After a super successful day trip to Manu Rishi Temple in Shanshar, Sainj Valley and the lucky coincidence of seeing the festivities of the annual fair Shanu Mela, we were gung-ho about exploring the remote corners of Sainj valley. I had heard many-a-time about the twin towers of Raila (Dhaliara Kothi) that had become a bit known in the travel fraternity due to the social media frenzy that the current instagram generation is on. At the GHNP Ropa Rest House where we were staying, someone in the kitchen remarked that the diversion to Raila is hardly 1 km from the rest house and that meant we were pretty relaxed about our day trip.
We woke up at about 7 am and requested the kitchen guys at the Rest House to serve us some aloo/gobhi paranthas as quickly as possible. They were on time and we were ready to leave after 2 paranthas each. We were not sure about our evening / night stay plans since Raila was only planned as a day trip. Therefore, the staff told us to keep our backpacks in one of the dormitories.
Our target was to reach Raila; visit Dhaliara Kothi, and perhaps also see the waterfall on the way and explore some unknown places – and try and possibly return by evening at the rest house. We were flexible with our thought process and had kept two options – revisit Upper Neahi village or head to Shangarh and relive some good old days. Ya, I know it sounds pretty far-fetched as a plan when you don’t have your own transport – but thats what my style of travel is about!
When we were in Sainj one day earlier, I had tried to find the bus timings to Raila and the taxi union guys had ensured in convincing me that there was no morning bus from Sainj to Raila and that there were 2 buses a day that plied in the afternoon. So at least, we were clear about our return journey with the surety of a bus. We started walking on the road from the GHNP Ropa Rest House and even though we were not sure about the 1km distance to the bridge from where the road to Raila diverted, we were happy to walk.
As it happens with so many things in life, a bus from Shanshar came as soon as we were out of the gates of the rest house but we chose to let it go since the bridge was only 1 km! When after 15-20 odd minutes of walking there was no sign of a bridge or the landscape changing, Jita checked google maps and the truth dawned on us that the bridge to Raila is at least 4 km from the GHNP Ropa Rest House.
If there was no predetermined time of returning from Raila, we might have actually enjoyed the walk on the road with the sound of the river a constant company at this early hour of 8 am. However, it seemed that we were off to a terrible start to the day and logic suggested that we better keep the reserve of good luck on the road when we would invariably have to resort to hitchhiking in the absence of a bus!
After a while, we were lucky to get a seat on another HRTC bus and funnily enough got down before the actual bifurcation when we saw a small bridge and thought that to be the road to Raila! Anyhow, we walked ahead and reached the actual concrete bridge at a turn called Siund where the road continued to the power project and Raila village.
Just to be doubly sure, I asked a few school-bound kids who confirmed that it was the road to Raila and presented us with a very encouraging piece of information. They said that they were also waiting for the Sainj to Raila bus that would be coming anytime now. I saw the watch and it was about 9 am; we were quite ecstatic upon hearing the news of a bus but the skeptic in me wasn’t sure yet and we chose to walk past the power project area and reached a shop where the bus news was confirmed. It was about 930 am at that time and they said as well that the bus is about to come!
Since the sun was directly hitting the shop and there was no space to sit, we chose to walk a bit ahead and sit upon finding some shade under a tree by the side of the road. We are confident about the arrival of a bus at this juncture, since so many locals have told us about the morning bus to Raila. They confirm that the last return bus from Raila to Sainj is at 4 pm.
The clock ticks by and we notice there are hardly any vehicles crossing us on this road. It is almost 10 am and I am beginning to get restless and not sure if the morning bus to Raila really exists or it is a figment of the villagers imagination! Just as we are about to start walking, the HRTC Sainj to Raila bus arrives and we are relieved.
The bus is almost full; mostly with school children. The shopkeeper guys had told us to ask the bus conductor for tickets till Kamtan village (last stop for the bus to Raila). The twin towers of Raila or Dhaliara Kothi were a short walk from a turn just before reaching Kamtan village and the conductor would assist us in the directions for the same.
The road to Raila is full of sharp hairpin bends and the bus ascends on the steep slopes. I notice that the road is quite narrow on many stretches and that the road widening has recently started. A chance encounter with the young owner of a popular homestay in Raila (Kamtan village) meant that we ended up going till the last point where the bus goes.
He invited us for a quick round of chai at his homestay and we had a nice time chatting in the common space. If we had carried our backpacks with us, we might have actually ended up staying in Kamtan village; the view was surreal and the quaint village had a lovely aroma of a dense deodhar forest.
Anyhow, we started walking towards Dhaliara Kothi or Raila Twin Towers and came across a pair of local shepherds taking their flock of sheep and goat for grazing. The massive trees lent glorious views of the snowy peaks beyond as the sights were quite spectacular since Raila is located at a vantage point and I’m guessing should be at an altitude of about 2000-2200m.
Once we crossed the forest section and came closer to the main road from where the road diverged for the Twin Towers, the full force of the sun hit us and we had to eventually resort to taking breaks while walking. The distance seemed quite far and I came across a worker who confirmed that we were on the right path.
After about 40 odd minutes of walking, we had our first glimpse of the towers. Dhaliara Kothi is the ancient / traditional name for these towers and they looked quite imposing from a distance. We were quite excited about finally seeing these twin towers for real and quickly climbed the set of stairs to get closer. There were a number of small shrines near the towers and the entire area seemed like a sacred spot.
Both the towers had dizzying staircases but outsiders are forbidden to climb them like most religious places in Kullu Valley. There was a lone house in the vicinity and a lady informed us that one of the towers houses a temple and that it is only opened on special occasions. It reminded me of the Chehni Kothi and I also imagined an ancient treasure hidden in one of the towers!
The sun was quite harsh and after clicking a few photographs from various angles, we decided to descend from the stairs and find more details about a beautiful meadow in the vicinity – Bhatkanda. Kanda is the local term used to indicate a grassland located at a higher altitude than the valley and we were told that Bhatkanda is hardly 30 odd minutes from Dhaliara Kothi and that it is a must see since we are already in Raila.
We kept walking and crossed an in-construction homestay being built in the woods. They confirmed the path to Bhatkanda in the forest and even though we were hungry, we started our ascent to Bhatkanda meadow.
We were relieved to get out of the direct sunshine and walk in the shade of the forest under the deodhar trees. It was a mild and continuous ascent and we reached the small meadow at Bhatkanda at about 1 pm. The meadow itself wasn’t very green since it was peak summer and the monsoons hadn’t started yet.
Bhatkanda felt like a nice place with a few houses scattered in the surrounding areas, and a cute wooden cabin was also getting made (presumably as a homestay/guest house). There were a few locals around, cows and sheep grazing and funnily enough a tourist family was also there. It was nice to see Indian tourists choose these unknown spots for a short hike.
We roamed around the undulating hills for a bit, savoured the views and then when the sun started feeling too strong – I chose to lie down in the meadows. It was a blissful few minutes of sleep until a cow decided to head my way near the tap to drink some water. At this juncture, Jita had also returned from his small excursion and we decided to fill our water bottles and start on our way back.
The newly constructed homestay owner showed us the rooms; we were quite astonished with the excellent rooms and attached washroom. Accommodation standards across India have really gone up in the post-pandemic era and it seems like shoddy accommodation options are a thing of the past.
We were very hungry and he told us we could have ordered lunch before going to Bhatkanda and it would have been ready on our return. Anyhow, now that option didn’t exist and since we had seen multiple signboards for fancy cafés in Raila – we thought we could eat anywhere at some dhaba. Since it was only about 2 pm and we had been told that the return Raila to Sainj bus was only at 4 pm, we were in a confused state.
Our tentative and best case scenario was to get down at the bridge at Siund, catch a Shanshar bound bus and reach the GHNP Ropa Rest House and then catch a shared camper to Upper Neahi village. Mahi from Upper Neahi had told me that with the recently constructed road, there were a 1-2 campers plying locals everyday to Upper Neahi for some INR 50 per person.
A lady grazing her cows told us about a steep shortcut from the trail near Bhatkanda meadows that would take us directly down to Raila village. On our way up, we had spotted another temple with a massive tower in Raila that was close to the road and had decided that we would see it on our way back. Now with the steep shortcuts full of rudimentary stairs, that possibility was gone.
Apparently, Raila was some 5-6 kms by road and we managed to cover the distance in hardly 30 odd minutes with the shortcut path that also saved us from the sun. Once we got to Raila, the challenge was to find a working eatery but we quickly realised the fancy cafés are all closed and there is no small dhaba that exists.
The shortcut path also led us straight in the middle of Raila from where the road was a good 10 odd minutes walk. The sun was shining brightly in the absence of any sort of cloud cover and we were quite hungry and exhausted at this juncture. We somehow plodded on and sat in the shade after joining the road; hoping to hitch a ride in one of the vehicles heading towards Sainj. However, most vehicles were coming back to Raila after attending the Shanu Mela festivities from the previous day in Shanshar! The time was about 3 pm and we decided to walk on the road and wait for a ride so that we could make it back to Ropa Rest House in time before dark to catch the shared camper to Upper Neahi.
However, it seemed like a luckless day when we couldn’t get a ride even in an empty van. The Sainj to Raila bus went the other way and we figured that the bus would soon start back from Raila at 4 pm. It was then when we reached a bifurcation point; the road diverged to a treacherous looking cliff to villages like Pashi. There was a dhaba there with a lot of locals sitting and chatting around. In the absence of all other options, we had to opt for maggi which the lady owner mentioned she would cook with tomatoes and onions. It was perhaps my first maggi in over a year of living in Kullu Valley; the maggi was excellent with soupy taste and I thanked the aunty for making it well.
Finally, the bus to Sainj arrived. We took our seats and were dropped at the bridge at Siund at about 440 pm. We were lucky to instantly catch the last bus of the day to Shangarh – there was only standing space and we somehow made it to the Ropa Rest House. I met Mahi’s relative in the bus and she confirmed that there will be a camper leaving for Upper Neahi! We were ecstatic at this piece of information. At the rest house, we ran and took our bags – said our thanks and goodbyes to the staff and sat outside in the waiting shed for the camper to arrive.
We made it to Upper Neahi in the evening, much before dark. It was the sweet sleep of tired explorers!