Sometimes the road closest to home feels far and as the adage goes, ‘Better late than never’, I was finally able to trek to Serolsar Lake via a snowed out Jalori Pass. Increasingly extreme weather patterns meant that it was bitterly cold and snowing at Jalori Pass and that caused this trip to become an adventure in more ways than one! It felt totally worth it when we were the first to walk in the snow and open the gates to walk around Serolsar Lake and see the whiteout at Budhi Nagin Temple. Serolsar Lake seems to be an anglicised version of the pronunciation that the locals use – Sareulsar Lake, Saryolsar Lake, Syolsar Lake.
While I have crossed Jalori Pass a number of times over the years on journeys to Kinnaur and Spiti, it has taken forever for me to undertake the trek from Jalori Pass to Serolsar Lake. There is also the small hike / trek to Raghupur Garh (Fort) and the seemingly offbeat nature of the same meant that in the autumn of 2014, I ended up being awed by the majestic valley views from Raghupur Garh (Garh = Fort). That time I was staying in Sojha at one of the two homestays in the tiny village and remember witnessing a majestic moonrise!
Another time in 2017 or 2018, I was accompanied with locals and we reached Jalori Pass in the afternoon and as soon as we started the trek, it started drizzling causing us to consider the Serolsar Lake trek for another time. It was a warm summer and I was put up at Jibhi this time around. I had always thought Serolsar Lake trek to be quite popular and the thought of hiking / trekking with 100-odd first time city trekkers ensured I kept this on the sideline.
I guess it was third time lucky (in hindsight) as I was planning a spring sojourn to Kinnaur in the end of March. The original plan was to head to Batahad village and trek to Baga Sarahan via Bashleo Pass. I had been to Bashleo Pass earlier in 2016 with Jita and had no idea it was a straightforward downhill trek to Baga Sarahan; otherwise we might as well have spent a few days in Baga Sarahan and other parts of Kinnaur. A quick phone call to Thewa Ram Ji in Batahad confirmed my suspicions about snow at Bashleo Pass. It was therefore decided that we would play it by the ear and try to catch the first bus of the day from Kullu to Banjar.
I called the HRTC Kullu bus stand guys and found out that there’s a Kullu to Banjar bus at 530 am and then at 7 am, then at 8 am. We made a practical target to catch the 8 am bus from Kullu bus stand. I tried calling HRTC Banjar but their number was out of order. Anyway, HRTC Kullu guys had informed me that while Jalori Pass was open a few days earlier, recent bad weather and subsequent snowfall meant that buses had stopped plying across Jalori pass and they were only going till Jibhi and Sojha.
We woke up on a fine sunny morning and were quickly on the road at about 715 am. I immediately called HRTC Manali and they said that I would have to rely on a local bus to go from Dobhi to Kullu at this early hour. The Manali to Dharamsala-bound Bedi Travels bus came around and got to Kullu bus stand at 8 am. The Kullu to Banjar 8 am bus had been cancelled (maybe due to the recent snowfall at Jalori Pass) and we continued till Aut in the same Bedi Travels bus and made good time to reach Aut at 9 am.
A Banjar bound local bus was about to leave from Aut but was already full; in the absence of any other options we jumped in and struggled to find even breathing space. The bus was filled to the brim and it was really difficult with our backpacks but the necessity of these kind of journeys is the helping nature of the locals and that ensured everyone managed to survive. The weather was holding up and the sun was still out. Rain was forecast after 1-2 pm and I was hoping we would find a bus headed to Sojha (Shoja) from Banjar bus stand.
I thought that the bus would get less crowded at Balichowki but it turned out to be the opposite as more and more people got in! Thankfully, it was our turn to get seats and it was a smooth arrival at Banjar bus stand. The time was about 1030 am and a few raindrops came around from the overcast skies. I went to find the bus timings for Sojha and was promptly told by the enquiry counter that bus service from Banjar to Sojha has been temporarily suspended with the inclement weather alert and imminent rainfall. The next bus from Banjar to Jibhi was the Gadagushaini bus at 12 noon.
We were in a fix and had no idea what to do next! A couple of taxi guys hovered around quoting outrageous prices for Jalori Pass. A Banjar to Bathad bus was scheduled to leave at 11 am and I briefly flirted with the idea of going to Bathad. Thankfully, sense prevailed and when a shared taxi alto guy came asking, this time I asked him the price for 2 people to Sojha. I told him we lived in Dobhi village and he quoted us the local’s price at INR 200 per person. He had two more passengers who wanted to go to Anni village (across Jalori Pass) and the alto guy was supposed to drop them till Jalori Pass only. It was well known that there would be local shared sumos ferrying passengers from Jalori Pass to Khanag and Anni.
It felt like Banjar town had the same old traffic jam problems. This road has long been awarded the status of a National Highway (NH-305) but there has been no work done on the ground. Anyhow, it was comforting to see a police guy with a walkie talkie directing the traffic and we were soon out from Lower Banjar to Upper Banjar and on the road to Jibhi. The condition of the road was quite terrible (to say the least) and I reminded myself that I wasn’t missing out on too much by not coming this side inspite of living in Kullu Valley.
I was happily surprised when two buses crossed us; they were coming from Khauli – just a bit ahead of Gada Gushaini. Jibhi had the look of a shanty tourist town with multiple colourful homestays/guest houses, cafés, restaurants on both sides of the broken road. There was a sort of relieved sigh to see that we had not chosen the easy way out by opting to stay in Jibhi. Just after we crossed Jibhi and neared Ghiyagi – close to the diversion of Sajwar; the rain started coming down and had me scrambling for my jacket.
In conversations with the co-passengers, I asked if anyone knew the chowkidar/caretaker of the PWD Rest House? The reply was pleasing – it appeared that there was now a newly built Forest Rest House in Sojha as well. I was keen on staying at the vintage PWD Rest House in Sojha and not at one of the numerous homestays / guest houses. The plan was to hopefully find a ride to Jalori Pass next day and trek to Serolsar Lake and come back to Jalori Pass and then decide the further course of action depending on the weather.
The shared alto guy dropped us on the road near the signboard of the FRH in Sojha and I was left wondering about the exact location of the PWD Rest House. The rain was steady and my rain jacket had to be summoned from the small backpack. I didn’t have to wait long to quell my doubts about the PWD Rest House as it turned out to be adjacent to the Forest Rest House in Sojha. We saw smoke coming out of the chimney of one of the houses but were not able to find the caretaker and thankfully went to the Forest Rest House and met the chowkidar there.
He called the son of the PWD Rest House Caretaker and told us to meet him since the Forest Rest House was already booked (which turned out to be untrue!). The son of the chowkidar was very helpful and asked us to take the confirmation of the booking from an official phone number in Kullu. The lady in the office confirmed our stay in ten minutes and asked us to take Set Number 2. We thanked and put our bags in the spacious set number 2 and since we had not eaten anything since morning, asked the caretaker’s son to recommend a place to eat in the town.
He suggested that the Forest Eco-Tourism area has a recently inaugurated canteen and he recommended that over the dhaba in Sojha. So, we just hopped across the gate and found the dining room. Fresh aloo paranthas were the only option to be made in a jiffy and with the cold breeze blowing due to the rain turned out to be perfect. We had multiple rounds of masala chai and requested rajma+chawal to be made on order for dinner.
The whole valley was engulfed in clouds at this moment and it felt quite dreamy. It was a feeling of contentment and satisfaction after a full tummy and the weather gods reciprocated when it stopped raining once we stepped out of the dining area. We decided to go for a short walk in Sojha and see how it has changed over the years. The rain had caused the temperature to plummet and at 2700-2800 metres altitude, Sojha was quite chilly. It looked timeless though with the floating clouds in the valley below.
We came across a handful of newly established hotels in terms of staying options and a few cafés as well. Sojha seemed to have hit the right spot in terms of still keeping the scenic beauty intact unlike Jibhi which can clearly be said to be under the clutches of over-tourism. Locals working at an under construction hotel invited us to sit by the side of the bukhari and we enjoyed the conversation for a while. At about 230 pm, we were back to the PWD Rest House and just in time for it to start raining again.
Thankfully, the PWD Rest House had a long corridor with glasses and we had carried our books. It was teeth chattering cold and we enjoyed the same since these were the last few days of a long winter before summer winds blew in the valley. When the rain relented for a bit, I went around wandering in the PWD Rest House compound and then we went dot on time for our awaited late lunch/early dinner of rajma chawal in the dining area at 5 pm.
Rajma chawal was ready and we were served steaming hot bowls of the ultimate comfort food. It was delicious and we asked for masala chai to round off a grand eating experience in the lovely interiors with the aroma of deodhar wood furniture. We requested him for early morning chai at 7 am the next day and he asked us to just wake him up and he will do the needful. Since we had forgotten a pack of biscuits, we wandered off to the nearby shop in Sojha and with no rain ended up walking to the Banjara Retreat.
The landscapes seemed surreal with the floating clouds and we couldn’t have been more pleased to be out for our evening stroll. We also noticed a number of 4*4 vehicles on the road heading to / coming back from Jalori Pass on our walks on the road in Sojha. So, it was decided to start walking next morning for Jalori Pass and hope that we got a ride in one of the vehicles heading up (if there was) so we could start the Serolsar Lake Trek from Jalori Pass at an early hour. We got back to the wood and glass interiors of the PWD Rest House and made ourselves cosy.
It kept raining on and off and after fiddling with reading and aimless scrolling on the phone, we called it an early night and put our alarms for 630 am. Once the thick blankets got warmed up, it was a nice sleep and we woke up fresh and raring to go and trek to Serolsar Lake. We woke up the canteen owner and he quickly made tea for us while all of us shared the solitary packet of biscuits. We were out on the road even before it was 730 am and since it felt like a nice, clear morning we were happy to start walking on the road to Jalori Pass.
The distance from Sojha to Jalori Pass is almost 5 kms and I was hoping to find a camper or locals headed to Jalori Pass and catch a ride so as to save time. Of course, there were no sounds of a vehicle and we were pleased to be in a thick forest hardly 1 km after walking past Sojha. We spotted a variety of colourful birds in the forest and started encountering snow on the road. There were also a few private tourist vehicles parked on the side of the road as the snow on the road increased and we figured that the vehicle owners were smart enough to come back and take their vehicles when the road became clear.
Just as we were nearing Jalori Pass at about 9 am, two 4*4 campers carrying a bucketful of tourists crossed us and I was in a spell for a moment. Jalori Pass was totally snowed out and there were many vehicles / shared taxis waiting. Some were from Anni, Khanag side while the recent campers who had crossed us were ready to take tourists back to Sojha. They were charging about INR 200 per person for the 4.5-5 kilometre distance between Sojha and Jalori Pass. We went to the nearby dhaba and had a round of black tea; requested dhaba uncle for a plate each of rajma chawal and kadi chawal upon return.
Since we were told the distance between Jalori Pass and Serolsar Lake is 5 kilometres and the fact that it was a level trail, we calculated roughly 3.5 hours for the coming and going and included about 30 minutes of spending time at Serolsar Lake. Our breakfast turned out to be green apples that we had carried and told the dhaba uncle that we would see him on the return. There were a couple of local youngsters standing at the start of the trail and I asked them in the local lingo if there were any confusions that we may encounter on the trail and they said it was a straightforward trek.
We started at 910 am and the weather was holding up for the moment. The sun was playing a constant battle with the clouds and the weather forecast showed 70 odd percent chance of rain/snow at Jalori Pass after 1 pm. So, our aim was to get back after the trek to Jalori Pass before 1 pm and decide the next course of action based on the weather. It was nice to walk on fresh snow although I was a little surprised to see multiple dhabas at the start of the trail. The youngsters who had arrived in campers to the top of Jalori Pass were apparently headed to Serolsar Lake but were playing in the snow seemingly unaware of the fickle mountain weather.
After crossing the cluster of dhabas at the start of the trail from Jalori Pass, we entered a dense oak forest that would continue till we reached Serolsar Lake. There was pin drop silence only interspersed by the sound of falling drops from the melting snow on branches with the currently abundant sunshine. Thankfully, the drops were few and far between and did not create puddles on the trail and we could continue to crunch the fresh snow under our feet. Our heads had to be covered though with the sort of occasional rainfall effect of the same!
We crossed a meadow where the HP Forest Department puts up tents for staying in the summer. Although there were no markings on the trail, the path seemed fairly straightforward and could have become confusing in the snow. Hence, we had asked beforehand and were told there is no turn as such and the entire path is straight rather than a sharp right or left turn somewhere. After 20 odd minutes of walking (roughly past 1 kilometre) there was a camping site to the right and another 360 degree campsite somewhere to the left. The left side campsite seemed to have a vantage viewpoint and could make for a nice nature camp in the summer months.
We continued walking at a brisk speed and after the 2 km mark, came across another cluster of dhabas (all of them were closed with the recent snowfall). The sun was out and two benches were kept at just the right place so we opted for a five minute breather. Here, we met a couple of locals who were walking ahead of us – they were going to open their dhaba that was located close to the lake. They were carrying supplies and told us that they roughly call this 2 km dhaba stretch as the sort of halfway point.
I started feeling quite warm in the direct sun and we opted to start walking again since we were not really tired at all. After this point, the trail gets a little smaller in width and with the melting snow required a bit of extra concentration. There were a few downhill stretches and then uphill stretches but nothing alarming and after another 40 odd minutes of hiking, we came to another area with spread out dhabas(all of them were closed). I figured that the lake was nearby; the watch showed that we had covered 5 kilometres but Serolsar Lake was nowhere to be seen.
Instead, there were steps on the other side of the trail which meant there was more distance to be covered. On the other side, there were about 2-3 sizeable dhabas and one of them had been opened – courtesy of the local couple who went ahead of us. I noticed that the watch showed that we had covered about 5.6-5.7 kms at the dhaba point and I ended up asking the dhaba owner that everyone says that the distance between Jalori Pass to Serolsar Lake is 5 kilometres. He replied saying that the distance is almost 6 kms but like a popular myth, incorrect information has been floating around presumably to make it feel more attractive to first time trekkers!
He said that Serolsar Lake is hardly 200 metres ahead from there and told us to continue straight! We alighted past a flight of snow-laden stairs and came upon a stunning sight. Serolsar Lake looked incredibly beautiful surrounded by snow and had absolutely still waters with a reflection of the nearby trees. There was an iron gate that signified the entry to the walking path around the lake. The first reaction upon seeing Serolsar Lake was that it is quite big whereas in the photographs on the internet it looked quite small.
We walked a bit on the path that was totally submerged in snow and I had a glimpse of The Budhi Nagin Temple that was located on a higher platform on the left overlooking the lake. At first I thought that we would visit the temple but then I quickly deduced that there would be no pujari at the moment, the path was entirely snowed out and a quick look at the sky suggested that the clouds will be back soon. There were a couple of signboards instructing visitors to maintain the sanctity of the lake and not to go near the water. Snow had seeped in inside my shoes and I felt a bit chilly now that the physical activity was reduced to gazing at Serolsar Lake and clicking pictures!
The time was about 11 am and we started climbing the flight of stairs and sat at the dhaba. There was only maggi on offer (which I hate!) and so we decided to ask for black tea and a packet of whatever biscuits they had (nor that I like biscuits!). We had covered more than 10 kms without real food and had 6 more kilometres to trek to get back to Jalori Pass. The weather was holding up for the time being and we totally relished the black tea (laced with cardamom) and biscuits sitting on the wooden benches. We thanked the dhaba couple for leading the way and they recommended us to return in the summer!
In the summer months, every slope on the Jalori Pass to Serolsar Lake trek turns into a camping ground and with the numerous dhabas around – food is never really a problem. Only the presence of crowds deters me from heading to popular places in the high season. We started walking and mentally recollected the landmarks that we had encountered on the way so that we could return safely even if the weather worsened and the visibility reduced.
It was almost 12 noon when we encountered the first visitors on our way back. Another group was accompanied with a local guide and were trying to trek to Serolsar lake on a day when bad weather was forecast after 1 pm. The trail itself had become a bit slushy once more people had walked on it. We opted to sit on the same spot where we had rested at the 2 km mark on the way. As soon as we sat on the benches, it started drizzling and within no time turned to snow. Thankfully, another dhaba had opened by then and was serving 4 youngsters who were having maggi / etc. We sat under the tarpaulin for a minute and decided to just get back to Jalori Pass since it was not too far from there.
Within a matter of minutes the snowfall gave way to fog and mist and we were in a white forest all of a sudden. Thankfully, we were well prepared for this scenario and at this juncture we reached the first campsites where the trail widens. Here, we encountered a number of tourists chilling at the dhabas. Some were headed to Serolsar Lake in this inclement weather. Tourists were enjoying the unexpected snowfall and it felt nice to see the raw feel of the joy of travel. We were back to the dhaba at Jalori Pass just a tad before the clock struck 1. Dhaba uncle gave us a thumbs up and said well done and confirmed that our food is ready!
We gobbled up the rajma chawal, kadi chawal and it was really really delicious and felt even more so after a total of 16 odd kilometres of hiking in the snow. It was a nice feeling to know that living in Kullu Valley was working well for our fitness levels and we were almost on par with the locals in terms on basic speed in hiking even while not trying to speed up. Campers and other 4*4 vehicles were parked on both sides of the road on Jalori Pass and now we had the choice of going to Anni, Khanag or Sojha, Jibhi. It was still snowing and we instinctively said it is best to return home to Kullu Valley and sought about figuring a vehicle.
A shared camper guy said he’s charging INR 200 per person from Jalori Pass to Sojha and that he will leave when the vehicle is full. I tried asking him INR 200 till Banjar so that we could get a bus from Banjar to Kullu but he wouldn’t budge and I figured that he might take more than an hour to fill the number of passengers. After the lovely lunch, we were also ok with hiking back to Sojha along the road if it stopped snowing/raining. Just as we were wondering, I spotted another camper guy who was about to leave for Sojha. I quickly ran and asked him to drop us to Banjar for INR 200 per person. He had no other passengers and asked us to get in as he had to go somewhere and was in a rush.
As we say, sometimes we make our own luck and this camper guy seemed to be doing the same. We paid the dhaba uncle who was so kind that he came to tell the camper guy to drop us safely! There was a local family of five headed to Ghiyagi and off we went without wasting any time. As usual, aimless chatting was the order of the day and the gentleman of the family invited us to their home in Ghiyagi. The snow turned into rain just a few bends after starting our journey and by the time we reached Sojha, there was no sign of snow but only rainfall. The cold also abated a bit and even though my socks and feet were totally wet, I was ok.
The camper guy was quite friendly and told us that he was in a hurry because he was anyway headed to Bhuntar to get the servicing of his vehicle done. He agreed to drop us till Aut for INR 500 total for the two of us. We made good time from Banjar and reached Aut at 4 pm. Our reaching home was delayed as the bus from Aut took forever and after changing another bus in Kullu bus stand, we got down at Dobhi at 630 pm.
The weather was pleasant, our hearts were happy and it was an adventure of a trek from Jalori Pass to Serolsar Lake that made all the difference!