If driving on “no roads” for hours sounds like your cup of tea, then the Manali Kaza route to Spiti is for you.
Let’s get some things straight before we start. The Manali Kaza route to Spiti is not for the faint-hearted. Calling it a road trip is an oxymoron. Roads are found few and far between. You will drive over the river beds. A few river crossings will be involved.
Also involved will be mountain slopes covered in flowers, snow-clad peaks, wildly gushing rivers and sights that’ll stay etched in your minds forever.
Some facts about the Manali Kaza route to Spiti valley
The Manali Kaza route is roughly 200 km and takes almost 12 hours to cover (on a good day). You cross two mountain passes – Rohtang Pass at the start and the Kunzum Pass further ahead.
There is an alternative route to the Spiti valley via Kinnaur, starting from Shimla. It’s a much longer route (distance from Shimla to Kaza is a whopping 425 km) but the roads are broader along this route. Except for some stretches of wilderness, this route via Kinnaur passes mostly through civilisation. It is an all season route. Trucks, as well as the locals, prefer this route via Kinnaur to travel to and from the Spiti valley.
On the contrary, the Manali Kaza route to Spiti is more or less a tourist attraction. Except for the last stretch just before you reach Kaza, you are crossing through some seriously high altitude wilderness (the highest point of the Manali Kaza route comes on the Kunzum Pass, over 4500 meters!). There are a few food stalls (dhabas) set up temporarily in the summer months, at Chhatru and Batal when the Manali Kaza route opens up for traffic. It is off limits in the winter once snowfall starts.
Mad scenes at the Manali bus stand before the start of our journey to Kaza
We had reached the bus stand while it was still dark, and surprisingly not cold at all for that early morning hour. The bus drove into Manali from Kullu, the starting point of this bus route. A mad mob gathered at the bus doors while the bus was still in motion. It moved with the bus as it reversed as if stuck to the bus. And before we knew it, every single person of the mob had burst into the bus and jumped into every seat possible. All of this had happened even before we could pick our bags up from the road.
We waited patiently letting all the mad drama unravel. Not that we had much of choice. There’s no way we could’ve competed with the hordes who had miraculously squeezed into the bus. Thankfully, we had booked our tickets the day before and had confirmed seat numbers. We now clung to the hope that the bus conductor would act fair and honour our tickets. Also, we had comfort in numbers. We were now a part of the confused-and-slightly-worried tourist mob outside, which now seemed as big as the mob that had raced inside. How was all this going to pan out?
But, as if by magic, in a matter of minutes, everything had settled. All the bags had been dumped in the dusty as a barn luggage compartment. Everyone with a reservation was seated in their respective seats. A seat for two had made place for three, three seaters had easily become four-five seaters.
All passengers seemed happy. The driver arrived. We had been on the high altitude Himalayan roads before in an HRTC bus, notably, the Leh Manali road. We knew dangerously well that for the next 200 km, which could stretch from anything between 8 to 16 hours, our lives were in the hands of this man.
By 6 AM, our bus, our co-passengers and we – were all set to start our journey to the Spiti valley.
Rohtang pass – a bridge from green to brown through a thick fog
It covered the mountaintops. The Beas river could only be heard, not seen. It made the road invisible. It felt like driving into a white wall. a thick fog had engulfed us as soon as we got out of the Manali bus stand.
Straight roads were now history. Glaciers above, at a mountainside turn, wild horses below at a valley side turn started giving us company. At the start of the Rohtang Pass, tall conifers were peeking through the white sheet of fog. When these were replaced by the peeking snow-clad peaks, we knew we had rapidly gained height over the Rohtang Pass. A few sharp turns later we were at the top of the Rohtang Pass.
Welcome to the Greater Himalayas – high drama on the Manali Kaza route to Spiti
The scene changed dramatically from here on. The mountain slopes were suddenly fully visible. There wasn’t a tree in sight, only mountain grass. Wildflowers had painted the mountains yellow and purple.
Muddy paths had taken the place of blacktops at the start of the Manali Kaza route. Green was slowly but surely being driven out by brown. What had been a smooth albeit winding drive till now was starting to become bumpy.
A co-passenger requested the driver to halt for a toilet break. Two more followed. And then some more. Realising that everyone would like to relieve themselves, the driver announced a toilet break. Of course, there were no toilets around. Just find a sufficiently big rock to get behind and do your thing.
Out of habit, we strolled around to take in the sights. We jumped the small streams and bent down to have a closer look at the flowers. And when the bus conductor whistled we ran towards the bus. The earth shook a little under our feet and it felt like we were swaying. As we took our seats on the bus, our heads spun and it felt like our hearts were going to burst.
All of this only meant one thing – the Greater Himalayas were welcoming us! We had entered the high altitude zone of the Himalayas.
There were some landmark places that we crossed. Gramphu was the splitting point. From here, the northbound road was the Leh Manali highway. Southward of Gramphu was the Manali Kaza route to Spiti.
Further down came Chhatru, the first checkpoint of our journey to Spiti. The bus had to register its crossing here. Foreign nationals also had to note down their passport numbers here. There was a dhaba here and some cars had halted for a break. These dhabas are particularly used by the trekkers on their Hampta trek.
Other than Chhatru and Gramphu, there weren’t any “places” that we crossed on our journey to Spiti. The rest of this Manali Kaza route is mostly nameless. There aren’t any villages here. Nor did we see traces of nomadic camps. It’s just a meandering drive along the Chenab river as she flows wildly through these higher Himalayas.
Lunch break at Batal and onto the second pass of the Manali Kaza route
Post Chhatru, the offroading adventures of the Manali Kaza road started. We had crossed a few small streams earlier. Many others had flown from under the road. Now, at a place named Chotadara, we had to cross the Chenab river. Over gravel and rocks, our driver successfully navigated our bus through the force of the Chenab. A driver’s skill and the machine he’s handling draw the thin line between adventure and misfortune. We were happy to crossover on the side of adventure.
Smaller vehicles, even SUVs often get stuck on these crossings. They then have to be pushed over to the other side, often by a combined effort of fellow travellers in other vehicles. These stoppages on the Manali Kaza route often delay the arrival in Spiti. It was sheer luck that we didn’t have any smaller cars ahead of us and didn’t face any unscheduled, forced stops.
When the bus finally halted at Batal for lunch, our mind and body were both ready for some tender loving nourishment. The old couple (fondly called uncle and aunty by everyone) at the Chacha-chachi dhaba provided just that. Rajma-chaval-dal served hot and aplenty in the makeshift tarpaulin tents, with aunty keeping a close watch and making sure everyone ate well, was the perfect respite from what was turning out to be an arduous journey.
Meeting the Spiti river at Kunzum Pass – the second mountain pass on the Manali Kaza route
By the time we left Batal, our memories of travelling on what we knew as roads had been wiped off. There weren’t even any pretentions to present a “road”. It was all matter-of-fact. You were in the higher Himalayas, a rare place to be. You could either be surrounded by the larger than life brown, black and red mountains towering over you or you could drive on well-laid roads. This or that. Not both. Just no!
A few kilometres later, on our left, we crossed a diversion that went to the Chandratal lake. Many choose to trek these 13 km. It’s a steady climb to the lake. The sun was high up and in that diluted 4000 meters atmosphere was stinging sharply on our skin. It seemed like monumental walk to the lake. We were happy to be seated inside where the heat and the altitude were now starting to show effect.
The Kunzum Pass, the second pass of the Manali Kaza route to Spiti started right after we crossed the Chandratal diversion. On our first long-term travel in the Himalayas, we had heard of the Kunzum Pass like one hears a fable. We had noticed it was always the last one to open to traffic in the summer. We had read it led to magical lands.
Now, being on the Kunzum Pass in real life, it the enormity of this moment was right in front of our eyes. We could see the turns of the pass above us and didn’t really believe it was possible to drive on whatever those were (no, we just can not say “on those roads”). The path was narrow, uneven and winding. It was dusty. It was windy. It was hot. It was barren. It was inhospitable. It was not meant for life!
And yet, there we were. What had we done, really, to deserve to be where we were? And where were we exactly? In the mountain? On the Kunzum Pass? On the Manali Kaza route to Spiti?
At that moment, all of these details were lost on us. They didn’t matter. All we knew was, we were in the middle of nature’s unscripted drama. Revelling in the discomfort, yes but largely in disbelief. It was a perfect plot. And we had been granted the privilege to play a tiny role in it.
The Chenab had long left us to follow her own path. Somewhere on the Kunzum Pass, the black waters of the Spiti river made an exuberant entry into our lives. It was the darkest
river gushing water we had ever seen (The darkest would be the River Negra in the Amazon, but her we had seen in the plains, not flowing wildly in the mountains).
At the top of the Kunzum Pass came our next stop of this journey to Spiti. It was at the Kunzum Mata (Goddess) temple. Every vehicle that heads to the Spiti valley by this Manali Kaza route, halts here. Either to seek the blessings of Kunzum Mata for a safe passage or to thank her for them through. Because, each driver who dares to drive on these roads knows that in the mountains, nothing can ever be taken for granted.
Into Losar and towards civilisation on the Manali Kaza road to Spiti valley
The halt at Losar brought us out of the shock of Kunzum Pass back to reality. This was the second checkpoint of our journey to Spiti on the Manali Kaza route. The vehicles and the foreign nationals had to register themselves here as well. Losar was also where we took our tea break.
White houses made of stone and mud, surrounded by the farm of green peas brought us out of the wilderness. Of course, it was nothing like the villages we know in the rest of the country. Spiti valley has one of the lowest population densities in India, far below the average. But having driven through the wild country for the past several hours, even this scant habitation felt like coming back to civilisation.
We crossed villages like Kiato and Pangmo – names we were hearing for the first time. A few locals started to get off the bus now.
The landscape was still dominated by the brown barren mountains. But somewhere around a turn, a green patch would announce a village. For not more than a few hundred meters, the village would bring with it some action. People working on a farm or two, a few children playing on the roads. Cows mooing. White painted stupas invariably marking the village boundary.
As we neared Kaza, the road became smoother. Rough patches decreased and well-laid blacktops increased. We crossed several bridges over the Spiti river. We were doing excellent time and expected to be in Kaza by 5 PM.
This sounded a bit of a smooth sailing and our journey to Spiti on the Manali Kaza road had been anything but that – even when nothing had gone wrong. It deserved a befitting climax. As if being called for, dark clouds started to appear over the distant horizon across the mountains. Was a mountain storm brewing up?
By the time we crossed Kuric and had almost reached Rangrik, just before Kaza, it started to rain. No way could it be called a light drizzle that was the norm in Spiti. This was a stormy downpour with swollen raindrops et al.
Inching closer, we crossed the final bridge connecting the Chicham-Kibber-Kye villages to Kaza. The rain had reduced by then but it had made its presence felt. Just a kilometre before the Kaza bus stand, there had been a landslide. The road was blocked by the stuck vehicles. Everyone was waiting for the machine to arrive and clear the landslide.
Why didn’t we just walk, is a question we asked ourselves later. We can think of a few answers. We didn’t realise we were that close. We were tired. The altitude clouded our judgement and the thought of walking didn’t occur to us. The Spiti river turning orange as we saw our first sunset in Spiti hypnotised us, not letting us move. Or maybe, we just wanted to know how landslides in Spiti worked.
All valid answers. All lies. Because right then, there was nowhere to go. Nothing to do. We had travelled the 200 km from Manali to Kaza. We were in Spiti. The journey had happened. We were right where we were supposed to be. And that’s all that mattered.
Some practical tips for travelling to Spiti by the Manali Kaza route
- HRTC buses play every day from Manali to Kaza and vice versa. You should be in the Manali bus stand by 5 AM. You will reach Kaza by any time between 5 PM to midnight.
- Book your tickets the previous day. You can book from the ticket counter at the Manali bus stand or you can book online on the Himachal State Transport website. The cost of the ticket was 310 INR for the summer of 2018.
- Your sacks will be locked inside the luggage compartment at the back of the bus. On every route we took in Spiti, these were extremely dusty. Cover your sacks before putting them in the luggage compartment.
- On a regular day, you get varied weather on the Manali Kaza route to Spiti valley. It starts getting cooler as you climb the Rohtang Pass. However, by the time you’re on the Kunzum Pass, it gets hot and the sun is harsh. Keep your sweater, sunglasses, sunblock – in your day pack.
- Carry enough non-disposable water bottles with you. You can refill your water at Losar. We drank the local water everywhere without facing any stomach problems even once. Bottled water is available at the dhabas. Please refrain from buying this water and adding to the severe plastic menace in Spiti.
- Carry emergency food with you, like chocolates, nuts or high energy bars.
- If the weather goes bad or landslides occur, it’s possible that the previous day’s bus didn’t return to Manali from Kaza. These things are quite common in the Spiti valley. When this happens, the bus doesn’t leave from Manali the next morning. Which is why it is always recommended to have buffer days while making your itinerary for Spiti valley.
- Shared taxis leave in the morning from Manali to Kaza. They do not follow a timetable and leave only when the seats are filled. These can reach faster, but we will always recommend taking the HRTC bus to travel to Spiti by the Manali Kaza route. They do not ply unless they are given a weather clearance and are the safest mode of travel on these rough roads.