I arrived in Shimla with a loose plan to stay there a few days then continue to Gujarat where I would take a bus with a friend to Dwarka for the Dwarkadhish temple site. It was the final stop for me before heading home. Unfortunately she couldn’t make it so I ended up with some free days. I was bummed to have to miss the temples and her company (she’s one of those effortlessly fabulous people) but everything happens for a reason and if I had gone there, then I would have missed a great adventure.
Enter Mohiddin, a guide from Hotel Dreamland in Shimla. During my walking tour of the town I told him how disappointed I was with the diesel fumes (yuck.) and congestion, so he suggested a trip out east to Kinnaur, more specifically the Sangla and Kalpa Valleys. I had never heard of those places, had no idea where they were on a map, had never traveled so remotely alone before, and didn’t know the strangers who would be taking me 10 hours away by car into the mountains so naturally I said, “sure, sounds great!” I mean, what could go wrong? Haha.
The following day I piled into a car with Mohiddin and two men I had never met before: a Kashmiri guy named Arif (my guide) and a local named Vijay (the driver). Mohiddin came to say hi and introduce the two but then left about five minutes after that to go back to the hotel so it was just me, Arif, and Vijay.
We took the NH5 pretty much the entire way. I know that sounds pretty straightforward, but if you look at it on Google Maps, it basically looks like a 4-year-old high on sugar scribbled it. There were no real straightaways for the next five days, though after a while the novelty of the turns wore off and the back-and-forth rocking of the car became normal.
About two hours in, I had a landmark event. I had to pee and the only place to stop had an elevated squat toilet with no toilet paper which was fixed, seemingly as an afterthought, on the side of a building. The whole thing looked as if it could detach from the structure at any moment. I did what I needed to but then I made a mental note to put in this blog that if I have one recommendation for this trip, it’s to take toilet paper with you. I would have liked to take a picture of all the potty spots I chose, because there were some amazing views. Sides of mountains, crevices between rocks, really breathtaking…but toilet paper would have been great because a bottle of cold water and a wet ass is no comfy way to end a bathroom break.
After visiting the newly finished Hatu Temple in Narkand, our first night’s stop was Sarahan, a quiet and walkable town that sits around ~7500ft elevation. It’s home to the ornately decorated Bhimakali Temple and the King’s and Queen’s Palace. Though entry to the buildings isn’t allowed, the grounds are accessible and there is a lovely manicured lawn from which you can admire the palace. I stayed at Green Valley Resort, a humble little place with nice staff, good food, and terrible coffee. The terrible coffee was a trend at every place I stayed so if you like it THAT much, bring your own.
The second and third days were spent in Rakchham, a self-proclaimed “Modern Village” in the Sangla Valley. We took several walks through the local buckwheat fields and visited Chhitkul, the last inhabited town along the Hindustan-Tibet trade route (according to Wikipedia). There is a marriage of modern development and traditional folkways there, though I can see the toll of tourism beginning: tetrapak juice boxes, cello wrappers, and other trash littered the sides of the road and the walking paths, painfully unfitting against such a majestic backdrop of the mountains and village.
While walking around to admire the architecture, I saw the women in the village preparing offerings for a full moon festival in the common square and they invited me to sit with them. I took a seat on a bench and after a while of watching, one of them gave me a hot cup of tea. We couldn’t talk to one another but through facial expressions and laughter we had some warm and humorous exchanges. Later that evening when the moon came out, it was the biggest, brightest one I’d ever seen and I thought of them.
My last day before driving back to Shimla was spent in Kalpa. To get here, one needs to pass through unpaved roads in a barren valley cut in the middle by the river. It’s dusty, seems to last forever, and is filled with workers on either side cutting rock by hand. It appears as if maintaining and repairing the road from landslides and deterioration is a full time job. There’s also no place to stop for the restroom or food for about an hour and a half and I ended up having to pee in a crack between a giant rock and the cliff face. I could see the workers cutting stone while I was squatting down, but I had to go so badly I really didn't care and honestly, I'm sure they've all been there before, haha.
We made it to Kalpa after about three hours of winding roads, mostly unpaved, and probably thirty steep switchbacks for the entire last twenty minutes. I was thinking of that quote "dangerous roads often lead to beautiful destinations" but actually I wasn’t impressed when we got there; I think it may have had something to do with how beautiful Rakchham had been. It had a wonderful view of the mountains though and some pretty tourist attractions. After settling into Hotel Rollingrang (I think it was about Rs. 700 per night), another cozy and adequate but unfancy guesthouse, we took a walk down a steep set of stairs to a hilly part of the town that had beautiful Hindu and Buddhist Temples, old wooden houses, and a few lovely, fluffy, friendly neighborhood dogs. The apples on the trees hadn't yet been picked, which provided a great foreground for some beautiful photos of Kinnaur Kailash, the snow-capped peak in the distance...over 19000 feet in elevation!
Afterward, we took a drive to Roghi Village, accessible from Kalpa through a 20-minute drive on a narrow road rife with potholes and no safety barriers in places. We stopped to take a look at Suicide Point from the opposite cliff halfway there and arrived at the village in just the right sunlight to take some pretty pictures. Arif showed me around the terrace farms, explained the the apple harvesting, and took some clicks of the mountain view, then we turned back and headed to the hotel for the evening...I was exhausted from 20 days of continuous travel and in desperate need of dinner. I slurped down a very oily but delicious butter chicken and crashed early. The bed had a thick blanket and the air was crisp, so I slept like a baby. In the morning, I woke up to an AMAZING view, the perfect memory before my 9 hour drive back to Shimla.