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 CafĂ© 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.