A Walk the High Himalayas
"Did you speak to your boss about the leaves? Has he sanctioned them? When can we leave, I have already blocked the tickets, and the roads may get closed in October" - these were my typical bombardment of question & persistent statements, every evening for about two weeks, as Mitali boarded the car at the designated pick-up point after office in either Powai or Andheri.
After driving all the way from my office, located at Navi Mumbai, to pick her up, braving the chaotic Powai traffic-snares, I would be ever-eager to hear a positive reply. "My newsletter work is not over as yet, it is yet to go for printing, there is a Press Conference to be organized, have to come up with a new PR plan, my boss is travelling etc etc, would be Mitali's regular replies, to my disillusionment and growing frustration.
"Man, just speak it up to you boss tomorrow and let us get away from crowded Mumbai to allow both our body & mind meander in peace & solitude high up in the cradles of the majestic Himalayas."
For me, it was as if my patience was being tested to its limits. Need this Himalayan sojourn badly, to come back fresh and rejuvenated, to work - to live.
I was in the midst of an important meeting that Friday afternoon, when I saw the Caller ID of my cell phone displaying Mitali's name. It was on a silent mode. I paused, picked up and uttered softly, "What's up?"
What I heard back rained in all the excitement, and I screamed out loud, "Sanctioned, Wow!" to the utter dismay of all my dumbstruck colleagues, who started gazing at me thoroughly amazed. Only then I realized, "Hey, I'm in a meeting." "Sorry," was all I said softly. My mind was no longer in the meeting; it was as if swept away immediately by an unseen Himalayan breeze. I could literally imagine myself trotting amidst the snow-clad mountains.
Chugging Ahead Once Again
As the Pachim Express chugged out from the Bandra Terminus that fateful 21st September 2008 morning, just could not believe that our 2nd odyssey to the "Land of the Gods" - Dev Bhumi - Himachal Pradesh, was truly unfolding. I pinched myself to feel it for real, as Mitali made herself comfortable, reclining her body in the lower berth of the AC compartment.
Sitting by the window, we kept viewing the familiar sights and sounds as the train chugged ahead. A couple of hours later we opened our lunch packet of mutton biriyani that we prepared the previous night, and gorged it to glory. Stomach satisfied, we lay down in our berths, with some light readings to accompany, till my eyes dozed off to a deep slumber.
Waking up late afternoon, refreshing ourselves with some hot tea, initiated some small time conversation with our co-passengers of the compartment. As dusk set in, walked down to the rear of our bogey, opened the door and holding the long handle started contemplating what must be in store for our journey ahead. As the train chugged in full gust, the cool breeze bracing past my face was very welcoming indeed.
Soon, it was time for dinner and I was very keen to have some hot puri bhaji in some way side station. But to my utter disappointment, the tasty puri bhaji eluded me at each passing station, till we decided to have the regular dinner from the train caterers.
After a toss-and-turn night in my designated upper berth, woke up little late the next morning. Having freshened up, started the day with a hot cup of tea with some biscuits. Thereafter, I gradually pulled out all the piles of print-outs that I had been printing, for I don't know how many weeks, as I was researching about this trip, and started reading them thoroughly. It provided snapshots of the places we intend to travel, detailing where to stay, the probable route, what to see, where to eat etc etc.
Gradually, we passed by New Delhi and finally Chandigarh around noon. We had some vegetable biriyani and curd for lunch. Excitement was quite visible in our faces as we chugged ahead almost touching the foothills by now. As we passed by Chandi Mali, the penultimate station before our destination Kalka, I caught the first glimpse of the green mountains ahead. It was as if the clouds playing hide and seek with the afternoon sun, one moment sunny the next moment hazy.
Pain of the Plains
The train halted for a final time on Platform 1 of Kalka station at 4.05 pm. Soon we boarded an auto rickshaw and drove to the Kalka Bus Depot. Initially, we expected to get a Volvo Bus that we were told ply to Shimla at regular intervals, but after waiting for 15-20 minutes our patience ran out. I inquired with some drivers of a few taxis parked outside the bus depot, and one of them agreed for a Shimla drop @ Rs 1000.
It was a Tata Indica but we soon came to realize that the driver was a big-time pain. After driving for about an hour, dusk crept in gradually as we were trudging the sharp hairpins and moving up vertically. Soon, we saw ahead in the horizon, beautiful Solan - illuminated like a suspended jewel with the lights of the entire town glowing alight. On the contrary however, our driver was saying, "Sir, only one light of the car is working, the other one is fused, and it would be difficult to drive this way in the darkness."
Getting irritated I asked, "Did you not checked it before you started," "I did, Sir, but now I'll probably drop you at Solan, you give me Rs 800 and take a different taxi from there," he answered, adding as if salt to my injury.
After about 5 minutes ahead, as we were passing by a small village named Karol, seeing some dhabas (roadside eatery) I suggested for a tea break. As I was thinking what best to do next, sipping some hot tea at the Great Eastern Dhaba, a white Maruti Esteem car having government registration number stopped by.
I noticed it was an empty car with only the driver and no other co-passenger accompanying. I approached him, explained our plight and he obliged. Mr Tilak Sharma the driver - no, perhaps he was a perfect gentleman of the mountains - told us how the drivers for the plains of Kalka dupe and fleece unwary tourists. The drive from Karol to Shimla in Mr Sharma's company was very smooth indeed.
He switched on the FM radio, which it took us back to the good old days, as it was tuned to the Bividh Bharati station. Old back-to-back nostalgic Hindi numbers accompanied us till he dropped us safely in front of the Shimla Railway Station around 8 pm. Meanwhile, I had already called my local contact, Mr Satish, who was waiting for us in his pick-up jeep. We boarded down, thanked Mr Sharma, inserted a few hundreds into his pocket, and drove to the Osceen Hotel for the night's stay.
Friend, Philosopher, cum Guide
We woke up the next morning early at 7.20 am, excited as ever - we were really in Shimla. Freshening ourselves, we had some delicious stuffed Allu Parathas and scrambled eggs for breakfast and were all geared up to go.
As assured, Mr Satish arrived sharp at 9.30 am. Accompanying him was a sturdy person in a Kinnauri cap, jeans and jacket. "This is Surender Singh Thakur, he would accompany you both in your trip," Mr Satish introduced, as I shook hand with him saying he would be "our friend philosopher and guide for the next 10 days. We look forward to our Himalayan odyssey in your company." In fact "Thakur Bhai" as I started calling him later, turned out to be one dependable and stable person during our entire trip.
Checking out of Osceen Hotel and parking our bags in the boot of the Thakur Bhai's Tata Sumo, and we started off at 9.45 am. We encountered the morning unexpected office traffic snares - very unlikely I thought - in a place like Shimla, after the Mumbai's daily traumatic traffic experience.
Soon, we passed by Chotta Shimla and gradually the atmosphere started becoming serene. We stopped at Fagu and picked up some apple wine and bowed our heads in a Durga temple. The weather was a bit cloudy as we proceeded ahead.
Half and hour drive ahead we reached Kufri, standing at an altitude of 2510 meters, a popular destination known for hiking and trekking trails. "Thakur Bhai" stopped the car and we alighted.
The region around Shimla including Kufri was once a part of the Kingdom of Nepal. This region remained obscure from the rest of the world until the British "discovered" it in 1819. They made Shimla their summer capital in 1864 and continued to remain so till 1939.
We were informed that adventure seeking tourist also visit Kufri during winters for some great skiing experience. We saw lots of saddled horses taking excited tourist up the steep climb on to some breath-taking trekking trails. As we did not wanted to waste time going up on horse back, we decided to experience the horse back trek on our way back and moved ahead.
Soon we passed by Theog and Narkanda. The views of the tall mountains were simply amazing and we just could not stop clicking the camera to glory. After crossing Narkanda, the serpentine road passed through pristine pine forest, till we stopped at the Forest Rest House mid-way.
With the lines of colourful tents amidst the green backdrop of the forest canopy, it looked simply amazing. The atmosphere was quiet with the occasional chirping of birds breaking the silence. We soaked our mind and soul in this serene place for sometime before starting again.
Of Landslides & Bulldozers
Going some few odd kilometers ahead, passing by Oddi, we saw ahead of us a long line of vehicles in a stand still mode. "Thakur Bhai, what might be the case, can we expect traffic jam even here?" I inquired in exclamation. "Hope it is not a landslide ahead," Thakur Bhai replied with a grim look, as he boarded down and said he'll check and return.
Soon he returned back with some real bad news. His assumption about landslide turned true. "There was a very heavy landslide, earlier in the morning today and bulldozers are at work currently, but I presume it would take time for sure to clear all the rubbles," Thakur Bhai informed sadly.
We got down from the car to gauge first-hand the situation and walked towards the landslide site about 1500 meters ahead. We passed by the lines of vehicles with frustrated onlookers waiting for the rubble to clear.
What I saw ahead made me very unsure and disillusioned. The whole road was full of huge boulders and debris, it seem as if the whole hill has fallen down on the road. Despite two bulldozers trying to clear the rubble, it became amply clear to us that it going to take some bit of time.
As there was a village downhill, the engineers supervising the activity were cautious that any debris does not fall over, causing damages to the villagers below. Each time the bulldozers lifted the rocks and debris, and kept pilling it alongside the road. Work was slow and after observing the activities for sometime, we decided to come back to our car. To idle away the time, Mitali started experimenting on some photo clicking sessions - the subject surely the beautiful landscape.
Stranded on the Highway
As the hours passed by, our restlessness kept surging and by now we were feeling hungry as well. Thakur Bhai, came back from the landslide site and suggested we walk back a few hundred meters, and grab some quick bite in a few dhabas situated alongside.
By now, hundreds of vehicles lined up the road, with numerous hungry mouths to grab a bite. For the dhabas situated at Oddi, it surely was brisk business, as loads of Army personnel, truck drivers, and stranded tourist like us flocked together.
The menu offered was simple: dal, rice, hot chapattis, and curry. Hungry as we were, we gorged on the simple hot nutritious lunch - very tasty indeed. Having our fill we made our way to our vehicle and waited and waited.
Around 4pm, we noticed Thakur Bhai trotting back from the landslide sight and offered some bad news again. It seems some more debris caved in and the situation has worsened. "It is not going to get cleared today. We better head back to Narkanda and seek accommodation. Already lots of tourist have been stranded here and undoubtedly getting accommodation in Narkanda might be a problem if we keep waiting here."
I agreed to our driver-cum-guide-cum-philosopher and sadly we turned our car and made our way towards Narkada, about 17 kilometers down-hill. The weather too turned gloomy and a few moments later it started pouring hard. As we glided downhill, Thakur Bhai, at one bend pointed out to us, "look fresh snow" by the side of the road.
As we were passing through the Forest Camp, I suggested, "Can we camp here for the night?" Thakur Bhai replied, "I foresee more rain during the night and I do not want you both to have a wet night in the tents, let us proceed back to Narkanda only." "Ok, dear friend, whatever you suggest," I replied with a shrug, frustration clearly brewing up.
Soon we reached Narkanda, and we checked for accommodation. "Being a small place, it does not have very high class accommodation, will it be all right," Thakur Bhai asked. "It is fine as long as it is clean and dry," I replied.
There was one big hotel but accommodation was not available. Finally, we moved up, by the side of the PWD Guest House and discovered two cute guest houses situated in a cliff. We opted for Harsh Villa, wherein we got a very decent room with a very nice view of the supposedly Himalayan range ahead, which was now covered with thick grey clouds.
The heavy downpour outside continued and as darkness set in it started becoming very chilling indeed. We huddled in the room and prayed for the skies to clear, "Please God, no more landslide ahead!"
After freshening up with a hot bath, I headed down to the kitchen, where Kancha, the manager-cum-waiter-cum-cook was preparing our dinner. I opened up a can of Tuna which we were carrying, and cooked it with some onion, garlic and loads of fresh chilly in typical mountain style - hot and spicy.
Opening up my Old Monk rum bottle, with the hot Tuna flakes to company, had two/three shots to glory. Recall calling up my dear fried Prashant, who was in all sweat at Mumbai, about the glorious chilly weather we were in. I could smell something burning from there itself..."Come on Prashant", you'll have your share as well someday.
Dinner soon was brought into our room by Kancha. Sweet Kancha, on our request also provided a room heater. Quickly, we finished our dinner, consisting of chapatti, dal, rice and green salad and got inside the heavy quilts, calling it a night with positive anticipation of a bright new morning ahead.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards
Next morning, I woke up with apprehension whether the weather is still cloudy or gloomy. But lo, what I saw was a bright ray of the sun falling on the window pane. Jumped out of the bed and opened the door and behold, in front of me were line upon line of snow clad mountains with fresh icy wind brushing across my face. I just could not stop my excited soul to see a clear sky.
Immediately, I woke up Mitali and pulled her out of the bed and literally dragged her outside the small balcony of our room. "Wow" was all she said and we just stood amazed, gazing the wonderful snow clad Himalayan range and filled in our lungs with the fresh mountain air.
Now that the dark clouds have blown away, we thought the landslide at Oddi would be cleared and we would be able to explore ahead. Having a nice hot bath, I came own to meet Thakur Bhai and the asked "What is the news, has the road cleared?", "No news as yet, but we'll get out by 10.30 am?" "How far is Sarahan?" "About 100 odd kilometers, and it'll take us about 5 hours."
With loads of anticipation, we had some delicious hot aloo parathas with pickle and as we still had some time in our hand before we started out, we decided to visit the Narkanda Skiing Track, situated just over the hill. Geared with our camera we tracked up the forest path.
Going through the lush green pine forest with many a small stream crisscrossing our path, we finally reached a huge clearing. Some local cattle lazily grazed around as we just paused and soaked ourselves in the serene surrounding. After spending about half an hour of peace and quiet, we tracked back to Harsh Villa and started off.
Oddi, the place from where we returned back the previous day was about 30 minutes drive ahead. Reached there only to get the news that the landslide has not been cleared and it would take another 5-6 hours before the road clear. After parking our car, I went ahead to see the progress of the work and felt really depressed to see another huge boulder accompanied by further debris in the middle of the road.
The personnel involved in clearing the debris were in the process of fixing dynamite by drilling holes in the boulders to blow them off. "Bang, bang, bang" three blasts happened, creating heaps of rubble to be cleared by the two bulldozers. It surely would take some bit of time before this road clears, I thought.
Dejected just returned back to the car and pulled out the laptop to key in a few meaningful words. Wondered why this had to happen at this unusual time of the year. Usually rains, the cause of this landslide, is quite unknown at this time of the year. But what we gathered from our interactions revealed that there has been very intermittent rainfalls till a few days back causing landslides all over Shimla and Kinnaur districts at many places. "Global warming at it very best," was all I could think and kept praying for the road to clear.
Tasty Lunch Tasty No More
As the clock ticked away, like the previous day, we had to satisfy ourselves with the usual lunch consisting of the dal, chapatti, curry and rice in the local dhaba. Surely, it did not taste as tasty as it did the previous day. Already, we have lost almost two days; sad indeed was how we both felt.
Getting bored sitting in car all the while, around late noon, I went by again to the landslide site to view its clearing progress. Work was surely on full swing, but unsure how much longer it might take to clear the road.
I spoke to Thakur Bhai, who too was anxiously gauzing the progress of the work at the site, "This will surely take time. Is there any other road to take us to Sarahan," "There is another road and in fact just a while back I had spoken to a friend in that route, and he informed, that road too was blocked due to landslide but in half-an-hour's time it might be opened for small vehicles. He further informed that he'll confirm once it opens for traffic," Thakur Bhai replied.
"I am sure, despite two bulldozers working it out here, it would take another 3 to 4 hours and once darkness creep in, work would stop, I think we should try out the other route, we can't waste another day here," I eagerly replied.
"The moment I get the call from my friend, we'll start back, replied Thakur Bhai. "Back, what do you mean?" I asked with surprise. "I mean, we'll have to go back to Narkanda and take a different road and go via Vitthal, which again connects the Hindustan Tibet Highway (NH 22) a little before Rampur in a place called Nirath."
I walked back to the car to inform Mitali about the change of plan. We heard a few more dynamite blasts and soon we saw Thakur Bhai pacing up towards the car. Igniting the engine, Thakur Bhai said, "This is not likely to get over soon, it is not going to be of any use waiting out here, my friend had just called saying that the other route has been opened for small cars," as he turned the our vehicle.
Soon, we moved past the pine forest and drove towards Narkanda. From Narkanda we saw two roads forking out, one towards Shimla and the other towards Nirath via Vitthal. It was a very narrow road and we started serpentine our way ahead slowly and carefully. It was late afternoon and it was as if we have literally entered apple country. We crossed numerous apple orchards with the simple village folks packing golden and red apples into the baskets.
The road condition was not good and it was wet with slush and mud in most areas. We discovered many a rubble of mud swept down to the road, making driving slow. Soon, dusk crept in and we kept moving ahead finally reaching Nirath. There was another Tata Sumo of Thakur Bhai's friend, which too was following us in the same route, with six middle-aged Bengali couple.
He suggested that we should wait for that car to arrive and move ahead together from thereon, instead of moving ahead alone. It was dark and by then it was past 7.30 pm. Our destination for the night would be Rampur about 50 odd Kms ahead.
Temple of the Sun
As we waited, Thakur Bhai suggested that we visit the Sun Temple, situated just over the road. He further said that this was the only Sun Temple in entire Asia. We trotted towards the temple in the darkness. My torch light came very handy lighting up our path. The temple as we had contemplated was closed, but we bowed our heads at the door step and after spending a few minutes came back to our car.
Soon, the other car arrived and we started, with them following us. The road ahead was smooth and we could hear the gushing currents the Sutlej flowing alongside. Thakur Bhai informed that there was another big landslide ahead in Jhakri and we would have to use a different private road, going through the Sutlej Naptha Jhakri Hydel Project.
"No more landslides please," we literally pleaded to God. As we trudged ahead it seemed we were the only people on the road that night. Occasionally, a solitary truck passed by the opposite direction breaking the silence.
Around 9.30 pm we approached a diversion. One road leads to Rampur, which ahead was blocked by landslide. We took the diversion, and after crossing the Bailey bridge, we drove into the rugged private road of the Naptha Jhakri Hydel project. It was a treacherous track, and slowly Thakur Bhai maneuvered the wheels. An eerie silence was experienced by us as we moved ahead. "We are now passing through Kullu dist," Thakur Bhai announced, pointing to the opposite direction across the Sutlej, "that is Shimla dist."
Despite the darkness, the high mountains through which we were trudging ahead looked daunting and formidable indeed. It was a very narrow track and one wrong maneuver would surely prove fatal. Soon, we passed by the small Brawl township and Thakur Bhai informed us that this place is known for illegal activities. "It is a very dicey place," the only such place in entire Himachal Pradesh.
Jackals on the Prowl
Finally, we soon saw up ahead bright lights of a settlement. "What settlement is that?" I inquired. "It is the Jhakri Hydel project settlement with all its offices and residential quarters," Thakur Bhai replied, and added "from here another half an hour's drive we'll be in Rampur."
As we took the final turn to the entry gate of the Jhakri project, we saw ahead of us a line of 10 to 15 trucks and a few other vehicles. We boarded down to see what the matter was. To our utter disgust, the lone CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) security person was refusing to lift the barricaded gate, saying that he has orders from his higher up not to open the gate and allow the private vehicles pass through the core project area at this hour of the night.
There was great commotion of the stranded people with the security personnel. "My hands are tied, there is this new rule effective from today that traffic would not be allowed to pass through the project area after 10 pm. The gate will be opened only at 6 am tomorrow." He further suggested, "Why don't you all walk up this hill to our main office and convince our officer," he suggested.
We all huddled up and decided to walk up-hill to meet the Officer-in-Charge and request him to oblige. As there were some ladies as well with us, about 8 men folks volunteered to go and we soon marched ahead.
It was a very steep hike and we had to ascend about half kilometers vertically up. On the way up, we all saw a pack of jackals on the prowl a few meters ahead of us. Thakur Bhai said it is a mating pair, and as they heard our voices, they soon melted into the darkness. After the arduous exhausting up-hill hike, we finally we made it to the main office.
A Cold Long Night
But sadly, the Officer-in-Charge was not willing to budge and after pestering him for more than an hour, we felt utterly disgusted as he seemed immune to the fact that we have ladies and kids, and if we are not allowed to pass through, we all would have to spend the entire night in our vehicles in the middle of nowhere, that too empty stomach.
He did call up his higher boss through the Intercom, who just shouted back and ordered that the gate should be opened only at 6 am next morning. Frustrated, we returned downhill to our vehicles and the only option for us was to sit through the night.
By then it was past mid-night and our dinner comprised biscuits and chocolates that we had carried for emergency munching. It was very cold outside and both of us made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the rear seat, covering ourselves with the emergency blanket that I insisted on carrying, to Mitali's reluctance.
Thakur Bhai pulled out his sleeping bag to sleep outside but someone suggested that this was leopard territory and it would be advisable to remain inside the vehicles. Caught on the back-foot after hearing this, Thakur Bhai, adjusted himself in the front seat and within minutes, I could hear him snoring away.
Undoubtedly, it was very uncomfortable to sleep in the car and it indeed proved to be a cold long night. We both stretched our legs in opposite directions but proper sleep eluded us for sure.
The hours passed by in agony and frustration. In front of us, the other Sumo, with the six Bengali couples, they too tucked away inside. Around 5.30 am, it was still dark; I got down from the car and made my way to the barricaded gate to have a word with the security personnel. He said his duty would be over at 6 am and his reliever would come and soon the gate would be opened.
Gradually, one by one the other stranded passengers', after their sleepless night, came towards the gate in anticipation that it would soon be opened and we could finally move ahead. By now it was 6 am, and the reliever too came but he was simply not willing to open the gate. Adding as if salt to or already wounded body and soul, he was maintaining that he'll open the gate at 9.30 am as per the orders he has received from his higher officers.
After passing through the long night in the vehicles and that too without any food, the stranded passengers could not take it any more. Heated arguments followed, and finally at around 6.30 am the gate was opened and our vehicles were allowed to pass through.
Pangs of the Night Melts
Wasting no more time, as we already lost two precious days, we decided to head straight to Sarahan. Driving about and hour and half we reached Jeori and halted for some refreshing tea in a road side dhaba. Sipping the hot tea, Thakur Bhai pointed his fingers vertically upwards and I could see high up in the mountains, a settlement. "That's Sarahan, 17 kilometers up." The highway we were travelling, one road bifurcates from Jeori towards Sarahan.
The early morning drive from Jeori was extremely fresh and scenic as we traversed through high mountains flanked by steep cliffs on one side and deep ravines on the other.
As we snaked our way up, at one curve we saw the gorgeous snow-covered Srikhand Mahadev Peak (5155 meters) along with the entire Himalayan range high in the horizon. All the pains and pangs of being on the road for over 30 hours by now - the time we started from Narkanda - as if melted at the awesome sight of this majestic peak. Pulled out the camera and simply could not stop clicking all the best possible shots.
We passed many a sleepy villages on the way, with little children in their uniforms making their way to school. Prior to reaching Sarahan, we drove through the SSB base camp with it impressive infrastructure. Smartly dress soldiers in their best olives greeted us with a smile. Finally, in an hour's time we entered picture-perfect Sarahan. Saharan surely is the gateway to Kinnaur.
At the Feet of Holy Mother
Basically, Sarahan is a small sleepy hamlet providing the best view of the Srikhand peak. The significance of this peak is that it is covered in perennial snow all throughout the year. It is also in Sarahan, the much revered Bhimakali Temple is located. This ancient Hindu temple is one of the 51 Shakti Peeths (extremely holy places) according to Hindu mythology. It is said that back in time, human sacrifice used to be carried out in this revered ancient temple.
There were quite a few hotels and guest houses in Sarahan, checking a few we decided to stay in the posh HPTDC run Srikhand View. Located strategically in a cliff, this hotel provided the best view of the Srikhand peak and the Bhimakali Temple located at a stone's throw away. Refreshing ourselves we a hot bath, we made our way to get a darshan of Bhimakali Mata.
The wooden Bhimakali Temple is a grand specimen of hill architecture in a unique blend of Hindu and Buddhist styles. This beautifully carved temple has three stories topped by an awesome roofline, typical Buddhist monastery style. The upper floors have balconies and windows with intricately ornamental woodcarving, while the doors are adorned with silver work embossed with figurines of Hindu God and Goddesses as well as Buddhist images.
A 200-yr old gold image of the goddess Bhimakali is enshrined on the first floor, which is actively worshipped only during the Dusshera festival. And, how lucky we were, the day we arrived it was the first day of ten days long Dusshera festival. We prayed from the bottom of our hearts at the feet of Bhimalaki Mata, as she is known, to bestow upon us her blessings.
Also, in the temple premises is another temple of a completely different bye-gone era. It is believed that the Pandavas had constructed this temple during the days of their exile. The very crude look of the temple amply reveals that it was constructed quite a millennium back.
The present Bhimakali Temple is a new one, built in 1927. The old temple, nearby, has a startling story to tell - it got tilted slightly in the 1905 earthquake, and then miraculously straightened back again with a subsequent tremor.
It is said that the foundations of this temple are very deep and that there is a secret tunnel that connects it to the village of Ranwin, a kilometre away. The priests would enter and leave the temple through this secret passage. The complex has other smaller temples too, dedicated to Lord Narsingh and Lord Raghunath.
Saying our prayer in this divine temple, we walked back and after having a sumptuous brunch crashed to the bed tired. Woke up late afternoon and we decided to go exploring the Bushahr Palace located just adjacent to the Bhimakali temple.
There Once Lived a King
Sarahan was the capital of the Kings of Bushahr, who had build the empire with the lucrative Pashmina trade. Pashmina shawls are known world over for it warmth and softness.
According to legends, the Bushahr dynasty was founded by "Pradhuman", the son of Lord Krishna. In order to marry the daughter of Banasur, the local chief of Shonitpur (Sarahan), Pradhuman is said to have come to that place. He had an encounter with him, in which Banasur was slained. Pradhuman became the chief of Bushahr and Kinnaur regions, since Banasur did not have any son to succeed.
However, according to C F Kennedy, Bushahr was founded by Danbar Singh an immigrant Rajput from Deccan in 1412 A.D. In 1914 Britishers recognized Padam Singh as legitimate heir and was crowned Raja of Rampur Bushahr. Ultimately in March, 1948 Rampur Bushahr joined the Indian Union to become part and parcel of province of Himachal Pradesh.
The wooden Bhushahr Palace is an example of marvelous architecture and craftsmanship. It was build by His Highness Padam Singh in 1917. Padam Singh's decedent Vir Bhadra Singh, the former Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh still stays in this palace whenever he is in Sarahan. The caretaker warmly greeted and took us around the palace. We were simply bowled out to see it richly carved wood works.
After a thorough rendezvous in the palace we made our way to the small market, with Kinnauri girls luring passerby to buy various items. We bought some Kinnauri caps as well as some Kinnauri shawls made of sheep wool. Finally, we returned to Srikhand View and sipping some hot coffee, we saw a heavenly sun-set in the backdrop of the Srikhand peak. As dusk crept in with chilly breeze in company, we decided to move indoor and started downloading all the photos that we had been taking. We were just awe stuck at the fantastic results of our recently purchased Canon DSLR EOS 1000D.
Strange though it might sound, the Srikhand View restaurant serves a variety of continental cuisine, so high up the Himalayas, and we count not resist our temptation of having a sumptuous continental dinner of chicken roast with boiled vegetables before we retired for the night.
Meandering Sutlej Rumbles Along
Woke up at 7.10 am the next morning and having a lazy breakfast we were ready to make our move to our next destination Sangla. Thakur Bhai was all ready, and after dumping our luggage we moved out of Sarahan. Going down-hill 17 kilometers, passing by the same terrain that we had crossed yesterday, we reached Jeori touching the Hindustan Tibet Highway again. Sangla, at a distance of 54 kilometer was not far but the roads being very steep driving naturally had to be slow.
Traffic on the road was sparse expect the few odd dumpers and trucks carrying on the usual chores. The Sutlej flowed alongside rumbling along, breaking the silence. Slowly we moved ahead, with Thakur Bhai carefully nudging the curve path ahead. Soon we saw ahead of us rows of snow clad mountains again, but this time around they seems just at a hand reach from us.
En-route a few kilometers ahead we halted at the Devi Taranda Mata temple situated besides the road. Taking the blessings of Goddess Taranda Mata, we moved on. The landscape was simply way too beautiful to describe and with the meandering Sutlej alongside us, we moved ahead. Soon we reached small town of Bhavanagar. Passing by Bhavanagar, we reached Tapri where we stopped for some tea.
Despite the fact that the various hydel projects underway in Himachal Pradesh, are generating huge mega watts of electricity, it is sad that these projects are surely taking a toll on the environment.
The project areas are full of dust and debris and in Thakur Bhai's words, "the huge tunnels that there companies are drilling underneath the mountains would surely result in disastrous consequences. A mild earthquake would create havoc."
Additionally, according to him when I asked that these projects must be opening employment avenues to the locals, he replied, "no locals are working as labourers or other skilled workers here, all labourers are from the states of Chattisgarh, Bihar etc."
Most Beautiful Valley of All
Moving up from Tapri, we entered the Baspa Valley, with the turquoise fast-flowing Baspa river meandering below. We were soon bowled out with the mesmerizing rear view the Kinnaur Kailash peak. The frontal view can be seen from Kalpa, which we plan to reach in a couple of days.
The entire range of Kinnaur Kailash stood is front of us - too very near to be true. It was sunny and the white snow-covered peaks in the backdrop of the deep blue skyline were jaw-dropping indeed. It was too heavenly and beautiful to be described in words.
As we moved into Sangla, we passed many apple orchards, with red apples clinging literally in every branch. We stopped at one of the orchard and Mitali could not resist plucking an apple straight from the tree, of course with the nod of the caretaker of the orchard. Truly, it was the tastiest apple I ever had till date in my life.
Sangla, is geographically located a short distance from the Tibetan border. Situated at a height of 2,700 meters, Sangla is a small picturesque town hamlet in the Baspa Valley, which is also known as the Sangla Valley.
The entire Sangla Valley with thickly forested slopes of Pine and Deodar trees, is widely acknowledge as one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. According to Tibetan language, the word "sang" means -light- and "la" means "pass". As such, the word Sangla stands for 'pass of light', since as after crossing the majestic mountains, one suddenly emerges into a valley filled with bright sunshine and breathtaking natural beauty.
Thakur Bhai took us directly to Madhu Guest House, having indeed the best views of the entire Kinnaur Kailash range on one side and the meandering Baspa river on the other. One thing that we have noticed on this trip is that accommodation tariff is very nominal in these parts of the country, and the hotels & guest houses are spick and spam.
Dropping our bags in the allotted top floor room, we had our lunch comprising of some hot soup and delicious noodles, which we enjoyed in the open air balcony, with the grand view of the Kinnaur Kailash range. We, being the only two tourists in this guest house had the entire premises to ourselves.
Ecstasy Engulfs Us Both
Our stomachs satisfied we decided to go exploring Sangla. We tracked down and made our way towards the Baspa river. Going down the crisscrossing lanes and by-lanes of sleepy Ru village was confusing at times, but the sweet Kinnauri locals were ready to guide us the right track.
We were amazed at the architecture of the wooden houses with the roofs covered by black slate sheets, as we made our way downhill through the steep path. Crossing many an apple orchards, we finally reached the river with a big bridge ahead of us. We crossed the bridge and just sat down at one of the rocks to simply gaze at the greenish-blue water gushing across.
A lone Kinnauri lady with a sweet angle child was washing cloths. Chatted with her for quite a while about life in an around Sangla and she informed that if we walk a couple of kilometers alongside the river, we can make our way to the Trout Farm maintained State Fishery Department, where one can purchase fresh fish straight from the river.
As it was already late afternoon, we decided not to venture that further and gradually made our way back. We hiked up and visited a famous Buddhist temple, of amazing wooden craftsmanship, situated alongside the locally much-revered Hindu Bairang Nag temple. Met a few locals girls in this temple and from them came to know this ancient temple carries out animal sacrifice on auspicious occasions and is dedicated in honour of the local god Jagas.
We just sat down at the temple, and simply kept gazing at the Kailash Kinnaur peak appearing at the backdrop. We soaked ourselves thoroughly in this out-of-the-world ecstasy and felt our spirits in union with Mother Nature. Slowly but gradually we trotted back to the guest house.
From the balcony of we saw aunty (the owner of the guest house) working on the apple orchard situated behind the guest house, overseeing the plucking of the apples. We decided to go down and join her and she turned out to be one sweet person. She explained us the differences of Cherry, Royal and Rich variety of apples and offered us a few to taste.
After spending some quality time in her company, we moved up to watch another heavenly sunset sitting at the balcony. As the last rays of the sun touched the Kinnaur Kailash peak, the plethora of colours that it created would be etched in our minds forever. Having an early dinner, after watching some TV, we called it a night.
From Kamrupa to Kamru
We awoke the next morning to a great view of the snow-clad mountains right from the bed itself. Sipping the morning cup of tea with this splendid view, thought aloud, how I wish to settle down here.
Post breakfast, we decided to visit the Kamru Fort and Thakur Bhai dropped us at the base of the Kamru Village. The famous Kamru Fort is located high up the village and one has to trek up to visit this high altitude temple. The winding small concrete path circumventing through the village scaled up as we too moved up vertically.
The climb was steep and tiring and we stopped on countless occasions to fill in our lungs with the fresh mountain air and simply gaze and was bowled out at this heavenly panoramic view. As we scaled up, Kinnar Kailash seemed ever closer. Slowly but gradually we trotted up.
Mitali was experiencing the step climb very tough and I had to coax and cajole her to keep pushing. Mid-way, we halted at the 15th century Badrinarayan Temple, situated alongside another Buddhist temple. Once every three years amidst great fanfare the image of Lord Badrinarayan is carried to Gangotri - the source of Ganga in Uttranchal. Saying our prayers and gulping some water we moved ahead.
Finally, as we are approaching the main gate of the holy Kamru Fort, a person rushing down from the temple premises offered us some prasad - thick bajra roti layered with yak butter - saying it is the offering to the Goddess Kamakshya Devi. We really felt blessed at the timing of the holy prasad being delivered to us by the holy mother - just as we at her gates - after an arduous climb of over one hour.
The caretaker of this temple, Rajender Singh, welcomed us warmly and said that as per local tradition, one has to cover the head and tie a saffron thread around the waist before entering the temple. Sweetly, he offered us two Kinnauri caps which we adorned and tied the thread around our waist as informed.
The premise of this fort is strategically located on a ridge, and from here one can have a panoramic view of the entire Sangla Valley. It was too very beautiful to describe in mere ordinary words. The green valley below with the Baspa river on one side and the snow claded Kinnaur Kailash ranges at the backdrop of the main Kamru Fort was mesmerizing to the eyes. The tower-like Kamru Fort standing tall in this scenic landscape looks daunting indeed.
In fact the Kamru Fort is one of the oldest fort in Himachal. Kamru was the original ruler of Bushar. The Kamru fort is a splendid example of how local craftsman using local materials created a highly evolved style of traditional architecture.
The main holy deity of the Kamru Fort is Kamakshyi Devi. It is said that the idol of Kamakshyi Devi had been brought form far away Guwahati, in Assam, known in ancient time as Kamrupa. The Kamakshya Temple situated in Nilachal Hills in modern day Guwahati is one of the most revered Shakti Peets for Hindus since the ages.
Incidentally, the name Kamru perhaps had its origin from the ancient name of Kamrupa. Being a person from Assam, I surely felt proud of this unique connection and wondered how in those ancient days these sturdy mountain people might have brought the Kamakshyi idol all the way from far away Guwahati, at distance of over 3000 kilometers.
Offering our prayers to the holy mother, we silently sat at the premise of this serene place of a by gone era, and encapsulated the sights both in our minds as well in the camera. Totally soaked in this heavenly environ, we felt our spirits soared high and reluctantly after about an hour we made our way down. Reaching the guest house we picked our bags and checked out of Sangla biding adieu to this heavenly place.
The Last Village
The next destination was Chitkul, perched at the height of 3600 meters - the last human habitation in the Hindustan Tibet Highway - ahead of which lay sheer wilderness towards the borders of China (Tibet). The road grew steeper as we made our way up but the scenery was mesmerizing for sure.
Though Chitkul, situated at a short distance of about 26 kms from Sangla, road condition was not that good and driving naturally had to be slow. Traffic was very sparse, except for a few vehicles, once in a while appearing from the opposite direction mainly comprising tourists. Usually tourists park themselves in Sangla and visit Chitkul for a day excursion but we were glad that we decided to make a night halt at Chitkul.
Gradually, we passed by the sleepy Karcham village which seems to be in a suspended state. Population is these parts are very sparse and the calm environment was soothing to our soul. As we were passing by an arid dry burnt out type area, with huge boulders scattered all across, Thakur Bhai informed that it was here some years back a huge cloud burst happened and the entire Banjara Camp - as adventure camp - was swept clear. Carefully, Thakur Bhai negotiated the wheels through the rugged road as we moved ahead slowly.
Thereafter, we crossed by Jajabar camp and the current Banjara camp site. Driving ahead of odd kilometers, we reached a clearing after a steep climb and the view in front of us was too good to be true. The road ends here. Ahead of us was an open green meadow, with the turquoise water of the Baspa flowing alongside and high snow-clad Himalayas all lined up just a couple of kilometers ahead. A signboard reads Chitkul - population 610. On our right side was the cute Chitkul in these idyllic settings, the last village of India.
A small rivulet flowed by in a serpentine path across the village with the locals folks carrying about their usual chores unhindered by our curious looks. A few domesticated yaks and cows were herded out amidst "ting ting" sound, coming from their brass bells around their necks. The smiling hardy womenfolk, adorned with tribal ornaments, carried huge piles of grass on their backs. The serenity of the place was immediately felt by us - the sheer feeling of oneness with nature.
The choice of accommodation in Chikul is sparse with only a few guest houses. We first checked the all wooden Sharma Guest House, the oldest in Chitkul, but found the rooms a bit cramped up and with absolutely no exterior views. Thakur Bhai suggested we try out the newly come up Panchali Resort. It is a three storied concrete structure with amazing view of the Himalayas from the rooms. The place was very clean with wall-to-wall carpets along with a cozy restaurant.
Having placed out luggage in the room we decided to venture out. Straight away we headed out to the meadows, ever nearer to the snow-clad mountains, as if within hand reach distance. We trekked ahead and having reached the Baspa river, we splashed ourselves in the icy cold crystal-clear water. Dipping our legs into the water, it did not take more than a minute to make them numb. We just while away quite some time in this solitude before trotting back to our room.
After a late lunch we rested a while, and soon it was evening. We lighted by a camp fire outside and heard many a local myths and legends. The icy mountain wind was brushing across our face but the fire and rum kept me warm. After a sumptuous dinner we crashed out.
We woke up early next morning to be greeted by the white mountains from the bed. The sun was slowly spreading its rays across the valley as it hit our window panes as well. Basking in the morning sun, we sipped a refreshing hot cup of tea. Soon, we freshened up and having some delicious puri bhaji we were ready to move out to Kalpa, our destination next.
Gave a final look at this heavenly place and we moved out, wondering when we can return back again. Passing through those scenic alpine meadows that we had crossed the previous day, along with the meandering Baspa accompanying us, we crossed Sangla and Karcham, finally reaching Rakcham. It is here the Baspa merges with the Sutlej and flows ahead together.
We took the road leading towards Rekong Peo and moved ahead. We were wondering whether we would be able to make it to our last target Kaza or may be upto Losar in Spiti - whether roads would be open. Thakur Bhai informed that we could get this confirmation at Rekong Peo - the district headquarters of Kinnaur District. As we approached Rekong Peo we had the first glimpse of the Mt Kinnaur Kailash standing tall at 6050 meters. Locally, it is known as Kinner Kailash, holy to both the Hindus as well the Kinnauri Buddhist.
We were awestruck at its sight. As our vehicle moved ahead, we too moved closer and closer. Amazing as it was, at this high altitude, so much away from modern civilization, we halted at an SBI ATM to pull out some cash as our cash stock was gradually getting depleted. No credit cards work out here.
We visited a curio shop and purchased some Buddhist antiques. On our inquiry at the Himachal Pradesh State Transport Station of Rekong Peo, we got the bad new that the road to Kaza was closed due to landslides ahead and it would take a few more days to clear it.
Gods by the Roadside
Hoping against hope, we consoled ourselves, perhaps the next day we might get some good news and soon we started our way up to Kalpa formerly known as Chinni Village, situated about 13 kilometers vertically up from Peo, as it is better know. As we circumvented our way up, we saw many a small cute hotels and guest houses on the way. All the way up to Kalpa we passed through thick pine and rhododendron forest. As we moved up at each hairpin bend, the view became prettier than the last.
En-route a few kilometers ahead we saw a huge crowd assembling besides the road in a field. On display were three local deities in their colourful best, adorned with matted hairs of yak. On enquiry we were informed that the deities were brought down so that all the village folks could gather around and seek their blessings.
It was, in fact a thankfulness shown to the Gods for all the rains it happened till a week ago. All the village folks gathering around the deities were seen paying their gratefulness from the bottom of their hearts. After taking a few snaps and bowing our heads as well we proceeded ahead.
Finally we reached Kalpa around late afternoon and checked into Rakpa Residency. The view from this hotel was simply amazing. Just across a deep ravine lay the entire daunting Kinnaur Kailash range.
After settling in the hotel and having a quick bite of some lip smacking noodles, we made our way to explore Kalpa. As we trotted down the criss-crossing small alleys of the village, we say many a smiling children greeting us to aloud. We visited a Buddhist Gompa and the ancient Narayan Nagini temple.
This magnificent temple, built in traditional Tibetan Pagoda type architecture, is an exemplary piece of Kinnauri workmanship. It stood at a cliff beyond which was the deep gorge, below which the fast flowing Sutlej flows. Across the river, the high Kinnaur Kailash range stands out majestically.
We were told that there were many a lingams (pinnacles) in the entire range and in the entire day depending on the position of the sun, its colour keeps changing. We did manage to see it transform from deep yellow to dark grey.
Coming back we stood at the balcony of our room. As the late sun rays were getting reflected in the snow-covered peaks, a dazzling array of colours was emanating. We just stood and just kept gazing on and on for how long we don't know.
Only when dusk set in we pulled ourselves inside the room. Soon we put on the heater and I enjoyed a long hot bath. The icy Himalayan wind howled outside as we kept ourselves indoor. By 8 pm hot dinner was dished out and having a sumptuous meal we called it a night with anticipation of a beautiful sunrise ahead.
Presence of the Lord
It was still dark as the alarm sounded in my cell phone woke me up, dawn was approaching soon. Reluctantly, I got down from the warm bed opened the balcony door and stepped outside feel the chilly atmosphere. Mitali still in her slumber and after a few unanswered calls, she just tossed the other way and continued sleeping - oblivious of what she is missing.
As the 1st rays of the sun dashed into the Kinnaur Kailash peak, the contour of colours it emanated kept me spell bound - in sheer ecstasy. I just kept gazing on, as more rays of the sun gradually engulfed the peaks of the entire range. A glittering array of colours that it created would remain etched in my mind forever.
Alone as I gazed on, that cold dawn, I surely felt the warm presence of the Lord in front of me. How I wished in the bottom of my hearts, can we not stay back here forever - away from the mad city where we live to - to work.
With these thought in mind, I stepped back into the room and was moved to see how blissfully Mitali was sleeping away. Huddled myself into the bed again and stayed on till room service brought in some hot refreshing bed tea.
Welcome to Bhava Valley
Freshning up, we had breakfast in the lawn outside inhaling the fresh mountain air. Soon I checked with Thakur Bhai about the latest status of the road condition ahead. He did not had good news to offer and informed us that the landslide in Spello is yet to get cleared and naturally our way to Nako, Tabo & finally Kaza could not materialize this time around. Seeing my dejected face, Thakur Bhai suggested he would take us to a different route instead - to the Bhava valley - Kafnu.
With no other alternative, I gave a reluctant nod and we soon were out on the road again. Thakur Bhai suggested we visit the Ribba village before we make our way to Kafnu. It was yet another quiet peaceful village with the innocent locals proudly showing us around their small hamlet.
Spending some quality time gazing at the Kinnaur Kailash, which appeared even closer from Ribba - for quite some time, we started for our next destination Kafnu. Climbing down-hill from Kalpa, we halted at Rekong Peo to buy some prayer wheels and similar odd Buddhist antiques.
Thereafter, we moved ahead and soon passed by Powri and stopped at Tapri for lunch. Crossed the same dusty landscape, courtesy the many hydel projects - pollution at its peak - it was dust and dust all around.
After a simple lunch at a roadside dhaba, we moved on. Reaching Karcham, we took the road diverting towards right, going to Bhava Pass. From there on we climbed the serpentine hairpins for about an hour till we reached a welcome arch, "Welcome to Bhava Valley".
This picture perfect valley was very scenic with the green mountains all around as the turquoise Bhava river meandered below. We crossed many a waterfall on the way - one literally falling over the road as we glided passed underneath. The water tasted sweet - far better than all the packed mineral bottles we tend to consume during any journeys.
Population was sparse except a few vehicles plying across. Soon, we reached the Cut Village where halted for some time and had a refreshing cup of tea. It was yet another small sleepy hamlet with the locals going about doing their chores as if undisturbed and unperturbed about what goes on beyond their village.
Finally another half and hour later, we reached Kafnu, the last village on this route. Checked into the Lake View resort, the only visible hotel, we just rested. Late afternoon we trotted out and visited an apple orchard situated besides the quite Kafnu lake. There was nothing much to see in Kafnu, except to soak oneself in the serene environment. Beyond Kafnu there is no motorable road ahead. Of course there are a few treks for the adventurous souls that pass through the Bhava Pass and connect Kaza. Coming back we ordered an early dinner and crashed out.
Woke up the next morning and having a sumptuous breakfast we started back to Sarahan. Passed by Karcham and reached Jeori from where we could see up the steep mountain the green roof of Srikhand View. Drove past the serpentine path up 17 kilometers, the now familiar sight and sound and checked in HPTDC Srikhand View. Having a late continental lunch of hot chicken roast and boiled vegetable we rested till later afternoon.
As dusk crept, in I went to join the evening arti (prayers) in the Bhimakali temple. Having said my prayers to the divine mother, joined Mitali outside as I saw her carrying on her photographic experimentations.
Next morning we started off back to Shimla. As we made our way back we surely felt Kinnaur truly turned out to be the land of fairy tales and fantasies, with a spectacular terrain from lush green valley, orchards, to barren snow-clad mountains.
Reaching Shimla late afternoon around 3.30 pm, I requested Thakur Bhai to get us a place away from the hustle and bustle of the city center. And apt to our request, he got us accommodation in the Firhill Hotel, situated in a quite locale of the Shimla town, with close proximity to the famous Mall Road.
Settling ourselves and resting the afternoon, we moved out to the Mall Road. The colonial British structures, be it the Post and Telegraph office or the church stood out, as reminder of its glory days, when Shimla served as the summer capital British India. Moving about the Mall with the fresh breeze in company we had a delightful evening and we winded up at the Dim Sum restaurant with some delicious Momos and noodles.
Soaked in History
Having rested the night, post breakfast the next morning, we ventured out to explore Shimla. Our first stop was the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. The sprawling campus of this institute is sure to impress one and all. The architecture of the blocks in the campus took us to a trip to the Victorian era. The main attraction of this campus is the erstwhile residence of the Viceroy of British India - the Viceregal Lodge.
This building was completed in 1888. In fact, the whole of Indian subcontinent was ruled from this very building. The basic plan of this building was conceived by the 9th Viceroy, Lord Dufferin, with the sanction of Lord Randolph Churchill. The main architect of this building was Henry Irwin of PWD.
It was the first Government Building to have electricity, including an all European style kitchen and laundries housed in their own five-storey wing. The rich woodwork in the building was all done with red wood brought from Burma.
The Viceregal Lodge was witness to many a historical events. In fact, as we were taken around the building, we were indeed intrigued to see many a historical art, artifacts as well as photographs on display, each having its own share of history. Visiting the conference room, we were informed that it was this very room our politicians including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Jinnah deliberated and chalked out the Partition of India.
After Independence of India in 1947, the Viceregal Lodge became part of the estate of the President of India, and was re-named Rashtrapati Nivas. The 2nd President of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who himself was a learned scholar, became instrumental in establishing this historical property as the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in 1965. It became a residential centre for research in the humanities and the Social Sciences.
After our rendezvous with this historical place, we moved back towards the Tibetan Market and did some bit of shopping. Loitered around the Mall Road in the afternoon and having a sumptuous lunch again at Dim Sum, we came back to the Firhill Hotel to pack up for our journey back.
Late afternoon, we boarded the Shivalik Deluxe Express steam train to Kalka and finally from Kalka we boarded the Pachim Express and made our way back to the plains. As we chugged back towards Mumbai, we reflected our Walk on the High Himalayas and wondered when can return to be on her lap again.
Note: To venture through these disolate places company of a dependable person is needed and who else can be better than Thakur Bhai (Mr Surender Singh Thakur, Shimla). I can assure that Thakur Bhai will see you through thick and thin of the trip. His contact number: 09418072724
Published on 3/31/09