There is a certain charm in visiting popular touristy places in the off-season. The beauty can be enjoyed at a slow pace with no rush around. And I was also looking for much needed comfort, especially after a back breaking trip across the North-Eastern states North-Eastern states of Nagaland and Manipur. I had rushed straight from Delhi airport to board a train for Pathankot as we headed to Chamba. A shared sumo ride got us across Banikhet and Dalhousie to reach the starting point of Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary, Lakkar Mandi.
It was a lazy afternoon at H20 Chamba and other people of the group were wondering if they should go to Jot. I suggested Dainkund would be a better choice. Like most other times, this was just a random plan and a taxi was summoned. The only intent for the day was to click some good pictures, have a nice time and come back to Chamba, where we had settled ourselves to enjoy a relaxed weekend, but nature had its own plans for us.
The air was understandably cold when the sumo was in shade and we clung close to our solitary jackets. It was a clear day and the views over Chamera Dam were breathtaking. As we approached Banikhet, the snow-clad peaks were in their full splendour with the backdrop of the cloudless blue sky.
By the time we reached the intersection point for Kalatop (Lakkar Mandi) making our way through the touristy rush of Dalhousie jam packed with Delhi and HR vehicles, it was already 3 pm. There were many vehicles driven by outsiders that had got stuck causing a traffic jam and it was left to our sumo driver to clear it. I remember saying that the authorities should do something about this in tourist areas during snowy times.
The roads to Dainkund peak and Kalatop were snowed out and closed for traffic while day-trippers were enjoying their time in the white snow near Dalhousie. The sun is rapidly going behind the mountains and we walk past the entry gate to Kalatop Khajjiar Wildlife Sanctuary.
We are 7 of us and I cheekily suggest if everyone is ok with the idea of staying at Kalatop FRH (Forest Rest House), we can spend a memorable night there. Distance of Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary is 3kms from the entrance gate at Lakkar Mandi. It seemed difficult to walk 3 kms and then go back due to the snow clad paths, it would take too much time. A few locals walk past and assure us that we can stay at homestays near the Kalatop FRH. After a bit of cajoling, we decide that it is indeed a super idea to stay inside the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary for the night.
Everyone was hungry too and we quickly cross the gate again and have aloo paranthas and chai at one of the dhabas at Lakkar Mandi. We dig into the piping hot paranthas and try finding out the phone number of the caretaker at the Kalatop FRH. The movie buffs among us, having witnessed the beauty of the FRH in the bollywood movie Lootera, reminisce dreamily.
Lootera was shot at this colonial architectural marvel, and we had a blooming desire in our hearts to relive those virtual moments by spending some time at this splendid house located in the middle of nowhere. And now that we were so close to Kalatop, a chance had to be taken!
Everyone wanted to pee; and it was difficult in the frozen public loo near the entrance. The official entry office was closed, someone told us we should be glad at not having to pay the ticket of Rs. 250 per person. Finally, we started our walk on the snow covered path leading to Kalatop. The 3 km walk amidst the dense deodar and fir forest was an experience to remember. The pristine snow clad Himalayan peaks, the stark whiteness of the undisturbed snow leisurely spread across the walking trail, and the multiple hues of the setting sun painted a surreal picture.
While words fail me in describing the beauty of that very moment, it will stay etched in my memory for a long time. We were dazed by the pristine beauty all around us and almost forgot that we are yet to arrange for our stay at the FRH.
By the time we reached the gate of this winter wonderland, it was already approaching 7 pm and was almost dark. Not a single soul was around and we had the entire FRH to us- the only problem was we were yet to find the caretaker. The breathtaking beauty was accompanied by bone chilling cold and none of us were prepared to be in out in the cold in sub-zero temperatures (we weren’t even carrying our day packs and were completely at the mercy of the weather gods).
God bless the pahadis for they always come to my rescue – one of the fellow travellers was from Shimla and used various permutations and combinations of his local connections to get our booking confirmed at the FRH. 2 rooms were opened and we cozied ourselves in the warm wooden cottages. After much roaming around, we managed to locate the caretaker in a nearby dhaba on the far end outside the Kalatop Forest Rest House boundary.
Dinner was had in a nearby dhaba and the simple rice, daal and sabzi made up for the hard work and coming to Kalatop in the winter cold felt worthwhile. We ate like hungry beasts because the rajmah was supremely delicious! Conversations flowed and stories were shared, while soaking in the feeling of being in a world far away. Snow covered our pathways and surroundings in the FRH and for a bit we also played with the icicles hanging on the roof. I had a gala time learning night photography from the pros, Nitish & Harish.
Before we would die with the cold, a pleasant discovery saved our night. The rooms had heaters hidden in the uppermost cupboards ensuring that we had a sound sleep. Leaving the chilly night behind us, we woke up to the welcoming warmth of the morning sun. The chai and aloo paranthas we had on the rooftop dhaba overlooking the snow clad Himalayas was an experience worth cherishing. Declaration of election results for Himachal was on the same day and the locals were animated in their excitement.
While I do promote solo travel as a means to discover oneself; travelling with like-minded, equally crazy travellers helps one discover the world of meaningful conversations; beyond the world of Facebook and Whatsapp. And this was one such trip where the cold and the lack of anything else to do meant it was the crazy stories that made everyone laugh their heart out.
Go to Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary in the winters if you wish to get lost in the quietude of nature. There are options to stay other than the Kalatop Forest Rest House.
About Kalatop Khajjiar Wildlife Sanctuary and Kalatop FRH : Kalatop is located approximately 12 kms from Dalhousie and is a part of the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary. It comprises an area of 17 Sq. Kms. This semi-high altitude sanctuary is located at an altitude of 2500 meters above the sea level.
The FRH was built around 1925 during the time of the British Raj and is now a famous tourist attraction. While one can drive to the FRH during the summer months, the only way to reach the FRH in winters is walking on the snow clad path for around 3 kms. Vehicle entry is closed to the Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary after snowfall in winter. There is a variety of wildlife to be seen in the Wildlife Sanctuary.
Kalatop FRH has basic amenities and is apt for someone looking to purify their mind & soul by the beauty of the nature, songs of the cool wind passing through the age old trees and majestic views of the glistering white Himalaya. I highly recommend it as a weekend destination from Delhi and Chandigarh with excellent volvo connectivity. There are direct HRTC Himsuta Volvo from Chamba to Delhi, Delhi to Dalhousie and return.
Since we were short of time (the sumo driver was keen on going back to Chamba soon) we could not explore the temple located nearby. There is a trekking route to Khajjiar from Kalatop which passes through the sanctuary (12 kms). There are other beautiful walking trails in and around the rest house which can be explored at leisure. We started walking back after a quick breakfast and made it to Lakkar Mandi in less than an hour.
Other posts : A Roadtrip Without a Plan: Destination No. 1 Khajjiar