The reputation of the Spiti Loop road in the state of Himachal Pradesh precedes it. It’s one of the most dramatic, most terrifying, most scenically stunning, most remote trips you can do in India, if not the world. It’s also, for the most part, in a shocking condition. Yet many people travel here, quite a lot on motorbikes, some brave souls on bicycles, others with money hire private jeeps and then there’s people like me, risking their lives on the local buses.
The state-run buses are little more than sheets of rusted old metal with some wheels of dubious quality attached and suspension a distant memory. For much of its length the road is unpaved and is quite often just a single dirt track cut high into the mountainside with huge overhanging rocks. Then it descends into a valley, passing through isolated villages before climbing yet again.
Waterfalls tumble into the road itself. Drivers negotiate hairpin bends with barely a drop in speed or change of gears. If any vehicle is coming the other way, there is usually a stand-off before one driver agrees to reverse, while the other inches past, the wheels grazing the edge causing pebbles and dust to plummet into the chasm below.
Journeys are arduous with average speeds rarely exceeding 20km per hour. You have to obtain a special permit, since the route passes several times close to the Tibetan border. Yet, it’s all worth it, because the scenery is awe-inspiring and several villages contain incredible monasteries with religious painting and murals over a thousand years old.
Many places feel little changed for centuries. There might be electricity, but it’s sporadic and unreliable. It was harvest time when I went through and everything is still done by hand. For children Playstations and the like are unknown and a twelve-year old is content to ride down a slope in a plastic toy car. The roads are hot, dusty and pot-holed and huge lizards play dare in front of oncoming trucks.
You can travel the loop in either direction, but I went from Manali to Shimla. The road goes north over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul, then heads east, but I’d already trekked across the Hampta Pass, so I picked up the road at Chatru where I managed to get a lift to Kaza. It’s here that you can get your permit, but otherwise it’s not particularly attractive, so I headed up to the village of Kibber which is at 4200m above sea level. I spent a day walking to the even higher hamlet of Gete from where an outcrop adorned with prayer flags has incredible views into the valley below and of the Ki monastery.
I then headed to Tabo, the last village in Spiti, which contains a stunning monastery. From the outside it’s just a collection of mud brick buildings, but they house beautiful Tibetan style murals wonderfully preserved from AD 996, pre dating the Renaissance by hundreds of years. After Tabo the road soon turns south into Kinnaur skirting close to the Tibetan border. I stayed two nights in Nako, from where you can walk to the village of Tashigang. It’s a long tiring trek, but you can gaze straight onto the snowy peaks of Tibet and I saw nobody else for the entire day.
As the road heads west, the landscape changes, becoming lusher and greener again. I visited the traditional Kinnauri village of Kalpa and was struck by how many people still wear traditional costume, in particular the green hat. Then I caught another bus along a very scary and stomach-churning road along the Baspa valley to Chitkul. Halfway up there was a Hindu temple right in the middle of the road. The driver stopped to allow a priest to come onboard and offer blessings to everyone.
I explored the village and saw the timber barns which house crops and wood. Villagers were busy storing up for the winter and bright-red buckwheat lay already cut in the fields waiting to be carried into the village. I was surprised to see even old women bent double with vast quantities of wood and crops on their backs. I spent a morning climbing a side valley, following a local man taking his donkeys up above the treeline to graze near a glacier-fed stream.
My final stop before Shimla was Sarahan to visit the Bhimakali temple. I stayed in the temple guesthouse which had great views down into the entrance courtyard. The road was better, even paved for much of its length, but the remoteness of Buddhist Spiti was by now far away. Hinduism dominates, the weather is hotter and the buses far more over-crowded than any in Spiti. I’d finally left behind the Tibetan-influenced north and entered the real India.