The Key Monastery is the brand ambassador of Spiti Valley, it is by far the biggest monastery in the valley, situated near the Spiti river on a hillside. Built about thousands of years ago, the need for a monastery arose when the Tibetian Buddhism started spreading in the valley. The monastery has a labyrinth, with interconnected dark rooms through the dark and narrow alleyways. The monastery holds a rich library of Buddhist sacred texts and manuscripts. The archaeological survey of India has kept a detailed list of all the assets of the monastery post-independence. It also has a wide array of medieval weapons stored inside it. Used in the old days to ward off attacks from dacoits and expeditionary forces. The people around the monastery would get inside and then, the monks would throw stones at the invaders to fend themselves. The Dhankar Fort and monastery also had the same response in times of disturbance. Another use of the weapons was to keep the subjects under control, as peaceful as it may look now, Spiti has had its fair share of bloodshed in the past. The kingdoms of Bushahr, Kullu, and Ladakh would constantly attack the area which was under the Nono of Spiti. The Mongols would also at times create unrest.
You can reach Key Monastery from the Shimla side or the Manali side, depending upon the season. The road from Manali over the Rohtang Pass closes after October when heavy snowfall hits the High passes. The only option in the wintertime is to travel by the Shimla-Reckong Peo road, which is also called the Hindustan Tibet Road. Assuming, you will reach Kaza first, the ways and means to reach Key Monastery are below.
The distance from Kaza to Key Monastery is 14Kms. Reaching Key Monastery from Kaza is not a big deal. Though buses are available in the evening, it is difficult for anybody to catch a bus to the monastery and be back on the highway at 7:00 PM to catch a ride till Kaza. So the most sensible thing to do would be to visit the monastery on the way back from one of the villages in the Kibber-Langza-Hikkim belt. Get down at the monastery early in the morning and then hitch a ride back to Kaza.
For morning travel, you will have to get on the Kaza to Kullu bus, which leaves the bus stand at 5:00 AM. Get down at Rangrik bridge and then walk till the Monastery, which might take an hour or more. The other option is available by 5:00 PM at the earliest, that is the bus from Kaza to Chicham or Kaza to Komic, which will drop you right below the monastery.
If you don’t happen to have a vehicle and decide to take a shared taxi towards Kibber, you can get down on the way to Key monastery. If you are planning to hitchhike till the key monastery that too is possible. To break it up, you will find a lot of vehicles going till the Rangrik Bridge, from where they crossover to the other side of the river. So you get down at Rangrik Bridge and explore that area. There’s even a dirt trail that goes to the riverbed and it is quite fun, to be honest, to get down there as locals fill their water. Back to the Rangrik Bridge, you have to wave at vehicles to get a ride as Key Village is the only thing between the monastery and the bridge. Once you get off at Key Village, there is a dirt trail that goes all the way up to the monastery. It takes around 10 minutes to reach the monastery from that point. The climb is uphill and there is even an option to go upward on the same trail, getting to the vantage point above the monastery. I’m sure you must have seen one of those photos where the monastery is down below and the Spiti river basin is visible. Do keep in mind the traffic is relatively less on these roads at weekends.
Being a big Monastery, Key has many rooms, so it is open to guests like the Dhankar Monastery. For a nominal charge of 200 rupees, you will get a bed for the night and food included. You have to eat what the monks eat, which may be Rajma-chawal or Momo or Thukpa, nothing fancy. You also stay where the monks stay and most probably, you will find fellow travelers there who are also staying. But in winter, it might be for you.
As mentioned above, there is a trail that goes from behind the gompa up on the mountain it’s built on. If you hike up that path, you will find a bunch of chortens on the hilltop and the time to reach there should be an hour or less. This hilltop is right next to the Kibber road so there is a good chance of hitching a ride down from there.