The mountains, less travelled

The mountains evoke in us, a feeling of adventure, transforming us into enthusiastic beings, who are ready to go ‘Carpe Diem’ on everything around us. Just like Ved from Tamasha, we unleash all the madness we store up during our 9-5 routine, when we reach the mountains. The 18 degrees in our corporate offices or coaching classes will never be able to match the cool breeze of the hills, right? The maggi tastes completely different in the mountains, chai is your best friend and we all have our Bhuta Parvat moments like Bunny and Naina from YJHD when we embark on a hike. But is that all that mountains are about?

As millennials and Gen-Z, we’re exposed to numerous images, visuals and stories from places like Shimla, Manali, Dalhousie, Nainital, Mussorie and Dehradun. But often, due to several reasons, our idea of mountains and mountain communities ends there. When our parents’ generation used to travel to these places, it took time, planning and a lot of efforts to reach these place; hence people were careful, conscious and so respectful. Our generation, and I hate generalizing but this must be said, has so many things at our disposal. Shimla is just a 3 hour drive from Chandigarh Airport, Dehradun is accessible by flights, Manali is just an hour away from an airport and Dalhousie and Khajjiar probably have more tourists staying there than locals. The increase in resources available to us isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the fact that the convenience makes us less grateful and extra-careless, is what pollutes these places.

My father loves the Himalayas and covered all the above mentioned places 15-20 years back. So when we were discussing where to go during the Good Friday weekend this year, he was very clear that he did not want to go to an overcrowded hill station. He had been eyeing the Baspa Valley circuit, popularly known as Sangla Valley. He enticed us with the idea of having just snow-capped peaks all around us for 4 days. Who wouldn’t be sold for such an idea in peak summer?

Baspa Valley or the region of Kinnaur. consists of several villages and towns along the Baspa river, which is a tributary of Sutlaj. We wanted to visit smaller, lesser explored towns and we put in all our efforts to steer clear of tourist hotspots.

We started from Chandigarh and had 3 towns on our list, Narkanda, Chitkul and Kalpa. While I was excited about all the 3 towns, once we started driving, I realized that the entire journey was so scenic, it brought to life the phrase “Safar khoobsurat hai, manzil se bhi”

NARKANDA

Narkanda is a 6-7 hour drive from Chandigarh and is a quaint town which offers a sizeable amount of views. As soon as we reached Narkanda, we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed for Hatu peak, 9 kms from Narkanda. The road to the peak felt like a roller-coaster ride with a terrific adrenaline rush but the minute we reached the top, I knew it was worth it. We seemed to be caught in a maze of clouds and peaks, with just a temple of Hatu, the goddess to keep us company.

After getting back from Hatu, we headed to Tani Jubbar Lake, just because we had time at hand but we ended up loving that decision; the lake is uncommercialized and unexplored. We were only surrounded by a handful of locals from the neighbouring villages and we were reminded of the fact that we should always be up for new things and it is only when we are open to novelty that we get surprised in the most beautiful way.

CHITKUL

While to most of the country, Sangla Valley had mainly been about Sangla town, Zostel put Chitkul, the last inhabitated village before the Indo-Tibet border, on the map, with its property last year. So when my dad said we should stay in Sangla for a day, I suggested staying in Chitkul instead. To be honest, I had my apprehensions about taking my parents to a Zostel; I’d been to the one in Panchgani before and while it was beautiful, the crowd consisted mainly of Gujaratis who want to get drunk. I’d informed my parents that we might meet people whose mindset wasn’t like ours and they were prepared. But when we reached Chitkul and saw the Zostel, we realized that it is a place that is so difficult to reach, it requires planning and various resources so whoever comes here will not just be here to get drunk or smoke pot or do anything they can do in their hometowns as well. My dad started speaking to a traveller from Colombia who was in India for 100 days and had been staying in Chitkul for 7 days, going out for hikes with different groups daily. People my age wouldn’t usually start talking to a foreigner because they’d feel people around them would label them as being ‘firang-crazy’ or starry-eyed but for my father, what mattered was that he was getting to know about a completely different culture by speaking to that person.

Parents chilling along the Baspa river

The glorious Baspa river flows right by Zostel and you can walk to the riverbed, which is a 2km walk. The riverbed is so peaceful, you’d not want to leave. We also walked uphill to the village monastery where we were served the local rice wine. At night, it got quite cold and for some time, I refused to let go of the heater but when I finally stepped out of my room, I witnessed the most mesmerizing moonrise. The moonlight cast on the snow-capped mountains almost made my heartbeat stop. It is an experience no camera lens can contain.

The mighty Baspa river surrounded by snow-capped mountains
dal makhani
paneer
egg curry
A delicious North Indian meal at Zostel

The next morning, I revisited the riverbed alone and enjoyed several moments of calm. When I came back to my room, my dad revealed that he found a new hiking trail and so we immediately went to explore that. It led us to a foot overbridge on the river which we crossed to find a road that had been snowed in and hadn’t been tread on. The best part about Chitkul was that you could embark on these short walks, trails and hikes and you could be assured that it would be fruitful.

a short hike led us to this beautiful foot-over bridge
sunrise from Zostel Chitkul

When we left Chitkul, we were afraid that after seeing so much natural beauty, our next destination would be very underwhelming. But we were so wrong! Kalpa is a small town, 7 kms from Reckong Peo, one of the headquarters of Kinnaur and the gateway to Spiti Valley.

We stayed at The Grand Shambala, a family-run establishment; the moment we entered, we felt engulfed by the snow-capped peaks. For at least 2-3 hours, we just sat in our balcony, sipping honey lemon tea, enjoying the view accompanied by Kinnauri women chatting and singing folk songs.

We left our hotel in the evening to meet Shyam Sunder Negi, who voted in Independent India’s first elections and today, is India’s oldest voter, at 102. When I told him that I was about to cast my first vote in less than 48 hours, his eyes gleamed with pride and he continued to tell me about how important it is your exercise your vote. As we sat in his humble yet traditional Kinnauri home, I felt a bunch of emotions- happiness, privilege, pride, all at the same time! It has to be the best local interaction I’ve ever had.

Shyam Sunder Negi’s home in Kalpa

Before going back to our hotel, we decided to visit some of the so-called view points that we’d come across on Google. But it was only after failed attempts at finding beauty in Kalpa’s suicide point which, in my humble opinion was true to its name and gave no other value, we realized that in small, remote villages like Chitkul and Kalpa, the entire region throws mind-numblingly beautiful views at you. You don’t have to chase views, you get to savour them wherever you go, in places like these.

Roghi village suicide point which was terrible

We had delicious dinner at our hotel that night, accompanied by soulful conversations with a solo traveller from Mexico. It is heartwarming to know about your country from the eyes of someone who is new to your culture and traditions! Such discourse often makes me proud of my rich heritage and aware of the challenges it faces; most importantly, I’m always reminded of how I can contribute towards carrying forward cultural and historical narratives of my country.

Mornings in Kalpa

The next day, post a short souvenir shopping session wherein we picked out exquisite Kinnauri shawls, we embarked on a 10-11 hour long road journey to Chandigarh. The journey might make you feel nauseous and those who experience frequent motion sickness must definitely keep their medicines handy. We caught a train from Chandigarh to Delhi, took a flight from Delhi to Ahmedabad the next day and then drove to Baroda just in time for me to cast my first vote as Shyam Sunder Negi’s words and his warm smile stood still in my basket full of memories.

LOGISTICS

Transport

We took one flight from Bombay to Chandigarh which came up to INR 6K, booked it 3 weeks prior for travel in mid-April. Our return flight was from Delhi to Ahmedabad which came up to INR 3K

We hired a driver for the road journey which was a great idea. The agency is based out of Ambala and go almost everywhere around Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. We paid 14K for 4 days, 800 kms.
Anil Dizar- +91 7404134045

Accommodation (For 3 people with breakfast)

Hotel Sara, Narkanda- INR 3000
Zostel, Chitkul- INR 3000 (dorm beds are even cheaper)
The Grand Shambala- INR 6500 (suite, with breakfast and unlimited dinner)

The entire trip came up to INR 25000 for 4.5 days. You can save more on flights if you book a couple of months in advance. I’d definitely recommend a car if you’re travelling to such remote parts with limited time. If you have extra time, you must however try to attempt the Jorkanden trek in August and the hike to the last checkpoint in Chitkul. Since Chitkul is at a great height, you might feel breathless even after covering short distances, so be careful- stay hydrated and eat well.

My sojourn in Kinnaur reminded me of the beauty of unexplored places that are free from the perils of commericalization. In an age when every place has tons of check-ins, plenty of bucket lists and private tour packages, this holiday reminded me of the charm that offbeat spots hold. It’s heartbreaking to see beautiful places like Shimla, Manali, Kasol get overrun by tourists. I was completely shook when I read that restrictions had been imposed on camping overnight in Kheerganga. But now that I think of it, it is upto us as travellers, nature and culture enthusiasts to ensure that we travel responsibly. Instead of getting into mindless squabbles like ‘Tourist vs Traveller”, it is important to respect the place you’re visiting and ensuring that when you leave, the place is as clean and charming as it was when you reached. Sustainable, responsible travel is the need of the hour. If you’re travelling to Kinnaur, try parking your bike or car in a spot that doesn’t obstruct locals. Be respectful when entering monasteries. Do not throw waste near the riverbed. If you want a picture with your cuppa noodles against the mountains, make sure the box of noodles finds a proper dustbin. In places as inaccessible as these, try helping out the locals in whatever ways you can.

Travel to Kinnaur for the beautiful road journey, the numerous hiking options, the stunning Baspa river, the moonrise that gives you chills and for the feeling of being somewhere that’s so surreal, it seems out of the world! Go experience for yourself. Be Khanabadosh.