I woke up to the bird calls and checked my watch. It was still very early in the morning. Inhaling the fresh fragrant mountain air I stretched and gazed admiringly at the “posh camping” we were experiencing at Kinner camp at about 2800m. The Swiss tent had cozy beds , a clean attached toilet and the sight of my little one snuggled inside a warm quilt made me extremely happy. I tiptoed out into the clear daylight and the view simply took my breath away. Surrounded by the high mountains of Greater Himalayas from all sides the camp site was one of the most beautiful I had stayed in all those years. Twenty sleepy Swiss style luxury tents stood in the midst of flower beds and dewy grass. Neat pathways lined with pebbles on both sides led to each tent and to the kitchen and dining area. A lovely patchwork on the ground. I walked up to a big boulder and sat there, silently taking in the view. I could hear the Baspa river gushing down the valley and felt like going for a walk to meet its sparkling waters but the rest of the group was in deep slumber and I didn’t want anyone to panic on not finding me there when they woke up.
So, barefoot I walked around inside the camp connecting with the earth’s energy . Major ( the friendly resident dog) came up to greet and trotted along.
The location of kinner camp at Sangla is just perfect. Nestled between the apple orchards with the river running just a few yards away, the campsite has a huge jagged mountain at the back which protects it from direct sunlight and in the front are snow-clad peaks and the river.
I watched the snow peaks slowly waking up to life with a blush as the sun rose in the sky. It was a great day to take nature walks and explore the lush green forests of cedar and pine, with the magnificent Kinner Kailash peak towering over the quaint village and campsite.
Kinner camp is managed by professional team of locals headed by Mr. Pradeep Negi. A wonderful person with years of experience about the terrain and culture of that area. it was through him we had arranged this whole trip. As the days passed we experience the best of hospitality, food, knowledge about the fragile Himalayan eco system and the efforts of Mr. Negi and others in preserving the local kinnauri culture and lifestyle. We also came to know about their work in balancing the rapid imbalance of ecology happening in that area especially due to the building of dams.
The jagged sunrays, uncommon colorful birds and crisp cool breeze filtering through the trees led me to the clearing behind the dining area from where I could watch the Baspa thundering through the boulders. The icy water cascading down from the snowy peaks of the northern Himalayas. On the other side the landscape was green and inviting. I spotted a few birds like the Himalayan whistling thrush, Sun Birds and Barbets chirping merrily on the trees in and around the campsite.
The time had stood still till I heard a familiar voice informing me that the kid was awake and needed breakfast.
After a quick shower and super delicious breakfast we discussed about the possible local trails and sightseeing around the area. It was election time and the village road was abuzz with sounds of vehicles and campaigning.
Some people from the group were still rattled by the last night’s adventure and wanted to relax, the kid was excited about the dog, food and back rides and I, who didn’t want to sit around and laze, was spoilt for choices. A village trip seemed like a great idea. We sat watching the meandering river from the road talking to Mr.Negi about various things and then trotted off to the village remunerating about the place where Gods once lived.
Women is kinnauri attire went about their daily business around their beautiful wooden houses with slate roofs. The kinnauri homes are built in traditional Kath-Kuni style in which the alternate layers of wood and stone are used in masonry work. Each an architectural wonder.
Kids, happy to tag along and get clicked, posed with smiling faces and the men watched the world go round as they sat smoking in groups or kept an eye on their livestock grazing on fresh grass.
A hot cup of Himachali tea warmed my fingers as I soaked up the flavors of Kinnaur. I could see the influence of Buddhism on their lifestyle because of the close proximity to Tibet.
We returned to the camp for lunch, a scrumptious spread laid out by the camp kitchen. Courteous staff and finger linking food is one of the plus points of Kinner Camps.
A few of us wanted to doze off. Seriously? How can anyone not want to go down to the river? I wondered. The temptation was too much to resist.
After lingering around the camp looking at various medicinal plants and other exotic trees and vegetation of that area finally we made it to the river. A large coke bottle filled with a pre mix of old monk and cola was stacked neatly in the sand between two rocks in the icy water. Each one of us found their place for a private commune with nature.
The effect was spellbinding and trust me no picture or video can give you a true experience of what it is like to be there in the middle of enchanting beauty and silence.
We sat there beside the roaring Baspa till the sunlight began to fade. Sipping the fiery mix from the bottle now and then to keep us warm. I had my Handy Cam switched on to capture the scenic beauty as closely as possible but at times you just want to switch off and blend into the serene calm around you. That’s what I did.
It began to get cold and we decided to make our way back to the camp. We had already asked Mr. Negi to give us a guide to cross the river and go to Batseri village. I was also looking forward to the walks through the forest and meadows. As we had only three days we could not undertake any hikes or explore other villages like Kamru, Nako and Kalpa. Chitkul was of course an exception.
We relaxed before the dinner discussing various things and enjoying the carefree time with each other which is usually a rarity in the hustle bustle of Delhi. I was thrilled beyond measures to be there and missed my elder son who would have been a perfect companion for nature trails and other adventures. None of the other adults were too keen to step out of luxury that the camp offered and the kiddo was too small for such impromptu adventures.
After dinning under the starlit sky we circled around a campfire with our drinks and smoke listening to the night sounds and watched the moon glide over the mountains. It was a blessing to have a clear night. I had forgotten how a star-studded sky actually looked. Words cannot describe the beauty of that first night at Sangla.
It reminded me of another night in the mountains, the YHAI trekking camp at Kasol. The rich night sky, wind’s hushed whispers to the trees, moonlit mountainsides, sounds of cricket and crackling fire keeping me warm. We stayed up late that night and when the fire began to die we headed back to the tents. The kid was fast asleep in the comforts of his bed.
Sleep took over soon with a promise of another day of exploring the spectacular terrain. We woke up early and after breakfast headed straight to the river to venture into what lay across its raging waters. Mr. Negi had provided us with packed food and a trained guide who told us about the stories , myths and facts about the Kinnaur and Baspa valley. The rickety wooden bridge unfortunately was broken and half-submerged in the river. All our plan to get across drowned then and there. Though the guide said we could still go across no one wanted to risk the rapid flow of Baspa. We walked along the river side for a long distance and the guide pointed out many glaciers and known hiking trails along the mountains. He also showed us some rare flora and fauna typical of that region. We had our food beside the river and returned to the camp through another path in the meadows.
That afternoon the group split and some of us decided to go to Chitkul. I left the little boy in the care of a friend who wanted to explore the area for medicinal herbs and shilajeet.
Three of us got into the car to go to the last inhabited village near the Indo-Tibetan border. Chitkul is the first village of Baspa valley and last on the old Hindustan -Tibet road. It is also the last point in India where you can go without a permit. Tibet lies across the Zaskar peaks in the east, while the peaks of Greater Himalayas cross between the Zaskar and the Dhauladhar ranges and pass through the middle of Kinnaur. I certainly want to explore that entire region before it’s too late to travel.
Chitkul – A visit to the last Fairytale Village bordering Tibet
The 26 km road from Sangla to Chitkul (3,450m) passed through an unforgettable landscape of cold desert mountains, snow-clad peaks, lush rolling greens and farmlands. Way down in valley we could see Baspa slithering silently.
The moment we left Sangla it seemed we had stepped into a fairytale. Though I had been to many virgin places in Himachal and Uttaranchal but this was the most spectacular drive so far. Known for its scenic beauty Chitkul is also a junction for many trek routes. The weather was cool and there was no sign of clouds though we could see them wandering over the higher ranges. The landscape dramatically changed as we drove along the serpentine road. We did not stop at Rakcham as we wanted to spend more time at Chitkul but we spotted many farmers and Shepherds in the sparsely populated village. The architectural beauty of the wooden houses was enhanced by the surrounding potato fields, wild flowers, mossy pastures, grasslands and a scenic backdrop of mighty mountains. I felt like Alice in wonderland.
From the height we were travelling the cattle grazing in the valley were just black and white dots a carpet of green The road was a bit treacherous from Rakcham to Chitkul and resembled a dirt track. Many streams cut across the road and one had to carefully navigate through them.
We stopped at ITBP check post at Mastarang crossing which lies along a beautiful stream flowing through a small Pine Forest The stream flowed right across the road and stepped out of the car to soak in the sweet-scented air. The slope on the right side of the road was dotted with flowers. The water was cold and each polished pebble that lay at its base told an unspoken story. The clock was ticking and we had to move on. I made a promise to myself to visit again for a longer period. This is not a place for a quick visit. A large group of mountain goats and sheep greeted us a little ahead. A young shepherd gave us the way waving and smiling at us. A picture of a happy and content life. Matarang is another beautiful valley of Kinnaur district and a place that can hold you captive with its virgin beauty.
I had never seen such beautiful colors of the sky. The late noon sun was milder now and the air was getting crisper with chill. Perennial glaciers that feed the river shimmered like gold and the shadows were lengthening on the mountain ranges. It was a surreal experience to say the least.
We saw a gate welcoming us to Chitkul. We had reached our destination. At 11,320 feet I was in a dreamland. We stopped our car in a clearing near ITBP check post. There were not many people around and the wind had gathered momentum. At that moment nothing mattered. The cold did not bother me as I walked around the village that was too beautiful to be true. An ITBP personnel told us about the history and significance of the strategically located village. He pointed to where the road ended almost half a kilometer ahead. One could see the old group of blue tin roofed ITBP barracks. The road closed 90 km before the China border.
We drove to that point and watched the valley open up in front of us in all its splendor. The sky by now was a pallet of unimaginable colors. Till now I had the movie camera recording each moment. Somehow it didn’t seem right to look at the beauty through the viewfinder and I switched it off.
Sitting on a rock I sipped the hot sweet milky tea as the men talked to the people around. I needed to be with myself. The teashop also sold hot Maggi like many others in that area so we ordered that too just to keep us warm. The steaming noodles full of flavorful veggies tasted excellent.
Rapidly the temperature changed to icy cold and the strong wind added to the discomfort. The villagers, unperturbed by the freezing cold, went about their daily routine. The women were remarkably beautiful in their traditional attire. Many wore the traditional silver jewelry and colorful scarves. Almost all the men wore colorful kinnauri caps. I noticed that everyone had a smile on their faces.
We walked in silence observing the wooden houses, a small monastery, Kagyupa Buddhist temple, an exquisitely carved temple of a local deity and a rare treat – a water-mill. I had not seen one since my YHAI trek in Parvati Valley. It was a small one built right at the stream. The wooden mill was perched on big stones stacked on top of each other and had a tin roof. A few rocks were placed on the roof to prevent it from flying off in strong wind. The old wooden door was bolted and plies of firewood were stacked behind the mill.
It was closed so we walked ahead to the govt. school and gram panchayat buildings. The sides of the roads were piled with river stones. A lot of firewood was stacked near each house. We also saw many small grain storage huts. The use of tin for roofs increased in past few years and there were many cemented buildings too though the old world charm of the ancient village was still alive. This colorful small village of Chitkul,with just a population of around 610, is a National heritage village and rightly so.
The valley looked beautiful from where we stood. The banks of Baspa river covered with pebbles of all sizes and shapes gave it a unique perspective.
We bid adieu to the charming village and drove back to our camp taking with us unforgettable memories. The view that lay ahead of the tricky bend we maneuvered was simply out of the world. No sunset ever could match the one we saw that day. The image has stayed with me since then. Shades of magenta, pinks, crimson, cream, blue and gold filled the sky in front of us. It was difficult to take the eyes off. I hurriedly switched on the handycam to capture the miracle unfolding there.
I wish I had some still shots to share but even they could not have brought the splendor of that day. The blushing snow peaks, the deep shadows , the clouds and the molten gold made the drive a magical experience.
On reaching the camp we saw one of our friends waiting anxiously for us. She told that the kid had his own adventure hike and followed her husband on steep climb without his knowledge. Now both sat on a rock jutting out from the rugged face of the mountain near the road. The furious Baspa flowing right below. It was a sheer drop if any of them slipped. The camp dog was right there guarding them and he began to bark as we approached the scene. For a moment I did not know whether to cry or laugh. There on the rock sat my little son clinging on to our friend. He, however, was rattled and held tightly to whatever he could hold on to. This was the first time he had come on such a trip and obviously this episode had shaken him completely. Slowly they got down finding footholds on crumbling muddy gaps between the rocks. He heaved a sigh of relief and in one breath narrated the incident. The kiddo seemed happy at his achievement and happily settled in his dad’s lap.
Now that the fiasco was over we went to the camp and had an early dinner and then sat around the campfire , happily listening to the local stories from the staff. We roasted some locally grown potatoes in fire and had them when they were still hot. Kinnaur is known for its potatoes among other things.
It was a cold full moon night and everyone just relaxed with a drink or smoke. When the wind began to rise we decided to move into the tents. We all gathered in one tent and decided to play chess. As the two men from the group played we watched and cheered. Everyone was a little too happy and the locally brewed alcoholic drinks made the night even more cheerful. The alcohol is distilled from grapes, apple, pear, barley and wheat. The kids slept soundly, his father stepped out to meditate and watch the moon glide through the sky. I stayed inside engrossed in the game that was taking longer than usual time. Sleep was slowly casting its spell on us and we wrapped up for the night at about two o’clock.
It was our last night there and we all needed sleep before the long journey back home. We woke up early, packed our bags and took leave from the ever courteous staff of Kinner Camp. Mr. Negi had been a very generous host and after thanking him for the hospitality we began our journey on the road we had travelled at night while coming. For the first time we realized what could have happened to us had we run into trouble that night. The sheer magnificence of the old silk route took our breath away. We could now see why it is called “the deadliest road” in the world. Full of hairpin bends, blind curves, the C-shaped incisions in the overhanging cliffs and the broken patches of the road and the dumper trucks that resembled dinky toy vehicles fallen into the valley were enough to tell us never ever to drive on it at night. The road looked like a ledge cut out on the bare rock face of the mountain. The sight of deep Sutlej Gorge in daylight scarred the wits out of us. I remembered how we had mistaken a broken section of bridge for a road and as I peered into the gorge I knew exactly where our pieces would have been scattered. We stopped at the shrines on the way and this time made sure to take the right road to Shimla and from there to the sweltering heat of Delhi.
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