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In The Media

Post Indo China war of 1962 when the Chinese Army had made inroads into the Indian territory in the Sutlej Valley, the area was closed to all travelers.

Though till 1992, one could have traveled to Kinnaur and Lahaul & Spiti with a valid inner line permit from the government, very few applied for and still fewer got it. With the thawing of relations with China and a latent demand to see the wonders behind the inner line, the government decided to open up Kinnaur and Spiti (for the Indians) as these areas rivaled Kashmir and Ladakh in sheer natural splendor.

In The Media

  •  Skirting Himachal in 7 days in a Fortuner
      Neville - Team Bhp, 6th October, 2012
    • This trip was supposed to be a very different one. Different route, different vehicle, different travel companion, longer duration, more grueling, etc. But our man up there had some very different plans J. So I feel some back ground is required as to how this trip materialized. After my trip to Ladakh last year the Himalayas were tugging my heart strings to have me return. So the trip was planned with my brother who happens to be a very avid and passionate photographer. He hadn't been to Ladakh so the plan was simple. We were to literally repeat last year's route in the Gypsy which meant driving from Mumbai to Leh via Srinagar, visit Nubra do the lakes and return via Sach Pass.

      We finalized the first two weeks of September as the travel dates and I started to prep up the Gypsy for the trip. I replaced the front two tyres as those had lost considerable tread depth since last year's trip, Changed engine oil and got the usual mods made to the interior of the vehicle to make it trip friendly. I was in Mahableshwar during the week of Aug 20 when I get a call from my bro in the states saying that he cannot make it citing work reasons.

      Initially I was very dejected given that trip was in the making ever since the time I came back from Ladakh last year. I even decided to do a solo run but family would hear none of that J. Days later I run into a very close friend of mine who also happens to be a free lance travel scribe, Rishad S Mehta. He's just published his first book "Hot Tea Across India" which is an absolute riot to read for all avid travelers. He knew about my my trip and asked about the preparations to which I explained the scenario. He then tells me that he is doing a Himachal trip in the next couple of weeks in a Fortuner and asks me if I want to join him. Do I want to join him? Of course I do!! We meet up that evening and chalk out the route. He has some time constraints whereby he has to meet someone for lunch on Sep 10 and has to be back in Mumbai on Sep 19 in time for Ganesh puja. Which effectively meant 8 days of travel available. He was to get the Fortuner from Toyota delivered in Delhi. This meant we fly to Delhi, pick up the car do the trip, drop off the car and fly back. Perfect!! Now the route

      Day 1: Chandigarh - Dalhousie
      Day 2: Dalhousie - Sach Pass - Killar - Cheri
      Day 3: Cheri - Udeypur - Gramphoo - Kaza
      Day 4: Kaza - Sangla
      Day 5: Sangla - Chitkul - Sangla
      Day 6: Sangla - Thanedaar
      Day 7: Thanedaar
      Day 8: Thanedaar - Simla - Chandigarh

      So the plan was to circum-navigate Himachal over a 8 day period. As the details slowly sank in I realized that this was going to be far easier compared to what I had originally planned in my Gypsy, given it was a shorter trip, in a much more comfortable air conditioned hard top vehicle. So none of those early morning starts, crazily long non-stop driving hours to cover distance, no inhaling of truck smoke, dust etc. This was going to be a picnic!!! To start with, I was honestly skeptical about the vehicle. Having read HVK's travelogues on both his trips thru Sach pass I started to wonder if the Fortuner was too big for this trip. I had seen pics of the terrain and also started to wonder if the Dunlop A/Ts that the fortuner came shodded with, would be able to manage the terrain. Finally it also came down to having faith in the reliability of a vehicle that belonged to neither of us and also the fact that my working knowledge of a fortuner was next to nil as compared to my Gypsy. Needless to mention all my fears were laid to rest when I saw the vehicle in Chandigarh J.

      Once the vehicle was confirmed by Toyota we booked our flights. Rishad was to fly to Delhi on the evening of Sep 10, pick up the fortuner and meet me in Chandigarh on the 11th morning at the airport from where we would leave for Dalhousie. The Sunday before we went and picked up rations read dry fruit packets and chocolates from Matunga market and were all set for the trip.

      See the full story with trip pics

  •  Love in the hills
      Tom Parker - cntraveller.in 2nd July, 2012
    • A long weekend of short walks in Kinnaur.

      In the beginning, there was God. Or so you've been told. Perhaps you never believed that. But now there's nobody around-not even an uncomplaining yak. Glancing down at the NH-22 highway crisscrossing the bare brown slopes below, it seems as if some baby god has carelessly run a grimy finger across the surface of the Himalayas. Now you begin to understand the need for faith.

      The Himalayas don't offer an easy passage up their slopes, but in Spiti you discover that they do offer tutorials in living and loving. For instance, between Puh and Tabo, you go several kilometres on brown, dusty slopes with a series of landslides to the right; to the left, massive clumps of rock with bits of ice crusting the surface-remnants of glaciers that descended upon NH-22. You learn to keep your eyes open, but not think too hard about what lies ahead.

      You see a stalled truck spewing black smoke beside the narrow Malling Nullah. The truck can only roll backwards. Watch a child dart under the wheels with rocks in his hands to prevent the truck from rolling. If you're with someone, a loved one especially, lace fingers.

      As you try to follow what used to be the Old Hindustan Tibet Road from Parwanoo to Nako, you learn to feel grateful for small things. Like a hand to hold. Like railings, or white stones that mark the edges of cliffs, or the sight of a homestead. Driving upwards of Ka, there's no sign of human habitation, barring the odd bare apple tree tinted a burnt purple.

      You were glad to get away from people. But the burden of 'people' quickly falls off your shoulders. On your way up, you saw a signboard: Dhagar. Population 506. What does it mean, 'Population 506'? How many kids at a birthday party, you wonder?

      The fewer people you see, the more your eyes seek them. A woman with a bundle of grass on her head and two steel canisters on her arms; a boy's forearms turning outwards like bare tree boughs; a yellow dot moving across a field; a white dragon-shaped cloud fixed upon a terrace as if posing for a camera.

      But you truly understand civilisation when you spot the caves where the original inhabitants of Spiti lived. They found (or dug) holes up on the slopes, stacking up stones to serve as doors. There aren't many of these left, as most locals have since constructed stone houses. But you learn that people thrive, even in caves, if they stick together.

      The landscape is grim-a mix of rock and mud that yields at the slightest provocation. But the wind does extraordinary things to it, cutting and smoothing over the rock-face until it seems as if a hundred thousand faces or feet are waiting to emerge from the mountains. You imagine that you see a furrowed brow, a nose, a set of giant toes. In fact, there is a story about how an invading army from Tibet had been scared off by the locals, who stacked up hundreds of human-shaped rocks over the peaks, fooling the enemy into thinking they were fatally outnumbered.

      But from Tibet also came monks and kings who created the beautiful monastery in Tabo. Proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chos-Khor monastery is over a thousand years old and contains a treasure-trove of Buddhist art. There are nine temples and the walls of each were once covered with paintings that tell episodes from the life of the Buddha or various Bodhisattvas. They've been recently damaged due to ecological change. The 1975 earthquake left cracks and the increase in rainfall has destroyed large swathes of the paintings originally done by Kashmiri artists. The Archaeological Survey of India's attempts to restore them have been poor, but whatever remains is stunning. There are a thousand 'Medicine Buddhas' painted in the main temple, and there are also references to 'Past, Present, and Future Buddhas'. You don't know the difference.

      Ask a young man, he looks 18 or thereabouts, lolling in the sun outside. He says the Buddha will come again. Ask when. He will say, soon. Ask how soon. He will say: "Once, we lived 300 years; then 100; now we live to 70. Soon our lives will be so short we'll reach a point of crisis. Then." Somehow, you will not be surprised that such a young man should think about lifespans and the crisis of age.

      Outside the temple, a row of matrons will smile, curious without being intrusive. They will ask: Where are you from? Where are you going? Answer honestly. You aren't sure.

      See the full story with pics

  •  Top 10 camping destinations
      Paul Casciato - Reuters.com, 1st June, 2012
    • (Reuters) - Summer is just around the corner in the northern hemisphere, now that June has arrived. The arrival of the sun and warm weather means the great outdoors beckons and you might actually feel like answering the call of the wild. With that in mind, the experts at online travel website Cheapflights (www.cheapflights.com) have come up with a list of top 10 camping destinations. Reuters has not endorsed this list:

      1. Lake District National Park - Cumbria, England
      The largest National Park in England, Lake District National Park brings together majestic green mountains and clear, glassy lakes for a one-of-a-kind camping experience. Whether you're a rustic camper or you gravitate toward luxury, there are a variety of campsites to choose from in every direction of Lake District. And once you're there you won't run out of activities to do: swimming, canoeing, rock climbing and loads of other activities are close at hand.

      2. Cotopaxi National Park - Cotopaxi, Ecuador
      If you're thinking about taking your outdoor adventure south of the equator, consider Cotopaxi National Park, located just outside of Ecuador's capital city. The snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano sets the scene, along with wild llamas and gently rolling hills. Hiking is most popular, whether it's a short trip or a multi-day hike, but there's plenty to do in the way of horseback riding and mountain biking too.

      3. Pacific Rim National Park - Vancouver Island, Canada
      Encompassing three major regions - Long Beach, The Broken Group Islands and the West Coast Trail - Pacific Rim National Park is an exciting destination for camping enthusiasts. Set your site up in the wilderness - along the sandy beach or in a formal campground with fellow adventure travelers - and get ready for world-class hiking, swimming, kayaking and even surfing.

      4. Sangla Valley - Sangla, India
      In the forested valley of Sangla, Banjara Camps & Retreats transforms camping into a comfortable and luxurious experience. Choose the accommodation that's right for you, whether it's a fully furnished tent or an enclosed cabin, and enjoy the pastoral beauty of the Baspa River and the majestic Himalayas. When you're not hiking or fishing, a trip to the Buddhist temples and monasteries is a perfect addition to your relaxing retreat.

      5. Glacier National Park - Montana, United States
      Glacier National Park sweeps across the U.S.-Canada border, taking over two mountain ranges, hundreds of lakes, and an incredible array of flora and fauna. Camping in the park is on a first-come, first-served basis, so visitors should reserve campsites well in advance. The wait is definitely worth it. Fly-fishing is a popular pastime, but if you love to hike, there are upwards of 700 miles of exciting trails.

      6. Blue Mountains National Park - New South Wales, Australia
      Just a short trip from Sydney, arguably Australia's most hot-and-happening city, Blue Mountains National Park tops the list of Australia's favorite camping destinations. What is actually an uplifted plateau, the park offers much in the way of jagged cliffs, waterfalls, rock climbing and mountain biking. There are several options for camping with some grounds holding as many as 35 sites and others as few as two.

      7. Haleakala National Park - Maui, Hawaii, United States
      Most might head to the nearest beach resort in Maui, but for the adventure traveler, we suggest pitching a tent in Haleakala National Park. The highlight of the park is the Haleakala volcano, which offers a great space for stargazing, hiking and watching the sunrise. Farther into the park is the rainforest region of Kipahulu, where visitors can hike to the Waimoku Falls and swim the pools of Ohe'o. Cabins are also available in the park through a lottery system.

      8. Jasper National Park - Alberta, Canada
      The largest of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, Jasper National Park was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. It is now a hot destination for visitors looking to camp, hike, raft, kayak and fish. There are plenty of campgrounds to choose from, all of which have firewood and bear-proof lockers. Insider tip: Make time to visit the Miette Hot Springs and the Athabasca Falls.

      9. Maasai Mara National Reserve - Kenya
      A bit more unconventional than simply pitching a tent in the middle of the woods, camping out on the Maasai Mara National Reserve is an extraordinary adventure of a lifetime. Accommodations range from budget campgrounds to luxurious tents, and most come as a package deal with safaris and meals. The Mara is known for its population of cats, but zebras, giraffes and gazelles also call the area home.

      10. Denali National Park - Alaska, United States
      Alaska is known as America's last frontier, and Denali is at the center of this incredible oasis. Visitors can stay at one of seven campgrounds throughout the park and bear witness to a pristine landscape with glacial mountain ranges, alpine forests and clear rivers and lakes. The wildlife in Denali is rampant with black bears, grizzlies, moose, sheep, marmots, wolfs and loads of other animals.

      See the story online

  •  Banjara Retreat (Shoja, Himachal Pradesh)
      10yearitch.com 21st May, 2010
    • Located at the edge of a switchback, on the road that heads from Banjar to Jalori Pass, the Banjara Retreat at Shoja is a pretty property, affording breathtaking views of the valley below it. At a height of 8800ft, the retreat is an ideal place to spend warm days exploring the tiny village of Shoja and the nearby Jalori Pass.

      About a 100 steps lead down from the main road, past a few homes, to a traditional 2-storied Kullu structure, which is the older part of the retreat. It houses the staff quarters on the ground floor, the dining area on the first floor and 6 guest rooms on the 2nd and top floor. Here the rooms have a very, rustic, traditional feel with mud walls & wooden shelves and cabinetry. Our double-room was a long, rectangular space with plenty of room for a seating area as well as a comfortable bed and vanity table with mirror. At the far end of the room was a large bathroom with modern fixtures and plumbing including hot water that's centrally heated using LPG.

      To the right of the traditional structure is a modestly sized lawn from where the views to the mountains are absolutely breathtaking! Weather permitting, bonfires are held here in the evenings by Mr. Rishi, the retreat's friendly host. It's also a great place to relax during the day, under the shade of a tree, with a book!

      Further down from here is the newer part of the retreat, housing 6 additional rooms including a couple of Executive ones. On the day of arrival, since the standard rooms weren't available, we stayed in one of the Executive ones and enjoyed it thoroughly. In spite of the traditional flooring and cabinetry, this room has a distinct contemporary feel and is quite tastefully furnished. A long gallery at the back of the room (common to the adjoining Executive room) has large, glass windows overlooking the beautiful valley and mountains. With sofa seating and chairs, it is a great place to lounge in; definitely our favorite part of the retreat!

      Meals are included in the cost of stay and they are quite sumptuous. Lunch is usually vegetarian fare while dinners include a non-vegetarian dish and dessert! The dining room floor has small rooms with large, rectangular tables that can accommodate 8 to 10 diners; perfect for families or large groups. Smaller tables are placed in the gallery outside these rooms by the windows and this is where Madhu and I ate most of our meals.

      The staff at the retreat was both courteous and quite warm. Mr. Rishi, in particular, was a pleasant person to chat with. He had good knowledge of the region and was able to guide us on things to do in and around Shoja.

      At first, we were a little surprised to find the resort wedged in between village homes without any wall or boundary separating them. But later we realized that this added to the feel of living right in the middle of a village, with villagers passing by going about their daily routine of taking the cattle out to graze or bringing back baskets full of hill garlic; it was all quite interesting to watch .

      Overall, Banjara Retreat at Shoja is a great place to unwind and relax, enjoying the wonderful scenery surrounding it.

      See the full story with pics

  •  Banjara Orchard Retreat (Thanedar)
      10yearitch.com 6th May, 2010
    • Banjara Orchard Retreat

      Banjara Orchard Retreat is managed by two enterprising individuals because of their passion for the outdoors, they provide soft adventure expeditions as well as family retreats in the Himalayas. They provide a unique concept of being out in nature, camping, trekking or simply relaxing, without having to forego any of the modern comforts that we, city creatures, are used to. We had heard about them from family who had visited their Thanedar retreat a couple of years ago, returning with rave reviews. So we were quite excited about checking them out ourselves.

      Nestled among apple and cherry trees, Thanedar's Banjara Orchard Retreat is a beautifully designed and landscaped property that is located just about a kilometer from the village's bazaar. It is Mr. Prakash Thakur's ancestral property, which he has lovingly restored and updated with modern comforts and extremely good taste. Designed and conceived by him, the interiors - furnishings, décor, wall paint - look like they have been professionally done up but with a personal touch; quite impressive!

      Stone steps lined with fruit trees on either side led us from the main road down to the retreat. It consists of 2 2-storied buildings and 2 log cabins set apart by manicured lawns and flower gardens. The main building comprises of a lounge area to which is appended a modestly-sized, semi-circular dining room with glass walls that provide excellent views of the valley and the mountains beyond. An open-air gallery runs around this hall and it is an excellent place to enjoy the views in good weather. The orange interiors, dark-wood furniture, glass lamps and an excellent painting of Meera and Krishna made the dining hall one of my favorite rooms in the retreat!

      An activity center with board games and a library sits on the floor below the dining hall. It's a great place to find a book to chill with or play games with the family.

      Our double-room was housed in the second building, which is just across from the first, separated by a lawn. Here all the rooms and suites are, quite appropriately, named after the fruits in Mr. Thakur's orchard; ours was the Apricot room! It was on the upper floor, in a corner, with a small balcony that could accommodate 2 chairs and a round table. And from here the views were just as spectacular as from the dining hall! A window on the side wall gave us views of the orchard, which was dripping with fruits - the red, ready-to-be-harvested, cherries looked absolutely sumptuous! Inside, the room had beautiful wooden flooring with a large, comfortable queen bed, side tables and lamps. A seating area in one corner between the window and the balcony had 2 chairs and a coffee table. The bathroom was modestly sized with good quality, modern fixtures. Overall, it was a simple but luxurious space! The only thing the room lacked was an armoire or shelves where we could put our stuff.

      What sets Banjara Orchard Retreat apart, though, from those that we have stayed at, of similar price range, is the thought put into the small things. From the quality of linen, curtains and towels to the copper water jug and aromatic, natural soaps, everything looked hand-picked and well thought of! It gave the place a classy yet homely touch!

      Meals, which are included in the stay, include bed-tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea with snacks and dinner. Weather-permitting, Mr. Thakur also hosts a bonfire in the lawns, accompanied by barbecued-to-order appetizers! This was a great opportunity for us to interact with the other guests at the retreat. We were impressed with how Mr. Thakur presided over the proceedings, encouraging conversations, without ever interfering! These moments at the retreat were my favorite during the entire stay.

      Overall, our stay at Thanedar's Banjara Orchard Retreat was one of our most relaxing ones. And the time spent with Mr. Thakur made it all the more special. A warm, intelligent person, he had plenty of stories to regale us with. Moreover, his knowledge of the region - history, flora, fauna - enriched our experience completely. This is one place we would definitely want to go back to in the future!

      See the full story with pics

  •  Driving Escapes - Spiti
      autocarindia.com 28th September, 2009
    • If Spiti doesn't leave you awestruck, you aren't normal

      If Spiti doesn't leave you awestruck, you aren't normal. It's as simple as that. All your life you've heard that the Gods reside in the Himachal Himalayas - while driving across the Spiti district, you realize that this unbelievably scenic land had to be the obvious choice for celestial residence. It is now possible to drive to Chandra Tal, which makes things ideal for those who want the camping experience without the ardour of a trek. From Chandra Tal, we've driven to Kaza across the majestic Kunzum La and the high-altitude plateau after Losar. We've passed through magnificent gorges and huge canyons that look straight out of Mackenna's Gold. The road is broken and bumpy and you need to exercise caution at the wheel most of the time, but the splendid vistas more than make up for the journey. Using Kaza as a base, we've visited interesting places, including Tashi Gang, the world's highest road-connected village and the seemingly precariously perched 1,300-year-old Dankar Gompa.

      IN DETAIL
      Driving there - Manali - Rohtang - Gramphu - Chattru - Chotta Dara - Batal - Chandra Tal - Kunzum La - Losar - Kaza. We've mapped the route from Manali onwards. While the road is easy to follow, the surfaces aren't very accommodating. There are streams to be crossed, boulder patches to be negotiated and herds of sheep to be tackled. Drive to enjoy the land you'll be passing through rather than keeping to a timetable. Tank up to the brim at the Sood and Company Petrol Pump in Manali. This BPCL fuel station stocks all premium fuels and accepts credit cards. You'll be doing about 210km in mostly the first and second gear, so if your car doesn't have a 200km range in these conditions, then do carry spare fuel. Also carry an extra spare wheel. Be warned that if you're running tubeless tyres, there is no place you can repair a puncture. It is advisable to carry two spare tubes which can be fitted into the 'flat' tyres as a last resort. Manali to Chandra Tal: 130km.

      The tripmeter has been set on the east bank of the Beas at the main bridge across the river. So, if you're facing the road to Rohtang, the river will be on your left. (The figures indicated in brackets by each direction is the height in metres at that point.)

      1.2 Right T-junction. Continue straight. Right to Vashist.

      8.7 Palchan Village (2241m).

      9.3 Fork on road. Bear right towards Rohtang. Left goes to Solang Nallah.

      12.5 Kothi Village.

      20.6 Gulaba (2782m).

      21.6 Rahalla Falls (2944m).

      33.6 Marhi - dhabas and restaurants - is a good place to breakfast (3208m).

      50.2 Rohtang Pass (3820m).

      64.3 Gramphu. Right T-junction. Turn right for Chandra Tal and Kaza. Straight goes to Keylong and Leh Note: The road is now unsealed. Be careful especially while crossing streams.

      81.4 Chattru. Dhabas here. Sample the lemon tea with honey, the omelettes along with freshly baked chapattis (3272m).

      82.1 PWD Rest House, Chattru.

      98.6 Chotta Dara. Dhaba here serves good masala tea (3651m).

      113.7 Batal - number of dhabas here. The climb up to the mighty Kunzum La starts here (3889m).

      116.5 Fork. Left goes to Chandra Tal 13km away and right goes to Kunzum La. Bear left for Chandra Tal (3975m). Note: The 13km road to Chandra Tal is supposed to be only for 4WD vehicles. But all cars with reasonable ground clearance will be able to traverse this road. The trick to driving this road is to be very careful.

      118.5 You are now at 4000 metres above Mean Sea Level -13,124 feet!

      129.7 Chandra Tal (4152m). Chandra Tal to Kaza: (83.6km) The tripmeter has been reset at the fork (at 116.5km above) on the road from Losar to Kunzum La.

      9.2 Kunzum La. Remember to negotiate the Chortens (Buddhist prayer stones) in a clockwise direction (4320m).

      11.4 Caution! Very weak bridge.

      26.3 Tarmac begins (3954m).

      26.6 Police checkpost - Losar. Car and driver details have to be entered here.

      27.4 Losar PWD Rest House.

      76.5 Rangrik town.

      80.8 Bridge over Spiti river ending in T-junction. Turn right for Kaza. Left goes to Ki and Kibber.

      83.6 Banjara Kaza Resort. Note: The fuel station at Kaza is not a 24-hour one. In fact, its timings are arbitrary. Top up as soon as you get there and then top up again once before your return trip. The pump is open only for half a day on Sunday and shuts by 7pm on weekdays.

      ON THE ROAD
      This should be 'on the dirt' actually because that's the surface you'll be driving on for most of the time. The views are fascinating and the road bumpy. Remember to start early from Manali. The road to Rohtang gets very crowded as hordes of holiday-makers head to the pass for a picnic. This translates into serpentine jams on the winding mountain road and the start-and-stop routine spells doom for the clutch. And a strong clutch is something you will definitely need on the roads ahead. While there is enough room at most places to let oncoming vehicles to pass side-by-side, there might be times when you'll need to back up to a wider place. Remember that the 12km 'road' to Chandra Tal is hardly more than a wide walking track on which the Innova we drove just about fit. There was absolutely no room on either side. We were fortunate to meet the one car we passed in the opposite direction at the only place where the road widens onto a broad plain. The last kilometre to the lake has narrow hairpin corners where you might need to back up to get around. It is advisable to ask one of the passengers to step out and guide you as the road shoulders are crumbly and the drops long.

      IN DETAIL
      Besides being the obvious residence of holy beings, Spiti leaves the visitor spellbound, thanks to its stark mountainous and rugged landscape. This is the perfect locale to witness the effects of wind and glacial erosion, the land having being shaped by these two powerful forces. It still possible to see the valleys and the rock formations created during the ice age.

      Camping at Chandra Tal The recent construction of the road right till the lake makes it more convenient to visit but we fear this will also spell doom for it. At present, there are no dhabas, permanent structures, or garbage and the lake is picture-postcard perfect. It is up to visitors to ensure that it remains pristine. Imagine hotels and restaurants coming up here! Also, burn or bury biodegradable garbage and carry away what cannot be destroyed. Chandra Tal is at a height of 4,152 metres and you need to get acclimatised before reaching there. It is definitely not advisable to drive straight from Manali to Chandra Tal. You will certainly be hit by AMS (acute mountain sickness) and won't enjoy your stay. We suggest you camp the first night en route, either at Chotta Dara or Batal as both have fabulous campsites. Alternatively, you can also stay in the dhabas.

      There are also gentle walks in the area where you can gradually get used to the high altitude. If you wish to enhance the quality of your stay at the lake, it helps to hire the services of a trekking agency.They will probably send a cook and a helper along. This twosome will select suitable campsites, pitch tents and cook for you, thereby ensuring you enjoy a relaxed and truly rejuvenating holiday in the lap of the gods. Here's how you can work out the logistics. Ask the agency to prepare a kit for you including all provisions, utensils, stove and kerosene. All you need to bring along is a sleeping bag. You can then take the kit with you in your car and the cook and helper can take the bus to the place where you decide to spend the first night. You will just have to take them along from this place to Chandra Tal and then from Chandra Tal to Batal where they can hop onto a bus back to Manali. You can then drop off the kit in Manali when you return from Kaza. Alternatively, you can hire a car for the guide and the cook and the kit but this would be considerably more expensive. In addition to the charges to the camping agency, do remember to generously tip the cook and the helper as they work really hard in that high altitude and cold clime.

      A recommended agency is: Natural Travels
      Muneer Suri (Micky)
      Mobile: 09816045725
      Tel: 01902-245125/245725
      email: surimuneer@yahoo.co.uk

      Kaza This town, surrounded by rugged mountains and bordered by the vast basin of the Spiti river, is the district headquarters of the Spiti district. It is a good place to base yourself for a five-day stay . However, remember to get used to the height before attempting any serious excursions.

      Ki, Kibber and Tashi Gang Twelve kilometres to the north of Kaza is the fabulous Ki Monastery. Dramatically built on the summit of a hill, it looks straight out of a fairytale complete with a winding driveway up to its entrance. Located at a height of 4,112m, this gompa is the most important one in the region and counts amongst its treasures some ancient Buddhist texts as well as five-metre-long musical horns that are brought out on festive occasions, their notes resounding across the valley. Kibber at a height of 4,205m was the highest road-connected village in the world until a few years ago. Subsequently, a new road was constructed to link Gete and then Tashi Gang which are higher. Kibber has a gorgeous amphitheatre-like setting and as it is contained within a depression with no inhabitation around, it attracts birds and other fauna. A local also told us of a recent snow leopard sighting. The sleepy hamlets of Gete and Tashi Gang are worth visiting for the views they afford. However, the drive there is harsh with broken roads and sharp rocks strewn across.

      Dankar Gompa This 1,300-year-old Gompa seems precariously perched as it is built entirely on large stalagmites formed by wind and glacial erosion. Honestly, I was a little apprehensive visiting this place of worship, thinking that it would come tumbling down any moment. But then it has survived 1,300 years. The visuals from its terrace are astounding. Huge mountains with the Spiti river meandering by their bases make a heavenly sight.

      Tabo Forty kilometres down the road lies Tabo, which also houses a very important Gompa; it is the one the Dalai Lama was going to retire to until recently. Then at the hilltop village of Gyu is a monastery with the mummified remains of a child. This mummy is worshipped and is not a site for people with weak stomachs. Text & Photography: Rishad Saam Mehta.

      MANALI
      Hotel Chandra Tal

      Run by the Gurungs, this cozy guesthouse is an ideal hideaway in Manali. Being housed within the premises of the Mountaineering Institute on the east bank of the Beas, there is no hustle bustle or the cacophony found in other hotels in Manali. The food is home-cooked, the hosts charming and gracious, and the views from each room refreshing.
      Contact: Madhu Gurung
      Ph: 09816093122

      KAZA AND TABO
      Both these places have Banjara Camps & Retreats properties, so you really don't need to look elsewhere. Both the resorts have clean rooms, comfortable beds and guests are provided with quilts and blankets during cold nights. The food is wholesome and varied, especially the breakfast spread. What's more, on an advance request, they will even serve the local delicacies - tastebud-tingling momos and thungpa.

      For bookings contact:
      Banjara Camps & Retreats Pvt Ltd 1A, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110 016 Phone 011-2686 1397, 26855153, 09810040397 Telefax 91-11-2685 5152 Email: info@banjaracamps.com, banjara@vsnl.com http://www.banjaracamps.com

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  •  Banjara Camps and Retreat, Sangla
      Ajay Jain - Kunzum.com, 16th May, 2009
    • I stayed at Banjara Camps' Sangla property two years ago and visited the same recently. Did anything change during this period? Yes, they have come up with their 12 room Retreat which is not tented accommodation but a built up structure. There was a flash flood that took away some of the land - including the original bonfire area - as the Baspa river changed course. You can see signs of trees being swept away on some of the slopes in the valley as the tributaries of the Baspa also decided to take a different path than normal. These minor changes apart, the Sangla Valley remains as beautiful as ever and the Banjara Camp the ideal place to enjoy it.

      Rajesh Ojha and Captain Ajay Sud, the folks behind Banjara, created a new category of accommodation in the country when they set up the Sangla property in 1994. It is comfortable yet gives a feel of the rough, is luxurious without your needing to sell your car to stay here. And located far from the madding crowd where few would know exist - and want to go to once they hear of it.

      This is how my experience was when I stayed there in June 2007 and then again in May 2009:

      The Location: Perfect. About eight kilometers (five miles) from Sangla town, it is located along the Baspa river. You get to the camp after a two kilometer descent from the highway to bring you level with the adjacent Batseri village. Once there, you are like in a bowl surrounded by wooded peaks all around with apple trees on the property itself. These are in full bloom in August and September; you never know the apple you buy back home might have come from Sangla. The river can be reached by walking a few steps down except when it is in full flow; the sound of the water acts as a lullaby all night long.

      The Accommodation: 12 rooms in the Retreat (their built up cottage) and another 15 or so luxury tents, each en-suite.

      The Retreat Rooms: In mint condition with 2009 being their inaugural here. Wooden floors, balconies to sit and enjoy your tea, comfy chairs to lounge and beds with 8" thick mattresses. There is a loft with a single mattress for an extended family to stay or if you just want a cozy, quiet corner to yourself. The baths are tiled, clean, with hot water geysers and running water throughout.

      The Tents: Comfortable beds, with chairs to sit around. Each tent has its own little verandah type area to sit around or to dry one's shoes and clothes after some adventure. They all have their own baths with an innovative LPG gas fired geyser to give you running hot water whenever you want.

      Food: These guys seriously need to do something about the food. Their room rates always includes all three meals, unlimited tea and coffee and cooked snacks with evening tea. And each meal is better and more elaborate than the previous one. It is not heavy, cooked home style, and yet the fare is multi-cuisine. You get Indian, Chinese, Italian and Continental - not all together but by rotation - and it is amazing how their cooks can put such variation together in this wilderness. If you are out on a day hike, they will pack a meal to feed an Army. And all the food is hygienic, wholesome, well presented and tasty. They finally figured they need to cut down on the evening snack as some guests complained of being overfed, but it would invariably be met with howls of protest from at least some guests (including me) who wait all day for their dose of bondas, cutlets, French fries and pakodas.

      Electricity: Generators kick in when power snaps so you need not worry on this count.

      Water: Never does a disappearing act. If the water in the river were not freezing or too fast depending on the time of the year, who will want the showers? A jump in the river would have been better.

      Housekeeping: The best investment Banjara makes is in their washing machines. The bedsheets, duvets, pillows and towels always give that crisp, clean and fresh feel when the weather is cold and wet. Rooms are maintained well, and always feel clean. The staff never flinches if you ask for any additional service. They are thoughtful enough to leave a hot water bottle under the duvet every night to keep you extra warm.

      Activities: This is where the Banjara touch comes in. Having been set up by travel and adventure enthusiasts themselves, guests are never short of planned activities. These include guides taking you for hikes through forests, mountains and local villages, or river crossings or mountain climbing or driving to different attractions. You can join groups already going or have them plan something exclusive for you. You will usually have Rajesh or Ajay for company who never miss out on adding that personal touch. They, and their guides, are full of information and anecdotes to make the experiences even more engaging. You can expect a bonfire in the evening at the camp, which is an opportunity to make friends over bar-be-cue snacks and drinks. They always have books, magazines and indoor games handy for guests.

      Tariff: Rs. 5,500 for tents, Rs. 6,000 - 6,500 for rooms in Retreat. Rates are for a room for two including meals and taxes.

      The final word? Banjara is the number you should call if you want to visit a heavenly location, stay in comfort at an affordable price while you are there and have experiences you will be telling your grandchildren about.

      Would you like to book a room in this property? Contact Banjara Camps - and ask for a SPECIAL OFFER for Kunzum fans:

      Contact Banjara Camps & Retreats Pvt. Ltd.
      1A, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi-110 016, India
      Tel: +91.11.2685 5152 /53, 2686 1397
      Email: info@banjaracamps.com
      Web: www.banjaracamps.com

      Disclosure: I became a fan of Banjara Camps properties before I became personal friends with the owners and some of their team members. So anything I write in praise is genuine, and precedes any reasons for positively biased reporting (not that I allow that to come into my writing).

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  •  DAYTRIPPING
      Ahtushi Deshpande - traveller.outlookindia.com May, 2008
    • A long weekend of short walks in Kinnaur.

      The night has brought silent, blanketing snow, transforming the village of Chitkul into spun sugar houses, their slate roofs thick with puffs of, well, icing. Blue pines and cedars look utterly Christmassy-jolts of light wind blowing the fresh snow off their evergreen foliage. The sky is blue; the broad lay of the valley a wintry white. I walk on a level path lined with candyfloss bushes, with round snowballs crowning their thorny edges. The valley to the east upholds an expansive view of snow-clad mountains across which lies Uttarakhand and Tibet depending on which direction one is looking at. It is mid-April and the valley should be blooming into spring, yet it wears its winter cloak. I am on a walk to Nagasthi, the last ITBP post in the Sangla valley of Kinnaur from where civilians can go no further. The walk is level, the landscape surreal and pretty.

      What I do not know yet is that this is merely the lull before the storm-something quite different is brewing on the distant horizon, which will soon turn the near spring to near winter with monsoon-like conditions on the prowl. And therein lay the epiphany, which arrived on a stray stroke of lightning and the magical spell that wound me up in pleasurable knots over the next three days.

      At a height of 2,700m, the Banjara Camp is surrounded by towering mountains on all sides and is set on the banks of the Baspa river that surges through the valley. I had arrived at their tented retreat the previous night in dripping cold and found myself utterly charmed with 'Batseri', my tented home for the next four nights.

      Encased in red chunri print drapes, the tent is luxurious in an understated way-a double bed, a period dresser-cum-study, hat stand and some chairs and a table. My attached loo has a neatly tiled floor, running hot and cold water and a gleaming white porcelain potty (essential, my editors have told me, for a 'comfort trek' story). And I'm not complaining.

      The next morning we go on a meandering 25km drive to Chitkul, the last roadhead of the valley and its last village, from where the walk to Nagasthi is an easy hour's ramble. The jawans are thrilled to see visitors. In winter the thermostat gets stuck at -40oC and doors get jammed, crib the guardians of our precarious borders who spend entire winters in some very hallowed posts like this one. For me it is brimming with the crackle of early spring.

      I spend the evening around a bonfire while head chef Dhanpat doles out succulent chunks of lamb and chicken, jacket potatoes and vegetable platters. I am the sole guest of the camp and I listen intently to the camp manager Shardendu a.k.a. Sonu as he describes the "raunak" in the camp in season: cricket matches, children, the various walks and activities, and the conviviality of families and friends enjoying a slice of wilderness in this picturesque setting. An IT professional, Sonu gave up city life to manage Banjara Camps' various mountain retreats and now more than two years later is half a mountain man himself.

      There are nooks and crannies if you want to simply laze or angle for trout by the river, but I highly recommend that you go on at least a few walks here. I have taken my eight-year-old on a few small hikes but this is where I will bring her next time. It is ideal for that first real introduction to nature and to propel her on for that further longer hike. The camp itself is well outfitted for children-swings, activities and carefree spaces, not to mention ample food.

      We top off the evening with big plans for a long walk and mull over the menu for our packed lunch. As I retire to my cosy den a flash of lightning cuts across the sky followed by a loud rumble of thunder. I shrug this off as a passing phase and sleep to the lullaby of the rain and the lilt of the river. The morning brings drearier weather-a grey sky above, strong winds and relentless rain. Fresh snow has fallen only a hundred metres above the camp and Sonu shows me pictures of a week ago taken on his cellphone, when they had to dismantle the tents during a freak snowfall.

      We abandon plans of a long walk and opt for a drive to nearby Kalpa. We walk through the glistening cobblestoned drag of Roghi village, under big black umbrellas and guzzle chais with anyone who will have us over.

      I spend the evening exploring Batseri, also the village across the river from camp. Kinnauri apples are famous and the prosperity is evident in the changing culture and architecture of the area. The stately slate roofs have virtually all been replaced with new tin ones. We are invited for coffee to Rakesh Singh's house. Singh tells me that the village sold apples worth Rs 5 crore last year alone. The people of the region practise fraternal polyandry. All the brothers of the bridegroom are automatically considered the husbands of the bride. My tentative enquiries are met with reminders of how the system has helped perpetuate the family name and safeguard the family property from fragmentation.

      The village is well signposted and I explore its various nooks-the weather-beaten Bodh temple and the newly built Badri Narayan temple. The latter was built recently with great care on the site of the older one that was gutted in a fire in 1998. Elaborate carvings in wood line the walls with the four prophets of the main religions standing guard over various gods of the Hindu pantheon. Dragon pillars line the corners and a series of erotic carvings line the lower periphery wooden wall. The hotchpotch temple keenly reflects the religious tolerance of the people. In the midst of tall cedars further above the village is a quiet spot with a few wooden water-run prayer wheel enclosures on a small stream. It's a short walk from here to the glacier point where a thick chunk of ice straddles the narrow gully coming down from the north. This is one of the easy hikes from camp.

      At night the mercury dips abysmally. The rain thunders onto my tent and I worry about a midnight evacuation, in case the rain turns to snow. It doesn't and I force myself to sleep-I have plans of a nice long walk in the rain tomorrow.

      We start off after breakfast armed with rain gear on the 'signature walk of the valley'. It is an 11km walk that will lead us due east to the fag end of the valley at Rakcham. It proves to be one of the most beautiful day hikes I have done. The rain adds to the mystery below and light snow falls on the cedars above. We walk the path at one time used by Batseri villagers to go to Rakcham. Now they use the road.

      The steep cliffs overhead look daunting as mist and cloud swirl tantalisingly around their sheer rock faces. Hazelnut blooms and village fields give way to a gentle forest of blue pines and I walk on a bed of moist pine-cones, the rich dank earth cushioning my footfall. Moss and lichen sprout amidst fungi draped around tree trunks in soft casings while the lush forest envelops me gently.

      Along the gentle ascents I peer over sheer drops at the frisky Baspa that runs through the sanctuary and stop for a snack at the first glacier point. It is a mammoth chunk of solid ice that invites playful sliding and we succumb to the temptation. The final stretch towards Rakcham is through a lovely forest of birch. I throw caution to the winds and consign my parka to my daypack. The entombed silence of snowfall wipes out the din of rain at this higher elevation.

      Back at the camp, the wind rages, making my tent flap violently. It's my last night here and I walk through the orchard to Mahakutti, the dining tent, struggling to control my umbrella. A Parsi couple from Mumbai has just arrived with two young daughters. It's only the second day of their two-week holiday and they are crestfallen at the turn in weather. Huddled around the burning embers of the big coal drum it actually feels like being marooned on some distant island, reminiscing about all the great holidays one has had, while still waiting for the current one to begin. The food is outstanding as always and we tuck into some great pasta, grilled chicken and soup rounded off by a lemon soufflé.

      The night brings a sudden calm after the violent storm and a star-decked sky beams above. I can smell the clear day ahead beckoning the soft footfalls of children and families who will throng the camp in summer. But I don't mind in the least. Give me off-season any day. Crisp clear skies are best left to the tourist.

      THE INFORMATION
      GETTING THERE
      You can fly daily from Delhi to Shimla on Deccan (from approx. Rs 5,000 one-way; www.airdeccan.net) and then drive up to Sangla from there. You could also take a train to Kalka (Kalka Mail or Kalka Shatabdi) and drive from there. From Shimla, Sangla is an 8hr drive. Banjara Camps can arrange transportation at an extra cost. The evening Kalka-Delhi Shatabdi is a good option for the return if you want to get back the same day, but you must leave Sangla at an early 5am.

      If you are driving from Delhi start early and stop over at Banjara's charming retreat in Thanedar situated in the midst of fine views and apple orchards. From here Sangla is a five-hour drive. Alternatively you can halt in Chail, Narkanda or Naldehra. The route: from Chail/Shimla to Karcham (the turnoff point on NH22) is 221/209km. Take a right turn at Karcham. 18km down the road, you will hit Sangla. 6km ahead of Sangla, you will spot the Banjara Camp sign on the right. Take a right turn from here to reach the camp.

      THE CAMP
      Banjara Camps offers 18 fully furnished tents with attached bath and running hot and cold water. Meals are served buffet-style in the dining area 'Mahakutti'. Barbeques are at an extra charge for which you can also bring in fresh trout from the nearby Sangla fisheries. Alcohol is not served in the camp though you are free to bring your own. Tariff: Rs 5,500 for a double, Rs 5,000 for a single. The tariff is inclusive of all meals and taxes. Contact: 011-26855152, 01786-242536, www.banjaracamps.com.

      WALKING
      There are several comfortable day walks you can do in the Sangla valley with Banjara Camps as your base.
      > To Chitkul and Nagasthi checkpost: This is a scenic one-hour walk to the last village on the old Hindustan-Tibet trade route.
      > To Sangla Meadows: A full-day walk to green pastures.
      > To Rakcham: A beautiful five-hour walk along the Baspa to Rakcham village.
      > To Batseri village and glacier point: Visit this typical Kinnauri village and walk to the glacier point (one-and-a-half hours).

      OTHER ACTIVITIES
      The camp organises activities like river crossing, rock climbing and arranges fishing permits, at an extra cost. Guide fees are extra for hikes. The Baspa river is great for trout fishing. You can also drive to Kalpa (56km) for lunch and a bang-on view of the Kinner Kailash massif (6,050m).

      SEASON
      The camp stays open from April to October. However, temperatures vary with the seasons. May to September offers pleasant days (light woollens required) and cold nights, while April and October have pleasant days.

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  •  Quick Retreat
      Rishad Saam Mehta - Jet Wings, Dec 2004
    • A short and swift weekend break from the big city is a perfect antidote for the weary... Here are few itineraries from Delhi.

      Thanedar

      It is a straight drive from Delhi to Thanedar via Chandigarh and Shimla. Do make a determined effort to be on your way from Delhi by 5.45 am. This will have you crossing Chandigarh by 10.45 am, after a breakfast halt at Karnal. The 180-odd km to Thanedar will take the better part of five hours, thanks to the traffic in Shimla. You'll be in time for tea at Thanedar. Check into Banjara's beatific Orchard Retreat and let the views of the mountains lull you. Get the wonderful host, Prakash Thakur, to relate the story about Satyanand Stokes and how the Starking's Red and Golden Delicious strain of apple came to be grown here around the campfire later that evening. The kids will surely love it.

      The next day you can see the same story in pictures if you're up to a walk to the Stoke's family house- Harmony Hall. Around the house are the heavily laden Barobagh Orchards and the beautiful Paramjyoti Mandir that Stokes built. After breakfast, drive up to the Tanijubar lake. It's a fascinating place to spend some time and maybe have a picnic lunch here. On your way back to the Retreat, visit the StMary's Church at Kotgarh, where stokes was sent to recuperate when he fell sick at Sabathu.

      Shoja

      Just two hours from Thanedar, Shoja is another good option for a weekend break. The road to this hamlet takes you past the Jalori Pass at 10,000 feet. Shoja lies five km from the pass. You can check into the Bnajara Retreat here. Definetly do the trek to the Serolsar Lake that is five km from the Jalori pass. The trail goes through the thick forest but is a very pleasant walk with splendid sightings of birds. The views are simply divine throughout the walk. Start out at 8 am and you should be back at the Retreat by 2 pm. There are snack stalls at the lake, incase you're hungry.

      For another pleasant walk, had to the waterfall point that is an hour away. Recharge yourself with breakfast and if you're up to it, walk to the Raghupur Fort that is six km away. This walk is a little strenuous and small children might need to be carried some of the way. But the views from the fort are fabulous.

      You can also spend a day at Raju's Cottage in Gushaini, 35 km away. The drive should take an hour or so. Raju's Cottage is a charming log hut on the opposite side of the Tirthan River and getting across is an adventure of sorts that will have you crossing the river in a little cable trolly. Indulgence is the name of the game here. Splurge on a breakfast laced with wild honey and then spend the morning exploring the orchards around the cottage or get Raju to explain to your kids the interesting process of jam-making. You can also fish for trout in the river or simply just lounge on the bank.

  •  Take a Monsoon Break
      Sumitra Senapathy - The Hindu, 25th July 2004
    • ...it's a hushed theatre of excess attended by nothing but birdcall and when the sky is blotches of soot 'black watercolour on the morning's damp, diaphanous spread'...
      Are you game for a 'rain holiday' destination, asks SUMITRA SENAPATHY.

      It is the thick of summer with schools out in the North, when the crash and thunder of the monsoons interrupt the general air of lethargy. Suddenly you want to break free, away from surfing channels, sipping chai and binging on hot pakodas. If you are wondering where to go for that "ideal" monsoon break, head for Thanedar, in Kotgarh district, 80 km from Shimla on the old Hindustan-Tibet road. Thanedar enjoys a special place in the history of Himachal. In 1916 Samuel Stokes, a social worker from Philadelphia, brought the first apple saplings to Kotgarh, the place he adoptedas his home. One can still see the "Starking Delicious" apple orchard that he planted here. Prakash Thakur, the host, for whom the "Orchard Retreat" has been a labour of love, is also the resident expert on the history and culture of this little piece of paradise. Visit the Parmjyotir temple built by Stokes in local Pahari style, or stroll amid the serene environs of the Tani-Jubbar Lake, famous for the "Nag Devta" temple built along the Lake.

      Another place to chase away the monsoon blues is Shoja, a little village 5 km from the Jalori Pass that links the Shimla and Kulu districts. The "Banjara Retreat" is a solid cedar wood house surrounded by thickly wooded forests from which you get a panoramic view of the snow-covered Himalayan ranges in the distance. The numerous walks and treks in the surrounding forests and meadows are a well-known feature of the area, especially after a fresh drizzle. Thirty km from Shoja, is the Tirthan river, which flows through the valley and is great for trout fishing. Alternately you can walk through thick oak forest to reach the Raghupur fort. But don't be disappointed if you don't find what you expect in most hill stations; a plethora of eating joints and restaurants, shopping malls, vantage points to see and pose for photographic memories.

      Moving on from Thanedar and Shoja, you notice the verdant shades of green interspersed with numerous silvery streaks cascading down the cliff face into the ravines below forming gurgling streams and countless rivulets. On the winding highway, there are some merry makers under a thundering fall, shivering from the sharpness of the cascading waters.

      It is a sublime experience to savour the beauty of the monsoon in the foothills of the Himalayas. The showers bring a multitude of visitors, to these hitherto less frequented hill stations. You can meander along the serpentine paths that lead into the forests and soak in some wilderness. Or clamber atop the ridges, to watch a green blanket coming into focus when the clouds part momentarily... Enjoy yourself.

  •  Shoja - Iris Beauty
      Dipta Bhog - Outlooktraveller, 2nd June 2003
    • A vacation in the tiny mountain village at 8,000 ft in the Kullu valley is just the cure for the heat wave and dust storms the plains are inflicted with now. The mere drive to Shoja via Aut, Larji and Banjar from Mandi can take your breath away, with purple iris growing wild all over the mountains, dappled sunlight and old, massive fir trees lining the hill road. The drive up is picturesque with dense forests, small waterfalls and innumerable little chai shops that make you want to stop and soak it all in, just that little bit longer.

      For those who want nothing to do except relax, Shoja offers little for company but the occasional bird that flies out of the Great Himalayan National Park next door. Settle down into a lazy chair and enjoy those special Himalayan Views. Just beyond Shoja's Forest Rest House is a lovely meadow with a quaint deodar wood temple. From here you can get a near 360-degree view of the stunning vistas around. There are more spellbinding views at waterfall point. For the active, a number of treks are on offer. About 5 km from Shoja is Jalori Pass at 10,282 ft. Not a particularly special place with its dusty dhabas, Jalori is nevertheless famed for the hike from Shoja across the Pass. The trail, winding through thick deodar forest, offers view of sunlit peaks above wooded slopes. And don't bother to pluck the purple iris they wilt the moment you do so from their long succulent stems. Forty minutes to the right of Jalori Pass brings you to the ancient Raghupur Fort. This is a great place to set up a picnic.

  •  Sangla Sojourn
      Sumitra Senapathy - The Hindu, 11th May 2003
    • Not everyone wants to go on a whistle-stop tour, getting up at dawn, packing and unpacking everyday. More in tune with the way live now is choosing a small corner of our country and getting to know that place more intimately. Himachal Pradesh is waiting to be rediscovered by urban weary people. We tend to neglect many pockets of the country and sometimes every interesting places are eclipsed by their better known neighbours. For example, pristine Sangla valley is quite different from tourist-rich honeypots, Shimla and Kullu Manali, and makes for a terrific bolthole.

      Situated at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, this is the place where Himachal greets Tibet. Forbidden territory virtually from independence till 1992 because of its close proximity to the Chinese border (30 km away), the sleepy inner line valley is still largely populated by tribals and the occasional Jawan of the Indo-Tibetan Border police. But you are unlikely to stumble upon either at the "Banjara Camps", a tented resort that nestles on the banks of a river in the backdrop of some dramatic peaks.

      The campsite has been picked carefully, and the thoughtfulness of the facilities, indeed take you by surprise. The snug, spacious 12 feet by 12 feet well-furnished Swiss cottage tents even have uninterrupted power supply and roll-up meshed windows to let in light. Meals are always served outdoors, with generous helping of sunlight, or by the side of a roaring bonfire, to keep you snug and warm.

      Climb the meadows at Sangla to melt the stress and enjoy breathtaking views of the Himalayas. Long walks are perfect for discovering the valley that bursts with an amazing variety of flora and fauna. All of Kinnaur is dotted with apple orchards and the region boasts the best cider in the Land.

  •  It all began with an...
      Rishad Saam Mehta - Jet Wings, February 2003
    • East of Shimla is Thanedar, home to some of the finest apple orchards in India. Here, a dedicated American planted the first saplings, and the fruits of his labour have brought prosperity to local farmers and treat to our tables.

      Shimla is fading. There is no denying the fact. The seduced the empire builders and rose to become the summer capital of the Raj has lost the attractiveness of her youth. The multitude of chaotic construction that now scar her once pretty slopes have left her wrinkled and sagging, and her days of glory are now faded memory.

      However, the district of Shimla is still an enchanting place. Most of it stretches along the banks of the Sutlej- in fact, Shimla itself is the entrance to the Sutlej valley. Travelling east of Shimla is beautiful. You leave the crowded mountainside, congested traffic and noisy tourist behind and make your way along the Hindustan-Tibet road that follows the Sutlej meandering far below. Two hours out of Shimla lies Narkanda, another hustle-bustle Himalayan town. Here, the road takes a sharp U and carries on towards Rampur. However, there is an old pilgrimage trail that has been made motorable, and it is this road that leads to Thanedar.

      Most people wouldn't stumble upon Thanedar, because wouldn't take the road-which is a pity. There's hardly a prettier place in the district. Rudyard Kipling once called this tiny hamlet the mistress of the Northern Hills, and her days of seduction are far from over. She sits pretty, high on a ridge surrounded by apple orchards, charming all who visit her. Most are blissful unaware of her history. If she could talk, what a story she'd have to tell. She'd tell of a young man from Philadephia, USA, who lost his heart to her. She'd tell of his fondness for the locals, and how he brought them prosperity. And, finally, as you bite into juicy red or golden apple, she'd tell you that it was here that it all started: for, the apple arrived in India at Thanedar.

      It was my good fortune that I had a good storyteller in Prakash Thakur, who runs the Banjara Retreat. Surrounded by apple orchards, which come into full bloom in April, this two-storied cottage provides cozy and comfortable accommodation. I was my way back from Rohru and Hatkoti, and was breaking my journey at Thanedar. This was my second visit within a period of two months, and, this time, I was the only guest, making me the ideal audience for Mr. Prakash Thakur, as we sat warming ourselves around the stove in the kitchen.

      It began in 1904, when Samuel Evans Stroke landed in Bombay on February 26. He had come to India with two doctors, Mr. and Mrs. Carleton, who were working with the Leprosy Mission in India. During a visit to Philadelphia, they had been asking for donations at the local church for their work in India, and young Stokes was very moved by their cause and dedication and wanted to help in a way that was more than just monetary. He faced much opposition from his family, because he was an heir to the family's prosperous business of elevators, Stokes and Parish Elevator Company, which was later merged with Otis Elevators. But, young Stokes was determined, and his family relented and allowed him come to India to work for the mission.

      Stokes was based at Sabathu, near Shimla, and he liked his work and the simple way of life he led. He fell in love with the Himalayas and, every day, went for walks into the hills, with each day bringing new discoveries. He would write back to his mother telling her about the flowers, the foliage, the tree, the birds, the sunrise, the sunset, the fragrance in the air and the changing seasons. The beauty around him sowed the seed that would flower as a decision to make this his permanent home.

      Kotgarh is village six kilometers from Thanedar, where the British built a church in 1843. Samuel came here to recuperate from the heat of the Indian Plains and fell completely in love with the surrounding the area that is Thanedar today.

      Story goes that he even lived in a cave in Kotgarh for a while, leading a life of renunciation. He followed a harsh regime of self denial- bathing in stream of cold water nearby and cooking simple meals in a small earthen pot. The villagers were astounded by his courage. The cave was a good mile from human habitation, in heart of the jungle, the home of panthers and bears.

      The story of the Sahib, who became a sadhu soon spread, and the villagers came to pay homage to him, and accepted him as one of their own. Realizing that her son was determined to spend his life in India, Mrs. Florence Stokes came visiting India during the winter of 1911. At the time, the area that is Thanedar today was a large tea plantation owned by a widow called Mrs. Bates. Stokes bought the plantation on February 6, 1912, for the princely sum of Rs. 30,000. A few months later, he married Agnes Benjamin, a Rajput "" Christian Pahari (Mountain) girl, and settled down to family life.

      The day after my arrival, Prakash Thakur and I went up to harmony Hall, which stands on a hillock surrounded by snow-capped mountains on three sides. This was the home Stokes built in Thanedar. Surrounding it were the apple orchards of Barobagh.

      In 1914, Samuel, Agnes and their year old son set off for London on February 23. They spent a few days there and then crossed the Atlantic just a week before the titanic sank. It was during this trip to his homeland that Stokes visited some of prosperous apple orchards in Philadelphia. He was convinced that apple cultivation could end the ills of the Kotgarh and Thanedar farmers. If every cultivator in Philadelphia could have bumper harvest year after year, why not the Kotgarh farmers?

      Now, English apples had already been introduced in India. Captain R S Scot of the British Army had brought them to the Kullu Valley in 1870. The apples, the Newton Pippin, King of Pippin and Cox's Orange pippin, were strains of the English sour apples. Unfortunately, they were not popular because of their taste and, to meet the demand of the Indian Market, sweet apples were still being imported from Japan. Stokes makes a careful study of apple cultivation in the US, read books on the subject and visited farmers to learn their methods.

      After 18 months Stokes and his family sailed for India. The voyage from London to Bombay was arduous, because World War 1, and their ship, the city of Marsilles was attacked by German Submarine. Fortunately for the fate of apples in India, the ship did not sink and made its way to Bombay. In 1916, Stokes planted the stark Brothers apple saplings he had brought with him at the very place where Mr. Thakur and I stood 86 years later.

      Five years later, in 1921, Stokes' mother sent him a consignment of sapling of the Stark Brother Golden Delicious apple as a Christmas gift. The first apple bore fruit a few years later and were sold in 1926. They were an instant hit. The intense sweet taste and the inviting colour hooked the Indian Market. Their popularity even spurred the locals into planting apples rather than their usual crop of potato. And, because they considered Samuel Evans Stokes one of them, they sought his advice and he helped them achieve rich dividends with their harvest.

      Soon the demand foe the Kotgarh apples skyrocketed. Orchards cropped up all over the valley of what is today of Himachal Pradesh to meet the demand, and imports from Japan ceased. It is from these first few saplings of the sweet Delicious apples of Shimla and the Golden Delicious of Kinnaur that Himachal Pradesh has grown to become one of the largest producers of the fruit today.

      Next to Harmony Hall stands the Paramjyoti Mandir that stokes built in 1937. During his early days in India, while he was exploring the Hindustan-Tibet road, Stokes interacted with many Sadhus, who were on their way to the Kailash Mansarovar. Their simplicity intrigued him and set him to thinking about Hindu Religion. Later on in life, he studied the Bhagwat Gita and the Upanishads in English and, then, in an endeavour to understand them better, he taught himself Sanskrit, in order to study them in their original form. Stokes joined Arya Samaj in 1930s; and changed his name to Satyanand Stokes. The temple is his legacy to the sect, and is said to be a story book in wood and stone. On its walls are carved passages from the Upanishads and the Gita that are meant to give seekers the courage to bear their sorrows and help reach their goal.

      Samuel Evans Stokes was the only American to take part in the Indian Freedom Struggle. He was completely disgusted by the way the British treated Indians and behaved on the sub-continent. His writings strongly point out how the rulers were doing a gross injustice to India, especially by their practice of beggar, or impressed labour. He was sent to jail for his views. In fact, when the consignment of Golden Delicious apple sapling arrived in Thanedar from Washington in 1921, they were planted by Agnes, because Stokes was doing time in Lahore Central Jail.

      That was the story of Thanedar that I was told. It was a tale of adventure and romance in a very different vein, and it added charm to an already enticing place. Kipling was right. Thanedar is a perfect spot for private pleasure.

  •  Safari in the Trans-Hill
      Anil Mulchandana - Auto India, June 2002
    • The scenically exciting route through the river valleys of Lahaul and Spiti offers ANIL MULCHANDANI an opportunity to see magnificent mountain landscapes and visit some of the highest human habitations in the world that are connected by tarmac roads.

      The region we visited has interesting monuments, specially Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, and offers opportunities to visit the villages of colourful people, like the Kinnauras, the Spitians and the Lahaulis, and view the variety of flora and fauna of the Himalayas. This is a holiday for the adventurous. You certainly need a good head for heights (driving on the left of the road, along river valleys, on these precipitous roads means looking down to great depths), a strong stomach to brave the sharp turns, and a sturdy back that can take the strain of the hard terrain.

      We started out at Shimla, where we arrived from Delhi in the evening and spent the night at Springfields. Springfields is a converted palatial mansion, partially occupied by the royal family of Shikhupura, the rest being an Usha Shriram-run heritage hotel, with large, period furnished suites. Awakening early, we enjoyed the view from the balcony of the Churchandani range. A rhesus monkey was perched on the balcony rails and birds flitted among the branches of nearby trees, sometimes venturing on to the balcony and even sitting on the window sill.

      We spent the morning exploring Shimla's many colonial monuments, and left at noon for our trip catching the Hindustan-Tibet Road, which by-passes some interesting resorts like Kufri, Naldehra and Mashobra. The road ran reasonably level along the upper slopes of hills, past farms, orchards, towns and villages, before reaching Narkhanda's scenic viewpoints offer vistas of cedar forests and Himalayan peaks rising in snowy gradients. In winter, the snow covered slopes are popular for skiing, mainly at beginner level (skis are available at the tourist bungalow). We contented ourselves with a scroll in the garden, admiring the flowers and the profusion of butterflies, and set off soon after lunch. Once over the Narkhanda passes, the road wound steadily along the Sutlej valley, lines by deodhar and pine woodlands. As wecame closer to Rampur Bushahr, the hillsides became barren with only rice fields adding a touch of colour to the monochromatic rocky landscape. What once was a pristine, off-the-beaten track route is now a heavily trafficked highway thanks to the Nathpa-Jhakri project that is one of the largest hydroelectric projects in south Asia. We drove through Rampur Bushahr, whose erstwhile ruler, Virbhadra Singh, is now the Chief Minister of HP. The town is well provided for with economical accommodation, including a Himachal Tourism property facing the Sutlej river, and eateries, and has the palace of the royal family and a Buddhist Gompa. But we just took a brief tea halt after the town limits and bottled water at a provision store. Further on, the road entered rocky countryside, along the surging river Sutlej, which gushes through the gorges and deep valleys of eastern Himachal in a torrential flow of muddy water, and we came to Jeori, the junction for the turnoff from the Hindustan-Tibet Road to Sarahan.

      From Jeori, we left the highway and took the 21 km road to Sarahan, a series of winding turns and hairpin bends leading to the town which has superb view of the Shrikhand Mahadev hills.

      We checked in at the Himachal Tourism's Srikhand, which is set around the Raja of Rampur Bushahr's old pooja house donated by the CM to tourism. Srikhand has four large rooms with balconies, four smaller rooms with balconies and four cheaper rooms which do not have the expansive views of the eight more deluxe rooms. The pooja house is available as a cottage for families, with two rooms and sitting areas. We relaxed with a bottle of apple wine and a meal, which was about average, ending up with a cup of Kangra Tea (the proverbial 'two leaves and a bud' are picked in the Kangra Valley of HimaChal Pradesh) before retiring for the night.

      Sarahan-Sangla

      We awakened early and enjoyed the view from Sarahan (which sits on a high ledge over the Sutlej river) of the high peaks including the holy Srikhand Mahadev, which is more than 17,000 ft high, before visiting the Bhimakali Temple, one of the finest in eastern Himachal. The temple has a pagoda roof, with twin multi-storeyed towers, sloping tiled roofing and golden spires, exquisite wood carvings along the doors, windows and balconies, and silver doors. A staircase took us upstairs to the sanctum with its impressive gold idol of Bhimakali, others of Buddha, Parvati and Annapurna, and silver traceries. Back in the temple courtyard we saw a Shiva shrine and a small museum with musical instruments, processional weapons, lamps, and utensils.

      We walked around the back of the complex where the Raja of Rampur, the owner of the temple, has his royal palace. The palace is impressive with painted timbered walls, lawns and wood carvings. The walking path behind the palace took us up a wooded trail, a one-km strenuous climb, to the Pheasant Breeding centre which has Western Tragopan, Monal Pheasant, Khalij and Chir Pheasant in cages, a goat-antelope enclosure and a baby musk deer. We trekked back to the tourist bungalow and drove down to Jeori, stopping for an early lunch at Bushahr hotel. Then it was back on the Hindustan-Tibet Road which, after Jeori, rose high above the river Sutlej and took us along cliff-side cuttings along the river that often roared through narrow gorges and ravines and past the hot springs of Kharcham where the Baspa meets the Sutlej. From Kharcham, the precipitous road took us up 16 km to Sangla, with its old fort and numerous guest houses, and then descended eight km to Batseri in a series of hair-rising winding turns. Presently we reached Banjara Camp, which is set in the midst of apple orchards on the shores of the Baspa river, with an amphitheatre of mountain peaks on every side. We walked to Batseri village and were proudly shown the local temple, which is being restored by expert wood carvers, the Buddhist temple, the wool-weavers who make intricate Kinnaura shawls, and the pride of the village the use of alternative energies including a solar power generator and wheels worked by water. The 'green village' also has herbal gardens and plantations.

      Back at the camp, we met a couple from Delhi who work in film media, and joined them around a bonfire for chilled beer and hot soup. Dinner was a sumptuous spread of mutton, vegetables, dal, rice and dessert in a tent with a little library for those who like reading.

      Trip to Chitkul

      We drove to Chitkul on a rough winding road that cuts through cliffsides along the Baspa river. Chitkul, about 11,300 ft above MSL, is the last village of Kinnaur before the Tibet border where civilian cars are allowed. From here, some foreigners were walking down to the river, a rather slippery path with lots of loose stones, and one couple trekked towards the hills. We visited the Hindu temple and the Buddha temple, admired the old houses with their wood carvings in the village, and saw some young yak (the older ones stray into higher altitudes) outside a villager's home.

      We drove back to Batseri, watching birds along the way, and stopped for tea at Kinner camp which has tents named for different birds. As if on cue, a falcon took off from a rock near us and we saw a Himalayan griffin vulture hovering overhead.

      Sangla to Recong Peo

      We started from the camp, after a quick breakfast of pancakes and honey, for Kalpa, a town offering a stupendous view of the Kinner Kailash mountain range, including the Shivaling hill worshipped by Hindus. Kalpa has interesting Hindu and Buddhist temples. We saw a number of shops selling cans of soup concentrate and Soya bean meals to prospective trekkers. We were informed that the bridge at Akpa, further ahead, was closed for repairs and no vehicles would be allowed until noon the following day. We had to give up hope of traveling to Tabo, as planned, and, instead, spent the night at Fairyland guest house in Recong Peo near Kalpa.

      After a breakfast of parathas at a nearby dhaba, we visited the Kalchakra Palace, a Gompa consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1992, a short byt stiff climb from the last motorable point, with a large Buddha statue nearby facing Kinner Kailash, and walked to Kothi with its Hindu temple and sacred fish tank. Back at the Recong Peo marketplace we called home from Sood Fancy Store which had an STD booth. The owners of the store were enthusiastic and gave us some interesting information on the area. They also showed us photos of their recent trek to Shivaling.

      Recong Peo-Tabo

      We drove to the Akpa bridge where we re-crossed the Sutlej. We had to wait for a rockfall to be cleared, before continuing through more barren countryside, past Morang which has a forest rest house and a monastery, to Jangi where vehicle details are checked. The rugged hills could be experienced on both sides of the road as we drove to Puh, after which the road bent north to Khab.

      After Khab, the Trans-Himalayas began at the confluence of the Sutlej and Spiti rivers, with imposing rocky landscapes on both sides. A steeply climbing rough road, with some challenging hairpin bends, took us to Kah and then to Yangtang, where we stopped for chowmien at an eatery straddling a hilltop about 12,400 ft above sea level. We were warned about the notorious Maling Slide, a snow-melt stream (locals know it is Malingnala) that has washed away many unprepared vehicles with fatal consequences, and proceeded rather cautiously. Fortunately our Sumo crossed the stream without mishap we saw rocks tumbling down with the stream just a few seconds after we were across and we breathed a sigh of relief. The road continued through hard terrain to Sumdo where we turned off the Hindustan-Tibet Road to State Highway 30 and drove through arid valleys with little vegetation. A few fields of peas and other pulses clung to the hills. Suddenly I spotted a flock of Bharal, which are called Blue Sheep though they are actually a separate genus between goat and sheep, with two-ft long horns, curving backwards over the neck, and a greyish-brown coat. We counted about seven of the sure-footed beasts as they grazed on the slopes and climbed the rocky ledges.

      We reached Tabo just before sunset and settled in at the Banjara Camp. We were soon comfortably enjoying the warmth of the tent amid the bitingly cold winds of Spiti. "I am a school teacher. My hometown is Shillong," explains Arjun, who received us, "I always wanted to explore Spiti and so took up the assignment of handling this camp for a season. This is a great area. I love the Pin Valley and trekking in these hills."

      Tabo-Kaza

      We awakened at dawn and Dinesh enjoyed photographing the view of the magnificent landscape of arid mountain peaks, some of them clad with snow, back-dropped by deep blue skies and lit up by crisp, clear sunlight. After breakfast, we drove to the monastic complex of Tabo. Tabo's Chos Khor Gompa monastery is one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist centres of learning. The variety of wall paintings inside is impressive and these murals have earned Tabo the title of the Ajanta-Ellora of the Himalayas. The monastic complex has nine temples, also with fine carvings and paintings, and the guide told us about some cave temples nearby. Across the road are vendors selling souvenirs including Spiti shawls.

      We drove to Kaza where we checked in at Sakya's abode. After a rather disappointing lunch (cold chappatis, under-cooked rice), we headed for Kibber which is one of the highest villages in the world connected by tarmac road, phone and electricity!

      We had a cup of tea at Norling Guest House where the staff told us that Yashigang is the highest village in Asia, and perhaps the world, that is connected by motorable road. We drove up the non-surfaced road to Yashigang, through the Kibber sanctuary, and saw a group of five Goral goat antelope feeding on the rassy hillsides.

      Exhilarated, we drove down and descended to the Kyi monastery on State Highway 30. This is one of the largest monasteries in Himachal Pradesh, with about 300 lamas, offering an exotic spectacle of white buildings standing out against the windswept, barren hillsides. Inside the monastery are scriptures, musical instruments, weapons and paintings.

      Driving back to Kaza, in time for dinner, we stopped for an Italian meal at Pomogrono Country, a guest house near Rangrik on the Kibber-Kaza road. Run by an Italian family and their St. Bernard dog, it has six clean rooms, tepee style tents and a bistro-style restaurant. We enjoyed the home-made pasta, tuna salad, tiramisu and Italian coffee.

      Kaza-Manali

      We took an early start for Manali. The road took us through pea and cabbage fields, apple orchards, poplar and willow woods, and past some breathtaking views of the Spiti river and barren mountain peaks.

      At Losar, we halted briefly for a breakfast consisting of omelettes and tea at Nawang Dhaba (also serves Momos and other Tibetan dishes), about 13,300 ft above sea level, and 18 km later crossed the Kunzum La pass, just under 15,000 ft above sea level, with a temple and superb views of peaks more than 20,000ft high like the Chandrabaga and Karcha, and also some of the largest glaciers of the western Himalayas. The pass marks the crossover from Spiti to Lahaul.

      The Gyepang temple here is believed to have mystic powers coins that stick to the temple are said to bring luck to the donor. The road took 19 hairpin bends through rocky terrain to Batal where trekkers got off a local bus for a trek to the Chandratal Lake. We had tea at a little tented stall here which also sells Maggi noodles and biscuits to trekkers. The rough drive (the word road is a euphemism for these routes and the term highway evokes mirth in the mind of anyone who has been on the Sumdo-Batal State Highway!) continued through Chotta Dhara and Chattru, where tea and snack shops offer tenting space trekkers. We met a lone European trekker with a porter, guide and pack mules, near Chattru, and further on a small group on the trek to Chandratal from Manali. After Gramphoo, where the State Highway gives way to the Manali-Leh Highway, the road did another series of hairpin bends, this time ascending to the Rohtang pass, which was shrouded by clouds. Local tourists were picnicking at Rohtang, many of them took pony rides to the point that they thought was the end of the habitable world!

      After Rohtang, the road began to descend in winding turns to Marhi, with para-sailing centre and cafeterias, Gulabo known for its meadows, Kothi with its tea and rice plate stalls (a base for trips to the Solang Nulla and treks to Beas Kund. Also a pretty spot with rocks strewn along the river Beas), and Vashist known for its hot springs. We stayed at Hotel Vintage, on the Manali-Naggar Road, with its comfortable rooms and view of the river Beas. We spent the evening at Manali seeing things like the Hadimba temple at Dungri and the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Finally, we tucked into grilled liver and a cottage cheese dish at the Mayur International at Manali.

  •  Following the Apple
      Partha S. Banerjee - The Times of India, Kolkatta, April 20, 2002
    • Next time you bite into a luscious apple, think of the 'American in Khadi'. Or better still, plan a visit to Samuel Stokes' picturesque adopted home in Himachal and enjoy a stunning view of mountains in the bargain.

      But what have apples got to do with Stokes? Well, if it hadn't been for this unusually remarkable American who married a local girl and eventually embraced Hinduism, there would have been little apple farming in India.

      The apple saga began at Thanedar, a charming little village at over 8,000ft. and some 82 kms from Shimla, and you can follow the orchard trail to remote Kinnaur, where forbidding snow-capped mountains tower over slopes that grow the best apples in India. Then move on to the enchanting Sangla valley with its quaint hamlets and the swiftly flowing Baspa river. But its at Thanedar where you must begin your journey for it was here that Stokes began experimenting with apple saplings he brought from America some 80 years ago.

      Scion of a wealthy Philadelphia business family, Samuel Stokes (1882-1946) came to India in 1904 to work at a leprosy home near Solan (50 km from Shimla). Soon, however, the young American became increasingly drawn towards Indian philosophy and culture; he turned away from the foreign missionary community and became a Christian fakir, living in a cave for a while, then married a Rajput Christian girl, bought land in Thanedar village and took upon himself to improve the lot of the local hill people who lived in abject poverty.

      After experimenting with wheat and barley, Stokes decided to try apple farming in his land. He acquired apple saplings from America in 1919, and after successfully groing orchards in his land, distributed saplings to the local farmers. By the late 1920s, apple orchards where bearing fruit all over the neighbouring hills and the poor hill people of the area were suddenly growing unbelievably rich. Even farmers in Kulu and Kashmir, where a sour variety grew, borrowed Stokes' saplings to improve their apple crop.

      In Thanedar, you can visit Harmony House, the Stokes' family home, a European style cottage with Himachali features, and be lucky enough to meet one of Samuel Evans' descendants, some of whom shuttle between the USA and Himachal. (One granddaughter, Asha Sharma, recently wrote his biography, An American in Khadi.) Close to the home is the Paramjyoti temple, a slate-roofed square structure with an encircling verandah, built in Pahari style. Stokes built the temple after converting to Hinduism in 1932 and changing his first name to Satyanand. In later life, he joined the Indian freedom movement, was jailed by the British, and became a senior Congress leader.

      The Barobag Hill where Harmony House stands commands a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, some slopes are draped in tall deodar trees, other stand studded with apple orchards. The snow peaks are to your right and in the distance, through a narrow valley 6000ft. below, flows the Sutlej. The road to the valley descends in sharp hairpin bends and before long you are in Rampur (3040 ft.), an ugly bustling town on the banks of the Sutlej with concrete buildingsand soaring temperatures. But it is the last big town on the way to Kinnaur.

      The valley narrows as you drive up, with mountains on either side rising from the grey-brown waters of the Sutlej. The winding road, now high above the roaring river, is busy with lorry traffic thanks to the massive Nathpa-Jhakri hydel power project currently under construction. At Jeori, 23 km from Rampur, a road branches out to your right, climbing the steep hill to Sarahan, 17 km away. What awaits you there in that historic town, once the capital of the princely Bushahr Rampur state, is breathtaking: a vast ancient temple complex, its architecture a splendid mix of Tibetan and the local Pahari styles. It stands against a backdrop of snowy peaks that crown mountains clad in pines and orchards.

      It is a setting, they say, that only the gods could have created. Srahan (alt. 7,100 ft.) is a sacred Hindu spot seeped in legends, some of which associate the place with Lord Krishna. The Bhimakali temple complex, spread over almost an acre, is dominated by two towering structures with the traditional arched sloping roofs. The first tower, damaged in an earthquake in 1905, is no longer in use; the second tower, built in 1943, houses the main temple, where, along with images of many deities, including the Buddha, are two statues of the Goddess Bhimakali.

      Returning to Jeori and proceeding another 57km eastward along the Sutlej, you enter Kinnaur district and reach Karcham, a major hub of yet another hydel project. Turn right here to take the road to Sangla, the delightful valley of the Baspa, a tributary of the Sutlej. Alexander Gerard, one of the first European explorers to have written about the Baspa valley, described it in 1817 as one of the most beautiful of all Himalayan valleys and most tourists today won't contest that rating. The road from Karcham initially negotiates a deep gorge but presently the valley opens up and you look down on sylvan pastures, quaint villages with slate-roofed houses, the meandering river and, of course, thehigh-wooded mountains rearing on either side.

      Sangla village (alt. 8,700 ft.), the administrative headquarters of the vale, has numerous budget hotels and government rest houses but if you really want to savour all that the valley has on offer, drive up a few miles to Batseri village where, adjacent to the swiftly flowing Baspa, the Delhi-based Banjara Camps and Retreats runs a superbly-managed camp complete with twin-bedded Swiss-style tents with attached bath and bonfires in the evening. After breakfast next morning, go trout fishing or set out on a trek with packed lunch, exploring the pathways of shepherds herding their flock or trudging up mountain tracks to reach alpine meadows perched high on surrounding hills. If your eyes have had enough feasting on the beauty of the vale, let your ears enjoy the silence of the mountains, broken only by the river gurgling below.

      Not far from Sangla village is the fort-temple of Kamroo, its shrine devoted to Kamakhya Devi "" the image was brought here centuries ago from distant Assam. The entrance to the temple has an image of the Buddha; indeed, the Kinners (as Kinnaur residents are called) practice a religion that is a happy mix of Hinduism and Buddhism and every village has its own patron deity. Embellished with intricate woodcarving, the Kamru temple, where many of Kinnaur's Rajas were crowned, towers over a bare low hill commanding a great view of the valley. The valley stretches some 30 km eastward to the lovely little village of Chitkul (alt. 11,300ft.), which often remains snowbound till mid-April. You can hitch a ride to the village or ask the Banjara Camp people to chart out walks or treks for you in this enchanting vale.

      You can even spend a day ambling around in nearby Batseri village. Talk to the villagers, ask about their customs, try Kinnauri tepang, the flat-topped cap with a coloured strip that all local women and most men still wear. Much of the traditional Kinnauri attire is today all but forgotten though women still sport the trimani necklace with gold beads, turquoise and coral stones. Women enjoy a high social status in Kinnaur, being even allowed to divorce and bear children out of wedlock, but they also shoulder a great deal o the work at home and in the fields. Today, of course, with increasing prosperity (thanks to the apple orchards, the Kinners are among the richest rural folk in the country), most people here employ several helping hands.

      As the winding road to Kalpa ascends the high mountain, you soon find yourself in a kind of bowl encircled by soaring snow-capped peaks. It is a strange feeling you experience now, a mixture of awe and exhilaration. There is the Jorkandan (21,213ft.) summit towering on one side but more majestic is the Kinner Kailash (19,844 ft.), one of the mythical homes of Lord Shiva. You soon reach Recong Peo, the district headquarters of Kinnaur, and half an hour later to the quiet little village of Kalpa (9,700 ft.).

      Another half an hour and you are on top of one of the summits! Not really, but that's how it feels, sometimes, from Kalpa the peaks seem so close by. This is real mountain country: remote, forbidding, celestial. Though visited by Lord Dalhousie in the 19th century (he loved the place, of course and remember, there were no roads then), Kalpa is still an offbeat destination. Which is as well, for who would want hordes of tourists to unsettle the ethereal peace of this heavenly place.

      Accommodation: Sarahan has the Shrikhand Hotel run by Himachal Pradesh Tourism but in most of the other places on the trail, your best bet is Banjara Camps and Retreats, unless you want to rough it out in cheap lodges. Run by an ex-Army officer, Banjara Camps (email banjara@vsnl.com; telephone: 011-6861397) has reasonably priced comfortable hotels with good views at Thanedar and Kalpa, apart from the excellent camp at Sangla. The company can also organise vehicles for the entire tour.

  •  Trans-Himalayan Drive
      Rishad Saam Mehta - Autocar India, 2002
    • Driving Destinations Kinnaur and Spiti Delhi-Shimla-Sangl-Kalpa-Tabo-Kaza-Manali-Delhi

      If Himachal Pradesh is known as the abode of the gods, the breathtakingly beautiful districts of Kinnaur and Spiti located deep in the lap of the Himalayas must surely be their private chambers. The sheer beauty of Kinnaur, especially the Sangla Valley, and the splendidly stark Spiti make us mortals reel from a truly scenic overdose.

      If you're drawn by the mystique of the mountains, harbour an adventurous streak, and your idea of nirvana is walking along a brook in a pine forest or driving through a glacier field, we have the ultimate therapy for you this month. A memorable drive on NH22 from Shimla to Sumdo on the Indo-Tibetan border with forays into the Sangla Valley and the hamlet of Kalpa. At Sumdo, we head into the Spiti Valley on SH30 to soak in the awe-inspiring landscape topped by the azure blue sky. We stop over at Tabo and Kaza in Spiti before taking the road to Manali, traversing the Kunzum La and Rohtang La.

      Planning for Kinnaur - Spiti

      The best season to head out for Kinnaur and Spiti is from April to October. While the first few months have a lot of snow-covered views, the later months see the forests in full bloom thanks to the rain in Kinnaur. The weather is pleasant but the nights get chilly and wearing woollens will help make you comfortable.

      Eseentials on this trip are a sturdy pair of walking shoes, sunblock and cold cream, lip guard and sun glasses. If you are an avid photographer, estimate the number of film rolls you'll need and carry twice that. Batteries do not last long in the cold weather so carry spares as they are not easily available in this region.

      Plan your trip well and factor in acclimatization too. Remember that you could experience delays that are beyond your control things like blocked roads caused by landslides or the unavailability of fuel at a pump.

      Preparing your car
      There is no denyig the fact that a car with high ground clearance will have a very large advantage while traveling in this region. Driving across streams or gingerly making your way through fallen rock is part and parcel of this exciting journey. You'll also have your fair share of complete dirt roads that a normal car would find very challenging.

      Good, or preferably new, tyres are an asset as they reduce the chance of a puncture. Get the suspension checked thoroughly as it will have to undergo a considerable amount of stress. Carry a few essential spares like belts, hoses and figure out how to change or replace them. Carrying an extra, spare wheel would be a very good idea as would carrying instant puncture repair kits. Ensure you carry a 20-litre container for fuel it doesn't take up much space and could prove useful in the event of fuel shortage.

      The route
      NH22 runs from Chandigarh to Sumdo, which is very close to the Tibetan border. This road, which has been cut across the mountains, runs right through Kinnaur and along the river Sutlej which flows through the Kinnaur Valley. Though wide enough for two cars to pass at most places, it has innumerable blind corners with sheer drops on one side.

      There are no safety barriers and it's a one-way ticket to the Sutlej below, should you go off the road. So take lots and lots of care. Certain stretches are landslide-prone and marked by signposts road workers armed with red and green flags give advance warning signals about falling rock. A wave of a red flag means that rocks are still falling so do stop.

      The interesting places are off NH22 where narrow and curvaceous roads snake up the mountains. These roads have local buses and tractors plying and five will give you ten that they'll come at you around a blind corner. There are times when you'll have to back up a distance. It's best to have someone get off and guide you.

      SH30 the road from Sumdo to Kaza in maintained by the Border Roads Organisation and in very good shape but with its share of hairpins. The most challenging stretch by far is the 200km from Kaza to Manali. Kaza to Gramphu (which is 56 km before Manali) is a dirt track punctuated with moraine and glaciers. If you have a four-wheel drive, use it to its best effect here. This road crosses two passes the Kunzum La (4551m) and the Rohtang La (3978m). The scenery more than makes up for the bad state of the road. The beauty of the stark and imposing landscape will leave you spellbound.

      Kinnaur and Spiti nature how it was meant to be More than the specific place of interest in Kinnaur and Spiti, it is the journey between these regions that leaves the visitor awestruck. There is not a boring kilometer in the entire 800-odd-km circuit we covered. We'll tell you about the famous places and sights that you should see, but keep your eyes open during your drive and you'll come across many a pristine vista that will leave you standing in your tracks.

      The main road we followed during our Trans-Himalayan drive was the NH22 from Chandigarh to Sumdo, SH30 from Sumdo to Manali, and NH21 back to Chandigarh from Manali. Most of the places had to be approached via narrow winding roads, climbing up and away from the main road.

      Sarahan

      This little town on the border of Shimla-Kinnaur is famous for the Bhimakali temple that stands magnificently amid lofty Himalayan Peaks. This temple attracts pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.

      Sangla

      This is, by far, the most beautiful place in all of Himachal. Located at the head of the Baspa Valley, the early months of the year see the snow-capped mountains stretching out to meet the crisp blue sky. And after the monsoon has had its say, the wildflowers len it that magical touch. The Banjara Camps at Sangla are the perfect setting for a week-long holiday. The richly forested woods of pine and deodhar make for splendid walks on the opposite banks of the camp across the river and the ancient wooden bridge is the perfect place to stand and reel in the roar of the river.

      On the opposite bank to and further down the valley lies the quaint Batseri village. This typical Kinnauri village, which has houses made entirely out of wood, has its own temple, public baths and swimming pool. In the fields above it, a glacier has slid down from the mountains and is slowly melting. Picture-postcard imagery in the heartland of India itself.

      Chitkul

      This village, 20km from the Banjara Camps, is a must-see if you're visiting Sangla. Green fields, mountain peaks, little fairy-tale houses, temples, gompas, and friendly folk conjure up an image of a Shnagri-La come alive.

      Kalpa

      Famous for its unhindered view of the Kinner Kailash (6050m), the legendary winter home of Shiva, where he comes to indulge in his passion for hashish. The naturally formed Shivling can be viewed from most places in Kalpa, if the mountain is not obscured by clouds. Besides this, Kalpa has some splendid treks too. Tourists can buy Kinnauri shawls and caps from the Handicrafts Emporium at Kalpa.

      Rekong Peo

      Six hundred metres lower and 13 km away from Kalpa is the district headquarters of Kinnaur. Check out the Kinnaur Kalachakra Celestial Palace, a brightly coloured Gompa that was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1992.

      Tabo

      Tabo houses one of the most important Gompas in the Buddhist world and it is believed to be the one in which the Dalai Lama will finally settle. Built in 996 AD by Ringchen Zangpo with the help of Kashmiri artists, this Gompa shares the complex with eight temples all at ground level. It is famous for its exquisite murals and stucco sculptures that bear a striking resemblance to the paintings and sculpture in the Ajanta caves. The drive to Tabo leaves you speechless. The shift from Kinnaur's heavenly forested and pretty landscape to the stark, spectacular scenery of Spiti is apparent as you start traveling from Jangi (where the inner line starts) towards Sumdo, the gateway to the Spiti Valley.

      Dankar Gompa

      This 1000-year old Gompa at Sichling is on the road from Tabo to Kaza and the steep 8km climb necessitates use of a 4WD vehicle. Dankar's main attraction is a ntural lake situated at about 13,500 feet above sea level. Danker is also famous for the medicinal herbs grown here as they are claimed to cure heart and lung ailments.

      Kee Gompa

      If there's one sight that is definitive of Spiti's rugged, raw beauty, it is the Kee Monastery the largest in the valley and perched high on a mountain top. Hundreds of lamas receive their religious training here. It is also known for its beautiful murals, rare manuscripts, peculiar wind instruments and, interestingly, a collection of weapons. This is one monastery which is a must-see on your trip to Spiti.

      Suggested Itinerary

      Day 1: Drive from Delhi to Shimla

      Day 2: Shimla to Sangla, with an optional diversion to see the Bhimakali temple at Sarahan.

      Day 3, 4 & 5: At Sangla, stay at the Banjara Camps. There is a lot to do here including a visit to Chitkul village, plenty of jungle walks and activities such as river crossing.

      Day 6 & 7: Sangla to Tabo. It's imperative to spend two days here so that you can get acclimatized to the high altitude.

      Day 8: Kaza

      Day 9: Kaza to Manali

      Day 10: Manali to Delhi

      Accommodation Guide

      Accommodation in Kinnaur and Spiti is sometimes very basic and you won't really be spoilt for choice of food in Spiti. So be forewarned and don't expect touristy treatment.

      Sarahan and Kalpa have hotels run by HPTDC. Kalpa also has the Government circuit house, which is the best place to stay, should there be no VIPs visiting.

      Sangla - Banjara Camps
      The camp at Sangla is located in a fantastic setting and is a paradise on earth. They have activities like river crossings and jungle walks. The food is tasty and the treatment royal.

      The tents are plush and comfortable with attached bathrooms. Go there and stay for a week at least. It will be a spiritual investment.

      Tabo & Kaza
      Tabo and Kaza, once again, have Banjara Retreats and these are the best places to stay.

  •  Trans-Himalayan Jeep Ride
      Rajesh Ojha - The Economic Times, 2002
    • Finally the day had come when I could just pack my bags and head towards the destination I had been dreaming of Leh.

      The first Leg: After the familiar route through Himachal up to Solang, we went to Jispa. Rohtang Top (3900m) was the first halt point and the lunch at Koksar was memorable. This was our first taste of dhaba food on this trip. We tanked up at Tandi, 7 km short of Keylong, the last fuel station before Leh. I could see people eyeing our two beautiful Boleros with much interest. Crossing Darcha, the first checkpoint on route to Leh, we reached Zing-Zing Bar, the base station before the Baralacha La pass. Melting glaciers, ice and stone mixed in chunks next to the road, the little Deepak Lake, snow all around on the mountain, everything was picture perfect.

      We sipped hot soup while watching the moon appear over the Ladakh range, framed beautifully by the peaks that surround and reveal the ever-present spell of the Himalayas. The first leg was over and the second leg had just begun and of the long wait before it turned to reality.

      The next day was to be the crucial day, as we had to cross Khardungla, the highest motorable pass in the world, beyond Leh. The road on both sides of the pass was broken, potholed, water running over the surface making it difficult to judge the depth. But the phlegmatic Boleros didn't even whimper in protest. The suspension made the drive all that more comfortable. It was snowing!!! We took lots and lots of pictures and had many glasses of tea, courtesy the Army personnel. After crossing Pullu, 14 km beyond the pass, the drive became silken smooth. If we had been allowed to go further we would have bumped into the Siachen Base camp of the Army. We met scores of people enjoying the sulphur baths after a long vigil at the unnamable high altitude posts.

      The high point of the trip was the drive to Pangong Lake. We drove for four hours to Changla pass. At the first sight of the lake through the 'V' of the ridgs of the valley all cameras, digital videos etc came tumbling out. The azure lake beautifully set off the golden yellow of the mountainside, painted thus by the mellow rays of the evening sun, on a canvas of crisp blu sky.

      What happened the next day will go down as my most arduous and at the same time exhilarating drive. We drove on for 100km through sand and stone, often charting our own course before we struck the metal road, some 38 km short of the plains of Pang. We did another cross country and reached Calving at 11 pm...tired, sleepy, stiff and hungry.

      After two leisurely days in Sangla, we left for Shoja, where we spent time at Serolsar Lake, and the Raghupur fort and meadows. My fellow travelers, for whom this was the first time, immensely enjoyed the undulating walk. From Shoja to Thanedar, another three hours driving through the heavens. A picnic at Hatu Peak, where we sat and thought about the 28 days past, it seemed like no time at all in the timeless mountains.

      The next day was going to be the end of the holiday but we were already planning the next one through Nepal to Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal in November. The thought of the next holiday, I think, took the sting out of the coming to the end of this one. Indeed, it will never be forgotten.

  •  Snowy Heights
      Partha S. Banerjee - The Tribune, 2002
    • The Temple of Enlightened Gods (also called Dukhang) is the largest of the six: it has a big assembly hall dominated by a four-faced image of Vairocana, one of the five eternal "self-born" Buddhas believed to exist since the beginning of time.

      In April, the snow hadn't yet melted. The sky was pure azure, the mountains were arid brown, the channel of the Spiti river various shades of sparkling green. And all over, streaks of fluffy white. A criss-cross of icy lines, a snowy labyrinth as it were, overlaying the entire valley. It formed a mosaic so stunningly beautiful. I wondered if I'd laid eyes on anything more scenic!

      As we drove up along the Spiti valley in eastern Himachal Pradesh, gaining height with every mile, the snow streaks broadened, the icy patches swelled. After Kaza (alt.11,970 ft.), the ragtag district town of 1,500 souls where we had a noodle lunch, one colour came to predominate: white. More and more, the snow-cover seemed all-enveloping the labyrinth was dilating into a snowy sheet. Presently, as we disgressed along a branch road that climbed rapidly towards Kyi monastery and Kibber, reputedly the world's highest village (alt. 13,800 ft.), our vehicle got stuck in the snow, its tyres skidding. As we stepped out, a bone-chilling wind assaulted us. Close by, a hairy yak, knee-deep in snow, eyed us benignly.

      Spiti Valley in early spring! It's a marvel that's hard to experience anywhere else in India. Truw, Ladakh and Zanskar have mountainscapes no different from barren, rugged Spiti, but those are regions that cannot be accessed before summer by which time, of course, the snow has mostly thawed. It is only in Spiti that travelers can catch the mountain desert's stark beauty as enhanced by a latticework of melting snow.

      Our journey to Spiti began in Simla: after traversing some 250 km mostly along the banks of the Sutlej river that sometimes narrowed into deep gorges, we were on the 'other side' of the Himalays the rain-shadow zone beyond the tallest ranges where monsoon clouds cannot reach. The hill slopes here in Himachal's Kinnaur district had little green cover, baring their rocky, craggy surfaces. It was bleak, windy, barren and desolate. The villages were few and far between, little settlement of a few houses with names that often didn't extens beyond a single syllable: Ka, Kyi, Pooh.

      At Khabo, the muddy-brown Sutlej was joined by the green Spiti river, the two colours clearly delineated at the confluence. We crossed a bridge and drove along a deep cavernous gorge cut by the Spiti, leaving the Sutlej as it veered towards Tibet. The road climbed rapidly through a series of hairpin bends and soon Spiti seemed like a tiny green stream far below, snaking its way through the mountains even as the snow glinted on the summits. We were over 10,000ft. a.s.l and the views were breathtaking.

      But our driver was tense. Earlier in the journey, he had made it through two snow blockades created by minor avalanches with great difficulty, the vehicle skidding and stalling in the puddle-and-ice road cut through the "snowslides" by BRO (Border Roads Organisation) bulldozers. But now he was palpably anxious, for beyond lay the treacherous stretch of Malling where landslides and shooting stones are daily affairs. He enquired of every passing vehicle for the latest on Malling: Was there a blockade, can smell vehicles pass? Things change there by the hour, he explained.

      There was a small traffic jam when we finally reached Malling; buses and lorries were stranded and essential commodities were being transported by a ropeway to the other end of the stretch and loaded into smaller trucks waiting there. Our driver, instructing his helper to run ahead and remove newly fallen stones, decided to take his chance, his heart in his mouth. And he made it! (We weren't that lucky on our return journey, though; one of the BRO bulldozers permanently stationed there had to tow our vehicle out.)

      Beyond Malling, while the scenery changed little, the people did. There was now in the sparse population an increasing predominance of Buddhists of Tibetan stock; chortens (stupas or relinquary mounds) and roadside mani walls (built with votive stones) began to appear as did prayer flags and pennants, and the village houses seemed mostly built in the Tibetan style, flat roofed with small decorated rectangular windows. By late afternoon, we were in Tabo (alt. 10,000ft.), famous for its ancient Buddhist monastery, which we decided to visit next morning.

      It was frightfully cold at night and even colder in the morning as a fierce wind raged. After breakfast, as we walked down Tabo's main street towards the 1,000-year-old monastery, the Gompa complex looked very unimpressive: squat, flat-roofed, mud brown, crumbling structures, enclosed by a mud-wall. But it did sure reek of antiquity.

      The Temple of Enlightened Gods (also called Du-khang) is the largest of the six: it has a big assembly hall dominated by a four-faced image of Vairocana, one of the five eternal "self-born" Buddhas believed to exist since the beginning of time. As in all Tibetan temples, a throne with a picture of the Dalai Lama stands at the head of the central aisle, on either side of which are rows of low benches where the monks chant their liturgy.

      But the Du-khang's real attractions are the 32 clay life-size stucco images of Tibetan-Buddhist deities arrayed on the walls, supported by brackets and ringed by halos. Paintings depicting the life of the Buddha fill the rest of the walls. There are rich wall paintings and sculptures in the other chapels too: in the Golden Temple (gSer-khang), for instance the exquisite murals were, as the name implies, once gilded, while a towering 18ft high image of the Boddhisattava Maitreya (the future Buddha who, it is believed, will one day preach the dharma anew) adorns another chapel, its walls depicting Lhasa's Potala Palace.

      So beautiful are the paintings on the chapel walls that

      Tabo has been described as the Ajanta of the Himalayas. One of the oldest extant Tibetan Buddhist gompas, the monastery was among the first erected during a great temple building movement initiated by Rinchen Zangpo in the 10th century. Zangpo, better known for translating many Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan, was at the forefront of what historians call the Second Diffusion of Buddhism in Tibet, a resurgence of the faith after its decline there in the 9th century. The diffusion was spearheaded by Yo-she-od, the lama king of Gu-ge or western Tibet, whose rule extended as far as Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti.

      But the Gu-ge empire did not last long and for much of the next 800 years, Spiti along with nearby Lahaul remained under the nominal suzerainty of Ladakh. In the 1840s, however, the region was invaded first by the Dogras of Jammu, then Sikhs, then again the Dogras before it finally became part of British India. While the unassuming mud-brown chapels of Tabo escaped notice of the invading hordes, the famous Kyi monastery near Kibber was pillaged by the Sikhs and Dogras.

      And little wonder, for the monastery is dramatically situated: perched on a hill on the left bank of the broad Spiti valley, it looks more like a fortress than a Gompa. Indeed, Kyi Gompa was always more a defensive stronghold than a religious centre with various Tibetan religious sects fighting for its control. It was probably founded in the 11th century by Dromton, a disciple of Atisha, the brilliant teacher from Nalanda invited to Tibet by the Gu-ge kings to aid the Second Diffusion. (Drompton also built two of Tabo's chapels) Kyi monastery's treasures include a collection of thankas (religious painting on cloth and two three-metre-long trumpets.

      When the trumpets are sounded, the drone must resound all across the Spiti valley that Kyi overlooks. Despite the freezing cold, we spent a long time atop the roof of the monastery, spellbound by the haunting beauty of the valley below the many meandering channels on the iver bed, the icy 'latticework', the snowy mountain range on the right bank, the distant hamlets on little plateaus above the riverbed. In summer, the chief lama told us, patches of green ring the hamlets, contrasting with the grey-brown of the mountains lining the valley.

      The valley really opens up near the village of Sichling, some 20 km from Tabo. We had got our first glimpse of it earlier in the day when our vehicle turned a corner as we drove down from Tabo, and what a sight it was! Kaza, the district capital, was some 30 km away from that spot, 30 km of mind-blowing scenery that our eyes feasted on. But it was from the heights of Kyi, 12 km from Kaza, that we got the best view as we looked down from the monastery terrace.

      From Kyi we proceeded to Kibber, managing to reach the world's highest permanently inhabited village after workmen cleared the snow that has blocked the road. Temperatures here drop to -35oC in winter; even in April, it had snowed heavily. For the 350-odd people here, grazing yaks is the chief occupation; the village boasts a government school and a dispensary. Life, said an old villager, is much easier now; when he was young, the nearest doctor was several days walk away. And it snowed much more heavily then, he added. Waist deep even in spring!

      Travel Tips

      Access: While there are regular buses to Kaza and Tabo from Simla, it would be best to hire a taxi, especially if you are in a group. The road is unusually open all year round, though the Malling stretch is a perennial problem. Tabo is 374 km from Simla, while Kaza is another 46 km away.

      Accommodation: There are not too many hotels in this region so it is advisable to book in advance. The best place to stay in Tabo is a hotel run by Banjara Camps (email: banjara@vsnl.com), which also has an arrangement in Kaza. Banjara can also arrange the entire tour for you. Both Tabo and Kaza also have government rest houses with basic facilities.

      Costs & Duration: The trip should take about a week ex-Sima, allowing for two days to reach Tabo (a convenient night halt might be Sangla which has great mountain views, and also boasts a Banjara Camp). Best Season : mid-April to mid-November.

  •  Medicine for the Soul
      Anita Jasani - The Tribune, 2002
    • Some memorable experiences in life happen in strange ways. Who would have thought a fantastic travel destination on a medical web site? On the home page of aarogya.com, there is a lovely image with an intriguing caption: 'Medicine For The Soul', it proclaims. Like Alice In Wonderland, my curiosity got the better of me, and I clicked on the link, only to be smitten by the beauty of Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti region of Himachal Pradesh, close to the Tibetan border in the Northern Himalayas. Regions out of bounds even to Indians, until 1992, their attractions are still being discovered by tourists. What's more, these regions are inaccessible for six months every year, due to heavy snowfall.

      This part of India looks straight out of travelogue or a picture book. There are precariously perched houses on faraway ridges, snow clad peaks, the soothing sounds of water, towering mountains and plunging valleys, the smell of pine on leisurely walks through enchanting vistas, campfires, quaint villages and night skies resembling diamond-encrusted velvet ceilings. One particular scene that is deeply etched in my mind is the one at the Banjara Camp in Chail, 40 kilometres from Shimla. The Camp overlooks the Choor Chandani range. The setting sun, silverlined clouds floating lazily, a golden glow in the atmosphere, misty mountains in the distance, and the air so pure. The whole scene seemed so ethereal, it felt as though the gods had decided to walk on the clouds. Robert Frost would have decided to just stand and stare and forget about his miles and miles to go. No wonder the gods chose Himachal as their abode.

      There's a romance in traveling along the old Hindustan route, sipping tea in Chitkul, the last village on the Indian side of the border, the jawans of the Indo Tibetan Border Police. And it's comfortable living in Swiss style tents with proper toilet facilities. One route to Sangla is from Manli across the Rohtang Pass and Kunzum passes. Travelling along this road, one passes the Ki fortress monastery and the Tabo monastery which was built in 996 AD. The monasteries are repositories of beautiful Thangkas, old Buddhist oil paintings. There is no escaping the road journey to Sangla which has a romance of its own. Delhi to Chail (350 km) is a 10 hour drive. After an evening halt at the Chail camp, we were on our way to Sangla. The journey is a picturesque 240 km drive. In certain sections, the narrow strip, which passes off as National Highway 22, has a sheer drop on one side and towering cliffs with delicately balanced boulders or loosely held soil on the other. The river Sutlej rushing across the valley deep down and rocky overhang complete the setting for godly communion. How I prayed! The Sutlej meets the River Baspa at a place called Karcham. Sangla village is 26 km from here. It is the largest village in the valley. This is Chilgoza country. Chilgoza, that delectable fruit, comes from the Chil pine and is found only in these parts, and in Iran.

      In Sangla one can stay either at the electricity department guest house (very difficult to get into), the PWD guesthouse or at Banjara Camps. There are other small places in and around Sangla. Banjara Camps situated 6 km from Sangla, is by far the best place to stay in. The camp seems to be part of the valley. It is as if they always belonged to Sangla and existed alongside the meandering Baspa river with its trout and the majestic Kinner Kailash range. I still recall the tranquility of the place. The snow-capped peaks all around, the soothing sound of the Baspa's meandering blue green waters, the stands of deodar on the slopes beyond the river. A sense of oneness with nature fills up in me. I had read somewhere that heaven is not a place, it is a feeling. How true.

      I did not want to get out of the hammock, but I am glad I did. The walks to places around the camp are so enjoyable. Each walk is a new experience whether it is to the quaint Batseri village with its paved pathways and intricately carved wooden temple or the woods on the way to Rakcham. We took packed lunch and walked through the woods, to a point high above the camp where the Baspa comes crashing down. I discovered pinecones, in soaking in the shimmering streams and in simply sitting around. Happiness is sharing such moments with someone you love. After the day's exertions, the warmth of a log fire enhanced by a vodka, is so relaxing. Who says Sangla does not have a nightlife!

      The Tibetan word for pass is la and sang means light. Sangla definitely was a joyful and rejuvenating experience. There must be truth in the folklore that the experience of Sangla is similar to walking through a magical pass of light.

  •  The Banjara Way
      Tisha Srivastava - HT Persona, 20th July 2001
    • If you planning an exciting and action packed holiday in the Himalayan hills, then these are some of the questions that might stare you in the face. Is it safe for the kids?
      I've never gone camping in my life, but I want to experience the outdoors.
      Can we honeymoon in a camp that might have too many guests?
      Are bonfire fun and legal in terms of environmental consciousness?
      For answers to all the above questions and more, there's one tailor-made answer:
      The Banjara Camp.

      Nestled in the state of Himachal Pradesh, the Banjara Luxury Tents and Camps take you to areas off the beaten track.

      Camp by a lake-in what the Lonely Planet calls one of the loveliest valleys-or take a walk in lushly wooden environs. Live in picture-book, cedar houses with grand views and much more. For the more adventurous and hardy, there's an almost monastic retreat in Tabo, a place of great Bhudhist significance.

      The Shoja spectacular, April-May as the peak season situated in Kullu valley. If you walk just 5kms further, you will find yourself in the timeless Jalori Pass, a majestic glacier. Nearby the Serolsar Lake glistens invitingly. At this Retreat, a cedar house will greet you, making a change from the usual tents. The USP is the wonderful view of the towering mountains and snow clad peaks, with the green leaves of tall trees dipping next to you. And if your tastes run more towards the arid majesty of deserts, then the destination for you is the camp at Tabo. Stripped of lush greens by the winds of time, rocky menhirs and mud scuds dot this high altitude desert. Here you will see how brown, yellow and ochre shadows sprinkle the landscape, and hold a peculiar rugged charm of their own.

      The world knows Tabo as one of the most vivid and significant art treasures of the Tibetan Buddhist world. Local have a more affectionate term for it - "The Ajanta of the Himalayas". With a minimum elevation of 3000 metres, Tabo in Spiti, unfurls in this north-eastern corner of Himachal Pradesh like a flower. In the Retreat the feel is in conjunction with landscape. Situated at a walking distance from the monastery, the Retreat boasts a peaceful calm.

      The signature song of the Sangla Camp is Sang Chalo Sangla ! This was where it all started, Grand, bare peaks enclave a riot of apple orchards, while the lovely Baspa river flows by. The interesting part is the local populace, which boasts a talent for local ale that earned the place the sobriquet of the "Scotland of the east"! As far as the eye can see, the local crop goes berserk in all its pink and yellow finery, August onwards. Breeze moves a sweetness and fragrance that is way beyond any 'Oxygen' café. All-night dancing sessions by the villagers, treks up to nearby meadows to peep at Mount Kailash-is what life at Sangla Camp is about.

      While there, don't forget to check out the 700-year old Kamru fort, now a temple. Fish walk, laze, play croquette or volleyball, claim your favourite hill or hill-child, grow roots in your hammock by the river, go kiss the Tibetan border, or demand your sixteenth plate of French fries! Or perhaps check out how the camp bakes its bread, do some river crossing or get cross-eyed consuming the eclectic rations in the library. Or take a walk down a forest path where sweet nothing come as spontaneously as the view-there's much to do here or even nothing. Its really all up to you.

  •  Trout-fishing & Apple...
      Sumitra Senapathy - The Statesman, 16th March 2001
    • Sangla, in Himachal Pradesh, is the ideal place for a quiet summer holiday.

      If you're feeling hot under collar just imagining the mayhem, here's the good news: there are still a few places left where you can enjoy the tranquility of the highlands and communion with nature without fear of your personal space being rudely violated or even having to compromise on basic amenities. This terrific bolt-hole is Sangla Valley. Situated at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, this is the place where Himachal greets Tibet. Forbidden territory virtually from Independence until 1992 because of its close proximity to the Chinese border (30 km away), the sleepy inner line valley is still largely populated by tribals and the occasional jawan of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. But you are unlikely to stumble upon either at the Banjara Camp, a luxury tent resort that nestles on the banks of Baspa river in the backdrop of some dramatic peaks.

      Getting to this Shangri-La is half the fun. Your best bet is by road via Shimla, 230 km away. The route winds past some stark rugged hills and dense forests and once you cross Narkhanda, the turbulent Sutlej keeps you company until past Rampur Bashir. Furthr on, Sarahan, at 7500 feet could be an enchanting overnight halt, enroute to Sangla Valley, full of apple, plum and peach orchards. The ancient Bhima Kali temple, with its magnificent architecture is situated here.

      At Sangla, nature is the same yet different with the dawn of each day. For the briefest of moments, you imagine you're dreaming then you lie back once more on the hillock, sipping apple wine, and you realize, that dreams can come true. If you have been seeking that elusive combination of a pure nature destination where you can relax and where there is great beauty to see and explore, besides being at an affordable tariff, then Sangla is for you. Spend the days breathing the sweet mountain air in a rejuvenating atmosphere, relaxing by the riverside or walking thrugh nearby meadows and valleys.

      Sangla is the ideal hill get-a-way, to escape the dust and grime of the plains, to fish in a gurgling stream, watch snowcapped peaks in the distance blending with the sky. Rarely, have the paths of God and man crossed each other, as in this valley of the Himalayas. Tucked away in the craggy folds of the Himalayas, Sangla is a land that few people know about. Fewer still have crossed this way, for it has been one of the world's best-kept secrets for thousands of years. Today, after centuries of being shrouded in mystery, the veil has been lifted, allowing you a chance to commune wilently with nature and with the Gods. Do it differently and decide to go off the beaten track to the Banjara Campsite in Sangla Valley.

      The picturesque Sangla Valley is no less charming and peaceful than Pahalgam both are situated on riverbanks. Sangla lies on the banks of the enchanting Baspa River in Kinnaur district. Ringed by the high Dhauladhar ranges, Kinnaur lies on the ancient trade route, the old Hindustan-Tibet road linking India with Tibet.

      The camp site has been picked carefully, and the thoughtfulness of the facilites, indeed take you by surprise. The snug, spacious 12x12 well-furnished Swiss Cottage tents even have an uninterrupted power supply and roll-up meshed windows to let in light. Meals are always served outdoors, with a gerous helping of sunlight, or by the side of a roaring bonfire, to keep you snug and warm.

      But, this can also be a place for action. Indeed there is plenty to do here! Climbing the meadows at Sangla is the best way to melt the stress and enjoy breathtaking view of the Himalayas. Long walks are perfect for discovering the valley that bursts with an amazing variety of rare herbs and spices, exotic fruits and flowers, birds, butterflies and Himalayan wildlife. All of Kinnaur is dotted with apple orchards and the region boasts the best cider in the land. The Baspa River gushes through gorges, 900m deep in some places, breaking the quiet and silence of the valley. The river abounds in Rainbow and Brown Trout and is an angler's delight. If you're feeling adventurous, you could try your hand at river-crossing, for that on top of the world feeling. You can also walk to the nearby villages of Batseri and Rakcham, where you'll meet the local inhabitants.

      If one is energetic, one can trek to some interesting places, using the Banjara Camp as a base. Trekking buffs can chart out a course around Kinner Kailash, the mythical abode of Lord Shiva, to Sarahan or to a number of passes such as the Pin Parbati or Kaza. The 1000 year-old Rekong Peo known for the chilgoza forests, the Nako Lake and the Kalpa Valley are just 55km away and definitely worth a visit.

      Some 25 km from Sangla at a height of 12,000 feet lies the quaint village of Chitkul with a population of 464 people. This is the last Indian village before Tibet. Close on hand are the snow peaks, dark green forests and the Baspa River flowing like molten silver onto Tibet, which lies another 30 km away.

      Sangla could keep you spellbound for days with its spectacular scenery. Don't forget to pick up a basket of Kinnauri apples on your way back.

  •  Love among the Silence
      Purabi Sridhar - Femina, 2001
    • Tucked away in the lap of Sangla Valley in Kinnaur district, Northern Himachal Pradesh, lie the Banjara Camps. The camps come complete with swiss style luxury tents, bathroom and dressing room included. The Camps operate from April to October, as heavy snow renders the place inaccessible during other months.

      Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas, on the banks of the Baspa river, the camps showcase all that nature's best. You can turn the camp into your own little world, far removed from prying eyes. There are snow-capped peaks not so far away, luscious whispering greens and even trout for fishing! For the more adventurous, try testing each other's skills at river crossing, angling, trekking and rock climbing.

      If losing yourself in each other is what you want to do, then go for walks among the neighbouring apple orchards. Or better still, across the Baspa river and a short walk through a small forest brings you at nose-touching distance with a massive glacier bed. Nothing could be more secluded. As the gentle sun envelops everything in a warm cocoon, spend your days whispering sweet-nothing in the hammocks next to the river. At night around the bonfire, choose your own corner, a little removed from the rest, and snuggle under a blanket. Then shut down the flap of your tent and weave your special dreams.

      Next morning dribble around in the basketball court or borrow a love story from the library. Get your lunch packed and take off for a walk. Silence will trail you all along.

  •  Rejuvenate In Leisure
      Tashneem Ali - Hindustan Times, 2001
    • Are you the kind who love the great outdoors and absolutely believe in nature therapy? Well, you have a lot of choice in case you decide to reward yourself with a much deserved break and go off to the hills. Adventure sports, camping under the beautiful summer sky and gorging on delectable food is enough to tempt anyone and for those who wanna go camping. Help is at hand in the form of the Banjara Camps, owned by ex-Army Captain Ajay Sood and partner Rajesh Ojha. They have been in the business for eight years, seen it, done it - but their high standards remain the same. Elaborates Sood "Ours in an experience you won't easily forget because we are the best in the Luxury camp business. We have people who demand the best and we believe in delivering," he claims.

      From the journey itself to the camps and then the action-packed schedule, which provides one with renewed vigour and energy, Banjara Camps has 4-14 day packages, depending on your preference. Says Ojha, "We have permanent camps in the Himalayan regions of Sangla, Tabo and Shoja, along with a mobile camp in Lahaul and we can customize tours for one single person also". The mountains are their lifeline which the two men behind Banjara Camps call their passion as well. You could reach the camps on your own or get a pick-up an on your arrival-a whole world of outdoor fun awaits you. Primarily summer camps, the season starts from March continuing up to October or even November. A host of both indoor and outdoor activities like trekking, river crossing with a rope, rope climbing, jungle walks, angling and jeep safari form part of the programme.

      Say Ojha, "We also organize summer camps for school children in Shoja and Sangla which are providing to be quite popular". Luxurious accommodation facilities include a Swiss deluxe bedroom tent with plush furnishings, a huge dinning area with an elaborate buffet spread which changes everyday alternating between Chinese, Continental and Indian menus. "Our recreation tent is well equipped with video movies in case you want to relax after an action-packed day but there is absolutely no invasion of the satellite TV cult here!" says Ojha. The ambience, the delicious food and hospitality at the Banjara Camps are the reason you want to go back for more and as Sood says, "our USP is providing maximum comfort and maximum enjoyment."

      So the next time you need a break away from the daily grind, and let your hair down, you know where to go!

  •  Beyond Hills and Vales
      Shonar Joshi - Sunday Herald, 20th Aug 2000
    • Kinnaur or Spiti Valley " the remotest parts of Himachal " dry, barren, sheer rock and desert mountains. Why would anyone want to go through such an ordeal? Shonar Joshi tells us why.

      I love trekking. When I'm in the mountains, I forget everything and go blank happily. There are treks and there are treks the kind I like are longer the better, tougher the better, quieter the better. But most importantly, it should have an entry and a different exit. Through one land, into the next. Voila...that's my game.

      Needless to say, it was with great enthusiasm that I tackled the idea of crossing the Kinnaur Valley (Himachal) via the Pin Bhabha Pass into the Spiti Valley. For those of you who have no idea of what Kinnaur or Spiti are these are the remotest parts of Himachal, dry, barren, sheer rock and desert mountains. Why would anyone want to go through such an area...? Read on...

      The trek was arranged by the Banjara Camp which has a delightful luxury camp tucked away in the liddle of nowhere, by the river, surrounded by mountains, in the Sangla Valley of Kinnaur. It is here that I found out about the Pin Bhabha trek and greedily accepted the invitation to plunge into the wilderness.

      I started out in the wee hours of the morning bump-riding the dirt track till our base at Kafnu. All this while, I had been under this illusion that Kinnaur is not green and even the few patches one sees are not really enough to break the uniform image of the mountain rockface. So, when I began walking, it was a bit strange to find myself in the middle of a real, true-to-life forest. Things only got better as the pines, walnuts and maples maples which I thought were a unique feature of Kashmir alone, multiplied in number and filled the air with such a sweet smell. That it was like a drug one that I was already having withdrawals for, at the very thought of not having it around me to breathe in. Below me, the Baspa river roared away, sometimes soundless, yet other times drowning all sounds around me. A little after noon, I broke the pace at Musrang, which had been uphill all this while, for a quick bite and since it had begun to drizzle, it was safest to sit under a rock which gave me just about enough protection to shade my nose from the rain lesson no. 1 always carry a water-proof jacket with a hood or a raincoat.

      That night, I camped in an open ground at Kahra, with little idea of what lay around me owing to the clouds and rain. But the suspense was well worth it, for the next morning, I found I had slept nestled between snow and icy peaks, on the rich green ground cover of Himalayan grasslands, spattered with silver dew, and out in the distance I saw my porter chasing his horses which had run away during the night. This was to become a ritual he would give the horses a few threats and then leave them, only to find them gone the next morning.

      The second day was to be a tough one for we were to cross the Pin Bhabha pass. Now, I have crossed many a pass before but there are no rules, no fixed expectations, no notions whatsoever of the thing that's to come. We're talking of hard core nature here untamed, raw, beautiful and dangerous. The climb was bearable for about the first two hours. And then there lay two mountains between the pass and us. These were a killer. Steep, literally at 75 degrees, I was exhausted after walking one third the way. But once on the trail, it is impossible to stop almost fatal. And so encouraged by the horses and owner alike, I trudged on, step by step, inch by inch. When only the last 500 yards remained, I was suddenly infused with his inexplicable urge to run, and so I did. I panted through the last stretch and there it was...the only thing I could see in my line of vision was this uninterrupted stretch of land packed heavy with snow, surrounded by tall glaciers. As if it were meant to be, it began to snow and from behind this curtain of white, walking majestically, like spirits from an ancient Idian age, hardly leaving footprints behind, came a half dozen yaks huge and woolly. They had made it across and now it was my turn to traverse this slippery tract and reach the safety of the valley below. I had one hour to do so or it may have proved to be fatal. Once it begins to snow, all danger signals are up.

      I took my first step and for about 50 yards, I though it was going to be alright. The next thing I knew, I was slipping down the glacier, digging my nails into the hard ice and waiting for my guide who was lost behind the snowflakes. Fortunately, my ride came to an abrupt halt as my foot hit a rock. Not quite sure of what to do next, I opted for simply standing precariously on that tiny stone and wait. My heart, which of course was making all sorts of threatening sounds, soon relaxed and contributed to being quiet in order to guage where on earth the guide was. That is when I understood what a pin-drop silence was. No sound, not even of the snow falling, not even of a bird fleeing, not even of my blood pounding in my head, not even aaaaaah! Right that's as far as the silence goes, for now there was Ganga, my guide, who had slipped as well and landed straight on my Krishna position, dragging me along with him for another 3 feet below. Ok...atleast I wasn't alone in this. Anyway, to cut a long and cold story short, we made it finally to safer ground in about 1 ½ hours and although sopping wet from all the snow, I was ecstatic and went charging to catch up with the horses. That night was a very special one, for I knew that things could have taken a turn for the worse only a few hours ago it was a time for gratitude, as always. Sitting by the fire, drying socks and shoes, eating daal bhat and thinking maybe I would not have been sitting here right now...ooof.

      Well, the next day began as usual. The landscape had miraculously changed after the Pass to become oen of pink and mauve mountains, stretching into a deep blue sky, with golden hued earth all around dotted with orange and purple wild flowers. Difficult to imagine? There were no trees anymore no greenery, no birds just the river and the colours.

      We began walking around 7 in the morning and by 10.00 am I was still not able to reach the mountains that I had seen from my previous camp. Finally, another couple of hours brought me to the first village which was just a dot against the mass of rock that it was built on. The sun was very strong and I had shed all my clothes save a pair of shorts and T-shirt and there I see the village folk, in their fur coats, yak leather shoes and woolly hats oblivious to the burning sun. I wondered what kind of life they has here, away from the rest of the world, with nothing to do, except place wagers on the weather for the next hour. Tracing the river, I walked for another couple of hours until lo and behold, the road decided to end into nothing at all. On one side lay the river. On the other the rockface. In front, I had no road. At the back only the same road I had been walking on. Ganga and I squatted on the edge of the dirt track and waited for the horses, for some help, for some good ideas, for a miracle. That's when we saw it. There was an iron pulley attached to both ends of the river on an iron wire. We didn't know if it would work, for past experiences haven't always been good. Besides, the river looked very menacing and turbulent to say the least and was at least 40 feet wide. Anyhow, lack of alternatives always makes the fear easier to bear with, and so Ganga the dude, jumped in and began to pull himself across. Divine providence was with us no doubt, for he got across, sent the pulley back, I got in, came half way and the Devil got into Ganga. He would yank me forward for a few feet and then let go and have me merrily swinging in that rickety iron trap, literally tumbling into the rapids below. After, I threatened to trace him all the way to his native village in Nepal, he pulled me in and we were once again, on the roll, without any clue where it was that we were rolling to.

      Suddenly, there was a long shrill whistle and a mountain away, we saw our horses, who having spotted us, were pleased beyond belief and came tearing through to catch up animals obviously are far more intelligent and were on the right side of the mountain unlike us. The last stretch of the trek followed a level though endlessly meandering trail between the pastels of the hills and finally we descended over gradient to reach the bridge which would lead us to Tabo. Here, by the side of the road, were our friendly Banjara Camp folk who took one look at us and whisked us off to the luxuries of the Tabo camp hot water, beds, warmth, soup, food...what not. It was a bit of a shock at first to be in the midst of such luxuries again, but it was nice nevertheless, for a bit of everything is what makes life fun to live.

  •  A Great Getaway
      Radhika Singh - A & M, 31 July 2000
    • Camping at Banjara's mountain destinations can get your sore soul back to life.

      At destinations ranging from 6000 ft to 11000 ft, the Banjara Camps luxury camping experience is as good as it gets, though, for four mounths in a year, the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys where the camps are located are cutoff from the rest of the world, covered in thick snow.

      A three-hour train ride from Delhi to Chandigarh, or Kalka, is the start of the trip for those who choose not to drive. It's a pleasant drive up the young Himalayas from Chandigarh, or Kalka, till Narkanda, which at 8100 feet, is the highest point on the highway and popular with winter skiers. From Narkanda, it is downhill to 2700 ft at Rampur or Sarahan (5500ft) where after driving non-stop for nine hours, a stopover for the night is well-advised. Drive off the next morning, after you've got over the shock of seeing millions of stars.

      The beauty of meandering along the river Baspa, its forcefulness sometimes disguises behind a gentle demeanour, is a feeling that stays forever. Four hours into the bumpy ride, having crossed three bridges lined with white prayer flags in memory of those who didn't make it across the river, you get the first glimpse of the camp with its 18-odd green and blue striped tents.

      After a hot cup of tea and pakoras, under the huge white parachute functioning as a lounge area, you're shown into a swiss-style tent. Bask in the royalty of the bright yellow, red and green Rajasthani bandhini interiors of the 10 x 10 private space with a functional cemented bathroom, luggage area, pretty patch-work quilts, an antique logwood table, two lounge chairs and a globe wicker lamp.

      At the Banjara Camp in Sangla valley, the hospitality is warm, not intrusive. For those escaping from city-life, it is paradise, nestled amid snow-capped mountains that you can almost reach out to. An afternoon of rainfall and the Kinner Kailash ranges around are purer than ever, clothed in a fresh coat of snow. The silence is broken only by the sound of the river.

      Take a long walk by the river or wander around the quaint Batseri and Rakcham villages. Explore the villages which have wooden houses adorned with carvings and fancy-shaped ironlocks built along little wooded streams. The fresh smell of pine adds to the charm.

      About 24 km away is the last border village of Chitkul. A four km flower-lined trek along the river takes you to the border manned by men of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, sweeping the area with binoculars to spot the occasional ghuspetiya (smuggler/ terrorist). One can trek to Tibet with permission from the district commissioner.

      Back at camp, one can cross the river on a rope or just indulge in a game of volleyball or basketball or even chess and carom. A 3-5 day stay is ideal and from there, most travelers make their way further in to the Spiti valley to Kalpa. Looking for a soul-searching experience? Visit the monastery at Tabo. Set amid the barren brown hilly terrain, almost desert-like, it leaves one awed. On the way down, it's a good idea to break journey at Chail, at almost 6000 feet.

      A visit to www.banjaracmps.com is a good prelude. So if the adrenaline's pumping and the engine revving - just go for it!

  •  Where The Gods Dwell
      Purbi Sridhar - Discover India, 28th April 2000
    • Far, far from the madding crowd, tucked away in the folds of the Himalayas, in the northern most region of Himachal Pradesh, lies Sangla Valley. It is place where civilization with all its materialistic trapping is yet to make an inroad. A place where the only sounds are the rustling of trees, the gushing of rivers, and undecipherable chatters in the forest. A place that was closed to travelers till 1992. A place whose manifold charms are being discovered only now.

      For early six months every year the Himalayan Valleys of Kinnaur are lost to the world at large when heavy snows render the region out of reach. And for the rest of the year, as if to make up for its enforced seclusion, it unfolds all that is simply awe-inspiring in nature. When frozen glaciers melt and rivers hurl through as if making up for lost time. When nature is at her natural best-luscious greens, torrential rivers, craggy fold of the Himalayas, snow capped peaks within almost hand-reaching distance and challenging heights. And air so pure that even breathing becomes pleasure.

      Sangla, 589 kilometres from Delhi and 230 kilometres from the former summer capital of Britishers, Shimla, is a valley that spreads over 42 km at a height of 2700 metres. Incidentally it is only 30 kms from the Tibetan border. A little north of Sangla around 20 kms away lies Chitkul, and travelers are not allowed beyond the border post. Sangla lies on the banks of Baspa river that runs nearly 900 metres deep in some places. The gushing of the river forms the rhythmic background to Sangla as do the benign gaze of the Kinnaur Kailash range of the Himalayas. In fact Mount Kailash, said to be the abode of Hindu God Shiva, is not too far away. Not surprising therefore that the locals-the kinnauris-are said to be the descendants of Kinners, demi-gods in the Hindu pantheon. The claim goes that some families can actually trace their lineage back to the Pandavas of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharta.

      The name Sangla itself is engulfd in romantic lore. Sang is said to mean 'Light' and la of course means 'pass' in the Tibetan language. In other words it is the 'pass of light'. The local story is that if while crossing the rather imposing surrounding mountains, you suddenly come across this valley ablaze with sunshine and bursting at the seams with natural beauty, you would naturally go into ecstasies. Hence Sangla.

      The journey to Sangla Valley becomes itself an adventure. From Rampur upwards the road narrows down at times into difficult terrain up virtual steeps while the Baspa river forms a turbulent companion through most of the route. The road winds, at times, through some literally challenging heights with the towering cliffs one side and the plunging depths into the Baspa river on the other. Times when God is on call.

      And then you are in Sangla-the town where a handful of houses nestle together presided over by the local deity housed in a typical-of 'Himachal Pradesh wooden temple. Drive through it, leaving the little civilization behind, and about 4 to 5 kilometres ahead, Sangla Valley unfolds like an untouched painting by the Gods. Nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas with the Baspa river meandering through it the valley has all the elements of nature unifying into a harmonious whole. It is as if after saying 'open sesame!' the mountains unlock a secret doorway ushering one into what can be called celebration of nature. Where towering mountains and raging river, where dense forests and ever changing skies come together to bedazzle your senses.

      Plush concrete hotels and glitzy tourist attractions are, thankfully, yet to make their appearance in the Sangla Valley. A handful of basic so called hotels can be found either at Sangla town or at the approach to Chitkul. What Sangla valley has to offer, however, are the delightful Banjara Camps. Run by the enterprising duo of Rajesh Ojha and Ajay Sud, the camps are individual swiss style luxury tents strong enough to withstand the vagarie of nature. The tents come complete with attached bathrooms and, for some, dressing rooms too! The Banjara Camps fits into Sangla Valley unobtrusively, situated as it is amid apple orchards adjoining the quaint and typically kinnauri village Batseri with the Baspa river flowing right next to it.

      And if there are mountainous streams can tout fishing be far behind? One of the greatest pleasure of Sangla Valley and Banjara Camps is trout fishing. The Baspa river in Sangla Valley is home to the Rainbow and Brown trouts. To first timers the idea of any fish appearing from the water rushing over the boulder beds might seem incongruous. But once bitten the whole exercise can become addictive. For those still disbelieving of the entire fishy business there is a river crossing., albeit with expert guidance.When you are so high up in the mountains and so near to the skies, when you can commune with the God and nature is there reason enough to reach up again for the skies?

      But what fills up the scenes in Sangla Valley are the exploratory treks or nature walks into the adjoining forests and villages. It, of course, goes without saying that Sangla is home to some rare herbs and spices including the exotic black cumin seed, flora (Chilgoza orchards besides apples) and fauna and the best cider this side of Suez. Batseri and Rakcham, the two nearby villages, so untouched yet by the outer world, are showcases for uncomplicated lives and lifestyles. The icing on the cake is, however, the glacier point. Across the Baspa river, off Banjara Camps, and through a small forest one is suddenly face to face with a rough, stony river bed like slides down the entire length of one mountain side. During the period when the entire Kinnaur Valley lies hidden behind a thick cloak of snow, this is one of the points where glaciers come hurtling down. The sudden barren streak down the mountainside is a reminder that there are facets of nature yet unfathomable to human minds.

      From Sangla Valley a drive to Chitkul, situated at 3450 metres, about 20 kilometres away from the Banjara Camp is a must. The road passes through one of the most scenic routes ever, over streams that do not recognize the boundaries of roads and through forests that gleefully butt into the road. Chitkul is the last village on the Indo-Tibetan trade route and the Tibetan influence makes its present felt. A four kilometer walk and you arrive at Nagasthi , the last Indian outposts. Beyond lie Tibet. Here the mountains turn more craggy, less green and more barren. Here when the sun goes down among the mountains and an all pervading silence swamps you, it is not difficult to believe in the demons and monsters of folklore.

      But back to Banjara Camps "Night life" begins around a bonfire. And as the last of the embers die out and the camp settles down behind shut flaps there can be no quarrel with life. Only realization that nature reigns supreme in this Valley of the Gods. And the realization why the Gods chose to settle down here. And you accept that rarely have the paths of God and man crossed each other as in these valleys of the Himalayas.

  •  Peak Hour
      Hector D'souza - Times of India, Delhi, 9th May 1999
    • The days are sunny, the air clear and the apricot trees in full bloom. This is the time to visit Kalpa, says Hector D'souza

      Ever heard of Kalpa? Not very likely. It is a small village in the kinnaur valley in eastern Himachal Pradesh, close to the border of Tibet and accessible only during summer, when the apricot trees are in full bloom and saffron fields dot the landscapes. It is not easy getting any kind of information about Kalpa, or find too many people who can tell you about it. So one blistering summer afternoon in early May, having given up all hopes of doing so, we set off with rucksacks, sleeping bags and mountain boots.

      "You want to visit Kalpa, we take you there. Perfect roads, perfect climate. Absolutely. No problem." So we were reassured at the Shimla Taxi stand, where at least six taxi drivers tried to dispel our fears and ignorance. Mountain travel, mountain madness and false promises always go hand in hand, so we were soon traveling on unpaved, potholed and even freshly blasted roads.

      To reach Kalpa at 2960 metres, we needed to drive past Rampur at 924 metres, Sarahan at 1920 metres and Recong Peo at 2290 metres, making a total distance of 244 kms. There were many attractions en route in the form of the everchanging scenery and night halts at these exotic villages. We would fall asleep in the cradle of green valleys and snow covered mountains and wake up early to the sound of temple bells. We spent a few hours every day exploring the villages, walking past saffron fields and trekking through mountain paths. Our guide was a smart looking village lad in a cowboy hat, eager to talk about life in the mountains.

      Finally, on a cool, damp, rainy afternoon, chilled to the bone, we finally arrived at Kalpa, in the heart of the Kinnaur Valley. The valley is better known for its splendid view of the massive 6050 metres-high Kinner Kailash peak. Mount Kailash also has a huge rock lingam of Kailashpati Mahadev that attracts hordes of pilgrims during the summer.

      The Kinnaur valley, of which Kalpa was originally the capital, also includes the villages of Recong Peo, Khabo and Nako and is a land filled with folklore, legends and superstitions. One legend has it that the inhabitants of this land, the Kinners, were half-human and half-bird. Another has it that they had the head of a horse and the body of a human being. The epics describe them as heavenly musicians and even today, the locals celebrate over a hundred festivals every year, giving expression to both joy and sadness in song and dance form.

      Due to its proximity to Tibet, the local population has been heavily influenced by Buddhism. Yet, both temples as well as monasteries coexist peacefully. The people are not too well off, and still rely on getting all their ailments cured but the local priest, making offerings they can ill afford. The medical practitioner, meanwhile, has little work. Quite often, neglect of easily treatable diseases like gastroenteritis and influenza leads to death here. Kalpa unfortunately, has a dark side.

      On a clear sunny day, however, that is forgotten as Kalpa provides sights of the Himalayan range of mountains that are simply unforgettable. This range includes, besides Kinner Kailash, giant peaks like Pargial, 6791 mts, Jorkaden, 6473 mts and Raldang at 5499 mts. Kalpa is a haven of sorts for trekkers. Well-known are the routes from Kalpa to Chitkul via the villages of Thangi and Charang, then moving on to Sangla (2590 mts) before returning back to Kalpa via Karchham. All along the route, you will find enchanting mountains, life-giving rivers, rugged valleys, green meadows, chilkoza trees and the odd apricot field.

      We weren't able to taste the apricots nor were we able to get some apricot oil to take home, since it was the beginning of the flowering season. Yet, we were able to carry home memories that will forever fill the dark spots in our daily lives. Dawn at Kalpa, the mesmerizing sight of the mountain range, including the best known of them all, Kinner Kailash. The sound of laughter that filled the courtyard at Uleytokpo; the family run lodge where we spent our nights; the smell of incense inside the dimly lit Buddhist monastry; the sight of thankas adorning the smoke-blackened walls, our walks through the untouched villages and most of all the serenity of Kalpa.

  •  Let me take you far...
      Nandini Raghavendra - The Economics Times, 17th April 1999
    • They are making hay while the sun does not shine. At 20,000 feet in Sangla, Rajesh Ojha and Ajay Sud promise the unbelievable in the lap of nature.

      It was pitch dark when Rajesh Ojha and Ajay Sud (a former captain of the Indian army) reached Sangla in November '93 for the first time. "One look at the 20,000-feet high, snow clad ranges towering over us and I knew I had found my Shangri-La," says jawan-turned-entrepreneur Ajay Sud.

      In terms of tourism, the valleys of Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti are the last frontiers. These areas opened to tourism as late as 1992 and it was in Bhatseri village in Sangla valley where Sud and Ojha decided to put up their maiden venture, Banjara Camps. It was their love for the mountains and the outdoors that stoked their entrepreneurial fire.

      If it meant exploring every nook and corner of the Sangla valley for that perfect camping ground, so be it. The pre-requisites they had in mind were ambitious a source of water closeby; power; far and away from the main road; next to a forest; away from the pying eyes of villagers...

      That's asking for Heaven on earth. "Ojha, with a Masters in Philosophy and a penchant for life, found the whole thing to his liking," says Sud. With formal financing options out of the question, both partners raised the initial capital of Rs.4 lakh on their own. "We had no collateral, so approaching the banks was out," says Sud, who started the first camp at Sangla in 1994.

      Today Sud and Ojha, pioneers in luxury camping, have extended the facilities of Banjara to Tabo (1997) and Chail (1999). The total accommodation capacity between three camps is 68, with each tent accommodating two people. Since operational costs are huge, Sud and Ojha gave themselves five years before they could see any profits. "Because of the remoteness of our camps, operational costs are as high as 65 per cent. A major chunk is transportation cost, as Banjara gives the option of picking up people in Jeeps from as far as Delhi," says Sud.

      Recently, the bookings are on the rise, thanks to word-of-mouth publicity, media coverage and their website (http://www.banjaracamps.com). By the end of this season, Banjara hopes to post a turnover of Rs.35 lakh, nearly double that of last year. For centuries, the Sangla-Spiti areas were islands of rich, unspoilt civilization, open only for seven months of the year (April to October), with the area snow-bound for the remaining five months.

      Sud's experience with the Indian army has helped in giving shape to the décor. Sud and Ojha organise eco-friendly, yet luxurious tented camps and combine it with adventure for the visitors in the lap of nature. This is where Sud's fauji camping experience came handy. "We wouldn't have thought of luxury camping in a new area had it not been my experience in the army. I had seen from close quarters how Commanding Officer's tamboos were made comfortable and so went about doing the same for our guests," says Sud.

      Each camp offers totally personalized service with either Sud or Ojha always being present, indoor and outdoor games, angling, river crossing and bonfires. Banjara's main clientele comes from Delhi and Mumbai industrialists, businessmen and executives of multinational companies.

      The 20 percent foreign clientele comes mainly from France, Germany, Uk and the USA. Why Sangla, why Lahaul Spiti? Kaza, near Tabo camp, boasts of the highest gas filling station in the world at 12,000 ft. Pooh and Chango, both in Kinnaur, produce the best apples in the country today; the Hindustan Tibet road was built in record time after the Chinese descended on Kinnaur in 1962. And, for the star struck, Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford visited Kinnaur in 1991; Mani Ratnam's blockbuster Dil Se was shot near Tabo.

      But it's trekking on unbelievably scenic routes, rafting and paragliding for the adventurous and angling for trout for the contemplative that makes Sangla a memorable place to be in. Or, just sitting by the river Baspa and reading.

  •  Evergreen Charm of Sangla
      Vijay Raina - Indian Express Travel Links, April 1999
    • Tucked away in the craggy folds of the Himalayas, is a land that few people know about. Fewer still have crossed this way, for it has been one of the world's best-kept secrets for thousands of years. Here, in the upper of the state of Himachal Pradesh in north of India, are valleys that until recently were forbidden lands. Today, after centuries of being shrouded in mystery, the veil has been lifted, allowing man a chance to commune silently with nature and with the gods.

      For six months every year, the Himalayan valleys of Kinnaur and Spiti emerge from a thick cloak of snow, to reveal a different, secret world to man. Frozen glaciers and rivers start to flow with unseen fury, the earth turns into a swathe of colours, mountains unlock secret doorways, and local inhabitants come out in celebration of life itself. At dizzying heights of 2700m to 4200 m, the experience is almost surreal, when god and nature seem to lure man, perhaps even challenge him, to make the journey into their den of barren deserts, fierce mountains, turbulent rivers, dense forests, and moody skies. It is as though you are at the last frontier of civilization, and yet, you're not alone. This is where your journey of discovery in the lesser-known Himalayas begins, with Banjara Camp to show you the way....

      The highlight of your Himalayan camping holiday is at Sangla, in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. Just 230 kms from the former summer summer "raj" capital, Shimla, and a mere 30 kms from the Tibetan border, the Sangla Valley was closed to travelers until 1992 and even today, the 42 km by 1 km stretch at a height of over 2000 m is untouched by civilization.

      Situated at an average altitude of 2,700 m, Sangla valley is a land where you can completely unwind and soak in all the joys of being in the Himalayas. Waking up in cosy Swiss-style tents, to the sounds of birds in the morning, you'll feel invigorated and ready to take on the world. Indeed there's plenty to do here! Climbing the meadows at Sangla is the best way to enjoy breathtaking views of the Himalayas surrounding you. Long walks are perfect for discovering the valley that bursts with an amazing variety of rare herbs and spices, exotic fruits and flowers, birds, butterflies and Himalayan wildlife. Sangla and all kannaur is dotted with apple orchards and boasts the best cider in the land.

      The Baspa river gushes through gorges, 900 km deep in some places, breaking the silence of Sangla. The river abounds in Rainbow and Brown Trout and is an angler's delight. If you're feeling adventurous, you could try your hand at river-crossing or para-gliding, for that on top of the world feeling. Walk to the nearby villages of Batseri and Rakcham, and you'll meet the local inhabitants, Kinnauris, people who are said to be descendants of Kinners, demi-gods in the Hindu pantheon. Some families can actually trace their lineage back to the Pandavas of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Honest, simple pastoral folk, and proud of their valley, the Kinnauris always extend a hearty welcome to visitors.

      Back in the comfort of the camp in the evenings, there is the warmth of the bonfire, music and chatter to keep the cold away. At Sangla with Banjara Camp, you'll rarely ever miss home. In fact, you'll wish you could stay here forever.

      Tabo, where time has stood still for 1,000 years.

      Moving from Sangla, towards the Spiti valley, you step even closer to the Himalayas and the Indo-Tibetan border. And, farther away from civilization, the sudden and unexpected change of terrain is sure to leave you breathless and speechless. For, here at heights of over 3000 m, is an arid, cold and rocky desert where the only string of continuity is the fury of the rivers that crash and tumble over the barren faces of the mountains. Spiti, with its rock-hard desert mountains, torrential rivers and howling, cold winds is where only the god can live. The few villages are sparsely populated and the people who live here are simple, god-fearing folk who brave the elements in this lunar-like, seemingly inhospitable land.

      At Banjara Camp, shivers of delight await you. The camp is situated at Tabo, where it seems time itself stopped over a 1000 year ago. The Tabo Gompa, or Buddhist monastery, is second in importance only to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet in the entire Himalayan region. The monastery celebrated a millennium in 1996, when the Dalai lama conducted a Kaalchakra (a ceremony of initiation, rejuvenation and prayer foe peace). Mountains and cliffs protect the centuries-old, inward looking culture of the region. You get a pretty good idea of this insular world, when you journey from Tabo to Kibber is another famous monastery, the Kee Gompa, located on top of a cliff... an absolute must-see.

      At home in the Himalayas with Banjara Camps, Your holiday to the Himalayas and back promises to be a smooth experience, because you have the option of traveling with Banjara Camps all the way from Delhi and back. And, even in the lap of the Himalayas, Banjara Camps are sure to pamper you. To start with, the camps are run hands-on by Ajay Sud and Rajesh Ojha, who know the region as thoroughly as the palms of their hands.

      No matter which of the camps you choose, each of the locations is a delight, offering you the most picturesque surroundings and the best views. When it comes to activities foe the day, there is plenty on offer-ranging from badminton, croquet, trekking and walks in some camps, to para-gliding, trout fishing and river crossing in others. And if you want to relax, there is always a hammock to laze around in. Every detail has been meticulously planned to ensure maximum living comfort. Transport, Swiss- style luxury tents, a choice of Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisine, snacks and beverages, Laundry...name it, and it's all here at Banjara Camps. While making a journey in these parts of the Himalayas, you couldn't be in better hands.

      Banjara camp accommodation & facilities

      The oom Tent: Your "room" is an independent, Swiss deluxe tent strong enough to keep the wind, weather and other intrusions where they belong outside! Inside, it is spacious, yet cosy, 12' by 12' room of cheerful tapestry. Roll-up meshed windows let in light. And soft, full-sized beds with fresh linen, all cotton comforters, bedside tables and water flasks create all the comforts of home.

      The Dinning Tent: The big tent. Eating place. Meeting place. Happening place. Here, generous table buffet spreads are laid out at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Indian, Chinese and Continental menus are decided daily. And the range and abilities of the chef will leave you asking for more.

      Recreation Tent: Here, you'll find indoor and outdoor games and a small interesting library. And no, no invasion of the satellite TV cult! A selection of video movies is a welcome diversion.

      Bathroom Tent: Yes, each room has an attached " loo" tent, with taps for running water and commodes. Hot water is provided from a central boiler. And soap, toilet paper and towels are on the house.

      Other Facilities: A laundry room with a washing machine and an iron is available for your use. A subterranean mountain spring provides pure mineral water for the camp. Basic first aid and emergency supplies (forgot your toothbrush?) are also available at the Camp. A general physician is on call. So, enjoy the million joys of the great outdoors in the Himalayas. Trekking paths are well defined and unfrequented, in these parts. Equipment and porters can be arranged. And yes, the Baspa river at Sangla is always teeming with trout!

  •  Through the hills
      Rita Sawhney - Bride & Home, November/December 1998
    • We began our honeymoon in the hills with a great deal of trepidation, as I am passionate about the sea, and he, about the mountains. But the breathtaking views and splendor of the surroundings slowly pervaded my senses.

      We knew from the beginning that we were polar opposites. Our first clash of contrasts happened over the choice of honeymoon destination. I am a sea freak; he is a man of the mountains. I am petrified of the hills; he is passionate about them. So it was with great trepidation that I conceded to his "dream honeymoon", and braced myself mentally for the long drive from Shimla to Tabo that would take us into the forbidden and mystical land of Kinnaur and Spiti.

      Half an hour into the majestic deodar forests, and I was doing a quick rethink. The drive was not too strenuous and the view was breathtaking. Past the famous apple and cherry orchards of Narkanda en route to Rampur, and fortified with an aaloo parantha breakfast at the Sutlej Café, and I was ready to eat my words.

      Rampur is built on the banks of the churning waters of the river Sutlej, capital of the erstwhile Bushahr State. Our first stop was Sarahan, steeped in legend and famous for the Bhim Kali temple complex, regarded as one of the 51 sacred Shakti Peeths of India. We drove past flowering Jacaranda trees, apricot orchards and dozens of small sparkling streams and waterfalls. Small villages with slate-roofed houses dotted the hillside.

      Dominating the village hutments is the famous Bhim Kali temple, surrounded by Snowclad Mountains and the high Shrikhand peak (18,570 ft.). The temple is a combination of Buddhist and Hindu architecture and is sacred to both communities. In earlier days, human sacrifice was prevalent here but now only goats are sacrificed. The towing structure of the two Bhim Kali temples, dedicated to the goddess Bhim Kali, take on an eerie magnificence at night under the fluorescent lighting. We stayed at hotel Shrikhand Mahadev, from which the sound ohymns and Sanskrit shokas from a nearby temple, can be heard well into the night.

      Sarahan is also the perfect place for birdwatching. A bird sanctuary on the hill houses several endangered species, including the fascinating Monal and Khaleej pheasants. The most exotic of them all is the Tragopan, an incredibly colourful bird.

      Our next stop was Sangla valley. Following the river Sangla (also known as Baspa) upstream from Karcham we arrived at a virtual Shangri-La a bewitching valley of rugged beauty. Though this is snow bound for most of the year, young entrepreneurs have set up tented camps, where we stayed the night. At Banjara Camp, we enjoyed bonfires and an appetizing barbeque under starry skies. A few kilometers up the road from Sangla is Chitkul (11,000ft.), the last Indian village on the Indian-Tibetan trade route. The super deluxe tent we stayed in at the Timberline trekking camp makes luxurious honeymoon suite, equipped with solar lamps from California and biodegradable toilets from Italy! In the morning, we took along a packed lunch for the trek to the other side of the mountain. Here, a boulder-strewn river tumbles down the mountainside. On the higher reaches grow Bhojpatra trees, found only at high altitudes. The extraordinarily fine layers of the bark renowned for its suppleness and strength were used for some of India's most ancient writings, including the Vedas and the Ramayan.

      September is perhaps the best season in Kinnaur. As the rains end, autumn sends fiery colours racing through the trees. In Kinnaur, the festival of flowers, "Phulech" opens a window to its remarkable people and their beautiful land. Villagers scout the hillside for flowers to offer to the local deity. Then comes a spate of revelry singing, dancing and feasting.

      We left Chitkul with a heavy heart. Driving through the breathtaking gorges of the Greater Himalayas; we reached Kalpa, the last green oasis. Looming in front of Kalpa is the impressive Kinner Kailash, which has great religious significance. The Parikrama around the whole range attracts many pilgrims each year. Timberline has established itself here and offers a variety of activities: nature walks, biking tours, trekking, jeep safaris, mountaineering and rock climbing.

      Approaching Powari the next day, we tanked up the Sumo and filled up jerry cans for our venture into the remote land of Spiti. There are no petrol stations till Kaza and it is best to carry essentials, spares and extra fuel with you.

      For centuries, a mystic aura has surrounded Spiti and Lahaul. The territories remain locked behind formidable mountain barriers and are only connected by treacherous passes and narrow paths. Only now has this fascinating land been opened to visitors, though foreign tourists need a special permit to enter. This is an ecologically and culturally fragile area. There are 33 Buddhist monasteries and temples in Kinnaur.

      We started the climb up an arid area, where just a few willow trees and polars break the monotony of a bleak moonscape. Though we were at a height of 12,540 ft., we felt suffocatingly hot. This is desert territory, where temperatures soar during the day and plummet during the night. Spiti is beyond the reach of the monsoon. The rugged and rocky mountain slopes sweep down to the riverbed, giving the landscape a moon-like appearance.

      Here, in the scared Gompa lie some of the greatest art treasures of the world. Wall paintings and stucco images unfold the elaborate iconography of the region. In fact, it is because of its breathtaking murals and stucco images that Tabo is also known as the "Ajanta of the Himalayas".

      Tabo is at a height of 10,065 ft. After strolling around the small hamlet that is home to some 350 people, we checked into our friendly Banjara Camp. The young manager, Dhruv Nehru, impressed us immensely by his interest in philosophy, meditation and yoga. As the lengthening shadows of dusk melted into the dark night, myriad stars blazed through the sky. We have never felt so close, and one with nature. Time here seems to stand absolutely still.

      At dawn, while touring the vicinity of the Gompa, we noticed little caves perched like eyries is the mountains. The locals informed us that in the medieval ages the monks would use them as a recluse for meditation. We met the head lama of the Tabo Monastery, who welcomed us warmly with a toothy smile and cups of butter tea, which we drank with a straight face. All I can say is, you have to acquire a taste for the stuff.

      Tabo was our destination, and it was time to go back. It is possible to carry on to Kaza, and visit the famous Kye monastery and Kibber, the highest village in the world en route. One has to cross the snow-bound Kunzum and Rohtang passes to cross over to Manali. But we saved that for another time. To say it had been a memorable honeymoon would be a cliché. Suffice to say that I came back a convert.

  •  Caught in a time warp
      Renu Govil - Indian Express, 1998
    • Once considered too close to the Indo- Tibetan border, Sangla Valley has been opened up only recently. Which is why one is caught unawares by its old-world charm, untouched by modern civilization. If are tired of the same old hill stations, the crowds in the mall and tired of old ponies, here's a place that promises to be off the beaten track. The Banjara Camp tucked deep into the Sangla Valley about 200km beyond Shimla, is the perfect summer getaway, with only the sound of the wind in the Valley and river gurgling through the cool forests of pine and deodar for company. During the day you can feast your eyes on tall stately snow-capped mountains and wide-open fields. In the night a canopy of star-studded sky stretches overhead as you nestle by a cracking bonfire.

      Take along lazy walks in the apple orchards or through the pristine mountains forests followed by mouth-watering meals on your return. And if you are not willing to forego all your city comforts, don't worry- you can get yourself pampered with hot water baths and clean laundry washed in washing machines.

      We meet our host at the edge of the Camp- the soft spoken ex-Captain Ajay Sood in his trademark red windcheater and his genial business partner Rajesh Ojha. Later that evening as we warm ourselves beside the bright bonfire they inform us that Sangla valley had been opened up only couple of years ago since it was too close to the Indo-Tibetan border. Which is why it has retained its aura of pristine beauty. It's a beautiful night and we are eager to start exploring, but the long drive - almost nine hours - from Shimla via Narkanda and Rampur has tired us out.

      It is unbelievably refreshing when we wake up the next morning. Warmed with cups of hot coffee, we look out of the window at the panoramic view unfolding before our eyes. You can relax in the hammocks tied strategically beside the clear, cool and inviting Sangla (or Baspa) river. There is a volleyball court for those who want to sweat it out, and later we play football and badminton as well. Or you can go for a ramble through the picture-postcard perfect scenery. As far as the eyes can see, we are surrounded by unspoilt beauty. As we around the camp for the time being, we are served fresh bread and cakes from the camp's own bakery.

      Later we decide to explore the nearby places. We walk through the mountain forests with only the sounds of our feet crushing the fallen leaves and the wind sighing in the trees playing in our ears. About 2 kms from the camp we come across tiny glaciers formed by the melted snow. Soon we reach the Batseri Village, covered in fine mist early in the morning. We visit the local temple, and drink steaming cups of tea at the "dhabha" while talking with the locals.

      Next morning we drive to the quaint village of Chitkul, the last outpost on the old Indo-Tibetan trade route situated at an altitude of almost 11,000 ft. Chitkul has a barely population of 500 people. On the way back, we stop at the Kamru Fort, the home of the royal family. The fort rises splendidly from the rugged sides of the mountain. We take some "bhojpatra"- the bark of a tree that was used as writing paper in ancient times, to take back as a souvenir. We also visit a temple and monastery here. Time seems to have come at a standstill, as nothing has changed here for centuries.

      We take our longest trip the next day-to Kalpa, about 53kms from the camp. We cross the district headquarters Reckong Peo of Kinnaur, a bustling township. We then drive for miles through "Chilgoza" (a kind of dry fruit) forests, with breathtaking view of the majestic snow-capped ranges of the mighty Kinner-Kailash alongside.

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  •  Voyage of Discovery
      Vivek Sharma - India Today Plus, 1997
    • Each year, the travel load becomes lighter. Gone is the time when visiting Sangla and Spiti valleys meant being outfitted for an Everest expedition, carrying everything but the kitchen sink. With the scrapping of the Inner-Line permits which has to be obtained in Shimla (even for Indians), progress has come fairly rapidly, bringing with it creature comforts only dreamt of before. No more bring-and-erect-your-one-tent, no stubborn fires to be lit, or holes to be dug. Indeed, no water purification tablets.

      With no great regret, I say a permanent farewell to dank, depressing government rest houses and their daily alu-daal fare. Instead, I can steer my Tata Sierra to a new and welcome destination- Banjara Camp. The brochure made it sound like Alpine Heaven. Swiss cottage type tented luxury. Hammocks swaying amid acres of flowers. Freshly caught Baspa silver squeezed from the famous Kinnauri apples. Heaven can't wait. Neither can I.

      The brochures were not far wrong. As we make our after noon arrival, we are greeted with an unheard-of luxury-hot water for a wash or bath. Equally rejuvenating after the hill drive was the bottle of beer chilled in Baspa river flowing past the camp, accompanied by fish barbecued on skewers. The bonfire under the star-studded sky was the perfect way to end our first day and a refreshing night's sleep, with the Baspa murmuring a gentle lullaby right next to our tent.

      By afternoon, murmur had turned into a growl. The peaks visible all around have began to melt and the river is in torrential flow as the day advances. On the nearby slopes, the mighty Deodars sway in the breeze. Barely 24 hours, and Sangla has already begun to reveal its incredible natural wonders that were once only accessible through the rare footage on the likes of Discovery Channel. The first time I came here was with the college Geography Society. I have returned almost every year since then, drawn like a magnet, to this stunning part of Himachal Pradesh. Now that I can stay in relative luxury, the attraction becomes all the more compelling. If your favourite summer fantasy is mountains. You've come to the right place. A climb to the Kandas (meadows) is the best of the towering peaks and snow clothed slopes. Leave the Swiss-Alpine comparison to the locals. The Kandas, where must dwell, are infinitely better. On the grasslands, herds of yaks or sheep dot the unlimited expanse with the occasional dongris (herdsmen's huts). Here, savour the mountain-fresh air and the scent of the pine trees, with a stray snowflake drifting down from the awesome ranges. At times, sound carry for miles; the occasional whistle of a herdsman and the bark of his mastiff.

      The kandas are a day's climb from Sangla. From the camp, these seemed like large stretches of moss, freckled with tracts of colonial pines. It is the last lung exhausting climb through a bushy bridle path, which leads to an oasis of tranquility. For those less adventurous or less fit, the climb can be negotiated with the help of pony. Either way, the sight at the top is worth the effort. The herds of yaks, nimble-footed goats or the churu (a cross between cow and yak), seem oblivious to the else, secure in their own private heaven which, for a brief the magical moment, is yours as well, even though you feel like an intruder. Here, all is well with the world-no crowds or concrete, pollution or panic. Just nature, wondrous and wild, the way God made and intended it to be. Exhausted after the climb? A glass of yak's hot milk is served on arrival and then just sink into the deep pile of the cushioned meadows, smelling the heady fragrance of the distant flowers.

      As an orange sun dissolves into a silver sky, the chimneys of the dongris begin to billow smoke as the hearth fires light up. Dongris are the summer home for the herdsmen. They retreat to their permanent homes in lower-lying villages by Dussehra. Like the herdsmen, we rise early, with the sun-anything later would be a criminal waste. Picture the scen as the eyes open-row upon row of brightly coloured flowers stretch into the distance, a dazzling rainbow of colours, bright reds, sunny yellow, baby pinks and purple, pale blues and leafy greens. The bonus is a rosy-cheeked little girl clutching a bunch of flowers, which she offers to my wife. "Phool", is the only world we can understand, but it is adequate. Just as no word can adequately describe this breathtaking place, the little girl seems to belong here, along with the flowers and the meadows, a fairy plucked out of the pages of Hans Christian Anderson.

      The beauty of the Sangla is that one is not restricted by well-defined tracks or pathways. Just pick up your camera, some sandwiches, a thermos of juice or water, and start walking in any direction, heading towards the ranges all around. Attempting to reach the end of the meadows is like chasing a mirage. The higher we go, the more the meadows mock at you. At 3 p.m, we decide to call it a day and return to base camp. And what a day it has been! On the way, my dog leads me frantically to a sight rarely seen by man except in wildlife parks a pack of wolves gnawing away at the carcass of a goat. The trek back is literally a breeze. What took us six hours to climb takes a little over an hour on the return journey. Back at the campfire, there's sizzling soft lamb meat and a glass of cider waiting, waiters to attend your needs, life is perfect and at peace.

      The camp itself is located on a patch, which is surrounded by the Baspa river on three sides. A 10 minute stroll from the road-head through orchards and over a log bridge leads to it. The camp is near Batseri village and Ojha urges a visit. But my personal favourite is Chitkul village, some 18 km away, to me the most beautiful hamlet in the entire area Sangla valley. It is the last village before the army outposts on the border, nestled at the foot of the trek to Kinner Kailash (a five day walk). The Kailash Parikrama is a solemn occasion in the life of the locals. Bur from Chitkl, the valley expands into a kaleidoscope of images-visible as far as the eye can see and if the winds permit, in the distance, the majestic sight of glacial high-rises.

      The inhabitable architecture here consists of wooden houses, raised above the ground, sheltering the local Negis who are of Aryan-Mongol ancestry. They are hardy folk, as they must be, considering the extreme climate and terrain. The valley is snow bound for over three months a year, with mercury dropping to sub-zero levels. Cash cropping and apple orchards have brought prosperity to the area, and with it, education. Each village, including Batseri, takes pride in sending their sons and daughters into the Indian bureaucracy. Polyandry has been socially practiced in the region, but in waning in the face of efforts to keep families together and avoid disputes and divisions of land. Earlier, only the eldest son in the family was formally married. Though the Badri Narayan temple at Batseri is the center of tantra, the dominating visual influence is Hindu idol worship with strong underlying presence of Buddhist monks who alternate among doctors, philosophers and masters of religious ceremonies.

      No visit to the region is complete without a trip to Sangla village, above which an amazing piece of architecture clings precariously to the mountainside. Beautifully carved wooden pillars support the tower temple-fort of Kamru. This sentinel of time has zealously guarded the valley's pristine dignity from evil spirits. So the locals believe. Till the Bushahar capital moved to Sarahan and later to Rampur, this was the seat of power. Virbhadra Singh, the present chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, is a scion of the Bushahar royal family. The main gate of Kamru village has an image of Buddha whose blessing are sought before entering the fort. Outsiders must wear red threads around the waist before entering the complex. The weaponry and remains locked through the year. The deities, bedecked in all their finery, are taken out only on festival.

      Back at the camp, Sud tries to get me hooked on angling, even fishes out the rods and I nearly bite the bait. Hard-core anglers would ignore all else to spend the day fishing for Baspa's famed silver trout. But they would miss the magical walks into the woods. The camp, however, provides plenty of alternate activity for those happy to just laze around. There are all-day scrabble sessions, volley-ball in the evening, and for the literary minded, even poetry recitals and reading from Shakespeare.

      There is still final Shangri La to be explored - Spiti. The road is a series of serpentine curves to Karcham-the confluence where Baspa mingles with Sutlej. Reckong Peo, 26 km from Karcham is the district headquarters of Kinnaur and a good place to replenish rations, chocolates and locally produced chilgozas (dry fruits). I am told chilgoza grows only in Iran and Kinnaur. We depart with greater haste than we arrived, heading for Kalpa and a grandstand view of the mountains. Kinnaur is home to three mountain ranges - the Dhauladhars, Central Himalayas and Zanskar. This is the unique thing about this region: within hours of leaving the Sangla valley, we descend into an entirely different terrain, cold, rock-hard desert. The only features that are common are the rivers.

      Our destination is the Banjara property at Tabo. On the way are two notable stops, Ribba and Nako Villages. Ribba's claims to fame are its vineyards and distilleries. We replenish our cider and at local recommendation, add some famed grape brew. Nako (altitude 2950 m), boasts a natural lake where the glacial water flows into a geological bowl. The local monastery has been constructed at the site of the old one, destroyed in quake in the 70s. The village is well known as the resting place of the 8th century Buddhist Scholar Padmasambhava, the first disciple of Buddha to go to Tibet. A pair of feet and hands embossed in rock offer testimony. The drive from here is awesome. The road, ladder-like, is not easy, with bad stretches and dep, intimidating gorges. Descending again, we cross over to the other bank of the Sutlej and the valley narrows into a gorge. The road winds upward into giant overhanging cliffs and intimidating rock formations. Negotiating these curves can be a little unnerving.

      From the confluence we part ways with the Sutlej. The river flows from Tibet to the source of the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers-the holy Mansarovar Lake, near Mt. Kailash, the mythological abode of Lord Shiva. The Spiti river flows for 135 km, fed by the glaciers above Kunzum La, the 4575 m high leading to Lahaul district. The checkpost at Sumdo, only 20 km from the Chinese border, is the official entry point to the district of Spiti. We hit Tabo village (3050 m) by sundown.

      Tabo was the center of international attention in July 1996, during the Tabo monastery's millennium celebrations and the Kalchakara initiation ceremony led by Dalai Lama. That was the first time I realized that Tabo was more than a visit-it was an experience. The village was bedecked with people of transnational ethnicity: Israelis, Scandinavians, Koreans. Also, the spiritual, the spirited and the Vagabond. A fragrance of colours and sounds pervaded the land, the maroon cloaks of lamas and chomos (nuns) lending the dominant hue. Tabo was the center of a spiritual confluence. And for its simple people, an unending festival of joy. The Tabo monastery, built in 996 A.D. is a complex of nine temples, 23 chortens (stupas) and separate chambers for monks and nuns. The temples, including the Dukhang (assembly hall), has life-size stucco images of the Buddha and other deities of the pantheon, besides sculptures, frescos, murals, ritual objects, thangkas and manuscript. Influences of India, particularly the Kashmir school of art, are reflected in the works. Hence the title-The Ajanta of the Himalayas. This time, however, we are in for a shock. Tabo is a study in contrast. We see the wind-swept silence of an inward-looking culture. Its 100 homes have quietly settled into the evening. There is a forlorn tract on which I drive into the village. The single-storied sandstone and mud building of the 1000-years-old monastery stand in a poll of silence, of darkness. I urgently need the comfort of Camp, a nightful of stars and some cider to get over this desolation that has suddenly gripped me. Ojha, who was also here during the festival, delivers a quick, if grim, diagnosis: "Exposure to two sets of extreme."

      The valley around the Tabo flows into an uncharacteristic openness. The barren mountains of scree and rock seem to undulate with the sun's rays as they playfully pierce the clouds. The winds whisper through the distant, snowy peaks, past the green patches of farmlands and the golden poplar leaves, caressing the villages in the valley. And on a full-moon night, nature, in her haunting glory and stark beauty, can strike you dumb. Spiti is sparsely populated- just one person per kilometer. People usually live in flat-roofed, double-storey mud huts, the lower floor mostly occupied by the livestock. Spiti practised a unique system- primogeniture. When the eldest son in the family got married, he inherited all the property and the parents were sent to an out-house. The younger siblings had to turn lamas or chomos. With education coming to Spiti, this custom is on its way out, as with the earlier religiosity.

      Spiti's 80 inhabited villages hold many records. The highest motorable village, the highest post office and even the polling station (during the last general elections) in India are all here. Besides, there is also Asia's highest hydel power project at Rong Tong which is a feat of engineering. The Banjara Camps in Tabo are nestled a little away from the village.

      We head for Kaza, the district headquarters of Spiti, on our way to Dhankar, Kye and Kungri monasteries. But it is the drive to Kibber, the highest motorable village, that offers the best views-if your vehicle or your resolve can stand the narrow, steep climb. Kye monastery perched on a hilltop is picture-postcard perfect. If time permits, then a trek in the Pin valley and Pin national park, home to the famous snow leopard, Ibex, pika and the Tibetan red fox, is an absolute must. The mobile unit of Banjara camps had left this morning to set up camp for us at Sagnam, just a kilometre beyond the road- head (Mikkim). So our trip to Pin can only be for one night. It is clearly not enough, Pin is beautiful beyond imagination. Mostly barren, like the rest of Spiti, but dotted with junipers and poplars. And flowers, covering entire slopes. Time passes too swiftly to catch sight of snow leopards or savour the beauty around us, and we say a reluctant farewll to Pin. I agree with Ojha's observation: "The sanctuary is so beautiful, human entry should be banned here." With some honourable exceptions, of course.

      The Sangla Spiti sectors were opened to tourism very recently. For centuries these areas were islands of a rich, unspoilt civilization. The bio-diversity of this geographical mass and the social milieu of these tribal belts require extremely sensitive handling. These valleys are, in tourism terms, the last frontier. Only the adventurous have ventured here in the past. This has helped preserve the region's natural beauty and breathtaking scenery. Now, with the added advantage of well organised and eco-friendly tented camps like Banjara, these valleys combine adventure with comfort and the opportunity to spend an unforgettable holiday in the lap of the gods.

  •  A Beautiful Dream
      Bhawna recounts her visit to Sangla - Hindustan Times, June 30 1996
    • The dream is still young. I have slept and woken up to the imperial, star-spangled night of Kinnaur. Only the breeze breaks the silence here filtering through leaves and fanning the waterfalls.

      I have trained to hear once again the sweet sounds of "machi machi" in a Loghut in Kupa as a Kinner woman beckons to her flock of sheep and goats.

      I have heard stories about sporty gods reverberating in the hills of Sangla from the quietly flowing springs, some sadly nodding flowers, the trees tall and grave, and the heavy footsteps of men and women.

      I have felt the Karchem sun shining benevolently over the magical confluence of the serene Sutlej and the bubbly Baspa.

      I amble my way up and the dream seems to go on forever. My eyes now pan what was 50,000 years ago the scene of a major glacial advance.

      Here at 10,000 feet is the landlocked valley of Sangla the jewel in the crown of Kinnaur district two hundred km off Shimla and only 30 km from the Tibetan border. This sugar sector of the days gone by is now the highland chiseled into a deep trough by the Baspa.

      Isolated for millennia. Pristine and beautiful with its exotic wildlife and fragrant fruits and flowers, intoxicating with its rare herbs and spices. Proud and sensitive with its people the Kinnauris who trace back their roots to the Kinners, the Hindu gods, rich with a cultural blend of the Hindu, Buddhist and old mountain cults.

      Sangla god's own abode. Now open to man. To tread its virgin lands and touch its laughing skies above.

      The valley was tucked away between the high mountain girdles till in 1992, the mysterious, almost monastic, life of Sangla was opened to the occasional traveler.

      And even now, it is only eight months in a year from April to November that the regions of Kinnaur and Lahaul and Spiti are accessible.

      Come winter, the high mountain passes start closing. And the people of the valley withdraw into their seluded, snowy dwellings.

      But that's later. The beauty pageant in Sangla has only begun. The spring air in the valley is still cold. The boughs still hesitant in their flowering memories of the winter gone by still linger in the Sangla valley in May. Ideal time to escape from the heat and dust of the plains into the cool climes of the valley.

      But there are more sunrise days ahead. I dream on. Of the golden sunrises and the glorious sunsets. The lazy afternoons, the birds filling the mountain air with their unknown song, a passing shower and a harvest of flowers.

      Ahead of Sangla, is a small Kinnauri village called Batseri and nestled 2 km across the Baspa from here are the Banjara Camps. In a place singularly devoid of any infrastructure, the signpost down the Sangla is a welcome sight. Also unusual.

      From a distance I see friendly, comfy tents pegged to mother earth. And a whiff of the mountain air fills my nostrils with some delicious aroma. Something is cooking inside one of these tents, my nose tells me. Appetite whipped up, I go closer to see a swaying hammock by the side of a singing brook.

      In a jiffy, I am at home singing with the brook, feasting in the dark forests by the campsite. The setting is picture perfect. There are treks and walks to look forward to. A quaint library to share its treasures with me when I am not hitting the bull's eye or cycling on an all-terrain bike all courtesy my camp hosts who have taken upon themselves to spoil their guests with hospitality.

      Smug in my happiness, I am still angling for more. Not so much for the teeming mountain trout in the Baspa but the sumptuous goodies spread out generously on the table.

      It's all so laidback, I wonder. For my young hosts, one a former army officer and the other a student of philosophy, there is more adventure in walking the unchartered mountain alleys than the army. And more wisdom in stones, running brooks and even spple orchards than in philosophic texts.

      They tell me of hitkul the last village on the old trade route to Tibet and the piece de resistance of the valley. And as I drive deeper inside the valley, the view is breathtaking. The Baspa is as noisy here as ever, but no less glorious.

      I park myself on a rock to see molten gold meandering the serpentine route below. Nature is benevolent here, if a little vain.

      But her benevolence goes beyond the trees that are laden with fruit ripe and sweet like the smiles of the Negi women. Apples here blossom also in the cheeks of little boys and girls.

      They wave their chubby little hands at me as I drive past them. It is downhill for me now. As the cold wind hits my face, my heart warms up to the bagful of many little memories I carry with me. That special plate of Rajmah-chawal at the Negi household, a string of chilgozas, loads of juicy apples, the bhojpatra in my diary the now rare bark of a tree used as paper in the vedic times, the kindness of my hoasts...all this and more.

      I am back on that confluence the Baspa and Sutlej still weaving magic as they collude together to lure many a traveler. But I am out of that web, a little sad in my release. The road along the mighty Sutlej will take me to Delhi. And to everything that Sangla is not.

      My dream is coming to an end. But then I know I will go back to it. To my dream that is Sangla.

  •  Roti, Rum, and a Honey
      Vivek Sharma - Hindustan Times, 16th June 1996
    • My father often talked of the sugar sector; how grenadiers set up the first outposts at Nako, Chango etc. And often, in the drawing room of this old guard, over repeats of Chota rum pani, fellow veterans have exorcised the spirits of Kinnaur. They have often jibed at the misery of an officer, an erstwhile Maharaja, a rider of stallions; who refused to mount a Khachar (Pony), the only conceivable luxury in that inaccessible terrain, besides the big game hunts. This was post-1962 Chinese aggression.

      The first time I came here in 1986, one needed an inner line permit from DC, Shimla or Rampur, Bushahar. The permit is not required any more, but tourist and other geographical maps dismiss the area as a mere green patch north of Shimla (200 km precisely). Due to its strategic location, it was veiled in a mystery, a la Shangri La. The last village in Sangla valley is a mere 30 km from the Tibet border.

      I am on my fourth visit to Kinnaur. Now, as I drive my Maruti along the Sutlej, it is a black top that complements my delicate steed but for the odd bumps. My friend in Shimla (long live scribes) has arranged for my stay in the Sangla PWD Rest House. And to buttress my adventurous spirit he has suggested a camp near Sangla I could visit. I am carrying my own sleeping bag and tent for a day or two of camping. My co-traveller could not do with a bit of camping by the Baspa.

      Eight hours from Shimla, climbing up to Narkanda and down Rampur amid short halts, and here we are. At Karcham comes the confluence of the Sutlej and Baspa rivers. We go along the Baspa and enter the Sangla Valley. Each time I have to Kinnaur, I have wondered if nature herself knows how pristine, how beautiful she is here. The bureaucracy surprisingly has made little gains from the area's potential.

      For the inhabitants it is a tough life, difficult terrain and extreme climate. The valley is snow bound for nearly four to five months. Cash cropping and apple orchards have brought some prosperity and education, though. The Sangla resthouse in the middle of the town (or an extended village) is devoid of trappings, creaky cots, chairs, a dressing table and a geyser in the bath that takes aeons to warm.

      Day one ought to be rest: that has been my travel paradigm. We decide to use our personal sleeping bags. The resthouse quilts seem vintage. The friendly caretaker lets loose a sugary syrup of tea, but can there be anything better? Remember we are already in our leather jackets (5pm in May). A bath would be the only comfort. But the blessed geyser.... I decide to show her the town market. Precisely three minutes of walk end-to-end. There are few grocery-cum-vegetable-cum-kerosene-cum-cigarette shops. Apart of these are few halwais and dhabas, a barber and a couple of clothiers-cum-tailors. Well, cigarettes and mints (with or without holes) are among the new additions in the wares. And of course, dish antennas like devil's horns sick out over the odd roof.

      I enter my regular shop of earlier visits. "Namaskar, Negiji." Everybody is a Negi here. I won't go into the anthropology of it. He remembers me. "Saabji, how are you?"

      A little inhibited to start with, the conversation begins. My uninitiated companion is not so impressed with my associates, she walks off. The shop is forgotten. Two dozen other join in. Tea arrives, small talk begins, about elections, Rao Sahab, Atalji, hawala et al. My companion is still testing out the waters when I return. No luck. She is getting a little nervy. Food is simple, Dal and potato curry, served with rotis is preceded by two chota rums. Early curfew. Imagine by 9 pm we are sleeping soundly. Day begins rather early in the hills. I am up by 5.30, and off I saunter along the street. The sun is still behind the hillock, right behind our resthouse. I am strolling on the road, when a Tata mobile passes by and screeches to a halt. "Hey, you."

      I look back. It's Rajesh Ojha. How come? Surprise never cease to happen, do they?

      He tells me he runs the Banjara Camp a little ahead of Sangla, the one my journalist friend talked of. Standing in a middle of the road, within two minutes of our meeting I get marching orders. You are staying with me, the genial giant orders. I resist, telling him I have my own camping equipment. No question of serious opposition. We are together in Punjab University and part of the same circle. It's just that we have been out of touch. The Rucksacks are packed again, the caretaker explained to, and we are on the way to the camp. The camp landscape is like a picture postcard. In a clearing between a thick forest of deodars, bang on the river Baspa and against the backdrop of the snowcapped mountains. Swiss cottage tents, running hot water, library, hammocks, great cuisine. Sangla is an exhilarating experience for me, with or without the comforts of the camp, I contend in the dinner, tent this bossman of a corporate entity, staying here for a week, contradicts saying it helps to be spoilt. My companion agrees. I withdraw.

      Baspa offers abundant silver trout and the first one to take my bait is within 10 minutes of my dropping the line. An early nudge sends me pulling ecstatically. James, a fellow camper, jealously eyes my catch- a mild-sized beauty. The creature is dutifully returned to the Baspa. The rest of the evening is spent I expectant eagerness. Nothing comes my way, nor James'. He curses me for letting go my catch. They signal the flock if you let them go, he contends. Angler's myth. The next day James returns rich. Proves his point. The camp is treated to marinated skews.

      Sangla offers short walks, day hikes and adventurous treks- a variety of gradients. Though the first two are spent sauntering in the woods along the river or just squatting by the deodars, on the third day I decide to climb to Sangla Kanda (meadows). It's a whole day's difficult trek and the lady gets pony to ride. It is a separate matter that she rides it only to rest in between and prefers to huff and puff in true contemporary competitive tradition. Not that it is a cakewalk for me. I realize Delhi's rat race and pollution and not to discount the daily packet of cigarettes, have collectively killed my stamina as well.

      But the joy of reaching the meadows is beyond compare. The unlimited expanse of lush green meadows, brimming with flocks of yaks, churu (cross between Cow and yak), sheep and goat graze leisurely as small dongris (huts) below smoke from their chimneys. It is an arduous journey up to the meadows but it is worth all the sweat. For the meadows are an experience by themselves. It is early for the flora to blossom, yet every bush has myriad hues to offer. I meet some more old aquaintances. More tea, more gupshup and some locally distilled apple wine. I don't recommend this to everybody. It is pungent and is meant to be had neat and burns along the way before settling down in the belly. I definitely miss my earlier visits when I have got drunk on it along with the village folk and sang, danced and behaved silly all evening.

      Night is spent in the dongri of our ponywallah. It is with a lot of insistence that he accepts a small token. Can you imagine a destination where the tourists are not ripped off? Well. Sangla is one. When I gave 10 bucks to the little boy who got me bhojpatra is the bark of a tree made of layers of fine paper-like fibre. Vedic scriptures were originally written on these. Kinnauris are a proud race. I recommend a lot of sensitivity to the locals by visitors to the valley. We walk down to Sangla. Another recommended must is a day trip to Chitkul, the last village before the Tibet border. Chitkul is at height of 11000 feet and a beautiful village. Small water channels, which criss-cross the village, are used for washing as well running small mills. The village Pradhan (headman) invites us over for tea. Hordes of little girls gather around my companion. Some touch her hair, other simply stare. One of them, a precocious one, asks if I am her father. My companion is mused. Replies, no am her husband. The uncontrolled laughter and the element of surprise. I am afraid. I cannot describe. It's time we left the valley.

  •  In a corner of Kinnaur
      Arun Sood - Hindustan Times, July 1995
    • The remote Sangla valley is breathtaking in its beauty, writes Arun Sood

      Rare are those moments in life when it hurts to go back home. A visit to Sangla Valley provides precisely such an experience.

      For most of the tourists, Shimla was the destination this summer. Bur for some of the more discerning ones, looking for some fun and excitement of a different variety, away from the crowded, scarcity-hit hill stations, it was a mid-day stopover.

      Secluded in a remote corner of Himachal Pradesh's Kinnaur district, at a height of 2700 m, Sangla Valley was opened to the world as recently as 1992. Till then, because of its proximity to the Indo-China Border, it was out of bounds even for the Indian tourists. So, few people still are discerning enough to savour its bliss.

      Access to Sangla Valley has always been difficult. Legend has it that the place is so remote that when heroes of Mahabharat hidden during the last year of their exile, their foes failed to locate them. Much later, the Valley was closed for strategic reasons- Sino Indian border is only about 40 km. away.

      Five thousand years later, the place maintains its exclusivity. Its secludedness has infact helped to maintain its beauty and charm. There are no traffic jams, so common a sight in most of the hill stations. No garbage. It is a place where a serene silence drenches you. And so do its sounds.

      Those looking for five star comforts or even normal hotel facilities would be in a disappointment in Sangla valley- for there are hardly any hotels/restaurants worth the name. In fact this is partly what makes the place what it is an island of tranquility and a magnificent retreat.

      There are the woods, lonesome and generation old. Take a walk through them. You will discover a sense of wonder you lost in your childhood: the aroma of the forest, the fallen leaves crackling beneath the feet, the strange blossoms in brilliant colours. And when the wind rustles the leaves, it hums.

      There's the tinkle of a clear, cool and winding brook called Baspa. India's best trout swim in its waters. If you stand over smooth, slippery rocks where water collects in a shallow sparkling pool, and if you are lucky, a trout might tickle and glide between your feet. And after such a strenuous exercise, you simply must have a siesta by the side of the brook beneath the mellow sun. You will rediscover what a joy they are.

      Deep blue sky. Clean moutain air. Towering snowclad, Zanskar range. Sometimes in summer, lightning flashes and clouds drizzle down upon them. Not infrequently, the sun follows close on the heels of the drizzle and a rainbow stretches across the valley. In the night, lying in a hammock, by the brook and logfire, beneath a full moon and a starry sky, you will discover a sense of unsurpassed awe.

      You will also discover heritage. For, Sangla Valley is a crucible brimming with timeless traditions. The principal tribe of this area is the Kinners, who, in Sanskrit Literature have been shown as Yakshas and Gandharvas. Although mainly a pastoral tribe engaged in rearing sheep and goats and raising wool, the Kinners in Sangla valley also do agriculture and horticulture. Most of the households have fruit trees of some kind, but apple dominates. Joint families are the norm. Polyandry still exists and is probably a means to avoid a division of property and fragmentation of already small landholdings in the area. With socio-economic change this practice is on the decline now.

      The valley, due to its proximity to Tibet, is the meeting place of Indo-Aryan and Mongoloid races and cultures. Hence, the Mongoloid features of the people. Buddhism and Hinduism are worshipped with equal faith. Buddhism here is a mix of Vajrayana, Tantrikism and Tibetan demonology. Almost every village has a Buddhist temple with a resident Lama. People also believe in Hindu gods like Badrinath and Maheshwar. The temples and monasteries make an interesting study because of their ancient inscriptions and he very fine woodwork which, initially the work of Kashmiri craftsmen, reached a very high standard in the 11th and 12th centuries when most of the important monasteries were built. On important occasions, the locals also seek advice from their 'devta' or presiding deity via oracles.

      There is also the bhojpatra a very fine and rare tree bark on which, since time immemorial, sages have written India's cultural heritage, including the Vedas. The locals, though, often use this bark in roofing of their houses owing to its certain qualities. At some places, the lamas write mantras in Tibetan on the bhojpatra and it is then worn by pregnant women as a lucky charm. The area has a distinct tribal tradition of folk dance and songs which have been preserved over the ages. During September 4-8, Sangla celebrates a colourful festival of flowers called Flaich.

      The Banjara camp near Sangla village is an ideal retreat for those who want to catch upon their reading or writing. You can loll in a hammock anchored to magnificent sky-kissing chir-pine trees by the river-side or snooze off to the tune of gugling Baspa over your favourite book.

      The rustic charm of the camp comes in its full splendour in the evenings. Imagine the cool mountain air, the dipping sun enveloping the snow-clad peaks and its glow washing the colourful Swiss tents and in their midst scattering of comfortably seated guests around a bonfire. The gently music from the dining tent (readhall!) which glides over the sounds of Baspa, provide a perfect ambience for a leisurely evening of conversation and high-spirits. The bar-be-que dinners around the bonfire would be the envy of many a luxury hotels.

      For trekkers, the opportunities are limitless. The camp provides trekking equipment, and of course, generous packed lunches. There are easy and short-duration treks like those to Chitkul (a quaint hamlet located on the old Indo-Tibetan trade route), Kamru fort (the ancient throne of the erstwhile rajas of Kinnaur) and even to the scout of a small glacier. One small trek strongly recommended is from village Batseri to Rakcham (about 8 km. apart) through the forest along Baspa. It is absolutely exhilarating. Long duration treks include those to Recong Peo (famous for Chilgoza forests) and Kalpa (which offers a breath-taking view ofMt. Kinner Kailash, the mythical abode of Lord Shiva). The apple orchards and stunningly beautiful panoramic views along the way will keep you occupied with your camera.

      The months of August and September are strongly recommended when a lush green carpet with a carefree sprinkling of wild flowers of all imaginable colours and hues spreads across the valley. The mild breeze laden with the fragrance of Kinnauri apples sweeping the valley will force you to take a stroll up to one of the orchards. But don't worry, if you are not such an enthusiastic walker- you can always find an orchard to laze around in.

      So, pack your bags this summer for Sangla. Light woolens are necessary. It is a great place for those looking for respite for their city-wearied eyes. Thankfully, it is not yet a "tourist" place. It holds a special charm for the trekkers and the rubber-neckers professionals and amateurs alike. A tryst with Sangla valley holds the promise of a life-long relationship with a world in which romance, mystery and tradition still tiptoe their way around.

  •  Unfurl the veil of mys...
      Sumitra Senapati - Hindustan Times
    • Situated at the Indo-Tibetan border, Sangla Valley is one of the world's best-kept secrets. Discover the valley that will keep you enthralled for days with its spectacular scenery.

      A terrific bolthole is Sangla Valley. Situated at an elevation of about 10,000 ft, this is the place where Himachal greets Tibet. Forbidden territory virtually from Independence up until 1992 because of its close proximity to the Chinese Border (30km away), the sleepy inner line valley is still largely populated by tribals and the occasional jawan of the Indo-Tibetan Border police. But you are unlikely to stumble upon either at the Banjara Camp, a luxury tent resort that nestles on the banks of the Baspa river in the backdrop of some dramatic peaks.

      Getting to this Shangrila-La is half the fun. Your best bet is by road, via Shimla, 230km away. The route winds past some stark rugged hills and dense forests and once you cross Narkanda, the turbulent Sutlej keeps you company until past Rampur.

      Sangla is the ideal hill getaway, to escape the dust and grime of the plains, to fish in a gurgling stream, watch snow-capped peaks in the distance blending with the sky. Rarely have the paths of God and man crossed each other, as in this valley of Himalayas. Tucked away in the craggy folds of the Himalayas, Sangla is a land that few people know about. Fewer still have crossed this way, for it has been one of the world's best kept secrets for thousands of years.

      Today, after centuries of being shrouded in mystery, the veil has been lifted, allowing you a chance to commune silently with nature and with the gods. Do it differently and decide to go off the beaten track to the Banjara Campsite in Sangla Valley.

      The picturesque Sangla Valley is no less charming and peaceful than Pahalgam-both are situated on river banks. Sangla lies on the banks of the enchanting Baspa river in Kinnaur District. Ringed by the high Dhauladhar ranges, Kinnaur lies on the ancient trade route, the old Hindustan - Tibet road linking India with Tibet.

      The Campsite has been picked carefully, and the thoughtfulness of the facilities, indeed take you by surprise. The snug spacious 12ft furnished Swiss Cottage tents even have an uninterrupted power supply and roll - up meshed widows to let in light. Meals are always served outdoor, with a generous helping of sunlight, or by the side of a roaring bonfire, to keep you snug and warm.

      Designed with the family in mind the Camp also boasts of cozy recreation tent with awell-stocked library, bur no television. Every detail has been meticulously planned to ensure maximum living comfort. And if you want to relax, there is always a hammock to laze around in.

      But this can also be a place for action. Indeed, there is plenty to do here! Climbing the meadows at Sangla is the best way to melt the stress and enjoy breathtaking views of the Himalayas.

      Long walks are perfect for discovering the valley that bursts with an amazing variety of rare herbs and spices, exotic flowers and fruits, birds, butterflies and the Himalayan wildlife.

      All of Kinnaur is dotted with apple orchards and the region boasts the best cider in the land. The Baspa river gushes through gorges, 900 metres deep in some places, breaking the silence of the valley. The river abounds in Rainbow and Brown Trout and is an angler's delight. If you're feeling adventurous, you could try your hand at river crossing.

      You can also walk to the nearby villages of Batseri and Rakcham. Where you'll meet the local inhabitants-Honest, simple pastoral folk, proud of their valley.

      If you are energetic, you can trek to some interesting places, using the Banjara Camp as base. Trekking buffs can chart out of course around Kinner Kailash, the mythical abode of Lord Shiva, to Sarahan or to a number of passes such as the Pin Parbati or Kaza.

      The 1000 years Reckong Peo known for the Chilgoza forests, the Nako Lake and Kalpa Valley are just 55 km away and definitely worth a visit.

      Some 25 km from Sangla at a height of 12,000 ft lies the quaint village of Chitkul with a population of 464 people. This is the last Indian village before Tibet. Close on hand are the snow peaks, dark green forests and the Baspa river flowing like molten silver on to Tibet, which lies another 30 Km away.

      Back in the comfort of the Camp in the evenings, there is warmth of the bonfire, music and chatter to keep you spellbound for days on end with its spectacular scenery. Don't forget to pick up a basket of Kinnauri apples on your way back.

  •  Five best places for camping trips
      incrediblediary.com
    • Are you tired of sitting around the house on the weekends with nothing to do?

      Are you stressed out by your job and need some relief?

      Get ready to hit the great outdoors with Exciting Adventure

      Pack your bags, choose the most adventurous camping package for yourself and set out for a camping trip.

      Camping trips are becoming popular because people have realized the importance of leading a healthy and stress free life! Of course, it is understood that a campaign trip gives you total relaxation and solitude.

      Go camping and enjoy a variety of activities right outside your tent flap - like boating, fishing, biking, hiking, rock climbing and spotting wildlife. Find inner peace on a forest hike, tone your arms and abs while kayaking, or learn about the importance of protecting the environment as you observe endangered animals in their natural habitats.

      Are you ready to hit the great outdoors?

      The following campsites offer many activities; they are located in some of the most beautiful destinations in the country. Keeping the camping adventure in mind, this is a list of the "5 Best Camp Sites around the World."

      1. GARIG GUNAK BARLU NATIONAL PARK, COBOURG PENINSULA, AUSTRALIA

      At the very top of the Northern Territory in Arnhem Land, the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is a remote and rugged land, fringed with magnificent white sand beaches on the Cobourg Peninsula.

      Accessible only by air or sea, the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is an aesthetic knockout, with gorgeous sand dunes, marshy swamplands and clear coral reefs. This Australian jewel is a rare find because campers can wander inland for a true rainforest experience or simply venture outward into an oceanic abyss.

      The national park is perfect for trekking, bird watching, walking, fishing, boating and photography.

      2. BANJARA CAMPS SANGLA, INDIA

      "If there is one place on the face of this Earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when Man began the dream of existence, the place is India."
      - Romain Rolland

      The Sangla Valley, located at a height of 8900 feet, is part of Kinnaur. It is a picturesque drive through winding mountain roads with the Sutlej surging furiously across the valley. From the turnoff at Karcham to the majestic Chung Sakhago pass, the Sangla Valley - along the Baspa River - is about 95 kms long. As the spectacular vistas unfold - the meandering river, verdant conifer slopes, emerald Rolling Meadows, apple and chilgoza orchards, quaint villages, the magnificent snow-clad Kinner Kailash ranges are visible.

      The Banjara camps offer a culturally rich and awe-inspiring experience. Situated near the Tibetan border and the Himalayan Mountains, campers will have access to remote villages, monasteries and famous sites like the Bering Nag Temple and the Kamru Fort where rajas were once crowned. Here, you can witness and experience life untainted by the chaos of the city.

      3. GLACIER NATIONAL PARK WEST GLACIER, MONT

      The Glacier National Park offers one of the most picturesque settings for all campers. With 13 campgrounds and more than 740 miles worth of trails, here you can explore the beauty of ice-capped mountains, bright meadows and expansive lakes during any season of the year.

      Come and experience Glacier's pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and the spectacular lakes. With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier is a hiker's paradise for adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude. Relive the days of old through historic chalets, lodges, transportation and stories of Native Americans.

      Discover the wonderful Glacier National Park and enjoy the paradise!

      4. DRYBECK FARM, CUMBRIA, United Kingdom

      Drybeck farm is in a little known but truly beautiful corner of Cumbria, on the banks of the idyllic River Eden.

      Drybeck Farm is a 20-minute walk from the village of Armathwaite, which has a station on the world famous Settle-Carlisle Railway line.

      For a truly unique camping experience, try one of the farm's two yurts, each of which is outfitted with its own wood-burning stove and accommodations up to six people. If that is still too primitive, the site also offers a cozy "Gypsy Caravan," perfectly situated within the sight of calm river waters.

      5. BRAZOS BEND STATE PARK, NEEDVILLE, TEXAS

      Located thirty minutes from Houston, Texas' largest city, the 4,897-acre park transports visitors to another world; that world is one in which the American alligator, the white-tailed deer, the raccoon and the bobcat reign supreme. Over 270 bird species have been observed within the park, making Brazos Bend a prime birding locale as well.

      The Brazos Bend State Park is a camping expert's heaven and a fish lover's dream. Surrounded by six lakes, rugged hiking trails, and jungle-like swamps, this park offers areas to fish, picnic, and bike and even horse ride.

      After visiting these places, most of us will really enjoy the concept of camping - sleeping under the stars, becoming one with nature and toasting marshmallows over the campfire.

      See the full story with pics


DESTINATIONS

Destinations across the length and breadth of Himalayas

Himachal

Himachal is known for of its forests, rivers, v

Himachal

Ladakh

Drives across high mountain passes, great lakes,

Ladakh

Uttrakhand

Uttarakhand is a region of outstanding natural be

Uttrakhand

Bhutan

Opened to tourism only in 1974, Bhutan is today o

Bhutan

Sikkim

Home to India's highest peak; forest, rivers and

Sikkim