The capital of Spiti, Kaza sits on the eroded flood plain of the Spiti River and is the biggest settlement you’ll encounter in this empty corner of the planet. It feels a bit like a small frontier town with an easygoing pace. Jagged mountains rise on either side while the river coils across the valley floor like twisted locks of Medusa’s hair.
Gramphu to Kaza
From Gramphu, the road to Spiti runs up the dramatic, glacier-carved Chandra Valley. The tiny settlements of Chatru and Batal have popular dhabas. One kilometre past Batal, a rough track runs north to lovely Chandratal, a tranquil glacial lake among snow peaks at 4270m. The track ends after 12km and a footpath runs the final 1km to the lake.
The small, high-altitude villages on the east side of the Spiti valley (all well above 4000m) have a pristine, desolate beauty all their own – clusters of whitewashed, flat-roofed houses against a stark mountain backdrop with minimal vegetation except their carefully tended fields of barley and other crops.
High above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers, a steep 8km walk or drive up from Sichling on the Kaza–Tabo road, Dhankar village is the former capital of the Nono kings who ruled Spiti. The spectacular 1200-year-old Dhankar Gompa perches precariously between eroded pinnacles on the edge of a cliff.
Langza, a switchback 16km drive north of Kaza, sits at 4325m below the pointed 6300m peak of Chau Chau. A large modern Buddha statue stares across the valley from the top of the village; the temple behind it is around 500 years old. About a half-hour walk away is an area rich in ammonite fossils around 100 million years old.
At 4513m Komic is claimed to be the highest motorable village in Asia. It comprises about 10 houses and, above them, the important Tangyud Gompa, probably founded in the 14th century and with around 50 monks today. Pujas are offered at 8am to Mahakala, a wrathful emanation of Avalokitesvara.
About 6km south of Langza on a route to Komic, little Hikkim is home to the world's highest post office, 4440m above sea level. It's actually a house, and all customers are offered a cup of tea. If the owners are around outside official opening hours, they'll probably still sell you some stamps.
Hidden up the Lingti Valley, 12km northeast of Dhankar along a fairly level dirt road, the charming traditional village of Lhalung is worth a detour for its fantastic medieval monastery. The atmospheric main chapel contains superb old murals and an incredibly ornate carved wooden back frieze.
About 12km northwest of Kaza, on the road to Kibber, tiny Ki is dominated by the whitewashed buildings of Ki Gompa. Set picturesquely atop a conical hillock, this is the largest gompa in Spiti, with around 300 senior and student monks. An atmospheric puja is held in the new prayer hall every morning around 8am.