We just completed a gruelling 3000km plus drive in the Himalayas in a period of 11 days. So we are back in town after a marathon trip across the Himalayas along with Ramesh Tahlan Sir.
The Itinerary went something like this : Gurugram - Dalhousie - Basohli - Bani - Sarthal - Chattargali Pass - Bhaderwah - Padri Pass - Chamba - Dalhousie - Padri Pass - Bhaderwah - Kishtwar - Sinthan Pass - Kishtwar - Gulabgarh - the Cliffhanger Road (Killar Kishtwar) - Killar - Udapur - Keylong - Shinku La (till where the Darcha Padam Road could go) - Baralacha La-Rohtang La-Manali- Tirthan Valley-Jalori Pass - Kotkhai - Chansal Pass - Kotkhai - Nahan - Gurugram.
Since writing about the whole Trip is a long and tedious job I have decided to give the details in Parts so that you can follow the whole Journey in Parts. Of course this is just a narrative of the Journey and other interesting facts and stories about the whole area would come at a later stage.
We started off from Gurgaon on the 30th of May and made our way to Dalhousie the same day. It was a hot hot day and getting into Dalhousie in the evening gave us some relief. Dalhousie was of course full of Tourists as expected in this season. But the smell of the Deodar really rejuvenates one as we reach the altitude at which they grow.
The next we drove down to the town of Basohli by the Ranjit Sagar Dam located at around 1800 ft abmsl in the lower foothills. Before the building of the Dam the town stood on the Ravi River which was damed. The Dam is also known as the Thein Dam. We had to drive down from Dalhousie and go to Basohli after crossing over from the Village of Dunera known for its Aam Papads.
Basohli is an ancient town and today stands at the trijunction of J&K, HP and Punjab and is home to the majestic Atal Setu Bridge. Basohli played a significant part in history as it was in Basohli that the tradition of Pahadi miniature paintings started. And it was from here that it spread to Chamba and Kangra.
The Basohli School of Miniature Painting was considered the earliest School of this style of painting. Basohli was also home to a grand Basohli Fort and the ruins of the Fort can be still seen on a Hillock above the main town. The Fort ruins are an indicator to the size and grandeur of this Town that this mostly forgotten now and few people if ever venture into this part of the Country. It is still a beautiful Town though located by the Emerald waters of the Ranjit Sagar Reservoir, named after my favourite historical figure, the Sher E Punjab. Basohli lies in the Kathua District of the Jammu Division My wife’s maternal Grand Parents hailed from a town called Billawar close to Basohli is the same Kathua District. So i had some familial connections with the area as well. I would have loved to explore more but with the temperatures touching 40 we decided to gain some elevation.
So we headed towards the Town of Bani which lies nestled in the lower Hills at an altitude of around 4700 ft abmsl. It lies deep in the Pir Panjals and as a result of its location deep in the Mountains its experiences light to mild Snowfalls in the Winters. It lies on the Sewa River which has been dammed and as a result there is a beautiful man-made Lake called the Sewa Lake right by the Bani town which gives it quite a pleasant feel. Plus the gushing waters of the Sewa River themselves add to the charm and beauty of the place. The Road from Basohli to Bani is a mixed bag of good Roads, not so good and bad Roads though we can make out that a major Road widening project is underway. And as luck would have it we met Mr.Jamwal, the person incharge of the Bani Basohli Tourism Authority and he briefed us on the various aspects of this beautiful area. And its from Bani onwards that things start to get exciting.
The Mountains seem bigger the weather cooler and the beautiful Waterfalls started and the Roads became worse. When the Road turns bad in the Mountains its a sign that the place they will lead to will be beautiful, at least in the Himalayan context. Our next destination was Sarthal, a place I had heard a lot about but never visited. And on the way there were few Villages and we could see the Demographical and Cutural changes. The Populace turned slowly from Hindu towards Muslim as we went higher. And of course there were Gujjars everywhere, after all these are the Pir Panjals and they know these Mountains better than anyone.
After a steep climb over rough Roads we came upon a sight that few have witnessed. The amazing Water Fall which fell in seven steps over a Mountain cliff with a deafening roar. The total fall of the Water fall must be well over 300 feet. Its located at Kharkal near the Village of Lowang. The Waterfall is a beautiful one and one can spend hours looking at the Waterfall. After the Waterfall we finally arrived at Sarthal after another round of rough climbing. And lo and behold I came across a place which looked familiar.
It looked like Gulmarg. Just add a smaller version of the Lidder River to it. It was just perfect. Gulmarg though my favorite destination in the Mountains has always lacked a proper River running through it though there are a few Nullahs around. But Sarthal was just perfect. Very similar to Gulmarg with open Meadows and Mountains all around. It was idyllic and at 7000 feet abmsl it gets a fair share of Snowfall. Apparently no one lives there during Winters so intense are the Snowfalls and in my view it holds some potential as a Skiing destination as well.
After having a quick Lunch at the only functional Dhaba/ Shop we decided to head on towards the Chattargala Pass for what was to be one of the most memorable drives of the whole Journey. You climb up into the rugged Mountains and slowly the Meadows fall below. This is Gujjar country and we saw many Group of Gujjars who had arrived here for the Summers with their “Maal” for the Summer grazing.
The Drive up is a steep one but one of the most beautiful Road up a pass it really has to be. The Chattargala Pass on the top separates the Kathua District from the Doda District of J&K. The Pass is also the watershed between the Ravi and the Chenab Valley on the other side. The Pass itself gave great views of the Great Himalayan Range and there was some Glacial Ice accumulation along the Road as we descended towards Bharderwah. (More on Bhaderwah in the next Chapter)
Just before we reached Bharderwah and started to climb towards the Padri Pass which connects this area with Chamba. We were doing a circular Route and were headed back to Dalhousie using the Padri Pass. The climb to Padri Pass is an easy one from the Bhaderwah but on the other side the things changed. As soon as we hit the State Borders on the other side the Road changes from Tarmac to a dirt Track. And it was here that we drove in total darkness in an area which was eerily silent and we couldn't see even a single light on the Mountains around us. As a rule I avoid driving in the Mountains on unfamiliar Roads let alone drive down a Pass but we had majorly miscalculated the time it would take us as we spent far too much time in taking Photos, making Videos and talking to people. So we just drove on (It would be the next day when we drove up the same Road in broad day light that we realised the size of the Road and the fall into the Gorge). We kept driving on through Chamba and finally reached Dalhousie at midnight. Around 18 hours after starting from the same place.