Kinnaur is the most easily accessible place that is less crowded and offbeat in Himachal. While Himachal always tempts you with its superlative views, most of these places are either too far to travel by road or are accessible only to trekkers. Those within reach like Manali and Mcleodganj are crowded to the hilt. However lower Kinnaur, that means Sangla valley and Kalpa are connected by good roads and are definitely doable with kids, without compromising with the views and solitude. We explored it with four and ten-year olds and it was fun.
The Road Journey to Kinnaur
The only possibility to visit Kinnaur is by road. Though 220 km from Shimla, it is an easy and beautiful journey, better to be covered in two days specially if you want to enjoy the road and/or if you are with kids. On forward journey we took a night halt at Narkanda while on our return journey, Sarahan was our stop. The road from Shimla goes through some well-known places like Fagu, Kufri. Beyond that you will find a few travelers.
The route winds its way through Theog-Matiana-Rampur-Tapri-Karcham-Sangla. Karcham is the junction where the road bifurcate to Sangla valley and Kalpa. The road till Rampur and another 30-40 km passes through greenery and fruit orchards. There are huge cherry, peach, plum, walnut, and pear orchards of high and mighty people of politics from Punjab and Himachal. Those of the common men are smaller. You find many fruit sellers selling boxes of fresh cherries, peaches and plums. Amidst all these high-end fruits, humble cucumber, cut and salted, still tries to retain its fan club.
After that, the roads become dreary and dreadful among all the blasting in hard rocky mountains to lose mountains. Hydel projects were going on at that time and dusty clouds emanating from blasts made it look forbidding. Precipitously deep down flows the Satluj. Frowning rock faces descend steeply from blue sky and Satluj roars to add ferocity of the views by providing ample background music. If Satluj would not roar, the eerie silence would make it look so very ominous. Vertical cliffs, steep slopes, dreary brown grey of the mountains and the blasting in rocks makes it a desolate place.
After Karcham, the road towards Sangla tries to soothe your nerves with dancing Baspa, wild flowers along its sides and the increasing green quotient.
Best Time to Visit Kinnaur
Winters are very cold and heavy snow can get you stranded. Spring growing into Summer and then Autumn are busy tourist seasons but not so busy as Leh Ladakh for there is no flight to this remote land yet. If spring will throw the color and fragrance of budding leaves and flowers after sleeping in a heavy blanket of snow though winter, summer will assault your taste buds with high quality fruits. Autumn will definitely splash you with all the colors when trees will shed all the glory before going in snowy blanket, and Kinnauri apples will tempt you to ‘sin’.
Baspa River and its course:
While a traveler travels from Karcham to Sangla and on to Rakcham before finally reaching at the Chitkul, the last allowed place in this side, Baspa river flows just reverse in direction. From its origin from Kailash-Mansarovar range near the Tibetan front, Baspa flows west. It begins from the glaciers and moraine and travels in solitude in the deserted landscape when it descends slightly and first allows Birch trees in Chitkul 3450 mt to flourish along its course and thus coloring the mountains, running leisurely for first 30 km. For next 20 km, it sometimes tumbles down and sometimes flows flatly till it reaches Rakcham 3130 mt. During this journey, blue pine and deodar join the Birch trees and mountains look splendid in different colors and shapes of leaves. It then enters Sangla where it just slows down to take delight in its own beauty and the beauty of the valley carved by it amidst the undefeatable hard rocky mountains of Kinner Kailash Range and the richly foliated populated treescape on other side. It conserves its energy here to plunge dangerously in the mighty Satluj at Karcham 1850 mt.
Baspa Valley and its cultural attributes:
The valley carved by Baspa river is called Baspa valley and Kamru, Chitkul, Rakcham and Sangla are its prettiest of places. while Sangla is the largest town in this valley, Chitkul is the last village beyond which lies Tibet. Kamru is famous for its fort.
As everywhere in Kinnaur and most of Himachal, here also each village has its own deity. In Sangla, it is Nag devta who presides. In Kamru it is Narayan. Up in Rakcham the main deity is Shamshir while Mathi Devi rules Chitkul. She is said to be the consort of Kamru Narayan.
In Kinnaur, Hinduism and Buddhism co-exist. Tibetan Gods like Tungma and Milayung are worshiped along with Hindu Gods. Sangla town’s main temple complex called Bering Nag temple is cohabited both by Hindu temple and Buddhist temple. The temples here are different from the Pahadi style showing a fusion of Pent roof and Pagoda roof.
The houses here are double storey, made with cedar wood. The lower floor for storage and cattle and upper floor for residence. Wooded part is liberally carved and roofs are slated. Every house has the traditional heating system called Bukhari in the largest and main hall of their houses where all the activities of the house mainly takes place be it cooking, eating, weaving and knitting, playing or even watching television. It is made of iron or brass and is mainly square in shape with a long pipe that takes the smoke from burning wood out of the house and gives cozy warmth to live by. It is Bukhari that makes people brave winters here for though the days are sunny but short, mornings and evenings are biting cold.
Sangla valley and Kalpa fall in the lower Kinnaur regions where people mainly are Hindus but some Buddhist influence is clearly visible. The middle Kinnaur is the area between Kalpa and Kanam including Moorang tehsil and has mixed faith. The remaining part between Puh and Hangrang valley is mainly Buddhist in belief.
Sangla: Appetising Walks, Birdwatching mornings and luxurious Baspa river
Sangla is considered the best of the Himachal Valleys not for nothing. The towering grey, saw-toothed, razor-sharp sacred rocky mountains of the Kinner Kailash on one side, the green, tree filled mountains on the others side; farms and fruit orchards in the middle in valley through which flows the Baspa leisurely.
Sangla is the trekking paradise both for hard-core trekkers as well as for the easy walkers with family like us. For the easier walks, Sangla Kanda trek is the most beautiful of all. Sangla-Rakcham valley walk and Kamru fort hike are other options. If you just want to take a stroll head out-of-town in any direction. Changing light and shade on the mountains and fruit laden orchards will show Sangla in different moods, or just roam in the small village to observe the laid back life, wood carved houses and the main temple square.
When in Sangla, always reserve your early morning for walks just a little above the Sangla town. Not just the town but mountains also look to be sleeping. Slowly, when the light spreads, the eldest part of the mountains wakes up first, then middle and then light reaches to its bottom. However it does not happen with all the mountains at same time. Therefore you get to see the dark purple-blue mountains, the bright green mountains and the dark shadowy green all at the same time. The blues of sky will also change from the dark black-cobalt blue to a teal blue and then the all day long, light but bright blue same happens with Baspa.
But the best of Sangla memories of mornings are not this play of light and shade but the rich avi-fauna that twitters, critters, chatters in most vibrant of colors, specially the crimson colored Rosefinches.
The temple square in Sangla is the main ground for all festive occasions where hundreds dance on the rhythmic beat of drums. There are four main festivals- Fagli in February , Bishu in April, Dakhraini in July and Ukiang in September. Sangla also celebrates Deeval in December when a stem representing a serpent is cut. No. It is not Diwali.
When nothing makes you want to move, get down to Baspa for playing in water.
Rakcham: for more superlative views
Rakcham is a small village with interesting wooden houses, cherry and apple trees, smiling people. However its setting is most dramatic. Believe me not? See the pics here:
Chitkul: adding toppings to appetizing Sangla
While Sangla is irresistible to let you wander beyond its fold, Chitkul has the added tags of being the last village on this side, closer to the whites of the mountains at 3650 mts which pull every visitor to its remoteness, solitude, and Baspa flowing by. A small village to wander is the only other option if you ever want to get away from Baspa and the surrounding mountains here. I did neither and spent the four hours at chitkul by lying down in sun on the banks of Baspa for I had fever. While I rested on the pebbles and kids threw the pebbles in Baspa, Manish did went for a stroll in the village. Defying its envious location, the village appears chaotically built and is boulder strewn everywhere.
After entering the village, find a spot along Baspa. Well find any spot for you are most likely to be alone there on any given day. Mountains running along on either side of Baspa river in Chitkul are two entirely different entities. On one side is the barren, brown, bare mountains then other side is fully green. Mountains on the side from where Baspa seems to be flowing from, stand steep with sparkling snow. All this is arranged under a silent, clear and bright blue sky. To add sound to this theater, Baspa gurgles, birds twitter and wind whistles.
So what is the sum up?
Sangla valley gives the best of the Himachal vistas without the efforts of trekking, without busloads of honeymooners and without burning a hole in your pocket. The snowy peaks appear very close, Baspa river lets you be near to it and a highly audible silence spreading from earth to the heavens is music to ears.