Heaven Can Wait
... the beautiful land of Kinnaur

Text and Photographs: Insiya Rasiwala.

The road to Roghi,  the old Hindustan Tibet highway. Its curving bends
are matched only by the swirling clouds around E-Mail this story to a friend The station was crowded. A jumble of a myriad colors, smells, not all of them pleasant. Crowds thronged. Chaos seemed to be a given for Bombay Central, though it seemed to be an organised chaos. People drifted somehow towards their appointed trains in a seemingly prearranged fashion. Red-faced coolies surrounded us once we stepped out of the car and yelled their rates for carrying our bags to the right platform.

"Paschim Express," we called out. One of them gave a knowing nod and for his efforts became the chosen one to carry our bags. There weren't too many and they weren't too heavy either, but the coolie's presence added to our general anticipation of embarking on a long voyage. I insisted on carrying my own rucksack however. It made me feel as though I was really going on a camping holiday!

 Shepherd returning carrying a wounded goat on his shouldersThe Paschim Express was supposed to be just that -- an express. "Really," a friend assured us, "Delays are rare on this train." But the fast, express train was six hours late. So instead of the already long, 26-hour journey, we ended up spending another half a day on the train, finally reaching our destination, Ambala, Haryana, late on Tuesday evening.

The train ride was uneventful. Dry, dusty landscapes sped past through equally dusty windows. The earth everywhere was parched, awaiting the onset of the monsoon. Within, the only interruptions in the monologue of time were the train vendors, hawking everything from sandwiches and tomato soup to tea and cold drinks. We attempted to try a Indian Railways dinner and thought better of it after one look at the cold food the waiter brought to us. I decided salad and sandwiches were a much better (and safer) option.

Our fellow passenger, a Sikh priest kept to himself, giving us only an occasional smile. But he surprised me no end when he unexpectedly picked up something from my pile of reading, a Vogue summer special. And I wondered what a Sikh priest found interesting about fashion.

 Grassy Alpine
meadow high above Chitkul Our driver and guide, Vijay, awaited us in Ambala. He swept us away from the cantonment town's heat to the cooler climes of Shimla, a five-hour road trip on constantly curving ghats. He also managed to feed our starving, growling stomachs along the way, when we stopped at a simple dhaba , where I ate the best dal makhaani of my life!

We slept the night in a utilitarian but comfortable hotel, our only option, since we reached Shimla's outskirts at one in the morning. Patient Vijay roused us early the next morning and bundled us into our white Armada, a jeep whose sturdiness and comfort I would value much in the forthcoming week. It was the first of our long drives, an eight-hour long journey that took us from Shimla, past small mountaintop towns such as Fagu and Theog, and into Rampur, which marked the beginning of Kinnaur, a mountainous district of Himachal.

Our first glimpse of the Sutlej was memorable. The river was in spate, surging furiously onwards, carving its way through the valley, seemingly unstoppable and powerful, carrying away sediment and more sediment into its murky waters. This mighty river would soon befriend us, as we continued to follow its course up into the greater Himalayas. Verdant orchards of ripening fruit surrounded us. Cheery fruit sellers took refuge from the rains, sitting under little plastic tents, selling peaches and apples at deliciously, low prices. We picked some up along the way at a hamlet called Narkanda, a popular ski resort and enjoyed the piquant, soury sweetness of some green apples.

Kinnauri children at an Anganwadi in the village of
Rakksham, SanglaRampur was an interesting town. The erstwhile capital of the Bhushar rulers, it was dotted with bustling shops, colleges and an interesting fort, as well as temples. The people were a motley bunch, with varied looks and features. The Kinnauris mesmerized us with their beauty. Dressed in a traditional fashion, the men wore rather well-cut, coarse wool coats and the women were in salwar-kurtas. Both sexes wore the smart Kinnauri topis or caps. They were elegant, graceful and yet wiry, as mountain people everywhere are.

This was only a brief introduction to Kinnaur. Its generous beauty still awaited us. On that lush, rainy day, the weather, even in Rampur, was cool and it only grew cooler as we began climbing up the mountains again, passing the turn off to Sarahan, another picturesque hamlet.

It was late in the afternoon when we ate at Bhabhanagar. Once a sleepy town, it now boasted much frenzied activity on account of a hydro-electric power project based there, one of the many such ventures along the Sutlej. We took Vijay's advice once again and ate at a tiny, dark but delicious smelling restaurant, run by a Nepali woman, who served us hot, steaming momos, clear noodle soup and simple dal-bhat. We were eating 'local' and eating well!

From Bhabhanagar to Kalpa, the mountains rose higher, the valleys deeper and we finally approached our destination. The Sutlej accompanied us along the way until we climbed the mountain towards Rekong Peo, the new district headquarters of Kinnaur. A bustling town, its busy marketplace was filled with vendors from the area and we picked up a few handmade shawls and scarves on our next visit. Kalpa, our final destination for the day, was a scenic town, atop the mountain, where our camp site was located. The view was breathtaking. The majestic Kinnaur Kailash peak stood directly before us, resplendent in the evening mist, clouds swirling around it. It is said that Shiva camps at Kalpa every winter and indulges his fancy for ganja or hashish during these months.

Pockets of terrace farming  amidst the
barren landscape towards KhabI woke up early the next morning, five am, feeling the bright light filter on to my face through my tent. The sun was about to rise on the Shiv Lingam, a 4,500 metre high massif which is part of the Kinnaur Kailash range, one of the mythical, heavenly abodes of Shiva. It was a moving start to an interesting day. We decided to hike that day and walked along the Old Hindustan-Tibet highway beyond the next village, Roghi. During this scenic walk we once again caught glimpses of the Sutlej, tearing its way furiously into the valley, while up above we could glimpse glaciers and mountain ranges all around.

Kalpa was a minuscule little town that smelt vaguely like all the other villages, that dot Kinnaur, of dried dung, yak butter and salted tea. A typical smell that takes some getting used to but soon becomes an eagerly anticipated scent! An ancient settlement but not a very well known one, I didn't expect to find it particularly interesting. I decided to explore it anyway. The narrow main street of the old town was crowded with little grocery shops that stocked a strange assortment of items, blackened tea stalls, tiny tailoring shops churning out jackets and topis and a restaurant run by an old Tibetan woman.

Young children stared with bright-eyed curiosity, their sunburnt cheeks adding to their cherubic look. I imagined I would find some temples in the village. But I was taken aback at their beauty. I wasn't prepared for the inner splendour of a Buddhist gompa or temple, which looked completely unassuming and nondescript from the outside.

A wizened monk welcomed us inside. While he lead us in a short prayer, I squinted in the dim torch light to see the detailed murals that covered the walls. When I shone a bright torch upon them, I realized that they were in a relatively good condition, depicting myriad scenes from the Buddhist scriptures. Kalpa held other treasures too. Its two Vishnu temples were interesting. One of them was built in an architectural style similar to the temples one sees all over southeast Asia, a combination of Hindu and Buddhist architecture.

Luscious mountain flowersThe Kalpa-Rekong area was beautiful too. But nothing in Kinnaur surpasses the Sangla valley -- so named after the largest town there -- in scenic beauty and climate. High in the greater Himalayas, Sangla is the valley of the pristine Baspa river, whose fierce flowing waters have cut deep, steep gorges from Chitkul, the last village in Sangla, to where it meets the Sutlej. Crystal white waters merge with the Sutlej's muddy hues.

Sangla almost became unattainable to us. There had been a massive landslide the morning we arrived, but we managed to find a jeep on the other side of the blockage, picked up our bags and transferred them from our trusty car into a local jeep taxi. By the time we finally reached Chitkul, our destination for the day, the enterprising driver had accumulated all sorts of produce, humans and vegetables in the back of the jeep. We shared our space ungrudgingly, glad that we could make it to our camp in spite of the death of the road! It was an unpaved road, dusty and bumpy, curving into sharp bends, that gave us glimpses of the mountain ranges far ahead, beyond Chitkul, the last inhabited village in Sangla before the Indo-Tibet border.

Our campsite at Chitkul was a treat. Located on a grassy meadow, it overlooked the Baspa river and all around us were various mountain ranges. We could see the Kinnaur Kailash peak once again, this time nearer but a different face.

That evening the wind blew strong while we walked to a military check post, a few kilometers away, on a well-trodden path that paralleled the Baspa. We bumped into a few shepherds, bringing their sheep and yaks from the grazing grounds, occasionally carrying a poor, wounded beast on their shoulders. Alpine meadows surrounded us. The flowers were just beginning to blossom. The best time to see Himalayan flowers is in August when they are in full bloom. But June and July do mark the early arrivals among them -- pink wild roses, tiny yellow violets, peonies, deep red, as well as, pale blue alpine poppies and luscious rhododendrons.

 Landslide after Sangla town, cutting off  the road to ChitkulNature lovers would also appreciate the incredible variety of birds that one can find in Kinnaur. Avid bird watchers, we were delighted to catch sight of a pair of majestic golden eagles, a rare Himalayan tree creeper, some delicately coloured finches, wagtails, babblers and bush chats. The Baspa river is fed mostly by glacial streams that carve down the mountainside. We followed a magnificent glacier very near the village. It required walking down to the river, across a little bridge and then a long, five hour climb uphill all the way. We pushed our way past bushes, creepers, and rocks, stopping along the way to admire the view.

Our camp was far below now. We were high up, probably at around 13,000 ft, feeling the scorching heat of the sun on our bodies. I was glad to have used sun block and happy that we had a guide with us, Vinay, a local from the village. The 'manager' of a Spartan, but comfortable and clean guesthouse in Chitkul village, Vinay was incredibly knowledgeable about the region. Swift and agile, he took us along paths we would have been to nervous to attempt crossing and pointed out rare, medicinal and sacred plants all along the path.

mules on the road to KhabReaching the glacier was an achievement. And what awaited us beyond it was definitely worth the climb. A huge grassy meadow, with a stream flowing through, coloured the stark landscape of these high slopes. We were sheltered from the wind and sat on some boulders and enjoyed the scenery. After the last rays of sunlight disappeared and dusk cloaked the mountains, the clear night sky took on a different aspect. Stars emerged, engaging us in their sparkling dialogue. We sat by the bonfire, our necks craned back, focussing on the vision above, seeing shooting stars and satellites with our naked eyes. It was elysium... heaven, disturbed by nothing. I didn't want to walk all the way back down!

Photographs: Insiya Rasiwala. Design: Dominic Xavier

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