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Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Motorcycling through India’s highest villages

At the beginning of last year’s winter, I spent a good amount of time exploring the Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti regions of Himachal Pradesh. And that is when I got a closer look at India’s highest villages. I stayed in some. I trekked a little bit from one to another, but mostly I explored all of them by motorcycle.

Motorcycling in the high mountains of Spiti

The ideal way to explore these high villages is by foot or by bicycle. But, as I had already spent a good 3 weeks exploring, trekking and walking through the other villages and was running a bit low on time, I opted to explore these villages by motorcycle, which isn’t a bad option itself.

Road to Langza in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh

I hired a 500 cc Royal Enfield motorcycle at Kaza for INR 1500 per day and explored the villages of Ki, Kibber, Tashigang, Gette, Langza, Hikkim, Dhemul, Lhalung and Dhankar. The weather was pretty cold and the wind chill meant even during the day time, it was below freezing. But, thankfully, the skies remained clear and the sun shone bright. Had the weather not been good, some of the high passes would not have been motorable.

Langza – Marine Fossil Village

Langza village - of fossils, rich history, snow capped mountains and more

Located at about 13,800 feet, lies this beautiful village of Langza at the foot of the mighty snow capped Chau Chau Kang Nilda peak. An hour of riding through cold winding roads brought me to Langza, my first stop from Kaza. This village, home to about 150 people and 35 odd houses is famous for its rich marine fossil reserves. It is said that millions of years ago, Spiti lay submerged under the Tethys sea and thus fossils of sea life can easily be found scattered close to the village. I did not know about its fossil history, but the moment I walked into the village, an elderly lady came to me with the offer of selling some fossils. I didn’t know what to make of it and hence let it go.

Extremely scenic mountain village of Langza in Spiti, Western Himalayas

I spent a night in this village exploring the Lang temple, the nearby fossil center and basically striking many conversations with the locals. Due to the extremely cold winds and the rarefied atmosphere, I didn’t venture out much, but if you are the hiking type and visit this place during warmer weather, there are a lot of hiking trails nearby. Or else, there is always a hot cup of tea and lots of interesting conversations like how I found out.

Komic – Highest Village in Himachal
   
Komic - one of the highest villages of the world at 4587 meters

From Langza, I rode higher on towards Komic. Korzok, located close to the Tso Moriri lake in Ladakh is technically India’s highest village, but Komic is Himachal’s highest village. At 4,587 meters (15,300 feet), this village is home to a small monastery and about 114 people. I didn’t stay overnight here, but spent a good part of the day striking conversations with friendly monks who offered me many glasses of sugary tea to keep myself warm. Also giving me company was this cyclist from Israel who was lying flat out on the floor of the Tangyud monastery trying to regain his breath while he enjoyed the absolute calm.

The high village of Komic in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh

There is nothing much to do at Komic apart from enjoying the beauty of the snow capped Himalayas, the tranquillity, the fortified castle like Tangyud monastery and the cold winds. Upto Langza, the roads were alright, but post that I had thin ice sheets and rock paths to contend myself with. Hence, do make sure that your brakes are in good condition and that you can handle your motorbike well.

Hikkim – World’s Highest Post Office

Surreal Spiti Valley as seen while descending from Komic

From Komic, I headed to Hikkim. This tiny village tucked in the Himalayas at an elevation of 14, 400 feet, holds 2 great records. One, it is the world’s highest post office and second, it is also India’s highest polling station. There was nothing much to do here, but as I had spent a good part of my day at Komic, I decided to cosy up in a simple homestay here chomping on some hot potato momos and drinking butter tea.

Dhemul – Valley in the Mountains

Spectacular Spiti valley as seen from the Dhemul mountain highway

Located midway between Komic and Dhankar is another four-thousander village of Spiti. It was a tough ride to reach this village from Komic as the roads were in terrible condition. I don’t think I ever went higher than second gear as I mostly rode on gravel, mud or ice. But, the good part was that I was descending from Komic and hence the oxygen levels improved a wee bit. This is another gorgeous village that is located in a valley in between the mountains. Although, I had the option of staying here at a homestay, I headed further to Lhlaung where I crashed for the night.

Lhalung – Land of the Gods

Lhalung - land of the gods

Home to one of the earliest Buddhist monasteries founded in the Spiti valley, Lhalung is located right below the Sher Khang Gompa or Golden temple. This temple was founded by Rinchen Zangpo in the late 10th century BC. Not in the league of the other 14,000 something villages, this village stands at 12,001 feet above MSL. The largest of the villages in the fertile Lingti valley, I like Lhalung for its monastery and the lovely view of the Tangmar mountain in the background. Like Tabo, even the Lhalung monastery was designed to be a learning center.

Dhankar – My Favorite Village of Spiti

Picturesque Dhankar, Spiti Valley

My next stop on the route was Dhankar. I had already been to Dhankar on this trip (but I was on foot that time) and had stayed a good 4 days here exploring its monastery, lake, village homes and more. Hence, this time, i just rode through this scenic village that is located on a mountain spur overlooking the confluence of the Pin and the Spiti rivers. As I was returning to Kaza from Dhankar, I thought of heading into the Pin valley, but then decided to keep it for my next visit.

Ki – Stunning Monastery overlooking the Spiti River
   
Picturesque Himalayas and the Spiti Valley as seen from Ki Monastery

From Dhankar, I rode all along the Spiti river to Kaza and then onwards to Ki monastery. As it had already gotten late, I stayed at the guest house inside the Ki Monastery. This was not my original plan as I wanted to stay at Tashigang or Kibber, but due to my situation, I changed my plans. The Ki (Key) monastery, one of the older monasteries of Spiti valley is famous for its stepped colorful appearance. But, during my stay, I found out that this was not the original look of the monastery. This look that we see today is after 2 major fires that this monastery has seen and the constructions that have happened after these near total wipe-out fires. It is quite a surreal feeling to stand on the balcony of this monastery and look at the lovely landscape of the Spiti river, the snow capped mountains and the barren agricultural land. I was lucky to have got to see this view both a sunset and at sunrise.

Kibber –  Famous for its Wildlife

Kibber - the land of yaks, horses and snow leopards

About 7 kilometers from Ki Monastery lies another gorgeous high village of the Spiti Valley. Situated at 14, 200 feet, Kibber is famous for its Kibber wildlife sanctuary and for its ancient trading trail over Parang La to Ladakh. The local buses go here and hence this area has slightly better connectivity when compared to the other villages. Go here to see horses, yaks and may be even the elusive snow leopard. The Kibber monastery is also worth a visit.

After visiting Kibber, I headed further on a dirt track to Tashigang, another beautiful village. I didn’t stay here for long. All I managed here were 2 cups of hot tea and I was back on my way to Kaza after a short roundabout.

A lot of people explore these high villages as part of a homestay trek, which is quite popular during the summer months. The daredevils opt for bicycling. And lesser daredevils opt for motorbiking. Whatever mode you choose, these high villages of Spiti valley are sure to leave you spell bound. This time, I explored them on motorcycle. The next time, I want to cover them on foot and that too in the cold month of January when there is ice everywhere. I hope that day comes soon!



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