July has the distinction of being one of my favourite months. Even when I worked in the family business, the arrival of rains in July signalled that I could head out for long solo sojourns. In the last week of June, I randomly booked tickets from Jaipur to Pathankot in Pooja Express. I was hoping to find connections and a way to cross the topsy turvy snow covered walls of the 4401m high Saach Pass on a budget.
I was greeted with the pitter pater of raindrops when the train pulled into the lush green environs of Pathankot Station at 7 in the morning. Pathankot reminds me of the vacations spent with mom and dad. My dad was an expert at travelling without a plan and Pathankot gave him the perfect opportunity to be indecisive; we could travel to Kashmir or Himachal on a whim from here. I had no such uncertainties and was only trying to get into a bus for Chamba.
I had contemplated going to Bairagarh in December but had chosen to explore the area around Bharmour instead.
The army personnel at Pathankot station advised me to just cross the railway tracks and directly find a bus from the highway. There were two other youth who were going to Chamba. It had progressed to a steady shower when a bus came for Bhanjraru. I jumped in, paid 237 Rupees hardly knowing where this obscurely named place was and was lucky to get the last remaining seat on the bus and sat behind the driver enjoying the scenery.
After a hearty breakfast at a local dhaba, the bus cruised along Ravi river, kids were having a ball swimming in the shallow waters in the hot and sultry weather. The road kept shrinking as we climbed higher and higher, at one crossing one tyre hung out giving me chills in the process. It was around 3:30 when we reached Bhanjraru. This was the country of Gaddi shepherds and sheep and goats could be commonly seen as co-passengers.
The conductor made sure I got a seat in the overflowing bus to Bairagarh. We were near an area called Tissa that was apparently linked to Jammu & Kashmir by a road through Pathri Pass to Doda and the Kashmiri connection was quite visible. I could spot three or four villages with muslim dominance giving this region an intriguing feel. The bus careened around mountain slopes as the road ascended sharply and I reached Bairagarh at around 1700 hours.
Dark ominous clouds hung overhead even as the bus dropped me at the only homestay in town. No sooner had I struck a deal for a 300 Rupee room with a bucket of hot water included, it began to pour down. Within no time the temperature had plummeted making Bairagarh very cold and I was already loving it.
Although Saach Pass was only 40 km from Bairagarh, I had no idea how I was going to cross it. It rained for a good hour and I had a unforgettable time savouring the views from the roof. A short walk around the village revealed that there is also a PWD Rest House in Bairagarh that is a bit far away from the main village. The HRTC bus from Bairagarh to Killar wasn’t operational yet; the two trials had failed and the road was deemed too risky for a bus to ply.
Saach Pass (in Himachal Pradesh, Himalayas) is closed for over six months in a year due to snowfall and is normally open from mid June to mid October. Lesser snow in the winters had meant that it opened in early June this year.
Food at the homestay dhaba was delicious and cost 80 Rupees per plate. I slept like a baby and woke up to a sunny day. Locals informed me that shared taxies plied between Chamba and Killar via Saach Pass and charged around 800 Rupees. I was slightly taken aback with that price.
Around 0900 hrs I saw the first sumo on the road; it was crammed with people and yet the driver asked me for a princely sum of 500 Rupees. I flatly refused and decided to wait. After the same experience with 3-4 other shared taxies, I finally made an offer of 400 rupees for a front window seat. It was a quick nod, I hauled my backpack on the top and happily sat admiring the scenery.
Just after passing Bairagarh, the non existent road makes its way through a dense forest dominated by towering pine trees before climbing higher into waterfall territory where many streams cut across the mountains. After all, this is supposed to be the deadliest and most dangerous road in India. Progress is slow but the views are mesmerising and that makes the drive worth it.
The sun gods have decided to take a rest and let the clouds take over as the tree line gives way to wildflowers and unbelievably green slopes are the order of the day. The small shrine and milestone of Kalaban passes by before we reach the spectacular and pretty check post of Satrundi. There is strict checking of id documents and the army personnel even make videos of every traveller.
It is a reminder of a gruesome incident that happened at Kalaban and Satrundi many years ago. Militants from Kashmir had entered the valley and shot down 35 labourers and injured 11 before they were gunned down.
An entire valley of green and white is visible below us with a gushing waterfall providing a compelling effect of pristine beauty. There are two dhabas at Satrundi with basic food facilities and the post is located at around 3200m. The scenery changes drastically after crossing Satrundi. Wildflowers of various colours fill the mountain slopes even as the greenery on both sides of the road disappears. Hardly 8-10 kms before the Saach Pass, snow makes its presence felt and it becomes frightfully cold.
As we climb higher snow walls appear, the road is a mess and the treacherous drive feels like a dream. There are hardly any vehicles on the road; even when I was enquiring about vehicles to Killar, locals had made surprised faces and asked me why I wanted to go to Pangi? There is an automatic respect that comes when locals know where you are heading and that you are alone in doing so.
Blue, yellow, white colours fill the slopes, I am mighty surprised to see these colourful wildflowers even at this altitude and scream ‘wow, wow’ intermittently, much to the amusement of my fellow travellers.
After a few hairpin bends, it is an abrupt arrival when a temple appears. We have reached the top of Saach Pass and Gaddi shepherds stand with their sheep in the arid, lifeless landscape. It is windy and snow is visible on both sides from the temple at the top of the pass. On the descent, someone realises that they have left their bag at the temple and we turn back in the middle of snow walls to see the most beautiful sight, all the sheep are moving on the snow and the shepherd appears like the pied piper!
The driver informs me that the ground just below the top of the pass is called ‘Bhoot ground’ or ‘ghost ground’ and that no one is supposed to stay here for the night. It is a stunning sight as we descend, the mountains of Pangi Valley are calling. The road to Gulabgarh and Kishtwar (in Jammu & Kashmir) also joins near Killar. Akin to Satrundi on the other side, there is the 2 dhaba – temporary settlement of Bhogutu located around 20 kilometres from Saach Pass.
A sizeable stream runs parallel to the road from the snowmelt at the top of the pass to merge into the ChandraBhaga river later. We are back among the trees, air on the other side feels calmer and the road passes among a sea of daisies. There are literally thousands of pretty daisies at my eye level and I swoon in delight.
Killar is the the largest town in Pangi Valley and is located around 20 kms from Bhogutu. ChandraBhaga river is visible as we near Killar, it will flow into Sansari Nallah on the border between Himachal Pradesh & Jammu and Kashmir and thereafter be called Chenab.
Beautiful homes pass us by as we near Killar, this slender road feels like an engineering wonder – cutting through rock solid mountains. The 77 kilometre drive has taken almost 6 hours. The arrival feels like an anti-climax, there is a helipad in Killar and tar roads greet us with signboards of hotels and guesthouses. I go walking around The Mall road in search of food and am happy to find a local village market and thali at a dhaba.
There is a hippie feel to Killar (2500m) with Bob Marley posters hanging from the shops but that was not the point of this sojourn; it is with reverence to the mighty mountains that Saach Pass allowed us to pass that day. I didn’t stay in Killar and made my way to an unknown Buddhist village in a bus in Pangi Valley, there were no homestays but locals were kind to queue up and invite me to their cosy homes. Maybe that is a secret I will keep with myself or perhaps shall share a story on that soon!
And then to stumble upon an undated monastery located in the middle of a birch forest with the snowy mountains looking down.
And people don’t believe in magic!