Thursday, 25 July 2013

Rollicking Rakcham & Charming Chitkul – Kinnaur, Himachal

(My first Himachal Pradesh trip itinerary for exploring Kinnaur district went awry after reaching the miniscule dwelling of scenic Rakcham. From 14th to 19th June 2013, we were holed up in hotel room watching vagaries of Himalayan weather. We squeezed in a few hours for a trip to Chitkul - the last village on Indo – China border. The four extra days we spent at Rakcham were eventful. A recap of exciting and anxiety filled sojourn is worthwhile recounting.)

On morning of 12th June, after reaching Chandigarh by early morning flight from Mumbai and finding our hired Tavera car with driver Sohan Singh, a young Himachali, at airport departure, we were assured of uninterrupted nine days trip of going through our chosen Kinnaur district destinations in Himachal Pradesh.   

Without going through my travel stories of first night stay at Fagu and second night at Sarahan, I pick up the threads from the 14th afternoon at 3.30 pm, when we three reached Hotel Rupin River View at Rakcham. The hotel is ideally located in Baspa valley with it’s unhindered view.
Baspa river view
A refreshing cup of tea was welcome in floor 3 canteen, with a close view of roaring Baspa river flowing by the side of hotel, in a not so deep gorge. Looking at the vertical hill face consisting of jutting rocks, with plentiful of pine trees above and snow on its crown, is best way to get enthused for one’s sojourn for two nights and a full day at his scenic place. Our allotment of floor 2 double room was not to my liking as I had planned to mount my camera tripod in verandah to do some extensive video shooting. With the Apple trees blocking the part of the majestic view, I was keen for a change. As luck would have it, the Owner – Manager  Naresh Jishtu re-alloted  us room no. 303 on floor 3, with best possible view of the Baspa valley. 
Snow view at Rakchan
As my friends Rajagopal and Srikanth were getting ready for evening stroll to explore the valley, I was in the corridor - the rooms lined on one side and fixed glass windows on the other. The giant entry gate to Rakcham from the road would suggest the dwelling across the road as much touted Modern Village established in 2010. The village perched on the slopes of the hill, with beautiful looking houses - mostly wooden, looked too good for villages in the hills of India. Most of the cottages had corrugated sheet roofing and some tiled ones. Solar powered street lights were quite evident. This village was awarded President’s prize as depicted by one of the signage along the roadside. We thought of exploring this village - plastic prohibited smoking banned and liter free, the next day. 
Modern Village on hill slope
Coming out of hotel, we were drawn like a magnet towards the Baspa river, a short walk adjoining the apple orchards.  We crossed the bridge over the river and came to a tented ‘Kailash view camps.’ Two cars parked there were indicative of families having preferred this accommodation compared to lone hotel where we were holed up. 
Kailash View Camp
We walked alongside the river through a mud track, towards upstream and came to another tented camp named Parasol, much bigger and possibly with more amenities. There were a few families occupying the tents. My two friends continued their  walk further as I took a break for photo shooting. Very few houses and structures were located in the valley so unlike the hill dwellings I have seen in other hill towns in Himachal as well as other Himalayan states. Even for a cup of tea we had no option anywhere save for the hotel or the tented camps. 
Hotel Rupin River View
We returned back to hotel and came to canteen, where it is customary to order food at least an hour in advance, so one is assured of freshly prepared dishes as per the menu. Our choice of vegetables and chapattis were served in due course, while we planned for next day’s program. The climate was becoming chilly at this altitude of 10,000’. So, early to bed and under the quilt was the best possible thing to do. Will I rise early next day to become any wiser?
 
I woke up in the morning around 5.30 am and came to verandah and was not any wiser looking at the drizzle that made a rhythmic sound on the corrugated roofing just above our room. I just hoped it is a typical Himalayan rain which comes and goes in quick succession in early summer. The monsoon was not due before next month. The Baspa valley, from verandah looked as gorgeous as it can be, flowing downstream from extreme end and breaking into two streams and finally rejoining before the bridge. 

The hotel compound had some apple trees and spinach planted around them. The tourists in floor 1 rooms, which is located below the road level, had direct access to the plot. 
Bridge over Baspa river
  After hot water bath and breakfast under our belt, we were back to our favorite spot near the camp site and took a long walk towards the glacier. Overnight rain made puddles on soft sandy soil. I took a break for photo shooting. One exotic red bird perched on tree along the river bank was inviting to be captured in lens. This place ( Rakcham ) is surely a bird watcher’s delight. We were lucky to have watched half a dozen varieties perched on apple trees, from our hotel room just seated on verandah. 
Bird watch
Around 11 am we made our way back to hotel along the asphalted sloping track, the landscape meanwhile changed for a typical rainy day in hills with grey colored moisture bearing clouds caressing the hill top with promise of more rains to come.
Way to hotel
By 11.15 am, Sohan Singh was ready to drive us to Chitkul – the last dwelling on Indian side of Indo – China border. The border is some 80 km from there with no motorable road. One can trek  upto 60 km through a scenic mountain route. The drizzle made puddles of water on the road and rain water draining from hill flowing across the road was common but needed careful driving. Right through our trip of 10 km, Baspa river kept us company flowing in a deep gorge in between hills parallel to the road.
Chitkul dwelling
 Reaching Chitkul (3050 m), while our car was being parked, we noticed that few more car were already stationed. Later on we came to know they were a group of 18 Bengali tourists from Sangla, who had driven 14 km to Rakcham and then another 10 km to Chitkul for their sightseeing trip. The place looked much densely populated than Rakcham, with nearly a 100 houses including some hotels and a conspicuous looking temple. The population is about 700. We were destined to have our sightseeing trip in drizzle through gloomy and grey looking day.  
Chitkul view
As we were nearing temple, sudden warmth filled my heart. A big group of Kinnauri visitors, in small groups, decked up in their traditional dresses and best fineries, lazily strolling as if they were attending some social occasion. As I neared the Chamundeshwari Devi temple ( Devi Ma temple as referred by the locals), a large group of  visitors were relishing their breakfast. A giant open air community kitchen was working full swing to cook their late afternoon lunch. Nearby on top of a platform a goat was being de-skinned and dressing done prior to cooking. The Kinnauris are non-vegetarians by their food habits. On auspicious occasions like marriage, in this case, the goat meat is the most preferred. 
Kinnauri Couple
The temple compound appeared to be desolate with temple door locked. Along the main road, the roadside trenches built in steps, gave the appearance of an artificial waterfall, with huge amount of gurgling water stream threatening to carry whatever came in its path. Did it rain real heavy up on the hills? It looked ominous! 
Chamundeshwari Devi temple
After a short walk on meadows towards the river bank, we decided to scurry back to the vehicle amidst increasing drizzle so as to reach Rakcham earliest. Photographing in drizzle with camera lens getting wet was a risk in itself. On return to hotel, we had a simple lunch and afternoon was spent below the quilt; the chilly and wet weather left us with no other option. Evening  was just lazing around, hoping we have a fair weather next day so as to reach Kalpa by afternoon.  Yet another early dinner and  and early to bed routine to get up early the next day and hoping it for a change makes us wiser in the next morning. 
 
The 16th morning brought me the surprise of my life and made me actually go dumb. The atmosphere was all gray, with continuous manna from heaven. More rain? Yes. What more? A huge icicle hanging by the corrugated roofing above our room made me look carefully and it was not difficult to decipher that snow was equal constituent of the down pour. 
Icicles hanging from roof
The entire topography of Baspa valley had gone for a total transformation. The sudden onset of ‘winter’ conditions in peak summer took even the locals by surprise. They do not remember having ever seeing snowfall in June. The ground already had an inch of snow layer. The wind along with rain and snow made the building structures and tented camps look hazy as if seen through giant netting. Shivering in chilling cold with wind and moisture swept verandah and regretted that I was inadequately prepared to face these conditions. I wondered, “what the tented camp guests will be going through. Tents canvasses with air leaking through slits are no match for this sort of climate.”
Tented camp through snowfall
Coming to the corridor facing the modern village, the cars parked near the hotel entry had a layer of frost on wind shield, bonnet and body. The village houses with corrugated roofing had snow mass hanging and still retaining the shape of corrugations with abstract design of its own. 
Frosted Car
Snow mass hanging by roof
Baspa river
Snow covered Pine trees
As per our schedule we got ready to hit the trail for our next destination of Kalpa. But, our destiny took a turn here. At 10 am as we boarded the car with bag and baggage, the manager at hotel door step kept gesticulating to driver suggesting that in the immediate vicinity of Rakcham, the road was blocked with big boulders and cars will not be able to pass. We retreated to our room and resettled to our dismay. Our itinerary had gone for a toss. It took for a while to come to terms with the fact that we would have to wait for a few days till the road blocks were cleared. During lunch, Mr. Saibal Gupta, staying in family room just below the canteen narrated that at night they were jolted out of their sleep by loud noise with boulders falling from hill into the Baspa river and made them scary. Hence they had shifted to another room to floor 1. We too heard the noise and felt the tremors like an earthquake shaking the hotel structure. The rest of the day was spent indoors, chatting, viewing the valley landscape and dreading what morrow will bring. Will the next day give us a fair weather and obstacle free road? 
 
17th morning dawned with another chilly day, with overnight snowfall intensifying. Rain and snow was lashing across the valley. Not even a square inch of the valley was spared. Our room verandah was wet and had its own share of snow deposits. On ground, Apple tree leaves were loaded with snow. The atmosphere was bleak, gray, chilly and gloomy. 
From hotel verandah
Another no electricity  and hence bathless day. With the road communication totally disrupted, no chances of raw materials and gas for the hotel canteen. For conserving on fuel, hot water was ruled out. The corridor through which we got our vision from a different angle gave a much bleaker picture. The road had at least 10” of snow. The cars were totally covered with massive deposits.  The locals used to such a scenario in winter were out in small number to get on with their activities. The hotel rooms were fully packed with tourists from tented camps having abandoned their cherished accommodation, unable to cope up with chilled air leaking inside.
Braving chill and snow
The colorful modern village with it’s identity written on arched gate for showing its existence was totally obscured. The village was visible through the gray atmosphere, thanks to its colorful houses. The irony is Rakcham in June was considered to be ideal for tourists with a salubrious climate! 
Snow laden cars
The lush green valley overnight changed, being dominated with pristine white snow, with brown muddy water of Baspa river breaking the monotony.
Snow laden landscape
Exploring outdoor was ruled out. The excitement of seeing unseasonal snowfall was slowly turning into gloomy thoughts of being stranded. Most of the tourists like us had their itineraries going for a toss. There was some ominous news from state of Uttarakahnd. Flash floods and rain had dealt a huge blow in form of destruction of dwellings and mounting casualties  in Himalalayan shrines, mainly Kedarnath. The neighboring state of Himachal had a portion of road stretch between Sangla to Karcham caving in, blocking the entry to National Highway NH 22. There was a talk of helicopter service for evacuation of tourists at Sangla, which has a helipad owned by JP group who are undertaking some dam projects in the state. The state chief Minister himself was stranded at Sangla, during his electioneering for by-election to Lok Sabha seat for which his wife was contesting. There were rumors going on in hotel that at Rakcham where we were holed up will have its helicopter evacuation also. 

The next day, 18th June did not bring in any succor. There was a helicopter winning sound possibly for a recce. Meanwhile at Sangla, the helicopter evacuation had started. Chief Minister after getting stranded for 60 hours was able to take the copter service to Rampur. Sangla was rumored to have 6000 tourists  holed up for evacuation. All the hotels were full as reported.  So, we were dissuaded from trekking to Sangla for helicopter evacuation. Through the uneventful, boring and anxiety filled day, Nareshji kept on reassuring that roads will reopen in few days. 
Way to Modern Village
With snowfall stopping, it was time to have some outdoor exploration. The roads were experiencing water flowing from hill tops and wading in through it meant getting shoes and socks wet. Braving this, a small walk on the asphalted road and we could view the big boulders still obstructing the road. The smaller one’s were moved by villagers by the road side so that it becomes walk worthy. Roaming on main road, we came to a grocery shop selling biscuits, chocolates and tidbits. We could buy butter but no bread was available. My need for batteries for digicam remained a dream. There were a few more grocery shops every 100 m or so. The shop list ends here! A guest house which could become the second accommodation in addition to Rupin river view, was found locked. 
Modern village view
Next morning we were in total dark about our further journey to Sangla. News from Sangla was 5/6 helicopter sorties were taking place every day with maximum 20 tourists per sortie, with still a lot of tourists still stranded. I thought of taking a walk through the Modern village, just to break the monotony of the hotel. The hills had drained most of the accumulated water and snow melt and the roads were walk worthy. The sloping road took me through the arched gate for entry to the village. The liter free, clean roads, with houses although closely cramped had a systematic existence of its own. A pink colored meteorological lab looked imposing but was locked. 
Meteorological Lab
By 19th June, we were getting fidgety and wanted to move as early as possible. Chill in the air was really troubling. No sign of electricity returning for that elusive hot water bath. Only solace was we were in comfort of hotel room with Nareshji assuring of running the canteen albeit with limited supplies and dwindling cooking gas supply. How long? That was going on in everybody’s mind. With no sign of motorable road getting cleared, our driver was planning to abandon his car in care of the chowkidar of hotel and move to his native place near Shimla. He even made a trekking trip to Sangla a distance of 14 km and booked his helicopter evacuation sortie. By evening Nareshji informed us that he did not foresee the motorable road opening soon and advised us to trek 14 km downhill to Sangla the next day. We were told to take minimum luggage as helicopter pilot at Sangla did not allow too many luggages. We repacked all our belongings in just one individual backpack, discarding suitcase.
On 20th June, finally, we were out of Rakcham on way to Sangla ………. 
Visuals of Rakcham & Chitkul as I recorded in my Handycam can be seen by taking the following link.

Important Information on Rakcham:
1. Accomodation:
a) Hotel Rupin river View :
   Owner: Naresh Jishtu tel: 098166-86789, 094180-92894
   Website: www.hotelinsangla.com
b) Kailash View Camps :
   Owner: Naresh Negi : cell No. 98053 80746
c) Parasol camp : Cell No. 098165 15006, 094596 31684
2. Sightseeing:
a) Baspa river: 250 m
b) Modern village: 250 m
c) Chitkul: 10 km
3. Shopping: Only 3 / 4 grocery shops
4. Climate: In summer, cold in evenings. A snowfall is exception as happened in June 2013. Best time to visit May / June
5. Motorable Route to Rakcham: Chandigarh - Shimla – Rampur - Karcham – Sangla - Rakcham
6. Cell phone: Only VSNL and Airtel connections worked. 
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6 comments:

  1. Hi Prodyot: Your pictorial description is so refreshing as if I just had been to this treasure of nature. It is really sad that you were caught in the bad weather and the intended schedule was disrupted, but despite all those odds , its commendable that you accomplished your mission. Its people like you only can do.

    But for the unkind disturbance of nature, what do you feel being to these places.

    What is the next mission? Keep going. Hem

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  3. Great..it really needs a lot of determination and strength of mind to go for such rides :-)

    Wonderful pictures and wish you many more happy rides ....
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