Few places on earth can mark so dramatic a change in landscape as the Rohtang Pass. To one side, the lush green head of the Kullu Valley; to the other, an awesome vista of bare, chocolate-coloured mountains, hanging glaciers and snowfields that shine in the dazzlingly crisp light, with just flecks of flora deep in the valley to soften the stark image. The district of Lahaul and Spiti, Himachal’s largest, is named after its two subdivisions, which are, in spite of their numerous geographical and cultural similarities, distinct and separate regions.
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Lahaul, sometimes referred to as the Chandra-Bhaga Valley, is the region that divides the Great Himalayas and Pir Panjal ranges. Its principal river, the Chandra, rises deep in the barren wastes below the Baralacha Pass, and flows south, then west towards its confluence with the River Bhaga near Tandi. Here, the two rivers become the Chenab, and crash north out of Himachal to Kishtwar in Kashmir. Being closer to what rains the monsoon brings across the Rohtang pass from the south, Lahaul’s climate is less arid than in Ladakh and Zanskar to the north and as a consequence, the key highway passes of Rhotang La and Baralacha La are more prone to early snow than the higher examples further north. So it is that between late October and late March, heavy snows close the passes and seal off the region. The Rohtang Pass is usually closed on Tuesdays for maintenance and often gets blocked by landslides following heavy rain. Despite such difficulties, Lahaulis, a mixture of Buddhists and Hindus, enjoy one of the highest per capita incomes in the Subcontinent. Using glacial water channelled through ancient irrigation ducts, Lahauli farmers manage to coax a bumper crop of seed potatoes from their painstakingly fashioned terraces. The region is also the sole supplier of hops to India’s breweries, and harvests prodigious quantities of wild herbs, used to make perfume and medicine. Much of the profit generated by these cash crops is spent on lavish jewellery, especially seed-pearl necklaces and coral-and turquoise-inlaid silver plaques, worn by the women over ankle-length burgundy or fawn woollen dresses. Lahaul’s traditional costume and Buddhism are a legacy of the Tibetan influence that has permeated the region from the east.
From its headwaters below the Kunzum La pass, the River Spiti runs 130km southeast to within the flick of a yak’s tail of the border with Tibet, where it meets the Sutlej. The valley itself, surrounded by huge peaks with an average altitude of 4500m, is one of the highest and most remote inhabited places on earth – a desolate, barren tract scattered with tiny mud-and-timber hamlets and lonely lamaseries. Until 1992, Spiti in its entirety lay off-limits to foreign tourists. Now, only its far southeastern corner falls within the Inner Line – which leaves upper Spiti, including the district headquarters Kaza, freely accessible from the northwest via Lahaul. If you are really keen to complete the loop through the restricted area to or from Kinnaur, you will need a permit. The last main stop before reaching the restricted zone is the famed Tabo gompa, which harbours some of the oldest and most exquisite Buddhist art in the world.