the-south-asian.com June/July 2004
THE LAND OF THE PURPLE MOON
It is an exclusive and perhaps the least expensive getaway - one of Himalayas' best kept secrets where nature has jealously guarded its pristine beauty.
Chitkul, in the scenic Kinnaur region of Himachal, at a heady height of 3450 metres, is the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border. Starting from Karchcham-Raksham, where the Baspa river joins the Sutlej, the valley opens up into this verdant village surrounded by lush green fields and high mountain peaks. Here, quaint little houses, temples and gompas conjure up a perfect image of a Shangri-La. Closed to tourists till 1993, the region has now opened its magical beauty to the world.
This idyllic mountain resort seldom saw tourists except bagpackers from the West. Today the scene has changed dramatically. More and more Indians are visiting destinations like Chitkul, Kaza and Kalpa, all in the upper reaches of Himalayas, and many have been impacted by the mesmerising power of these lofty mountains. Breathtaking landscapes are overshadowed by blue mountains and alpine meadows. "Nothing prepares you for nature's marvel. Nothing ever can. For, between description and reality there lies a deep chasm," says a tourist lyrically.
The journey to Chitkul - known among locals as the land of the purple moon - is best begun from Shimla. All you need is a streak of adventure and a stout heart to endure the jeep safari from Shimla to Kalpa. A distance of 238 kilometres in eight hours of skirting the river Sutlej through Narkanda, Rampur Bushair and Rekong Peo brings one to Kalpa - the first stop en route.
Once the favourite haunt of Lord Dalhousie, Kalpa marks the confluence of Hindu religion and Buddhism. It is the place where the Dalai Lama delivered the Kalachakra Sermon in 1992.
Now, mainly thanks to border roads, the place has become accessible though the journey may be hazard-prone at times and bone-rattling in parts. But once Kalpa is reached, the long haul appears well worth the trouble.
Here, in the midst of stunning wilderness, an enterprising young man, Sanjay Verman, has set up camp sites offering exotic activities like stargazing, mountain biking, river crossing and rock climbing. And adventure-seeking tourists are queuing up to his camps.
"When I started out people thought I was crazy. And if I got a few tourists I considered myself very lucky. But now I have to divert people to other campsites or hotels as I am booked most of the time," says Verman, who recycles all waste material and has brought bio-degradable chemical toilets all the way from Italy. Lanterns and hot water are solar-provided and sun cookers rustle up meals which range from simple Kinnauri food to a three course western repast.
"Destinations are changing and changing fast," says Akshay Kumar of Mercury Himalayan Exploration (MHE), holiday spots are becoming more and more exotic with adventure thrown in to add that touch of spice. Says he, "Today a vacation is not all about R & R [rest and relaxation]. The yuppie Indians now demand an adrenaline rush even when they are on a holiday."
Some of the most popular activities include a four-day trek to Beas Kund in Manali, followed by a rafting expedition down the Beas River. One can even hire a cottage and spend a quiet weekend trout fishing.
Another excellent option for the hard-core adventure lover is a self-drive jeep tour from Manali to Leh. All you need is camping gear for this journey of a lifetime. From Manali to Jaispa, and then Sarchu. The three-day drive includes going through four mountain passes at heights varying from 13,000 to 17,000 feet above sea level.
Once in Leh, explore the ancient monasteries and chortems and take short trips to the Khardung La and Nubra valleys. For those who want a bit more, setting camp on the banks of the Tsokar and the Tsomorari Rivers will give that added adrenaline rush.
The high altitude journey from Manali to Leh is one of the most picturesque roads in the world. The entire trip costs Rs 42,000 (US $1000) per head but in peak season one would have to book much in advance.
Picture Postcard Scenery
For the water babies the Zanskar rafting trip may hold more interest than a drive to Leh. The mighty Zanskar in Ladakh is the confluence of the Tsarap and the Stod Rivers. This five-day expedition starts on the Stod and moves into the Zanskar gorge. One of the most splendid gorges in Asia, the Zanskarís stark, barren and rocky massifs are interspersed with mineral deposits giving the mountainside a picture postcard look. The journey ends at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers at Nimmu.
This 14-day trip, including travel to Ladakh, stopovers, camping and sightseeing costs around Rs. 70,000 (US $1750) per head - steep but whatís money for a lifetime of adventure?
But for those looking for a vigorous vacation, mountain biking across the roof of the world may hold more allure than anything else. The bike tour, which starts among the lush green meadows of Kulu crosses over into the fabled lands of Lahaul and Spiti.
Though challenging and even trying at times, the ride through spectacular high altitude deserts, passes, isolated villages and some fabulously impressive Buddhist monasteries is an unforgettable experience. Crossing over the Khardung La (the highest motorable road in the world) and a visit to the enchanting Nubra valley are the highlights of this road trip.
However since this is not an ordinary summer holiday some preparation is needed to go on these trips. Kumar who is a professional mountaineer and rafter says, "Once you have decided that you are going on this kind of an adventurous trip, then pack correctly for it."
For a mountain vacation the best mantra is to travel light. He recommends a few warm jerseys, a waterproof windcheater, a warm pair of shoes and dark sunglasses and a sun block with minimum 45 SPF. The tour operator will provide the sleeping bag, adventure kit and tour guides who are not only well versed in the local customs and languages but also up-to-date with the latest crisis management procedures.
However the best part about travelling is the food and the local and other varied cuisine on offer. Says Kumar, "If you havenít been on an adventure trip yet then put it down on your lifeís to do list and this summer get some sun, fun and laughter in your life."
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