The scenically exciting route through the river valleys of Lahaul and Spiti offers ANIL MULCHANDANI an opportunity to see magnificent mountain landscapes and visit some of the highest human habitations in the world that are connected by tarmac roads.
The region we visited has interesting monuments, specially Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, and offers opportunities to visit the villages of colourful people, like the Kinnauras, the Spitians and the Lahaulis, and view the variety of flora and fauna of the Himalayas. This is a holiday for the adventurous. You certainly need a good head for heights (driving on the left of the road, along river valleys, on these precipitous roads means looking down to great depths), a strong stomach to brave the sharp turns, and a sturdy back that can take the strain of the hard terrain.
We started out at Shimla, where we arrived from Delhi in the evening and spent the night at Springfields. Springfields is a converted palatial mansion, partially occupied by the royal family of Shikhupura, the rest being an Usha Shriram-run heritage hotel, with large, period furnished suites. Awakening early, we enjoyed the view from the balcony of the Churchandani range. A rhesus monkey was perched on the balcony rails and birds flitted among the branches of nearby trees, sometimes venturing on to the balcony and even sitting on the window sill.
We spent the morning exploring Shimla's many colonial monuments, and left at noon for our trip catching the Hindustan-Tibet Road, which by-passes some interesting resorts like Kufri, Naldehra and Mashobra. The road ran reasonably level along the upper slopes of hills, past farms, orchards, towns and villages, before reaching Narkhanda's scenic viewpoints offer vistas of cedar forests and Himalayan peaks rising in snowy gradients. In winter, the snow covered slopes are popular for skiing, mainly at beginner level (skis are available at the tourist bungalow). We contented ourselves with a scroll in the garden, admiring the flowers and the profusion of butterflies, and set off soon after lunch. Once over the Narkhanda passes, the road wound steadily along the Sutlej valley, lines by deodhar and pine woodlands. As wecame closer to Rampur Bushahr, the hillsides became barren with only rice fields adding a touch of colour to the monochromatic rocky landscape. What once was a pristine, off-the-beaten track route is now a heavily trafficked highway thanks to the Nathpa-Jhakri project that is one of the largest hydroelectric projects in south Asia. We drove through Rampur Bushahr, whose erstwhile ruler, Virbhadra Singh, is now the Chief Minister of HP. The town is well provided for with economical accommodation, including a Himachal Tourism property facing the Sutlej river, and eateries, and has the palace of the royal family and a Buddhist Gompa. But we just took a brief tea halt after the town limits and bottled water at a provision store. Further on, the road entered rocky countryside, along the surging river Sutlej, which gushes through the gorges and deep valleys of eastern Himachal in a torrential flow of muddy water, and we came to Jeori, the junction for the turnoff from the Hindustan-Tibet Road to Sarahan.
From Jeori, we left the highway and took the 21 km road to Sarahan, a series of winding turns and hairpin bends leading to the town which has superb view of the Shrikhand Mahadev hills.
We checked in at the Himachal Tourism's Srikhand, which is set around the Raja of Rampur Bushahr's old pooja house donated by the CM to tourism. Srikhand has four large rooms with balconies, four smaller rooms with balconies and four cheaper rooms which do not have the expansive views of the eight more deluxe rooms. The pooja house is available as a cottage for families, with two rooms and sitting areas. We relaxed with a bottle of apple wine and a meal, which was about average, ending up with a cup of Kangra Tea (the proverbial 'two leaves and a bud' are picked in the Kangra Valley of HimaChal Pradesh) before retiring for the night.
We awakened early and enjoyed the view from Sarahan (which sits on a high ledge over the Sutlej river) of the high peaks including the holy Srikhand Mahadev, which is more than 17,000 ft high, before visiting the Bhimakali Temple, one of the finest in eastern Himachal. The temple has a pagoda roof, with twin multi-storeyed towers, sloping tiled roofing and golden spires, exquisite wood carvings along the doors, windows and balconies, and silver doors. A staircase took us upstairs to the sanctum with its impressive gold idol of Bhimakali, others of Buddha, Parvati and Annapurna, and silver traceries. Back in the temple courtyard we saw a Shiva shrine and a small museum with musical instruments, processional weapons, lamps, and utensils.
We walked around the back of the complex where the Raja of Rampur, the owner of the temple, has his royal palace. The palace is impressive with painted timbered walls, lawns and wood carvings. The walking path behind the palace took us up a wooded trail, a one-km strenuous climb, to the Pheasant Breeding centre which has Western Tragopan, Monal Pheasant, Khalij and Chir Pheasant in cages, a goat-antelope enclosure and a baby musk deer. We trekked back to the tourist bungalow and drove down to Jeori, stopping for an early lunch at Bushahr hotel. Then it was back on the Hindustan-Tibet Road which, after Jeori, rose high above the river Sutlej and took us along cliff-side cuttings along the river that often roared through narrow gorges and ravines and past the hot springs of Kharcham where the Baspa meets the Sutlej. From Kharcham, the precipitous road took us up 16 km to Sangla, with its old fort and numerous guest houses, and then descended eight km to Batseri in a series of hair-rising winding turns. Presently we reached Banjara Camp, which is set in the midst of apple orchards on the shores of the Baspa river, with an amphitheatre of mountain peaks on every side. We walked to Batseri village and were proudly shown the local temple, which is being restored by expert wood carvers, the Buddhist temple, the wool-weavers who make intricate Kinnaura shawls, and the pride of the village the use of alternative energies including a solar power generator and wheels worked by water. The 'green village' also has herbal gardens and plantations.
Back at the camp, we met a couple from Delhi who work in film media, and joined them around a bonfire for chilled beer and hot soup. Dinner was a sumptuous spread of mutton, vegetables, dal, rice and dessert in a tent with a little library for those who like reading.
Trip to Chitkul
We drove to Chitkul on a rough winding road that cuts through cliffsides along the Baspa river. Chitkul, about 11,300 ft above MSL, is the last village of Kinnaur before the Tibet border where civilian cars are allowed. From here, some foreigners were walking down to the river, a rather slippery path with lots of loose stones, and one couple trekked towards the hills. We visited the Hindu temple and the Buddha temple, admired the old houses with their wood carvings in the village, and saw some young yak (the older ones stray into higher altitudes) outside a villager's home.
We drove back to Batseri, watching birds along the way, and stopped for tea at Kinner camp which has tents named for different birds. As if on cue, a falcon took off from a rock near us and we saw a Himalayan griffin vulture hovering overhead.
Sangla to Recong Peo
We started from the camp, after a quick breakfast of pancakes and honey, for Kalpa, a town offering a stupendous view of the Kinner Kailash mountain range, including the Shivaling hill worshipped by Hindus. Kalpa has interesting Hindu and Buddhist temples. We saw a number of shops selling cans of soup concentrate and Soya bean meals to prospective trekkers. We were informed that the bridge at Akpa, further ahead, was closed for repairs and no vehicles would be allowed until noon the following day. We had to give up hope of traveling to Tabo, as planned, and, instead, spent the night at Fairyland guest house in Recong Peo near Kalpa.
After a breakfast of parathas at a nearby dhaba, we visited the Kalchakra Palace, a Gompa consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1992, a short byt stiff climb from the last motorable point, with a large Buddha statue nearby facing Kinner Kailash, and walked to Kothi with its Hindu temple and sacred fish tank. Back at the Recong Peo marketplace we called home from Sood Fancy Store which had an STD booth. The owners of the store were enthusiastic and gave us some interesting information on the area. They also showed us photos of their recent trek to Shivaling.
We drove to the Akpa bridge where we re-crossed the Sutlej. We had to wait for a rockfall to be cleared, before continuing through more barren countryside, past Morang which has a forest rest house and a monastery, to Jangi where vehicle details are checked. The rugged hills could be experienced on both sides of the road as we drove to Puh, after which the road bent north to Khab.
After Khab, the Trans-Himalayas began at the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti rivers, with imposing rocky landscapes on both sides. A steeply climbing rough road, with some challenging hairpin bends, took us to Kah and then to Yangtang, where we stopped for chowmien at an eatery straddling a hilltop about 12,400 ft above sea level. We were warned about the notorious Maling Slide, a snow-melt stream (locals know it is Malingnala) that has washed away many unprepared vehicles with fatal consequences, and proceeded rather cautiously. Fortunately our Sumo crossed the stream without mishap we saw rocks tumbling down with the stream just a few seconds after we were across and we breathed a sigh of relief. The road continued through hard terrain to Sumdo where we turned off the Hindustan-Tibet Road to State Highway 30 and drove through arid valleys with little vegetation. A few fields of peas and other pulses clung to the hills. Suddenly I spotted a flock of Bharal, which are called Blue Sheep though they are actually a separate genus between goat and sheep, with two-ft long horns, curving backwards over the neck, and a greyish-brown coat. We counted about seven of the sure-footed beasts as they grazed on the slopes and climbed the rocky ledges.
We reached Tabo just before sunset and settled in at the Banjara Camp. We were soon comfortably enjoying the warmth of the tent amid the bitingly cold winds of Spiti. "I am a school teacher. My hometown is Shillong," explains Arjun, who received us, "I always wanted to explore Spiti and so took up the assignment of handling this camp for a season. This is a great area. I love the Pin Valley and trekking in these hills."
We awakened at dawn and Dinesh enjoyed photographing the view of the magnificent landscape of arid mountain peaks, some of them clad with snow, back-dropped by deep blue skies and lit up by crisp, clear sunlight. After breakfast, we drove to the monastic complex of Tabo. Tabo's Chos Khor Gompa monastery is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist centres of learning. The variety of wall paintings inside is impressive and these murals have earned Tabo the title of the Ajanta-Ellora of the Himalayas. The monastic complex has nine temples, also with fine carvings and paintings, and the guide told us about some cave temples nearby. Across the road are vendors selling souvenirs including Spiti shawls.
We drove to Kaza where we checked in at Sakya's abode. After a rather disappointing lunch (cold chappatis, under-cooked rice), we headed for Kibber which is one of the highest villages in the world connected by tarmac road, phone and electricity!
We had a cup of tea at Norling Guest House where the staff told us that Yashigang is the highest village in Asia, and perhaps the world, that is connected by motorable road. We drove up the non-surfaced road to Yashigang, through the Kibber sanctuary, and saw a group of five Goral goat antelope feeding on the rassy hillsides.
Exhilarated, we drove down and descended to the Kyi monastery on State Highway 30. This is one of the largest monasteries in Himachal Pradesh, with about 300 lamas, offering an exotic spectacle of white buildings standing out against the windswept, barren hillsides. Inside the monastery are scriptures, musical instruments, weapons and paintings.
Driving back to Kaza, in time for dinner, we stopped for an Italian meal at Pomogrono Country, a guest house near Rangrik on the Kibber-Kaza road. Run by an Italian family and their St. Bernard dog, it has six clean rooms, tepee style tents and a bistro-style restaurant. We enjoyed the home-made pasta, tuna salad, tiramisu and Italian coffee.
We took an early start for Manali. The road took us through pea and cabbage fields, apple orchards, poplar and willow woods, and past some breathtaking views of the Spiti river and barren mountain peaks.
At Losar, we halted briefly for a breakfast consisting of omelettes and tea at Nawang Dhaba (also serves Momos and other Tibetan dishes), about 13,300 ft above sea level, and 18 km later crossed the Kunzum La pass, just under 15,000 ft above sea level, with a temple and superb views of peaks more than 20,000ft high like the Chandrabaga and Karcha, and also some of the largest glaciers of the western Himalayas. The pass marks the crossover from Spiti to Lahaul.
The Gyepang temple here is believed to have mystic powers coins that stick to the temple are said to bring luck to the donor. The road took 19 hairpin bends through rocky terrain to Batal where trekkers got off a local bus for a trek to the Chandratal Lake. We had tea at a little tented stall here which also sells Maggi noodles and biscuits to trekkers. The rough drive (the word road is a euphemism for these routes and the term highway evokes mirth in the mind of anyone who has been on the Sumdo-Batal State Highway!) continued through Chotta Dhara and Chattru, where tea and snack shops offer tenting space trekkers. We met a lone European trekker with a porter, guide and pack mules, near Chattru, and further on a small group on the trek to Chandratal from Manali. After Gramphoo, where the State Highway gives way to the Manali-Leh Highway, the road did another series of hairpin bends, this time ascending to the Rohtang pass, which was shrouded by clouds. Local tourists were picnicking at Rohtang, many of them took pony rides to the point that they thought was the end of the habitable world!
After Rohtang, the road began to descend in winding turns to Marhi, with para-sailing centre and cafeterias, Gulabo known for its meadows, Kothi with its tea and rice plate stalls (a base for trips to the Solang Nulla and treks to Beas Kund. Also a pretty spot with rocks strewn along the river Beas), and Vashist known for its hot springs. We stayed at Hotel Vintage, on the Manali-Naggar Road, with its comfortable rooms and view of the river Beas. We spent the evening at Manali seeing things like the Hadimba temple at Dungri and the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Finally, we tucked into grilled liver and a cottage cheese dish at the Mayur International at Manali.