Saturday, 1 August 2015

Kaza ~ The High Altitude Town by the River

My quest for the exotic India took my family to the high altitude town of Kaza in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh. Part of the tribal circuit of the Himachal tourism, Kaza lies in the cold desert region at an altitude of 11,980 ft above the mean sea level. The remoteness of the destination, the unknown and the thrill of driving on some of the most dangerous high altitude roads of the world compensated for the sheer joy of living for few days in part of the country that is not visited by many, which is pristine in its natural beauty, where the simple chores of daily life has not been overshadowed by the glitz of city life, where air is so fresh that one needs to be careful about not exerting too much else one could be down with altitude sickness (a life threatening medical condition). The place where Buddhism flourish and where buddhist stupas and monasteries are precariously perched  on mountain tops and visiting those shrines is a journey in itself. That made me wonder at the amazing building skills of the people centuries ago.

Here are some glimpses of our experience. Hope you enjoy this and hopefully egg you to take a similar trip. Go see some part of India, off the beaten track. I bet you will yearn to go back there.

Kaza can be approached from Shimla or Manali by road. Take a taxi or the public bus, however, I preferred taxi for the ease of travel without being constrained by the strict timelines of public transport. We preferred to take the Shimla route through the Kinnaur valley onto the Spiti Valley in between we touched the mountain town of Sarahan, Sangla, Nako, Tabo and onward to Kaza. The approx 400 kms journey should be best covered over 2-3 days. We stopped by at Sarahan, stayed overnight and moved to Sangla another beautiful valley village and thereafter a night at Tabo village before our vehicle rolled into the Valley town of Kaza.

The road from Shimla to Kaza is smooth in parts but rugged, narrow, precariously holding up at the edge of deep valley gorges and most of the time impossible to drive. This journey is not for the faint heart!

     The single road connecting Shimla to Kaza beyond the Kinnaur valley is mostly narrow single lane
     and hanging by the edge of the deep gorge. Driving here is a nerve wrecking experience. Coupled
     with high altitude, this is one of the most dangerous roads in the world.

Mountain sides have been blasted to make way for the road, passing through this tiny tunnel with hair pin bends all along and furiously flowing nullahs demands extreme concentration on driving. Alas while driving you do not have the luxury to enjoy the beauty that lay one either side of the road.

    And when you finally reach there, the view is so spectacular, so serene.

    Kibber Village at 14000 feet above the mean sea level is a beautiful village some 15 kms uphill
    from Kaza. Isolated and perched on top of the valley surrounded by deep valley gorges, habitat to
    some 500 people who grow the tastiest peas and potato in their farms during the summer months.
    The place remain cut off from the world for 5 to 6 months.

    Kaza town sits by the Spiti river in a bowl shaped river valley separated from the snow covered
    mountain by the wide river bed, where peas is grown in painstakingly prepared farms..

Another view of Kaza Town 

   We stayed at Sakya Abode, the best place to stay here. Made some friends from the fellow
   travelers. Seen here with some of them discussing matters of the day while we were stuck in Kaza
   for 4 days due to landslide and avalanche.

    Kaza town view

    Kaza is home to the world's highest Maruti Service station.

   Short walks around the town brings you to picture perfect locations ~ face to face with milky white
   snow covered mountains, sky in hue of blue that one would have never sighted before and the
   freshness that rejuvenates the soul and soothes the city sore eyes.

    The view from the hotel Sakya Abode - stay there if you are in town. This is one of the friendliest
    places that I have stayed ever. When stuck beyond our planned stay due to avlanche, they
    generously fed us and made us felt welcomed. When we had nothing to do we assembled in the
    large dining hall and bonded with fellow travellers.

    German Bakery in the town served the yummiest bakery products and coffee. This was also one of
    our hang out place here. Waiting for the croissants to be served.

    Happy she is, with such goodies in sight.
    AT Sakya Abode, at one of the many bonding sessions.

    And when the time came to say good bye, we were given the ceremonial buddhist scarf wishing us
    safe journey back home.
    The journey from Kaza to Manali was another 400 odd kms back breaking journey through some of
     the most undrivable non existent roads (or should say traces of roads that had been). But the
     landscape was just the best that one can get ~ riverine valley flanked by lofty snow peaked
     mountain ranges, Crossed one of the highest mountain passes in India, the Kunzum La. Losar,
     Baltal, Chatru, Kunzum La were covered before approaching Rohtang Pass and further down to
    the Manali valley.
    Our return journey towards Manali offered this Maggi & Tea halt in the middle of nowhere run by     the Chacha and Chachi and goes by the name Chandra Dhaba. Their hot maggie and tea provides
    immediate respite to the weary soul after driving on the unmotorable road.

    Interiors of Chandra Dhaba. Bowl of hot maggie and tea is served

    We went hiking to the Key monastery about 15 kms from Kaza and was served one of the best tea        by this monk who runs a free canteen serving butter herb tea. This must be one of the most
     refreshing tea that I have been served ever.

    Kunzum La, a mountain pass at 15000 ft enrout Manali from Kaza.
    Heading towards Kunzum Pass

    The Key Monastery at 13668 feet above is approx 7 kms from Kaza, built over a 1000 years ago, it
    is a major Buddhism teaching centre where young lamas are initiated into Buddhist teachings

    While we were stuck at Kaza, the chopper came to airlift us. But could not take us all back.

    We were hopeful to get evacuated, which was not to be.

    So, we enjoyed the valley and nature in its pristine form till the pass was motorable.
    This mountain peak will mesmerize you with its lofty heights, and play of clouds and lights and

    Kaza town street after a round of heavy snowfall.

    And the valley covered in snow, had never seen one before.
    Snow covered Kaza Town.

    The Post box at 14000 feet above
    The Cafeteria interiors
    Spiti river, the Spiti valley and the meandering road to Key and Kibber village. Notice the patch of
    green, these are potato and peas fields.
    View from the Key Monastery

    I sometimes wonder why did the monks build such majestic monasteries over the lofty mountain

     Happy to be Here!


Stay @ Sakya Abode, above the town. They offer comfortable rooms and ample dining area. You can relax and sun bathe in the lawn below or on the terrace and soak in the fantastic view of the town and valley around you. They have two more properties nearby ~ Snow Lion and Kunphen Sakya. (94182 08987)

Eat: We preferred to eat at Sakya Abode. However, there are several restaurants serving North Indian, Chinese and continental dishes which are sumptuous. German Bakery in the bazar is great for bakery products and coffee. There is a tiny restaurant near the bazar where one gets yummy Rajma ~Chawal filling.

To Do: The destination itself is the main attraction. The town is simple surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges, fertile valley. Hike around, visit the nearby Key and Dhankar monstery, hike upto Key, Kibber and Langza villages to see way of life. You can take assistance of Ecosphere, a sustainable tourism outfit based in Kaza. Wander around, come face to face with wild Yaks or go fossil hunting. On the go fill your car tank at the highest petrol pump in the world.

Weather:  Kaza is among the coldest places in India with temperature dipping to - 37 degrees in winter and a pleasant 13 degrees in summer months. Best months to visit is from June to Sep. Carry heavy woolens, head coverings and hand gloves, warm socks would help you withstand the biting cold at night. Summer says could be warm, yet weather change is unpredictable. The road to Kaza from Shimla or Manali opens only in late May / early June depending on the clearance of the Kunzum Pass.

Travel: Travel preferably by car (self driven / take car on rent from Shimla). We availed the services of Bandbox Travels (0177 - 2803268) from Shimla and they were good. This being high altitude area, chance of being unsettled by altitude sickness needing immediate medical facility is critical. The Town hospital is well equipped to handle any such eventuality, however one needs to take few precautions. Cover distance from Shimla to Kaza in at least 2 days, halting either at Sarahan or Sangla. These are great destinations by their own merit. Drink Disprin water frequently during the journey. Do not rush to the destination. Slow progression to high altitude will make your journey smooth. Thumb rule is to ascend not more than 2000 feet in a single day while travelling in high altitude zone. Good driver with 4 wheel drive who knows the roads will come handy.
If you are starting journey from Manali, you can avail day taxis as well. Road and transport connectivity is better from Manali. The journey from Manali to Kaza would take about 12 hours.

Buy: Kaza is not a shopping destination. The local bazar has few handicraft shops and you could pickup tribal crafts of Himachal including Thangkas at good price. However, I was lured to take a look at the ancient fossils that are being collected from the area around the Langza village and sold in some of the shops here. These are the real ones and being sold for few hundred rupees, The dilemma is should one buy these rare fossils or not.