It was an impossible task to reach even Bharmour. The three hour bus journey from Chamba had proved to be a topsy turvy ride, especially when the broad track gave way to a serpentine mountainous road. Some of it had been swept away in the rain. This was the land of the Gaddis and Bharmour was home to the famous Chaurasi temple complex. Nobody cared about the roads.
It was very cold on a Christmasy December evening when the bus pulled into the snowy one street town of Bharmour; the locals advised us to go and stay at the very accessible PWD Rest House. Kugti at 2580m was out of bounds, we were told. A bright red fruit hung from the only tree in Bharmour as I shouted standing outside the PWD Rest House, ‘Dugle Ram ji, Dugle Ram ji’, only to be recieved by a dwarf-like man. He showed us the rooms and after some yes and no finally gave us the VIP set. There was no water, the pipes had frozen. It was a wooden building, perhaps a century old. We felt like royals lazing in the carpeted sitting area with a 180 degree view while sipping steamy cups of tea.
Just across the road was a popular dhaba, while we were having dinner I asked them ‘How can we go to Kugti?’ They dismissed our childish enquiries and suggested we should have more food. Thats what we did, in the bone chilling cold we ate like hungry beasts to fill us with energy for the monumental feats that awaited us the next day.
Kids played cricket on the road and the raucous cheer roused us from our sleep. It was a sunny morning, luck was on our side – there is a shared taxi and three locals from Kugti are happy to take us with them. Someone brings us apples, in case we don’t get anything after this. The drive is even more beautiful today, half the sumo empties at the considerably big town of Hadsar. It is the gateway to Manimahesh Kailash, a holy lake at 4080m – a dip in which is a pilgrimage for the locals after the Minjar Mela in Chamba in August.
The road clings to a precipitous left side of the sheer mountain, high peaks surround us. There is too much snow on the road, but the driver expertly manoeuvres the little shadowy stretch and drops us in the middle of nowhere. This is as far as the vehicle will go. Kugti Village is still some 3-4 kilometres away. It is 150 Rupees per person for this adventure in the shared taxi. The locals with us are carrying medicines and vegetables. After ten minutes of walking the sun decides to take a rest too, we are walking in a pine forest. It is bitterly cold, yet the body heats up as we walk. It is a gentle incline but on the slippery snow it feels difficult sometimes.
Snow hangs on the trees, a little speck of blue skies is visible in the far distance, a glacial river flows below, we walk on yellow gold while being in awe at the sight of a white bridge that looks straight out of a fairytale. While walking, we are privy to a blossoming love affair between the lad from Kugti and the lass from Chamba. She giggles whenever he says something funny and references it to her. Life is simple in the Gaddi heartland.
There is only one option to stay, we have learnt and that is the Forest Rest House. Ashu decides that we should be given a walk through the village while he tries to locate the caretaker. He takes us to his home and straight to the kitchen. His mom is knitting some wool and cooking food and making tea at the same time. She is plump and beautiful Gaddi woman and has rich golden earrings. This nomadic community lives off the produce of the cattle and flocks of sheep and goat. In the winters they go to greener and more bearable climes near Kangra.
Children were amusing themselves in the snow among the wooden houses of Kugti. It is an old settlement, the last village before Kugti Pass that connects Chamba with the remote Pangi Valley. We are keen on going to the ancient Kartik Swami Temple that is two hours walk away from Kugti, but the villagers tell us it is entirely under snow and is closed for the winter. We go jumping crazily in the pristine beauty and end up among the snows. Now everybody in the village knows us and we start getting invites for dinner and for random conversations.
This area is also a wildlife sanctuary and encompasses many villages including Kugti. It is already evening and we finally find the caretaker. He is cutting wood in the forest. What a surprise it is, to find aromatic wooden devdhar huts. We sip some Chenin Blanc and plum cake that we have carried on our backs. I learn some lessons in happiness from the chilled out kids that are playing in the minuscule flat area near the FRH.
Winds howl and shriek as darkness descends on the village. Some men have returned with guns on their backs. I snoop around and gather they had gone for a hunt and have returned empty handed. It is a time for much fanfare and party when a big animal is caught and killed. Two little girls come wandering to our room and one of them tells us her birthday has just gone by. We gift her a plum cake and promptly receive an exchange offer to have tea at their home. The family is overjoyed on seeing some outsiders in Kugti in the harsh winters. They claim that we are the only people to reach Kugti village ever in the snowy cold.
It doesn’t appear to be a place frequented by tourists even in the summers. The villagers are self sufficient when it comes to growing food. We are a little worried when dinner doesn’t arrive even at 8. The caretaker had agreed to send us latest by 7. The wait is all worth it when the rajmah finally arrives with roti. It is so tasty having been fried with local garlic that consuming humongous quantities makes for an uneasy yet hilarious night.
The wind keeps howling. We open the door at 4 to go out and see the stars are twinkling away in glory. The sky has put on a show for us. I eat some snow, our water bottles are empty. We are invited yet again by a local family and say yes to their invitation of breakfast. The famous potatoes of Kugti, lightly fried and relished with chappatis washed down with copious amounts of chai. I buy some rajmah beans and walnuts to be carried back home.
There is no taxi today and we have to walk all the way back to Hadsar, passing the one home village of Dharol when our path flattened out. PWD workers were all basking in the glorious sunshine (in the name of work) at 9 in the morning. The locals say the road to Kugti will most probably be completed in two years time.
Go while you can to Kugti, lying in the fabled Gaddi land, for it is still a village not tainted by commercialisation.