I can’t think of a beginning. And then I began:
I’m no hobbit. And I’m probably my own Gandalf. But my adventure isn’t just about me. It is about the numerous people who made the journey happen.
So, finally, after many days’ of doubt and fear I decided to leave despite all the discouragement I received because of being a girl and making the decision of travelling alone. It was clear in my mind where I was headed. I had packed my bag a day before but had waited trying desperately to find some company. I didn’t find any. And then when it became obvious that either I had to go alone or just not go, I decided to take a plunge into my own fear. I didn’t want regrets.
I reached the ISBT before 8pm. Not able to comprehend the arrangement of seats in the bus I had bought a ticket for a seat much at the end. I came back to the counter and asked the conductor if it could be changed. He said it couldn’t be done at the counter but I was free to take the seat at the front (which is reserved for the conductor). I came back and sat on my own cursing myself for not choosing the right one when I had the option. The bus was about to start and he asked me again if I wanted to shift. Finally I made the move which made the uncle sitting next to me more than happy. He had just won a window seat.
The journey till Shimla has nothing much interesting and so I was in for a conversation with a pahadi from Sundarnagar. And here began the surprise expressions I got when people were told I was travelling alone. I didn’t just receive stories about mountains of Himachal but also a shoulder for sleeping if I wanted to. I was offered dinner of special kind not meant for the other people.
At 4’o clock I opened my eyes to roads covered with early morning mist. Clouds floated over the tiny settlements in the valley each visible only by a single point of light.
At 5am I reached Shimla. It would be an hour before I sit for another haul. Even the bus stand reminds me of last December. I was here for the snow; I think and smile at myself. It is cold and I take out my shawl. I don’t eat anything. Not even tea. I wish I had some company. I do not like eating alone.
Another Road Begins:
I jumped into the front seat again this time without any thinking. I wanted the view all the way from Shimla to Reckong Peo. The driver and conductor bhaiya had changed. The Punjabi songs of the night had changed to old classics. It reminded me of school times and home. I have my eyes fastened outside for any little thing worth interest. I notice a mountain hen and a crow. Naldhera seems familiar. A little later the unknown paths begin. Bright sunlight floods the green valleys. The roads with their cave like structures amazed me. I couldn’t help but admire the beauty of not just the mountains and the Sutlej flowing all along but also the people.
Terrain determines Temperament:
The little acts of kindness in helping me with a better seat to charging my dying phone to even finding accommodation at Peo. After 5 years in Delhi, one would expect a stream of abuses, some even incomprehensible, when two buses just banged into each other twice at a turn. But I was in for a surprise when both of them smiled at each other. The patience that displayed itself when the driver waited patiently for others to move forward on the one-way road was in contrast to the one I saw while coming back to Delhi where a particular Red light signal wasn’t working. So, it is obvious that they do not need separate lanes for the ambulance to pass. Neither do they need traffic policemen I suppose. Our conductor bhaiya wearing his sunglasses was smart enough to resolve the traffic jam without any help from the police guy who stood there and watched.
Another moment was the time when our driver suddenly brought the bus to a halt to save a little “sarp” (snake). I wonder how he could even see that thing on the dusty road.
Welcome to Reckong Peo, the Headquarters of Kinnaur Valley:
I reached in the evening and was advised to stay there even though I had not planned so. I asked for accommodation at the PWD guesthouse (assuming that it would be safe). Well, I was disappointed there. So I came out and sat on the bench placed outside on the road and enjoyed the view for an hour. Later I went hunting for a place to stay for the night. I asked 2 aunties for suggestion elaborating my situation. They discussed with themselves and then one of them formulated the conclusion like this: “you go and check the option your friend has suggested and if you don’t think it fit toh aap hamare saath he chalna hamare ghar ab akele auarat jaat ko aise toh nahi chhodenge na.” I thanked them and walked towards the bus stand to explore my options. Finally I found a place to have a shower and rest for the night.
Next morning I decided to walk to the bazaar even though I could get a bus for Kalpa from right outside the bus stand. The walk downhill is like a miniature trek. I stop now and then to behold the beauty in my eyes. The shops have not opened yet and so I sit at one of the benches and observe the people going to work, kids going to school, prayers humming out of the temple nearby and everything that passes me by. The bus for Kalpa arrives. I ask the old woman if I could sit next to her. She tells me she has reserved the seat for her saheli. I sat on the opposite one next to the window. The saheli was a young college woman who boarded the bus at the bus stand. The friendship warmed my heart.
A child came running towards the bus and sat on the front seat next to the driver. His expressions conveyed his accomplishment. The grandmother appeared a little later with his schoolbag. India might never get back the Kohinoor but I had found one in the bus. He tried hard to open the window while his grandmother told stories of sick people to the old woman in the bus. He played hide and seek with me sitting at his place making tongue out expressions. I was no less and responded equally well!
I start looking outside again. A girl plays with her Barbie doll standing in her balcony. I wonder if kids everywhere play with Barbie dolls. A little later a monk sits beside me who was to meet me at the monastery again. The road to Kalpa is half an hour drive and I reached sooner than expected.
Kalpa’s Apple orchards:
While asking for where should I stay given my situation, the police guy told me there is no crime here, you can stay wherever you like. I climbed the shortcut to Roghi road. I was panting after the 20 minutes climb and spread out on the road itself. With the list of all the places in my hand I started dialling the numbers. It was useless I realized after half an hour. I took the downhill road and walked lazily inquiring at every hotel that passes by until I found the place where I finally settled myself for 2 days.
I quickly refreshed myself to get to the rooftop to get a view of Kinner Kailash and Parvati peak. The hotel guy, Yudhisthir, represented a new generation of youth everywhere. Studying and travelling and working (in Kalpa and Goa), he was a treasure of stories ranging from ghost stories to local stories of the temple. Discussions ensued on the caste system prevalent in the village in the form separate temples, the position of women, the alcoholic men who even had licences to make it at their own homes, the fascination with protecting their culture and traditional practices and what not. A friend was found even in Kalpa in another lone traveller SS.
The prayer music emanating from the monastery invites us there. The temple beside is not entirely open wherein the Buddhist influence cannot be ignored. The kids from the orphanage play around and are happy to get the little attention from the outsiders. At night we try the local alcohol which tastes like vodka. Stories spit out late at night flowing without any effort.
The next day we go for a morning walk to Roghi village at a distance of 6kms. On the way back we stopped various times to enjoy the view especially the suicide point even though every point on the walk could be considered a suicide point. We were assumed to be a couple wherever we went. It irritated SS but I found it amusing.
The 4 kids playing around had a bag full of cherries picked from somebody’s tree. They gave us some showing quite a business sense.
That night some stories left the forests of Kalpa flooded with memories of long lost love. Eyes longed for sleep. Early morning i watched the static giants in front of me before I left for Sangla. I waited for SS who had asked to come along and I had agreed.
A Marathi group of 4 old men and 2 women sat there. I think of old age, the future and travel. I brush away these thoughts and try to think of something else but couldn’t.
Leaving for another Road: To Sangla and Chhitkul
At 12pm we left for Chhitkul from Reckong Peo. I meet the conductor and the driver bhaiya again and get to say thank you I had been wishing I should have said before. The terrain changes as we move towards the last village on the Hindustan-Tibet road. We get a nice room at cheap prices and a very soft purple flowered blanket which I reserved for myself. I am told again that I’m “selfish.” Probably I had heard it so much for the past 3 days it had stopped making any difference in my attitude. We go out looking for food and Old Monk. This time we had choice!
In the evening it is raining outside. The misty mountains and the Baspa flowing in the valley are enchanting. The weather is chilly and the rains bring out the romanticism it has always entailed for me. At night I watch the mist slide down the mountains like ghosts running down. I dream of getting lost in the mist.
Chhitkul opens the Door:
In the morning I see Amit, the 21 year old Israeli staying in the room next to us, preparing to go for a bike ride. I say my wish of going along a little too loud. In response SS urges me to ask and says “just remember, zindagi na milegi dobara”. I peep out of the window and shout, “hey! Can I come along?” and the next moment i am there on the bike on a difficult road without a helmet, not even knowing the name of the guy I was holding and thinking if I would ever come back. We went till the next check post where the ITBP people signalled us to go back. We chat for a little while before it starts drizzling again.I walk to the riverside and collect all possible varieties of flowers I could locate. Then walking around the village I discover the marriage that was to be held the day after and even get invited for it. In that very house I am offered tea and I find Harsh who playfully asks me if he could jump onto me!
Then I find the kid who didn’t want his picture clicked but was more than willing to talk and get a picture clicked with the offer of a chocolate. And then at the ground I met Gungun who said “come”, showed me the temple and then her “kuthar” (storeroom for the winters when Chhitkul is shut off from rest of the world) and her house. She tells me her best friend is Isa Fatima. The friend along with her is Diksha. They introduce me to the lamb Rani and teach me a little kinnauri language. Diksha even shows me her dancing while Gungun flaunts her English which she claims is better than me because she studied in an English-medium school from nursery, I agreed she was very smart. Gungun shows her “nati” dance for a while before she is spotted by her Appi( grandmother). I leave with local sugarcane and a lot of beautiful memories.
In the morning Shlomi, Carmel and I see off the wedding procession in their traditional dresses. Wedding discussions follow with Shlomi. The whole day it’s walks and talks. A walk towards the river takes us across the bridge. The “lada-ladi” arrived late at night and celebrations begin then.
The next morning the celebrations were continuing when i reach there. I dance along as I try to follow their steps. Since i do not have a kinnauri cap of my own I ask one didi to put flowers in my hair which Harsh had offered me. I came back not wanting to leave.
One last walk along the river and then I leave Chhitkul for Chandigarh.
The adventure doesn’t end here.
I reach Sangla in the evening at 5pm. I step out thinking of buying something for my mother in the half an hour stopover. I’m asking the shop guy to show me a black shawl when i get the call from Chhitkul that they have been looking for me and somebody had just spotted me in Sangla. So, I had been unofficially missing, my photos probably circulated all over the region! Only because my phone had not been working for the past 4 days and I hadn’t made the effort to call my friends. My phone is suddenly flooded with messages enquiring my whereabouts and of missed calls. And then I’m told a friend’s junior is probably travelling in the same bus! Are they spying on me!?
Courage and infectious:
At Rampur I meet Neha who is going to Chandigarh. She is surprised, like many others, on hearing of my travelling alone and tells me again and again of how courageous I am. It wasn’t something new. Everyone was telling me this when they heard I had left alone. A geologist from Assam working in Ratanpur, Mohan, met too but talked only after Chandigarh. He wouldn’t have come to relax in the heat of Delhi had I told him before. So he decided to cut short his stay in Delhi to go to Kalpa later. I wish he goes and finds the beauty and peace of Kinnaur Valley which I did.
July 5th, 2015
Note: Check out more amazing pictures and more by SS at his own app ReadOn here .