An encounter with the Himalayan Ranges in my grade IV Geography books at school posed a huge challenge even to my wildest imagination. How were these mighty peaks ever an ocean bed in the past! It demanded some serious investigation. I reached home, took Dad’s garage tools and Mom’s kitchen spoons, started shovelling my backyard in the western city of India, Ahmedabad — far away from the Himalayas. I had hoped for some fishbones and pre-historic remnants. Big disappointment. But I was not done yet. I examined every construction site I came by, where earth was dug to cement the building basements. Still nothing. Came across the career terms — archaeologist, palaeontologist, geographer and dreamt of becoming atleast one of them. But those were overshadowed by later acquired taste of careers. And so after 24 years of waiting when I was finally setting foot on the mighty Himalayas, it was time to get it right ☺
As is often the case, none of the investigations happened when I landed there. I was in sheer awe of the amazing and majestic beauty of ever rising Himalayas. A first among the many times to come.
On the Road
With a heady mix of anxiety and adrenalin rush, Appu and I eyed Mr. Tara Singh, later to be known as Tara ji. He was a 34 year old thin, small built man of few words, who at this stage was very critical to our well being. He was married with a small kid and family in Shimla. He was to drive us up the mountains from Shimla to Kalpa which was a remote village and be our companion for the next 5 days. This journey into the unexplored was going to lead us through some treacherous narrow paths that fringed the steep mountains. To our questions about the route and journey, the great Taraji had one answer — We’ll face it as it comes! Well, the wise one had spoken.
We started for Kalpa around 8 AM. Even though Google Maps showed 4.5 hrs for the 230 odd kilometres. Mountain roads always have their own agenda for any passerby. It was going to be an 8–9 hours of drive with the occasional stops according to our brave driver. After leaving the Shimla town, the state highway took us through Shimla reserve forest sanctuary. The view had dramatically changed from here. Endless lines of tall pine trees embraced us. Around 9 AM we halted near Kufri and had our breakfast at a dhaaba. We stopped at will and took shots and panoramas.
We crossed Theog, Narkanda, Sarahan and as we reached the turn near Bithal, we got the first glimpse of Sutlej. Sutlej originates from the Lake Rakshastal — lake of the demon — in Tibet, joins the Indus in Pakistan and terminates in the Arabian Sea. Our journey with Sutlej continued till we stopped for a simple yet delicious piping hot serving of rajma-chawal (rice and gravy of red kidney beans) and kadi (fritters in mildly spiced gravy of sour yoghurt and chickpea flour) near Rampur.
The last stretch of few kilometres until Reckong Peo was a bumpy ride. The roads by the BRO (Border Road Organisation) had been damaged by landslides and heavy construction works for the dams and hydel projects across Himachal Pradesh. These projects have been highly criticised by the environmentalists and geologists. Reducing the dense rocks that make the mountains to mere rubbles to make wider roads is causing irrepairable damage to the ecosystem of this region. It was sad to experience dust and pollution in some of these areas. Sights of large trucks carrying concrete and cements for the dams were depressing.
From Rampur we took another few hours till we reached Reckong Peo 2290 mts (locally known as Peo), the administrative headquarters of the Kinnaur District. From Peo it hardly took 20 minutes to reach our destination.
Kalpa 2690 mts
We finally reached Kalpa around 5pm to a very warm welcome with chorus voices shouting ‘Welcome Maheshji and Aparnaji’. We got a Tibetan scarf — Khata from our host Prithviji of Grand Shangri-la. He made us comfortable with freshly made apple juice from his organic orchard which is right next to the accomodation. The smell of deodar wood laced the dining hall and stairways. After we settled in, he showed us around his place. Grand Shangri-la is a nice peaceful place on the hilltop and has a spectacular view of the Kinnaur Kailash range. Sunset on a clear day, you can witness the Kinnaur Kailash changing colours. Prithviji, a down to earth and charismatic man was quick to make us feel at home and drew us a map and the things we could do during our stay. The hotel had a beautiful attic library where we saw some really nice documentaries and lazed around reading. There was an amazing collection of books on history, wildlife, birding, nature, travel and Buddhism — handpicked by Prithviji himself and some gifted by the friends he made amongst his guests. It was beginning to get dark and chilly, so we tucked ourselves in after a delicious dinner spread of dal, rice, roti, and chicken in the dining hall. The morning sunrise could not be missed at any cost.
We got up around 6 with the faintest idea of the dawn at some part of the land. We waited patiently under the shadows of the ranges and wondered at how insignificant we were in comparison. Soon we were about to witness one of the greatest sunrises on the planet.
The rays of the sun cutting across the Kinnaur Kailash range appeared like the light coming through a prism. Just like it did when Storm Thorgerson designed the album cover for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, sans the rainbow. The morning chants from the Buddhist monastery in the village added to the cosmic psychedelics. The great gig in the skies of Shiva lasted for a mere ten minutes. But it got etched in our minds for a lifetime.
Sipping hot tea at the wooden attic while gazing at the sunrise in the hills ahead was worth the whole back breaking journey. Appu felt like quickly watering few colours onto the papers, after which we had our breakfast and headed for our 6 km walk to a nearby village Roghi.
Walk to Roghi
A lazy stroll of mere 6 kms to one of the most remote villages in India, sounds very easy and romantic. But when you are negotiating the strong wind currents of the Kalpa valley on narrow 10 ft wide winding roads perched at a perilous drop of 400 mts above the rocky Sutlej river, you need the best shoe grip and walking capabilities. There are many things to distract you on the way. Apart from the hypnotising scenery and apple orchards, there were also vultures and stones sliding down from the peaks above. Luckily we had the perfect guide — a himalayan shepherd dog that guided and lead us till Roghi.
We had seen the dog just outside the Grand Shangri La and petted it for a couple of minutes before setting off. Its amazing how it started following and then lead us through. These dogs would have got conditioned over time to accompany humans, in the hope to get something to eat during their camps. Just like how they evolved from wolves to dogs by walking and staying with the hunter-gatherers. Treading along the ancient paths that Indo-Tibetan travellers took for centuries for trade and political relations through sun and snow, we wondered at life in the past.
On the way, we stopped at regular intervals trying to get the best of the place. The dog was patient and kept looking for us. We would realise in our next trip to Kedarkantha in Uttarakhand, that for every mighty peak in the Himalayas, there belongs a loyal dog.
We came across one of the most dangerous turns on the National Highway 22, locally known as ‘suicide point’. Many Himalayan Griffons hovered above. It was not easy to look skywards and stand still at that point. You risked getting a fit and losing balance. It was clear the vultures were nesting around that curve. I termed the curve ‘Vultures Nest’. This walk also marked the end of my 16 year drought of sighting a vulture. It was a pleasant surprise.
We reached Roghi after 2 hrs of the ‘leisure’ walk. Our guide — the himalayan shepherd dog — left us just on the edge of the village for his next tour. As we entered the village, we saw the famous fresh Kinnauri apples being packed and taken to the plains for the rest of the country. Some of them would get exported and some of them would reach our hometowns. We saw Roghi had a similar set up like Kalpa. Small village with the basic necessities like a state run school, post office and few shops. We visited the temple of the village god. Sights of people carrying something on their back is everywhere. Young, middle-aged and even old — everyone had something to carry. This is quite common among the people here in the hills. Both Kalpa and Roghi don’t have any state run banking facilities. Villagers go to Reckong Peo for most of the facilities.
We hung around Roghi for couple of hours before Taraji came to pick us up for our return. After driving few metres on one of the most dangerous roads on the planet, we felt walking was better. We got back to Kalpa safe and visited the small Reckong Peo Buddha Monastery. Later that evening we decided to take a walk in the Kalpa village. The village is sometimes also referred as Chini Gao — Chinese Village by some people, because of the proximity to the border. We visited the Buddhist temple from where we had heard the morning prayers. It was getting dark and the temperature was slowly dropping. We quickly walked down the temple road and reached the village school ground. The kids were all back home.
We went further down when we came across one of the happiest moments of the trip. We saw four little girls jumping the fences of an apple orchard. As soon as they saw us, they knew they were caught red handed and gave mischievous smiles. We asked if we could strike a deal. They were very glad to. After a minor discussion among themselves, they offered us four Kinnauri apples, each costing 10 INR. We made friends with them and they offered a discount of 50%. We took four Kinnauri apples for 5 INR each, which would cost anywhere between 30–80 INR in the markets, depending on the distance the apples travel. They were studying in 3rd-6th grades in the state run school. Their parents were migrant workers from neighbouring country Nepal and had come down to work in the orchards and other construction and labour works. We took some happy pictures with the kids and gave them some chocolates before we left.
We called it a day with a long dinner-discussion with Prithviji and his friends from the village. We touched topics ranging from Kalpa, the local government, pros and cons of the hydel projects, electricity it generates for all the villages and progress in the region vs the ecological problems the projects were causing to the Himalayan ecosystem, Chinese incursions and the forthcoming 2014 National Elections in India.
Reckong Peo or Peo 2,290 mts
Upon our request, the next day Prithviji was kind enough to take us to an apple wine-making session and a handloom cottage. Luckily for us, there was a household making the wine that day. Unfortunately it was for a funeral function. It was being made in the backyard of a house and we got to see the whole process and taste a bit.
Later he took us to the handloom cottage and got us introduced to the local weavers. Appu fell in love with the weaves and decided to give the Kinnaur economy a boost with her purchases! We bought a few items and were planning to head to Sangla and Chitkul when I realised my expensive phone was missing. It was a prototype model used for application testing at the place I work. And more than the phone, it held a lot of images, panoramas and memories of our trip until then. A lot of effort had been put in capturing them. Our spirits came down. The rest of the day went in searching for the phone and finally we left the hope of its return to its own fate. And Lady fate was as kind as the Kinnauri folk. Thanks to them and their network, we got the phone back once we had reached Bangalore.
The next day we did a small one day trip to Sangla and Chitkul. Read here.
Kinnauri — People of Kinnaur
The following day we checked out after taking a couple of pictures with Prithviji and made our last stop of Kalpa in Kothi Durga Mandir — a hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Durga. Its one of the oldest temple in Kalpa. There are equal number of Buddhists and Hindus in Kinnaur, especially in Kalpa. Some even follow both the religions.
On our way we found few village women working on the Chilgoza — Pine Nuts. They were separating the nuts from the fruits for which they got paid close to 300–400 INR per day. They welcomed us with their beautiful smiles and invited us to sit with them. We exchanged stories about chilgoza and the urban life of us travellers. They gladly posed for some pictures and gave us some freshly carved out nuts. In the Indian subcontinent, Chilgoza is found majorly in the Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan. For ages, it has been one of the most profitable cash crops for the people of this region. Apart from the apple orchards and pine nuts — apricots, walnuts and almonds also bring good income to the locals here. We bid adieu to the beautiful ladies at work, since it was getting late and we had to reach Shimla before sunset.
On our way down from Kalpa we crossed some of the paths we had taken while climbing up. We had a very great time in Kalpa — the most beautiful sunrise, be-friending a mountain dog whom we would always remember fondly, the deadliest walks / drives and coming across a vulture after a longtime, getting to know and learning the art of hosting from one of the best and meeting some beautiful kids with whom we traded some of the sweetest apples. As we were nearing Shimla and ending the adventure, the only downer about the trip was the lost phone. We were almost losing hopes when we got the call from Prithviji. The phone had been found. And this is when we realised how helpful and honest the peace loving beautiful people of Kinnaur were. Prithviji personally ensured that the phone reached us safely.
Its this innocence and honesty of the Kinnauris that made the beauty of the place ethereal. We have been longing to go back ever since we came home. Someday we plan to get back to Kalpa and summit the Kinnaur Kailash by trekking up the 6050 mts. The summit has a 79 ft high and 40 ft wide free-standing rock formation that is very similar to the Shiva-linga. No one knows how it landed or got up there. Maybe a geologist would help. And we would also like to meet the honest and responsible soul, who found the phone and made an effort to get it safe to Prithviji.
Go to Kinnaur and your faith in humanity shall be restored.
Below is an illustrated map of Kalpa. The artwork has been split in three different zoom levels for a detailed, medium and an overview.
Info + Links
4 Wheel Drive + Driver Rs. 14000 (for 6 days, Shimla > Kalpa-Sangla-Chitkul > Shimla)
Stay & Food
Hotel Grand Shangri-la Rs. 14500 for 4 nights