The night has brought silent, blanketing snow, transforming the village of Chitkul into spun sugar houses, their slate roofs thick with puffs of, well, icing. Blue pines and cedars look utterly Christmassy &mdash jolts of light wind blowing the fresh snow off their evergreen foliage. The sky is blue the broad lay of the valley a wintry white. I walk on a level path lined with candyfloss bushes, with round snowballs crowning their thorny edges. The valley to the east upholds an expansive view of snow-clad mountains across which lies Uttarakhand and Tibet depending on which direction one is looking at. It is mid April and the valley should be blooming into spring, yet it wears its winter cloak. I am on a walk to Nagasthi, the last ITBP post in the Sangla valley of Kinnaur from where civilians can go no further. The walk is level, the landscape surreal and pretty.
What I do not know yet is that this is merely the lull before the storm &mdash something quite different is brewing on the distant horizon, which will soon turn the near spring to near winter with monsoon-like conditions on the prowl. And therein lay the epiphany, which arrived on a stray stroke of lightning and the magical spell that wound me up in pleasurable knots over the next three days.
At a height of 2,700m, the Banjara Camp is surrounded by towering mountains on all sides and is set on the banks of the Baspa river that surges through the valley. I had arrived at their tented retreat the previous night in dripping cold and found myself utterly charmed with &lsquoBatseri&rsquo, my tented home for the next four nights.
Encased in red chunri print drapes, the tent is luxurious in an understated way &mdash a double bed, a period dresser-cum-study, hat stand and some chairs and a table. My attached loo has a neatly tiled floor, running hot and cold water and a gleaming white porcelain potty (essential, my editors have told me, for a &lsquocomfort trek&rsquo story). And I&rsquom not complaining.
The next morning we go on a meandering 25km drive to Chitkul, the last roadhead of the valley and its last village, from where the walk to Nagasthi is an easy hour&rsquos ramble. The jawans are thrilled to see visitors. In winter the thermostat gets stuck at -40 degrees Celsius and doors get jammed, crib the guardians of our precarious borders who spend entire winters in some very hallowed posts like this one. For me it is brimming with the crackle of early spring.
I spend the evening around a bonfire while head chef Dhanpat doles out succulent chunks of lamb and chicken, jacket potatoes and vegetable platters. I am the sole guest of the camp and I listen intently to the camp manager Shardendu a.k.a. Sonu as he describes the &ldquoraunak&rdquo in the camp in season cricket matches, children, the various walks and activities, and the conviviality of families and friends enjoying a slice of wilderness in this picturesque setting. An IT professional, Sonu gave up city life to manage Banjara Camps&rsquo various mountain retreats and now more than two years later is half a mountain man himself.
There are nooks and crannies if you want to simply laze or angle for trout by the river, but I highly recommend that you go on at least a few walks here. I have taken my eight-year-old on a few small hikes but this is where I will bring her next time. It is ideal for that first real introduction to nature and to propel her on for that further longer hike. The camp itself is well outfitted for children &mdash swings, activities and carefree spaces, not to mention ample food.
We top off the evening with big plans for a long walk and mull over the menu for our packed lunch. As I retire to my cosy den a flash of lightning cuts across the sky followed by a loud rumble of thunder. I shrug this off as a passing phase and sleep to the lullaby of the rain and the lilt of the river. The morning brings drearier weather &mdash a grey sky above, strong winds and relentless rain. Fresh snow has fallen only a hundred metres above the camp and Sonu shows me pictures of a week ago taken on his cellphone, when they had to dismantle the tents during a freak snowfall.
We abandon plans of a long walk and opt for a drive to nearby Kalpa. We walk through the glistening cobblestoned drag of Roghi village, under big black umbrellas and guzzle chais with anyone who will have us over. I spend the evening exploring Batseri, also the village across the river from camp. Kinnauri apples are famous and the prosperity is evident in the changing culture and architecture of the area. The stately slate roofs have virtually all been replaced with new tin ones. We are invited for coffee to Rakesh Singh&rsquos house. Singh tells me that the village sold apples worth Rs 5 crore last year alone. The people of the region practise fraternal polyandry. All the brothers of the bridegroom are automatically considered the husbands of the bride. My tentative enquiries are met with reminders of how the system has helped perpetuate the family name and safeguard the family property from fragmentation.
The village is well signposted and I explore its various nooks &mdash the weather-beaten Bodh temple and the newly built Badri Narayan temple. The latter was built recently with great care on the site of the older one that was gutted in a fire in 1998. Elaborate carvings in wood line the walls with the four prophets of the main religions standing guard over various gods of the Hindu pantheon. Dragon pillars line the corners and a series of erotic carvings line the lower periphery wooden wall. The hotchpotch temple keenly reflects the religious tolerance of the people. In the midst of tall cedars further above the village is a quiet spot with a few wooden water-run prayer wheel enclosures on a small stream. It&rsquos a short walk from here to the glacier point where a thick chunk of ice straddles the narrow gully coming down from the north. This is one of the easy hikes from camp.
At night the mercury dips abysmally. The rain thunders onto my tent and I worry about a midnight evacuation, in case the rain turns to snow. It doesn&rsquot and I force myself to sleep &mdash I have plans of a nice long walk in the rain tomorrow.
We start off after breakfast armed with rain gear on the &lsquosignature walk of the valley&rsquo. It is an 11km walk that will lead us due east to the far end of the valley at Rakcham. It proves to be one of the most beautiful day hikes I have done. The rain adds to the mystery below and light snow falls on the cedars above. We walk the path at one time used by Batseri villagers to go to Rakcham. Now they use the road.
The steep cliffs overhead look daunting as mist and cloud swirl tantalisingly around their sheer rock faces. Hazelnut blooms and village fields give way to a gentle forest of blue pines and I walk on a bed of moist pine-cones, the rich dank earth cushioning my footfall. Moss and lichen sprout amidst fungi draped around tree trunks in soft casings while the lush forest envelops me gently.
Along the gentle ascents I peer over sheer drops at the frisky Baspa that runs through the sanctuary and stop for a snack at the first glacier point. It is a mammoth chunk of solid ice that invites playful sliding and we succumb to the temptation. The final stretch towards Rakcham is through a lovely forest of birch. I throw caution to the winds and consign my parka to my daypack. The entombed silence of snowfall wipes out the din of rain at this higher elevation.
Back at the camp, the wind rages, making my tent flap violently. It&rsquos my last night here and I walk through the orchard to Mahakutti, the dining tent, struggling to control my umbrella. A Parsi couple from Mumbai has just arrived with two young daughters. It&rsquos only the second day of their two-week holiday and they are crestfallen at the turn in weather. Huddled around the burning embers of the big coal drum it actually feels like being marooned on some distant island, reminiscing about all the great holidays one has had, while still waiting for the current one to begin. The food is outstanding as always and we tuck into some great pasta, grilled chicken and soup rounded off by a lemon soufflé.
The night brings a sudden calm after the violent storm and a star-decked sky beams above. I can smell the clear day ahead beckoning the soft footfalls of children and families who will throng the camp in summer. But I don&rsquot mind in the least. Give me off-season any day. Crisp clear skies are best left to the tourist.
You can fly from Delhi to Shimla and then drive up to Sangla from there. You could also take a train to Kalka (Kalka Mail or Kalka Shatabdi) and drive from there. From Shimla, Sangla is an 8hr drive. Banjara Camps can arrange transportation at an extra cost. The evening Kalka-Delhi Shatabdi is a good option for the return if you want to get back the same day, but you must leave Sangla at an early 5am.
If you are driving from Delhi start early and stop over at Banjara&rsquos charming retreat in Thanedar situated in the midst of fine views and apple orchards. From here Sangla is a five-hour drive. Alternatively you can halt in Chail, Narkanda or Naldehra. The route from Chail/Shimla to Karcham (the turnoff point on NH22) is 221/209km. Take a right turn at Karcham. 18km down the road, you will hit Sangla. 6km ahead of Sangla, you will spot the Banjara Camp sign on the right. Take a right turn from here to reach the camp.
Banjara Camps offers 18 fully furnished tents with attached bath and running hot and cold water. Meals are served buffet-style in the dining area &lsquoMahakutti&rsquo. Barbeques are at an extra charge for which you can also bring in fresh trout from the nearby Sangla fisheries. Alcohol is not served in the camp though you are free to bring your own. Tariff Rs 5,500 for a double, Rs 5,000 for a single. The tariff is inclusive of all meals and taxes. Contact 011-26855152, 01786-242536, www.banjaracamps.com.
There are several comfortable day walks you can do in the Sangla valley with Banjara Camps as your base.
- To Chitkul and Nagasthi checkpost This is a scenic one-hour walk to the last village on the old Hindustan-Tibet trade route.
- To Sangla Meadows A full-day walk to green pastures.
- To Rakcham A beautiful five-hour walk along the Baspa to Rakcham village.
- To Batseri village and glacier point Visit this typical Kinnauri village and walk to the glacier point (one-and-a-half hours).
The camp organises activities like river crossing, rock climbing and arranges fishing permits, at an extra cost. Guide fees are extra for hikes. The Baspa river is great for trout fishing. You can also drive to Kalpa (56km) for lunch and a bang-on view of the Kinner Kailash massif (6,050m).
The camp stays open from April to October. However, temperatures vary with the seasons. May to September offers pleasant days (light woollens required) and cold nights, while April and October have pleasant days.