Thursday, September 15, 2016

Himalayan Invitation 2016

Year 2016 was an absolute Himalayan invitation, a little account of my first travel for the year. 

I also regret for my incapability to write for a long time and feel excited to narrate my journey to Himalaya!

A lazy day of last winters, it was snowing heavily and we were enjoying bonfire and a mail popped in the mail inbox. The query was about a proposed Mountain Biking tour into Kinnaur and Spiti and soon it was finalized for April 2016.

On 05th April 2016 the toy train slowly hushed to its final destination Shimla, Mrs. & Mr. Corban were smiling from the compartment as they recognized me. 

The following day, on 06th April, after exploring the Colonial Miles of Shimla, our car roared through the dusty countryside roads and reached a countryside home stay near Shima. As the sun was setting behind the horizons, riots of colors were framed on the valleys.

On morning of 07th April, after an early breakfast and under a mild drizzle our bikes plunged down the valley. The blossom covered the entire valley and every gush of wind introduced us to even better aroma! 

As our bikes touched the uphill section of ride, the drizzle turned into heavy downpour and our enthusiasm was on highest level. The entire ride was dotted with tiny villages surrounded by terraces running down the valley. Soon the rain halted and the sun glanced on the valleys turning them into golden. The last stretch of the ride was steep uphill and Mrs. Corban led the way to complete the 33 km on the day one as Mr. Corban and me followed her.

Jagdish, packed the bikes and drove us to Narkanda. This place use to be an important stopover on the Old Hindustan Tibet Road, a promising route leading into Tibet. Thrilled with the day’s effort we stayed overnight at Narkanda.

A lovely morning of 08th April welcomed us and the ride passed down through Kotgarh valley.  Our bikes buzzed down through the ocean of apple blossom and we halted at Tani-Jubbar Lake. An ancient serpent temple by the side of the lake and lofty snow capped mountains added to it like a ‘Jewel in the Crown.’

Continuing the ride we stopped at the village of Kotgarh to visit the chapel built by an American Missionary in early 1900’s. Samuel Evans Stokes was engrossed in the beauty of the place that he decided to live here for the rest of his life. He also got concerned with the life of people, whose farms could barely feed them. Mr. Stokes took the soil samples back to his country, tested them, brought apple saplings and distributed them among the villagers. This all turned the life of people and today Himachal is a leading apple producer in the country.

It turned warmer with descend and we soon touched the floor of the valley. From here we packed the bikes and drove upstream of River Sutlej to reach Rampur. Post lunch, the drive further passed through some adventurous roads in Himalaya and reached Kalpa. Favorite summer retreat of  Lord Curzon, one of the British Viceroy in India, who wanted to make it as next British Summer Capital of India.

Perched at an elevation of 2960 m, before independence Kalpa was named as Chini. Right opposite to Kalpa is Kinner Kailash range, snowcapped mountains ranging up to an elevation of 6400m. Kinner Kailash (6050m) is sacred mountain and is believed to be the winter abode of Lord Shiva.

District Kinnaur portrays a mingling of culture as Hindu religion merges with Buddhisim. Buddhist Gods are worshiped in Hindu temples and Hindu Gods gets place in Buddhist Monasteries.

The whole valley below our hotel was lit by tiny lights scattered all over. Glare of the moonrise could clearly be seen on the snowcapped mountain range.

Dawn of 09th April was breaking behind the mountains and very soon the whole valley was bathing in morning sunlight. We started the day with a hike above the village of Kalpa. Soon there was carpet of snow under our feel as we ascended up the hill. And it kept on mounting as we geared up, fresh snow flakes welcomed us.

Kinner Kailash range was a beauty as we saw it above the village. For lunch we descended down to Kalpa. Evening was a leisure to observe the changing colors of Kinner Kailash Range.

On 10th April we decided to explore the area on our mountain bikes and we rode to the village of Roghi. The 05 km stretch of the road is built on a sheer cliff that plunges down almost 2000 m to grueling Sutlej! Making a brief stop at village we tried to ride further on the traces of Old Hindustan Tibet Road. However, we abandoned the idea further as the trail was washed at certain sections.

We rode back to Kalpa, explored the ancient temples of Goddess Chandika Devi and Lord Vishu and finally pushed our bikes back to hotel and the evening was at leisure.

On the morning of 11th April our journey proceeded further to Tabo. Under a mild drizzle we drove to Nako. At an elevation of 3600 m, the village of Nako is laid by the side of a sacred Lake. Still upper Kinaur district, offer enchanting views of looming Hangrang mountain range, Reo Purgial 6816 m and groove of Willows which circles the Lake.

While entering Nako snowflakes welcomed us and we started downhill ride followed by a flat section to Sumdo. The thrilling ride passed through barren mountains loaded with snow. As our bikes passed through village of Chango, suddenly the dry valley was replaced by apple orchards! This fragile section of the road is prone to the shooting stones from the mountains above, however, we safely managed to reach Sumdo. Here, Pare – Chu, (discussed in earlier posts) amalgamates with River Spiti. Also, inner line permits issued by administration are verified at the police post here. We drove from here and reached Tabo for the evening.

The morning of 12th April welcomed us and after breakfast we went to visit the ancient monastery of Tabo. The walls are decorated with beautiful paintings depicting the life story Buddha. The upper sections of walls are adorned with sculptures of 32 Bodhisatvas, each in their unique mediating postures. We were being offered a detailed introduction to the monastery by the resident Lama.

Continuing our Himalayan exploration, we drove the valley upstream, which all of a sudden opens here in Tabo to visit Dhankar monastery. Dhankar means a cliff and the monastery is built on the cliff. Dhankar used to be the ancient capital of Spiti. Getting blessed from the monastery, we enjoyed a lovely ride from Dhankar to Kaza. The opposite winds on the Dhankar downhill, were almost limiting Bikes to halt and we pedaled the thrilling downhill!

After lunch, we drove to visit Kee Monastery, a fortified monument built on a hillock. These monasteries were built on the elevated platforms due to the possible fear of invasion. As ancient schools of Buddhism, these places certainly hold a divine Charisma.

Since it was too early to enter Manali so we retraced our journey back to Tabo for a night and another to Reckong-peo and finally to Shimla!

Absolutely a memorable Himalayan experience!   


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Meeting The Mountains - 2015

travelogue by one of our esteemed guest Mr. Arun Kaul 

Shimla – Kinnaur – Lahaul & Spiti – Manali Trip
(17th to 25th September 2015 -9 Days)


DAY 01: SHIMLA -64km- NARKANDA(2774m) -66km- RAMPUR(924m) -28km- JEORI(1381m) -17km- SARAHAN (175km)

We got introduced to our guide Sanjay Verma of the Great Himalayan Outdoors and Jagdish, the driver of the white Xylo, which was to take us on our 09 day journey. We left Cecil Hotel at 9.20 am but in minutes, the driver of our vehicle got flagged down by the local policeman for obstructing the Chief Justice’s rather long and noisy convoy outside the Vidhan Sabha! We finally left Shimla at 9.45 am.

The first 64 km to Narkanda past Kufri, Theog and Matiana was familiar territory having once travelled on it before. Just short of Narkanda we stopped to take photographs of the 20kg cardboard cartons of various colours, containing Shimla Apples being loaded on to large and mini trucks. This was peak Apple growing season, and four 14 wheeler trucks with Tamil Nadu number plates were awaited loading.

From Narkanda to Kumarsain the road was downhill, tarred but broken and we passed trees of Silver Fir, Spruce and Chir Pine. We stopped for lunch at Amar dhaba at Kumarsain overlooking the Thanedar hill famous for the Stoke’s Orchard that pioneered the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious in the apple growing area of Shimla District. Some of the prices per plate on the dhaba’s menu board were Dal Fry Rs.40, Rajmah Rs.50, Paneer Bhujia Rs.110, Alu Gobhi Rs.60, Rice Basmati Rs.50, Tawa Chapati Rs.7, Tea Rs.10 and Amer Thali Rs.90. fair cheap for today’s costs. We further descended to Sainj on the Sutlej and thereafter moved along it up till Jeori. The Sutlej at Sainj is muddy but calm and we took photographs of our first sight of the river.

At Nirath (950m) 18km before Rampur we walked down a short distance from the road to see the Surya Narain Temple, some 500 - 600 years old. It is only the 2nd temple dedicated to Lord Surya apart from Konark in Odisha, built in the Nagara style and shape.  It has carved wooden pillars, cornices, flowers and flower buds. The foundation stone was laid in the 7th century whilst the upper structure was made around the 12th century. 

Further up the Sutlej we came to Rampur, once the capital of the princely state of Bushahar, the biggest commercial town of Himachal Pradesh and once a major centre on the trade route to Kinnaur, Tibet, Ladakh and China. We visited and photographed ourselves in front of lawns of Virbhadra Singh’s Padam Palace, a striking building of wood and stone. 11 km upstream of Rampur is Jhakri where the 250MWX6 Francis Turbine Generators produce 1500 MW power from the Nathpa Jhakri Hydro-Electric Station on the Concrete Gravity Type of Dam. Before reaching the power station the Sutlej waters are diverted through a 27.4 km headrace tunnel. It was built between 1993 and 2004 at a cost of over Rs.8000 crores.

We continued along the left bank of the Sutlej for a further 28km before turning right for 17 km to Saharan (2165m). We stayed the night at HPTD’s Shrikhand Hotel with a lovely early morning view of the Shrikhand Peak (5227m) on the Shrikhand Range that separates the valleys of the Sutlej from that of the Beas. The hotel in which we were staying had a lovely large specimen of light pink Hydrangea. We took an evening walk to the local market and saw wild pink and yellow Balsams and blue Pteracanthus flowers.

The Tragopan Breeding Centre which we had looked forward to visiting was closed till 30th September. This was quite a disappointment. Sarahan too, has a Virbhadra Singh property “Shanti Kunj”. This is a typical Himachal type home of stone and wood.  At the market we could only see damaged apples selling at Rs.30 per kilo.


DAY 02:  SARAHAN(2313m) – 17 km – JEORI(1381m) – via WANGTU BRIDGE - 57 km – KARCHAM (1899m) –17 km – SANGLA (2800m) (92 km)

We went for a 4 km walk at 8.00 am. On the way we saw trees of apple, pears and walnut, an apple collection cum grading centre, wild Morning Glory and red seeds of the Cobra Lily. We visited the Bhimkali Temple that is one of the 51 sacred Shaktipeethas, and the presiding deity of the rulers of the former princely state of Bushahar. It is a multistoried temple in the Indo Tibetan style with ornate woodwork and engraved brass doors. The temple was very impressive, neat and clean, with only a few Bengali visitors.

We drove back to Jeori and selected apples at Rs.30 per kilo from a poor batch at the local market. The road from Jeori runs along the Sutlej and around Tranda cuts through rocks providing good photographic opportunities. At one place there is a huge vertical rock drop to the Sutlej. Many waterfalls and rushing streams flow into the Sutlej from the mountains on the right. We had lunch at the Tapri Dhaba.

The afternoon was hot and dusty. The road to Wangtu/Karcham was breached and we had to take a 25 km detour over a very narrow, bumpy and dusty high hill road. The road past Karcham was dry, dusty and corrugated. The Karcham Wangtoo Hydroelectric Plant has a dam located between these two villages that is 322’ feet high producing 1000MW power. The impounded water is returned to the Sutlej though a 1.2 km race tunnel. Just below Sangla is the third, Baspa II Hydroelectric Plant of 300 MW capacity, which is a run of the river power project requiring no damming and therefore no resettlement or rehabilitation. We reached Prakash Regency Hotel, Sangla at 5.00 pm, which was a decent accommodation. It was surrounded by mainly red apples and some golden apple trees full with fruit. Black clouds were gathering as per weather forecast so I took photographs of the apples from our room’s first floor balcony while it was still sunny. There was a walnut tree bearing fruit outside our room’s side window.


DAY 03: SANGLA(2800m) –  8 km - RAKCHAM (3050m) – 20 km - (CHITKUL(3450m) – 65 km - KALPA (2758m) (95 km) via KARCHAM (1899m)  & RECONG PEO (2670m)

The Tapri bypass traversed yesterday had given me a slight back ache so application of some Powergezic Gel became necessary. We had a paratha omlette breakfast and left at 8.30 am amidst a light drizzle. We drove past scenic Raksham (3050m), 8 km from Sangla. I would recommend a stay at the tented accommodation by the Baspa River at Raksham instead of Sangla. The road to Chitkul took us past boulder fields (some of the boulders were huge - as big as a small dwelling) apple orchards and pink flowering Buckwheat patches. A number of fast flowing streams crossed the road. The area is truly scenic with mountains on both sides of the Baspa Valley.

At Chitkul we climbed down a short steep slope with the help of our guide Sanjay, crossed a Bailey bridge, and walked 2 km along the Baspa near green and yellow tipped pines (saw some White Cheeked Tits on the pines) and the Himalayan Spreading Juniper (Juiperus squamata) shrubs. Higher up on the mountain sides were Birches with yellow leaves. The Baspa was roaring and fast flowing with a lot of Wagtails with their dippy flights and a pair of White Capped Redstarts bobbing their tails and sunning themselves on the wet boulders at the side of the river. The rain stopped during our return walk and a light sun came up as we walked past the Red Buckwheat, cut and left to dry in the fields. We re-crossed the Bailey bridge, walked past the local school and up the paved road to Chitkul village. The village had stone cobbled roads with a fast flowing water channel running by its side. Harvested Buckwheat had been stored blocking all house openings, stacked in the open and even on tree branches. All houses had TV dishes, electricity and Birch logs stacked for firewood. I saw three Red Billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) with red feet on top of a house. Roads through the village went from one house compound into the next interspersed with thorny shrubs from one of which we saw a pair of Red Finches (Carpodacus erythrinus) fly out with our naked eyes – too quick to confirm if it was the Himalayan white browed one. We started back at 12.30 pm after having tea at the Chitkul Dhaba and took photographs of apple plantations intercropped with red buckwheat and some small buckwheat patches. We crossed our Sangla hotel at 1.30 pm and spent 45 minutes climbing up to the Kamru Kamashi Devi Temple past a lot of apple trees. The Kamru Fort further up, is easily visible. Starting at 2.30 pm we drove past Karcham Dam and the BRO establishment at Powari (2000m), Recong Peo (2670m) the head quarters of Kinnaur District, and further 13 kms up 23 short ‘U turns’ on a good tarmac road to reach Kalpa Kinner Kailash HPDTC hotel (2758m) at 4.30 pm to have tea with pakoras and an early dinner at 8.00 pm.

Though our room had a grandstand view of the Kinner Kailash Range through complete glass frontage we could catch small glimpses of Jorkanden (6475m) and Mt. Kinner Kailash (6050m) a little to the north, because of a cloud cover rising continuously from Recong Peo below for the duration of our stay. This was one of the best days of our trip.


DAY 04: KALPA (2758m) – 41 km – AKPA (2238m) – 16km – SPEELO (2246m) – 24 km PUH(2837m)  - KHAB (2837m) – 10 km - KOH (3598m) – 14 km – NAKO (3662m) (105 km)

A lovely start to the day with sightings of lots of Himalayan Greenfinch (Carduelis spinoides), a sparrow size bird with yellow patched dark brown wings and yellow under-parts and a few red faced brown coloured Himalayan Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), unusual for us as these are only visible at these altitudes. We followed it up with breakfast of the usual paratha, omlette and tea. Around 9.00 am we walked down the tarmac road to the Kalpa village past apple and pear and chulli (wild apricots) trees. Chulli was being dried on roof tops and had reached various shades of yellow, green to dark brown. We visited the village Buddhist temple. One man was playing a drum and would sound a gong on every third beat. The market had small shops including one called Chini General Store (Chini is the old name for Kalpa). We walked past a Hindu Temple established in 2014 next to a government primary school displaying the following mid-day meal menu. Monday – dal chawal, Tuesday – methe chawal, Wednesday – khicdhri, Thursday – pulao, Friday - dal chawal, Friday – khichdhri, Sunday – holiday.

We boarded our Xylo waiting for us below the market and were in Jeori by 10.35 am. After that the rough road runs along the Sutlej with several signboards saying “shooting stones drive after watching” but we past them without incident. Just before Akpa we crossed the violent Pangi Nullah on a Bailey bridge that came as a surprise with the spray almost reaching us. There was a stretch of very smooth wide mechanically laid tarmac near Speelo and how we wished that the BRO had done this all over. We drove past Puh, a neatly laid out village famous for its Chulli, Apples and Almonds. One of the most distinctive features of the Sutlej is that all along its incredible length – which the N.H. seems to follow – one sees some very calm stretches and the some really turbulent and rough rocky white water.

In fact these rapids have never successfully run by enthusiasts as they are too dangerous.  11 km beyond Puh is Khab (2837m) where the muddy waters of the Sutlej coming from Tibet cutting through the Himalayan range at Shipki merge with the clean glacial waters of the Spiti turning through a deep gorge. The difference in colours is quite significant and we stopped to take photographs. Koh is 10 km further up from here, and the 30 hairpin bends climb 1800m in one sweep to transport you to the typical Spitian (Spiti means “the middle world”) barren mountains of a Trans Himalayan Cold Desert. The view of the Spiti Valley way below from here is breathtaking.

We reached Nako (3662m) by 3.00 pm at our Kinner Camp Swiss Tent accommodation with attached baths, to eat hot ‘thukpa’ for a late lunch. I photographed an upturned Himalayan Greenfinch feeding on the nectar of large sunflowers growing inside the compound. We took a walk around Nako village in the evening. Nako is surrounded with snow capped mountains from all sides so it is a pretty unusual sight. We visited a small village Buddhist temple the most notable feature of which was the inscribed fawn and black “mane stones” lined up on the walls outside the temple and elsewhere. Roads were very narrow with cow enclosures outside the houses creating quite a stink. The famed Nako Lake was in the centre of the village surrounded by Willow trees. I noticed some foreign mountain bikers living in village home-stays. Came back at 6.00 pm after visiting a handicrafts shop and changed into warmer underclothes as it was cold and windy. We took an extra blanket and hot water bottles – the latter a useful idea.


DAY 05: NAKO (3662m) – 2km – MALLING (3008m) – 30 km  - SUMDO (3232m) – 7km - HURLING (3120m) - 21 km – TABO (3260m)(60 km)

I took photographs of the mountains in early morning light at 6.00 am. Breakfast was pancakes with honey, plain parathas, omlette and tea. At 8.30 am walked up to the hill atop which is a large prayer wheel which spins by itself with the help of wind-vanes attached to it. From here there is a lovely view of the surrounding snow capped ranges, Nako lake and village. We left Nako Kinner Camps at 9.30 am. The famed Malling stretch was bad and rough. Widening was in progress beyond Chango village with drilling and bull-dozing, and was therefore dusty. Reached Sumdo where the muddy Parechu descending from Tibet merges with the clean Spiti. Incidentally, the Parechu originates just outside the Spiti Valley near Pareng La in Leh District of J&K, flows 30 km in Ladakh before turning southwards from Chumar entering Tibet at Lemarle for another 85 km to re-enter Indian Territory south of Kaurik village, and then travels another 12 km to join the Spiti at Sumdo. We arrived at the Dekit Norphel Hotel in Tabo at 12.20 pm. It was nice and sunny so Anjali washed her clothes and managed to dry them on the balcony. Brought a two cell torch from the local market where the shopkeeper told us that there had been no electricity in town for the past three days. Walked to the Tashi Khangoar Hotel and read some books kept there. We identified the Finches seen, the Red Billed Choughs and Juniper shrubs.

Tabo also has a helipad as it is an ancient Buddhist Centre. We then had tea at the hotel but did not go to the caves above the village where some of the earlier monks and nuns were said to have lived as it was a bit of a climb. Luckily, the electricity came back at 8.00 pm.


DAY 06: TABO (3260m) – 21 km – SICHLING (3400m) – 7km DHANKAR (3700m) – 9km – LINGTI (3400m) – 18 km – KAZA (3680M)

Went to Tabo Monastery, founded in 996 A.D. of the Gelugpa Sect (nearly 1000 years old) and saw wall paintings and Thankas with the help of a torch as lights are not allowed to help preserve the murals and paintings. This place is only second in importance to the Tholing Gompa of the Tibetan kingdom of Guge in the whole of the Himalayas. A new monastery building was under construction. We left Tabo at 9.07 am driving along the Spiti, now gradually getting calmer and the valley wider. Just short of Sichling (3400m) saw shrubs of Seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhammonides) bright orange berries or ‘wonder berry’ known to contain 10 different vitamins, 24 trace elements, 18 amino-acids and many bioactive substances. It has one of the richest known sources of Vitamin C - 4100 times more than lemon. Seabuckthorn is on the top of the list of Vitamin E, beta carotene and flavonoid content, and contains omega 3, 6 and 9 oils essential to our health and well being. I took photographs of the Seabuckthorn and Himalayan Wild Rose plants. From Sichling we climbed 750 meters in 7 km through a number of ‘U’ bends to the fort monastery of Dhankar built on a spur jutting out in to the main valley and ending in a steep cliff.

This was the old capital of Spiti, the seat of the Nonos or the early rulers for many years, before it shifted to Kaza to suit the needs of present day administration. The best view from here is of the Pin Valley joining the wide Spiti Valley.  Both rivers break into several channels and its grand sight. We proceeded down the other side of the hill, via a gentler road to Kaza that was covered by light misty clouds. We continued to Ki Monastery 12 km beyond. Where the road turns right towards Ki Monastery, Kibber village (4205m) is further 7km up the road. This monastery was established in the 11th century and belongs to the Gelugpa Sect. Ki had a lot of lovely old and new ‘thankas’. Some pretty coloured wax plates made out of yak butter and vanaspati were a surprise. We saw their kitchen containing old large brass vessels and were served a cup of herbal tea by the local monk. Drove to Sakya Abode Hotel on the Kaza main road and slept for an hour after lunch at 3.30 pm.

We took a stroll down the Kaza market in the evening past small shops of Israeli restaurants, general merchants, woolens, and other tableware and pottery. A covered drain runs through the centre of the road which is the lowest point with concrete slabs sloping upwards both ways towards the edge of the road. This is a unique construction design that I have seen for the first time. 


DAY 07:  KAZA (3680m) – 14km - LANGZA (4300m) – KAZA (30 km)

Got up early and took some early morning shots of the snow clad mountains from our hotel as there had been fresh snowfall the previous night.  We left Kaza at 9.00 am. The road was fairly good being 70% tarmac and we reached Langza (famous for its marine fossils) in an hour stopping for photography en route. Langza village is in a bowl surrounded by snow-clad mountains it has a statue of the meditating Buddha in a sitting posture facing north. The spot where we stopped was very breezy and picturesque and lots of Red Billed Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) were riding the air currents. Some local school girls showed us prehistoric Ammonites or Spiti Shale. The Chau Chau Khang Nilda Range (meaning Blue Moon in the Sky) presides over this Bowl with several subsidiary peaks like satellites to the moon. Chau Chau Khang Nilda Peak (6380m) is the highest.

We returned to Kaza for tea and conversation with Veer Singh Parmar son of a Darjeeling planter. We borrowed two books for browsing, 1) “Spiti – Through Legend and Lore” by Kishore Thukul 2006 and 2) “Exploring Kinnaur & Spiti in the Trans Himalaya” by Deepak Sanan and Dhanu Swadi (2nd edition 1998/2002). In the evening we took a picture of the Sakya Kaza Tangyud Monastery  built in the 14th century and walked down to the end of Kaza market. We went to Ecosphere / Soul Café and purchased Sea buckthorn Jam and Crush and a black woolen Kinnauri shawl. We went to bed after an early dinner as we needed an early start.


DAY 08: KAZA (3650m) – 56km – LOSAR -27km – KUNZUM LA (4550m)  – 11km - BATAL (3950m) – 32km – CHHATRU (3300) - 17km  - GRAMPHU (3320m)  - 15km – ROHTANG PASS (3998m) – 15km - MARHI (3400m) – 33km – MANALI (1940m) (203km)

Left Kaza by 5.15 am in the dark as it was a long 203 km hill drive for the day. Outside the wooden bridge on the Spiti ahead of Rangrik the driver stopped briefly, folded his hands and closed his eyes for a short silent prayer. Sunlight started showing on the snow at 7.30 am and I took some photographs of the snow-clad mountains in golden colour. 16 km short of Losar we passed Kyoto village (3850m) that has some spectacular scenery of vertical limestone formations on the opposite bank where the Takling Nalla joins the Spiti.

We reached Losar at 8.00am and had breakfast of tea, chana and parathas served straight off the tawa with a “chimta’ by the lady cook at the Samsong Guest House. Outside, the air was cold, the mountains bare brown in colour with snow capped peaks. As we travelled on I took photographs of the Chandra Range especially the well known CB13 and CB14 Chandrabhaga peaks from a distance and then again closer up at Kunzum La pass. There were great views of the snow on the ground and all around at Kunzum La. We took photographs at the Kunzum Devi Temple with its Chortens and prayer flags. This was one of the most memorable sights of our trip. We left after a short stay, the road now descending steeply down a number of “U” turns. There were four empty Indane cylinder Lorries in front of us at this stage, that we gradually overtook, one at each ‘U’ turn with great difficulty. The road was wet and slushy. Soon the Chandra river was visible and we crossed it at a Bailey bridge at the base of the hill at Batal (3950m). We had tea at the Chacha Chachi shop and saw Wagtails as well as a number of Yellow Billed Choughs with red feet (Pyrrhocorax graculus) in the air and one feeding of left-over kept out by the tea shop.

We drove past many glaciers on a difficult stone track including the Bara Shigri Glacier which is the biggest in Himachal Pradesh being one km wide and over 10 km long, all along the Chandra River. The road is very bumpy past Chhatru, badly cut up with water pools and small waterfalls right up to Gramphu and towards the Rohtang pass. In the stretch just before Gramphu the mountain is on the left and the valley to the right is almost vertical and so deep that one cannot see the river water even though the road is barely six to eight feet wide. It is a frightening and difficult driving situation. Two vehicles cannot cross each other and the one downhill has to reverse to find a barely passing spot. Nearer Rohtang pass the road improves and is fine all the way down to Manali where we reached Johnson’s Lodge adjacent to the mall at 5.00 pm.

We walked down the mall in the evening and visited a few shops. The Mall is now only for pedestrians and paved including the side lanes. We visited the ‘Bookworm’ shop and picked up “Spiti – Adventures in the Trans Himalaya” by Harish Kapadia (2009, 3rd edition) which proved to be an excellent purchase and has been used well in the preparation of this article. 


DAY 09: MANALI – 40 km – KULLU – 88 km -  MANDI – 68 km  - BILASPUR  - 105 km - SHIMLA (301 km)

We got up early at Johnson’s Lodge to see two snow peaks visible from hotel window. Saw the famed Himalayan Blue Magpie with yellow beak and a long black and white tail with a white tip (Urocissa flavirostris) on a Deodar and in flight. Left the hotel by 10.10 am but got stuck for 45 minutes on a narrow section of the N.H. near a mosque due to milling crowds and cars parked on the roadside for Bakr Eid. We drove up the hill at Naggar to Nicholas Roerich’s house cum memorial. 

Spent an hour and saw the residence, small museum and cremation site stones. All the places are along a stepped hill walk with various trees, and flowering shrubs/plants. Amongst lots of butterflies saw a Chocolate Pansy (Junoma iphita). We visited the dry fruits shop outside on the way to the parking site and picked up a bottle of Tomato Garlic Chutney, some Kinnaur Hing,  small local garlic, a packet of local Rock Salt and 1.5 grams Kashmir Saffron. We now headed home taking the bye pass road past Kullu where Pomegranates and Apples were being sold by the roadside. We had lunch at a Dhaba alongside the Beas River 30 km short of Mandi. Soon after Aut we drove through a 2.8 km long tunnel. We continued straight to Mandi and Surendra Nagar, past the Beas – Sutlej Canal and a 6 km long badly corrugated and dusty and bumpy road turning off at Bilaspur before starting the gentle climb up to Shimla past Darlaghat . At 7.30 pm we stopped for tea at one of the many Dhabas at Shallaghat. We reached Shimla at 8.50 pm after a 2 hour night hill drive bringing to an end one of our most interesting holidays.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Up to the source of Giri Ganga

Enjoy a photo travelogue, trekking to the source of River Giri Ganga.

Trek Name: Nagan – Giri Ganga Trek 
Region: Beyond Chaila, District Shimla. H.P (Ghoond to Kharapatthar)
Ideal Season: April – June September – November
Maximum Altitude: 3325m
Grade: Moderate
Duration: 03 Night & 04 Days 

The trek offers to admire one of the remote Himalayan countryside deep into numerous intersecting valleys. Meandering over the ridge line, this ancient route unveils the geologic puzzle where Shivalik mountain system gives way to Greater Himalaya.

Old temples and these ancient routes reveal the deep faith in the mountain Gods here as natives today trek many kilometers to get blessed from these spiritual Himalayan abodes.
Also, a symposium of rare Himalayan flora adores the lush green meadows in the thick clearings. Concluding, at the source of River Giri-Ganga, one of the most sacred rivers of the region, this is the best trekking introduction to unexplored Himachal Himalaya.

Driving 4 hours from Shimla, the trek starts from ridge line hamlet of Nagan in princely state of Balsan. Unfolding numerous tales of valor and devotion to the local deities, the trek used to be the ancient route to take local deities on pilgrimage. 

On day one, the course of trek passes through the shade of thick Brown Oak forest, the perfect temperature for a Himalayan hike. One could still find the traces of the old trail, which must have been quite busy when there were no roads!   

For the early evening suddenly, the trails bring us to a clearing in the forest cover. Enshrined, here is a temple to Hindu Gods and local deities, meadow of 'Dhandi' is perfect for camping.

The mountain tops are crested with temples and religious monuments dedicated to the local Gods and Goddesses. Commanding stunning views of snow- capped Himalaya and numerous interlocked valleys, these are absolute divine places.

Covering long distances the nomads visit these meadows with their herds in summers. The lush green meadows are the shepherds paradise upholding a bonding with nature.

The day's hike finally bring us to a hill-top campsite offering views of deep valleys. In perfect harmony with nature the camp lies right above a small village of 'Teer'. Truly, a Himalayan Retreat!

The forest cover on day three gives way to the lush green meadows of Kuppar. Carpeted with a range of Himalayan wildflowers, the place commands panoramic views of Himachal and Gharwal Himalaya. 

The sharp descend from 'Kuppar', also the source of Giri Ganga, brings us down into the valley.

Here we camp by the bank of Giri Ganga for the night.

And the smiles all around confirms the success of yet another Himalayan voyage!  

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Divine Journeys

Himachal Himalaya known for its natural magnificence gets its character from its culture, people and their lifestyle. Hindu, religious texts confirm that Himalaya has been regarded as abode of Gods. Our important epic, like Mahabharata & Maha Shiv Puran, narrates the glory of these divine mountain lands. Along the walls of temples are stories from mythology, Kinnaur is the land of Kinners, the celestial musicians, divine dwarfs and fairies stood carved in the panels, all witnessing this beautiful land.  

According to Hindu mythology, Shravan maas (Monsoon months of July and August), is considered to be the ideal time for pilgrimage. And since ages this tradition has been prevalent in Himalaya, where people take up tough journeys to the sacred religious places. Since unknown times, the annual Hindu calendar was designed considering all aspects of nature. Our ancestors learnt every minute thing from nature and its elements.

Topographically very difficult to imagine, however, the northern district of Himachal Pradesh, exemplifies the true meaning of life.  

The inhabitants of Kinnaur have a fair complexion and are well-built, tough and muscular. The extended family system is still prevalent in the Kinnaur region. Polyandry prevails in the villages but is rapidly losing ground to monogamy. They practice fraternal polyandry and the patriarchal system of inheritance. All the brothers of the bridegroom are considered automatically the husbands of the bride. Polyandry has helped the people of Kinnaur to perpetuate the name of their family and safeguard the family property from fragmentation. The polyandrous tribes of the Himalayas can be compared with the Pandavas of the ancient Indian epic of Mahabharata, who are believed to have had a polygamous system. However, such marriages are on the decline.

The women of Kinnaur are famous for their beauty and there are many references to it in books of olden times. According to the old scriptures, the Kinner Kanyas (girls) were famous for their beauty.
‘Divine journeys’, is our recent travelogue to Kinner Kailash which showcase the deep religious belief of people into the celestial mountains.     

Sensing the virtuous invitation and to celebrate our Independence Day, loosing no time, before the dawn broke, we started from Shimla to Kinnaur.

Loaded with apple orchards, the lush green valley welcomed us as the natives were busy picking apples and transporting to market. The drive from Narkanda plunged into Sutlej valley and at the bottom lies ancient Sun temple at Nireth. There are only two temples dedicated to Sun in India and the second one is the famous Sun temple of Konark, in Odisa.

Built in Nagara style the temple is dedicated to Lord Surya Narayan. As we entered the complex, just a minute walk, below the National Highway – 22, one could appreciate the typical North Indian Shikara tops, in the main shrine, a lion projecting out from each of the four sides. 

Carved wooden pillars and cornices decorate parts of the temple. Motifs of flowers and flower buds are beautifully carved on wood. Aedicule in walls have deities that are stone-like but really of red sandstone blackened by years of worship and offering. A four-armed deity with an elaborate head-dress stands over a cow. The sculptures and carvings lack refinement. They are simple and animistic, pointing to some tribal tradition.

It is difficult to date this temple without the aid of guides or books. One of the caretakers of the temple ventured to give his explanation. He dates it to at least 4000 years old. His logic is that Mahabharata itself is 3100BC years old and this temple is from the time of Parashurama, who came long before the great epic.

Getting blessed from the shrine we continued along voluminous Sutlej, to the village Tangling. En-route we also bought some travel necessities soups, biscuits, candles, etc. as we were going to be away from habitations for next three nights.

Finally, our car bumped right next to the village Tangling, at the base of Kailash. It was truly an enchanting site, with lush green scenery, every tree stood loaded with wide varieties of fruits. Apples, apricots, almonds, grapes, chilgoza nut and many more all were mouthwatering!

With a warm welcome from the village committee on our arrival, we were being escorted, through the beautiful village, to the ancient temple of Prakash Shankerus. Here, noting our personal information, we were being advised to establish an advance camp right above the village. This two hours demanding walk took us amidst Chilgoza Pine grooves which was to be our Camp I.

Since there is very limited water on entire route, so one has to choose the campsite close to water source and we did the same by camping close to the River.

Reaching the campsite, everyone got busy, fixing tents, collecting wood for bonfire and preparing mountain delicacies. Soon, the entire valley got shrouded with darkness of night and I felt once again back home. While, Mahinder and Amit, took charge of food, myself and Sanjeev made the campsite ready. Post dinner, concluding the day we went to our tent.

At five in the morning, melodious notes of birds were the wake-up call. Fetching water from the river and enjoying the bubbling hot tea under cool breeze of Chilgoza pine forest, we packed up the camp. By seven, we continued our uphill task and could easily judge our advancement with the depth of Sutlej valley. The forest clearing were offering stunning views of colossal glacier on Jorkanden 6,473mt. However, stopping by and admiring the views was best practice because on the narrow steep trail, one wrong step could prove fatal.

In these climbs, one has to maintain a steady pace on the slopes at an angle ranging between 60 -80 degrees. The load in our rucksack aided us with firm steps negotiating the vertical steps of rocks and roots. As our steps set off into rhythmic motion, within three hours, we were on the verge of tree line with alpine zone.

Here, the scorching morning Sun and our sweat drenched bodies compelled us for a well deserved break. On one side was looming Jorkanden ornamented with a veil of white while the opposite valley displayed the ancient village ‘Chini’ (Kalpa) and Reckong Peo, the district headquarter of Kinnaur.

This was a tea break too, and Mahinder served us hot tea, captivated with the enthralling panorama, now we could feel the cool mountain breeze. The walk ahead carpeted a symposium of a rare Himalayan flora, like jewels on the divine land!

Refreshed with the break, our steps gained the rhythm once again and we gently progressed up admiring the Himalayan vista. Now we could make out the tents for the pilgrims far off on a flat patch. And this was next to the melting avalanche, gushing down from Kailash. 

Every year, for pilgrims, adjoining villages offered feast and shelter. Also, a big cave above the campsite provides ample space for nearly thirty people at night.
Within, thirty minutes, after crossing the partially frozen stream, we were received with a warm welcome by the organizers. Settling down, they served us tea and rice puddings which revitalized us once again.

When asked about the night stay, we disclosed our plans to establish an advance base camp close to Kailash and sleep there for the night. We were recommended to carry sufficient water for the night, doing the same, we continued past the cave up on the steep meadow. The entire team was briefed to collect small twigs or any piece of wood so as to cook the food.

In Himalaya, those who pursue the supreme laws of nature viz. ‘Survival of the fittest’ and ‘proper use of available resources’, are best adapted and others will struggle to survive.

The steep narrow trail was visible initially; however, sudden gush of strong winds and fog enveloped the entire valley. Everything got eloped into thick fog, keeping busy looking for small shrubs, I lost my team. Ascending gradually, now I could make out a rucksack resting on the edge of massive rock, Sanjeev was waiting for me.

With deep breath on almost vertical slope, fragrance of the unique Himalayan flora was constantly invigorating my senses. The most appealing out of them was ‘Bhramkamal’. Piercing the thick cover of fog, my eyes could make out numerous bulbs protruding through the rocks, ah! This was the rare ‘Bhramakamal’, a flowering plant native to the Himalayas, found at an altitude of around 4500 m and extending up to 5000m. Saussurea obvallata is a perennial growing to 0.3 m (1 ft). The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Insects.

In Hindu mythology, acclaimed as the flower which Bramha (the creator), is holding in one of his four hands, a white flower resembling Saussurea obvallata is Bramha Kamal.

The plant is considered as a herb in Tibetan medicine. Its name is ཤཟའ བདྭད མཤ དཤྭ (Sah-du Goh-ghoo). It has a bitter taste. The entire plant is used. It is endangered because people are cutting it down for their own use. It is also used to cure uro-genital disorders.                

Admiring this magical flora, we now entered a massive boulder zone and within five minutes we reached Mahinder & Amit and decided to camp on a huge flat rock.

Stumbling over and underneath these gigantic rocks, we discovered an opening and after clearing, it was an ideal to cook and shelter from strong winds and rain.

Getting dark and heavy downpour, we quickly pitched the tent and dinner was ready. The time was to relish the fruit of our hard work for the day. The dinner comprised soups, freshly cooked soya-beans, home baked breads and we enjoyed our dinner. It was not all, post dinner, a hot cup of tea with a mild drizzle made our day.

Not, while cooking however in the tent at dinner, we heard a blast which left us curious. Sanjeev cleared our doubts that it is a rock fall, just below Kailash, opposite side away from us. Throughout night, the sound of rock fall kept on breaking the silence of the place at regular intervals.
As the dawn broke behind the mountains, the light illuminated our tent. Wrapping up for the final ascent we gathered our stuff and leaving our tent we hopped over the boulders for a holy dip in the frozen waters of Gauri Kund. It was a semi-frozen small pond, identified by few flags and offering prayers, we left for Kailash.

Assuming, the route ahead of the pond proved a critical folly to us. It was sheer rock climbing over the enormous boulders and deep crackling reverberations of rock fall from the close by glaciers. Mahinder and Amit advanced up on to an unknown top and realized there that it was not the destination.
They yelled down to us into strong wind laden valley about the situation, however, they were not audible to us. By the time we crept up cautiously on the loose rocks, looking down, we saw both of them below us. It was totally chaotic situation, but looking to our left we could now see the divine Kailash.

Sipping morning dew from tiny alpine plants, we continued up carrying our fatigued bodies. The ringing of bell and voluminous ‘Jai Mahadev’ confirmed the top. Yes, we were at our destination, at the mighty Kailash. It took a while to imbibe this heavenly aura, mountains, clouds, everything seemed beneath us.
Trying to recognize the mountain ranges our vision fled in every direction and gradually everything got engulfed in thick fog. Sitting cross-legged, I closed my eyes and paid my homage to this heavenly abode.    

Judging the thick overcast, we decided to descend, though it was an intricate job than ascending, as it was a new route. Route! Just piles of mammoth boulders were resting as may fall by touch. This rigorous rock descending session ended for an hour and we were at our campsite.

Longing for many hours, we enjoyed a hot cup of tea, dried and packed our stuff in the sun. Bidding goodbye to the divine kingdom, we continued down to the pilgrim campsite. Feeling starved we decided to prepare hot soup. The drizzle compelled us to take shelter under a huge rock clinging to steep cliff. Amazingly, just three candles did the job and within minutes delicious mushroom soup was ready.

Arriving campsite, we were served early dinner, pitched tent and enjoyed a sound sleep under a night full of stars. In the morning we got ready for the final descend, packed our tents and had a hot cup of goodbye tea with our local friends.

In the night only, we decided our job for next day and it was garbage collection. On the entire trail every bit of plastic was removed till Tangling village.   

Soon we were back on the same trail, narrow, scary but still adorable with plenty of flowers smiling at us. Walking for a while we met some locals who joined us, felt happy as we clicked their photos.
At the transition zone of coniferous forest with the alpine meadows, our local friends halted to cook breakfast.

They invited us too and we could not deny their humble invitation. With a limited stock of water, a culinary contest was organized and two teams from Shimla and Kinnaur respectively. Within ten minutes hot Maggi was ready and we all enjoyed it.
The steep slope plunged into a gushing glacial stream, had water and retraced our expedition through tiny hamlets. Orchards loaded with delicious apples, grapes and range of stone fruits.

Reaching Sharkaus Mahadev temple, we handed over the piles of garbage to the temple committee and our group paid homage at the shrine. For a while, my eyes struck back into those heavenly mountains of Gods, separation was hard this time too.

Getting to road, yet again, life was bustling and we have to drive back to Shimla. However, destiny had signed one more night, in this valley of Gods to us. The villagers requested us to drop them to their village nearby and took us to their home.

It was absolute ‘wow’ feeling, the entire family met us and we thoroughly enjoyed this Kinnauri, hospitality. In morning, wrapping up loads of cheerful, lifetime memories and smiling faces, our car roared back through silent valleys to Shimla.