13 Jul 2014
Three members of the team have joined us in Delhi as has the fourth vehicle. They have driven in from Jaipur to rendezvous with us here before setting off for the next leg of the trip. Post a sumptuous and elaborate breakfast and reorganising the vehicles with the additional members, we’re off to Kasauli. The journey is pretty much uneventful on the Delhi Chandigarh highway. The last tranche of members is picked up in Zirakpur, short of Chandigarh which enables us to bypass Chandigarh and head straight for Kasauli. The roads are very good though the traffic is fairly heavy. Progress is pretty quick till Kalka. After Kalka and all the way till we turn off the main highway to Kasauli, it is chock-o-block traffic…! Seems like Shimla and/or the other destinations nearby are super popular with the plains folks! We finally reach Kasauli Resorts at dusk after a short ‘chai’ break enroute. Needless to say, all the cameras have come out soon as we hit the hills.
Kasauli Resorts is a fairly well kept property with nice views. Flowering trees, bushes and creepers and the general greenery are a sight for sore eyes in the middle of a hot and dry July in the plains. The first real get together for the team is organised here. The evening is fun and the dinner delicious!
14 Jul 2014
The morning dawns foggy and the visibility is down to just 7-8 mtrs or so. We leave rather later than we want to. Positive… the weather clears somewhat making for slightly easier driving. Negative… we waste valuable time which we regret later.
The route through the hills offers beautiful views of clouds drifting through the valleys and orchards laden with apples and pears, plums and apricots though most of them under ripe. It is still just the beginning of the season and most of the fruit is at least a couple of weeks away from picking.
Shimla is crowded but eventually we are on our way towards Narkanda and onwards to Rampur. Ahead of Narkanda, we stop at a roadside cafe so all of us can come together for the packed breakfast we are carrying. It is a feast! This is where our Doc decides to start on the AIDS awareness programme. The cafe staff as well as a few others are given a small awareness talk and some material and requested to spread the message along.
Shortly hereafter we have our first view of the Sutlej.
A distant muddy meandering torrent with terraced fields near the numerous settlements along its banks, the Sutlej is a mighty river and the lifeline in these parts. Here and there are glimpses of the road snaking its way down to the river. At this point, the highway descends to the river and goes alongside for a long while.
Driving along these surging waters, one feels a healthy respect for nature and its forces which are so wild and untamed. They are life givers when valued and respected; abuse or disrespect them long enough and we do it at our own peril for it takes just a moment for complete obliteration! We’ve seen the Himalayan Tsunami last year and the Kashmir floods now…
The fact that we are travelling on the old ‘Hindustan Tibet highway’ keeps drifting through my consciousness. The present highway runs along the old alignment for a fair way. The old route hugs the higher reaches and almost does not descend down to the valley. Many a man and beast have tumbled down to their deaths from those perilous heights. Even today this route is counted amongst the most treacherous roads in the world to travel on.
A little farther up, we come to a small waterfall with access for the Scorpio to go near it. No time is lost in utilizing the opportunity to wash the dusty car.
As we go further, this road climbs higher till it reaches sheer cliffs of stark, unadorned rock where the road is but a scooped out C-shaped tunnel embedded in the vertical cliff side. While we enjoy the drive along the banks of the Sutlej in all its moods, I am almost willing the road to start climbing to this, one of the most celebrated and recognised sections of this route. And when we do hit that stretch, we are all spellbound! Such is the precarious nature of the road that there are precipitous drops on the only open side and encased in solid rock on the other three sides.
A much awaited and protracted photo session later, we are off….
Just two odd hours away from Sangla is what I calculate and it is about 1530, so plenty of time to reach and enjoy the campsite along the Baspa River before sundown. I look forward to seeing the celebrated Baspa Valley and the famed birding that the area has to offer. Just ahead we see a large township proclaiming JP Karcham Wangtoo Hydroelectric Project and we come to a halt behind a long queue of vehicles all seemingly waiting for a barrier across the road to open.
On enquiry, we learn that due to landslides ahead, this road is closed and an alternative route through a place called Urni is being used which is a one way gate system owing to a very steep and extremely narrow passage. The gate opens at 1700 hrs and that 29 km detour for those 2 kms lost in landslides is a nightmare! In fact, the GPS is all at sea while we are on this route and initially keeps telling us to turn back, and go via Manali and Kaza to reach Karcham! Finally it gives up and shows us out to pasture…:-)
Over an hour later we hit the original route having lost many hours in the process! Passing Karcham, we turn right across the Sutlej and enter the Baspa valley. The very first sight is the sprawling JP Baspa hydroelectric project. By the time we reach Banjara Camps (which is 8 kms ahead of Sangla) over bouncy, dusty and almost nonexistent roads with plenty of short and sharp switchbacks and blind turns, it is 2130 hrs and completely dark! The camp has a parking about 6-700 mtr away from the main site. An army of helpers with wheelbarrows is waiting to help us get our luggage in. A bonfire has been arranged for us and the staff is very hospitable. Dinner seems to be a rather lavish affair but we are exhausted. The two of us haul our weary selves in, have dinner and crash out.
The journey continues…