The first snows in the mid-reaches of Kullu Valley were forecast around 15-18 January. I, along-with 3 of my friends had made a flexible plan to explore some villages and enjoy the fresh snow as we did so and Shangarh had turned out to be first on our wish-list of places to see shrouded in white snow!
All of us reach Aut on 19th January 2019. I had boarded a Volvo from Delhi while 2 people of the group were arriving from Dehradun and our Thakur friend had driven in his gypsy from Raison. Aut had turned dusty and was very unpleasant due to the road widening project going on the National Highway – 1 which passed right through this town. It seemed like the whole town’s layout had changed and I could barely recognise it from only a few months ago.
We have tea and omelettes at the small shop in the new Aut Market Bus stand. We drive through the cold and bare landscape to reach Sainj first. Our friend Mahi meets us here as we continue towards Deori village. We hike up to our first destination at Upper Neahi village which also happens to be Mahi’s home. Snow is scattered in some parts of the trail where there is no sunshine. Since we have our own mode of transport in the form of Thakur’s gypsy, we make good time and reach the homestay around 10 am.
The mountains in the far distance are full of snow and glisten in the sunshine and look especially pretty with the blue skies in the background. The usual green landscapes and open grounds of the summer were nowhere to be seen and the colours had turned bleak and drab. The weather forecast hadn’t exactly turned out as predicted and we decide to hike up to Shangarh the next day.
We have a round of tea and are excited about eating rajma chawal for an early lunch. Around afternoon, the weather starts to change and blue skies give way to clouds. The sun is nowhere to be seen and when we go for a walk at around 2-3 pm, I am astonished to see the Pundrik Rishi pond in an almost barren state in a shade of yellow. We sit there and enjoy the silence.
Upper Neahi is a nice village with fabulous hikes. It does feel cold but not so much and is just the perfect weather for the mid-altitude of around 1600-2000m. We notice a frozen small pond on one of our walks, and were reminded of our endeavour on this trip – to see fresh snow and walk around! We ambled around, with nothing else to do and noticed that the clouds had started to look quite threatening as evening came by.
We come back to Upper Neahi village, said our hellos to the family and enjoyed the early dinner in the warm kitchen where the bukhari had been installed. The rooms had a pleasing aroma of deodhar and pine trees. This aroma always gives a nice and fresh feel. We sleep content and relaxed knowing that we are going to be making the 2-3 hour hike up to Shangarh.
Next morning, the weather is similar with no sunshine and for a while we wondered if we should stay put in the comfort of Upper Neahi village and hope for snowfall here itself or try and get to the vantage village of Shangarh located at a much higher altitude with surely more possibility of snowfall in this conducive weather. The clouds suggested that snowfall was imminent and we debate about the two options in front of us to go to Shangarh.
One option is taking the road to Shangarh since we have our own mode of transport, which would first take 45 mins to Deori village then driving to Shangarh – and the other one was the usual direct hike to Shangarh village which would take 2-3 hours. The main reason we wanted the maruti gypsy moved from Deori village was to make sure it wasn’t stuck in a place where the roads got blocked after snowfall.
We decided to take a mix of the two options. We started our hike to Shangarh and gave the keys of the gypsy to Mahi’s brother to drive the gypsy and park it in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) Sai Ropa complex that was located on the main road and had minimal chance of getting stuck.
Trek from Upper Neahi to Shangarh
We leave at around 10 am after having a heavy breakfast of aloo paranthas. The trail from Upper Neahi to Shangarh is an uphill climb in the beginning; we cross small streams and a Nag temple on the way. It is a traditionally built wooden temple with a small shrine nearby. The carvings in the interiors of the temple are intricate and the tiny door looks very cute. Intermittent snow is scattered on the grassland where the temple is located.
The location is at a much higher altitude than Upper Neahi village and much colder, and hence the snow has stayed. The hike is through gorgeous and silent jungles and we make good progress while the weather continues being cloudy. We reach the Shangarh main road at around 1245 pm and are lucky to get a ride in a camper till Shangarh. After all who wants to walk on a road! Thus we are saved of an hour of walking on the road since it is a steady uphill ascent after this.
After discussions with Mahi and his local connections; he had arranged for our stay in Shangarh to be at the pristine location of the Forest Rest House (FRH). I had always been in awe of this building – this rest house was very old and was originally built by the British most probably in the 1930s. Moreover, the Shangarh Forest Rest House is located around 1 km away from main Shangarh village and like all most Forest Rest Houses has a vantage view!
We were dropped in Shangarh at the canteen located near the ground. It was also the first time that we meet Italy (Mahi’s friend), who is chilling at the canteen. He is in a single sweat shirt and a tattered track pant; I remember this because it is actually quite cold in Shangarh! Dark clouds are hovering in the skies, we order some snacks at the café in the form of lunch.
We buy the supplies to be used for our stay at Forest Rest House. Oil, vegetables, masalas, eggs, milk etc. Our rough plan is to be in Shangarh for 2 days even though we have no fixed itinerary and are flexible with our plans with snow our priority. We walk toward Shangarh ground, the snowy mountains are covered by clouds. Shangchul Mahadev Temple looks pretty even though the ground is not green in the month of January. We admire the views for a bit and continue our walk to the FRH. A furry dog walks with us, it is a tranquil moment as the snow appears as we get close to the FRH.
I have forgotten to carry snow hiking shoes and thankfully Thakur has carried an extra pair of hiking shoes so that I can stop sliding in the snow! We take around 40 odd minutes to reach the FRH and it has gotten even colder here with the almost open location of the FRH. We have got reasonable winter clothes with us, inners, and cold jackets with an extra jacket thrown in.
On the way, there were majestic views of the landscape with traditional Himachali old houses seem prominently. The weather seems to have cleared a bit as the snowy peaks standing tall behind Shangchul Mahadev Temple are visible again. Slippery path on the final step to reach the FRH, as the climb is uphill and lots of people have already walked from here. The snow is frozen and become slippery.
Forest Rest House, Shangarh
Finally enter Shangarh FRH at 4 pm. Fabulous day already with the hiking. The FRH is at a gorgeous location and we are surrounded by views of snow in the open verandah. We say hello to the old caretaker and keep our bags inside. Mahi has set to work as he enters the kitchen to make a round of ginger tea, it is a must with the incredibly stunning evening view right now.
There are chairs kept in the dining room area and we sit in the verandah till there is daylight. The views are marvellous and the occasional gust of breeze is welcome. Yet, the weather has not worsened enough to result in snowfall and we are all kept guessing. Once darkness descends, we enter the basic yet comfortable rooms and notice that there is a fireplace.
The FRH has recently been renovated and the paint etc on the exterior appears fresh. The water pipes have already frozen and there is no running water in the bathrooms. Only the kitchen has a small tap with running water. Buckets of water have been filled and kept in the attached bathroom.
Mahi makes a fabulous dinner of egg curry and rotis, we relish it and enjoy eating it in the caretaker’s room so that its warm.
The FRH comprises of a dining area and 3 rooms. We take 2 double rooms since we are 4 of us. The ventilation in the rooms isn’t great and the smoke from the fireplace has filled inside the room! We open the windows to let the smoke out, and it takes more than 1 hour for the room to become breathable again. Dog keeps troubling whenever we open the door. We sleep late hoping for snowfall the next day. Cozy bed. Sleep till late because it is indeed cold outside.
Wake up at around 9 am and have a breakfast of chai and rusk. All our supplies are working well and Mahi makes a fabulous round of tea! Enjoy sipping warm chai whilst marvelling at the landscape. There has been no luck with snowfall even though the weather is overcast. We freshen up and decide to go to Singh Sahab’s house. I had heard a lot about Singh Sahab around the time of my first visit to Shangarh but had not been able to visit it.
It is located at around 15-20 minutes walk from the Forest Rest House; we see more snow on the way and a flowing stream as well. It is a slippery walk, so we hold each other on the tricky portions and reach his place. Great views from Singh Sahab’s home, we are invited inside his home for tea since Mahi knows the family.
It is a nice, wooden home with sweeping views of the valley. Singh Sahab was a Army Guy hailing from Haryana. Back in the 1960s (when Himachal was still a part of Punjab), he bought land in Shangarh and started living here. He had 2 wives – 1 from Delhi and 1 from Himachal. According to the locals, he was a very brainy person and eccentric too. He made an amplifier with a sound system. We spend an hour or two with his family.
Singh Sahab’s sons and daughter live in Shangarh, the daughter speaks about fond memories. We are led to see his workshop and collection of books, tools etc. Mahi also shares some of his memories as the conversation flows with the chai and biscuits. The family owns a cow stable and have paneer, curd and milk in plenty. They also mentioned that they used to own a lot more cows earlier and sell paneer when Singh Sahab was alive.
We cherish the prized memories of this great man, thank the family and say goodbye!
Start walking back around 2 pm and decide to head to Shangarh village, clear views of the ground near Shangchul Mahadev Temple. Very picturesque views even without the greenery that I have usually seen Shangarh in. Walk to Shangarh to while away time and explore the grounds again. The village kids are chilling and enjoying.
Dark clouds have gathered and look threatening. We walk back to the Forest Rest House at around 4-5 pm in the evening after meeting a few locals, eating snacks at the café meeting place and chatting with Italy. The mountain youngsters are really having a ball as they are snuggled in blankets and are chilling and playing some games on the mobile with their friends.
We walk back to the Forest Rest House and enjoy pakoras etc and tea in the evening. Our friend who’s travelling with us, Ajay bhai makes french fries as well. Mahi sprinkles them liberally with masalas, the old caretaker loves them! We are all getting a bit restless about the snowfall and even though the weather seems conducive and the predictions are for snowfall next day. Thats what we are here for and there has been no snow for the 3rd day now.
Today we don’t light up the fireplace because it did more harm than good yesterday. We sleep early today, there is an uneasy calm in the surroundings. There is no breeze blowing today.
Snow in Shangarh
We sleep well in the cozy and warm setting, just that the blanket is very heavy! I wake up at around 6-630 am, it is still quite dark but I dreamily think that there are snowflakes falling from the sky. I am not sure so go back to seep. I gently remove the curtain to look out of the window and jump in delight to notice that the entire landscape has indeed turned white! The snowflakes are still gently falling.
We wake each other up and rush to the verandah. Its a crazy beautiful scene. Totally white!
It reminds me of Narnia. We can notice snow on the roof of the nearby cottages. The tall pine trees are covered in a sheet of snow and look especially pretty in white! Our vantage location means that the entire pine forests surrounding us looks like a dream sequence. And then the flurries which had stopped for a little while begin again. Snowflakes first fall gently and then they come down heavily.
We have multiple rounds of chai, with biscuits and rusk. The snowfall continues. Thakur Sahab’s cottages are visible – he is Singh Sahab’s son (the house that we visited earlier yesterday). The colour palette of those cottages is especially pretty and proves a great contrast in the white landscape. On the other side of the kitchen, there is a yellow cottage that looks totally otherworldly when seen through the deodhar trees.
At around 9:30 am, the snowfall stops. While the flurries were on, we wondered if it would last all day and if we were stuck in Shangarh and whether we would have to stay here another day. As soon as the snow stops falling, we debate amongst ourselves and decide that its best to leave from Shangarh as that was the whole aim of this vacation – to see places in fresh snowfall. To ensure the same, it was imperative that we were on our feet and flexible in our thinking and actions.
I had always been very excited with the prospect of seeing Shangarh’s temple ground covered in a sheet of fresh white snow and today would be the day when the dream was about to come true!
Mahi makes a quick round of breakfast in the form of maggi. I don’t like maggi at all but there is no choice as such today. So, I eat a little. The yellow cottage on the other side looks absolutely charming now that the snowfall has stopped and the views are getting clearer. Click a few pictures with the phones and the dslr.
We notice that the clouds have started building up again. It is 1030 am and we decide to quickly march on to Shangarh village. We haven’t thought of the end destination but want to first get to the parked gypsy at Sai Ropa GHNP Rest House and then decide our future course of action later.
We thank the caretaker, pay up and leave. Around 400 per room per day. Mahi takes my heavy backpack so that I don’t slide and fall in the snow with my new shoes (courtesy of the Thakur friend from Raison). Our supplies are also over and rather than buying more supplies it makes sense to head to a different village to explore.
We think about Gushaini and I suggest Bathad since it is at a higher elevation than Gushaini there are more chances of snowfall there. Moreover, we have a car so it should be no problem for travel even if snow closes the road. We can always park the car in a safe place at a lower altitude before the actual village of Bathad.
The sound of crunching snow under the shoes is mellifluous for the ears. Incredible views as we slide down first to the main path. Very nice for me because one doesn’t slide on fresh snow and it looks so majestic with clouds in the background.
Full snow! Walk walk, no greater joy than walking on fresh snow. After 40 odd minutes, we reach the Shangarh main ground. Full white, majestic scene stunning with white clouds and mist covering the entire landscape. Only the Shangchul Mahadev temple is visible. I click a memorable frame with a dog chilling in the snow and looking on in oblivion.
Youngsters of Shangarh – Italy included are making a ball from the snow, they are rolling the snow in a straight line and it is getting mixed with the mud and is getting bigger in the form of a square ball. The kids aim to make the ball bigger and roll it down the hill. It has become sizeable now. And suddenly the flurries start again and everyone starts running shelter-skelter. Shangchul Mahadev temple is briefly visible through the mist and looks absolutely surreal.
The ball breaks when the kids try to roll it down the hill and makes a huge noise that reverberates around the valley! It is around 11-30 am now and we scamper to the café. Siddus are being made and will be ready in 30 minutes. The snowfall finally stops as we devour the siddus and are extremely lucky when we get a ride in a vehicle leaving from Shangarh at this very instant!
It continues snowing while we get out of Shangarh for the next 2-3 kms and it is a thrilling ride when the snowfall turns into rain at lower altitudes. We make it to Sai Ropa GHNP Rest House at around 1 pm and see that Thakur’s gypsy is parked there and the keys are kept with the caretaker there. There is no snow at Sai Ropa Guest House which means it is unlikely that it has snowed in Gushaini too.
We haul our bags inside and leave straight for Gushaini – Bathad, Mahi is also accompanying us as he also wants to chill and enjoy the snowfall with us! If it continues snowing beyond Gushaini then we have decided to rethink our strategy and park the gypsy wherever its safe.