Middle-age has its symptoms. In my case, I sense an old flame flaring up. My passion for travel, especially to the mountains, is getting a fresh supply of oxygen with each passing year. Every experience leaves me craving for more: a more exotic and a more adventurous fix. Best of all, instead of threatening my marital life, mountains help us spend time together away from the constantly ringing phones, endless homework, and the relentless tube.
For about 15 years, my passion has been simmering on low burn: I was embroiled in gynecologists and pediatricians (not to mention the associated bills), annual reviews and bank balances (or lack thereof). But as the children started growing up, and the bank stopped sounding like a reminder of inadequacies, I tentatively cranked up the fire. It started with a weekend visit to Kasauli (twice). Next, it was Shimla (thrice). Then, we moved further afield, to Ranikhet (once). Finally, we managed Manali (thrice). The family had caught the mountain bug but we soon discovered that we could, at best, visit a hill-station twice before getting jaded. We had to find something more ‘far-out’, more remote, more challenging or just more unknown.
Last winter we decided that we were ‘done’ with Manali. We had spent two summer vacations and one winter vacation there. We had become too familiar with the town, the mountains, and the painted rocks in the river bed (in spite of the court ban) and even the menu cards of the restaurants, which incidentally never change. When you become too familiar with a place you do not quite feel like a traveler any more. To be a traveler is to be an outsider. We had to move on from Manali.
This summer we decide to explore a lesser known part of Himachal, Kinnaur. The district of Kinnaur is well-known for its apples but not too many people go there. Perhaps because it doesn’t have a mall road and there are very few hotels with cable TV and bars. To be honest, I may be mixing up the cause and effect here, but either way Kinnaur is sufficiently remote –- you are unlikely to get caught up in a traffic jam of Maruti cars full of bandana-wearing young men playing loud techno music. Yet you could, if you try hard, find someone to fix a puncture (we had to drive 50 kilometers to fix one).
If you follow National Highway 22 out of Shimla you will, eventually, reach a place called Kaurik: I say ‘eventually’ because you would need a load of gas and an even bigger load of patience and courage to get there. We were planning to turn off NH-22 at Karcham (200 kms from Mashobra), perhaps half way to Kaurik, and head towards Sangla (17 kms from Karcham). My friend Vinod, intrepid cyber expert, had crawled the Net and made all our bookings. For our first stop, he had booked all of ‘us’ into a place called Rupin River View at Rakcham, 13 kms uphill from Sangla. ‘Us’ was an odd group of five middle-aged men, seven kids, two teenagers, and one lone ‘mom’, distributed between two Mahindra Scorpios and one Tata Indigo.
We (my wife – the lone ‘mom’ – our two children and I), had already spent three days in Mashobra, and were supposed to meet up with the rest of the gang at Narkanda (50 kms from Mashobra), where they had spent the previous night. We didn’t, because the breakfast at the Oberoi’s Wildflower Hall, like on the previous two days, was an elaborate event to be enjoyed leisurely. I wasn’t unduly worried. I knew that sooner or later we would catch up with the two cars ahead of us. Not because I pride myself with driving fast on the hills, but because there is a law of convoy driving – the speed of the convoy decreases by 10 per cent with every additional vehicle. So we had a 10 per cent speed advantage over them, till we caught up with them.
Beyond Narkanda, as you drive the 70-odd kms to Rampur Bushehr, you encounter, perhaps the most beautiful green mountains that you can see in this part of the world. Some IFS (Indian Forest Service) officer deserves credit for this –- it looks too green and too close to civilization to be a natural forest, so my guess is that some reforestation program has actually worked. About 10 kms outside Narkanda, as we took a sharp turn on the exceptionally well-paved and reasonably wide road we suddenly encountered a silver-coloured Scorpio and a blue Indigo parked on the verge. Odd place to park, I thought, and almost revved on, because the vehicles were not the colour I was looking out for. Just then, my eye came to rest on the roof of the stationary Scorpio. A large framed, bespectacled man, with peppery hair and beard, was perched on the roof rack tying down lose pieces of luggage. What is a dignified looking man doing on top of a Scorpio behaving like a ‘khallasi’? Oh, it is my friend Dinesh, I realize as I pass them, and quickly pull over. Didn’t he have a green Scorpio, I ask my wife… There’s obviously been some confusion at our end. One of their bags had fallen off the roof rack and was making an independent journey to Rampur! The errant bag was refastened, a moment was taken for the kids to holler their hello-s, and the convoy — now in full strength — was ready to roll.
We were making very good time, despite being a convoy. After four hours of doing a comfortable 40 kms per hour, past Rampur Bushehr, Jeori, and Bhawa Nagar, we were ready for a leisurely lunch, provided we could find a restaurant. Yet, not a single HPTDC rest house, or vaguely okay restaurant was in sight. When hunger overtook the desire to eat in a clean, hygienic place, we finally just stopped at a two-bit place called Tapri (just 12 kms before Karcham) and raided the first available dhaba. Children in the entourage, used to eating in Ronald’s clean and hygienic surroundings (who cares about the content when the packaging is so good) started off by rebelling and choosing to go on a hunger strike. The five dads and one mom simply shrugged their collective shoulders and tucked into a hearty meal of rice and dal, topped up with some really greasy but great jalebis. Eventually, they all came around, and were fed on tables placed right next to an open drain!
By the time we reached Karcham it was still early afternoon. I was feeling great. We’d managed a perky pace, and it seemed a matter of at-most an hour before we were comfortably ensconced in our hotel. A rude shock was waiting for us, just beyond Karcham. As we left NH 22, we left the well paved dual carriage road and found a road, if you could call it that, for most part, washed away by the receding snow. What was left was just wide enough for one car, with very little ground between the tire and after-life. Guard rail, what guard rail? The going was painfully slow with each approaching vehicle leading to a nerve-racking high-altitude maneuver.
We still had some daylight left, by the time we reached Rakcham (not to be confused with Karcham). Rupin River View was on the main road. Come to think of it, there was no other road here, so it had to be on the road or off it. So I guess being on the road was a good thing, I was in no mood to haul our handbags, rucksacks, knapsacks, duffle bags up precarious mountain paths. It turns out that Rupin River View Hotel is a deceptive name. First of all the river you see from the hotel is not the Rupin river, it is the Baspa. More importantly, this isn’t exactly a ‘hotel’. No wonder that some in our entourage baulked at the idea of staying here. Sure, we had paid an advance but so taken aback were some of us that we were willing to forfeit our Rs. 1500 advance. Search parties were dispatched in all directions (actually there are only two directions you can travel in this place, either up or down the road) to find alternate accommodations that would remotely fit the description of a hotel. Vinod found a quaint looking make-shift camp downhill, which was vetoed. His brother found a PWD Dak bungalow uphill, in which two rooms were promptly requisitioned for the two dads and their two teenagers. The rest of us resigned ourselves to what Rupin River View had to offer. Some of us were perhaps overreacting, mainly because this was our first day there, we hadn’t acclimatized to the rarified air. We could not see the bright side of this whole thing – two of the four rooms had attached bathrooms, one of which had a geyser! No wonder they had prominently displayed a placard stating that there was a 15% luxury tax! What! Over and above the Rs. 250 room rent!
Ultimately, we really ‘settled down’ at this river view ‘resort’. We were the only guests and were treated on priority by the manager, cum bell-boy, cum cook, cum everything. He revealed himself as a nice young man, who has traversed some high snow-covered passes to come across from Uttaranchal, his home town, to make a living here.
We wanted to be close to nature and this was it. Two walls of our corner bedroom were made up almost entirely of windows overlooking the hauntingly beautiful and temptingly close snow-covered peaks outside. All night the winds howled and the Baspa River, which was less than 50 meters away, gurgled and roared. As we struggled to block out the sound of nature’s fury outside, it was just as difficult to get warm. Icy winds seeped into the room, thanks to the woodwork which was porous enough to let a cat in. This was the middle of May. We had not anticipated it to be so cold that we would freeze in our sleeping bags, which were rated to be good for -5 degrees Celsius. Fortunately we had a few blankets that we managed to throw over the kids.
We awoke to a brilliant morning. The mountains outside were covered with fresh snow. The Baspa river, with its crystal waters, freshly melted from the mountains just a whistle-stop away, was a sight. The sight was short lived. Very soon it became overcast and cold. However, undeterred by the possibility of rain, we took the advice of our manager-cook-bellboy to try and get to the glacier that was visible from our hotel window. According to him, it was less than two hours away. So, armed with all our jackets, gloves, caps, mufflers, plastic bags (for the cameras, if it were to rain), water bottles and stuff to munch, we set off.
The trek took us over a precarious looking walking-only (people and cattle) bridge over the Baspa River, and past some potato fields that were being ploughed by cattle to be readied for the potato crop. The gurgling river got the kids pestering for adventure. They wanted to cross the river on foot. The water didn’t look very deep, but I wasn’t very keen, because some of the kids in our entourage were as little as five. However, I am never a naysayer to any healthy sounding adventure or bravado. To find out which of these it was, I suggested to the kids that if they could take off their shoes and socks and keep their feet in water for 60 seconds then I’d take them across the river. Some of these kids, I knew for sure, liked their geysers switched on right through summer. If they had survived the test, I would have had a small problem on my hand, but they did not. Squealing and screaming, they jumped out of the water, and meekly made their way to dry ground. As the rest of the dads heaved a sigh of relief, we moved on to check out the glacier.
Another half hour of walk through ploughed fields and boulder-strewed meadows did not bring us any closer to the geographic phenomenon we had admired from our hotel window. I was beginning to wonder if we should have planned this a little better –- the hill people don’t sufficiently discount their time estimates because they clearly have no idea how fast a bunch of middle-aged city bred adults with a platoon of assorted kids climb the mountains. It was around then it started to drizzle. This was the first day on our summer adventure, not counting the days spent on the road, and we were in no mood to get a bunch of sick children on our hands. What with most mothers missing! It is a different matter that one of us adults was already braving, without complaining, a serious cold and an associated headache.
So we decided to head back -– it had already been an adventure. It is the journey that matters and not the destination, right? I am not sure about the adults, but the kids sure were behaving as if this was really so. They enjoyed the journey back sucking on hard boiled toffees that I had luckily remembered to throw into my jacket pocket at the last moment.
Most of us slept much better the second night — mostly because we decided not to change into night clothes and kept our woolens on, inside the sleeping bags, and added extra hotel blankets. But the next day was still overcast, rain looked imminent. We were not willing to venture out very far from the hotel with the kids. By now the kids were totally at home, acclimatized to the altitude, the bare-bones rooms, and the ‘luxury’ of having Maggi noodles for lunch without any moms fretting over them. The small lobby/landing/balcony was totally taken over by a bunch of Uno-and-rummy-playing kids and some budding artists practicing crayon landscapes. Regular doses of tea, instant soup, toasted sandwiches, and biscuits were keeping our tummies and souls warm.
Armed with a plastic bag to cover my cameras, I did venture out to the village close by to get a taste of the local life and perhaps record the hardships the locals have to deal with. I was instead fascinated to find that most people here were, according to some locals, fairly ‘wealthy’. Most people in the village had land and earned well from their crops and almost all of them went down for the winter, when this area gets totally snowed out.
That afternoon we decided to drive, since we couldn’t actually trek in the weather, to a place we had seen on the map and was confirmed by locals to be the end of the road – a village called Chitkul. We were told that the road ended there but one could go all the way to Tibet on foot, if one wanted to. On the map it looked like one very long walk but I am sure locals know these things best. The drive to Chitkul, is a seemingly endless 15 kilometers. On good stretches I managed to shift up to second gear, otherwise it was a steady first through stark terrain. Here is glaciar power at work. Huge boulders lie strewn like pebbles by the roadside, proof of an ancient glacier that has long melted and carried with it rocks as big as two-storied house. We drove past this surreal landscape on a notional road. But you couldn’t really call it a road. The only parallel I can think of is the proverbial stair way to heaven. When we got to Chitkul, it was truly the other side of the world (since I do not subscribe to life after death).
Chitkul is really the ‘end of the road’. A few bare rooms housed mostly foreigners, compared to whom we were living in luxury, a few dhabas, one of which proudly proclaimed itself to be ‘hindustan ka aakhri dhaba’ (the last eating place in India) and a BSF post (with horses!) Beyond that it is just you and nature, perhaps for many hundreds of kilometers. As freezing rain drizzled down, and the wind from the snow peaks numbed our ears and noses, we dashed towards the relative shelter of a parachute-turned-tent tea shop. The kids were cold, excited and perhaps a little delirious -– they each downed multiple cups of hot coffee without even waiting for them to cool down. as much a blowing on it once. Most of us had never been so high in the mountains – Chitkul shows up on maps as 3450m, that is 11,000 feet! I have been to higher altitudes and also latitudes much north of this but I have never felt so cold in the middle of a day as I felt that day – wind chill, perhaps, we were definitely sub-zero.
Despite the cold and rain, when it was time to leave Rakcham, none of us were very keen to leave this little piece of paradise. But we were already booked into a hotel in Kalpa (Vinod had found all these places on the web, yes, even Rupin River View!) As we passed the little billboard declaring the population of Rakcham to be 786 (perhaps the summer time population) we were sure that the best was behind us and nothing could ever beat the experience of being so high up in the Baspa valley – nothing previously had!
We arrived at Kalpa, a mere 85 kms from Rakcham, after a good three-hour road journey via the Baspa Hydel Project, a diesel stop at Powari, and through the beautifully laid out town on Rekong Peo. After a 500 metre drop in altitude, we were not expecting much. Which is perhaps why Kalpa took our breath away. The hotel, Kinner Villa, is built on the side of the mountain staring the magnificent snow-covered Kinner Kailash peak right in the eye. One could sit out or in a closed viewing gallery and marvel at the Kailash and its sister peaks sipping on hot orthodox tea and munching pakoras. Every room had a bathroom and a geyser, and toilet paper to top it all. And if that was not enough the cook was a real cook who dished out some of the best pasta, we all agreed, that we had ever had. After the hard work at Rakcham most of us chose to just chill out and watch the clouds play hide and seek with the Kinner Kailash. Dinesh settled outside in the sun, facing the peaks, with a book to read. Vinod opted for the closed gallery, nursing his throat with cups of tea, and his eyes with the sight of the glistening mountains across the valley. With a long lens or binoculars Icould clearly see the famous Shiv-ling, provided one had the patience to wait for the clouds to clear. The kids did not step out of the hotel, despite the sales pitch I made for the beautiful jungle uphill. They wanted to make the most of the luxury available, not knowing what was in store for them at the next destination. They did not step out of the hotel save for the search sorties they made for Rocky and Mojo. No, these were not some kids in our party who had got lost. They were two resident dogs who had befriended the kids, and led them on a merry chase through the hotel’s fruit trees.
Not able to convince the kids to go see the jungle with me, I decided to venture out alone -– all the other adults volunteered to stay back with the feeble excuse that the kids needed watching over. It was a very steep trek up, from behind the hotel, so steep that I had to stop every 20 paces to catch my breath. My old knees and my jaded lungs really got tested, but I did enjoy the luxury of being all alone in the jungle with just the snow-covered peaks for company. I was taking pictures and congratulating myself for having made the effort to get up there when I encountered a flock of goats! And watching over them was a little boy, perhaps not more than 12, even though he claimed to be 16. He had come all the way from Nepal to earn a living by watching over goats grazing at an altitude of 3000 meters in the Himalayas.
A couple of days of pakoras, pasta and passing out in the sun got us all ready to take on the next adventure. By now we had all wisened up to the fact that two places can be very different in character, as Rakcham and Kalpa had been, and yet be extraordinary experiences. So none of us were willing to write of Sarahan, which was markedly lower in altitude and perhaps somewhat closer to civilization. We were now heading back, to Jeori, from where we would take a short 18-km road up to Sarahan.
Both side of the road from Jeori (on the NH 22) to Sarahan are literally littered with wild rose bushes: enough roses to drive many a nursery in Delhi out of business, if only somebody can find an efficient way to transport them out of this hilly paradise. The HPTDC hotel in Sarahan, Hotel Shrikhand, was all booked up. Based on our experiences over the previous week, we had become a little complacent and took for granted room availability. But Sarahan was different. For one, it was close enough to NH22 to be treated as a night stop by people on their way to Spiti Valley, and we did meet up with friends from Delhi who were on their way to the Spiti Valley. More importantly, Sarahan is a temple town, famous for its 16th century wooden Bhimkali temple which attracts thousands of devotees from all over the state. It is also the home town of the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, Vir Bhadra Singh, whose out-of-bounds palace gives Sarahan its timeless appeal. It is also a remarkably clean town. We later discovered that the spit and polished look could have had something to do with the fact that the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh was expected to visit the town that very week on his way from inaugurating the Baspa Hyderoeletric Project. The imminent arrival was still a few days away because the Helipad was being occupied by a camping group who were using the top of their tents to dry their underwear and socks.
The Manager of Hotel Shrikhand expressed his inability to upgrade our dormitory bookings into rooms. He however offered to help us get accommodations in luxury tents close by. Most of the group was planning to stay there only for one night, so it did not seem worth the effort. However my family had the opportunity to stay on for a few days, so we decided to check it out. I was secretly hoping that the luxury tents would not live up to their billings, because that would give us an excuse to pitch our own tent in their camp grounds. As luck would have it, these tents were actually luxury, with running water in the attached camp toilet and ‘bum-washers’ in western style toilets. Even Shahjahan wouldn’t have experienced such luxury. It is a different matter that we still chose to pitch our own little four-person dome tent next to the ‘luxury’ tent and slept on the roll-up mats that we had carried, instead of the folding metal beds in the big tent. Without the rain-fly on the dome we actually slept under a star studded canopy or in the ‘shade of the stars’ as we’d say in Hindi.
It requires a special skill to sleep in the outdoors after sunrise — a skill that you lose along with your childhood. By the time the aloo-paranthas arrived for breakfast, I had lost patience and decided to shake the children out of their sleeping bags. The demand for pasta (a hangover from Kalpa, I guess) was summarily rejected with a counter offer of eggs and paranthas, which was gracefully taken up by the kids.
We began the day early and I thought we could try and summit the mountain we were on — the care taker had informed us that it was possible but should take about four hours. We were already pitched high on it the peak did not look very far. Once again I fell for the estimate made by a local (some day I will get hold of the math books prescribed in the hill schools and check out the chapters on time and distance).
Armed with a back-pack full of fruit juices and snacks, and a tummy full of aloo-paranthas and omelets we were on our way to the mini-summit of Sarahan. I was worried about the kids’ ability therefore I had thrown in chocolates and other assorted snacks. The route up started off with a cobble stone stair case but soon dwindled into a rather steep trek up a dried up stream bed. A couple of hours into our journey we got to a clearing and decided to take a much needed break. The back-pack got lighter at a lightning speed. It also gave us time to assess our situation – we were very far from the summit and not so far from dusk; maybe that was just a rationalization, basically we were not ready to go all the way. No, the kids were ok, or at least they were not complaining, it was us old people who had grown creaky joints and perhaps leaky lungs. The journey is important; well you know how it goes. The picnic was great too, really!
Ok here is the truth, next summer we will be forced to go one step further, get a bigger mountain fix. I already have a plan, and know that we will have to start working on it early. To start with we’ll need to go to the gym…
An abridged version of this feature was published in India Today Travel Plus (October 2005)