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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Handy travel tips for female travelers making their first solo trip in/to India

Setting out to explore the big bad alluring world of travel all alone is never so easy, even more so when you’re a girl (not being a sexist here) I remember how paranoid I was before my first solo trip to Himachal. It has now been more than a year since, and today I don’t have to think twice before lifting my backpack and taking a train to my next destination.

Me on my first solo trip to Himachal!
Me on my first solo trip to Himachal!

When it comes to travel, you always have a choice of choosing to do it with friends or going solo. I’ve done both and equally enjoyed the experience. While numbers definitely give you safety, traveling solo gives you freedom. You get to choose your own pace, meet new friends more easily, do the things you want to without worrying about whether your friends would agree, and not being tied to a fixed plan that everyone has signed up for.

Having said that, being a solo female traveler also means attracting a lot of unwanted attention, especially if you’re traveling in India. I don’t think Indians are still open to the concept of females traveling alone, and I’ve personally had a few bad experiences of being judged by disapproving Indian tourists. I’ve been chased by eve-teasers in Jaipur, which led to me spending 2 days watching television at my guest house because I wasn’t ready to go out again without company. An American lady I met in McLeod Ganj was groped in a public bus in Himachal, by a man who told her she reminded him of his mother (really!). And if you’re unfortunate enough to be too fair-skinned, don’t be surprised if random people and families come up to you on the streets asking for a photograph.

So I thought I should start my blog by sharing the wisdom that I acquired from other female travelers I met through my travels. Follow this and you should be good for your first solo trip 🙂

Be prepared, be cautious, be alert but don’t let any of this deter you from exploring our beautiful country.

  • Pack light, pack smart – I can’t emphasize on this enough. Lisa Haydon wasn’t kidding when she made Kangana Ranaut leave her humongous suitcase for a backpack. Nothing ties you down on your travel more than a bag that needs lugging around. This might be the last of the concerns crowding your mind when you’re planning your first solo trip, but trust me it’s the most important. Lugging around a suitcase, even if it’s a strolley, can be a mean task when you’re alone. You will hate that strolley when you find the perfect house right at the foot of the mountain, and now these 100 mountain steps to and fro the place feel like Mt. Everest. Please keep in mind, Indian roads are not strolley friendly, many times not walk-friendly either, and public transport cannot be always relied upon. So carrying a suitcase around can really be difficult at times.

A smartly packed backpack at such times is the best friend you never invited to your trip. Pack in layers, remember you don’t have to carry your entire wardrobe, more important than clothes are essentials like torch/ portable charger/ map/ diary/ portable speaker. Always carry a backup phone with a good battery life for times when your smartphone gives up on you (I use Nokia 105) Don’t forget to keep copies of all important travel documents, in case the originals are stolen or lost.

  • Go shopping! – For the right things. If you’re headed to a mountain city, shop for the right shoes, if you’re traveling in the winters, shop for the right jacket, always always always invest in the perfect backpack suited for your height and weight (I use one from Stikage) Don’t let your judgment be clouded by fashion statements or brand names. When I traveled to North Sikkim, at freezing temperatures, it was a custom-made cheap leather jacket from Dharavi that helped me survive more than the costlier but more stylish winter collection jacket from Vero Moda. On my first day of sightseeing in McLeod Ganj, I slipped into the waterfall because my Puma shoes didn’t have the right grip suited for the terrain; a 600 shoe from Dharamsala streets came to my rescue for the rest of my trip. Similarly, a good swiss knife (I carry Victorinox), a powerful torch, the strongest portable charger will go a long way in taking a lot of stress off your mind while traveling.
  • Pre-travel via Google – Read read and read a little more about each and every aspect of the place you’re going to travel to. As a solo female traveler, nothing will make you feel more confident of your decision than a thorough risk assessment. Read up stories of other travelers about local transport, accommodation reviews through TripAdvisor or Airbnb, health conditions through the Indian government health advisory, the political environment, local laws, cultural taboos. A few states in India are out of bounds for certain nationalities for security reasons, visiting places close to the Indo-Pak border need Indian citizens to get special permissions in advance too. It’s always a good idea to be prepared for such situations.
  • It’s good to have it, but don’t flaunt it! – I’m speaking about your gadgets and expensive accessories. Whether it’s a DSLR or a Laptop or an iPhone, when you’re traveling by public transport, especially when there are chances of you taking a nap, do not put on display what’s in your bag. Also, be alert at all times, lock your bag, keep it between your legs / under your head when you sleep. A friend from China traveling on a bus from Delhi to McLeod Ganj didn’t even realize when her MacBook was stolen from her bag. Lucky for her, the thief didn’t spot the Canon 5D DSLR just below the Macbook! So yes, it’s ok to want that perfect train shot for your blog, but be extra cautious if you’re on an overnight journey or in an overcrowded compartment.
  • Choose homestays – In my personal experience, couch-surfing (or homestays) has helped me get acclimatized to a new place, as you always have the family to guide you through the initial days when you’re clueless about everything. It is also the best way to learn the culture, manners, try the local cuisine of the place you’re at. And if you’re lucky like I was, you could find a home away from home, a family away from your family, that works as a medication for your initial home-sickness period.
  • Dress right, drink responsibly – It isn’t even funny when you see girls in shorts and heels on a mountain trek. I’m totally for the freedom to choose what you wear without fear of being judged, but not for anyone else but yourself – please choose your clothes wisely. See the kind of place you’re heading to. See what the culture of the place is like, how the people of the area dress. Traveling is always more pleasurable and convenient when you accept the traditions of the place you’re in, rather than trying to carry your metro culture to it. Similarly, drink responsibly if you’re alone.
  • Most importantly, don’t be afraid to say yes – Transformation is the biggest gift traveling gives you! But this will happen only when you’re open to new experiences. It’s good to be alert while you travel, but there’s a thin line between being cautious and an outright worrying lunatic. Don’t get so paranoid that you forget the main reason why you stepped out alone in the first place. Being a solo female traveler in India can be intimidating, but 9.75 of 10 times chances are you will witness the brighter side and come out smiling after a good day spent with absolute strangers. Don’t be afraid to say yes, it might just turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you!

 

You might be a solo traveler, but you don't have to be alone! Cherish the people you meet at your travels.
Traveling solo doesn’t mean traveling alone! Cherish the people you meet at your travels, these will be the best experiences 🙂

Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!