It speaks volumes that travel experts Lonely Planet could not decide if Lahaul or Spiti in India should be a region to include in their Best in Travel 2018 list. In the end, they included both and for good reason.
Wedged in the northern part of South Asia, in the shadow of the Himalayas, both valleys are found in the state of Himachal Pradesh and have close ties to Tibet and therefore, Buddhism.
The primary difference: Spiti is drier than Lahaul, so expect moonscapes in the former and flora and fauna in the latter.
This means sky-reaching craggy peaks capped with snow, windswept plains, temples and monasteries are de rigueur here. The primary difference: Spiti is drier than Lahaul, so expect moonscapes in the former and flora and fauna in the latter.
Visiting the area – specifically, trekking is highly recommended – it is hard to believe that it is part of the second most populous country on Earth. This is one of the most uninhabited regions on the planet, and also has a road that leads to Kashmir, regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world.
“Mark this seldom-visited area of India down for those who like to explore intrepid destinations. Home to some of India’s most spectacular Buddhist art, this is a destination where every journey is an expedition,” says Lonely Planet spokesperson Chris Zeiher.
The nearest city to Lahaul and Spiti is Manali, itself a tourism hub and linked to the region via the 3,978m-high Rohtang La Pass, which is open only from May to October. Another way in is from the east, via the renowned hill station of Shimla, through the Kunzum La Pass.
Road conditions are challenging, even for four-wheel drive vehicles. Descriptions of “getting shaken like a cocktail”, and “having your insides all mixed up” are common. The nearest airport is Bhuntar in Kullu. From there, it is best to hire a car to get to the valleys.
Keylong is the main town in Lahaul, covered in green fields. This is a good place to make a pit stop to adjust to the altitude, although most travellers just dash through it en route to Manali or the more well-known Ladakh. Take walks around the Bhaga Valley, where historic gompas (local speak for monastery) Tayul, Khardong, and Shashur are located.
Sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and Hindus, the Trilokinath Temple boasts beautiful architecture, done in the Kashmiri-Kannauj style. Stone carvings cover the doors, pillars and walls that have significance in both religions.
The biggest village located in the Pangi Valley, Killar is nowhere within the average tourist’s radar. Past here is what has been recognised as the world’s most dangerous road, described by Lonely Planet writer John Noble as “a hair-raising strip of dirt and gravel that leads eventually to Kishtwar in southern Kashmir. The rudimentary highway bumps over bare rocks and clings to terrifyingly narrow cliff ledges high, high above the river”.
The Nako Village and Monastery makes for a good introduction to the more barren landscape of the Spiti Valley. The village has strong Buddhist influences as seen from a large prayer wheel on its hill and many other smaller ones dotted around. The monastery dates back to the 11th century, and has four chapels decorated with Tibetan Buddhist murals and sculptures.
Arguably the most popular site in the region, Key Gompa was founded in the 11th century and is the largest Buddhist monastery there.
Tucked within the village of the same name, Tabo Gompa has nine shrines enclosed within its mud-walled buildings, embellished with murals by some of the best Buddhist artists of the 1st century. The highlight is the main assembly hall, the Tsuglagkhang, where its walls are arranged with 28 almost-life-sized sculptures of bodhisattvas.
Arguably the most popular site in the region, Key Gompa was founded in the 11th century and is the largest Buddhist monastery there. Perched halfway up a hill at 4,166m, it is a cluster of white, angular buildings constructed atop one another that also doubles as a training centre for almost 200 monks and nuns.
The glacial Chandra Taal lake is named for its crescent moon shape, and is situated 4,300m above sea level. Do as the Buddhists do and walk its 4km circumference in a clockwise direction in what is known as a Parikrama. This is a symbol of prayer or, for the atheists, a great way to soak in the views.