Himachal Pradesh

Budget backpackers guide to Spiti Valley

This is, without a doubt, my favourite destination of all time so I just had to cover this place. I have made this post as in-depth as possible without getting tedious. I want to share my experience and hopefully inspire you to see this beautiful corner of the world through your own eyes. There is so much to cover on this incredible place I have had to divide the post into two parts. In this first part a Budget backpackers guide to Spiti Valley I will talk about making the journey without breaking the bank. What are your options and when should you go?

The second part 6 best places in Spiti Valley, is about where to go in the Valley and what is there to see here. I have also written an additional post on the delightful Homestay Trek. The walk is a five-day village to village hike that you can easily organise yourself. It takes you through some of Indias most stunning natural places and provides the chance to stay in the homes of the people that inhabit this inhospitable part of the world. If that is something you are interested in, then keep reading. We have so much to cover in so little time so let us jump straight in.

Budget backpackers guide to Spiti Valley

The Valley is composed mostly of high altitude desert and is hemmed in by serrated snowy peaks that tower over on either side. The murky Spiti river cuts through the valley floor allowing life to take a foothold in this otherwise unforgiving place. Small whitewashed villages huddle to the mountainside, and the friendly local people farm their barley crop. In the summertime, the emerald green fields offer endless photographic opportunities, against the stark moon-like landscape.

With its smattering of gompas, some over 1000 years old, it can feel like stepping into another time. The raw natural beauty of this place ensures it will wow even the most hardened of travellers. The word Spiti means middle land in Sanscrit and in this case, it is the land between Tibet and India

This place offers the chance to immerse one’s self in a timeless culture, and there is even a chance to spot some unusual wildlife, Such as Blue sheep, Ibex, the Himalayan brown bear, marmots, vultures and wolves to name a few. It’s also one of the best places in the world to get a glimpse of the elusive Snow Leopard, with chances increasing dramatically for those brave enough to come in the winter months. With all this on offer, what are you waiting for? Read on and start planning your own trip to this hidden gem.

Getting there and away.

Getting to Spiti valley

The drive from Manali to Kaza is very dramatic and provides many opportunities for the photographers amongst us.

Trips start from either Shimla or Manali as there are no airports in the Valley. Nor are any planned in the future and, this dramatically reduces the number of tourists that ply this route.

To make the full circuit you will have to travel a whopping 652 km by road! Kaza is 450 km from Shimla and 202km from Manali. It makes a breathtaking journey and takes you through a variety of landscapes so have your cameras ready.

I would imagine most tourists would want to make a round trip, as its a long way to go to make it to Kaza only to turn around again and travel back on the same road. There are three options for transport to make this route and what one you take depends on your budget.

One is to hire a private Jeep. from either Shimla or Manali, and there are plenty of options for this, although it is costly.  Prices range between 3000 to 4500 rupees a day for the jeep and driver. It depends of-cause on your bargaining skills, the quality of the vehicle and the experience of the driver. Something to take into consideration is a lot of the drivers come from the lowlands and have little to no experience navigating the treacherous mountain roads, so be selective on who you choose to take you.

The second option is to take a shared jeep. These can be shared with locals or foreign tourists. My advice is to try and share with foreign tourists, as you will probably want to stop frequently for photographs. The locals tend not to want to stop so much, as they just want to get home, and this can create a frustrating conflict of interests.

Spiti valley travel

As you begin to reach the fertile Kullu Valley, the first splash of colour can be a delight.

The third option is to take one of the Himachal Pradesh government busses. These white and green well-overused tin cans would most definitely not be allowed near the roads in England. However, it’s both cost-effective and arguably safer. The drivers make this route as often as weather permits, so they are very familiar with the roads. Its also is an experience in itself to share the journey with the local people.

However, the downside is there are much slower than private vehicles and do not stop for pictures. I made this trip on public transport and past countless photograph opportunities, Especially on the Kaza to Manali road. Additionally, they can become cramped and very overcrowded, meaning if you decide to get off and stay somewhere along the way, you might not get a seat again. That would entail you being flexible with how much time your journey takes. Your two-week trip can easily extend to three.

The last thing to note here is, the road is not open all year round. The Rohtang La pass is open from some time in June to late September, and the full circuit is only possible during this time. I travelled in May and had to wait two weeks for a bus, no joke!  The road from Rekong Peo to Kaza is theoretically is open year-round, and that means anyone coming in the winter months has a way in and out. But that also means you have to make the same 450 km journey back the way you came.

Inner line permits.

Amazing Spiti

The lookout tower at Dhanker Gompa provides an awe-inspiring scene. I hope my Budget backpackers guide to Spiti valley will provide my readers with the inspiration to want to see this for themselves.

What is an inner line permit? Well, the road from Kaza to Rekong Peo runs along the border of Tibet, and the Indian government are worried about tourists crossing over illegally. I don’t know what kind of maniac would try and cross the massive mountain range only to face the Chinese penal system when they get the other side, but clearly, someone somewhere has.

What that means for us, is we need to obtain a permit. The good news is it’s easy to get, and  Indian nationals don’t need one at all. Foreign tourists travelling from Manali to Kaza who then turn around the same way, need not apply. There are four places I know that you can get one of these.

The additional district magistrates office in Shimla (where I got mine. ) Room 207-208 block b. It’s open from Monday to Saturday from 10 am to 1.30 pm and 2-5 pm. You need a cover sponsorship letter from a recognised travel agent in Shimla. Not sure why? It was not the case when I applied, but it’s what I have read the restrictions are now, and it costs 200-300 rupees for a minimum of two people.

The second option is in Rekong Peo, and most people use one of the travel agencies on the main bazaar. It’s considerably more relaxed than applying in Shimla, but this service will cost each person 400-500 rupees. Note the permit is only needed on the road out of Rekong Peo and a check post before Tabo and is valid for twelve days. This is more than ample time to take this route.

You can also apply at Kaza, at the Assitant deputy commissioners office, located near the hospital. Only here you can apply for a solo permit and the opening hours are the same as they are in Shimla or Rekong Peo.

The fourth and final way is to apply in Keylong, from the district commissioners office that’s on the Leh – Manali highway. It is a very impractical route to make using public transport, as you would have to get a bus to Gramphu and wait for a very undetermined amount of time for another bus to Kaza. All the offices are closed on the second Saturday of every month for reasons; I have no idea. No matter where you apply you will need two passport pictures plus photocopies of your visa and passport. Trust me when I say it is nowhere near as hard as it sounds to obtain this permit.

Hazards in the Spiti Valley.

Three main dangers face any traveller to Spiti valley. The altitude, the roads and a complete lack of health care. All these are aspects to take into consideration when planning any trip. So now let us look at each issue in detail.

Dangerous roads.

Spiti Valley transport

The roads here will test anyone’s nerves.

These are some of the highest roads in the world, and at times there are sheer drops onto the valley floor. There are no bollards to stop an accident, and every time a vehicle overtakes, it can make you question if there really is a god.

Some people decide to hire a Royal Enfield motorbike and make the route that way. I did not include this in the getting there and away section as this is an incredibly dangerous idea. If you do choose this as an option for yourself, make sure you are a very confident driver, as this is not the place to learn to ride a bike!

Should you incur any damages to the bike, you will be liable to pay. While I was there, I met three Indian tourists who had hired bikes, and when I met them, only one still had their motorcycle. The other two had lost there’s in a river that had been caused by glacial runoff, and that works out to be a costly mess to clean up.

Additionally, on the road to Manali passing the Lahaul Valley, there is an increased risk of falling rocks, land and mudslides due to a much wetter climate. It’s essential to put thought into how you want to get to and from the Valley. At times it’s a heart-pounding experience but, at the same time exquisitely beautiful. The full circuit takes you through a variety of landscapes offering photo opportunities galore and will surely be an experience you will never forget. Curiously, there seem to be relatively few accidents.

Altitude sickness.

Journey to Spiti Valley

After spending so much time in the high mountain deserts, the pristine forests around Manali are a welcome feature.

Altitude sickness or AMS (acute mountain sickness) is caused by travelling to high to fast. Breathing becomes more difficult as you are not able to get enough air. It can become a medical emergency quickly if it is ignored. It does not seem to matter how old you are, how fit you are or if your a boy or girl. The onset of the symptoms usually starts within a few hours.

These include; headache, lethargy, dizziness, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite and shortness of breath. AMS becomes an issue above 3000m, and since the vast majority of the whole Valley is above that, it is certainly something to take into consideration.

Kaza, for example, has an elevation of 3800m, well inside the danger zone of AMS. Tabo, on the other hand, is only 3280m above sea level. So if you are experiencing symptoms on arrival in Kaza, this would be an excellent place to head.

The route from Shimla to Kaza is much more of a gradual incline allowing yourself to become acclimatised as you travel. Drinking plenty of fluids, not ascending too fast, avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, smoking and taking frequent breaks will all help you avoid AMS. Treat mild symptoms with paracetamol.

Moving down in elevation will also help to treat your symptoms, even 300m can make a lot of difference. Some people take the drugs Acetazolamide or Dexamethasone to tackle the symptoms or ascend faster. I do not recommend this as it masks the signs and you won’t have any idea how bad your condition has become. Given how severe AMS is, I don’t recommend using this cause of action. Despite your schedule.

The best piece of I can give to anyone is to remember it’s not a race. Take it slow and remember that most of us are probably only there once in a lifetime. It’s better to absorb it all in and not try to rush.

Availability of health care in the Spiti Valley.

There is a hospital in Kaza But, with minimal facilities and I would not expect the world from it. So if you are going to travel with insurance, make sure it covers airlifts to make it at all worthwhile. There are pharmacists in town where you can get essential medication. I found Indian ORS rehydration salts very useful here. I had one every day while hiking, and I found it made a huge difference for my wellbeing. It is a hard slog when you are walking for hours on end, and it pays to replace those salts.

The people of Spiti valley have there own traditional medicine. The practitioners are known as Amchi. In the past couple of decades, this practice has rapidly declined. What’s more, some of those practices as far as I can tell are unique to the people of the Valley. It is a branch of Tibetan medicine and can trace it’s the lineage back for hundreds of years.

Spiti valley altitude

Nearly all of the Valley is above 3000 meters, so it is essential to take things slow. Don’t push yourself as it will all end in tears.

The climate in the Valley.

November – March

These are the winter months, and the only road in and out can close at any time. It can leave you with a very long wait for the roads to reopen particularly, towards the end of December when many hotels in the valley close. Another way of looking at it is, there will be considerably fewer tourists around and will look beautiful in the snow. The temperature can get extreme now, and it is common for the temperature to drop well below minus twenty.

This is far and away the best month to catch a glimpse of the elusive Snow Leopard. One company I know offers tours (and don’t even think about doing this without a guide) is the company Spiti valley tours. They seem to get good reviews and if your interested the office is in Kaza.

April – May

Many people decide to come at this time as there is still plenty of snow on the hills, and the barley begins to bring colour to the Valley. However, the Kunzum La will still be closed, making the full circuit impossible. Tourist numbers will be meagre, making it an excellent time to start the homestay trek.

June to August.

Now is the peak season for the Valley. Indians have a public holiday in June, resulting in domestic tourism going up. June is the month tourism begins to boom.  The pass is now open, and the meadows will be green and very photogenic.

Both Kinnaur and Lahaul Valleys will be well within the grip of the monsoon, making between July and August a difficult time to travel to the Valley. The road in and out often suffers from landslides or flooding, creating delays for your journey. The Valley itself is stunning at this time, and since it is in a rain shadow, there are often clear starlit nights.

September to October

These are the autumn months when the leaves begin to change colour. The pass tends to shut in September so, it is worth keeping an eye on if you plan to travel to or from Manali. The nights can get quite cold now, and the tourist numbers begin to wane as the people of the Valley again get ready for the long cold winter.

Spiti roads

It is Yet another dramatic view from the long journey into the Valley.

In summary of the first part of a Budget backpackers guide to Spiti Valley.

There is a lot to take into consideration, but, for those who put in the time and effort to reach here, the rewards are plentiful. They have to be with all the pre-planning that is involved. Now I have completely covered all that you need to know about getting to and from the Valley we can move on to what exactly is there for you to enjoy. Fortunately, there is so much to keep the intrepid traveller from rushing off, so without further ado lets move on to the next post.



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