Jumping lanes in Pangi Valley

Rishad Saam Mehta travelled to Pangi Valley to discover the joy of living in the slow lane

A few months ago I woke up feeling melancholic about how my travels had started to become sterile and boring. Yes, I enjoyed them since they took me to exotic places but they were becoming predictable. It was becoming the same set routine: take a flight, check into a hotel, go explore the town, go to a fancy restaurant… each trip began to feel like the one before it. I knew that I would travel and stay in comfort, that the food would be fantastic, that there might be some odd curiosities in the town, but nothing more, nothing to astound me.

I found myself suddenly longing for that delicious uncertainty that would always accompany me when I first started travelling.

A plan is hatched

As a travel writer who thrived on excitement, I knew I had to take immediate action to get out of my doldrums. And so my friends and I hatched a plan to go on a road trip to Pangi Valley. This narrow valley within the Pir Panjal range in Himachal Pradesh is little known and is a short-cut from Chamba to Manali. The valley has  two high passes, one of them is the popular Rohtang Pass and the other is the spectacular Sach Pass.

A sunny September Saturday saw three of my friends and me at Teddy’s Lodge in Dalhousie tucking into breakfast served by none other than the owner of the lodge. Teddy Singh is ‘the’ grand old man of Dalhousie and he’s spent much of his youth leading trekking parties into Lahaul and Spiti. Today, even as he stands on the threshold of becoming an octogenarian, his spirit is as unflagging as triple distilled rum.

Fuelling up for the trip

A believer in bountiful breakfasts rather than debilitating diets, he had laid out a spread of porridge, fried eggs, toast with a thick layer of butter slapped onto it and rich apple pie. Knowing that this was probably going to be our last hearty meal till we get to Manali five days later, we ate with gusto.

With our bellies full, we loaded our vehicle and headed off towards Chamba via Khajjiar. A few kilometres into the drive, my buddy Kartik’s sudden yell put a halt on our sojourn. A big fat bumblebee had just stung him on the back of his head and within seconds the pain was radiating down his neck and shoulders. But an SOS call to Teddy Baba yielded a local treatment.

“Bloody hell” he boomed over the phone, “Why was he mucking around with the bee? Just find some marijuana leaves, crush them and apply the juice.”

Getting and applying the remedy was easy because cannabis grows wild in most Himachal districts. Soon Kartik was well again, though a little glassy eyed and vague.

That night we stopped at the Public Works Department [PWD] guest house at Bairagarh, a small town just before the ascent to the 14,500 feet Sach Pass begins. The watchman at the guest house offered to fetch groceries for our dinner, provided we cooked the meal ourselves. With three out of the four of us being ‘hobby chefs’ that was not a daunting task. So we took up his offer and 30 minutes later we had steaming green Thai curry and rice ready on the dinner table.

Refreshingly slow

The next morning we geared up for the climb to the spectacular Sach Pass—a highlight of our trip. At its almost stratospheric height, this pass has huge permanent glaciers that are the size of city blocks. After Bairagarh, all semblance of tarmac disappears. This meant that we would have to drive very slowly—at an average speed of about 14kph.

In the last few months, I had zoomed down country roads in the Czech Republic, driven on the German autobahns at ridiculous speeds and seen the countryside go by in a blur as I sat in a swift and silent Swiss train. The result of which is that I remembered the insides of the cars and trains very well, but not so much the landscapes. This experience of travelling slowly was refreshingly different. I appreciated the shapes of the clouds swooping across the magnificent mountains, spotted Himalayan hares scurrying out of their burrows and gazed with wonder at a Himalayan Black Eagle happily flying around. We continued our journey and, after a while, I stepped out of the car to breathe in the crisp cold air. While I took in the clean air, I tried to brush away the dust from my jacket and realised with wonder that it was a snowflake. I regaled in nature’s quiet beauty.

The Sach Pass is the gateway to the Pangi Valley, which is a verdant and narrow valley in the Udaipur district. The Chandrabhaga River that flows through this valley is, unlike most of Himachal’s rivers, unfettered. The pale blue river gurgles with glee as it flows over the boulders.

It took us an entire day’s drive to cover the 65 kms from Bairagarh to Killar, which is the first town after the pass and also has a scenic PWD guest house. Unfortunately, this guest house had been fully booked by the entourage of a visiting government official. So we backtracked to a fork and took the prong going towards Kashmir via Kishtwar. 10 kms down this road is a little village called Dharwas where again we were told that the guest house is full. Fortunately, the chowkidar was a kind-hearted man who let us pitch our tents on the manicured lawn of the bungalow.

When I laid my thin sleeping bag out in the open, I anticipated an uncomfortable night. But even though the temperatures fell to about 3°C that night, I had a comfortable night’s sleep.

Transcending material pleasures

The next morning over tea, the chowkidar casually mentioned to us that there was an incredibly narrow and scary road across a cliff, about 15 kms ahead from where we were. Even before he could finish his sentence, the four of us got into the car to explore this road. As we crossed into the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the apprehension on the face of the border guard was obvious. He didn’t seem too keen on the idea of city dwellers wanting to drive on that road. His fears were not unfounded; I have to confess I had never driven on a scarier road. It is narrow with sheer drops and a forbidding overhang. It feels as if the rock-face has grudgingly yielded a barely drivable path. This beautiful road, with the river on one side and the silvery green trees on the other, with its 1000 foot vertical drop and huge mountains made me feel insignificant yet incredibly alive. The view was so exquisite that we decide to brew some masala chai right there. As we sipped our tea, we also drank in the serenity of the place.

We then had to drive 12 kms further down that road to find a place where we had enough of space to turn the car around.

On our last night, we camped at the beautiful Miyan Valley that is an offshoot of the Pangi Valley. Kartik made some delicious biryani for us at our campsite by the Miyan River. Even though he cooked it on a portable propane stove and used a large amount of guesswork to measure the ingredients, it was as sumptuous as something you’d get at a five-star kitchen.

My trip to Pangi Valley taught me lessons about how I could live my life in the city. For the locals there, a landslide is just a minor inconvenience. They don’t fret or fume but patiently wait as the road is being cleared. Getting no electricity for days is not a problem, nor is the delay in getting a gas cylinder. Life in Pangi Valley goes on beautifully without the material comforts we have, and it is in fact richer and not short-changed. Today, as I sit in the sweltering heat of Mumbai and reminisce about my trip, I invariably go back to that moment sitting by the rushing river, eating that delicious biryani by the light of fireflies buzzing about camp. Bliss indeed!

This was first published in the November 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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