Saturday, June 3, 2000

By Baljit Kang

PICTURE a valley as pretty as the upper Beas above Manali and at about the same distance from Chandigarh. Now subtract the tourists and you have the Sangla valley in the upper Sutlej basin.

Sangla escaped the tourist boom of the nineties which transformed Himachal Pradesh as it was closed to outsiders until 1989. Soon afterwards the Supreme Court slapped a ban on construction along the banks of the Sutlej, restricting the scope for growth. A simultaneous spurt in demand for the region’s rich crop of late season apples, peas and chilgoza nuts however compensated for the lack of tourism incentives and the now rich if insular Kinnauri seemed content to remain that way. But the rash of Himalayan holiday camps and exotic travel shows on TV in the past two years look determined to change that and it’s now only a matter of time before Sangla too is flattened by the inevitable tourist steamroller. For the present though it’s a little slice of paradise where people still have time to stop and talk and time flows gently down the Baspa.

The Sangla Valley is a slice of paradise, until the tourists take over.Entry to Sangla is from the main India-Tibet highway which wends its way through Shimla, past the erstwhile princely state of Rampur Bushehar, to the cantonment village of Karcham (alt 1899 metres). At the bridge beyond Karcham is the turn off for the Sangla valley.

From here on the road will follow the blue green waters of the Baspa along the deep gorge carved by the river to Sangla village, where the valley opens out once again. The 16-kilometre stretch into the Sangla valley, can be breathtaking in some rather unexpected ways with the steep stretch of narrow road tilting suggestively towards the sheer cliff unblemished by such civilisational intrusions as berms or sidings. At the mouth of the Sangla valley is the Baspa hydel project still under construction. The project road also leads to a holiday camp run by a Chandigarh-based tour company. Sangla (2680 metres) and the neighbouring village of Kamru lie some 2 km inside the valley.

  Sangla village itself is unremarkable despite its picture-poster setting. There is the usual assortment of shops (no fuel, no puncture shops), some basic eateries, a few guest houses and the HP Government’s most abiding marker, the ubiquitous liquor store at the upper end of town. The tourism department plans to shake things up a little with its new tourist complex, but given the pace of work the complex is likely to be ‘‘under construction’’ for quite some time.

Neighbouring Kamru, with its ancient fort and temple blending Hindu and Buddhist motifs at the crest of the village, has more history. For those with an interest in the macabre there is even a dark side to Kamru. According to a local lore, human sacrifices were once performed at a shrine on the top of the mountain. Animal sacrifices are still made on ceremonial occasions.

Sangla under the cover of snow.The priest of the temple in the village usually doubles as caretaker for the temple on the hill as well and it is worthwhile to contact him about timings (generally in the morning after prayers have been performed at the village shrine) before trudging up the very steep track to be greeted by beautifully carved doors locking you out. Sangla, or Banjara Holiday Camps some four kilometres beyond it, is about as far as the average tourists ventures, and in recognition of this the road now begins to show very public signs of exhaustion. Metalled stretches give way to a dirt track and noisy streams claim right of way over the road. This can have an unsettling effect on the stomachs of men and vehicles wanting to cross in the afternoon, when the streams are in spate, so cross in the morning.

Some kilometres outside Sangla, the valley again narrows as the Baspa ducks behind another gorge, this one deceptively concealed behind a heap of huge, carelessly scattered boulders, while the road goes through the forest to enter the Rupin valley. If the Sangla valley is pretty then Rupin, just kilometres away, is a pastoral wonderland as four-wheeled intruders reluctantly yield to their four-hoofed counterparts — yaks, mules, cows.

The picturesque little village of Rakchham (2900 m) is at the lower end of the Rupin valley, some 9 km from Sangla. Set amidst fields and pasture land with a forest of pine and snow peaks as a backdrop, the village has two guest houses and even a chalet-like restaurant in summer.

The Chitkul-Badrinath trail.From Rakchham onwards, the tree cover begins to thin as the road, now dustier by the mile, winds its way gradually up to Chitkul, 17 km away and the last village in the Rupin valley. Chitkul (3450 m) is the last village before Tibet, further up the Baspa valley and exhibits distinct signs of this proximity. Though famed throughout the region for its powerful local deity housed in an ancient temple in the centre of the village (the deity is taken in a procession to Badrinath each summer, and during that time the temple is closed), Chitkul continues to exude a distinctly Buddhist flavour. There is a Nyingma Buddhist Gompa at the upper end of the village. Probably not important enough to attract patronage by monks, the gompa is tended by an ageing local family. Chitkul is also the take-off point for treks to the Charang valley and the last stop on the Kinner Kailash parikrama, a popular pilgrim circuit around the Kinner Kailash massif. The snow-line is a few hours walk away and across the valley..

When to go: Because of the lofty Himalayan ranges to its south, the valley escapes the worst of the monsoons and has an extended visiting season from April up to October. However the road is sometimes blocked by landslides during the monsoons.

Getting there: Sangla is some 325 km from Chandigarh, 215 from Shimla. For those travelling by bus, there are direct night buses up to Sangla. Alternatively get off the bus at the Karcham turn off for a bus, jeep-taxi into the valley. In summer, buses go right up to Chitkul.

Accommodation: Rakchham and Chitkul have PWD rest houses, (though listed the Sangla PWD rest house has been closed for repairs) but for some perverse reason bookings must be made with the Assistant Engineer at Karchham or with the DC at Rekong Peo, although the chowkidars will be happy to take you in if they have vacant rooms. Sangla also had five guest houses (June 1999), two other were under construction and one was being renovated. Prices (1999) ranged from Rs 200 to Rs 350 for a double room and two guest houses also had dormitories at Rs 50 per bed.

Rakchham has two private guest houses. Ganga Guest House in the village at the entrance of the valley and Rupin Guest House in Rakchham village —both have four rooms (Rs 200 — Rs 250). Rupin Guest House also offers a four-bed dorm — Rs 50 per bed. Chitkul has two private guest houses officially, though we could only find one, housed above the electricity board office. But don’t look for nameplates, there aren’t any. Room rent ranges around Rs 200-250. No restaurants, but basic food is availableu