5 ways to untravel Spiti Valley!

The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!
The valley of Spiti isi full of many incredible sights like this one!

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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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 🙂
  4. 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.
  5. 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 🙂

 

 

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Why I prefer slow travel, and why you should try it too!

I’d like to know you better, let’s take it slow?

National Geographic Traveler India recently conducted a travel meet about slow travel, of which my friend Natasha was a panelist. She asked me if I’ll be in Mumbai for the session, but that was the week I moved to Dharamsala. She said she would love to use my example in her talk, and that – for the first time – made me realize how much I enjoy slow traveling!

When I made the decision of moving to McLeod Ganj, some of my friends and everyone in my family instantly reacted – “AGAIN?” I don’t blame them. I first visited this place exactly a year ago. What started as a volunteering trip for a month, ended up being a two month stay during which I hardly worked. For the sight-seeing and travel I did in those 2 months, I could’ve easily completed the trip in 15 days. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, and given a choice I’d still go back and do the same thing again. I came back to the same place again within 3 months to stay for a fortnight. And 9 months later, when I made a conscious choice to live in the mountains, I didn’t have to think twice about the place I wanted to call home! I wonder why that is?

Some think it’s weird that I go back to the same place, meet the same people, spend days and weeks at stretch eating at the same café. Some would say this isn’t travel. But what really is travel, I ask? Very simply put, isn’t it just a way to relax, unwind, and experience life in a different way than you have? Isn’t it about meeting new people, gathering new experiences, learning about new cultures? Isn’t the main reason we travel, to step out of our comfort zone and live life the easier, healthier way? Isn’t it about the journey, and not about the destination? “Sight-seeing” as we popularly know it in today’s world, can’t possibly be the parameter for travel. If it were, I wouldn’t ever feel the need to leave the ever-changing city of Mumbai that offers unique sites and experiences on a daily basis! For the longest time I thought I enjoyed traveling alone as opposed to traveling with a group of friends. But then I have enjoyed the company of my friends when we backpacked around North-East India in a short span of 15 days, or a short weekend trip to Pondicherry with my Bangalorean colleagues. No, it’s not as simple as being alone or with a bunch of friends. It’s about the time you invest in really “knowing” your destination.

Back in the city, we are so time-bound, that every time we get a chance to step out and explore, we try cramming our itineraries with every possible “must-visit” site, not realizing that we’re involuntarily planning an even more hectic schedule than the one we’re trying to escape. We try putting everything on the map, 4 days in Cherrapunjee, visiting so and so site in a stop-over at Shillong, 3 days for north Sikkim, 2 days for West, 4 days for Darjeeling, a quickie with Kolkata on our way back. You end up coming back home with more pictures in your DSLR, than memories in your heart.

Haven’t you ever imagined what it would be like to not care about which day of the week it is? Monday morning blues, mid-week inspirations, TGIF, Saturday brunch, Sunday hangovers?

No morning alarm, no weekend plans, no agenda, no schedule, no “dressing up”, no formalities! Waking up at crack of dawn, to the sound of chirping birds, and the sun peeking through your window pane.

Staring at the same mountain ranges every morning and noticing how different they look by the passing hour.

Walking back home in a lane with no lights, with fireflies lighting up the way and the moon shining down the street.

Like-minded people you met here, that understand what you’re trying to find without you having to explain it to them!

Spending days at your favorite café, chatting and playing card games with the owner and his friends, not a single worry in the world!

The Café staff knowing exactly how much food you usually have, and packing it for you if you miss a meal.

Meeting new people from across the world every day and marveling over how incredibly unique each and every person is!

Lifting your bag any time and going away for the weekend with a random stranger.

Walking 2 kms to eat that perfect chocolate mousse at Kunga, and walking 4 for seeing the sunset at your favorite resort in Naddi.

Shared cabs, state buses, and asking bikers for a lift to the city!

Knowing most people by face and not by profession.

Bird-watching, star-gazing, finding faces in the clouds, walk in the forests, trekking in the mountains, photowalks.

Learning macramé, reading books, yoga in the morning, street jams at night, and maggi by the waterfall.

Soaking your feet in the river and listening to the Highway soundtrack.

Judging people on first appearances, then talking to them and realizing how fickle city life really makes you!

Above all, I love how I can do nothing all day and not feeling guilty about it!

Slow travel is all about discovering the discovered. About spending some quality time with a place you’ve given your heart to. It’s about marriage, and not about dating. It’s about a career, and not about a job. It’s about family, and not about relatives. It’s about soulmates, and not about infatuation. Slow travel is about companionship, and not about company.

 

Maybe it’s just me, but maybe you should try it too?

Sit back, relax, get to know your destination better! Picture credits – Abhinav Chandel

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Untraveling Hampi – Yabba-Dabba-Doo!

Untraveling Hampi
Untraveling Hampi!

I spent the last weekend (the Easter weekend), doing absolutely nothing in the humble little village of Hampi, and I can’t wait to go back! Having done my research, I traveled to Hampi prepared to be amazed by the “Land of boulders”, as it is popularly known. Once there, feeling ant-like in front of those giant, enormous, life-size, ancient boulders – here there and everywhere – where every rock, every boulder, and every ruined structure has a story to tell; Hampi took me back to my childhood days when I would be glued to my TV screen watching Fred and Wilma in their caveman outfits, riding in that tiny car with stone wheels, living in the cute little boulder’ish houses, taking pictures with the camera that had a hidden pecking ‘Da-Vinci’ bird. Is there any way to be sure Flintstones wasn’t shot in Hampi?

Hampi - The land of boulders
Hampi – The land of boulders

I won’t talk about the 500+ monuments Hampi is most famous for, because A) I’m not much of a sight-seeing person and you can easily read the zillion articles about it’s history online, and B) Hampi has much more character than just being a land of rock structures, and that’s what pulls me back! Situated in north Karnataka, a trip to Hampi – which is an overnight affair for Mumbaikars and Goans and just a 7 hour business from Bangalore – has something to offer to every traveler. Seekers of adventure may indulge in bouldering, cliff-diving, cycling on the treacherous hill-slopes, or taking a swim in the Tungabhadra (while being constantly alerted about the presence of crocodiles). It wins over off-beat travelers with its old-school charm maintained by preserving the flavor of a regular Indian village, and keeps history buffs entertained with centuries’ worth of stories. While on one hand it is a hippies’ paradise, filled with backpackers from around the globe, on the other it’s safe enough for you to travel with your family without feeling uncomfortable or out of place. If you’re bored of people suggesting Goa as a place to unwind (really guys, PLEASE be bored of Goa already!), I suggest you give Hampi a try!

Kids in Hampi posing for the shutterbugs!
Kids in Hampi posing for the shutterbugs!

Just throwing in a mythological fact here, Hampi is also known as the land of the Vanara Sena (Planet of the Apes) – a significant part of the Ramayana.

People here have very strong religious roots. The annual Rath Yatra of Hampi drew participation from each and every village in and around Hospet.
People here have very strong religious roots. The annual Rath Yatra of Hampi drew participation from each and every village in and around Hospet.

Oh, and did I mention it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Just a small, very insignificant detail.

Hampi - A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hampi – A UNESCO World Heritage Site

I made the mistake of visiting Hampi in the scorching summer heat. Be warned, it really is the worst time to visit, unless you’re chasing an easy sun-tan. You can’t cycle, sight-seeing will test all your patience, you don’t feel like eating because you just want to keep drinking lime juice ALL the time, and walking on the boulders is like walking on red hot iron. But even despite the heat, my 30 hour journey to reach Hampi due to a bus break-down, my ego-crushing attempt at cycling, and my phobia of water – I came back to Mumbai with a resolve to revisit Hampi after summers. Here’s why:

  • Read to your heart’s content – So one thing unique about Hampi is that this village has absolutely no network. And I’m not speaking about 3G, but general cellular network. Being a heritage site, Hampi can apparently not allow cellular companies to set-up mobile towers in the village, which though annoying at times, can really be a boon once you welcome the change. No calls, no msgs, no whatsapp, no twitter, no instagram! And if you’re lucky enough to be traveling alone, this means spending some genuine undisturbed quality time with books! Step into a Café, order a nice glass of banana coconut milkshake, dive into your novel and just don’t come out.
  • Perfect place for solo travelers – While meeting fellow travelers always tops my bucket-list while traveling to any place, doing so in Hampi was all the more treasured. With absolutely zero connection with the world outside this village, it’s very easy to go out of your way and join tables, or hitch rides with other backpackers. Add to that, the locals, who are so friendly and welcoming, that you won’t miss home in their presence! From a guesthouse owner who offered to let me stay for free, to a kind family that opened their home for a famished me after cycling in the heat, to people at a make-shift refugee camp who let me have lunch with them because they were so excited about seeing a solo Indian female traveler – I had the best experience with locals over my short stay.

    Goat curry with rice offered by the people at the camp set-up by villagers traveling for the Rath Yatra in Hampi.
    Goat curry with rice offered by the people at the camp set-up by villagers traveling for the Rath Yatra in Hampi.
  • Cycling trails – If, like me, you come from a city where cycling is only an activity you’ve left for the time you travel to Amsterdam – say Hello Hampi! You can go rent a cycle for a day for as cheap as Rs. 100. Full dislosure: Let me add here, the only reason I went to Hampi was because I read an itinerary that said you could cycle everyday, and despite all that excitement I failed miserably, as I couldn’t cycle to save my life. While I can blame the Hampi heat for my tragic attempt to re-ignite my love for cycling, I’m actually taking this up as a challenge. Next time I return, I’ll be fit enough to cycle around the village. Or at least I’ll try.
My rented ride parked at someone's house after I finally gave up trying to cycle
My rented ride parked at someone’s house after I finally gave up trying to cycle
    • Light on that wallet! – Rooms for Rs. 300 – 500 (will be highly hiked up during season time i.e. October onwards), cycle for Rs. 100, a plate of idli for Rs. 20, a large glass-full of mango milkshake for Rs. 90, a complete meal for under Rs. 150 – Hampi is a budget travelers heaven! If you’re traveling from Mumbai, you can take the bus for Rs. 1000 all the way to Hospet, a bus from Hospet to Hampi for Rs. 20 (or a rickshaw for Rs. 200), rent a cycle for Rs. 100 or a moped for Rs. 150 (goes up to Rs. 250 in season)­­­, cross the river by boat for Rs. 7 to the other side of Hampi, find a cheap guest-house / hut for yourself, and spend the weekend being absolutely lazy. A solo traveler can easily spend a weekend in Hampi in less than Rs. 4000, inclusive of travel; but if you really want to soak in the experience, I’d suggest you extend your trip to at least ten days!
Ancient yet modern, soaked in history, culture and travel tales – there’s a lot to see in Hampi!
  • Hippie heaven – As I mentioned earlier, Hampi is divided into two parts by a tiny lake, which can be crossed by a ferry ride which is shorter than the one between Versova and Madh Island. While on one side is the Hampi Bazaar, the Virupaksha Temple and all the possible major ruins of Hampi, the other side of the reservoir houses the quaint Anegundi village, endearingly known as the “hippie island”. You won’t see the Goa nonsense that’s usually associated to hippie’ness among Indian tourists, but a genuine, laid-back, peaceful life, underlined by the perfect co-existence of locals and backpackers. Anegundi has good roads (a singular road actually), perfect for taking your biking lessons, and view points where you can sit-back with coconut water and relish a perfect sunset. Indulge in activities like dread-lock making, lend a hand to the rural women making baskets and other handicrafts, take part in drum circles and impromptu jam sessions, or enjoy quiet evenings by the rice paddy fields. Café’s here let you smoke (not just cigarettes), and the music scene is not just playing music on speakers. It’s also common to come across foreigners who have been staying here for decades at stretch, which again speaks about how very comfortable this place really is. Meera the Belgian nun, staying here since 30 years, or the Italian baba – Ceaser – these foreigners are now Hampi locals, and so famous that travelers from across the world take appointments to meet them. Unfortunately, owing to my advance bookings, I had to stick to the bazaar side of Hampi, but my second visit will surely be an extended stay by the rice fields of Anegundi!
Trees, farms and perfect sunsets! Hampi – a land not just of boulders.

 

Notes:

  • The Land Out There organizes great weekend as well as extended backpacking trips to Hampi. If you don’t want to make the trip alone, I would highly recommend you get in touch with them!
  • Season time in Hampi is actually winters, i.e. post October, but I think monsoons here will be really beautiful. I will be basking in the glorious Himalayas this monsoon season, so I’ll give that experience a pass for this year. But if you’re looking for a monsoon escape, give Hampi a try!
  • The one guest house that stole my heart was the Shanthi Guest House, even though it’s slightly on the more expensive side.
  • The Hampi Festival, that takes place in January every year, seems to be a great time to visit this place, especially if you’re into travel photography.
  • To be honest, I didn’t make any efforts to try out the many food joints on both sides of the river. But from whatever I tried, and heard of, Mango Tree Cafe hands down wins the title for the best place to be.

 

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