake, we would have never managed to drag ourselves out of the comfort of our beds. After putting on as many layers of clothing as we possibly could, and packing the blankets from our guest house – we were finally ready for our Gurudongmar adventure!
We made a quick stopover at a small food joint, run by a sweet and ever-smiling guy named Rikjung with his Mom and younger sister. These were the most hospitable and friendly chaps! They cooked for us, helped us to servings of a local mixture called tumba – made from rice and taken with a bamboo pipe – effective to fight the cold, and lit up a fire to relieve us from our misery. This place won’t be difficult to find, as it’s one of the only places you come across on the way, approximately 8 kms before Thangu, at Yatang.
What started as a sleepy to-do journey, turned into the most scenic road-trip of my life! Be prepared to crane your neck left, right, to the front and back, all within a seconds notice, because there’s just so much to see all around, that you can’t help but act like an over-excited 5 year old in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory! Even though you won’t come across any kind of vegetation or human settlements that are usually a regular sight up in the mountains, the barren and cold landscapes with occasional spotting of Yaks holds a different charm to itself. This wasn’t my first encounter with the mountains, having had my fair share of adventure in Himachal. But there’s something about the untouched magnanimity and beauty of the mountains in North-East India, which is so exotic and mesmerizing, that captures you in its inviting embrace instantly! Have tried to put together a visual journey for you below:
After 4 odd hours of driving, including a stopover at an army camp, we finally reached our destination! One look at the snow-fed crystal blue water of the lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, dressed with Buddhist prayer flags across its breadth, the texture of the water perfectly matching the pristine blue of the sky above – and you stop right in your tracks, losing all sense of time, place… and existence. There really isn’t much I can say that can justify how stunning this site is, I’ll let you decide for yourself:
Touchdown – Gurudongmar Lake of North Sikkim!
PS: We made this trip in November first week, so the pictures above represent what the lake looks like in November. However this view may vary from month to month depending on the weather. My friend just visited the lake (only two days ago actually). So I thought I should share his pictures too, to give you an idea of how unreal the frozen lake looks in March.
Trivia about Gurudongmar Lake: Gurudongmar Lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, who is said to have visited this holy lake during the 8th century AD. Gurudongmar Lake is listed among the 108 saccred laked of Sikkim and is regarded as the northern door for entry into Demojong (Sikkim). This sacred lake is said to have divine powers to fulfill the wishes of devotees who visit the lake. It has been notified as one of the most sacred Buddhist places of worship in Sikkim.
If you have an extra day, choose to stay at Lachung after your Gurudongmar trip, and opt for a drive to Yumthang valley and Zero Point the next morning! There is also a famous hot water spring enroute Yumthang that you can stop at.
Unfortunately for our overseas friends, the proximity of the lake to the Indo-Tibetan (Chinese) border renders this site out-of-bounds for all foreign travelers. Even Indian travelers can travel here only through packaged tours organized by local operators in Sikkim, and everyone needs an Inner Line Permit from Gangtok.
Under normal circumstances, I would share the number of the travel agent who fixed our tour, but we had a really bad experience with him and wouldn’t suggest him to anyone. For reference (and warning) sake, his name was Tashi Thendup – Anoop, he owns a hotel in Gangtok (which is too costly for the horrible service they provide) and he tricked us into staying there despite our repeated refusals.
Our driver was a superstar! You should call him whenever you’re going for this trip. He can organize the trip too, cheaper than others. Arun – +919475715570
Note for people with breathing issues: The drive to Gurudongmar from Lachen starts at over 8000 feet altitude, and you keep driving constantly till 17,000 feet. Breathing here gets difficult for even regular people. We were strictly advised by the army officials to not run / walk fast near the lake, and keep drinking water regularly. You also have to make sure you reach the lake early in the morning, and drive out before noon.
Make sure you keep your permit and photo id proofs handy on this trip, as you will be stopped and checked at the army check-posts. Also, for safety, carry dry fruits with you.
The water of the lake is considered sacred. We were advised by one and all to fill bottles from the lake to carry back to Mumbai.
The lake also has a small temple which is revered by Hindus as well as Buddhists, and attracts many pilgrims and monks.
Important: Just trust me and stop for a coffee with our jawans at the army camp enroute!!!
Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!
Nestled in the North Eastern state of Meghalaya, is the humble little treasure of waterfalls called Cherrapunjee. A quick google image search of the city is enough to win you over with its incredible waterfalls and mind-blowing natural beauty.
But while the waterbodies of Cherrapunjee are the obvious attraction for tourists, I visited the city after monsoons when most of these water bodies were dry, and I still bought back memories for life! Why? Because hidden deep in the heart of Cherrapunjee, in a tiny little village of Nongriat, is a UNESCO heritage site, the single and double decker living root bridges!
Now a disclaimer before you read any further, visiting these bridges is not for the lazy/ casual tourists. It’s not a very difficult trek in the technical way, but it does need you to climb a lot of steps which will put your will-power and stamina to test, and I would not advise it for people with weak knees. But what I will promise, is once you make the resolve and go for it, all the effort will be totally worth it! Not just for the novelty of the destination, but also for the lovely sights and surprises the entire trek beholds. And the experience of walking on live root bridges that are grown – not built, is a memory that will always stay fresh in my mind, just like these bridges that grow stronger with age!
So, it was a fine Sunday morning when we started our trek from Tyrna village entrance, which was a 30-40 mins drive from our guesthouse (highly recommend this guesthouse too, warm hospitality and calm surroundings). I wish someone had warned us, but no one did, and we didn’t carry any food with us hoping to buy something on the way. But Cherrapunjee is completely cut-off on Sundays and we couldn’t find a single shop. Excited as we were, we still went ahead with the daunting trek.
Now I can possibly divide this trek into three parts: Reaching the first bridge, finding the others, crawling our way back home. Reaching the first living root bridge was comparatively the easiest, as we were going down the steps and we were all so eager to see this natural wonder that we really didn’t care about anything else. Throughout the trek, walking steeper and deeper inside the forests of Nongriat, trying to spot the elusive bridges at every turn we made, we were accompanied by interesting spotting of exotic birds and butterflies, giant spiders even, and water bodies that just take your breath away!
After walking for about 45 mins, we finally saw it! The longest root bridge, Ritymmen – beautiful as it was, it was also intimidating. The sheer length of the bridge and how strong it looked, with those roots all tangled up with each other to form the most trippy bridge you can expect, this is definitely a sight to behold.
We chose to relax by the rocks near the lake here for some time, for a much needed break for photography and other important things, like giving our calf muscles some rest. After we thought we had soaked enough of the beauty in our minds, we made our way back through the same route to go find the famous double-decker bridge!
Now, if given a choice to do things differently, I would surely choose to not do this trek on a Sunday as we felt more and more demoralized each time we crossed a tea/food stall that was on a Sunday break, and we literally had to pull off the whole trek on an empty stomach, surviving only on Electral water. Enroute the double-decker bridge, we crossed a few smaller root bridges, but this time we didn’t stop for photographs, having already seen Ritymmen. But what is worth mentioning about this part of the trek, is the few steel suspension bridges over gorgeous waterbodies, which can sweep you off your feet and make you forget about the double-decker bridge and just set camp right here! Watching the pristine blue water of the lake flowing below your feet at a lightning speed, while you try walking on the bridge so many feet above, I must admit the experience can be a little nauseating and scary, but very overwhelming and adventurous at the same time.
After walking for what felt like 4 hours, but actually was only two, we finally finally found a food stall that was open (yayy!) Stopping for a quick maggi, we stocked up on biscuits and chips for our return trek, and just 5 mins from there was the gorgeous double-decker bridge – one of its kind the world over! We walked across both the levels of the bridge, and then took refuge by the side of the lake below, just sitting and admiring how gorgeous this place was. Unfortunately a few drunks around us were totally spoiling my moment of tranquility, so we chose to leave sooner than I would’ve liked.
Now it was time to go back and this has to be the worst part, and not because I wanted to stay and camp. Trekking onward to your destination is always easier as you’re excited about the adventure and experience, but the return trek is what kills you. This has to be the toughest trek I have ever done, trekking down a 2500 odd descent and back up, with around 7000 steps to cover back and forth, is no easy task. But once you complete it – there’s no happier feeling in the whole wide world!
A little intel on the living-root bridges: These natural root bridges were such guided by the early-war Khasis to serve them for crossing massive streams. They are made from the roots of an ancient rubber tree – Ficus Elastica – that is native to the rivers and streams of North East India. They take 10-15 yrs to develop, and are so strong that some of them can carry 50+ people at one time. They are said to have a life span of around 500-600 years, and in fact, become stronger over time as they are live bridges.
One can choose to visit the living root bridge in the village of Mawlynnong too. Now I couldn’t go there, but that place is also famous as the cleanest village in Asia. So it’s surely worth a trip! Also, for people who choose not to take the deathly trek, this one is your best bet as it’s easily accessible from the village. However, you won’t find a double-decker bridge here, that one’s only in Cherra!
If you’re staying at SaiMika Resort too, don’t forget to ask the manager Ataanu, to show you the secret waterfall at the back of the resort. It’s quite small, but it’s really beautiful and calming.
We hired a cab from Guwahati to Cherrapunjee, for Rs. 3000 per day. I wouldn’t recommend our driver, but what you can do is visit the Guwahati market in the morning from where you easily get shared cabs for Shillong. You can then hire a car from Shillong to Cherrapunjee, as Shillong drivers are better acquainted with the place.
The entire North Eastern stretch of India is known for how well its people stay in harmony with nature, and they strive to preserve its cleanliness. If you’re traveling here, please make sure you respect their efforts, do not litter, and motivate your friends to do the same.