Monday, November 7, 2011

Killer Kinnaur - Chitkul

On the 26th of May, we left Kalpa at 8:30 in the morning and took the same road back up to Karcham. From there we turned left towards Sangla. There was a tunnel just beyond the small bridge that we were crossing and initially we were all excited to drive through the tunnel. However, when we reached there we saw that it was still under construction and we took the road around the tunnel. As usual, the road was in pretty bad shape. Actually from a distance I could not see any road at all. So when our driver was telling us that we were not going to take the tunnel, I was confused since I did not notice any road after the bridge except the tunnel way. 

Our car stopped at a roadside temple for a couple of minutes which is probably considered auspicious by the local drivers. The priest came and offered us some prasada and prayed for our wellbeing and safety. We took our tea break in the market area of the town of Sangla. The town is quite a big one in the neighbourhood and most of the tourists stay at this place only and go for sightseeing elsewhere. However, on recommendation of some of my friends, I had booked our accommodation in Chitkul which is a small village with a few lodging options. 

We filled ourselves with pakoras and sweets along with desi chai in a small but clean tea shop. Whatever we had eaten in the breakfast had already been digested and we anticipated having a late lunch at Chitkul as there was still some distance to cover.  The view of the Baspa river and the mountain range was enchanting from Baspa. It lifted our spirits all the more thinking about what we would have in store at Chitkul. 

The view on the road from Sangla to Chitkul was awesome. And although the road was narrow, it was in a relatively good condition. And there was hardly any traffic on the route. I was sitting in the front beside the driver and tried hard to capture the surroundings with my lenses. The view was changing at some times ranging from lush green trees on the mountains to dry and barren places with boulders and stones lying all around. The temperature was also a pleasant one. In fact I kept my windows down and caught a little cold. On the way we noticed some nature camps which provide tourist accommodation. Our hotel was however further up. 

Initially, we had booked Hotel Shahenshah which is owned by the same person, Sandeep Karar, who runs the hotel Rakpa Regency at Kalpa. Since there was a large tourist group (whom we noticed at Kalpa itself), he requested us to stay at Panchali Resort, which is also owned by him. Panchali Resort is the last hotel at the end of the motorable road. However, what we heard over there is that the road would be extended a further 25 Kms. So, new hotels would crop up I guess closer to the mountain range. The hotel had an exquisite view of the mountains. Once we opened the windows of our room, there was nothing between the mountain and us. However, the cleanliness and service of the hotel was not good. Also, food options were limited and there was a huge delay between the time we ordered and we got our food. Perhaps they were also running short of staff. 

After having lunch and a little rest, we went to the riverbed in the late evening. The clear blue water of the Baspa river surrounded by the mountains and the snow covered peaks at stone throwing distance formed a breathtaking view. In fact back at the hotel, people told us that the place was not far from the Tibet border, Chitkul being the last village. The river water was very cold and it had a good current too. The riverbed was studded with small pebbles and large stones and we rested for a while on those stones taking in the superlative beauty of the place. There was a school nearby. We envied the location but at the same time pitied for the students who have to come so far away every day. 

When it was time to return, I proposed to take a different route which I noticed further up. Only Bappa agreed to accompany me in this adventurous detour. Now the only question was how to go up and be on that path. We started to follow the way what seemed to go up and meet our target path but after some time we were kind of lost and doubted whether it was the right way. After some time we met a local man with a cow. He assured us that we were on the right track and when we enquired whether the path was tough, he commented that even his cow could use that comfortably. Our confidence was restored and we continued our walk but the path was becoming all the more difficult with little waterfalls in between and it was tough to breathe as well. Anyway I have a breathing problem and the high altitude was taking its toll. I was feeling sorry for Bappa. Though he has healthier than me, but he was also feeling exhausted and he had only agreed to come with me so that I am not alone. We stopped for a while and contemplated whether we should go back. When we looked back we did not find any one of the team so they must have returned to the hotel already. Just then we noticed two young girls coming down. They were not locals but tourists. They were confused whether they could go down to the river following that route. We told them we have followed that route from the riverbed itself so they could continue walking down. And they assured us that we would find the way back to the hotel if we continue moving up. We were encouraged that if they could do it so could we and started walking upwards. But after some more time we were again confused as we could not find any way further. We stopped for a while to catch some air as we were breathing heavily by then. Ultimately we found our way back to the hotel amidst the cultivation land which was being prepared for step farming. On our way back we met some military personnel from Indo-Tibet Border Force, who were returning to their check posts at the Tibet border. 

When we finally reached the hotel we found the other members of our group worried and anxious as a long time had passed and the fact that they could not contact us over our cell phones (there was no mobile tower) made them more tensed. They were a little bit comforted they were told by those two girls that they had met us some time before. We found Mukherjeekaku had returned to his room much earlier as he was not feeling well. Even Chhotomasi was having some breathing problems. I on my part did not disclose that I experienced some spasms myself and went to my room to take rest. During night I was running a mild temperature and Chhotomasi rebuked me for my bravado. I was disheartened and agonized by the fact that my body did not respond positively to the small trek and was worried about how would I go to places which involve fair bit of walking in hilly terrain. 

The next day was the last of our sojourn in the Himalayas. We took our way back to Kalpa from where we boarded the return train, halting at Narkanda in between for the night. It was time to bid goodbye to the picturesque Kinnaur and return the routine chores of city life. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Killer Kinnaur - Kalpa

We left for Kalpa on the 24th of May after having an early lunch at Sarahan.  The road looked dangerously appealing being curved out of the mountain walls, at times with hanging cliffs over head. The beautiful Baspa river was flowing beside the road on the other side but the water was still muddy. After some time however, the road condition deteriorated considerably and our bodies became stiff and pained absorbing the shocks. I have read before, in trip reports of some travel forums that the road between Wangtoo and Karcham was particularly bad. However, the road after Karcham did not provide us any relief either. In fact it was worse; the road was broken at many places due to landslides and too narrow for comfort. 

Major construction was going on at Karcham where a major dam is located and probably the cement and the dust made the water of river Baspa muddy, since after Karcham the water was blue and clear. The road for Sangla took off on the right and we continued straight ahead towards Kalpa. At places, the road was so narrow to commute that long queues of cars resulted. A few times our car came so tantalizing close to the edge of the road that some of us cried aloud cautioning the driver. Although our driver had a rock steady hand, he too became tensed a couple of times and requested us not to panic. In fact, afterwards, he admitted that on those occasions he was a bit nervous as well. 

When we reached Reckong Peo, the district head quarters of Kinnaur district, we knew we were not too far from our destination. After driving further up for some more time when we finally reached Kalpa, it was 5 o’clock in the evening.  We had booked Hotel Rakpa Regency in advance and were delighted with the view it offered. A friend who had earlier stayed at the hotel mentioned that Room 406 has the best view and Runa and Abhishek had the good opportunity to occupy that room. However, I think the corner room that I stayed at had an even better view of Kinnaur Kailash. Surprisingly, the owner of the hotel, Sandeep Karar, is a Bengali from Howrah. Most of the staff, except the manager, was Bengali as well.
Kalpa is known for its golden apple orchards and beside our hotel itself there were a whole lot of apple trees but unfortunately it was not the time for apple harvesting.

After evening tea, I went for a leisurely stroll along the deserted road. Suddenly I heard a strange hymning sound followed by some drum beats. It was near the Hotel Kinnaur Villa. I was trying to figure out the origin of the sound and after some time realized that it is coming from a small hut up in the hills. It was quite far away and hidden behind the trees, so at first I could not locate it. Actually, it seemed some people were dancing to the mystic tune in some ethnic dress. Probably it was some sort of ceremony. I noticed some stone steps going upwards from the road and an idea crossed my mind that I might try to go nearer to the place to comprehend what it was all about. But the steepness of the steps was disturbing me and I found no one in the vicinity to ask how far the path leads up to. Meanwhile, it started drizzling and suddenly the temperature dropped considerably. I decided it would be wise to return to the hotel and not get wet since I am susceptive to cold. Back in the hotel, I found my folks were getting apprehensive about my delay and the fact that they could not reach me over my cell phone (there was no tower) made them tensed. 

The next day, we woke up early but there was no spectacle of sunrise to speak about. It was cloudy to begin with and the sun abruptly came out from behind the mountain range. However, as the day progressed, the sun shone brightly and apart from Kinnaur Kailas, Parvati and Shivling peaks were clearly visible. The Kinnaur Kailash peak appeared so close that it seemed as if we could just reach out our hands and touch it. Chhotomasi mentioned that its shape is similar to Mt. Kailash near Manas Sarovar and hence the name. While we were zooming in our lenses to take closer snaps, we observed a black spot in the white snow that covered the mountain range and it changed position a few times. It seemed larger than to be possibly any bird and the hotel staff told us it was still not the time of the year when trekkers go around. So, it remained a mystery to us. Chhotomasi jokingly declared that it must be some Yeti then. 

At breakfast we noticed a really large tourist group coming all the way from Bengal and there was pandemonium all around. The manager of the group was shouting all kinds of directives to his own staff who were running around doing all sorts of errands. After breakfast, we went to visit the nearby Rodhi village. From a local shop there we bought some walnuts at really cheap price. The view of the other peaks (which were out of sight from our hotel) from that place was also fascinating. So, we were dumbfounded when some tourists were complaining about the place arguing that there is nothing to see. Now, what else does one need; one can behold the majestic Himalayas all around and still people grumble! 

A short cut path from the village led us to the monastery we noticed from the balcony back at our hotel. The actual village of Kalpa is probably located around here. We noticed many local small huts but surprisingly most of them were under lock and key. Not sure if that was because the people had gone to work or they had moved to some other place. The monastery was small and nice and comes with the traditional Buddhist prayer rollers. 

In close proximity to the monastery, resides a Durga temple. It had some intricate woodwork and it was queer to see those wooden dragons decorating a Hindu temple. The temple was unfortunately closed and we could not see the deity. However, back at the hotel, I noticed a picture, which was some amateurish replica of an old and celebrated picture, illustrating the temple and the original painting was done more that hundred years ago. 

The weather changed drastically in the afternoon and there was a heavy downpour restricting us to the interiors of our respective rooms. Even in the evening, when the rain stopped, it was still very cloudy and the wind was chilly. Since we could not go out for a walk, I spent some time in the terrace but soon it became so cold that I had to return to the warmth of my room. From the balcony, I could see a thick layer of cloud down below where the monastery was located and soon the cloud engulfed the entire hamlet. 

The rest of the night was uneventful except for the drop in the temperature. I was literally shivering when we went to take dinner in the ground floor. The fact that I was not carrying any heavy woollens was upsetting as my jacket was not giving me much comfort. One of the Bengali staff who is from the Burdwan district told us that the hotel is entirely covered with snow in the winters and remains closed from the end of November until March, and when they come back in March they have to clean the thick layers of snow and how painstaking a job that is. Luckily the next morning the sun was shining bright and after having breakfast we started our journey to Chitkul.