‘There is no bus on the Chamba – Bhaderwah road after Langera. How will you go after that?’; remarked the HRTC guy on the phone. Even the daily bus from Pathankot to Langera had come as a pleasant surprise, and had made me feel confident about travelling on this hitherto forbidden route! While I knew it was easier and convenient to go from Delhi to Jammu to Bhaderwah, I wanted to go via the offbeat and adventurous Chamba-Bhaderwah road and then come back via Jammu, hence completing the circuit.
If I have to describe my travel style in one phrase, I would say I am a slow traveller who likes covering the entire region around a place. A similar attempt was made on our trip to Bhaderwah. The only problem was, the border of Jammu and Himachal doesn’t have a public transport facility as it has been infamous for terrorist activities until very recently.
From Delhi, we took a train to Pathankot and thus began our thrilling journey to try and reach Bhaderwah via this deserted road! According to some locals and old accounts, the forested area was a popular hide out for the terrorists escaping from Doda – Kishtwar area.
The road was opened for outsiders only in 2012-2013, after ITBP carried out an operation to wipe out terrorism from this region. The Chamba-Bhaderwah state highway is the shortest road connecting Chamba to Jammu via Bhaderwah; otherwise one needs to go to Pathankot and then to Jammu. Having known this, I was also quite sure that it would be one of the prettiest roads in Himachal Pradesh, with quaint villages hidden away from the touristy trail.
According to old accounts; this road has been in existence for some years but the road used to get blocked by snow every winter. After that the militants started their activities in this region full of jungles and greenery & the entire region became too dangerous for anyone to live in. This was the area after the state border of J & K after Khundi Maral. And thus, life in this region was abandoned and subsequently, the road fell into disuse until it was repoened.
As it was a long weekend, we had booked out train from Delhi to Pathankot, with a hope that all will be well and we will find some HRTC bus. The train which was supposed to reach at 6 in the morning had been running late and finally reached Pathankot station at 8 am. I was quite certain that we had already missed the only bus for the day to Langera and by the time we reached Pathankot bus stand it was close to 9 am.
There was a huge crowd at Pathankot Bus stand in the HRTC (Himachal Road Transport Corporation) Section. Mani Mahesh Kailash Yatra was going on and that meant all the buses were heading to Chamba and Bharmour and were bursting with yatris. I knew that we had to get on a bus as soon as possible as we had a long day ahead of us before we could reach someplace. The drivers were asking everyone to not board the bus because there was no space to even stand; sitting space was another matter altogether. Distance from Pathankot to Langera was only 171 kms and we’d need lots of luck to make it anywhere with this late start!
We jumped inside a packed bus with hardly any place to step inside; kept mum so that the conductor doesn’t throw us out and stood for 3 hours hanging to the back door (quite literally). I’d known from previous journeys that I didn’t really need to go to Chamba and that the diversion for the Chamba – Bhaderwah road is at the lake/dam much before reaching Chamba town and alighted there (I think near Bathri.)
We crossed the road adjacent to the lake on Ravi River on foot as that was suggested to be the short cut. There were no vehicles plying on that route and we felt like we have the lake to ourselves. We walked across the bridge to reach the other side and quickly made it across while the vehicles have to cross a tunnel to reach here! The sun was quite hot here and we tried to walk in the shade. As soon as we were out on the main road, our hunt for hitch-hicking began.
We got lucky when a shared taxi passed through and it dropped us approx. 10 kms; we paid 20 rupees each. It was an interesting conversation with the local ladies from Chamba in the taxi; they told me about a Rajasthani guy who was setting up a Rajasthani food shop selling Dal-baati-choorma (traditional Rajasthani food) during the summer season and how everyone in Chamba went crazy about it!
We walked for some time and then a car stopped to give us a ride. I spotted a signboard that denoted that we were inside Churah valley now as this area of Himachal Pradesh is called. A Himachali couple was driving to someplace and while the wife wasn’t keen, the husband decided that we can be given a ride. After around 4-5 kms, the wife had her final say and the husband had to drop us near some shops. We understood his predicament and thanked him profusely for trying!
We walked into one town after this, (maybe Manjir village) and there was a pick-up leaving; I ran and asked him to stop. He asked us to hop in and dropped us to a bridge from where the road bifurcated to some other place. On the way we passed the sizeable town of Salooni with a pretty PWD rest house in the middle of the town. The Salooni PWD Rest House is said to have been built in 1908.
There were 3 locals too who were waiting for the HRTC bus to Sanghni. It was already around 4 pm and I was getting jittery; we were in a valley and the light was less because the clouds had taken over the proceedings. We were glad though to have made it this far; now we were to catch a bus for the 2-3 villages on the border of Himachal – Kihar, Bandal, Sanghni and Langera were the names of the villages and a signboard specified the distances from where we stood.
I was aware that for staying options there was a PWD Rest House in Kihar, an old British era PWD Rest House in Bandal (Bhandal village) and maybe a homestay in Sanghni. We had already crossed the pretty PWD rest house located in Sundla. My happiness knew no bounds when we spotted the bus coming from the other side. There was another lovely homestay near Kihar overlooking the valley that I saw from the bus itself.
With only a slight idea of where we can get down to stay for the night, we boarded the bus. Conversations with the locals started flowing which ensured that we knew about the stay situation at these villages. We got to know about the caretaker in the colonial PWD Rest House built in 1930 in Bandal and we decided to try our luck there. The bus was going till Sanghni but since the locals suggested Bandal has better views and also has a stay option; we got down in Bandal and started looking for Lalu!
Next day, we also got to know that there is a 2 room PWD Rest House in the last village, Langera of Himachal on the Chamba – Bhaderwah State Highway Road. The fact that it was acting as a office/residence for Himachal Police department got known to us later and we were glad we took a chance to make inquiries in Bandal.
It was 5 pm when the bus dropped us at Bandal. Having hardly eaten anything during the day, we were famished. But the first priority was to secure our place of stay for the night. The village kids escorted us to the Bandal PWD Rest House which was at an uphill climb of approx. 500 meters from the main road. And as the situation is with most PWD Rest Houses in remote villages, it was shut and the caretaker Lalu was supposedly at his home in the village.
The PWD Rest House in Bandal was a beautiful affair; a lovely old building. We threw our heavy backpacks in the lawn surrounded by pretty wildflowers and waited for somebody to come. The sun was setting and it was becoming a matter of concern. In the meantime, we managed to find one ‘didi’ who had come to take the cattle out for their daily fill in that part of the village. She was carrying a mobile phone and we convinced her to call someone in the village who would pass on our message to the caretaker. As we had no network on our phones, we were entirely dependent on the message being communicated by the villagers.
And well, that’s the beauty of Himachal Pradesh! In a village which doesn’t understand tourism, word spread like forest fire and the caretaker was at the PWD Rest House in the next ten minutes. The locals here care about outsiders and make sure to help in every possible manner. We asked him the rates, and as usual he quoted the official rate of Rs. 500 and opened the normal room for us (Not the fancy VIP room!).
It had been a long day and we were very keen to rest but the hunger pangs had started to play their games. We walked to the place where the bus dropped us – having seen the only dhaba in town – an authentic chai shop based in a tiny wooden hut. It was a small and very cute wooden structure and an old man was managing it. I wasn’t quite sure if he understood my request of making masala chai with ginger and other spices. Some locals had also joined in and gave instructions to the old chachu.
We sat there, soaking in the mountain air and savouring steaming cups of chai. And when the chai turned out to be so good; I got buns from the nearby shop and asked chachu to make omelettes for us by mixing onions, green chillies and ginger. The chai shop was right in front of the drinking den for the local youth. There was also an alcohol shop adjacent to the chai dhaba and villagers were roaming around buying their quota for the evening.
Some guys invited us to see their drinking den which was a hanging wooden structure in the greenery with an endless valley view! The omelette was really tasty and we wondered about the availability of dinner at the PWD Rest House. Then we noticed Lalu was also around and he confirmed that we can have dinner at the PWD Rest House itself.
Once everyone was done drinking for the evening and were off to their homes, we were inquisitive to see how it looked like. From outside it was a small dingy room and we felt like detectives on a mission to unravel the mystery! The den was the coolest place to enjoy a drink or two. With a small thatched roof, 4 wooden chairs and a piece of wood which acted as a table, it was open on 3 sides with an amazing valley view. Feeling jealous of the village youth, we resumed our walk across the village to the PWD Rest House.
And thats exactly the thing about travelling in the midst of nature. We were as fresh as a fiddle in spite of having been on the road for the entire day! Isn’t that what you also yearn for? Happy to report that these joys are available in aplenty on offbeat roads!
Our arrival had caused a camaraderie in the village and people were coming to say hi to us! I’d gone for a little walk and saw lush green meadows and some houses on the other side of the valley with a stream flowing in the midst of all the greenery.
Lalu did not appear to be a very friendly man at the outset, but we somehow managed to convince him to serve us dinner in the VIP sitting area (as we couldn’t convince him to let us stay in the VIP room). What we got as our room for the night, was amazing. The washroom was as big as the room (and that’s the best thing about these colonial structures). The only problem was a big black spider which was happily resting in the washroom; when the caretaker was asked about the same, it was found out that the spider ruled the bathroom and doesn’t really trouble people – as long as it is left undisturbed. Haha!
A short walk away from the PWD Rest House Bandal was the FRH (Forest Rest House) complex which was connected to other buildings through an old wooden bridge. Leaves were fallen on the bridge and with the wind blowing it felt like a scene from a movie!
And next to the bridge was a stream where the villagers came to fill their water pots. The bridge looked timeless with the pristine setting of the evening and kids roamed around and played happily. The view was surreal and we patted ourselves to have managed to find this beautiful place after a long day on the road. We sat down to enjoy the after-sunset colours and walked back to the PWD Rest House just before it became dark.
I spotted a signboard denoting ‘Gamgul Siahbehi Wildlife Sanctuary’ at the bus stop in Bandal and asked the locals about it. It is a high-altitude wildlife sanctuary with animals such as barking deer, snow leopards and the elusive musk deer. Although we wanted to spend more time chatting with the villagers, we realised it was best to rest given that we had another long day waiting for us.
The next day started early as we had no idea about how we were to reach Padhri pass – the entry point to Jammu & Kashmir. It was a surreal morning sight with mist in the valley and the sun slowly shining through the clouds. The weather was nice and cold even in the month of August and the PWD rest house in Bandal was turning out to be a dreamy place to stay with these stunning valley views from our room itself!
No local transport plies on the route from Bandal to Bhaderwah and we were completely at the mercy of the locals to find a way to our destination. The fact of the matter was that there was no village on the way after crossing Langera, and therefore the opportunity of landing a ride was minimal. All set to try our luck, we bade goodbye to the PWD Rest House caretaker Lalu and sat at the tea shop to have our fill of tea and omelette.
We ate as much as our stomachs allowed us to eat since lunch seemed to be a rare possibility as we weren’t sure where we would be by lunch time. In the best case scenario, we could have hoped to reach Padhri Pass Top by lunch. Keeping an eye on the road to find a ride, we stuffed ourselves with the tasty breakfast amidst the lovely surroundings.
Before we could start getting impatient, the moment we walked to the road the bus to Sanghni came! We quickly hopped on to the bus to only realise that this bus was only till Bandal. But luck was ours that day and in no time we found a pick-up headed to Sanghni. They were buying grains from villagers and were going to sell them somewhere for a profit. I gave them 20 Rs. for the ride which they refused to accept.
Sanghani also seemed to be a very pretty village and had a pristine stream flowing next to the main road. We let the guys know that we were looking to reach Kundi Maral check post and no sooner had guys dropped us in Sanghani; they found another ride for us! As informed yesterday, there was indeed a homestay in Sanghani; an old wooden house made in the Himachali village style.
We had a plan! You might ask what was that! Ha ha, it went like this – Stand in the middle of the road and stop whatever vehicle that comes on the way to shorten the distance we were supposed to cover.
That done, we were now on a lone forested stretch of around 30 kms of no roads and were hoping to be lucky again. In the meantime, we saw some villagers were negotiating with a local carrier driver to drop them inside the forest so that they could collect fodder for their cattle. It felt like we have struck gold. The driver wasn’t keen to drop us, but we requested the villagers and climbed at the back of the vehicle to experience one of the bumpiest rides of our lifetime.
Gujjars were sitting in the open air carrier and were heading to the jungle. Without any thought we requested them to drop us till wherever they were going – as that seemed to be the only plausible way to reach our destination. They were apprehensive at first, but asked us to jump right on the carrier and on the bumpy way we went! We were going past the last village of Himachal Pradesh, Langera that was around 10 kms from Sanghani.
It was a pristine setting; lush green surroundings with a stream flowing in the valley below and the road disappeared as soon as we crossed Langera village. The pretty PWD / FRH building was visible from afar, and indeed it was occupied by HP Police. There did not seem to be any homestay in Langera but I remember looking at the village and wishing if I could stay in the uncluttered beauty for a few days! There were a lot of trees in the village that had been cut for wood. I could see the logs scattered in Langera village.
When I say that one should visit the roads less travelled by / or rarely travelled by in this case, I say that with a reason. While our full concentration was on gripping the iron bars on the sides of the vehicle to save us from falling –
Once in a while we would glance at the beautifully green valley, the pristine blue sky, and the chirping of exotic birds in this place which seemed no less prettier than heaven.
We crossed the 14 km stretch chatting with the locals and understanding their way of life. We got to know that these are some of the richest nomads, they have land in Chamba which is their summer home as well as Pathankot which acts as a winter home for them as well as their cattle. The fact that these people were so well to do financially, yet so humble reinstalls my belief in humanity time and again.
Back to the road and now we were within walking distance of Khundi Maral Check Post. We tried to reason with the kid driver to drop us to Padhri Pass and charge us some money from us, but he pointed to the Gujjars and said they need to go back to Langera. We walked toward the check post and saw that the check post was closed. There was a small dhaba and shop adjacent to the Khundi Maral check post.
We had started the day at around 8 am and I couldn’t believe our luck to have made it here by 10 am! But could we get luckier was the big question, as we were at the doorstep of the most remote stretch of the journey, inside Jammu & Kashmir now!!!
The HP police guys had gone to their camp and one of them came and asked us a few questions. I knew better than loitering around and we just registered our names in their notebook and quickly walked ahead before the police guys could ask us what we were up to! We were in J & K now and quite close to Padhri Gali as that was only around 15-20 odd kilometres away. It had happened once on the check post at Mahe Bridge, Changthang – Ladakh and that was a part of Failures on the Road – Stupidity in Changthang, Ladakh
There was a middle aged Gujjar couple just 2 minutes walk away with their young grandchild and we began talking. They told us that the land where the police camp is located is owned by them and that they have given it on lease. I also vaguely remember that they said even the Khundi Maral check post area is owned by them that they have given it on lease. They told us about their lives in Pathankot and how they migrated in summer and winter with their cattle. We also realised we couldn’t afford to let our guard down as Padhri Gali had seen militant activity in 2000 according to media reports!
The last ride before we could reach Padhri Gali pass was with a group of locals from Jammu who had come here just for a road trip and were going back from the same route. As soon as the car crossed Khundi Maral Check Post, I pounced on them and requested for a ride. There were three men in the car and even though the first look wasn’t comfortable, I figured it was only around 10-30 am and a relatively safe time. We sat in the car and immediately noticed that one of the men was drunk!
They also made some small talk with the Gujjars and then decided to buy ghee and paneer from the Gujjar nomads who are settled on this route in their make-shift huts. We had no option but to rely on a hitched ride to drop us till the end of the forest as we knew it was impossible to get a ride in this forest which hardly saw any traffic – and too dangerous to walk our way through.
We crossed the last police post of Himachal Pradesh – Khundi Maral Border check post in the shared ride. This border was guided by the ITBP till 2012 due to the terrorist activities and was given to the Himachal Govt. only after peace reigned. It wasn’t the most pleasant ride as one of the guys was drunk and was very keen to talk on the Hindu- Muslim subject. As soon as we made a few turns, a black top road appeared as the car sped in the remoteness.
Nevertheless, we were very lucky to have found a ride before it was too late and heaved a sigh of relief as soon as we crossed the forested trail and made our way to the Padhri Gali meadows. We thanked them profusely and rushed towards the meadows. There were many typical Gujjar huts that looked embedded in the earth on the meadows on the right side of Padri Gali Pass. I could also spot a newly built mosque on the meadows near the Gujjar huts.
Padri Gali (Padhri Pass or Padhri Gali)
Padri Gali is the highest point on the Chamba – Bhaderwah road and is at an altitude around 3000m. This pass is useful for pilgrims who cross it every year during the Mani Mahesh Kailash Yatra near Bharmour-Hadsar-Kugti. Padhri Gali is a gorgeous collection of meadows with a pleasing shade of green and has gorgeous views of Bhaderwah valley as well. It snows a lot in the winter at Padri Pass and that also means the road access is blocked.
There were a 3-4 very basic dhabas making fried and oily pakoras but they did not seem to have any options for lunch at all. In fact, they were so ramshackle and so badly managed that we decided to skip lunch altogether! What a far cry from the perfect dhabas of Himachal Pradesh, where rajma chawal usually wins your heart. The garbage and rubbish around the dhabas meant we didn’t even bother about chai at Padri Gali.
There were a lot of locals out for a picnic and were occupying leisurely spaces on the meadows. It was so nice to see entire families frolicking and enjoying with their kids. Horsemen walked around offering their services and some kids and men liked their hike to a nearby hill on the horse for only 50 Rupees! Such a simple life. A few locals asked us where we were from and asked for some selfies to be clicked. We lazed and lied down and slept in the green stretches and watched the kids run around trying to catch the sheep!
Sheep huddled in the view point hut made by the Bhaderwah Tourism Development Authority rendering it useless to be used by tourists. Anyway, that did not have a roof. Some parts of the meadows were pristine and had a steady growth of wildflowers while the more accessible parts were littered with plastic even though there were at least 5 dustbins around. It was disheartening to see but we continued exploring and walking to all the nearby meadows and clicked a few shots of the cloudy Bhaderwah valley.
We were only 40 kms away from Bhaderwah and had plenty of options in the form of shared taxis and mini buses to reach Bhaderwah. We were in our happy zone after trying our luck for 2 days and enjoying the greenery felt just the right thing to do. And what happened after we got down from the meadows? As if on cue, another vehicle presented itself and the gentleman was more than happy to drop us to Bhaderwah.
There have been days on journeys when I have stood in one place for six hours waiting for a ride which never appeared. So, I agree when Shantaram says ‘Luck is what happens to you when fate gets tired of waiting!’
What was waiting for us in Bhaderwah?
‘I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. The road is life.’
~ Jack Kerouac
Stay tuned to read more on the adventures in Bhaderwah and Patnitop.