- Saptadeepa Bandopadhyay
The Highway chronicle: Hindustan-Tibet Road | Shimla to Spiti | Kinnaur Valley | Places to Visit
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Himachal Pradesh, a northern state of India, surrounded by the Himalayan mountain ranges, remains largely unexplored and secluded from the rest of India. Until recently, the 'snow-clad province' as the name translates to, was famed among the tourists for its hill-stations like Shimla and Manali which gained popularity as the summer capital of India.
The state is majorly connected only by roadways which is managed by state government, Border Road Organization and the Indian Army. The diverse variation in the geography of the state; from giant towering mountains to steep river valleys, dense forests, streams from glaciers melting into the rivers, the entire state is equally beautiful, raw and strenuous throughout.
The Hindustan Tibet Road -
One such highway I had the privilege to travel through is the Hindustan-Tibet Highway on a 10-day trip from Shimla to Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh.
This road is one of the greatest human endeavors in history, for it has been constructed along the mountain edges by manually cut rock tunnels. This road has also been ranked among the "most deadliest roads in the world" as per History Channel. The construction of this road was commissioned by Lord Dalhousie of the British East India Company around 1850 and continued until the late 19th century.
The purpose of this road was to increase trade across the Indo-Tibet border and provide access to the expanded British kingdom. It has also been a boon connecting the remotest of Himachali villages to the rest of the country and the explorers to the Himalayas. This road was also part of the famous Silk Route connecting China. The Hindustan-Tibet highway ends at Shipki La pass in India and enters Tibet through the Indo-Tibet Border.
Like me, if you are interested in knowing more about this road, here is a very informative article I came across and highly recommend to read it once.
Hindustan Tibet Road: An Engineering Feat
The Route Chosen for the Shimla to Spiti expedition-
We travelled to Spiti during June 2019 and here is the route we followed.
The initial plan was to cover the entire circuit i.e. Shimla - Spiti Valley - Manali
But due to unforeseen snowfall in June this year, we finally zeroed the route to Shimla - Spiti Valley - Shimla.
The route from Chandigarh to Spiti is via the Hindustan-Tibet Road (also referred as NH-22) and the NH-5 Highway.
The entire 10 day road journey was broken down will multiple halts as below -
Chandigarh -> Shimla -> Sarahan -> Sangla -> Raksham -> Chitkul -> Recong Peo -> Kalpa -> Spiti Valley -> Rampur -> Narkanda -> Shimla -> Chandigarh
Spiti Valley Road Trip Tips -
This Spiti tour itinerary can be followed if you are planning a trip during the winters or if Manali to Spiti road via Rohtang Pass is not open.
The Manali to Spiti route is the shortest and takes around 12-14 hours. Please check the weather and the road conditions before endeavoring on this.
The Shimla to Spiti route is time consuming and if planned via the Kinnaur Valley will provide a scope to discover more of offbeat Himachal Pradesh.
Here is an account of the places explored on the way to Spiti via Kinnaur Valley!
You can refer the same route as a guide for
1) Road trip from Shimla to Spiti via Kinnaur Valley
2) Places to see in Kinnaur Valley
3) Things to do on Hindustan-Tibet road.
Note: I will make another post on Spiti Valley. So have not elaborated on the places we explored in Spiti.
Chandigarh to Shimla
After an early morning flight from Bangalore, we landed in Chandigarh and booked an Ola cab to reach Shimla. Thanks to the ever jammed highways to the Himachali capital, we reached Shimla by the evening. We strolled around the famous Mall road of Shimla which was next to our accommodation.
Indulging over some street-food ('chats' as called in India) and some Bollywood karaoke music, we watched the red fire ball set in the mountain hues while the air thinned the evening atmosphere.
We so loved the vibes of the Mall Road, that we ended up strolling through the street until midnight. Young newly weds, new parents with little babies in strollers, bunch of cool college-mates...the crowd amplified as it turned dark. The European styled government building, the Christ church, the museum, the vibrant cafes, colorful alleys provided a happy vibe to the place. The day ended with our dinner at a cozy cafe, some more walking on the no-vehicle road and a hot plate of Maggi from a street-food stall. By midnight we crawled into our hotel rooms with our aching feet and dozed off in glory.
This was our first time to Shimla and we enjoyed wandering without having to check off all the 'places to visit in Shimla'.
Shimla to Sarahan
Next day morning after a breakfast of Paratha and Masala chai we checked out of our Shimla hotel. We first met our chauffeur Rajesh who took us to the Jakku Temple surprised that we had not seen anything in Shimla. (I will refer Rajesh a couple of times in the post. All through the journey he was our only guide and eventually a good friend).
The Jakku Temple in Shimla is a Hindu temple of the Monkey god or Hanuman as locally referred. There is a gigantic Hanuman statue in its premises, 108-feet high and visible from the Ridge on Mall road. There is also a cable-car service from Jakhu to Mall Road. Not to mention, there are numerous monkey families around the temple to amuse you or snatch your belonging.
Leaving Shimla, we got onto the Hindustan-Tibet road passing many pine and deodar forests. We had a brief halt at Kufri but did not do much here as the major attraction in Kufri involved taking a horse ride though the forest. We are trying to avoid horse rides as a choice towards responsible travel.
The further journey took us through tiny hamlets of Fagu, Theog and many apple orchards. Soon we were on the roads running parallel to the Satluj river. Steep ascending mountains on one side, deep valley views and the gushing Satluj river on the other, will marvel the first time travelers on this road. The Satluj river is said to have its origin from the holy Manasarovar Lake in Tibet.
The plan was to halt for a night at Sarahan, so we could be acclimatized to the higher altitudes the next day. Being our first time in Himachal Pradesh, we were loving the peaceful atmosphere and the simplicity of local life here.
Sarahan's main attraction is the Bhimakali temple with its many folklore. Even if you are not the religious kind, exploring the temple for its the local culture, beautiful wooden temple complex of the ancient Kath-kuni architecture and pagoda style roofs is a worthy experience. It is among one of the 51 Shaktipeethas of India and the Durga Puja is celebrated with grand festivities here. The king of Sarahan visits here on special occasions as it is his family deity.
Sarahan has many apple orchards and you may visit one with the owner's permission. Also among the places to see in Sarahan is the Daranghati Wildlife Sanctuary. If you have an extra day in hand, you must plan to visit there.
Sarahan to Kinnaur Valley -
Next morning we started from Sarahan towards the Kinnaur Valley. We passed through the little laid back villages where women were pampering their apple trees and kids trekking through the hills on their way to school. Fun-fact from Rajesh - 'locals here feed more medicines to the apple plantations than their own kids'!
Soon enough we were on the most deadly rock tunnels where roads are literally carved hollow into the mountains and may not even be tarred at stretches.
These roads often gave me chills on their narrow hairpin curves when I tried to peep down the valley from our car window. One can witness numerous water streams flowing down the mountains. Its a lifetime of an experience. We often halted on the way to soak in the pristine nature, either admiring the waterfalls or just looking away into the distant snow-clad mountains.
After some adventures on the deadliest of roads in India and the struggles of passing two way traffic through the single narrow lanes, we reached the Sangla Village beyond the Baspa Dam Reservoir. It takes around 6-7 hours from Sarahan to Sangla.
We had a fulfilling lunch of an Indian Thali Meal in the Sangla Market and set to explore the nearby attractions. A kilometer away from the market is the Kamru Village. We trekked up through the village overlooking the Kinnaur-Kailash snowy-white peaks. On the mountaintop is the 800 year old Kamru fort standing tall. This is also a Kath-kuni architecture building. Though the fort is not open to the visitors, we explored the gated premise which has the Kamakhya Temple at the entrance. Two local ladies guard the place by the day and men by the night. They instructed us to cover our heads with a traditional Himachali cap and tie a waist band before visiting the temple.
We chatted with the village locals on our way back. Its surprising to see these people welcome you home for a cup of tea even though we had met only a few minutes ago.
We came back to the market and trekked across the road down to a Nag temple which was closed when we reached. However we enjoyed the trek through the hilly village lanes. Whenever we asked the locals about the correct route they only said, all these routes will take you to the temple. As though telling us that 'all roads lead to heaven, only your intentions matter'!
The cloudy atmosphere with light drizzles were giving us chills at times. The little kids peeping from their house lanes giggled and ran off when we tried to speak to them.
It was already evening and after a lot of anticipation, we decided to visit Chitkul before the day ended.
The road to Chitkul is quiet narrow and we experienced a few spells of showers on the route. At times, it is no surprise that there are no motor-able roads at all, but still the Himachali drivers manage with their efficient driving skills.
Chitkul has a very serene vibe to itself. The bright green forests along the mountains, the melting glaciers from the snow-capped mountains, the pristine icy Baspa river flowing through the valley looked like a place in paradise. The winds had completely changed. We grabbed our woolens and jackets to cover ourselves, despite the layers of thermals underneath. Passing beyond the board - 'Chitkul, the Last village of India' , we hovered around the beautiful village finding our way between the herds of sheep returning back. Rajesh drove us to the Indo-Tibet border and we spent some time by the river bed. I picked some pebbles as souvenirs for home.
Camping next to the Baspa river is among the best things to do in Chitkul, if you plan to spend a night here. There are many local homes as well offering home-stays at much reasonable rates there.
After a hot cup of tea and a bowl of maggi at the only dhaba in the village (famously known as 'Hindustan Ka Akhri Dhaba'), we proceed to our stay at Rakhsham.
It was pitch black by the time we reached our pre-booked stay at Rakhsham. Hotels/Camps at such remote locations have very basic amenities. The common area had a wi-fi connection and dining provided by the hotel. These hotels remain closed during the winter months. Soon after dinner we curled into the bed under multiple covers. Next day morning, we were to start early since the plan was to reach Tabo in Spiti valley.
But things don't always unwind as expected! I was up early and in the bathroom, when the water stopped from the taps. When we searched the premises for help, there was no staff in vicinity. The husband had grown impatient by now and with an empty bucket in hand wandered behind the stay in the direction of the sound of the gushing water. We spotted a stream and filled the bucket thinking of completing the basic washing activities before the onward journey. And finally on the way back we spotted the staff rubbing his eyes on the way to the kitchen. We were already running late by then. Without much to say, we asked him to stitch-on the water supply.
After the morning chores when we were finally outside, the sun shining on the mountain glaciers offered a spectacular view of the surrounding. We had breakfast and started for the journey.
The drive through the Rakhsham valley's spectacular landscape filled my heart with a childlike excitement. I could forever sit looking at those far-off mountains.
Enroute Kalpa (Towards Spiti Valley)
Having woken up early we had dozed off on the way. But we were suddenly woken to some outside commotion. There was a long queue of vehicles on the route and apparently there had been a landslide the previous evening. The traffic was waiting for the debris to be cleared but had no clue how long it would take.
We noticed a few state transport buses plying to Recong Peo. We asked Rajesh about the place and he said it was another beautiful place but not on our planned route. Already bored inside the car, I requested him if he could take us to Recong Peo and further to Kalpa instead of just sitting here.
That was our plan to kill the time until the road was cleared!
Recong Peo -
For the unknown, Recong Peo happens to be the head quarter of Kinnaur valley and most government offices of the valley are situated here. It has a post office and a bus depot in the heart of the town. Some woolen and shawl markets and restaurants are also located in the town.
We visited the Chandrika Devi Temple in Kothi village around 3 kilometers from the town. Its a beautiful little village and one can get a closer view of the Himachali life in these mountains. The temple is located amidst Deodar trees, apple orchards and backdrop of the snow-clad Himalayas. The locals pray here with lot of devotion. The deity is believed to be the daughter of a demon called Banasura. We were not allowed to enter the main building. However we loved the beautiful architecture of the temple premises.
The main attraction here is the clear view of the Kinnaur-Kailash mountain peak. This is a sacred mountain for Hindu Pilgrims and people from all over India dream of this pilgrimage, once in a lifetime.
Around 15 kilometers above Recong Peo is the beautiful hill-station of Kalpa, known for its most picturesque views and apple orchards, at a height of above 2900 meters and for its deadliest roads. An amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism is visible here. The temples and monasteries go hand-in-hand. We explored a Monastery and a few temples in a tiny little village here. All these buildings exhibit beautiful colored art and architectures with the backdrop of the shining-white peak of Kinnaur-Kailash. Except for the monastery, most temples were closed for visitors.
After halting for a warm cup of tea and a plate of dumplings, we drove beyond Kalpa to the deadliest edge of the mountain road known as the Suicide point. I know every hill-station in India has a Suicide point but this has to be the scariest. Further beyond this point, the roads narrowed allowing only a single car to pass at a time.
By the end of this road was a pretty little village, Roghi known for its apple plantation. We walked though the by-lanes of this village while admiring its natural beauty. The houses stand a few feet above the road and can be approached by stone-stacked steps. There is a panchayat office and a school where the kids were reciting their poems. Lazy mountain-dogs lay in the corners, least interested in the commotion around them.
Soon, Rajesh informed that the road had been cleared. We started for the onward journey to Tabo, Spiti after a fulfilling lunch in Recong Peo.
Note: One can obtain the inner line permit for Spiti from Recong Peo. However this should be already done if you book a Spiti Valley Package.
On the way to Spiti, we noticed the roads were much more treacherous and the geography was turning harsh with fewer trees on the way. At some places, the roads were completely broken and some were being repaired or broadened. There is always some work happening on these roads. There are ITPB check-posts at places, where they asked us for our Inner-Line permits.
We crossed the Khab valley. There is a bridge above the confluence of Satluj river and Spiti River in Khab. It is also said to be only 4 kilometers from the Indo-Tibet Border.
Because of the delays on the way, it was already getting dark around Khab and we had been growing restless of sitting in the vehicle. After a short tea-break, we were again on the road. By the time we reached the Spiti check-post it was complete darkness. We reached Tabo, completely exhausted at around 9 PM.
You definitely need special skills for driving in those terrains at night.
Around Spiti Valley -
Days 5 to 8
There will be a separate post on Spiti valley which I will link here. We had around 4 days to explore the parts of Spiti.
Spiti to Shimla - The return journey
We took the same route on the way back, however covered a few more places on the way. We halted at the Nako Village of the Kinnaur Valley and Gue Monastery.
Nako Village is very close to the Indo-Tibet border and part of the Kinnaur Valley. A 1025 AD monastery and a lake beyond the Nako village are the main attractions of Nako. An hour halt here is sufficient to explore the place. The monastery is very old and surrounded by many prayer wheels which the locals keep rotating on their visit. A walk down the village lanes crossing little houses, calm surroundings and many cattle shelters, you reach a lake known as the Nako lake. We spent some time around this serene lake.
This day was a hectic long journey through the harsh terrains of Spiti and Kinnaur. We finally reach Rampur by 10PM at night.
Rampur To Shimla
We started late from Rampur after the hectic previous day. We were glad we had passed the hardest of routes. It had been physically taxing and we were experiencing occasional body aches.
We are city dwellers after all and 10-days on road was a huge deal for us. A journey to be remembered for a lifetime.
After breakfast, much to Rajesh's disapproval we insisted on showing us the palace in town. He had been cribbing about the extra kilometers last evening.
Rampur Bushahr is a town in the Shimla district and has a significant importance for its strategical location connecting Spiti Valley and also a center point of connecting central Asia to Tibet. The then princely state of Bushahr was ruled by the Raja Padam Singh. Today, one can visit the century old Padam Palace which stands in its glory in the heart of Rampur. Though the palace is not open to outsiders, we were allowed to walk around the lawn and click a few pictures. The architecture is a mix of European-style stone walls and the sloping Bushahr-style rooftop.