Our original plan was to head to Pangi Valley and even though it had been a seemingly long break from backpacking for me, the urge to go to someplace we had not been before was what caused an excursion to Pattan Valley in Lahaul. It was only by chance that someone mentioned the name Othang Gompa near Jahalman (Jahalma) because even though I had been to Pattan Valley earlier, I had never even heard of Othang Gompa. We were originally supposed to catch the 530 am Kullu to Killar bus but the weather reports were not very promising and since it had been raining quite incessantly in Kullu Valley, it seemed prudent to alter our plan.
Since it was the middle of June and we are well aware of the dicey status of the Udaipur to Killar road that frequently gets stalled due to landslides, we decided that it was best to perhaps head to Keylong and then decide our further course of action. We left from home in Dobhi village at about 615 am and caught a Punjab Road Transport bus and reached Manali bus stand at 640 am. To complicate our already muddled thought process, I spotted the Kullu to Killar (Via Keylong) bus at the bus stand in Manali and asked Jita if we should sit in that one and simply continue with our original plan of heading to Pangi Valley? Jita suggested we should have breakfast first since he was feeling a bit hungry.
Manali mall road was empty at that early hour and when we didn’t find an open dhaba / eatery serving breakfast, we went behind in the by-lanes near the monastery and sat at one of the promising looking dhabas. The whistling of the pressure cooker was signal to take our seats and we asked for an aloo-pyaaz parantha each and ginger masala chai post the paranthas. It was a small eatery and seemed like a pretty popular place with many orders for packed paranthas. The paranthas were delicious and the chai turned out to be excellent as well. We thanked the guy, paid and as we were leaving for the bus stand it started drizzling.
I took my rain jacket out of the backpack and we walked back to the bus stand. We were a bit confused if we should head to Keylong first or directly go to Jahalman but the status of a homestay in Jahalman was not clear and it was decided we are better off staying a night in Keylong and familiarise ourselves with travel like the old days.
My first memory of Jahalman (Jahalma) is seeing the signboard on the Reckong Peo – Jahalman bus and wondering where exactly was this fascinating sounding place! Later when I would see the bus regularly in Kullu – Lahaul region, I would come to know that Jahalma (also Jhalma) is an important town in Pattan Valley, Lahaul. It is the gateway to the famous Kugti Pass trek from Bharmour to Lahaul as the starting (or ending) point of the trekking trail that starts near Rashil village.
I had a photograph of the timetable of the buses from Kullu – Manali to Keylong and was quite confident that there was a Keylong bound bus every 30 minutes or so. It turned out that some of the buses mentioned in the timetable are non-existent! We waited at the bus stand amid the thick diesel fumes and I kept wearing my mask to avoid any breathing trouble. So, after the Kullu to Killar bus left Manali bus stand at 7 am, the next bus that came was the Haridwar to Keylong bus that turned out to be so jam packed with the migrant Nepali workers and there was not even standing space. The conductor clearly told everyone not to get into the bus and we had to return dejected at our current circumstance!
I kept hoping there was a local bus in the early morning hours but that was not to be and all we did was get wet in the rain and hopelessly wait for a Keylong bound bus! The Haridwar – Keylong bus left the bus stand at about 830 am and now we were determined to somehow get a seat / standing space in the next bus. The drizzle was getting stronger and we had mixed emotions about letting the Keylong-Killar bus go. We kept hovering around the entrance of the bus stand to keep a keen eye on the buses coming so that we could grab the seats!
In the meanwhile, there seemed to be a long queue of people heading to Keylong and a few enterprising taxi guys were asking folks for a shared ride at INR 400 per seat. I proposed one extra smart taxi guy the usual bus fare and he scoffed at my offer! There were a few guys looking for Leh bound travellers as well for a seat in the Sumo / Minibus Traveller.
After some time, sense prevailed and we stood on the other side of the bus stand where the fumes were much lesser and we were able to see the incoming buses without getting wet in the rain. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity a bus to Keylong duly arrived at the Manali bus stand and we ran and somehow pestered the conductor to let us in. He informed us at the outset that there were no seats in the bus and given our 2-3 hours of waiting, we were pretty content with getting standing space and somehow getting to Keylong.
We hauled our bags in front and ended up standing for the entire duration of our journey, only getting a seat in Tandi (hardly 8 kms before Keylong). We requested the bus guys to let us off on the highway (or Old Bus Stand in Keylong) to avoid us the long uphill walk from the New Bus Stand. The scenery on the road after Solang Valley was pristine with the recent rain and clouds occupied centrestage.
We were quite flexible with our thought process and just wanted to take it easy in Keylong. At the outset, since it was about 1230 pm – the first task was to find a cheap place to stay. The weather was sunny and the blue sky was interspersed with clouds. As I spoke to some of my acquaintances who ran guesthouses on the main road, we were told that cheap rooms are a thing of the past and that 1000 Rupees is the minimum we would have to pay for a double room.
Since it was the tourist season for Ladakh, most of the rooms were full and one of my known person in Keylong indicated to me to quickly finalise a room as once the tourists started coming in it would become difficult to even get a room! I went to check a homestay and that turned out to be so spic-and-span that we felt it was easier to just stay at a normal guesthouse. It was decided that we would most probably leave for Killar in the early morning bus from Keylong.
Also read : Wanderings in Lahaul : Trilokinath Temple
We finalised a room for 1000 Rs. and immediately stepped out since it was a long time since we had the early morning breakfast. It was rusty decision making when we ended up ordering chowmein that turned out to be quite passable at one erstwhile good Angmo Dhaba! Nevertheless, we were keen on having a stroll in Keylong and see how much the town had changed with the Atal Tunnel. We descended onto the Mall Road of Keylong from one of the staircases and were frankly surprised with the level of frantic construction activity going on in Keylong Bazaar. There were loads of vegetable shops selling a wide variety of vegetables and some even had fresh strawberries from Sissu/Gondhla. There were a few fancy looking cafés and a new branch of HDFC Bank in Keylong town!
We loitered around for a good part of almost 2 hours and after enjoying the food at The Climber’s Café walked back to our room; and it turned out just in the nick of time as it started raining as soon as we got back. The temperature dropped instantly and it became quite cold. After it kept drizzling for an hour or so, we checked the weather updates again and deduced that it was better to call a local from Killar and get hands-on information. I called a guest house owner in Killar and he said that it had rained all day and that we should defer our plan by at least 2 days. We were quite stunned by the information and suggestion and decided to let go of the Pangi Valley plan for the time being and just head to Jahalman.
We stepped out for dinner at about 7 pm and saw that the rooms in Keylong were all sold out and one of the restaurants even refused to serve us dinner and said that the rush means that they are only serving food to in-house guests. Ultimately we ended up eating food at the restaurant of the guest house we were staying in and decided to call it an early night. It was very cold and we woke up to a sunny morning and immaculate blue skies with fresh snow on the mountaintops.
The views were epic prompting us to click a few pictures with our dslr cameras and after a quick breakfast we rushed to the bus stand. I called the HRTC officer in Keylong and he asked us to come to the bus stand itself. Upon reaching the bus stand, we were overjoyed to see the Shimla to Killar – Sural bus and quickly put our bags inside.
The HRTC officer informed us that there have been multiple landslides on the road to Pangi Valley between Udaipur and Killar near Thirot and that the previous day’s HRTC bus between Kullu to Killar was stuck at a very peculiar spot for the last 14-16 hours. The bus was stuck on a stretch and was able to neither move forward nor back since both the sides were closed due to a landslide. Thankfully, no damage was done and the passengers were safe. However, the HRTC officer said that the Shimla – Sural bus was supposed to leave from Keylong much earlier but had been waiting for the Kullu to Killar bus to reach so that all the passengers could be transferred to one bus till Udaipur and then depending on the status of the road, the final decision will be taken.
In the meanwhile, I also got fascinated with a JKSRTC bus stationed at the bus stand and saw a few backpackers triumphantly holding the tickets in their hands. I briefly toyed with the idea of heading to Ladakh but the supposed tourist rush quickly nipped the thought in the bud. We kept our bags in the Shimla to Sural bus bound for Udaipur and I chanced upon talking to local ladies of Pangi Valley (Pangwals) who belonged to different villages scattered around Pangi Valley.
Anyhow, the bus was jam packed and we had to step out when the seats that we had occupied turned out to be booked online and those gentlemen had made their way inside! Thankfully, another bus to Udaipur was supposed to depart in another 30 minutes. There were plenty of empty seats in the bus and after more time wasting at the HRTC workshop in Tandi we eventually made it to Jahalman village at around noon.
The scenery of Pattan Valley was as beautiful as ever with stunning green fields dominating the landscape while the Chenab (Chandrabhaga) river kept flowing serenely. As soon as we stepped out of the bus at the Jahalman bus stop, we spotted a signboard for a homestay. In keeping with the general style of the current travel, I was adamant that there might be a homestay at a better location and we kept walking ahead of the village until we reached no man’s land! Someone informed us that there are only two homestays and a Forest Rest House in the village and both of them are close to where the bus dropped us! So, we walked back and eventually reached the homestay after a short walk from the main road.
The weather felt perfect with a nice breeze blowing and the sun was largely hidden by the clouds. The lady at the homestay quoted us INR 600 for a room; it was a basic room with a common bathroom and I thanked her and asked her to quote us a price including the meals. Since she asked for a reasonable INR 1000 for both of us including meals and breakfast the next day, there was no need to bargain and we put our bags inside.
The morning parantha at Nalwa Restaurant had long been digested and I requested her if she could make a quick lunch for us since we were quite hungry. She casually remarked that we can finish the lunch and then head to Othang Gompa that was hardly an hour’s walk from the homestay and rushed to make rajma chawal for lunch for the entire family.
In the true essence of being in a homestay, I made sure of telling her to just cook something that she would anyway make for lunch for the family. Me and Jita were quite overjoyed at finding a reasonably priced homestay and the mention of a hike to Othang Gompa got us interested. We went out for a stroll and I came across the stunning location of the Forest Rest House that seemed to be in urgent need of repair. Once on the road, there was a small crowd gathered at the Beer & Wine Shop and upon asking, someone pointed to us the Yellow roofed structure of the Othang Gompa located on a hillock at a much higher elevation from Jahalman. We ended up walking back to our homestay since lunch would be ready.
Lunch was served at about 1 pm and after a hearty meal, the lady led us to the start of the trail through the fields and told us that the path is pretty straightforward and that we have to reach a yellow roofed building that will be visible after a bit of climbing. She also asked us to remember to take the same path back to get back to the homestay in the evening.
We were feeling quite lazy after a super heavy lunch but the incredible scenery on offer was a happy surprise. When the Pangi Valley plan did not materialise, we had started thinking maybe this will turn out to be a failed trip but it seemed like our luck had turned a corner and the troubles would lead to something good.
We were walking through a water canal fed by the snowmelt and being directed to one of the fields. Almost all the valleys of Lahaul grow a variety of exotic vegetables during the short summer season and the chief reason for the high yield of broccoli, iceberg, lettuce, leafy etc. is the ample water supply through the channels. There was a variety of wildflowers surrounding the path, white, yellow, pink, blue and different shades of other colours of flora was delightful. We stopped every few steps to admire the view in front of us and had our first glimpse of the wild rose – Sia (on this trip). There is an unsaid pleasure in revelling in nature’s delights and after 15 odd minutes of the lazy trundle, we had ascended to a path that was clearly visible. The weather was still cloudy and we were thankful that it wasn’t sunny!
Even though the lady had said that it is not more than an hour’s walk, we were quite certain that we would take at least 2 hours to make the climb all the way to Othang Gompa / Monastery. We crossed a nice grove filled with wild roses – sia and looked back to marvel at the stunning green fields of Pattan Valley with the Chandrabhaga river flowing calmly. It was an unrelenting ascent and quite stiff in some sections. We were passing through a juniper forest and the nice fragrance added to the feeling of exuberance that only the vast skies of high altitude regions give.
After about an hour or so, as we made a long climb – we came across a dirt road and quickly understood that there is also a motorable (sort of!) road to Othang Gompa. At this point the yellow roof of the monastery was clearly visible and the short-cut walking path became even more uphill.
The views kept getting better as we climbed higher and the sun also shone through the clouds. Thankfully, I had carried my hat that protected me from the full blast of the sunshine. We were huffing and puffing and were grateful to have carried water with us since it had become quite hot. We were having a gala time clicking the landscapes with the blooming wild roses reminding ourselves of the glorious days of travel in the pre-pandemic era.
On one of the climbs, I saw a car zoom on the road and before I could scamper to get to the road – it was gone. We met a shepherd who told us that it was the Lama Ji’s car that had just whizzed by and that we just missed it by a whisker. We were concerned with the opening of the monastery and now it was more or less guaranteed that the Lama Ji will be there to open the monastery doors.
At this point, the climb became almost vertical and we crossed an old mud chorten with a newly built white chorten near it. To our massive surprise, we saw a few homes just before we reached the monastery. Apparently, there are a total of some 8 houses that comprise Othang village. All the houses in Othang village seemed to be quite sizeable and had cow sheds and fields surrounding the houses. There were a number of colourful wildflowers growing near the houses and for a while the numerous paths had us confused but ultimately we ended up asking a few locals working in the fields who guided us on the right trail.
A few fields were being sown with green peas for the family home consumption. The view from this village located on a much higher altitude than the road in Pattan Valley was stunning with snowy peaks clearly visible on multiple sides and the fields below us felt like a green chess board! On the way back, I even remarked to one of the locals to convert one of the homes to a homestay since it was clearly one of the prettiest hamlets of Pattan Valley in Lahaul.
After one final turn, we were in front of the yellow roofed Othang Gompa that had a green field in front of the monastery. The windows looked very pretty with the bold coloured patterns that are a hallmark of most Buddhist monasteries. Othang Gompa is a monastery of the Gelugpa sect (Yellow hat sect) and the yellow roof signified the same. Othang Gompa is also the among the very few monasteries left in Pattan Valley and perhaps the most widely regarded as well. A tall prayer flag (Darchog) fluttered in the courtyard of the monastery and the view from the top was quite epic. Lama ji was quickly spotted and he was clad in a red goncha. Here, we saw an old building and Lama ji said that one part was the old gompa and the adjacent building was the monks’ residence.
He showed us the insides of both the old and new monasteries and said that Othang Gompa was originally built in the 15th Century. The yellow building was recently built about 5-10 odd years ago and Lama ji said that the work was completed under his supervision. The old monastery had old statues of Bodhisattvas and also housed sacred Buddhist texts and manuscripts. He was very kind and even let me light a butter lamp when I offered to pray. Lama Ji belonged to Tungri village in Zanskar but had been living at Othang Gompa since the 1970s.
He said that there is another Lama from Ralakung who lives at Othang Gompa and he is in charge of the kitchen etc. So, even though he was keen to offer us tea – the Ralakung lama ji had gone to a village somewhere nearby to perform some duties. Earlier Kee Gompa was in charge of Othang Monastery, now the same is done through Karsha Gompa and that perhaps explains the monks from Zanskar at Othang Gompa.
It was a very interesting and fun conversation with Lama Ji about Zanskar, Pattan Valley and life in general and he even invited us to spend the night at the monastery itself. I asked him if the monastery offers services like a guest house but he replied that there are plenty of rooms and a big hall and some mattresses are kept so it should be a comfortable night’s sleep! He said that the lama from Ralakung made excellent food and that we would love spending the night at the monastery.
We were quite interested in the same but told him that the homestay guys will make dinner for us and that we have already booked a room at the homestay. We thanked him for the offer and I exchanged numbers with Lama ji to meet someday in Manali for a meal at Chopsticks! (Oh, in case you didn’t know when the tourists are gone from Manali, red robed lamas at Chopsticks is a regular sight!)
At that instant, we heard the sounds of a bus crossing the road behind the monastery and it simply continued on the road that climbed ahead. I asked Lama ji and he nonchalantly remarked that there is a daily evening bus to the next village. Me and Jita wondered if knowing this piece of information might have made us more laid-back and try to catch the bus rather than hiking all the way up from Jahalman!
Sometimes, it is best to not know otherwise the mind gets confused with multiple thoughts and ultimately you end up achieving nothing. We were triumphant at having come via the trekking trail to Othang Gompa. Lama ji told us that via road the distance from Othang Monastery to Jahalman was 13 kms while we would hardly take about 45 minutes via the downward sloping hiking trail.
We spotted a few bright blue lupines growing in the monastery compound and were quite astounded with the beauty. It was about 5 pm when we decided to start our walk back to the homestay in Jahalman. After initially trying to take the hiking trail, we decided to enjoy the walk on the dirt road for a few kilometres before rejoining the hiking trail somewhere along the way. That way, we would be able to savour the stunning views that were visible now that we were at a vantage point in Pattan Valley. We were able to clearly see the beautiful villages of Jobrang, Rapay and Rashil alongwith few other villages the names of which I have forgotten. Finally, we took leave of Lama ji and started our return on foot via the road only.
I was excited to see if the bus would make the return journey so that we would be able to see a different side of Pattan Valley at close quarters. As if on cue, the sun came out and made the proceedings quite hot. I had to pull my hat out once again and just when I thought it was time to put the dslr camera in, a nice frame came into the picture with the sun shining on the pink wild roses with the Othang Gompa flanked by snowy peaks in the background.
After walking for about 2-3 kms on the road, we came to one of the hairpin bends where the walking trail joined the dirt road and now opted to take the hiking trail and get back to the homestay. If we had followed the road, we would have ended up in a totally different area much farther than Jahalma.
The heavy lunch was nicely digested with the excursion. It was a very satisfactory and easy walk back and took more than an hour as we were at a relaxed pace. I remarked to Jita that for the first time in more than a year (or two) I had actually seen a place where I had not been earlier and hence felt very elated at clicking photographs with the dslr camera. With that ecstatic feeling in the heart, when we approached Jahalman village near the homestay I was already planning our next exploration in Pattan Valley.
There were a few locals working in the fields and one of them remarked that the cherries of Pattan Valley were almost ripe and if we had come a week later, we would have been able to savour those!
I am well aware of the joys of cherries and strawberries of Lahaul and asked them if those would be available in the market in Manali / Kullu?! There was another chance encounter with a contractor who was in charge of procurement of exotic vegetables from this region in the summer and he seemed pretty miserable at his plight when he had to wear a jacket in the Lahauli summer as the weather changed at the drop of a hat!
At the homestay, we thanked the lady for suggesting the Othang Monastery hike and for not telling us about the bus! She mentioned that there is a curry of the local buckwheat leaves (Kathu ke patte) for dinner alongwith chapati.
We were also looking forward to tasting the local brew that she made from barley grains. She claimed to be an expert at the brew since her husband was in the habit of regular consumption! It was an eventful evening with an excellent dinner and a glass of the local brew. The night was cold and the mobile batteries would be dead since there was no electricity in Jahalman. It was a comfortable and warm room with wooden flooring. Maybe the locals forgot to inform us – but when we returned to Kullu someone asked us about visiting Hidimba Temple in Jahalman and all we could do was show blank faces!
This small prelude calls for a longer and more detailed exploration of Pattan Valley in Lahaul.