Saturday, September 20, 2014

Chhitkul... The emerald green Valley!

15 Jul 2014. Early morning... the place looks divine! The mountains look down at us from their imperious heights cloaked in wisps of ephemeral clouds as if wondering what new creatures have wandered in?? The rush of the river is heard right in the tents, so furious is the current... 

The Mountains behind the camp

The Baspa River

There are flowers blooming everywhere. There are huge swathes of beautiful yellow blooms, more captivating as they seem to be haphazardly flourishing without the predictability of a manicured garden. These are Evening Primrose I am told. They have a lovely mild fragrance... also known for their therapeutic properties. There are profusely flowering wild rose bowers and daisies and many other flowers I know not the names for! 

Our tent with the Primroses and the Apple tree in the foreground

Wild Roses

The camp is surrounded by orchards of apples, pears and apricots. In fact, the entire valley seems to be one big orchard. In these idyllic surroundings I wander down to the river to find most of the group already there taking delight in the splendorous sights!

A delicious breakfast complete with a variety of homemade preserves and relishes later, we are all off to Chhitkul, the last village in this valley towards China border. 

Banjara Camps

Diners delight!

The route to this village through the Mastrang Valley is mesmeric to put it mildly! Every few yards, we stop to marvel at a gurgling brook, some picturesque bridge, a quaint hamlet tucked away round the corner or just the unfolding panorama of snow clad peaks with lush green terraced fields in the foreground and the beautiful Baspa flowing beside it. Heaven! 

Panoramic Vistas of the Mastrang Valley

There are streams crossing the road many times and the vehicle splashes through those freezing waters. We stop at one such crossing and spend time just enjoying the gentle murmur of the crystal clear waters and the predominantly rocky landscape with a carpet of fresh green grass under it. The serenity of the place is a balm to the harried urban soul. 

The stream running across the road

Road to Chhitkul

Rocky terrain

As we near a hamlet, two women hail us for a lift. We oblige them. They are a Grandmother – granddaughter pair off to the fields. They grow Ogla which is buckwheat which will be harvested in early September. These areas have only one four month growing season in the year. Rest of the time it is too cold and snow bound. At this time, there is frenzied activity of sowing, growing and harvesting before the quiet of the cold months sets in. The women alight near their fields and we move on. 

Green terraced fields with Snowy peaks in the background

The HPPWD Guest house is on the outskirts of Chhitkul. The road meanders through the village of a few houses and some new guest houses which have come up for tourists and then into the fields beyond. 

HPPWD Guesthouse, Chhitkul

Birds are hyperactive all around. A cacophony of birdcalls is heard, each individual vying for a higher perch to call from and a louder decibel level than its rival. A vast flock of Fire fronted Serins alights at the field nearest the car. We are mesmerized! I have dreamt of seeing this beautiful bird and always dipped on it. Not only are they found in this place, they are locally very common, in their scores at any given time! But this is only near Chhitkul, not lower in the valley near say Raksham or Sangla. I guess altitude has a lot to do with it. Chhitkul is at 3450 meters and Sangla at 2680 metres though only 24 kms away. A big difference! 

Fire fronted Serin foraging

Fire fronted Serin in nest building mode

There are the ubiquitous Rosefinches calling from the tree tops with nothing but procreation on their minds! The Yellow billed Choughs are gliding and catching the wind currents to circle the fields from high up. The White Wagtails are numerous. A Vareigated Laughingthrush peeps out of an apricot tree and there are Rock Buntings everywhere. And all this without moving an inch! 

Common Rosefinch

Rock Bunting

Vareigated Laughingthrush

White Wagtail

Yellow billed Chough

The drive down to the river is a very steep path full of loose stones making driving difficult. The breathtaking vistas though make up for any other inconveniences many times over! 

The steep path running down towards the river bed at Chhitkul

Near the Baspa at Chhitkul

We realise that time is flying and we need to head back. Pooh is our destination for today. We have to leave Banjara camps post an early lunch so we can enjoy the ride to Pooh without having to go tearing round corners and zipping all the way there.

We turn back but not before I promise to come back to Kinnaur and Sangla - Chhitkul with definite time for bird watching too. This is just a recce trip and we’ll be back for a more leisurely stay sometime soon.

The drive back is quick. The valley widens out substantially as we cross Raksham and towards Sangla. The Baspa snaking along surrounded by orchards and small dwellings is one charming picture. 

The valley widens towards Sangla and is full of Orchards
Back at the camp, lunch is served. The cool fresh mountain air and the jaunts of the morning have whetted our appetites and everybody tucks in with gusto. Not only has the location of this setup been fabulous, but the food has been marvellous. A place one can just relax in without any requirement for stepping out of the premises.

The wheel barrows are out and the staff comes around collecting the larger pieces of luggage. We troop out to the parking and settle into the designated vehicles. Before departure, Doc calls all the help and some from the other camp nearby and does a proper half hour presentation of the dos and don’ts for AIDS prevention. Hopefully it is of some value to them.

And then we are off... destination Pooh!

The journey continues... 

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Goa - Delhi.... the journey begins in the plains 

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Chhitkul... The emerald green valley!

Road to Chandratal

Chandratal to Sarchu... a picturesque drive through Lahaul

Sarchu to Nimmu.... via Tso Kar

13 Jul 2014. Three members of the team have joined us in Delhi as has the fourth vehicle. They have driven in from Jaipur to rendezvous with us here before setting off for the next leg of the trip. Post a sumptuous and elaborate breakfast and reorganising the vehicles with the additional members, we’re off to Kasauli. The journey is pretty much uneventful on the Delhi Chandigarh highway. The last tranche of members is picked up in Zirakpur, short of Chandigarh which enables us to bypass Chandigarh and head straight for Kasauli. The roads are very good though the traffic is fairly heavy. Progress is pretty quick till Kalka. After Kalka and all the way till we turn off the main highway to Kasauli, it is chock-o-block traffic...! Seems like Shimla and/or the other destinations nearby are super popular with the plains folks! We finally reach Kasauli Resorts at dusk after a short ‘chai’ break enroute. Needless to say, all the cameras have come out soon as we hit the hills.

Chai break

Kasauli Resorts is a fairly well kept property with nice views. Flowering trees, bushes and creepers and the general greenery are a sight for sore eyes in the middle of a hot and dry July in the plains. The first real get together for the team is organised here. The evening is fun and the dinner delicious! 

Kasauli Resorts

Kasauli, shrouded in fog!

14 Jul 2014. The morning dawns foggy and the visibility is down to just 7-8 mtrs or so. We leave rather later than we want to. Positive... the weather clears somewhat making for slightly easier driving. Negative... we waste valuable time which we regret later. 

Enroute Shimla

The route through the hills offers beautiful views of clouds drifting through the valleys and orchards laden with apples and pears, plums and apricots though most of them under ripe. It is still just the beginning of the season and most of the fruit is at least a couple of weeks away from picking.

Shimla is crowded but eventually we are on our way towards Narkanda and onwards to Rampur. Ahead of Narkanda, we stop at a roadside cafe so all of us can come together for the packed breakfast we are carrying. It is a feast! This is where our Doc decides to start on the AIDS awareness programme. The cafe staff as well as a few others are given a small awareness talk and some material and requested to spread the message along.

Shortly hereafter we have our first view of the Sutlej. 

First view of the Sutlej

A distant muddy meandering torrent with terraced fields near the numerous settlements along its banks, the Sutlej is a mighty river and the lifeline in these parts. Here and there are glimpses of the road snaking its way down to the river. At this point, the highway descends to the river and goes alongside for a long while.  

Driving along these surging waters, one feels a healthy respect for nature and its forces which are so wild and untamed. They are life givers when valued and respected; abuse or disrespect them long enough and we do it at our own peril for it takes just a moment for complete obliteration! We’ve seen the Himalayan Tsunami last year and the Kashmir floods now... 

Surging Sutlej

The fact that we are travelling on the old 'Hindustan Tibet highway' keeps drifting through my consciousness. The present highway runs along the old alignment for a fair way. The old route hugs the higher reaches and almost does not descend down to the valley. Many a man and beast have tumbled down to their deaths from those perilous heights. Even today this route is counted amongst the most treacherous roads in the world to travel on.

A little farther up, we come to a small waterfall with access for the Scorpio to go near it. No time is lost in utilizing the opportunity to wash the dusty car. 

Car wash time!

As we go further, this road climbs higher till it reaches sheer cliffs of stark, unadorned rock where the road is but a scooped out C-shaped tunnel embedded in the vertical cliff side. While we enjoy the drive along the banks of the Sutlej in all its moods, I am almost willing the road to start climbing to this, one of the most celebrated and recognised sections of this route. And when we do hit that stretch, we are all spellbound! Such is the precarious nature of the road that there are precipitous drops on the only open side and encased in solid rock on the other three sides.

A much awaited and protracted photo session later, we are off.... 

Hindustan Tibet highway

Hindustan Tibet highway

Hindustan Tibet highway

Hindustan Tibet highway

Just two odd hours away from Sangla is what I calculate and it is about 1530, so plenty of time to reach and enjoy the campsite along the Baspa River before sundown. I look forward to seeing the celebrated Baspa Valley and the famed birding that the area has to offer. We cross Wangtoo and reach Tapri. Across the river we see a large township proclaiming JP Karcham Wangtoo Hydroelectric Project and we come to a halt behind a long queue of vehicles all seemingly waiting for a barrier across the road to open. 

On enquiry, we learn that due to landslides ahead, this road is closed and an alternative route through a place called Urni is being used which is a one way gate system owing to a very steep and extremely narrow passage. The gate opens at 1700 hrs and that 29 km detour for those 2 kms lost in landslides is a nightmare! In fact, the GPS is all at sea while we are on this route and initially keeps telling us to turn back, and go via Manali and Kaza to reach Karcham! Finally it gives up and shows us out to pasture...:-) 

JP Hydro Project township

Urni detour

Urni detour

The GPS... all at sea!!

Over an hour later we hit the original route having lost many hours in the process! Passing Karcham, we turn right across the Sutlej and enter the Baspa valley. The very first sight is the sprawling JP Baspa hydroelectric project. By the time we reach Banjara Camps (which is 8 kms ahead of Sangla) over bouncy, dusty and almost nonexistent roads with plenty of short and sharp switchbacks and blind turns, it is 2130 hrs and completely dark! The camp has a parking about 6-700 mtr away from the main site. An army of helpers with wheelbarrows is waiting to help us get our luggage in. A bonfire has been arranged for us and the staff is very hospitable. Dinner seems to be a rather lavish affair but we are exhausted. The two of us haul our weary selves in, have dinner and crash out.

The journey continues...

Journey to the top of the world

Goa - Delhi.... the journey begins in the plains

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Chhitkul... the emerald green valley!

Destination Pooh...

Having done our fair share of road trips as a family, we are now intrigued by the possibility of doing a ‘Rally’ as a group. After much planning and preparation the itinerary is finalised and the nitty gritties sorted out. We are going to be a group of 17 in 3 Scorpios and one Bolero starting from Goa and going all the way to Leh via the Spiti Valley. Of this, 12 will start from Goa with 3 joining in Delhi and 2 in Chandigarh. The second team would take over in Leh and drive back via Kargil, Srinagar, Amritsar and Delhi to Goa. Apart from this being an adventure trip, we are also going out with an AIDS awareness message.

10 Jul 2014. The earth seems enveloped in a grey blanket of fog at 0530 hrs as we set out and this follows us all the way through to Amboli where the clouds almost kiss the road and the valleys play hide ‘n seek with the awestruck traveller. Waterfalls small and big, entice the passersby to tarry a while and take in the splendours of the monsoon in the Western Ghats. We bow to these temptations and take the much awaited breakfast break satiating more than just the appetite for food! 

Valley at Amboli obscured by clouds

A tunnel on the Mumbai Pune Expressway 

Mumbai Pune Expressway

The rest of the journey till Mumbai is just another highway with nothing to recommend it but a means to an end.  After the mandatory getting-lost-and-going-round-in-circles-before-finding-the-destination that we seem to do in most new cities, we reach our destination after 2 solid hours of wandering the drowning streets of Ghatkopar in a downpour worthy of .... Mumbai!  The thing to note is that more time was spent in negotiating the traffic (read: stuck in traffic) than driving! We finally reach and after a round of socialising with some local friends, we retire.

11 Jul 2014. Another 0530 hrs start ensures that we exit Mumbai without a sweat. 

Exiting Mumbai

Badoda Highway

The Ahmedabad highway is a dream.... the only fly in the ointment is the enormous truck traffic making driving on it akin to a formula 1 experience! The incessant and torrential rains don’t help either! After Vapi, the showers recede and a little bit later, disappear altogether. Lunch at Badoda after which we decide to heed some advice from frequent commuters on this route to Udaipur and take the inner route to Udaipur via Modasa bypassing Ahmedabad.

For this we exit the highway at Nadiad and take the state highway. Within 10 kms of the turnoff we have our first breakdown of the trip. Mahindra has sponsored the vehicles for this rally and promised us technical support through this tour. We call for help and are pleasantly surprised to have the recovery vehicle come by in an hour. The service personnel check out the problem and decide that the vehicle needs to go to Anand (back about 40 kms) since it is a larger service centre. Decision is taken to leave the sick vehicle with 3 members and the others to shuffle and move ahead to the designated halt at Udaipur.

We pass a small village fair and then a small pond a few hundred metres ahead has good bird life which we gleefully document....

A small village Mela

Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage

Pheasant tailed Jacana

Pond Heron

Meanwhile, a lot of time has been wasted and it is almost dark.  Udaipur seems very far off... we finally make it by 2345 hrs. In hindsight, the progress on the national highway may have been faster given that we drove after dark! A very long tiring day indeed!

It is said that a thing of beauty is a joy forever. How true this is is brought out by the fact that in spite of the exhausting journey of the day, we still find the time (and energy) to marvel at the magnificent sight of the famed Pichola lake which is spread out below our Guest rooms. The reflections of the lights from the palaces in and around the lake make for a magical setting quite like sparkling jewels beckoning from afar! The picture says it all!


Good night ... zzzz

Lake Pichola Udaipur

View from our room....
12 Jul 2014. We leave Udaipur at a more leisurely hour of 0700 hrs. A long drive without incident sees us at the outskirts of Jaipur at about 1330 hrs. Taking a detour to a goat farm on the other side of Jaipur sets us back by 2 whole hours!

Goat farm
The farm is owned and run by the father of one of the team members. A gastronomically satisfying break later, we are on our way to Delhi. The nightmare begins.... the miserable road conditions and the extremely unruly traffic crawling agonisingly forward is distressing! The quantum of traffic is adding to the woes. Coming from a relatively calm place like Goa where sanity prevails no matter the provocation this feels like alien country. I almost feel timid in comparison to the fellow drivers!

Checking into our hotel about 2300 hrs it takes us a while to freshen up, have dinner and then hit the sack. Thankfully, it is a late start tomorrow.

The entire journey from Goa till Delhi has been just driving, driving and then some more driving. The rains have kept us company till Vapi or thereabouts. After that it has been pretty much dry. In fact, Udaipur was just comfortable in the morning but the day has been very hot and it is scorching in Delhi!

The vehicle left behind has been repaired (a choked fuel filter and lines which needed replacement) and the team has brought it till Jaipur today. They will catch up with us tomorrow morning. There is a sense of quiet excitement in the team since the real rally starts tomorrow. This road trip can only loosely be called a rally since there are 4 vehicles participating and going as a team though without any competition. We hit the hills tomorrow. We are on the threshold of the most exciting part of the trip. The journey to the top of the world!

The journey continues....