Escape to serenity

The little hamlet of Kalpa snuggles at the base of Kinner Kailash, the most impressive peak of the Himalayan range 

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Even getting there is like driving into a fairy tale. The climbing, winding, National Highway 22 is as dramatic as a journey into myth. For much of its 244-km-length from Shimla, it follows the course of the Sutlej: young and rambunctious here, snarling and foaming and bustling its way through the mountains. Then, when we rose higher, we met a Mother Goddess. Her name was Bahri Devi: she had multiple metal faces and was sitting in a palanquin being borne by her ecstatic, dancing, devotees. We paid our respects to her and drove on.

A view of the Chini village and its orchards backed by soaring mountains
A view of the Chini village and its orchards backed by soaring mountains
The beautiful stone and wood homes of the village
The beautiful stone and wood homes of the village Photos by the writers

Now, the mountains became gentler, less rugged, covered in forests. Of whispering, fragrant, conifers with feathery plumes and cones like elongated, green, pineapples. Within them lay delectable little chilgoza nuts. Our valued Hanklyn-Janklyn defines chilgoza as "The small edible kernels of the chilgoza pine. Also called patience nuts because of the labour required for shelling from which in volume the gain may seem somewhat meager." For us, however, chilgozas conjured visions of Christmas dinners and itinerant bearded vendors with black waistcoats and fearsome eyes. Clearly we were in legendary lands.

The quality of our journey began to change. A certain serenity crept in. High, snow-covered mountains appeared, framed in the deodars. But it was only after we had driven through the district headquarters of Reckong Peo that we came across the most heart-stopping views of the far frontiers. The great snow-capped mountains leapt out at us: massive, awesome, dominating our vision. One icy peak, in particular, caught our eye. Crowning it was a bare, granite, pillar free of snow, rising challengingly against a blue, cloud-scudded sky. It is the most impressive peak of the range known as Kinner Kailash. At its base snuggled the little hamlet of Kalpa where we rested.

Gently terraced fields and orchards spread down from our deodhar-fragrant guest house. Men and women worked in the fields, cattle grazed, and the quaintly named Chini village, with tip-tilted roofs, dotted the rise of the sunlit crest above a gorge. Beyond rose the greater ranges: massed dark green with conifers, threaded with the white veins of snow-melt streams, crowned by the great, hulking, giants of the Himalayas: the Abodes of Snow. They seemed to be so near that we felt we could reach out and touch them. These snowy mountains weave the greatest magic of Kalpa. Virtually every hour, every change of light and shade, every movement of the clouds and the mist and the sun affects this gently compelling range. These are both awesome and protective like huge, benign, giants who guard everyone seeking shelter in the folds of their embrace. And the village on the far side, warmed by the sun, seemed to purr with contentment in the arms of these, the greatest mountains on earth.

Getting there 
Air: Jubbarhatti airport outside Shimla and then 267 km by road.
Rail: Shimla and then 244 km by road
Road: Jeeps, taxis and buses from Shimla. 
By Road from Delhi via Chandigarh, Shimla and Rampur - 614 km.
Altitude: 2,758 metres 
Tip: Jackets and light woolens required.

We stepped out into the honey-gold sun. Entrepreneurs from the plains have discovered the pure, unpolluted air and soil of Kalpa. They cultivate flowering plants for their highly-priced seeds and their blossoms spread like living carpets radiant in the sun. We made a bee-line for the flowers, the apple orchards and Chini village atop the ridge against the high, snowy, expanse of Kinner Kailash. In our ramble through this fragrant valley we met a girl named Asha Devi and her little niece. Asha works in the fields of flowers and in the orchards, and also in the grain and vegetable patches owned by her extended family of eight. They grow wheat, peas, rajma, cabbage and spinach. This is in addition to the fortifying wild herbs they collect off the mountains including a nettle-like green called jalgo which is "Very heartening!" Fresh air and fresh food had put a glow on the faces of the girl and the child. They could have posed for an evocative portrait by Reynolds, full of wistfulness and innocence.

We wished them goodbye and trudged to the bottom of the valley, where apples had begun to blush in the orchard, and then up a path and a long line of stone steps to Chini village. Its stone and wood houses clustered close together, their slate-covered roofs were tip-tilted and crowned by small towers in the Himachali manner. Yellow-eyed dogs dozed in the sun like hibernating, bears undisturbed by the rosy-cheeked children playing tip-cat around and over them. At one time, perhaps, Chini village was at the end of a yak-and-mule caravan train from China. Caravanner families often merged blood-lines and traditions between journeys. Religions have certainly blurred, blended and fused here. Hindus and Buddhists alike worshipped in the gilded Buddhist temple; the Devi shrine, guarded by gold lions aggressively rampant, resounded with chants that could have been inspired by the 'deep voice' of the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism; and on the eaves of the brightly coloured Shiva shrine, wooden rods clanked together in the razor-sharp breeze reminiscent of the first wind bells replicating the sounds made by Chinese forest guards as they tapped tree-trunks on their protective rounds. There is eclecticism here, a gentle amalgamation of faiths and traditions that speaks of an inner accord which is missing from more brittle societies.

In the untroubled faces of the old and the young, we saw the genetic traces of nomads and wanderers and warriors who had chanced upon this enchanted place, and settled down. In the epicanthic fold of an upper lid a distant Mongol ancestor smiled at us; the hauteur of a nose proclaimed an Indo-Iranian blood-line; flecks of gold in grey-green eyes could have been donated by an ancient Macedonian ancestor, a remnant of Alexander's army perhaps? People fleeing from the harshness of life often find peace in these high places, settle down happily, and merge.

And when bloodlines merge and traditions meld in harmony, tolerance becomes the accepted way of life. Perhaps that accounts for the serenity of Kalpa. Or perhaps it is the magic of a valley in the high mountains at the end of a road leading into a fairy tale.