On the morning of September 21, 2013, I woke up to the sound the falling rain. When I stepped out of my room, this was the sight that greeted me. It is here that I will request you to backtrack a bit and read my previous post, if you haven’t read it already.
I was at Sangla’sKinner Camps in the Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh. Our tour group had arrived here the previous afternoon and we had had a great time exploring the neighbouring Batseri village and walking along the River Baspa till rain forced us to return. Though we were a little concerned about the sudden change in weather, we were also quite sure that the next day would dawn bright and sunny.
Bright? Sunny? It was dark, grey and cold and I could actually see fresh snowfall on the distant peaks. As I stood there wondering about the weather, Doreen, our tour organiser and manager, came around to ask us to be packed and ready to leave. Since the weather forecast was not encouraging, Pawan, our driver, had suggested that we leave Sangla at the earliest. The next hour was a rush as we packed and got ready to leave. While we had a hurried breakfast, our bags got loaded into our 3 vehicles.
As I got into my vehicle, I noticed that Pawan’s normally relaxed and mischievous face wore a worried look and I soon realised why. The road leading from Kinner Camps to the main road was not tarred or metalled and what was a passable dirt track had turned slushy with the rain. And combined with a very steep ascent, the ride to the top could be a tricky one.
It was a silent group that got into the vehicles and the only sounds were that of the falling rain. With a prayer on everybody’s lips, the vehicles took off. The first two vehicles made it to the top without any incident.
“Ready?” Pawan, our driver asks, smiling mischievously at me.
I am sitting in the front seat with Pawan and have a view of the road from the front windshield and the side window. I visibly gulp at the steep descent in front of us. We are in the Sangla Valley, just past the town of Sangla in the Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh, and have to negotiate that steep descent to reach Kinner Camps, where our group will be staying the next two days.
I look back to see the reaction of my travel companions, but there’s none — they’re all snoozing. I don’t blame them for it has been a tiring journey from Kalpa. A distance of 40 km has taken us almost 4 hours over impossibly bad roads, and past huge thermal power plant projects with the River Baspa as an almost constant companion.
I nod nervously at Pawan and he takes off and within minutes we are at the entrance to Kinner Camps, which is at the end that descent. After thanking Pawan, I get out of the vehicle to find that my legs feel a little shaky. That’s when I realise just how nervous I was during the ride. Though I consider myself to be a good and hardy traveller, 5 days on the Himalayan roads have made me look at road travel in a new light. Respect.
We are welcomed by the staff of Kinner Camps and led straight for a sumptuous lunch. By the time we finish our meal, our bags have been unloaded and waiting outside our rooms.
I am not fussy about hotels. No, really I’m not. A clean room, a clean bathroom, a convenient and safe location, a restaurant with some decent vegetarian options… and I’m a happy and satisfied customer of that hotel. Everything else — air-conditioner, spa, multi-cuisine restaurants, gym, room with views, wi-fi, etc. — are only add-ons for me and their presence or absence is not a criteria for choosing a hotel.
Sure, I like 5-star and luxury hotels, but while very nice, posh and what not, they tend to overwhelm me. An occasional heritage hotel has been known to tempt me, but it’s always because of the story it has to say, rather than the facilities they offer. While travelling, I’m always more concerned about the place I’m visiting rather than the place I’m staying in. So a basic hotel works just as fine as a not-so-basic or more-than-basic hotel. Like I said, I’m not fussy.
But last September, during a trip to Himachal Pradesh, I stayed in a hotel where I had such a superlative experience that I was forced to admit that the place of stay also adds to the travel experience. And 6 months on, I can even say that my stay at this hotel is among the memories that come to mind whenever I think of that trip. The hotel that has spoiled me for ever is The Hotel Grand Shangri-La at Kalpa in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.
Before my trip to Himachal Pradesh, everyone who knew I was travelling there had something to tell me about the place. More so because this was my first trip there and also because I would be seeing the Himalayas for the first time.
So, I got to hear about the weather, the roads, the people, the rivers, the food, the vegetation, the various mountain ranges, the monkeys, the treks, the hotels, the temples, the local culture, apples, snow, wildlife… But all of them missed out on telling me about the breathtaking Himalayan sunrises and sunsets or for that matter, Himalayan moonrises and moonsets.
The first sunrise and sunset that I saw were at Fagu and Sarahan respectively. They were beautiful and I may have even termed them as spectacular, if I had not gone to Kalpa and seen the sunrises, sunsets and moonrises over the Kinner Kailash range; they redefined the words “spectacular” and “breathtaking” for me.
On my first evening at Kalpa, our group visited a gompa at Kalpa village. Our visit ended around sunset after which we were generally wandering about. Suddenly I heard Doreen, our tour leader, call out to us in an urgent voice to hurry and see the moonrise.
We all rushed to where Doreen was standing and saw a bit of the moon from behind a mountain peak getting ready to make its appearance for the night. And over the next few minutes, I was witness to a moonrise like none that I had seen before and, perhaps none that I am likely to ever see.
It was a lovely dream where my 10-day trip to Fagu, Sarahan, Kalpa, Sangla,Narkhanda and Chail in September was relived all over again. I usually don’t remember my dreams when I wake up, but this one was so crystal clear and real that I’m pretty sure that I must have spoken in my sleep !
I dreamt of the trip of many firsts — the first time I visited your state, the first time I saw the mighty Himalayas, the first time my under-graduate and post-graduate classes on Himalayan Geology came alive, the first time I saw apples on trees, the first time I tasted a yellow plum, the first time I saw the confluence of two rivers … and so much more.
I dreamt about the rainstorm you welcomed me and the group I was travelling with. And how in the space of a few hours, we went from hot and humid Mumbai to cold, almost freezing, weather in Fagu. That night, I slept under two blankets and had a heater in the room.
I dreamt of that first morning I woke up to in Fagu. Clouds had covered the entire valley and I delighted in watching the clouds vanish like wisps of vapour as the sun rose in the sky to reveal the distant snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. And closer, much closer, was the vegetation associated with the Himalayan ecosystem. Not that I could identify any, but still… 🙂
Karcham, in the Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh, is a pretty ordinary looking place and one can be forgiven for dismissing it as just another Indian town. However it is not “just another Indian town” as I found out.
This is where the highway (or rather the dirt track that passes for one) bifurcates into two — one leads to Kalpa and the other leads to the Sangla Valley. It is here that the Karcham Wangtoo Hydroelectric Plant is situated. And it is at Karcham that the Sutlej and the Baspa rivers meet.
According to a Kinnauri legend,
the rivers Sutlej and Baspa are brothers, with former being the older one. Sutlej was the more serious and sedate sibling, and Baspa the mischievous one. Like all siblings the two were rivals for everything, including whose name should be retained where their waters joined at Karcham. It was decided that whoever reached Karcham first would get the honour of lending his name to the river from that point onwards.
And so the two rivers set forth towards Karcham. Baspa, the faster of the two. He rushed forth through valleys and gorges, but was easily distracted and stopped to play with other streams and take mini diversions. On the other hand, Sutlej flowed slowly and steadily towards Karcham. And we know which type of person wins, right?
Sutlej reached Karcham first and that is how the river from Karcham onwards is known by that name even though it contains the waters of Baspa as well.
Wherever I travelled in the Kinnaur region these rivers were never too far from me. If the Sutlej was within my sight from the Kalpa side, the Baspa kept me company in the Sangla Valley. Two brothers, so different in looks and character, both heavily dammed, and yet in their own ways lifelines for the regions they flow through.
The confluence is stark and one can easily pick out the blue of the Baspa and the grey of the Sutlej. It was a sight the kept me mesmerised for a long time.