Read the 2nd part Pangi over here.
In 2017 I planned a 700K self-supported run through two of my favorite valleys in the Himalayas: Spiti and Pangi. The ultra journey would start from Shimla in Himachal and end 12 days later at Kishtwar in J&K, running 50K each day from morning till evening. I got a group together – 3 experienced ultra runners and 3 passionate mountain bikers. The cyclists would be carrying our camping gears and food would be taken in the small villages along the way so we could run minimalist. The group was self-sufficient with no external dependencies! Route would be straightforward following 2 major valleys/streams – the Sutlej/Spiti river valley in Kinnaur and Chenab river valley in Lahaul and Jammu. We would be running through beautiful pine forests at lower altitudes and the barren high altitude desert of Spiti at higher elevations at all times surrounded by snow capped peaks.
The elevation profile was perfect for gradual acclimatization, starting from Shimla at 2200m, running through the beautiful Narkanda national park, dipping down into the Sutlej river valley near Rampur at 1000m and then slowly climbing up to the Kunzum La at 4500m separating Spiti and Lahaul. From there it is all the way downhill initially along the Chandra river which joins the Bagga river near Tandi to become the Chenab river flowing through a lesser known part of Lahaul, Pangi and Jammu ending our run near Kishtwar at 1600m. Every 10-20km we would pass through small hamlets which would be candidate food stops during the day. Carrying our own camping gear we were free to settle down wherever the sun sets down.
We disassembled the cycles and boxed them up for the flight to Chandigarh. With 15kg check-in luggage and 7kg carry on we could easily take them along. Each cycle had a pair of saddle bags for carrying the luggage of one cyclist and one runner adding up to not more than 7kg. At the airport we transferred the boxes straight onto a taxi to Shimla where we got off near Kufri, a peaceful little village beyond the main tourist center. There we reassembled the cycles with an allen key, size 15 spanner and hand pump and loaded our bags. We were ready to go! The tiredness from all day travel got overtaken only by the excitement of running freely in the mountains for the next 2 weeks! We dreamt off in our tents below a zillion bright stars in the dark skies above.
The first day we were contouring high above the valleys periodically switching sides of the top ridgeline and getting treated to magnificent views of the majestic valleys below. At 2000+ meters the climate was chill and air rich in oxygen and running was comfortable even under the midday summer sun. We were running gradually uphill till Narkanda at 2700m altitude from where we dropped down steeply to Kumarsain in the Sutlej valley. Here we entered through mesmerizing pine forests in the enchanting Narkanda national park with no human settlements and absolute peacefulness. Physical tiredness was instantly obliviated by our spirits elevated by the virgin natural beauty surrounding us.
Once we touched down into the barren Sutlej river valley at 1000m altitude we hitched a ride till Rampur skipping the double lane traffic exiting from this major valley. The total distance Shimla to Kisthwar is around 820km and – having only 12 days / 700km mileage at our disposal – we had planned to skip two plain highway sections in between focusing our journey on the more serene stretches. The next few days we were running deep inside the majestic valley above the mighty Sutlej river gradually increasing elevation. Steep cliffs of intermittent rocks and green were rising high above us into the heavens. The mid summer heat at these lower altitudes in a barren valley was definitely more draining than running through a pleasant climate in the 2000m+ high up lush green valley slopes around Shimla. That called for a periodic refreshing dip in the side-streams flowing down from the slopes above.
Along the way we passed a few bridges crossing over side valleys and in some sections the road would be cut out in the steep rock cliffs above the Sutlej. At Wangtu we switched sides of the valley from right to left continuing gradually uphill as we proceeded upstream. Next we passed Karcham where a major hydro dam is built on the confluence of the Baspa and Sutlej rivers. Little did I know that the next year I would be hopping across the Baspa range through several passes jumping between Shimla and Kinnaur districts. I would also jump over directly from Kullu to Spiti to Kinnaur via the Pin Parvati and Pin Baba passes descending from Kafnu directly at Wangtu. That seed of inspiration to explore the high passes would be planted a few days later while running by a rusted board near Tandi put up by the HP tourism showing several direct shortcuts between the major valleys.
Next stopover was at the district headquarters of Reckong Peo where all foreigners have to obtain an inner line permit as further up the Spiti valley comes pretty close to the border with Tibet. Several checkposts along the way would check for the necessary permit. This caused a slight delay with the office opening only by 10am and needing 1 hour to process the application. Peo is a 400m hair pin climb above the main valley from where you get stunning views on the snow capped Kinnaur Kailash, one of 5 Siva’s adobes in the Himalayas. We were now running at 2000m+ again but given the barren landscape with little green the heat was beaming down on us during mid day. The Sutlej river valley now became a more narrow gorge crossing sides a few times and passing some sections with “shooting stones”.
There was little traffic now and we were running through stunning sections where the road was cut out in the rocks above the thundering river below. Surrounded by peacefulness and an out of this world landscape was an overwhelming experience, like running in a different world. At regular distances the BRO (Border Roads Organization) had put up sign boards with rhymes on driving safely through these treacherous roads and beware of falling rocks. Every 10-20km we would pass through a small settlement to grab a plate of momos or sip some tea to replenish the lost calories while taking in the overwhelming landscape around us. Towards the end of the day we would always try to reach a small village where we could find dinner and breakfast and settle down for the night. Finding a proper night halt meant that some days we would run more/less than the average planned 50K.
Near Khab we leave the Sutlej river which originates from the Rakshastal lake in Tibet and run into the Spiti river valley at 2600m altitude. From here the road climbs up steadily to Nako at 3900m high above the valley where the old road has been destroyed by landslides. While touring from Shimla to Leh in 2013 even the new Nako road had fallen 500m down into the valley below and we had to disassemble our cycles carrying wheels, frame and luggage separately to cross the landslide while rocks were falling from above. Motorable vehicles frequently get stuck in Spiti, Lahaul and Pangi due to regular landslides in this fragile, erosive terrain. Sometimes it takes week(s) to repair the road. At least runners and cyclists can cross where bikers and jeeps are stuck at one side. After crossing Nako we again descend 900m into an extra terrestrial world with unearthly rock gradients and textures.
We are now entering into a remote, high altitude desert world. Small fertile farming settlements along the way present a stark contrast in the surrounding barren landscape. With each turn of the valley the shades of the valley slopes change between brown, orange and hues of red and green rocks. After running through another dangerous section with flying stones that can crack your skull we cross the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) checkpost near Sumdo where our passports and inner permit are checked to keep track of our movements in the border areas. As we pass some of the small hamlets we see road-side sign boards that show the population count in these settlements, some less than 50. We mostly encounter elder people still engaged in farming as the young generation has already left the hardship existence in this barren rock desert for the comfort and easy money in the cities.
We pass very few other self supported travelers along the way in the remote Spiti valley. Except for a few biker groups on Enfield bullet motorcycles we see no runners or cyclists. Most travelers prefer the more touristic Manali-Leh route. Those who do visit Spiti mostly travel by bus from Manali to the touristic town of Kaza further upstream. The locals stay within their distant hamlets and with only one daily bus service between Kaza and Reckong Peo the roads are mostly deserted in this barren landscape, instilling a deep sense of peacefulness while running through this unearthly appearing no-man’s land. Even our small group tends to get distributed during the day with cyclists proceeding at their own pace and runners getting ahead/behind between the stop-overs. So sometimes you get the run solo for a good part of the day in this overwhelming landscape, making it a spiritual experience.
Human encounters are limited to small hamlets every 2-3 hours and a police check post or military convoy passing by between their camps. Being less touristy this interior part of Spiti has preserved some of its warm hospitality which can be felt in our interactions with the local people. In the small dhabas where we stop for food and tea during the day people are friendly and do not overcharge because we are outsiders. Some are excited to see us run minimalistic through this desolate landscape exposed to the high altitude sun. Mostly they see travelers on heavily packed motorcycles. The locals are also helpful in offering us to pitch up our tents inside / in front of shops or open lands near the settlements while reaching sometimes after sunset. Humanity remains intact far away from the crowded, commercial places which tourists flock to.
The Spiti river valley opens up now and further upstream we pass through Tabo where we find a 9th century Bhuddist monastery with beautiful hand-made frescos inside. A protected ASI (Archeological Survey of India) monument and tourist attraction. Next we pass Dhankar, the old capital of 17th century Spiti where a 12th century old monastery built on a 300m high cliff overlooks the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. The Pin river flows down from the Pin Parvathi pass, a shortcut between the barren world of Spiti and lush green Parvathi valley in Kullu. We are now running at an altitude of 3500m but appear to be well acclimatized given the gradual ascent a week ago from Shimla.
Along the way we find beautiful campsites in the green farmlands nearby small settlements. The highly erosive terrain gives form to unusual pinnacles formed by (infrequent) rains and snow meltwater. In many places rocks have fallen down on the roads which need regular rebuilding due to frequent surface damage. We finally reach Kaza, the current day main town of Spiti valley, a touristic place well connected from both Manali and Reckong Peo. Here one can find many hotels and restaurants and hire an Enfield bullet motorcycle to visit the surrounding sight-seeing spots. Being short on time we proceed our journey and soon run past the beautiful Key gompa, built on top of a hillock overlooking the Spiti river. Built in the 11th century this Tibetan Buddhist monastery is the largest one in Spiti accommodating nearly 250 monks.
We now leave the main highway connecting Kaza with Manali and run on the opposite side of the valley. The lush green farmlands in the wide Spiti valley irrigated by numerous canals are a treat for the eyes. As the sun is setting low we decide to halt for the night at Key gompa where the monks prepare fresh food and offer us bed bunks to sleep along with a few other foreign visitors. The next morning we run across Asia’s highest bridge connecting Hikkim with Chichim village. Recently constructed it connects both villages separated by a 1000m deep canyon through which the Para Chu river flows. In many places we come across rivers which cut deeply into the fragile high altitude landscape of Spiti. Deep down below we can spot trails used by local villagers in earlier days, some of which I would explore during my 2018 Trans Himachal solo run.
Passing Chichim village we now run through no-man’s land with no further human settlements for quite some time. We steadily climb up to a small pass at 4250m where we encounter a baby yak roaming alone on the road. Looking around, mummy appears nowhere to be seen and we take a small lunch break to give him some company. The cute animal (domesticated?) socializes with us and gobbles up a few rotti’s. While resuming our run back down into the main Spiti valley at 4000m the little fur ball follows us for a short while. We now approach the last settlement of Losar along the Spiti valley from where we run up to Kunzum La at 4550m, the gateway to Lahaul.
Read the 2nd part Pangi over here where we run from the Chandra Taal lake into the enchanting Chenab river valley through Lahaul, Pangi and Jammu.