Sangla Valley – Forbidden Land of Yore
The Mystic Kinnaur
Sangla, the forbidden land of yore. Even to Indians till 1993. Close to the Indo–Tibetan border in the Northern Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh (India). As time went by the tales kept getting bigger, more mysterious and of rare darings. Of Kinnauris – the demi gods, of snow leopards coming down from the melting glaciers to the lush green valleys by the furiously flowing rivers, of Buddhist monks staying in caves at minus 20 degree temperatures through harsh winters, meditating.
238 kms from Shimla on the NH-22, Sangla was a picturesque drive through winding mountain roads. The topography changed constantly – conifers, terraced fields, huts perched precariously in the middle of nowhere on distant ridges, the Sutlej hurtling across the valley, overhanging cliff faces under which our vehicle passes while we sit gingerly on the edge of our seats. Then the first hint of snow clad Himalayan peaks as we neared Karcham – just 18 kms short of Sangla Valley. Our first step to discovering the mysteries of the still fairly untouched, undiscovered and unravaged Kinnaur valley and mountains.
Riverside Camps – Luxury Amidst Wilderness
As soon as we crossed the small Sangla Village, the landscape became spectacular. We saw deodhars (which were certainly different, with flat tops) and the Baspa flowing through the valley, a wide stream coming down the mountainside and meeting the river. We could hear the gurgling river below and see the orchard where some tents were pitched.
At the end of the road was a sign to the Camps but seemed to be leading nowhere. The adventure had started! Then before we had even parked our car, four rugged guys with umbrellas (there is a slight drizzle) approached us and softly inquired, “May we take your luggage please?” They give us the umbrellas and asked us to follow them. Wow, that was service in the wilderness. After about a 200 meter walk through fields and having clambered over a small stream, we came to the campsite and our hosts were there to welcome us and walk us to our tent.
The camp manager immediately asked us how the drive had been and when we told him, we had enjoyed every bit of it, he happily remarked, “The right guys have come to my camp!” With a nice, bright smile we were asked for a choice between hot tea and coffee. A hot beverage seemed so trivial despite the chilly winds. We had reached where we wanted to. We wanted to drink in enough of the surroundings first.
Next morning, it was so tranquil sitting by the riverside, as the sun slowly rose from behind the snow clad peaks. The Baspa’s musical gurgle filled our ears; with the wooded deodhar slopes in front and the snow capped peaks all around. The leeward side of the mountain with its craggy rock-faces behind us, as if a powerful sentinel protecting one in this cradled valley.
Batseri Village – Tranquil Antiquity
Without waiting for breakfast, Ranjana pulled me out of my hammock. We took the path down towards Batseri Village and in five minutes came down to the Baspa River. We went down to the rocks and sat by the gushing river; took in the white peaks around, watched the village folk – with their sheep and firewood – crossing the quaint little wooden bridge from their village, on their way to their daily chores. As we reached the bridge, an old woman coming down, with wrinkles etched on her face, gave us a bright smile and asked where we were going. When we told her we were going to her village – Batseri – she gave us a wide, happy, toothless grin.
We were pleasantly surprised as we entered the hamlet and strolled around leisurely. So clean, peaceful and well laid out. It was a progressive village; the people were educated, boasted of a school and had electricity. At the same time ethnic and antiquated; with its paved pathways, slanting roofs of shale and women tending the fields. There were beautiful walks from there to Sangla through the forest and by the river. Many trek through Batseri Village to Rakcham, taking a packed lunch alongwith. The land flattens out at Rakcham and there are green meadows and deodhars at ground level and one might find a beautiful place to sit, just by the river. It is easy to reach the glacier points from where the snow starts melting, forming streams and joining the main river flowing across the valley.
However, we just went till the clearing beyond the village where the snow-clad peaks seemed to be almost at touching distance. Nice place to have come with a packed breakfast. To leisurely enjoy it under the small wooden shelters or the shade of the rausli and deodhar trees. A small stream flowing across, forming small waterfalls over the rocks adding to the ambience. On our way back, we suddenly chanced upon a temple complex – with intricate carvings on stone and wood. Though, primarily dedicated to Badrinarayan, because of a mix of both Buddhist and Indian influence, in the carvings we could notice fire-spewing dragons interspersed with lions and peacocks.
As we moved around the village, a, hitherto never experienced peace seemed to envelop us and we almost wanted to spend the day here and perhaps more than one. My thoughts were broken by six year old Yuvraj’s bright little face. He waved to me and impishly demanded that I photograph him. He jumped over a rock, sure footed as a mountain goat, and posed perfectly with the Kinner Kailash mountain peaks forming the backdrop!
Here, the villagers seemed so content in their own, small little world. As we walked through the paved pathways of the village a young boy appeared out of a wicker gate smiling at us. Across in the other hut a mother was brushing her daughter’s hair, the sun rays playing across their faces. As I composed a perfect shot, her two little brothers pointed out towards me, and the girl ran inside like a frightened filly. So much for my candid shot, the moment now ingrained in the mind only.
Camps at Sangla Valley – A Dream Turns Real
On the way back to the Camps, I recalled Frost and Wordsworth and wondered what that was about no time to stand and stare and I have miles to go and miles to go, before I sleep. It was so different here. You reach Sangla Valley and you reach the timelessness zone.
The Camps idyllic environs at 8900 feet offer homely, informal hospitality with wholesome food, exciting campfires and barbecues in the evenings and hammocks to laze around in, with your favorite book, during the day. Or the option of picking up beer cans and going down to the river – what a beatific setting! The Baspa with its clear, turquoise water meandering across the rocks, forming waves; the snow capped peaks, the conifers and behind us the craggy slopes rising up to “old man mountain with ‘fairy dust’ sprinkled all over,” as Ranjana romantically described it. After soft jungle walks and hard mountain treks, we would congregate in the evenings around a warm log fire by the river side, having our sun-downers and swapping experiences of the day with everybody chipping in with their yarns.
Each traveller to Kinnaur has his favourite months. Some come in April and May when the mountain peaks are still covered with a thick blanket of snow and the glaciers are almost down till the valley. Others prefer June when the snow has started melting and mountain streams like silver streaks along the wooded slopes flow down to meet the river, the water in the Baspa increasing in force and fury each day. For the more intrepid it is July when they can take a trans Himalayan safari through Spiti Valley, upto the Kunzum Pass and down to Manali or up towards Leh. For the romantics it has to be August-September when the fields are ablaze with the pink ogra and the pinkish white apple flower and the emerald meadows and wooded slopes are a riot of colors with mountain flowers strewn across the expanses. Or the full moon night every month. When the whole valley is bathed with a soft radiance in the evenings, it coquettishly tearing away the mysterious darkness of the night.
Chitkul – The Last Indian Village on the Hindustan-Tibet Trade Route
Did I say that we had seen and experienced it all at Sangla? Each day unfolded a new wonder. As we leisurely drove, through Rakcham, 20 kms further up the valley to Chitkul, the wondrous feelings were overwhelming.
Chitkul, cradled in the lap of snow clad mountains, the last village this side of the Indo-Tibetan border, with a population of merely a few hundred denizens.
The snow capped peaks almost over us, much closer, a wider expanse and the Baspa river gathering fury, hurtling through rocks and at times the mountain streams flowing across the road. We parked our vehicle at the bus stand and took the trail down to the river. It was just a ten-minute walk. Crossing the tottering, little wooden bridge we came down to the riverside and found a rock, the middle of which had been artistically scooped out by the river. We jumped across the water and climbed over this rock in the middle of the river. We spent an euphoric couple of hours here, just soaking in the sun, the mountains, the forest, the musical river and the moon, yes, even the moon. We could see the moon at 12 noon, the atmosphere was so clear! We finally made a move because we wanted to do the 4 km trek (one way) which would take us to the last ITBP post till where civilians were allowed. From there a few kms through the uncharted mountains is no man’s land and then the Indo–Tibetan Border.
The landscape changed as we went along. The stark mountains rising high above the rock strewn fields. On one of these Bara Negi is using a yak and bull duo to plow, preparing it to sow ogra, which is the staple flour of the Kinnauris. Baspa down below and the snow bridges and conifer slopes beyond. The flat path gave way to mountain trails, as with each approaching step the pristine Himalayan ranges seemed more imposing and majestic.
We met Narendar Singh along the way, who chatted us up and excitedly pointed across a knoll, fascinating us with tales of how he and his friends chased away a she leopard which was attacking the village cattle. Finally we reached Nagasthi, the ITBP Outpost manned by a small group of 45. Sepoy Ram Babu was all smiles and welcomed us with refreshing cold water from a freshly melted glacier. He insisted that we stop for tea. But as evening was approaching, with strong winds lashing across our faces, we started on the walk back.
On the return drive we stopped as we identified a grove of bhojpatra trees. It seemed so ethereal and unreal. In the upper reaches of the northern Himalayas, the two of us, alone, mesmerized by trees, on the barks of which the annals of history and knowledge had been handed down.
Kanda – Breathtaking Vistas at 11000 feet
Back in the camp, at dinner, somebody softly told us about Sangla-Kanda, almost as if letting us into a personal secret. We saw a photograph and immediately turned away for fear of our experience of the morrow getting diluted. With a rucksack containing our packed lunches and cameras around our necks, we first drove through Sangla Village, crossed the bridge to our left at the milestone which read Karcham 14. We reached Chansoo Village and on the other side of the Baspa, drove up 4 kms through a narrow, dirt track upto the Forest Rest House where we parked our vehicle. Instead of going down to Chansoo and coming back upto Sangla, one can also just cut across the river, over the bridge from Sangla Village but then this will have to be done on foot.
From the FRH at the base of Sangla upto Kanda to almost the base of the glaciers, it is a 2.5–3 hour steep, uphill walk. The sun beating down on us was making climbing difficult. But because of the sun being bright, the snow on the glaciers was melting faster and the rivers and streams flowing down the mountain sides, making small waterfalls over the rocks along the way were all the more beautiful. The trek was arduous but breathtaking. Whenever we started feeling tired we would stop to breath in – nature, pure and pristine and a spellbinding scene would prod us on. We simply did not want to miss anything. After a bit over an hour we reached the midway point – Nichla Kanda (also called Chotta Kanda). In the local parlance, actually, kanda is a generic term for meadow. Refreshed with sweet tasting water from a mountain stream we crossed the meadow and came across two villagers, resting under a tree. Having tended to their fields and collected firewood they were on the way back to their village – stopping by the woods on a summer afternoon for a short siesta!
As we crossed Chhota Kanda the actual walk through the jungles started. Once we came to the shaded pathway through the pine forest, with the lyrics of the dancing waters wafting up, we didnot mind that this path seemed almost endless. The walk is interspersed with walnut trees. For us climbing up along these winding trails, a romantic paean seemed to be forming by itself.
As the forest path gave way to a narrow, rocky track, the last stretch to Kanda seemed slightly steep and hard, but certainly, well worth it! Whenever we felt we were getting tired, we would stop, swivel our head to the left and see a beautiful stream coming down the mountain slope prolific with cedars, look slightly up to the unmelted glaciers and then to the blue sky with white fluffs of clouds swirling across. The pull upwards would become magnetic and compelling.
Suddenly we came upon a vast clearing with a couple of ramshackle shacks, a lone deodhar and a range of fully snow clad peaks in front. There were wooded slopes on the left and a craggy, imposing mountain at the back. A few cows and their calves were grazing nonchalantly and placidly in the meadows. A stream cut across the rocky pathway and fields on the fourth side. Gently swaying wild mountain flowers – white, purple and pink – formed a colorful canvas on a carpet of green. At 11000 feet, in the middle of this bowl of blissful land, was a small lake. Its clear blue green water forming shimmering ripples in the sun. Truly magical vistas. This was Kanda! What an enchanting experience. As the ambience enveloped us, I recalled a phrase from the English translation of Jai Shankar Prasad’s Kamayini – “In the cosy lap of infinity.” That’s what I started feeling and would have given anything to pitch a tent here.
That night, after dinner, sitting alone under the star spangled sky by the Baspa River I mused over views exchanged with an avid mountain traveller during the past four days. Of when one of them told me that last year, somebody at Tabo (190 kms ahead) had stayed back through the winters. He stayed in a cave (like the monks in ancient times) in sub zero temperatures.
At my, “Why?”, he with a casual wave of his hand ‘explained’ – “Oh, just meditating, introspecting and being with himself.”
He went on to add, “Unfortunately, I have to keep returning to the city.”
When I asked him, would he not like to be in the big towns more often, he simply asked softly in return, “Why? I see nothing pulling me there. Left to myself I would just love to walk the mountains, unfettered.”
And he added, “Probably a few years more and I might just be doing that.”
It all sounded so logical, for us as well……
Note: It has been some years since we visited Sangla. If things have changed, please write about them in the comments section.