Solo in Spiti

Kastoori Rai Dewan | Updated on April 19, 2019 Published on April 19, 2019

Road to paradise This gateway welcomes you to Spiti, a high-altitude desert in Himachal Pradesh   -  PAYEL MAJUMDAR UPRETI

A woman traveller finds nirvana and self-assurance in the Himalayan desert

The true test of character, the wise one says, is what you do when you don’t know what to do. I had led a cushioned life — complete with doting parents, a familiar environment and a financially stable and strong support group. But I always had an itch to travel alone, make decisions — by myself and for myself — and see how I would fare without my safety nets.

I wanted to see what I did when I didn’t know what to do.

So, with this in mind, I flew from Puducherry to Delhi to Kullu, took a 6 am shared cab from Manali for a 10-hour journey on mountain roads (via the Rohtang and Kunzum passes) and finally found myself battling a splitting altitude headache in the remote Himalayan town of Kaza, the base for my Spiti trip. Never before had I felt so cut off from the world than that first night in Kaza when I stood quivering under a thick blanket of stars. But, oh, an adventure was about to begin.

Spiti is a desert mountain valley in Himachal Pradesh fed by glistening turquoise rivers. The eyes cruised through barren lands and clear blue skies with frothy white clouds, only interrupted by naked mountains with deep ridges. I went to Komik, an hour’s uphill drive from Kaza, which the Himachal Pradesh public works department describes as the highest village in the world. The surrounding was so dark that the night sky almost engulfed me with its cosmic brightness.

Kaza, the subdivisional headquarters of Spiti, was a dusty, small town with souvenir shops, a handful of restaurants, some monasteries, a few homestays, and next to no internet and phone connections (only BSNL works there). I was travelling alone, so I was the object of many curious gazes and questions.

“What are you going to do here?”

“Have dinner with us.”

“Should I book you a place to stay?”

“Do you want a ride?”

I found such questions and offers disconcerting in the beginning. We women know how to look over our shoulders and not trust strangers. But I decided that I would let my instincts rule. So, on the third night there, when a local man called Lotey invited me for a dinner party at his hotel a few kilometres away from Kaza town, I went there because my gut said he was a good fellow. I was still nervous, though, till I heard him say, “Kastoori, welcome to my hotel!” And it indeed was a hotel, and there was a party on with some great people having a great time. I met a German couple honeymooning around the world on their Unimog — an all-wheel drive truck — and travellers who were volunteering at a local school. I met the principal of the Kaza Public School and volunteered to teach the students. So I split my days between teaching the cutest bunch of unmanageable kids and exploring Spiti.

With confidence, everything was possible, a woman recently told me. This was especially true for women who had forever been told that they were weak and needed to be protected — conditioning that led them to doubt their abilities. When I thought of a solo trip, the world seemed to spill over with monsters but once I was on it, it wasn’t so difficult after all. The key is to understand what’s safe — book safe accommodation (even if it is a little expensive), stay with the crowd, trust your instincts, read people’s body language and always have a back-up plan. Of late, a lot more women have been choosing to travel alone, which proves that they are tougher and more adventurous than most would believe.

What else would egg me on to spend a night in the 900-year old Key Monastery (4,166m above sea level), also an hour from Kaza? Lotey suggested that I visit the monastery, although he couldn’t confirm if women were allowed to sleep there. I landed up there, and was happy to know that the monastery allows women boarders. This was the highlight of my trip: I ate local rice and a broth with chickpea and potato in their centuries-old soot sodden kitchen, interacted with ruddy-cheeked child monks, discussed religion with head monks, was shown their treasure trove of thangkas (Tibetan religious scroll paintings), saw the Milky Way and sat for their special morning prayer. I must admit they thought I was a journalist.

“I’ve done it,” I thought to myself looking at my last sunset in Spiti, on the 12th day of my trip. I travelled miles away from my devices, saw the best night skies, slept in remote villages, learnt to trust my instincts, overcame my fears and was now blissfully dancing on my own in the Himalayas. All by myself.

Kastoori Rai Dewan is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Travel log
  • Getting there
  • Spiti can be accessed from two sides — the longer route starts from Shimla (via Kinnaur), the shorter route is from Manali (via Rohtang and Kunzum passes). Although the Shimla route is open through the year (road closures because of heavy snowfall are common), the Manali route is open from June to September. There is no direct flight connectivity to Spiti. I flew in to Bhuntar airport, stayed a night in Manali and took a shared taxi to Kaza the next day.
  • Stay
  • Sakya Abode comes highly recommended by travellers. I stayed at the hotel for the first three days after which I moved to a homestay. Spiti Sarai, about 6 km from Kaza, is also a good place to stay. I found my homestay after speaking to locals.
  • BLink Tip
  • Carry medicines for altitude sickness. Abstain from alcohol for the first few days to ease the acclimatisation process.

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Published on April 19, 2019
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