I sat at my dear friend Sherry’s ever so inviting terrace over a cup of hot coffee and we were as always talking about travel…. she was telling me about her bike trip (sherry is an awesome biker by the way!) to Nepal. She described the mountains and stopped short with a little gasp when I said… “I’ve never seen the mountains in India!”…. That was the start of my most memorable trip to the beautiful magnificent Himalayas!
Four girls (Sherry, Monisha, Bidisha and me)… back packs… and a ticket in an out of Delhi… in between… ten days in the mountains with absolutely no planning! Spontaneous is the best travel plan!
The best way to get up to the mountains (The Himachal Pradesh side of it)… well the most scenic way is to head to Kalka railway station and take the toy train to Shimla. I have never seen a cuter train.. a smaller train… a slower train… and never wanted the train ride to last forever as the scene just kept getting better and better!
The toy train takes you to Shimla- the honeymoon capital of India. Many romantic scenes of renowned Bollywood movies were shot here and for good reason. Shimla has maintained its quaint British architecture and quiet way of life despite the tourism. We were lucky to have a friend there, Anil Bharadwaj (You can find him at Bandbox heights and valleys, No 9 , Mall road), who hooked us up on a beautiful offbeat soul searching trip with an even more wonderful driver whom we lovingly came to remember as Gogi Bhaiya!
Our road trip looked something like this… Shimla- Sarahan- Kamru-Rakcham- Chitkul-Nako- Kalpa- Chail – Shimla. This took us through the Sangla valley and the Kinnaur Valley … from green mountainous regions, through valleys that were bursting at spring time and upto mountain deserts. Although we didn’t have quite enough time to reach the Chandratal lake at Spiti Valley that we were aiming for… we definitely left with a backpack full of unexpected discoveries and a plan to head back for more!
The first time you are on the roads in the mountains, the sheer scale of everything is a lot to soak in… The Himalayas are larger than you ever imagined, the roads are narrower and the river Sutlej running miles below is angrier…and suddenly you feel tiny… and your problems even tinier! I was in awe of the muddy but steady roads that swirled in and out of mountain cut outs making our way to the gateway of the Kinnaur Valley- Sarahan.
The Himalayas is a very mythical place where most stories of the fiber of every village’s existence revolves around Hindu or Buddhist mythology. The village of Sarahan is a small temple town where stands the Bhimakali temple. Stories ranging from the temple being a manifestation of the Goddess Sati who’s ear fell at this place to Lord Krishna having battled Lord Shiva here and many others to listen to while you explore this wooden temple engulfed in smells of sandal wood and fragrant flowers with small staircases leading to the figurine they worship as Maa Kali. The serenity of this temple makes it hard to believe that human sacrifice was carried out here till the 18th century!
The temple has an ashram wing which I highly recommend for stay. It has the proverbial Indian “running hot water” which basically is a little lad running to your room with a bucket of hot water!
Outside of Sarahan is a little village called Kamru known best for the Kamru Fort which stands at the foot of the Kinnaur Kailash and houses around 3 crore Gods and Goddesses. Its a bit difficult to find on your own but the view is well worth the effort!
The highlight of our trip to Kamru, besides being apple season (Some of the worlds best apples come from the kinnaur valley), was that it was the month of the flower festival (Phulaich festival). During the flower festival, the young brave lads of Kamru go hunting into the forests to find the rarest of flowers and wear it on their hats or coats. The rarest flower wins and is offered to the deity. People of all ages sing and dance around the temple complex.
It took us a while to climb up to the temple…. almost as long as the 60 year olds of that village! Kamru village welcomes you with both Buddhist and Hindu God carvings on its entrance archway which leads up a flight of steps to the temple. This flight is packed on either sides with apple orchards, cobbled houses, wooden barns and cow sheds… a picturesque walk to an even more picturesque event!
Apples… Apples… Apples…. as we drove on out of Sarhan to Rakcham… Bidisha taught us a Pahadi (mountain) song on our way that we sang at every leg of our trip at some point!
Hun chaliya dyun ke chali….
Himalay na choraa….
Balma tujhe nachan lage….
Jyun nache mun moraa….
I have travelled to many places within India and abroad and till date Rakcham remains my favourite! Winding down from the mountain, the village of Rakcham appears in front of you like a picture from a story book! It is at the foothills of the Himalayas …. a beautiful valley with a river following along its middle and countered landscapes on either side in a myriad of colours!
The people in Rakcham strongly believe in the Mahabharata. It is said in the mythological story, that the five Pandava brothers entered into a competition (swayamwara) dressed like Brahmins to win the hand of Princess Draupadi. The task was to string a mighty steel bow and shoot a target on the ceiling, which is the eye of a moving artificial fish, while looking at its reflection in the oil below. Most of the princes failed, many being unable to lift the bow. Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) however succeeds. The Pandavas return home and inform their mother that Arjuna has won a competition and to look at what they have brought back. Without looking, Kunti, their mother, asks them to share whatever it is Arjuna has won among themselves. Thus, Draupadi ended up having five husbands.
In the village of Rakcham, this practice is followed to date! All the sons in one nuclear family are married to only one bride!
This may also be the reason why alcohol is brewed in every household all year round! The base of the alcohol depends on season- apple, flowers, wheat… However, the making of this potent mixture (trust me this is far more potent than tequila!) is by using a home mill… grinding these with the help of the river- the gushing water that comes from the mountains and flows in a rush turning the mill.
The Banjara camp would be the ideal place to stay but needs to be booked in advance. You can walk to the dry patch in the middle of the river and stick your beer bottles in the icy water to stay chilled…. Put your feet up and take in the beauty of the river with shades of orange, yellow and green pastures on either side and prayer flags fluttering in the wind carrying prayers upto heaven… I don’t see why though.. It feels like heaven already!
We woke up the morning after to see a thick candy floss of clouds hanging over the mountains… and as we sipped our morning tea… the clouds parted and for the first time I saw the Kinnaur Kailash mountain top…
My beautiful buddy Sherry makes furry friends everywhere we go… and so she had to say good bye to these two cuddly puppies of course…
Leaving the green foothills of the mountains we headed up to the snow deserts of Nako through roads that seem to becomes narrower and more rubbly! We planned a stop for lunch at Chitkul– a little village which is at the border of the Indo- China L.O.C.
Driving upto the mountains is not for the faint hearted… The drop down is awe inspiring and mind blowing all at once. We in India believe a lot in fate so we don’t exactly put much safety parameters… although today the roads are way better than years ago! We even had Mr Michael (whom we lovingly referred to Michael on a cycle!) as who managed to keep up with us all the way up on his bicycle!
The road to Chitkul was well not really a road… It was more of a rugged path where we were greeted by a huge herd of very inquisitive Pashmina sheep! As the jeep went closer they all clambered up onto rocks on the sides- standing on tiny rocks as if they were doing an acrobatics act for us!
Quaint little village, Chitkul – going about its life completely oblivious of a Line of Control between India and China on the other side of the hill! So serene and peaceful…
As we drove on up to the top of the mountain, I was almost sad to see that there were no more tall pine trees dotting our way. There is some sense of security in seeing them stand on that rocky terrain braving wind, snow, landslides- Its the feeling you have as a child when you walk behind your father in an undiscovered territory!
And when the peaks of the magnificent Himalayas start to appear… make sure you stop… stare… kneel… sit and hang your feet over the edge… anything… But stop… breathe in that pure energy and let all your worries disappear into its magic… and be sure you will revisit it in your mind many times hence…
Nako is the largest village at an elevation of over 3500km and spreads out around the Nako lake. The people live in houses made of stones mostly and move down onto warmer grounds in peak summer when the whole village gets snowed in. Nako houses a monastery which dates back to the 11th century where rituals are still followed in the same manner as then. The artwork which are the Buddhist scriptures are still clear in the oldest part of the monastery.
The people of Nako were so warm and friendly. We stayed at the Knaygoh Kinner camp a walking distance from the village where we were greeted into homes for a cup of hot tea… The lake shone in the sun smiling for us …
Time flies when you are having fun… and soon it was time for us to head back to Shimla to make sure we don’t miss our flight home… I think each one of us had to price ourselves away from the mountains… But we left with a promise to return and a heart full of pure positive energy… the kind you can only shop for at the Himalayas!