Packing for the Desert Mountains

Trying to capture the sunrays bursting through the cloud cover over the desert mountains of Spiti

Desert Mountain – that’s a term I hadn’t heard before. Most of Spiti valley classifies as a mountainous desert – mountains so barren and so high that not much grows there without help. Spiti remains completely frozen and unreachable in the winter, except via snowy treks over the mountains. Even at the height of summer, long after the snow has melted away, evenings can still get remarkably cold.

The treacherous roads, only open for a few months every summer, make traveling to Spiti an adrenaline filled adventure. In this part of the world, towns are few and far between, speckled with small villages over all sides of the mountains. Electricity, heat, water and sanitation are the luxuries of life. ?

On to the rollercoaster of the Spitian roads with river Satluj keeping you company throughout the way
On to the rollercoaster of the Spitian roads with river Satluj keeping you company throughout the way

On The roller coaster of Spitian roads

So you have decided to take a trip down the valley of Spiti. If you haven’t decided yet, this might help you take the leap of faith. ☺️

Traveling in Spiti is no picnic. You are greeted with single lane roads, carved on the side of cliffs and mountains, with waterfalls crossing them on the way. It takes a very skilled driver and a strong hearted traveller to brave these roads. But it is never in vain. All throughout the way, you are rewarded with such unimaginable panoramas, beautiful blue skies, dancing clouds and plethora of colors, that you will forget all about the body aches and the dust and stare open jawed to revel at the marvels of nature.

Taking a break from the rough roads to admire the view and snap a few selfies ?
Taking a break from the rough roads to admire the view and snap a few selfies ?

Nevertheless, let me give you some packing tips of things you should not be caught without. Ecosphere had sent us a similar list which made us all the more prepared for this journey.

Must Haves

Since we were going to be traveling in remote places with little to no access to medical facilities (unless you count the local Amchi), it was necessary to carry basic medicines for common ailments. There were some other things that we ended up needing and were very glad we had carried them with us.

    • Diamox – to avoid Mountain sickness. Start taking it two days before you reach your highest altitude to up two days after reaching. All in all a course of about 5 days should be enough. Consult your physician to ensure it suits you.
    • Saridon and Combiflam – For headaches, body aches and fever
    • Loperamide – for diarrhea
    • Avomine – for motion sickness
    • Cetirizine – for allergies
    • Lip-guard – This is an absolute must! Your lips will chap and get dry and painful very soon without a chapstick.
    • Moisturizer – Spiti is a very dry place, additionally the winds can get really cold. You need a good moisturizer to make sure you don’t end up with cracked skin. Boro-plus worked perfectly for me.
    • Sunscreen – In the daytime, the sun gets extremely bright and hot. Even after using the best sunscreen I could find, we both came back with heavy tans and sunburnt noses. Try to see if you can find SPF 40+. SPF 50-60 is recommended.
    • Sunglasses – to protect against the sun reflected by the snow clad mountains. I recommend category 3 sunglasses, ideally. Check out the descriptions here to choose the right type.
    • Toiletries – Since you may end up living in homestays and remote places, don’t expect to get all hotel room amenities while traveling to Spiti. Carry what you need.
    • Head & Face cover – This is extremely important if you don’t want to inhale and taste dust. Since there probably won’t be a shower arrangement in some villages, it’s best to stay covered. Get a pollution mask if you have one.
  • A mask to cover your face and hair is a necessity in the dusty terrain
    A mask to cover your face and hair is a necessity in the dusty terrain
    • Woolens – The mountains get cold in the evenings, sometimes even during the day. Pack thin layers, and cover them with a good wind cheater to keep the dust out of them and protect you against cold winds.
    • Gloves & extra socks
    • Trekking shoes – At least one size bigger so you can double up your socks. Big shoes also provide better insulation.
    • Snacks & Dry Fruits – to keep your energy up.
    • Water bottles – to carry in backpack as mineral water is not easily available and is not eco friendly. Ecosphere provided all of us with “Lifestraw” bottles which contain filters so you don’t have to worry about unclean water. But you still need more bottles to carry extra water.
  • The lifesaver LifeStraw bottles with an inbuilt filter to always have clean water
    The lifesaver LifeStraw bottles with an inbuilt filter to always have clean water
    • Camera & Tripod – If you wanna capture those night skies and the milky way, you’re gonna need them!
    • Day backpack – to carry on treks, to keep water and lunches, jacket and camera. And more water.
    • Travel adapter – I think this is a must have when you are traveling anywhere in general. Its best to carry a multi pin one, be it a room with single charger, or a railway waiting room, this comes so in handy!
    • Cash for the essential planned expenses and then some. Most of the ATMs around the valley don’t work or don’t have cash. There aren’t a lot many ATMs to begin with anyway. Most places won’t accept Cards. When some of my friends were cycling through the valley, they found an ATM after 3 days at Tabo, and it wasn’t working. The next one they found next day at Kaza, and it was out of cash.  Don’t rely on high uptime from technology when on such trips ?

Good to haves

Although I travel light, I like to be prepared. Here are some extra things you may want to consider to have a comfortable trip.

  • Neck pillow – You’re gonna be on the road for a long while, most days from early in the morning. A neck pillow comes in very handy to catch up on that sleep while traveling and to avoid a cramped neck throughout the trip.
  • Candies – Keeps away that motion sickness. Even if you think you have a strong constitution, wait till you meet the roller coaster that is the Himalayan roads. It’s always nice to have a bag of sweet and sour candy to keep your food down.
  • Flashlights – In case you decide to venture out at night.
  • Extra pair of slippers/floaters – to wear indoors.
  • Extra batteries – Batteries tend to run out very quickly in cold regions.

Although, you can buy most of the stuff in Kaza, if your itinerary is like ours where we didn’t reach Kaza until the last 2 days of our trip, you should consider carrying things you need with you.

Hanging out at a beautiful waterfall on the way!
Hanging out at a beautiful waterfall on the way!

Off the Grid!

Be prepared to be truly off the grid. There will be no phones and no internet. It’s a unique liberating experience. You notice more things, unencumbered by the need to share each and every moment of your life. Instead you can just enjoy it while it’s happening. You become more self reliant, more careful and make more friends by being present. You get to hear more stories and learn about a different culture.

The mountains can be breathtakingly beautiful and quite intimidating at the same time. Makes you realize how small you truly are!
The mountains can be breathtakingly beautiful and quite intimidating at the same time. Makes you realize how small you truly are!

Although a lot of places in Spiti are completely devoid of any connectivity, sometimes, if you are high enough – 5000 meters high, for instance  – you might catch a bar or two. But I would advise against it. I recommend that everybody should experience Spiti au naturale – totally disconnected.

Added benefit, your phone’s battery lasts a lot longer if you keep it in the airplane mode for a week! ? Just make sure to have enough space in your phone and camera to store all those gorgeous photos you will end up taking. Otherwise, like me, you will be sitting rifling through your phone, deleting stuff to make more space!

Last but no the least, remember ‘A smile goes a long way‘. The people in Spiti are very helpful and extremely generous. They open their homes and their hearts for us and share everything they have. The least we can do is be nice, polite and appreciative for all they do for us. ☺️

Our photography mentor teaching the kid how the camera works!
Our photography mentor teaching the kid how the camera works!

Credits: Thanks Gunjan for all the cool suggestions ?