(This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated 27-Oct-2012)
Journey to the end of the earth, or that’s what it feels like, when we visit Chitkul on the India-Tibet border
A couple of hours commuting to the airport, the pre-boarding hours, two and half hours in a plane, eight hours on a bus from Delhi to Shimla, then an entire day's bus journey to Sarahan, followed by another long day of rickety bus rides. That’s a total of 35 arduous hours spent so far on the road and here I am at 3:00 pm on Day 3 in Chitkul, the last village on the Indian side at the India-Tibet border.
The sun's rays are still strong and the day shows no signs of coming to an end. Chitkul is glowing as if the lights will never be put off in this hamlet. There’s a sense of cosiness, as if the place is transfixed in time, but a chilly wind from the Baspa valley that carries moisture from the Baspa river, is a reminder of the travails of time.
This last hamlet is by no means just a village. What was a remote village a few years ago with few travellers is now on the tourist map. The half-a-dozen guest houses greet us with signs of 'rooms available' and the attached restaurants display descriptive menus, mainly consisting of thukpas, momos, noodles and the omnipresent Indian thali.
The women are filling up water in cans from a tap just above ground level while the Baspa river flows by down the valley. A few donkeys linger and the putrid smell of their excreta is eclipsed in the afternoon breeze.
Our spine yearns for rest, which is duly acknowledged in the Thakur Guest House, a small place that mainly caters to budget travellers. The room on the ground floor, although hardly ventilated, is clean enough for a quick nap. Our sleep is broken by a passing tractor and we realise with a start that it’s 6:00 pm. With the hope of capturing the evening sun, I venture out, only to find the sun still bright, though the wind in the valley has become much stronger and the temperature has dropped. A hot cup of tea, perfectly savoured from the guesthouse terrace, lets me enjoy the view.
The morning has a pale blueness to it and one can hear the Baspa hitting the boulders in the distance. The chirping of the birds is like a chime in this one-man orchestra. Outside the guesthouse, I get a morning view of the Himalayas. With the sun's rays hitting only the peaks, the lower portions are still drenched in darkness, and the mountains look like they have been given a layer of icing at the top. The snow-capped ones shimmer as if they are the crowning jewels of India. One could sit on the terrace the whole day and do nothing but look at the skyline.
After two or three cups of chai, we brave a stroll up to the river. The Baspa is murky, carrying silt and mud, but the flow is still extremely strong. The place looks perfect for rafting, as there are many Class III and IV rapids. The sun is getting brighter but the cold is still perceptible. Another 5-6 km walk would have brought me to the Indian border check post but my laziness gets the better of me. I am told that 20 km from the check post lies Tibet.
I take a post-prandial walk around the village. With only a few hundred people living here, I expect to stumble on quite a few people and have some interesting conversations. But most of the villagers seem busy cooking lunch in their beautiful wooden homes.
An old man smoking tobacco tells me the small house-like structures scattered across the village are used to store grain and fodder, protecting them from snow and rain. I stumble upon a big beautiful wooden door, the main gate to the temple of the local goddess, known as Chitkul Maathi or Mata Devi. Chitkul is the last stop in the Kinner Kailash Parikrama, which starts from Kalpa, going via Thangi, Lambar and Charang, and continues towards Rakcham, Sangla and culminates at Karcham where the Baspa meets the Sutlej.
Chitkul is cut off during winter and many villagers move to Sangla or Rampur. Looking back, I realise the arduous journey was well worth it. In Chitkul, the best thing to do is relax, soak in the views and take back enchanting memories. In many ways, it felt as if time had frozen in Chitkul.
HOW TO GET THERE
Hire a cab from Shimla, the wait for buses is long. The adventurous can hit Rekong Peo from Shimla. There are two daily buses to Chitkul from Rekong Peo. Sangla is the last big town before Chitkul and has many staying and eating options.
WHERE TO STAY
Panchali Resort and Thakur Guest House are good budget options, while Banjara Camp & Retreat, and Igloo Nature Camp offer slightly pricey tented accommodation.
WHAT TO EAT
You can get momos, thukpas, noodles and Indian thalis almost everywhere.