The bus was at 7.30 am as per the time table. However, I learnt at 7:25 that it had already left at 7 because that’s what they do in the summers. So began another one of my excruciating walks.
My final destination during the #60DaysOfSummer trip was Pangi which is as obscure a place as one can find in the 21st century. I have waited for last few months because I wasn’t sure if I should publicize it too much. A much abused and misused word “pristine” can be used for Pangi in its truest sense. So, I do not really want to see a tourism boom here. However, I cannot also hold back and not share at least a bit of what I have seen and trust me, you must see it to believe what I saw and these photographs are not doing full justice to the place.
I have already shared some snippets from Pangi earlier. Nevertheless, I am repeating the intro for the sake of convenience.
“It is practically the last frontier yet to be broken by the Himalayan tourism boom. In the olden days, it used to be a site for Kala Pani (exile) for criminals of Chamba Kingdom. Even now, at the expense of sounding like a self-righteous snob, I want these people to remain oblivious of those possibilities, and the resultant squalor, pollution, and degradation that accompanies the same. But I know, it is only a matter of time.
I have seen many maps and trekking guidebooks of Himachal that end exactly where the Pangi Valley should begin. This has remained invisible to most of them except one or two exceptions. And this invisibility is not a mythical or exotic one. It remains practically ignored for some inexplicable reasons.”
A few years ago, I came across it accidentally and till this date people return expressions ranging from befuddled to sarcastic when I mention the place. In fact I also faced the same from many magazine editors who were not sure if I was pitching fact or fiction. It is hard to imagine a place this sensory yet this desolated in this day and age when most of the neighbouring areas beyond its hilly confines have been major tourist hubs for many decades.
I reached Killar, the only town in Pangi, after a precarious HRTC bus ride from Keylong through one of those killer roads. The road generally remained tolerable till the borders of Lahaul but as soon as it entered Pangi region, all pretense of civic infrastructure disappeared.
I saw exactly two hotels in Killar took a room in one of them called Hotel Chamunda. There were a few shops and restaurants of very basic nature, named after various names of the river Chandrabhaga.
Pangi Valley Primer:
Now, before going any further, let me explain a few things about the region. Pangi is actually not one valley but a combination of several sub valleys. These narrow sub valleys are nurtured by narrow hilly streams that eventually join the Chandrabhaga that cuts through rugged terrains of the valley.
Sural, Hudan, Parmar, Saichu, etc are some of those sub valleys. Every sub valley has a series of villages leading up to the top (generally at altitudes in excess of 3000 metres). Interestingly, lower villages are generally Hindu villages but the last ones are Buddhist Villages called “Bhatoris” as they are inhabited by “Bhot”s or Tibetan Buddhists. So, at the end of Sural, there is a village called Sural Bhatori while at the end of Hudan there is one called Hudan Bhatori, and so on.
Due to difficult terrains, it takes several days to cover all of them. I barely had a couple of days to spare at the end of a very long trip. The first day I tried Sural but due to some misunderstanding, I got down from the bus even before it reached the destination. I will return there next summer but today let me concentrate on Hudan, which I covered the next day.
At Killar, I was glad to find a bus time table written on the wall but soon I realized that it is not that accurate. As mentioned already, I missed the bus. I asked a few local car drivers who quoted some exorbitant amounts. So, left with no other option, I packed two Bar One chocolates and half a bottle of water as emergency ration and started walking. It was around 12 kms away and it was still pretty early in the morning. So, I calculated that I can make it, explore the place and also return by the end of the day as the sun doesn’t set almost till 8pm in this season.
The first thing of note that I came across was the helipad. This might have looked inoccuous but during the winters, when all the approaches to the valley are blocked, this helipad can decide life or death of the Pangwals. It is seamlessly integrated with the road. So, one can also enjoy a very unique experience of crossing a smooth helipad on a rickety bus. As for myself, I just walked over it and continued my hike.
The initial parts of the trek were not much different from any other hikes. There are 2-3 small villages on these parts such as Tundroo and Takwas etc. As I crossed one by one, the road got narrower and I was beginning to feel that everything was even getting slightly tilted. The road was being intersected by smaller streams at regular intervals. I refilled my water bottle at one of them. A dog appeared from nowhere, and so did a rosefinch.
Eventually, I reached a point where the road takes a steep U turn. This is where I found the famous “swords” of Hudan. These are basically rocks, partially buried on the ground. There are some local legends flying pandits associated with them. Forgive me if this sounds interesting because I have no other details regarding this. This has been fleetingly mentioned in Minakshi Chaudhry’s book.
Anyway, I kept moving upwards and since I’d gained significant altitude by then, the views had gotten better. I struggled to find a horizontal portion throughout the entire valley. The villages are built on steep inclines. They cultivate a limited variety of crops in these slopes, and even the kids play on such tilted fields. Eventually, even the steep inclines also end and the ground nosedives almost perpendicularly to meet the lascivious stream.
At Hudan Bhatori
After around 4 hours of hiking I finally arrived at the village. The bus I missed earlier was returning. But it was going to come back later, and I had to do explore the area in the meantime. I saw a few small stupas, thus convincing me that I am entering Buddhist territory.
I could not see too many people, but the few I came across had the same question, what exactly was I doing there? The manner was not offensive but curious. No tourist comes here. There are no hotels or resorts and very few people even know about them. So, the stranger in the strange land indeed looked strange. This is also an indication of completely uncorrupted and insulated mindset of these people. They are not realizing their own potential and cannot even imagine that their villages can attract other visitors.
I moved on through the village. I wanted to visit the local monastery but somewhere I got distracted and confused and I started climbing the steep rolling hills above the village. My direction was wrong as it turned out, but I did not care about that. This was the peak of summer and everything was blooming and glowing. The cattle here do not graze but munch on pearls and rubies.
I kept climbing upwards as far as possible, till the point I was exhausted. But still there were a few aerodynamically inefficient cows above me. It did not make me feel very good about myself but nevertheless, I’d had a long walk so I allowed myself some rest. A local woman tending to her herd came close and again inquired a few things about me. Finally she showed me the correct direction of the monastery but I was already satisfied and decided to just keep clicking the cows, goats, blue poppies, and butterflies.
After several hours, I figured that the return bus will arrive soon. So, climbed down and started walking back. This is when I met Kungaram Ji. It is not exactly the name I was expecting in a Buddhist village. But probably the culture is more composite in these regions as they live in close proximity with the Hindu villages. Anyway, he invited me for tea inside his house. Sadly, it was pitch dark inside so I could not return with any worthwhile images.
We started chatting. He claimed to be 80 years old but did not look a day older than 50. We discussed various things about life in those regions and he soon upgraded to offer for tea to local liquor and took out a bottle. I had to return soon, so I was a bit careful. Nevertheless, we downed a few pegs and continued the conversation in the very dim light penetrating through the crevices of the wall. I am not sure but probably this kind of structure saves them during the harsh winter.
Eventually it was time for the bus so I bad adieu and started walking back. The bus seemed late but I’d done the hardwork already and the downward walk was not something that frightened me. Also, the light was still good and so I got some more pictures. The butterflies were now settling down on the flowers at the end of hard day’s work and cattle were returning home too.
I’d walked close to 30 KMs by that time and was completely exhausted. But there was still no sign of the bus and I’d used up my ration too. Finally, when I again reached those aforementioned “swords”, I finally saw the bus coming. I did not mind it because it was just the perfect location to end the day with a perfect frame!
UPDATE: I finally made a Pangi Travel Guide for your convenience.