Spiti Valley: a photographer’s search for heaven in the high mountains

A photographer's journey to Lahaul & Spiti, in search of unparalleled beauty in the mountain landscapes.

Also see: our photography tour to Lahaul & Spiti.

In the year 2006, at a time when only the adventurous travelled beyond Manali in the Himalayas and only a small percentage of the population had heard of Ladakh, a chance encounter took me to the then-undiscovered valleys of Lahaul & Spiti. It was a cab driver, seated in a nondescript dhaba in Manali, who convinced me that I should be going to Spiti, where the places are extraordinary and landscapes are beyond imagination. He was good at convincing; it’s not easy to win over a suspicious stranger about an unheard place in the nascent days digital cameras and when travel information on internet was barely anything close to what we have today. His phone did not have a camera; my phone did not have a touch screen and there were no immediate means to ascertain his claims. Even if I rushed to an internet cafe and searched for ‘Lahaul & Spiti’, I would at best find a government website that might have vaguely talked about the geography of the region; no more.

lahaul & spiti photography

In Chandratal Lake, you would be forgiven to assume that the sky has come down to earth! Photography by Manish Lakhani, our photography mentor for our photography tours to Lahaul & Spiti.

Nonetheless, the driver’s conviction seemed so strong, I acceded to his idea. Thus began my discovery of Lahaul & Spiti. I wanted to see higher Himalayas from up-close, see the depths of those valleys and look up to the gigantic mountains right from their base. I wanted to photograph landscapes at their pristine best, see views that I hadn’t ever imagined and feel embraced by the earth like I would feel nowhere else.

Going past Rohtang Pass, the ultimate destination of every holidaymaker in search of snow, I had a sense of hitting gold mine. The holidaymakers were now behind me. Entering a deviation that took me into the narrow road that led to Spiti, it seemed like the world I knew wouldn’t be encountered for a long time to come.

lahaul & spiti photography

Views along the way. Photograph by Naveen Kumar, who travelled with Darter on the photography tour to Lahaul & Spiti

The mountains were climbing higher and higher, and the depth of the valley appeared unreachable. The greenery of Kullu Valley had given way to a barren mountainscapes – nothing more than tiny blades of grass would grow in these altitudes. Higher peaks were generously adorned in ice, and the melt water tumbled with indescribable force into the river below, forming numerous waterfalls all along the way. The narrow road–our only connection to the world–that cut through the slopes was nothing like a road; more a path made by pushing a few stones aside, barely allowing our vehicle to pass through. The number of vehicles we encountered in the next few hours could be counted in one hand. Perhaps to ensure that you don’t get unnerved by the unknown paths to non-existence, the local public works department put signboards of places that came with a dash of humour: “Chatru 0km; population 0,” said the first of those signs. There were many more ‘population 0’ signs to follow. I knew I had found the place of my liking; the kind of place I was searching for.

lahaul & spiti photography

A stream emerges from under a pack of ice. Photograph by Arun Bhat, a photography mentor at Darter.

That evening, by the time we reached our bare bones tented accommodation in Batal, it was dark and I had no clue about the place I was to spend the night in. I did not know that, in the coming decade, I would return to this place many times over and would fondly look forward to being here. I did not know I was staying in the shadow of giant Bada Shigri Peak that ascended well above 20,000 feet. I did not know I was just round the corner from Himachal’s largest glacier named after the same mountain. I did not know I was a short hop from a pristine, absolute sky-blue lake that was so calm that you would find it hard-pressed to tell the lake below from the sky above. The place was, simply put, insane!

lahaul & spiti photography

The beautiful blue of Chandratal Lake with 20,000 feet-high mountains in the background. Photograph by Rajendran Menon, who travelled with Darter on the photography tour to Lahaul & Spiti.

But that wasn’t going to be all! Next morning, after revering our time at Chandratal, we climbed slow and steady to Kunzum Pass. At 15,000 feet, the air was thin and the wind brought in the chill, not letting me stay here for long. But I made a mental note of the excesses of snow that surrounded the peaks and slopes all around. Down the slope, leaving Lahaul Valley and entering Spiti, sections of the land was so filled with flowers, it was akin to the more familiar and much romanticized mustard fields of Punjab. Only, in here the flowers were wild and were decorated by snow peaks at a distance. And we were still in ‘population 0’ zone, and hadn’t encountered a single village, not even a house since we passed Rohtang. I couldn’t believe such places exist.

The first village we encountered–Losar–was a kind of gateway to Spiti with hardly a score of houses to count. But soon, we would start seeing villages at every twenty minute interval, each of them no larger than Losar. In Spiti, the valley was wider, flatter and seemed less forgiving to human habitations compared to the valley we had left behind yesterday. I chuckled at times when we encountered roads that were absolutely straight for more than a kilometer and our driver who was used to 15kph found delight in shifting to 5th gear.

In subsequent days, we drove further along the valley, entering Kinnaur Valley and eventually reaching Shimla. In my later visits to Spiti Valley, I was to explore further and the region continued to surprise me. On the next visit, we drove off the valley, up and up the mountains on a road so steep that it seemed to be heading towards the skies. Up there, at 14,000 feet, I discovered the village of Langza located blissfully under the magnificence of 20,000 feet high peak of Mt.Chau Chau Kang Nilda. The village was surrounded by the greenery of peas and barley, creating a sense of being in an oasis in an otherwise barren mountain landscape. I shuddered imagining how these villages have survived for centuries, well before motor vehicles and electricity found their way to these places, braving winters of big freeze and year-long inaccessibility. But people here lived well, and they lived happy, despite the limited means.

lahaul & spiti photography

Langza Village and Chau Chau Kang Nilda Peak. Photograph by Arun Bhat, a mentor at Darter Photography.

Another day, another such climb up the slopes in different part of the valley took me to Dhankar Monastery, whose remoteness can send shivers up one’s spine just by imagining it’s location. Located at the edge of a steep slope high up the valley, the monastery had seen many centuries of isolation before rest of the world could find their way into the place. An hour’s slow and tiring hike up the valley took me to Dhankar Lake, where an unusual depression that has trapped the melting snow to form an emerald water body. The waters, despite the gentle ripple, gracefully reflected the blue skies and the white mountain peaks. Just when I though I could ask for nothing more, more appeared from the slopes. A large flock of sheep was herded down the mountains by nearby villagers for drink. The sudden activity enlivened the atmosphere in no time. A little while later, it was the turn of horses to come in search of water.

Dhankar Monastery at a remote location in Spiti Valley. Photograph by Arun Bhat.

The sheep were adorable. The horses instilled a sense of confidence. The landscape was achingly beautiful. The people were unassumingly welcome. I had found my destination. I had found my heaven; as a photographer or otherwise!

Also see: our photography tour to Lahaul & Spiti.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *