Visualize that you are at an altitude of 3,800 m. You are looking at the confluence of two of the prettiest rivers in the Western Himalayas and staring into one of the remotest and most beautiful valleys of Himachal Pradesh. There is a nip in the air as you are surrounded by eight snow capped mighty Himalayan peaks that resemble the petals of the lotus flower. If you are visualizing this, I have to let you know that you are standing on the top of Dhankar Monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in India. And you are looking at the confluence of the Spiti and the Pin rivers. And the valley straight ahead of you is the gorgeous Pin valley.
Dhankar monastery is one of the highlights of Dhankar, my favorite village in Himachal’s Spiti valley. Located on a mountain spur, this ancient village is home to monks, cattle herders and agriculturalists. It is tucked a bit away from the highway connecting Shimla to Kaza and hence remains fairly untouched by mainstream tourists. There is no public transport to Dhankar. Either you take your own vehicle, hitchhike on a tractor or walk to Dhankar from the highway down below.
Me and my friend opted for a combination of hitchhiking and walking. We walked for 4 kms from Sichling before getting a lift on a tractor filled with construction workers and bags of cement. I was sitting on a tractor after may be 20 years and I absolutely loved chatting up with these two construction workers who hailed from Nepal and Bihar respectively. Those 30 minutes of slowly chugging those steep, winding roads to the village, jumping up and down to the moves of the tractor and chatting with these lovely people set the right tone for my Dhankar visit.
But, if you opt to walk to this village, you need to be prepared to walk steep paths more or less all the time. And I realized it the hard way as I was lugging my fully loaded backpack in this thin mountain air. The good thing is that once you settle into this kind of every day walk, your body adjusts pretty rapidly.
Once it does, you can enjoy the smiles on the wrinkled faces of the locals, the beauty of the Dhankar monastery, the various trails that lead to the neighbouring villages, the smell of the donkeys, sheep, horses, cows and goats and the spectacular Dhankar lake that is in pristine condition.
My first day here was pretty relaxed. Or rather, we were pretty tired from our long strenuous walk and hence we opted to relax. All we did was bask in the winter sun, drink some hot and sweet mint tea and catch up on some much needed rest. This rest and acclimatization also augured well for our treks the next couple of days.
The next day saw us exploring the Buddhist monastery. While, the monastery does not have a huge area, it offers immense history and learning. Luckily for us, we were the only visitors and hence the lama happily shared interesting stories about the history of this place. And we also had the company of two lovely local girls who were volunteering in the temple during their university break. It was great fun chatting with the girls over a hot cup of tea on the roof of the Buddhist monastery. There were jokes, there was learning and then there was the stunning Himalayan panorama that kept following me all around the village.
Most of the tourists to Dhankar just visit the monastery and then make their way on to their next destination. But, if you do have the comfort of time, I would recommend you to strike conversations with the locals, see how they go about their buck wheat farming and cattle herding, cook momos with them and share stories from your city over a hot cup of butter tea in the evening. These interactions were one of my best experiences in the Spiti valley. Or may be, it is because, I can’t see traveling without experiencing the true local flavor.
To keep the explorer in you interested, you always have the monastery steeped in rich culture and the high altitude Dhankar lake that is considered holy by the people of this village. Dhankar lake is located about 45 to 60 minutes away by walk from the village. While the village is located at a height of 3,800m, the lake is located at 4,100m. The walk is steep and the air does get thinner as you ascend. Hence, it is recommended that you have acclimatized well. If you happen to visit the lake around noon time, you will notice the famous Spiti horses grazing here. There is nothing much to see here apart from a small peace pagoda. It is the hike, the rapidly beating heart and insane views that offer you the thrill you seek. And if and when you do visit this place, place help in keeping the lake and its surroundings clean.
If you are traveling by foot or on your own transport, you can walk over the mountains to another high village called Llalung and further away from it to Sherkhang Gompa, possibly the remotest gompa in the region. I walked this trail and absolutely loved the sparse population and vegetation and the rich landscapes. Nomads, cattle and villagers came few and far between. That is how remote this area is.
I have been all over Spiti valley. All these places are gorgeous and a treat to the eyes. But, for some reason, I find Dhankar, the prettiest of all villages. May be, it was the personal connection that I made here. I hope you too make a connection when you visit this high village in the Western Himalayas of India.
Place where I stayed at: Asha Homestay (Located higher and at about a 5 minute walk from the Dhankar monastery). Recommended by my travel friend Mridula Dwivedi of Travel Tales from India, this place enjoys a gorgeous view of the entire river confluence and the valley below. They charge INR 500 per person. This includes accommodation, breakfast and dinner. You stay with a local family, you live in their home and eat with them. Everything about this place is a great experience for all kinds of travelers.
Nearest Town: The 2 closest large towns are Kaza and Tabo.
Nearest Airport: Kullu Airport
Best Season to visit Dhankar: March to November, though if you are prepared to handle the cold, it is open all year round.