This itinerary is designed for a slightly more leisurely journey through the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys than you may have time for. This is not an area to be covered in a hurry -- rather extend your vacation, or you'll spend most of your trip regretting that you have to return at all. If you're pressed for time, you could probably shave off a day or two, but you're likely to be shell-shocked by the end of it if you don't. If you're really short on time, but want to see the Spiti Valley and take in a couple of its Buddhist villages and monasteries, you can forgo the trip through Kinnaur and instead make your way into Spiti from Manali; the trip from Manali to Kaza (the main hub in Spiti) takes a full day. If you're journeying this way and don't intend continuing beyond Tabo, you won't need to procure an Inner Line Permit; however, if you are doing the following trip in its entirety in reverse, you can get the necessary documents in Kaza (any travel agent should be able to assist).
Day 1 & 2: Shimla to Sangla
Heading east out of Shimla, "National Highway" 22 takes you to Narkanda (2,708m/8,882 ft.), a ski resort (Jan-Mar) where you can take in excellent views from Hatu Peak. Then continue north past the commercial town of Rampur, a former princely capital. The road descends towards the raging Sutlej River, following its contours until you come upon the dusty village of Jeori. From here, a twisting, hairpin-heavy climb leads to the charming village of Sarahan (2,165m/7,101 ft., 6 hr. from Shimla), which enjoys spectacular views of the snowcapped peaks across the river. Trapped in time, Sarahan is the site of the famous pagoda-style Bhimakali Temple.
Once you've satisfied your curiosity at the temple, follow the same road back down to Jeori. About 3km (2 miles) ahead of Karchham (Baspa-Sutlej Junction), take a U-turn to come back to Karcham and then follow the steep dirt tracks (the road from Karcham to Sangla is fairly wide now, and two small cars/jeeps can comfortably pass by each other) of the Sangla Valley, through which the raging Baspa River flows. You won't find any flashy accommodations, but comfortable Banjara Sangla Valley Camp & Retreat, 8km (5 miles) beyond Sangla, is an excellent place to spend a night or two, and serves as the perfect base from which to explore the remote hamlet of Chitkul (3,450m/11,316 ft.). Tents are set up in a gorgeous open meadow (wildflowers in full bloom July-Oct) alongside the Baspa River, beneath towering Khargala Peak. Besides the well-established camp, there are now also a handful of spacious, immaculate rooms in a low-rise building built overlooking the river near the campsite. A night in one of the Swiss tents (with attached showers that dispense hot water at the flick of a switch) costs Rs 5,500 double, including all meals and taxes, while the Retreat rooms are Rs 6,000. Make use of the opportunity to pick the brains of Banjara founders Ajay or Rajesh (one of whom is generally in camp) for details of the best treks in the area. Both are wonderful hosts (as is Sonu, the camp manager), with plenty of ideas for what you can do (besides lying in one of the inviting hammocks overlooking the river). Evening mealtimes kick off with predinner drinks and snacks around the bonfire, which can be quite sociable; besides the standard buffet, there's an optional barbeque, and there's nothing stopping you from picking up fresh fish from a local farm (the area is known for trout fishing) and asking the kitchen team to grill it for you. The setting is scintillating, and you'll regret not spending 2 nights, especially after the exhausting full-day drive spent getting here; and if you do have trouble getting here -- or get caught up or delayed -- call tel. 98-1811-9871 or 98-1695-9904 for assistance.
If You Have More Time -- To break up the journey, you can add an extra day or two right at the start with a side-trip to the apple-growing slopes at Thanedar. From Narkanda, a 16km (10-mile) detour off the main highway brings you to the vast orchards, heavy with fruit in summer, and best visited in August/September during the apple harvest. Set in the midst of this sea of apple trees is the modern, whitewashed Banjara Orchard Retreat, its pleasant rooms decked with thick, colorful throws and attached bathrooms. It's a very comfortable place to kick back and relax and enjoy astonishingly beautiful sunsets. Prakash Thakur, host and owner of this small retreat, is also the resident expert on local history and culture, and you can request a guide to take you for an innervating 3-hour trek through the shady forest. Evenings are spent around a bonfire, where Prakash serves up anecdotes, paneer-on-a-toothpick, and spicy chicken snacks before an Indian buffet is laid out. Taste the homemade apple juice, chutneys, and other concoctions Prakash makes from the orchard fruit. Doubles cost Rs 4,400 including all meals, but the log cabins (Rs 5,500 double) are much more private and, unlike the modern rooms and suites, don't feel as if they belong in a city suburb. Book in advance through www.banjaracamps.com.
From Thanedar you can either backtrack to Narkanda or continue farther on the Narkanda-Thanedar road which meets the highway at Bithal, 21km (13 miles) from the retreat.
Another overnight option along the way to Sangla (and in many ways, a more interesting choice), is Sarahan, especially good if you have any desire to witness the early morning ceremonies (not always guaranteed) at the Bhimakali Temple. Traditionally, just about the only half-decent place to stay has been the half-baked government-run Hotel Shrikhand (tel. 01782/27-4234; www.hptdc.nic.in), a concrete monstrosity with an out-of-this-world setting and low rates (the disgusting, viewless cheap room goes for Rs 500, while slightly better doubles with balconies are Rs 1,400). You'll be able to console yourself over the state of the room thanks to the incredible views, but for the best room deal, book a deluxe room in the cottage (Rs 1,500), which gets you a spacious, high-ceilinged room in a separate block with a fireplace, television, and enclosed porch/sitting room. The hotel has a really slack restaurant, but it's probably the most hygienic place in town. Far better, though, if you want to stay in Sarahan, is to forgo the cliff-edge views and rather try The Wild Side Retreat (tel. 94-1800-0056 or 98-1720-0002; www.wildside.in), situated a few miles back down the road to Jeori. Occupying a restored traditional teakwood building set among the apple orchards, the 10 rooms (renovated in 2009) here are simple, but neat, and are suite-sized; far and away your best option anywhere near Sarahan -- certainly they're the cleanest and best-maintained. There's also a cozy lounge and terrace restaurant. A night for two, with all meals costs Rs 4,400, and your host can supply guides for local treks (Rs 300 per day). The owners are committed to eco-friendly principles and organize treks and overnight camping in the nearby wildlife sanctuaries, as well as multiday high-altitude treks in the western Himalayas.
From Sarahan, the onward journey to Sangla should take around 3-4 hr.
Day 3 & 4: Sangla to Spiti Valley
From Sangla, head off early back to "National Highway" 22 to continue east towards Kinnaur's main town of Recong Peo (2,670m/8,758 ft.), where you must complete the paperwork for your Inner Line Permit, which will allow you to enter and pass through the zone closest to the Tibetan border. If you arrive early enough (10am is a good bet) to have your Permit processed by lunchtime, you'll be able to press on to Spiti the same day (although it's a tricky 6-hr. drive). Most people choose to let the bureaucratic wheels run while spending the night in the village of Kalpa (2,960m/9,709 ft.), well worth a visit for its crisp, clear air and view across the valley of the majestic Kinner-Kailash massif; it's a 20-minute drive up the mountain above Recong Peo. Hotel Kinner Villa (tel. 01786/22-6006; www.kinnervilla.freehostia.com; doubles Rs 1,300-Rs 1,600 plus 10% tax) is the best place to stay (well at least service is a notch better given that it is privately run), with simple, clean, and comfortable accommodations (although bathrooms are basic and tiny). Rooms 201 and 208 have the most exquisite views; 101, 104, 202, and 207 aren't bad, either. When the hotel is quiet, you'll have to book meals in advance (call manager Anil Purohit, tel. 94-1844-1036, if you're arriving late or to have him keep the best room for you); a newly-installed generator kicks in during Kalpa's interminable power failures. Also affording good views are rooms at the Tourist Complex of Kinner Kailash, an HPTDC (state-run) hotel (tel. 01786/22-6159). Double rooms (without meals) start from Rs 1,700, but you still have to put up with dire service.
Set out from Kalpa/Recong Peo either the moment you have your permit, or -- if you've decided to stay in Kalpa for the night -- early the following day; once you pass the first Inner Line checkpoint (in 2009 this was at Spillo, but in 2010 may shift 9km/5 1/2 miles east, to Dubling), you will notice dramatic changes in the landscape, as fir trees give way to rock and stone sloping up toward distant summits and down into the raging River Sutlej. The journey through Inner Line territory takes you past the off-limits turnoff for 5,500m-high (18,040-ft.) Shipki-La Pass, which heads into China. Nako Lake and its pretty village lie farther along (it's the ideal spot to stretch your legs, and there are a few tented camps and other guesthouses where you could overnight if you have the time). Beyond the turnoff for Nako, the road attains its most sinister aspect as you enter the notorious section known as the Malling Slide, heavily punctuated with precipitous drops -- an ideal place to strengthen your faith in the divine. However, the bypass to Malling via Nako has been operational for some time now -- though not "fault" free, there is every chance that you will get through here; this road meets the highway again at Chango. Upon reaching the final Inner Line checkpoint at Sumdo -- some 115km (71 miles) from Recong Peo and 363km (225 miles) from Shimla -- the road heads northwest into the alien landscapes of Spiti.
Day 4, 5 & 6: The Spiti Valley
Some 6 hours from Recong Peo, the Buddhist village of Tabo (365km/226 miles from Shimla) is the most frequented stop in Spiti, and for good reason. With a population of around 400, this Buddhist settlement, situated at 3,050m (10,004 ft.) in lower Spiti, is centered around its celebrated 1,000-year-old monastic complex. It's the oldest continuously functioning Buddhist monastery in India and said to be the place where the present Dalai Lama will "retire." A serene village of flat-roofed houses topped by thatch packed with branches, mud, and grass, Tabo has as its obvious focus its monastery, or "doctrinal enclave." This consists of nine temple buildings, chambers for monks and nuns, 23 snow-white chortens, and piles of stones, each inscribed with scripture. We recommend you stay at Dewachen Retreats (tel. 01906/22-3301, 94-1836-3999, or 98-1709-1312; firstname.lastname@example.org; open May-Oct), certainly the cleanest guesthouse in the village. There are eight double rooms (Rs 4,000 including all meals; 10% tax extra), most of which have views over Tabo's cultivated fields, and one viewless family suite (Rs 7,000 for four people). Rooms are fairly basic, but very neat and clean, with tiled bathrooms, wardrobe space, reading lights, thick duvets, and hot water bottles just in case. The manager will organize guides for sightseeing and can arrange various kinds of excursions and adventure activities in the Valley. Many visitors traveling on a tight budget (or in town to do research at the monastery library) stay at the monastery guesthouse (tel. 01906/23-3313 or -3315), which is indeed cheap (Rs 300-Rs 550), but when we last stayed here found the rooms extremely dirty, with dodgy plumbing in the attached and the shared bathrooms. The Tibetan food at the guesthouse restaurant, on the other hand, is good. Another fine place to stop for a meal is the Kunzum Top Restaurant (tel. 94-1850-3966), where you can sit in the sun-drenched garden courtyard, or head inside for one of the low tables. Here it's possible to sample authentic Spitian cuisine (as humble as this may be), so try the slightly nutty-tasting tsampa porridge, made using the locally grown roasted barley flour; you can also ask them to make you a tsampa pancake. If you're here for dinner, order the Spiti thali; it comes with butter tea, timok (a type of steamed bread), potato with glass noodles, and cheese. Cheap, delicious momos are also served. Restaurant proprietor Sonam Tsering (email@example.com) organizes traditional music gatherings here in the winter, and also offers advice on local activities, trekking and homestay opportunities throughout Spiti and Kinnaur.
Not far from Tabo is the village of Dhankar, which hugs the side of a hill and offers breathtaking glimpses of the surrounding mountains and valley below -- a visit to the precariously perched monastery is one of Spiti's most exciting highlights. Visit Dhankar on your way from Tabo, and then continue on to the town of Kaza (47km/29 miles from Tabo). As the administrative headquarters of Spiti, Kaza offers little excitement (although the new Sakya Tenggyu Monastery, inaugurated in July 2009, is very beautiful), but serves as the lodging, transport and market hub for the entire region. It's a useful base from which to visit the beautiful, fortresslike gompa of Ki and the high-altitude villages of Kibber and Comic. Kaza is also useful for treks through the Pin Valley, a national park inhabited by endangered snow leopard and Siberian ibex, as well as rare birds such as the Himalayan snow cock, snow partridge and Tibet snow finch.
Plan on spending at least 2 nights here at Kaza Retreat, another inn operated by the Banjara group (www.banjaracamps.com; doubles Rs 4,400 including all meals). The building is a bit of an eyesore at the edge of town, but accommodations are the best for miles -- fairly spacious, comfortable, clean, and with attached bathrooms (and round-the-clock hot water). A great option if you'd rather not stay in Kaza (which has a problem with dogs howling all through the night), is Spiti Sarai (tel. 01906/22-2670 or 94-1843-9247; firstname.lastname@example.org), which sits on a large plot a few miles north of Kaza, and has double rooms from Rs 2,200 including all meals. You can book through their office (Spiti Holiday Adventures) in Kaza's Main bazaar, or Waymark Adventures in New Delhi (tel. 011/2891-5686 or 98-1130-1228; email@example.com).
Day 7: The Final Stretch
North of Spiti is Lahaul. Linked to the rest of Himachal by the Rohtang Pass, dotted with villages of flat-roofed houses, fluttering prayer flags, and whitewashed chortens, Lahaul is cut off from the world by heavy snow for 8 months of the year. This mountainous region attracts adventurers to its Buddhist monasteries, mountain passes, spectacular glaciers, and high-altitude lakes. Visitors traveling by road to Leh in Ladakh, farther north, pass through Lahaul.
Moving on from Kaza, you can either head for Manali (it'll take a full day) to catch your breath, or travel directly to Leh. The latter is a 2-day trip; the best (at least the only half-decent) place to stay along the way is the Hotel Ibex (www.hotelibexjispa.com; Rs 2,400 double with dinner and breakfast).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.