For many decades I had been wanting to visit Sangla Valley, lately popular amongst backpack mountain adventure seekers/tourists. However, being a Himachali, mountaineer and having served in Shimla, I still failed to reach this lesser-visited area due to connectivity problems, weather and other issues. But it is too beautiful a place, and despite being off the beaten track, and having a difficult approach, this remains a ‘must-see’ tourist spot.
Kinnaur Valley is located in the Northeast corner of Himachal Pradesh, about 235 km from the state capital, Shimla. The Valley is known for its apples and other fruit orchards. Beautiful small hamlets, meadows surrounded with thick dense woods and not to forget the ever scary roads (The road to Sangla Valley was featured by the name Ledge in Discovery Channel as the Deadliest Roads in the World…, not for those with weak hearts and prone to mountain sickness)
Kalpa (2,960 m, 9,710 ft) provides a marvellous breathtaking view of Kinner Kailash, a mountain sacred to Hindus, close to the Tibetan border. Kinnaur Valley is surrounded by mountains, ranging in altitude from 2,320 m to 6,816 m (7,610 ft to 22,362 ft). The beautiful meadows in Sangla (2,696 m -8,900 ft) also known as Baspa Valley because of the Baspa river. Chitkul is considered to be the last village in India along this India-Tibet border at an altitude of about 3,450 m (11,320 ft).
I finally managed to pay a visit to this beautiful out of the way place in June 2017. We reached Shimla on 04 June 2017 and stayed in the guest rooms of MH Jatogh on the outskirts of Shimla—a quiet place with the famous monkeys of Shimla waking you up early while jumping on the tin rooftops.
Next day, we hired an Innova for the whole journey ex Rampur so as to get a driver who is familiar with the road and the area. It is advisable to have a local driver in the hills, especially when the roads are snaky and lead to high altitude areas. We left Shimla for Rampur (130km) at about 9 AM and visited Kufri Adventure Resorts en-route.
This is good for children but is better avoided by nature-loving travellers. We had lunch in Narkanda and visited the Hatu Peak Temple, a difficult steep gradient road of over 6kms getting us there. The location is being developed into a tourist resort. All the temples in Himachal are being renovated tastefully.
From thence we drove to Rampur through the famous Kotgarh Apple orchards, covered with white nets to provide protection from hailstorms, the white nets looking like fresh snowfall on the slopes.
Samuel Stokes was successful in getting Kotgarh on the world map for its apples. In 1916, Stokes, a social worker from Philadelphia, USA came to Kotgarh as a missionary worker and got attracted to the beauty and culture of Kotgarh and eventually settled down by marrying Agnes Benjamin, a local.
He converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand Stokes. He then cultivated delicious varieties of apples on his farm by importing saplings from the famous nursery Growers- Stark Brothers of Louisiana. Stokes encouraged the local farmers to plant apples in their fields, thereby bringing prosperity to the region. Kotgarh is now believed to be the richest village of South Asia.
It offers marvellous walks through the scenic beauty of pine forests and apple orchards. The picturesque terraced fields dotted with apple trees and bungalows is an artist’s imagination.
Night halt on 05 June was at Rampur HPTDC Hotel ‘Bushar Regency,’ providing a view of the slopes across the Satluj River. Next day, Col Ravi Kant escorted us to his apple orchard in the Gaur Valley. He hosted us to tea and also took us to the nearby spring (Vaid Baurhi).
However, due to renovation by tile work, the originality has totally been lost. It is believed that the erstwhile Rajas of Rampur had their water ferried daily to Rampur from this spring known for to its medicinal value. That gave rise to the name Vaid (Doctor) Baurhi (small step-well in the hills with natural flowing mineral water). The area provides ideal opportunities for apple trail treks and also for mountain cycling.
Later we drove to Sarahan, where we visited the Bhim Kali Mandir. Virbhadra Singh, who has been the Chief Minister of the state and who belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Rampur, had his own family mandir in the floor below the Bhim Kali Mandir, but this remains closed to the public. At Sarahan, we had lunch in the HPTDC hotel ‘Srikhand.’
After lunch, the weather packed up and it started raining with a heavy hail storm. There was the danger of landslides, which at times can cut you off from the rest of the state, but we drove slowly, down to the National Highway, and up to Karchham, on the banks of the Satluj and up the winding road to Sangla/Baspa Valley at an altitude of 2,696 m, where we stayed in Hotel ‘Prakash Regency’ in an apple orchard.
On 07 June 2017, we drove to the last village Chitkul (11,320 ft), 26km from Sangla. It is a narrow valley with dense cedar forests providing views of streams and small glaciers. Chitkul is famous for the potato seed and green peas.
There is a temple here and locals do not eat meat in Chitkul. We visited the Batseri village and the temple across the river Baspa on our way back from Chitkul and also had a distant look of the ancient famous 1000-year-old Kamru Fort, as we were getting late for Kalpa.
From Kamru Fort, the Rampur Bushahr kings ruled earlier. Journey to Karchham was downhill and beyond was uphill to Kalpa (old name Chini). We reached Kalpa through Rekong Peo, the district HQ, around 4 PM and checked in at Hotel La Sangri- la. The rooms provided a magnificent view of Kinner Kailash massif. In the evening we walked down to visit the local monastery and the collocated mandir.
Being a full moon, the snow-covered peaks of Kinner Kailash (6050m), Jarkaden (6473m) and Raldang (5499m bear blacktop) were glistening in the moonlight. Raldang Peak is believed to be where the spirits of the locals reside.
Next day, we took a break from travelling and restricted ourselves to local sightseeing of the village Ronchi. It was a sunny day and we had a wonderful view of Kinner Kailash. After the day’s rest, we prepared for our return journey on 09 June and drove to Shimla, where we spent the night with the Army Training Command.
En route, we had a delicious lunch with Col Ravi Kant at his residence. We reached Shimla around 8 PM and stayed at the ‘Knockdrin’ the erstwhile residence of the Chief of Staff, Western Command.
I found this particularly memorable and many years earlier, in 1982, being newly married, my wife and I enjoyed the hospitality of Lt Gen Sushil Kumar (11GR), then the COS,I have served as his ADC when he was Director-General Assam Rifles, prior to assuming the appointment of COS. The ‘Knockdrin’ Plaque speaks of the history of this heritage building.
Sangla Valley is one of the lesser-visited and untouched places in Himachal Pradesh, which mountain lovers must visit and enjoy. It is one of those places where the journey itself is part of the adventure.
The Kalpa Valley has a comparatively easier approach, but having gone so far, it would be worth it to visit both the Valleys. Airtel remained the most efficient connection to be functioning in Sangla Valley as well as in Kalpa. My lifetime dream to visit the Sangla Valley was at last fulfilled and was worth the effort.