-Robert Louis Stevenson
It was a warm day. The sun was at it’s brightest best and there was no trace of a winter wind, though it was just the beginning of spring, in March. Kullu, a sleepy little town in the hills was somewhat crowded with fruit and flower sellers and the locals were out on a shopping spree to enjoy the surprising golden warmth. I was living in the Dharamshala of the Sheetala Mata Mandir, right off the bus stand. Dharamshalas are extremely cheap shelters that temples provide. They are the best places to stay since they charge something like 20-50 INR for a night providing a room, toilets, bedding and drinking water. The temple staffs operate it and hence it is almost like charity for the homeless and travellers- clean to an extent and safe for women as well.
I was in Kullu for about a week, documenting the famous handicraft of the region-Kullu shawls. From the old craftsmen I got to know that the origin of the craft comes from Kinnaur, where for the past thousand years or so, the locals weave Kinnari shawls on pit looms, so intricate, that it takes about 6 months to weave one shawl. The locals of Kullu have adopted that and commercialized it over the last century but the historical value of it lies in Kinnaur. I had always heard about Kinnaur but I had never really thought of visiting it. But this time, I knew I wanted to. So, instead of heading back to college with my research, I headed to the local bus stand with my rucksack on and snow jacket tied. It was the first week of March and that is not even the beginning of warmth in the Himalayas. Because of slow Internet in the hills, I had no time to research on Kinnaur. I walked to the ticket counter person and asked him “Where in Kinnaur can I see the weaving of Kinnari shawls. And when is the next bus to Kinnaur?” He said that at this time of the year, there is just one local bus to Kinnaur in a week and it takes fifteen hours to reach. Luckily, for me, that one bus was scheduled to leave in two hours, that very day. I bought a 400 Km journey ticket for 350 INR.
I learnt from that man that there are two routes from Kullu to Kinnaur. The one via the Rohtang Pass and Spiti Valley is open for about six months a year, while the other, via Mandi is open all year. This road, the NH-22 is open always for the army, since Kinnaur lies on the Indo-Tibetan border and is a heavy cantonment area. This bus, from November-March end leaves from the Kullu bus stand at 1pm and reaches Taapri in Kinnaur at about 4 am the next morning.
The bus was a small one, with stiff seats and it rattled along. People kept getting on and off at the various local bus stands on the way. The surprising bit was, that there was not a single traveller apart from me. I struck conversations with various locals on the way and spoke about the different places in Himachal Pradesh, the good and the bad of it. When night fell, the bus driver would switch off the bus lights and play old Hindi music to keep himself going. The changes of scenery on the way are something I cannot explain in words. The terrain changed from the classic Middle Himalayas pregnant with greenery to the more steeper, barren mountains. The temperatures dipped heavily with sundown and altitude climb and the dressing and looks of the locals changed from taller to stouter, thinner to thicker. The NH-22 follows the Beas till it meets the Satluj and then the Satluj till Kinnaur. Looking out at about 2 am, I saw heavy lights and big structures on the Satluj. The first structure I saw, I understood it was a dam but what confused me was that every five kilometres there were more of these structures, glowing golden with big yellow lights and the sound of gushing water disrupting the music of the mountains at night. The bus creaked to a stop at a deserted bus stand and the conductor said we had reached Taapri. It was 3 am. I wondered what to do, where to go. A man said there was a connecting bus to the ‘block’ and from there, another bus to Reckong-Peo, the district headquarters of Kinnaur. In the hurry of the situation, not understanding, I got on to that bus and after about three hours, the bus stopped and everyone said that we reached ‘block’. I got off the bus and my I-pod showed the temperature at 6am to be a minus seven. It was snowing lightly and the Himalayas around me were of a kind I had never seen before. Black barren mountain patches peeped through heavy snow caps. I looked in front and what I saw shook me to the inside. The entire road ahead of the bus was not there for about a hundred metres. It had fallen into the Satluj and there were big boulders everywhere till the inside. Hence, the name ‘block’, which till five minutes ago, I thought was a place.
I went back and asked the bus driver how we would reach Reckong-Peo. He said, we would have to climb down the boulders till the Satluj, walk through the river and climb up the other end, and get on a bus waiting on the other side for Reckong-Peo.
That was it. I saw death. But then I mustered the courage and I had got into a habit of telling myself ‘I will not go back after reaching here.’ I picked up my backpack and headed to the gorge and looked down. Death, again. I went down, one rock at a time, being pulled by passing locals who just would hold my hand and drag me ahead a little more. The water of the Satluj was so cold, that it could be passed for electric currents running up and down my body. I still managed and climbed up. I remember crying once I got onto the tiny bus for Reckong-Peo.
Kinnaur is one part of the Himalayas with the most treacherous terrain owing to the constant rainfall and snow throughout the year. The mountains are barren and hence no vegetation to hold the soil together. The soil is wet perennially and the rocks keep slipping and falling and causing landslides, killing hundreds over the year. There is no worst time or no best time for going to Kinnaur. With much precaution, it is pretty accessible and one of the most beautifully encapsulating places to be in. It should be avoided between the months of July-mid August because of heavy rainfall. The other months, the landslides might be less, but they will keep happening every few days throughout the region. It is the best to risk it that is what makes Kinnaur the much-feared land that it is. Whenever you are travelling to Kinnaur, remember to travel as light as possible and carry a trekking stick to help you pass landslides easily. Have the right shoes with proper grip and suction gloves to be able to hold on to rocks and climb or get off.
As the bus approached Reckong-Peo, the amount of snow along the roadside kept increasing till it towered above the bus on both sides. The roads were slippery and Reckong-Peo looked like a white hamlet with tin shed houses everywhere. The administrative headquarters has just two hotels at the bus stand but otherwise, it is advisable to stay with the locals. Heavy snowfall was expected in the coming days. Kinnaur gets its name from the ravishing Kinnar Kailash, which is supposed to be home to Lord Shiva. The locals are very hospitable and they have a lifestyle, humble and unique. Impeccable weavers during the long winters buried in snow and carrot-peas farmers during the summers, they have their own livestock from which they get a regular supply of dairy products, wool and meat.
There are a lot of places connecting Reckong-peo in Kinnaur starting from the village of Pooh, famous for apricot and apple plantations, Chhitku, Rakcham, Sangla and a beautiful trek to Rupin Pass. The mountains at the Rupin pass have their north face in Tibet and are called the Blue Mountains. Except Rupin Pass, the rest of the places are short but steep bus rides from Reckong-Peo and are famous for beautiful palaces, forts, monasteries and temples. The trek to Rupin pass is a beautiful one indeed and one, that no one should miss. Plan your trips around May-June and then August-September for great weather and good roads in Kinnaur.
If your itineraries are planned properly, you can visit all these places in a span of about fifteen days, provided the weather and roads are in your favour.
Kinnaur is definitely a spot in the Himalayas you should not miss out on. The Jaypee group of Industries has literally taken over the Satluj with hydroelectric projects making Kinnaur the biggest provider of electricity in South East Asia. The sad part in all this is that people have been displaced, identities have been lost and Kinnaur itself gets no electricity. In such bad times, tourism is their only hope and their belief in the outside world needs to be restored. Travellers as a community can help them to a large extent there. So go out, have the adventure of your lifetime and help the locals as much as you can, by instilling a sense of beauty and pride in them! Repeating myself again, go as local as you can. That is when Kinnaur will start making sense as an ancient land in the Himalayas with mixed cultures and people.