A LONG time ago, in 1961, I had meticulously planned a trek to Spiti. The planning was difficult, as Spiti, in Himachal Pradesh, was then a virtually unknown territory, rarely visited except by officials, with only an occasional pony trail or routes that existed largely on the map and translated on the ground as ice and snow, glaciers and boulders.
The only “guide” at that time was Justice G.D. Khosla’s Himalayan Circuit: A Journey in Inner Himalaya , based on his visit a few years earlier. Owing to family reasons I had to stay back, but my friends were able to use my research to cross into Spiti over the formidable Pin-Parbati Pass and return to Manali over the Kunzum and Rohtang passes. My long-awaited visit finally came about this autumn.
There are two approaches to Spiti by road. One is to drive from Manali to Kaza over the Rohtang and Kunzum passes, a distance of some 200 kilometres. The Internet can be misleading with regard to the time required, and travellers are best advised to add 25 per cent to what others may claim. We took nearly 11 hours on the journey (in the opposite direction).
The other approach is from Shimla: Shimla-Kalpa (240 km), Kalpa-Kaza (200 km). This is doable in two full days of driving. Of course, Tabo, 48 km short of Kaza, is a must stop for at least two days. In 1963, I had driven along the under-construction Hindustan-Tibet road some distance beyond Kalpa. More than half a century later, fair stretches of the road remain under repair and a challenge to vehicles and their passengers alike, as they had been earlier. This situation is presumably unavoidable because of falling rocks and the snow during winter.
As one drives along the Sutlej, lush green Kalpa with its range upon range of apple orchards and pine forests gives way soon to the starkness of the trans-Himalayas. The Sutlej can be disturbingly close at times, and at others far below at the bottom of the gorge. After Nako one enters the realm of the Spiti river and at Sumdo, Spiti itself.
The border check post at Sumdo is a stark reminder of continued restrictions on foreigners entering Spiti. They can do so only in pairs or multiples. This defies reason. If the concern is for national security, then less, surely, the better. If, as is more likely, it is for the security of the visitor, then it would make more sense to require that the foreign guest is accompanied by another person, either foreigner or Indian. Other formulations can be considered to meet legitimate concerns. Permits need to be obtained at Rekong Peo (below Kalpa), the district headquarters, and it was sad to see a young and enthusiastic Australian girl, keen to visit Spiti after many weeks in Kinnaur, being denied entry.
Spiti’s association with the rest of India is said to go back to the Mauryan empire, followed by the Kushans and the occasional overlordship of Ladakh and Kashmir. The period of its association with the Guge kingdom in western Tibet a millennium ago has left a lasting imprint on it. But through it all, Spiti and its people have retained their individuality.
Next door, Ladakh has a sweep and grandeur that overwhelms. The vast spaces of Ladakh, the Changtang, have a quality almost of merging with infinity. Spiti is more intimate, more beautiful in detail, with a personal aura that invites the visitor to return.