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Travel: Head on a backpacking trip to Spiti Valley

This season, skip Kullu-Manali and backpack to the remote Spiti Valley. Especially since there’s a new hostel to make it a comfy trail

Back in 1901, Rudyard Kipling described Spiti Valley as 'a world within a world' in the novel, Kim. This resonates even today, when you visit the cold, remote desert valley, in the northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh, often cut off from the world during freezing winter months. Spiti, which means The Middle Land, was used as an ancient trade route between Tibet and India. Now, the Valley — with its enchanting views of the snow-capped Himalayas, the powder-blue Spiti river, age-old monasteries, a crescent-shaped Chandra Taal lake, tiny hamlets which include Komic, the highest motorable village in Asia, and Hikkim credited to be home to the world's highest post-office, and the warm, welcoming Spiti locals — is a haven for bikers and adventure enthusiasts, who are keen to go beyond the usual Manali-Shimla-Kasol treks. 

The exterior view of Zostel Spiti
The exterior view of Zostel Spiti

If you are planning a trip to the picturesque Valley and wondering where to stay, considering Spiti has a handful of home-stays and hotels, check out Zostel Spiti, which opened last month in Kaza, considered as the headquarters and the largest town in the valley. For the uninitiated, Zostel is India's first chain of backpackers' hostels with properties in 15 cities, including Agra, Jodhpur, Varanasi and Khajuraho. “Spiti Valley has been on every Himalayan explorer's bucket list. The idea is to provide a place for all like-minded travellers to stay, where they don't just get a roof on their heads for a night but a place where they can gather after the day's travel and share stories,” says Deep Banka, one of founding members at Zostel.

What's on offer
The hostel offers three dormitories with six beds, and a private room, along with double occupancy camping tents and two luxurious Alpine tents too. Besides, the hostel also offers Wi-Fi facilities, a common room, board games, laptop friendly activities and organising evening activities, treks and walks. Their in-house café and restaurant offers Indian, Italian and Israeli (subject to availability) cuisines. While vegetarian fare would cost R300, non-vegetarian fare is priced at R400. While the team plans to keep the Zostel open all-year round, accessibility to the region between November to February may hinder its operations.

The common room at the hostel
The common room at the hostel

AT Leo Village Road, Kaza.
COST Rs 600 to Rs 2,000
EMAIL reservations@zostel.com

Offbeat cool in Spiti
Mad over Mane
A two-hour drive from Kaza is Mane (pronounced as Maa-ne), an unplotted village on Google Maps that constitutes close to 70 families and a grocery store. One of the residents, 29-year-old Lobzang (that's the name she goes by), who lives with her niece and cat, offers home-stay experiences in her two-room typically Spitian mud home with low beds and a wooden kiln to heat water in the centre of the living room.

Lobzang with her cat, Shimmy at the home-stay
Lobzang with her cat, Shimmy at the home-stay

Enjoy a guided tour of the village with a nearby rivulet, learn to make Chhaang and Arak (local barley liquor) and potato-stuffed momos or if you're up for it, traipse with Lobzang across the mountain to pluck sea buckthorn, a tangy berry that makes for a refreshing tea-infusion. A morning view of the sleepy village, with sunlight glinting the snowy peaks, is enough to soothe frayed nerves. The experience is currently offered via Karanbir Singh Bedi of Hotel Deyzor.

A morning view of a farm at Mane village. Pics/Krutika Behrawala
A morning view of a farm at Mane village. Pics/Krutika Behrawala

CALL 9530570649
COST  Rs 500 onwards

A cave adventure
A three-hour drive from Kaza is a tiny hamlet of Tashigang, around which there are several meditation caves. Local lore goes that a Buddhist monk levitated from Tibet and landed into the caves, and since then, they've been used for meditation purposes.

Undated stone sketches
Undated stone sketches

A two-hour, easy hike across two hills will take you the caves that feature undated, beautiful sketches of gods and goddesses on black stones, etched in the wall. It's advisable to book a guide who knows the way to the caves.

Interiors of one of the caves adorned with books and fur jacketsInteriors of one of the caves adorned with books and fur jackets

Be touristy
Camp at a lake: About a six-hour drive from Kaza, accessible on foot from Batal or Kunzum Pass, the magnificent crescent-moon shaped, Chandrataal lake is located at an altitude of 4,300 metres. While it is possible to go on a day trip to the lake, a preferred option among most travellers is an overnight camping experience, under a starry sky with bonfire et al, at the base of the lake.

The beautiful prayer room at Key Monastery
The beautiful prayer room at Key Monastery

A monastery with a view: Flanked by mountains on three sides, Key Monastery is the biggest in Spiti Valley. It is supposed to have been founded by Dromtom, a student of the famous religious teacher Atisha, in the 11th century. The three-storey structure features prayer wheels and prayer room walls covered with paintings and murals, representing 14th century monastic architecture.

A collection of fossils at a Langza local’s home
A collection of fossils at a Langza local’s home

Find fossils: A towering, 1,000-year-old golden-hued statue of Gautam Buddha, which can be spotted from afar, tells you that you are entering Langza, known as Spiti's fossil village. Here you can find million-year-old fossils of sea creatures and shells. The village offers a couple of home-stay options and you can use help of locals, who will guide you to areas near the village where you can hunt for fossils yourselves. However, remember that possession and collection of fossils is illegal in India.

Checklist
>> Carry sufficient warm clothes
>> Limited mobile connectivity. Only BSNL network works here
>> Carry cash. You will find an ATM only in Kaza, which often doesn't function.
>> Book accommodation in advance since it is tourist season.

Also stay at...
With cute, wooden placards that say 'Rooms. Food. WiFi. See U Inside', Hotel Deyzor, located near the BSNL office in New Kaza, is unlike a regular boarding lodge, without the idea of a room service.

But you can't complain as the hotel offers one of the most comfortable stays with its comfortable standard, deluxe and superior rooms featuring walls with lovely quotes and a library with many books explaining the history of the region. Operated by the affable and extremely helpful Karanbir Singh Bedi — who will get you homemade cures for altitude sickness, help you book local cabs and curate itineraries based on your interests the hotel also has an in-house cafe and restaurant offering everything from North Indian curries to Italian pastas and garlic soup. The owner's dog, Hachi also makes for great company.

Spiti Valley
From Mumbai 2,163 km
How to reach: Take a flight/train to Delhi or Chandigarh and then, reach Spiti Valley, either from Kullu-Manali via Rohtang Pass, crossing the Kunzum La (entrance into Lahaul-Spiti district) or from Shimla, via Reckong Peo. Adventurous souls on a budget can opt for an HRTC bus ride for Kullu-Kaza route (daily at 4.30 am), quickest way (15 hours) to reach Kaza albeit jagged. If travelling from Shimla, plan a night's stay at Nako, that is en route to Kaza.

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