Day 3: Sangla Kanda and Nati @ Chitkul

The first thing we did on Day 3 was shift to tents that were located in the valley. We would be spending the night in those tents. Now, I was under the impression that the stay in tents would be uncomfortable with no proper sanitation facilities and bed space. However, I was mistaken. These tents almost matched our hotel rooms in facility, except that these were temporary structures and three sharing.

Immediately after keeping our bags in the tents, we proceeded to Sangla Kanda. This is a peak point from where the Kinnaur-Kailash range can be viewed in all its majesty. We had hired four wheel drive pick up trucks to take us there. Some of us decided to stay inside the jeeps while the adventurous ones hopped on to the pick up trailer. Even though I wanted to join them, I was sceptical because of my leg injury.

The climb to Sangla Kanda was something in its own respect. The respect that I already had for Pahadi drivers multiplied manyfold after this trip. We started in the morning around 9 and reached the top at around 12–1. We had also bought a case of beer to enjoy at the top, at the risk of the beer losing its chill, by the time we would reach the top.

( The Road Trip in four wheel drives to Sangla Kanda)

We climbed up the mountain with the wonderful valley on our side. On the way, I noticed the small settlements that seemed like villages. On inquiry our driver said that these were temporary villages which were occupied by migratory farmers who would live in them during the summer and spring and cultivate crops. I assume this has to do with the fertile glacial moraine that settles on these slopes when the ice melts. When the winter sets in they would migrate back to the valley because it would be impossible to live at these heights in the freezing cold.

Once we reached the top, everyone was left to their faculties to enjoy any way they wanted to. Some of us decided to play Kabbadi, some decided to walk still further up, while a small group including me decided to settle with a beer and the view of JorKanden from my side of the mountain. There was something curious that one of the senior officers who settled with my group pointed out. There was a glacial stream that was flowing nearby and we could simply chill our beer in the stream. It would render the beer even colder than it would be in a refrigerator. We decided to try it. It was like one of those Mountain Dew ads. We left our beer in that stream for some time and lo! and behold, chilled beer from nature.

Jorkanden
Jorkanden

We sat there, sipping that beer and talking about a lot of things. My mind meanwhile drifted in between to the beauty of the mighty mountain that stood before me and how insignificant my life seemed before it. At the same time, I also felt lucky that I could sit there and enjoy that view as part of a group that was selected on the basis of one of the toughest competitive exams in India. My making into the list must have meant that another deserving candidate missed his chance that year. Fate flows in mysterious ways, I thought.

Soon we had our lunch in the base camp and then after a small break we proceeded back to our tents in the valley. I would come back and have a nice sleep to wash away all the fatigue that I had accumulated over the past two days.

The Night Trip to Chitkul

I recounted how during the trip to Chitkul on the second day, some villagers had informed some of us about the Nati that would take place at night the next day. My Senior DAG and I along with two of my friends had decided to slip away during the night to take part in this festivity. It had to be kept a secret so that the plan could actually be executed.

Our course director also decided to come with us, but at the last moment she decided not to. So at 11 o’clock in the night, we started for the last village of India, to witness their festivities.

We reached at around midnight and there was music blaring from distant darkness. Someone pointed us towards a flight of steps. We climbed up the steps, that extended outwards like a black carpet that was welcoming us. All of us had our mobile phone flashlights on. We reached the temple that was lighted with its facade open and spacious.

There was already music blaring and I was surprised that this was through electronic speakers. Quite unexpected in this remote place, I thought. Some ladies started to gracefully dance to the music that was playing.

The great thing about the Himachali dance is the graceful movements that consume very little energy. The emphasis is on the flow of the movement, not the speed or energy of the steps. There is an advantage to this kind of dance. The performance could go on all night. Unlike the Punjabi Bhangra, where there is much expenditure of energy and the performance unable to last more than a few hours, here the performance would go all night long.

(Sometime when the Nati began. The entire village would join in on the dance and the sight of everyone moving around in a synchronised manner in this square was amazing )

The grace in the movement combined with the beauty of the Pahadi women makes the dance very attractive. Their slight movements were like a call for the men in the village to join in on the dances. Some men also joined in on the performance from the other side of the square. Within no time, one by one, the entire village would start dancing. The way in which men and women, girls and boys of an entire village, started dancing without the slightest botheration about the gender, complexion, age etc of the participants made me feel very happy.

A very beautiful pahadi girl was sitting next to me. She asked me to join in on the dance. I politely declined, thinking that I might offend some of them. The whole atmosphere made me feel like dancing. However, I decided not to act on it. Minutes had passed when another guy came to me and asked me to join them, saying that we were their guests. My friends were doubtful of joining. But I jumped at the chance without hesitation and went one full round around the square with the villagers, trying to ape their movements. Now, my friends also joined in the dance.

After some time they retired back to the stands, while I continued to dance. Meanwhile another villager with whom I struck up a conversation asked me to join them to share their local wine and food. I asked him if my friends could also come and he nodded. We were taken to the back side of the temple where many youngsters were seated squatting in the ground. They smiled at us and asked us to join them.

They offered us a local dish, whose name as I remember it was, “Gimtu”. It was made out of goat’s blood and intestine and flour. Even though I flinched at the description, I did not want to offend the hosts. I took a bite. It tasted bland to me, and I did not proceed. Now they brought out kettles which contained the local wine. I initially thought that they were bringing tea. However, the guy who brought it asked me to extend my hand and cup it together. Once I did that, he poured the wine onto my hands. It had a very smokey flavour and I was reminded of Laphroaig whiskey that I had once tasted. I found it very difficult to contain what they poured in my hand without spilling while the guys sitting next to me did so with ease. I looked around and found that my friends were also struggling to do the same.

We started introducing ourselves. Many of the villagers had found employment in the Indo-Tibetan Police Force. Being a border town, they made the perfect fit for the requirements of the ITBP with their familiarity with the terrain and their adaptability to the conditions. Some of them went to study in college in and around Shimla. When I said that I come from Kerala, a few of them exclaimed that I don’t look South Indian. May be they were expecting a dark skinned, chubby nosed person. I did not try to correct them, but just grinned sheepishly.

After some time we took their leave, with my track pants smelling heavily of the smokey wine. A day was well spent. To drown the smell of the wine, I lowered the window pane of our innova a little bit. We hoped that we would sight a leopard or bear, so that the day would have been perfect. Somewhere inside all of us knew that it was overambitious. As we knifed through the dark night, I could still hear the Pahadi tunes humming in my ears. My mind was still swaying to the grace of the Himachali dance and the rhythm of the music that played.

Day 2: Sleeping hamlets- Batseri and Chitkul

The second day was planned as a light one with a trek around the Batseri, a laid back hamlet with picteresque surroundings and a trip to Chitkul, the last village in the Indo-Tibetan border. We started at 9 o’ clock in the morning. The village is placed at the intersection of the mountain and the valley. Therefore, we had to slowly walk upwards towards the mountain from the valley.

Bespa Valley
Bespa Valley

On both sides of the street, I found beautiful Himachali houses. These houses, of which the plinth is made of stone, and the structure predominantly containing wood, have gabled roofs. You also get to see some cars that are parked on the side of the street and suddenly you realise that even at the remotest corners of India, technology and science have started to make inroads. The small shops that you find here also have Maggi, Lays and Brittania and you suddenly realise that our world has become a consumerist one and globalised one.

The Himachali traditional houses, predominantly made of wood, speaks volumes about the geography and environment of the place. Being a place that is very rich in Deodars, pines etc, wood is a very easily available material in these places. The gabled roof makes sure that during the winter, snow doesn’t stay on the roof, an adaptation much similar to what the cone tree has. Being from Kerala, where monsoon pours with a vengeance, I could easily relate to this.

Badri Narayan Temple, Batseri
Badri Narayan Temple, Batseri

We also found a temple that was being built with good wood work dedicated to Badri Narayan. The Vaishnavite and Saivite cultures seem to be equally predominant in these regions. I expected Shiva to have more followers in these regions, given the Himalayas is his abode. Almost every single big mountain is equated with the Shivalinga. Kinnaur is also famous for the Kinnaur-Kailash range. However, as a student of History, it did evoke quite some interest in me that Vishnu is as popular here as much as Shiva.

When we were going to a Himalayan hamlet, I had in my mind, the image of a people who were fair with rosy cheeks and tall and well built. However, I was only correct partially. The Kinnauri people are tanned because the sun is quite strong in these areas, even though the weather is temperate due to the mountains. They are well built and have very good stamina with even old people trekking up the mountain with much ease. Women are beautiful and very independent.

Batseri village with flowering plants being grown on either side
Batseri village with flowering plants being grown on either side

As I was walking up the street, I met a villager with whom I struck up a conversation. He was intrigued when I said I come from Kerala (which he had not heard of). I further explained that I was from South India. He remarked that I did not look South Indian. He asked me why I was there. As soon as I said I was there on an official trip and I was in the government, his conversation veered from casual to more of a grievance nature. He said that winters were difficult and they had many problems. Even though I was curious to know these things, I nevertheless did not want to give the poor man unnecessary hope. The probationary period is quite the most powerless period in your training where you don’t really have the power to do any good to anyone. I wished the guy all the best and continued walking.

All along the street I could see a small stream of water gushing down. This stream is melted glacial water and is used to water the fields downstream. At many points, I could see farmers clearing the stream of objects obstructing the flow of water. This region is primarily cultivated for Apple, ‘Mattar’, cherries, and different flowers. The flowers here are extremely beautiful. I was also glad that I could find a Senior High school in this part of the country. It reminded me of my home, Kerala, where even the remotest hamlet can boast of a school with decent facilities.

I was walking with my colleague Rahul, who had deliberately slowed down to help me, given my condition. We stopped to buy a bottle of water from a small kirana store. The shopkeeper was a friend of our hotel owner and he was a very friendly young man. Shortly, to our surprise, we found out that he was a Gold medallist in the annual marathon that was conducted here in these mountains. I felt respect towards him for this achievement which I considered no mean feat.

Even in these regions, I could see the impact of the campaigns conducted by the new NDA government. There were posters of Swacch Bharath and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaigns strewn here and there. I found this reach of the government very fascinating.

Swacch Bharath poster in Batseri
Swacch Bharath poster in Batseri

One thing I have observed from my few months in Himachal is how warm and hospitable the people are. They go to great lengths to make you feel good. This is unlike some other places I have visited, and is true for almost all parts of Himachal. Pahadis are very proud and at the same time very welcoming.

We kept walking and further up the mountain saw a fairly wide stream that went to join Bespa river further down stream. The water was ice cold and the place so captivating that the entire group stopped here for about an hour, providing everyone with photo opportunities.

Stream that joined Bespa
Stream that joined Bespa

After clicking enough pictures and enjoying our time with the crystal clear water, we walked further up to reach the meadows. From here further up lay the glacier that was providing the water for the fields downstream. My leg was already swollen but I wanted to keep walking. But my course director, with the sternness of an elder sister, asked me to discontinue the walk. Given that by the time I reached the hotel room, my leg pained like anything, I believe she called it right.

In the afternoon, we would go to Chitkul, the last village in the Indo-Tibetan border which is accessible by motor vehicles.

Chitkul, the last village of India

Afternoon, we proceeded to Chitkul, which is located around 15 kilometres from Sangla. The road became even narrower and on the one side we had the Bespa river guiding us. In these regions, the border is guarded by the ITBP, and we encountered an ITBP checkpost, where the board said, “Chitkul Beet”. Here too we could find a cascading waterfall.

The Himalayas continued to rise majestically and we reached Chitkul around 4–5. The air was much colder here. Vehicles are only allowed to ply until Chitkul. A little forward from Chitkul lay the post of the army, after which lies a few hamlets which are accessible only on mules. They are not accessible via motorable roads. Around 80 kilometres from Chitkul lay Tibet. Apparently, the Indian side of the border in these regions are not developed as part of a deliberate strategy. The army thinks that a Chinese advance can be stopped in these areas only by not developing the roads in these regions. It is also true that to maintain the infrastructure on Indian side would be more costly than on the Chinese side.

While all my colleagues proceeded towards the valley, I decided to walk towards the cultivated fields that lay above along with my friend Rahul and our Senior DAG, Anindyo Sir. We met a few villagers and started talking with them and they informed us of a “Nati” that would take place next night and invited us to join them. The three of us decided to keep it a secret as it would be difficult to go there at night with a large batch. It might also end up disturbing the locals if a large batch shows up for such an event.

We reached back at the hotel at around 7. Some of my colleagues and I stayed till late night before going to sleep. The good thing about being with peers of your own calibre is that the conversations never gets boring. Our hot topics for the day was one of the OTs who left our service this year for a State level post, and the other was my own selection in UPSC exam this year and whether I should go or not. We decided to not test the length the night at around 2 and went to sleep. Somewhere in my dream a pahadi song kept playing.

Day 3: Sangla Kanda and Nati @ Chitkul

 

Day 1: A trip to the land of Apples!

Ever since I went on leave due to my injury, I was missing all the fun that the trips that Officer Trainees undertake provides. However, within two weeks of my joining back, I would have an occasion to ease back into the routine. The weekend around the corner had an extra day due to Id-ul-Fitr and hence the OTs wanted to visit kullu/manali for undertaking some activity like River Rafting. However, this was not approved. Instead another plan that came to fruition was a trip to Sangla Valley.

To the land of world’s best apples

Quoting Wiki,

Sangla is a city in the Baspa Valley, also referred to as the Sangla valley, in the Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh, India, close to the Tibetan border. Sangla Valley or the Baspa Valley starts at Karcham and ends at Chitkul. Sangla is the major town in the valley with a petrol pump, Bank ATMs, Post Office, Restaurants, Bar, mid range hotels and shops. The valley is surrounded by forested slopes and offers views of the high mountains. Its location in the greater Himalayan range gives it a milder climate than the plains.

The journey to Sangla from Shimla takes around 8–10 hours. We started at around 9 in the morning and would reach the valley by evening 6. The route that we travelled through is one of the most scenic ones I have ever undertook. All around you, you see the Great Himalayas and as you leave Shimla (district) and reach Kinnaur, the valleys become deeper with the rivers cutting through them making deep gorges.

Throughout the route, you see apple orchards and cherry trees on the terraced Hills. The Cherry trees have been covered with nets to protect them from frost and hail. Many of us had taken “avomin” for motion sickness. Not having suffered motion sickness ever in my life, I took solace in a beer.

Our lunch was scheduled at a hotel in Rampur, Himachal Pradesh. The River Sutlej was visible already and I was amazed to see it. For Malayalees, the North Indian Rivers are a wonder. The Rivers in Kerala, flow swiftly into the Arabian Sea. However, they are not as ferocious as the Himalayan Rivers in their upper reaches, or as wide as them in the lower reaches. Besides, the rivers there don’t carve the kind of deep valleys that the North Indian rivers do in their course.

The first time I visited Kullu/Manali, after my prelims in 2014, I was awestruck to see the fantastic valley of the Beas. That was the first time I truly understood what a V-shaped valley is. Even now, whenever I visit a Himalayan River, the feeling remains. So, seeing the ferocious Sutlej in Rampur, evoked both nostalgia and amazement in me.

We had started as 3 groups. The OTs were travelling in two Tempo travellers and the Directors accompanying us in 3 innovas. The other groups had reached before us, while our ‘lazy’ group reached last. After having food in Rampur we soon resumed our travel.

From Rampur onwards the terrain slowly started to evolve. The height of the ranges that surrounded us began to increase, the river started to get narrow and more ferocious, and the valleys became deeper. Our driver was very adept at navigating the high hills and he would, with ease, ply through these dangerous roads. These roads, which are narrow, are only wide enough to accommodate one vehicle and if two buses come together it needs some skill to manoeuvre. One wrong calculation and you would plunge into the deep valley that is on the other side. A small landslide and you could be left stranded.

(The Deep V-shaped Valleys were a breathtaking sight to behold)

Shorly after we left Rampur, we came across a small waterfall. We stopped there for sometime. I happened to misplace my walking stick ( which I have been using to assist in my recovery) here and would not remember that I lost it until we reached Sangla. However, I never felt the need for it because my course director made sure that I was well taken care of, something that I am quite sure would not happen everywhere. I felt that there are a lot of things that I need to learn from our seniors in the way subordinates should be treated. In way that too was a learning experience.

We followed the Sutluj northwards, and after sometime reached Karcham. Near Karcham, Sutluj is joined by the Bespa River from its left bank, which is its tributary. I was amazed to see the confluence of the two rivers, two ferocious streams consummating their unavoidable union. Sutlej has been dammed here for the Karcham-Wangtoo Hydroelectric Power project and can be viewed on the way.

IA&AS OTs at the Karcham Dam
IA&AS OTs at the Karcham Dam

From here on, we started following the Bespa River upstream. The river bed was strewn with round granite stones of different sizes. The valley kept becoming deeper and road more dangerous. We would come across many vehicles with Punjab and Delhi registration, which were carrying tourists who were trying to escape the heat of the plains. Many of them were not very comfortable riding in these hills and drove with their ruffian skills while navigating these high mountains.

Our group reached Sangla town around 6:30 and our Bhutanese friends proceeded to have tea from a “Bondhese ( Buddhist when written incorrectly) tea shop. Sangla town is surrounded by the Great Himalayan Ranges and its view is really breathtaking. A wall of mountains is erected all around you, and you think that the mountain that you see in front of you is the biggest and suddenly a cloud is blown away by the wind and just behind that wall an even taller, loftier mountain shows its face. There is no wonder that out culture worships Himalayas ever since time immemorial. There is nothing that can be more humbling and majestic at the same time. I felt proud that our country is home to this natural heritage.

(Sangla Town with Himalayas in the backdrop)

Another thing needs to be mentioned. I had taken a Jio Sim recently and I was able to stream videos over 4g network until I reached very close to Sangla. I found this fantastic, when you think how recent they have launched their product. The other provider that had good connectivity was Airtel. My dual sim phone with Idea and BSNL had network only from BSNL, idea almost dying out ever since we left Shimla. However, once we reached Sangla, BSNL stood tall providing 2g network while all others almost failed. It awakes you to the fact why the State services are essential in these otherwise inaccessible areas.

From Sangla town, we proceeded to the valley where our hotel was situated. We halted in a hotel name Batseri ( named after the village that lay just behind it. It provided a view of the Bespa river in front. The gurgling sound of the river provided music to my ears. It was something very soothing and almost felt like meditation. The rooms were good with a woody smell to it. There was no TV or wifi or AC/fan facilities. Even without all these I felt very comfortable.

We had a campfire by the riverside. The pitch dark night hid the mountains that were just behind us, even though its presence was thoroughly felt. The campfire helped us cool our nerves after a long and tiring journey. Some of the more adventurous from our lot ventured to the river bank at night. I wanted to join, but because of my leg condition, desisted from doing it.

A much more eventful day awaited us. After chirping late into the night with some friends, I slowly retired to my room. It was past one. The silence of the valley and the cool breeze that came in through the window made sure that I slept like a baby. I would soon wake up to an even more exciting day.

Here is Day 2 of the trip.

Day 2: Sleeping hamlets- Batseri and Chitkul