Sarahan, Sangla and the Jeori Pass

Man proposes and God disposes…we’ve had to change our plans. The Buddhists that we met in Agonda wrote us that the Dalai Lama was dedicating a new monastery in Rewalsar the very time we planned to arrive there.  At first I was excited at the opportunity to see him again, but then we realized that the town would be mobbed with Tibetans and devotees, and there would be nowhere to stay. We had to figure out an alternative for a few days.  Gerard consulted the map…and decided on a remote mountainous route following the Satluj Valley with detours down into the Sangla Valley reaching as close to the Tibetan border as one can go without a special permit.
This had an all too familiar ring – ever since I’ve been traveling with him, Gerard has always wanted to find the remote and lonely places! This goes back to 1972 on our first trip together to Tunisia. A French doctor in Tunis examined the nasty rash on Gerard’s leg and asked, “Where have you been?” Hearing our reply, he exclaimed, “Gafsa? I’ve lived in Tunisiafor 35 years and I’ve never been there!” 
And he’s still at it…now Gerard has come up with this proposal!  For a moment, I lose the spirit of adventure.  My mind focuses on the long bumpy ride, anticipating the discomfort before it happens; forgetting that it is short lived.  Usually in the end it’s well worth any discomfort. Taking into consideration how complicated public transportation would be we decided to hire a car and driver. So I was spared the bus rides!

Before leaving, we had to see a point of interest in Shimla that we’d missed on our previous two visits – the magnificent Viceregal Lodge where the British Viceroys to India conducted business during the summer.  It was also the location of the Shimla Conference in 1945, when Independence was first seriously discussed; now used as an Institute for Advanced Studies, with just a few large formal rooms open for public and with plenty of old Raj photographs. The Lodge looked like somebody had uprooted an Elizabethan style mansion from the English countryside and dropped it into the foothills of the Himalayas, complete with manicured lawns and gardens. For me, it was definitely worth the several km steep uphill hike out of town.  Nursing his sore legs the following day, I’m not sure Gerard shared my enthusiasm!Before leaving, we had to see a point of interest in Shimla that we’d missed on our previous two visits – the magnificent Viceregal Lodge where the British Viceroys to India conducted business during the summer.  It was also the location of the Shimla Conference in 1945, when Independence was first seriously discussed; now used as an Institute for Advanced Studies, with just a few large formal rooms open for public and with plenty of old Raj photographs. The Lodge looked like somebody had uprooted an Elizabethan style mansion from the English countryside and dropped it into the foothills of the Himalayas, complete with manicured lawns and gardens. For me, it was definitely worth the several km steep uphill hike out of town.  Nursing his sore legs the following day, I’m not sure Gerard shared my enthusiasm! 

We met our car and driver at the bus stand the next morning and set off, somewhat disappointed by the state of the car. As we anticipated the road was long and bumpy, but the sheer beauty of the Himalayascompensated.  The further out from Shimla, the more interesting the landscape became. But in some places the road was so deteriorated from the ravages of winter that it was hardly passable, especially in our old beat up Indica.  The fact that the transmission kept popping out of third gear didn’t give us great confidence.  But the driver was slow and cautious. Once I let go of my innate need to get to the destination in the shortest time possible there was plenty of time to take in the scenery – the breathtaking view from the treacherously narrow mountain ledge, looking down into a lush green valley, snow capped mountains towering above us.

Our first overnight stop was Sarahan, an exotic temple complex high above the valley, surrounded by a small village.  Sections of the temple were over 800 years old – courtyards and inner courtyards with intricate wooden carving. It appeared to us a strange combination of Buddhist prayer wheels and Hindu gods. In fact it seems that most of the Tibetan population has converted to Hindusim, while still maintaining some of their Buddhist customs – not unlike the Catholics in Central America.
The other thing I loved in Sarahan was the small country lanes bordered either side by stone walls and flowering fruit trees.  I often say to Gerard, ‘I wish I could go for a nice country walk”  – and here I am, doing just that!
The next morning we continued the bone shaking ride to Sangla.  Not surprisingly, the road got even worse. There seems to be continual minor landslides, probably worse in winter, and the road is barely passable in places.  

Again we turned away from the valley and climbed up to Sangla.  The town itself didn’t amount to much but a thirty minute walk away was a beautiful old village with a temple and fort. The latter is reportedly 800 to 1,000 years old.  Gerard was interested in the wood and stone structures while I was fascinated by the faces of the local women and children peering out of windows and around the sides of buildings – sometimes friendly, sometimes just curious.  837
The hotel manager said there is up to 6 feet of snow in the winter and those who can, leave town. The less fortunate are snow bound for four to five months and have to stock up on provisions.  I imagined them snow shoeing out of the upper floor windows of their houses, while the cattle are sheltered on the ground floor.   As I watch a woman cutting mustard flowers in the early morning sunshine, filling the basket and loading it on to her back, I reflect that the lives of these people seem hard – but simple compared to the clutter I deal with back home. Three women breaking stones into gravel, their pounding beginning at first light, drove home the point – simple, but very hard. 

After three days we reached the end of the valley at Chitkul, an elevation of 3400 meters.  We were wonderstruck by its natural splendour and beauty.  The town amounted to little – just a few dwellings, including a tea stall – but the snow capped mountains reaching down to the river and the blue green water sparkling in the bright sun was hard to take in. So remote and so peaceful….it was well worth the trek!  Gerard comments that a good friend says “there’s a reason why Vermontis Vermont ”;  similarly, this unspoiled beauty is due to the fact that Chitkul is so remote and difficult to reach.  We both hoped that after Chitkul, the rest of our stay in Himachal Pradesh wouldn’t be an anticlimax. 

The next day we set off for our last destination, Kalpa. It may be hard to believe but the road got even worse, taking a terrible beating on the car – and its passengers.  Traveling along narrow mountain ledges, we pass through “shooting stone zones.”  I saw the twisted frame of a car that had fallen from the road above.  There is no way its occupants could have survived and I wonder how long it was before anyone found their remains.  There are few other cars on the road.   
In the nondescript town of Rekong Peo–13KM short of our destination – our car died!  The driver fetched mechanics while we sat on the roadside, providing entertainment for the passersby as we were entertained by them also.  After several hours the mechanics, shut the hood, and it was clear our car was not going any further.  Instead of scenic Kalpa we’re stuck for now in Rekong Peo – but at least it’s a town, and our hotel room has a great view! 
I didn’t feel good about leaving our driver beside the car sunk into a fog of despondency, pounding his forehead with his cell phone. Unable to communicate, he could no longer help us. In only three days – which felt more like three weeks – I felt emotionally involved with him.  He could speak barely any English, but now and again, he’d ask simple questions, like how many children did we have, and how long we’d been married.  “40 years,” Gerard said, holding up his hand four times.  He didn’t believe it. “No, not your age, how long have you been married…four…five years?”  I worried if he had enough to eat; if he was cold sleeping in the car.  And now we were separating before completing the journey.  But what could we do?
No one in town could speak English; our cell phone had no service… But we borrowed a phone at the hotel and called our agent in Shimla. To our relief the next morning a new driver and car, in considerably better condition, arrived at our hotel to take us down the mountain.  To reach Rewalsar, we had to retrace our footsteps and then turning north, begin the climb up to a 3100 meter pass. On the way we drove through lush green valleys, spring flowers and blossoming fruit trees, then giving way to more of an alpine landscape. At Jeori Pass, we stopped at a chai stall that could have been out of the middle ages, except for the plastic chairs.  
As we began the descent down the northern side, it was clear why the pass had just opened – huge banks of snow and slush lined the roadside.  It was getting dark, so we stopped at a tiny guest house a short distance down – the only guest house in who knows how far so bargaining was limited.  Not a five star room but we had an excellent meal by candlelight – due to a power cut – and went to bed under a heavy quilt. 
1016  The next morning, we stepped out on the balcony and saw below us terraced green fields and brilliant yellow patches of mustard flowers, with a hamlet nestled in the side of the mountain. We took a stroll and descending the stairs into the lanes we both had the sensation we were walking down into someone’s house.  It felt so intimate. 
Like waking from a sweet dream we descended down the mountain into a more familiar reality. Still attractive, but it paled in relation to where we’d been.  For once, enjoying the ride so much, I was in no hurry to reach the destination. If I had given in to my reluctance of brief inconvenience I would never had any of these experiences.

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