Travel Diary – Part-1 – A Night Drive On The Old Hindustan Tibet Road


It was the summer of  2006 and time again to travel to the mountains. Kinnaur district was one of the areas we were considering because of its raw beauty and diverse landscape. A quick research and availability of stay at Kinner camps (situated at about 2800m) at Sangla was enough to make it final. The very idea of camping in this strikingly beautiful high-altitude Himalayan district tucked away in the northeastern edge of Himachal Pradesh, rubbing shoulders with Tibet seemed exciting.  Still not so popular with the tourists, Kinnaur is a Mecca for travelers and backpackers. The region faces a splendid isolation in the heartless months of winter and was once referred to as “the valley of the shadow of death” by Andrew Wilson.

Sangla or Baspa valley is one of three enclosed valleys in Kinnaur district and is named after the Baspa river, a tributary of Sutlej, that flows through it. This is where we were headed.

It was long journey of  about 977 km / 15-17 hours and we needed a good vehicle. The only car available to us was an Indica. Five adults ( three men , two women) and a kid in an Indica? That too on such a long journey ? I wasn’t getting a good feel about the thing but the best part of an adventure is the surprises that come with it. The couple who was travelling with us had no exposure to such adventurous road trips to the mountains.  That made the matter worse but somehow everything got settled and in the middle of the night when the world was asleep we stuffed our bags, bottles of Old Monk and Coke, a package of eatables and ourselves in the car and began the most memorable journey of all times.

Travelling on highways during the night has its advantages. The traffic is less, air is cool and one doesn’t waste the daylight on familiar routes. We reached Narkanda via Chandigarh – Solan- Shimla and Fagu at around mid noon after stopping for a filling breakfast at one of the highway dhabas. In approximately 8 hours we had covered a distance of about 435 km.

Situated at an altitude of  2708 meters on the Hindustan Tibet road (NH – 22) Narkanda was our first glimpse of the gorgeous Shivalik Ranges, deep green forests, apple orchards and fruit laden Cherry trees. We stopped at Hatu Hotel for lunch and to stretch ourselves before the next phase of the journey.  It was our first visit beyond Shimla and the sheer beauty of the place ceased all our tiredness. The snow peaks were clearly visible beyond the stretch of moss-green valley. After an hour or two we drove towards Rampur which was once the capital of princely state of Bushahr, a major center on the old trade route to Kinnaur, Tibet, Ladakh and China.

Intoxicated by the beauty around us and listening to the old Bollywood songs of Kishore and Hemantda we drove on until  one of us realized something was amiss. We were going uphill instead of downhill and the road condition was not very good either. On enquiring we found it was a longer route via a feeder road through the upper villages and the distance had just doubled. We couldn’t turn back so looking down at the meandering Sutlej and the valley dotted with houses we kept going. On one side rose the mighty chiseled cliffs of the cold desert mountains and on the other side the fruit laden trees lined the landscape sprinkled with wild flowers and grass.

The sky was getting overcast and the destination was still far. At a high point our car began to fume. One could see the smoke coming out of the bonnet and two of the tires. Cursing our luck we parked the car under an Apricot tree and with least of tools the men struggled to replace the tires. And then, it began to rain. Somehow I managed to cover the luggage and my ten year old under a plastic sheet. We had no clue how far we had to drive to reach the camp. Visibility was near zero and the cold rain fell like dead bullets and showed no sign of stopping. After an hour-long struggle the car finally started and we drove down to Rampur with no further trouble. I could feel the nervousness and discomfort of the couple of travelling with us. The child and his father were unconcerned and our friend with whom we had done most of our trips tried in vain to convince the scared couple that they were safe with us.

At Rampur Bushahr  we topped up the tank, got the car checked and started again. The mighty Sutlej thundered along the road. With the Sony handy cam perched on my shoulder I ignored the continuous grumble inside the car and immersed myself completely to the scenic splendor outside.

The rain had stopped and one could see the rose-tinted snow-capped Shrikhand Mahadev Ranges in the backdrop of the lovely town. The only sound we could hear was the roar of the river on our left.

We stopped to eat Thukpa, the noodle soup, at a roadside stall run by a Kinnauri woman wrapped in Dhoru (Kinnauri shawl). It was a simple, fragrant and hearty meal in a bowl good enough to sustain us for a long time.

The sun was setting behind the mighty snow-capped peaks as we drove towards Sarahan crossing Nathpa – Jhakri, the largest underground Hydroelectric Project situated downstream on Sutlej river, owned by SJVN Ltd. The peaks glistened like liquid gold at places while some others had the most unusual shades of crimson flowing down their tops.

It was rapidly getting dark and by the time we maneuvered our way to the little hamlet of Sarahan it was about eight in the night. An argument broke out and the group was soon divided in two, one who wanted to continue on the treacherous stretch of Hindustan Tibet Road that lay ahead and the other who wanted to spend the night at Sarahan. The kid slept through the entire melodrama. It was election time and none of the hotels had a place to offer so the only option was to move on which made me very happy. There is no greater adrenaline rush than to face the unknown.

The locals were not too comfortable about our driving down “the deadliest road” during the night. The child and his dad relaxed in a comfortable snooze, the couple snuggled close to give each other a feeling of security and comfort and I hopped into the front seat with my friend at the wheel ready to take on the 106km road distance to Sangla which was our destination. The estimated time locals had given was about two and a half hours but it was pitch dark and the only thing which could throw light on the road were the car headlights.

Guided by the car lights knowing in our hearts that it will eventually lead us to our destination we silently drove on. None of us had any idea when that will happen. Being a single lane road there seemed less chances of taking a wrong turn. In the darkness we crossed the famed Taranda dhak literally carved into the perpendicular cliffs without really realizing the jaw dropping effect it had on travelers during daytime. For us each blind turn, each hairpin bend was as awe-inspiring as the previous one. We did not meet any traffic except one or two trucks on the way. The thought of car breaking down in the middle of nowhere was something no one wanted to dwell on.

The only thought running collectively in our minds was to reach Kinner Camps. We informed the camp owner of our whereabouts and took directions.

A few spotlights in the valley indicated that we were crossing the Karcham Wangu Power plant owned by Jaypee Group. The road from Wagtu to Karcham was a shabby dirt track with no sign of tarmac. All one saw was scary rocky face of the mountain jutting out from the left and the perpendicular drop to river Sutlej which snored like a sleeping dragon in the valley below. There was a pin drop silence in the car. I could see the tension building up as an empty bottle of Pepsi was cut in half and a premix of dark rum and cola poured heartily. The two men gulped the fiery liquid in quick succession while the lady mumbled some holy mantras.

The couple  was definitely not liking the adventure they had embarked upon and the terrain was giving them a fright. I remembered reading about the freak cloud burst of 1987 that had wiped out Wangtu completely and it sent a chill up my spine. The bridge, the road and the village were swallowed by the lake formed by rebellious waters of Sutlej.

It is from Karcham, for about 25-km, that the Sutlej is in its most ferocious and challenging moods – boulders, rocks and rubble are tossed around in its foaming rapids, the loose strata of the ranges on the flanks further adding to the debris. At night the rumbling sound of the river rides on the darkness all along.

Eyes glued on the hairpin bends of the narrow road slithering in eerie silence our car slowly edged forward. A few meters ahead the friend who was driving asked me if I could see a turn and a bridge. I could faintly see the bridge to our right. The car lights could only show certain stretch ahead, the rest of the road just melted into dark. I nodded, slightly unsure, and in a hushed voice told him to go slow and look before turning.

Just at a crucial moment he stopped. There was nothing ahead except a broken section of an old bridge hanging over the drop of about 2000 ft into the Sutlej gorge. Sheer rocks rose vertically up from its left bank. The road looked like an incision made by blasting a ledge in the hard rock . For a moment our hearts stopped. The very thought of what could have happened if we had turned blindly sent shivers up our spine. We looked at the other passengers from the corner of our eyes. They were oblivious to the incident and the potent rum cola mix had anesthetized them into a comfortable slumber. My friend was an experienced driver and I had complete faith in his ability to drive in difficult situations. Slowly he reversed the car and we started off again on the deathly road. The river growled even more noisily below us.

My little boy shifted in my lap and then went back into deep slumber. The weight was beginning to numb my legs and I kept wriggling my toes to keep the blood circulation going. We were at the worse stretch of the entire road ruined by the work carried out by the hydro power projects running in that area. As a rule it certainly wasn’t a good idea to take the night and apparently we were the only ones on that road that night. For me it was the best adventure life could offer.

A little ahead, across Karcham bridge, the road forked to mark the accent along the blue-green waters of the Baspa river and headed towards Sangla which lay 16 km right of the Hindustan Tibet Road that ad started from Shimla and went up to Kaza. Sangla valley is just 120 odd km before the Indo-Tibet border and we were about 18 km from Sangla town.

Karcham is the confluence of beautiful Baspa and the mighty Sutlej and is considered as the gateway to Baspa valley. The roar of the river rose from the shadowy depth of the deep dark valley mocking at the rugged rock jaws that peered from above.

All the muscles in our body were strained from peering into the dark abyss. We had been driving  without a proper stopover for about 580km. Sleep more than hunger was on our mind. Thankfully the road was good and ahead of us lay days filled with exquisite beauty and starlit nights that were just a dream in big cities like Delhi.

After what seemed like eternity, much to our relief, we saw the board of Kinner Camp and Mr. Negi the owner waiting for us looking visibly concerned. He waved at us from the gate of the gorgeous campsite nestled between high range mountains from all sides.

One could hear the slow hum of Baspa river that ran very close to the camp. After almost 12 hours of strenuous drive we had finally reached our dream destination. The good man had kept the food ready for us and after a good hearty meal we collapsed on our beds inside the luxurious Swiss tents with dreams of new adventures the morning would bring to us.

 

Part -2 of this post covers our stay at Kinnar Camp, a trip to Chitkul and some other adventures including the return day drive on the old treacherous Hindustan Tibet Road.

It has been a while since the trip so if there are any errors in reporting the factual details please let me know in the comment section and I will correct it.

 

The must read Posts with pictures and videos  for this region and specially the Hindustan Tibet Road are 

Hindustan Tibet Road – An Engineering Feat by Sanjay Lakhanpal 

And from my fellow Indiblogger bNomadic On Road through the trans-Himalayan region  (He has one of the best travel blogs I have come across. Most recommended.)

Travel Memoir : A Drive Through Clouds


Enchanting Himalayas

Traveling by road in the majestic Himalayas is treacherous at times. The spectacular network of these remote rugged winding roads can give you a big adrenalin rush at any given time. The hair pin bends, gorges, steep valleys, narrow slushy muddy tracks that take sheer courage to maneuver and some times the unfriendly terrain make it an adventure which only the brave can afford to go through. A little distraction or error in judgment can lead to a disastrous end.

The rain and snow add to the drama that unfolds at every tricky turn. There are always chances of land-slides; road blocks and one must know the basic of mountain driving to avoid mishaps. The worst comes when you are caught off guard and have to trust your ability as a driver, a cool mind and the intuitive powers to help you navigate the snaking trails.

For us who love to venture into unknown territories, the roads journeys from Rampur Bushahr to Kinnaur and Khajjiar to chamba in Himachal Pradesh have been really breathtaking and the extremely difficult to maneuver till now. At both times we went ahead without earlier study of the area and were fortunate to come out alive.

Dalhousie is the gateway to the Chamba valley. The best way to explore the charismatic beauty of the region is to hill-walk or trek. The tranquility, beauty and the exquisite scenic surroundings are an unforgettable experience. After out enchanting stay at Khajjiar it was time to continue our journey to Dharamshala via Chamba.

We decided to follow the Khajjiar – Chamba road and vaguely asked the locals for the directions. It was raining heavily and most of the valley was covered in low clouds and dense fog. The rain had brought down the temperatures too. Our car glided through the unknown serpentine rugged mountain road in near zero visibility.

It is not a drive for the weak hearted. As we looked down the deep gorges and steep ghostly valleys enveloped in a cloudy mist, we realized the height at which we were traveling. The habitation in the valley below resembled small dots of blue and black. The roads were hardly visible but sometimes we could see a gray black line crisscrossing along the lower mountains.

We thought that this was going to be our last road adventure as we carefully maneuvered the hairpin bends, depending solely on the gut instinct.

Visibility was nil and there was not a single soul in sight. It was truly a drive through the clouds. The tension was mounting and a silent fear had gripped all of us. We had no idea even if this road was the right one and there was no turning back. We had to go on.

After an hour of cruising through the unknown under merciless rain and bone chilling cold, our alert eyes saw a roadside kiosk emerge out of no where and all our stressed out muscles relaxed at once. We found that it was a tea stall and the locals thought we had completely lost it. No one dares to drive in weather like that on an unknown high mountain road like that one.

We decided to drink a cup of hot sugary tea and wait for the rain to stop but it continued to pure ceaselessly. We scanned the deep dark valley below and shuddered at the thought of dropping down hundreds of feet down in that abyss. It was spine chilling

The time factor was very crucial as we still had to cover some distance to reach Dharamshala before dark. A 220 Km. six-hour journey and the weather made it very clear at least two to three extra hours were needed.

When you surrender yourself to nature, it takes care of you. This is one fact we always believed in. We drove on in absolute stillness. Half way down the road we saw a few workers repairing a damaged road in cold, rain and muddy slush. They advised us to go very slow and wished us good luck. It was good to see those dedicated courageous human beings who make our journeys safe.

Suddenly our friend who was driving the car stopped the car. The spectacle that greeted us was astounding. Right in the middle of the road was a flock of at least 9-10 huge vultures, majestic creatures so rare to see these days. Unfortunately the bad light and rain prevented us to click pictures. It was  experience of a life time and the kids watched the raptors with awe. Our day was made.

Those were the famous Himalayan Griffon vultures. These birds of prey are a dying species and we held our breath to savor the moment. Griffons are about 41-43 inches long and have a wingspan of 260-289cm. and are the second largest old world vultures. Slowly we made our way on the road and the knightly creatures decided to give way to us. Mystified by the beauty of those birds we continued towards our destination.

After a drive of half an hour the sky cleared and we could again see beautiful green valley dotted with tiny houses and thin zigzag maze of mountain roads below. We had managed to cover the most difficult part of the road. It was an enchanting sight. The rain had completely stopped. The riot of colors that flooded the mountainsides also became visible now. Wild flowers in all colors blossomed as far as we could see, oblivious to the human existence.

We were relaxed and happily chatting. The kids kept talking about the big birds and soon we entered the picturesque Chamba valley.

It was a journey through timelessness, an adventure which would haunt us all our lives. It remains a true Himalayan odyssey and an enchanting drive through the clouds.

Travel Guide : Malana – A Village Lost In Time


I first went to the sleepy little hamlet of Malana at the age of thirteen. As part of Youth Hostels Association trekking programme we walked the 23km picturesque yet uneven and treacherous route from Jari to Malana (9,000ft). A landscape filled with intimidating gorges and steep rocky trails. From Malana we crossed over the 3600 meters beautiful Chanderkhani Pass to reach Nagar. It is the oldest village in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh.

The virgin beauty of the place was mesmerizing and I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Malana’s beautiful inhabitants, it’s intricately carved and thatched colorful cluster of about 200 wooden houses, verdant fields dotted with bleating sheep and the legendary Malana Cream (the highest quality Hash in the world), all made it seem so romantic to my teenage mind.

The fabled Malana village is ethnically a tiny city-state in itself. Rocky glens, dense, rich and diverse Pine, Deodar and spruce, Golden Oak, and giant Kail forests, brooks and streams and vast acres of deep red Rhododendron and wild flowery bushes make this valley an enchanting place. The area is home to the brown bear and has many other species of wild animals.

The village gets its name from Malana River which originates from Malana Glacier in the Great Himalayan Range. Precipitous terrain and unique geographical location has helped the valley to keep its biodiversity. It is an isolated abode with no proper road system. The inhabitants of Malana do not interfere with the environment around them and make sure no one else does.

Its inhabitants claim to be the descendants of Alexander the Great and that’s why it is also known as “little Greece”. It is believed that Alexander’s army stopped here while retreating from North. The people here have distinct Roman features, fair skin, deep brown eyes, chiseled porcelain faces and normally wear rough cotton clothes.

“Telltale evidence of the people’s origins is found in the wooden carvings on the ancient temple walls. The carvings show soldiers wearing uniforms resembling those worn by Greek soldiers and people drinking wine from goblets. Ancient arms found in the village storehouse reveal straight-edged swords used by Greek soldiers. The traditional Indian swords are curved.”

Source

(S.R. Saini, Treks and Passes of Himachal Himalaya; Progressive Publishers, 2005.)

Malana has unique worship rituals and autonomous self-sufficient administration of its own. The people of the vilage solve their disputes within their two houses, Lower House and Upper House. Visitors are not allowed to touch specific rocks and stones in the village as they are believed to be sacred and one has to pay a heavy penalty to the village head for breaking the rules. It is considered to be the oldest republic in the world. Their social structure is guided by a powerful deity “Jamblu Devta”. The Malana village council runs the entire administration through him.

They fiercely protect their unique cultural legacy and history and there is a strict code of conduct for the visitors. No one is allowed to venture anywhere apart from the demarcated pathways. Malanese shun any contact with the outsiders and if a local touches any tourist, he /she has to go through a purification system. They consider themselves superior to any other being and do not follow the Indian Constitution even though they are part of our country.

The Malanese people speak a very different dialect called “Kanashi” which seems to be a mixture of some Tibetan dialects and Sanskrit. It is a language only they understand. The place is completely lost in time and that’s one of the reasons it has been able to sustain their ancient lifestyle.

Hunting, burning or cutting of trees is prohibited and people earn their livelihood by cattle rearing and farming of rice and Hash. The village council holds a very important place in Malana’s social system. One can hardly find any traces of modernization here.

All the fables surrounding this mysterious village, its do’s and don’t and its controversial history, the drug mafia and the untouched pristine beauty makes Malana a place worth visiting.

The mossy forests of this area and the serene silent smoky existence of a unique tribe with strange customs and rituals, and a relaxed attitude towards life were so appealing that I wanted to renounce the world and settle there.

The only major activity is during the hash cultivation season. The beautiful alpine veil that covers the valley is a haven for trekkers and tourists seeking peace and tranquility or pure cosmic high of the soft smooth inhale of the Malana Cream which is known to be world’s second best Hash.

I have been twice to Malana and each time it has been an exhilarating experience. The lace has extreme climates due to its geographical locations so the best season to visit is summer (Early May – August). It is also the time for the summer festival and the best opportunity to savor the local culture.