ONE of the first things that strikes a visitor to the Baspa valley is the paucity of names in the Visitors' Book at Sangla, the comfortable bungalow that marks the end of the forest-road, and I his is all the more curious when one is told that it is numbered among the most beautiful valleys in the Himalaya.
The road is easy and the journey comfortable with bungalows all the way, but travellers on the Hindustan-Tibet highway seem to find other attractions, though surely, as they pass the picturesque junction of the Baspa and the Sutlej, they must feel some curiosity In know what lies hidden round the corner of the hill. The journey is of course a long one for a limited leave, even with double marches, and the sightseer who walks to a time-table to see the Bogi cliffs at Chini has no time to spare for excursions off the beaten track, while the sportsman either leaves the road at Wangtu to cross the Bhaba pass in search of the Spiti ibex, or confines himself to the valleys on the right bank of the Sutlej7
The Baspa, however, has attractions of its own for the artist, the climber, the scenery tripper and even for the sportsman, if he can get his leave early in the summer before the burrhel have retired with the snow to the uttermost heights. It has been suggested moreover by one who is competent to judge, that Sangla may one day be the Zermatt of the Himalaya. A brief description of the valley and the road that leads to it may therefore be of interest.
There are more ways than one to the Baspa, and it is possible to start from Mussoorie and follow Kim's memorable journey, striking the valley where the passes from Tehri-Garhwal and Tibet sit vis-a-vis at the river's source. But the simplest way, if one is not pursuing the agents of a foreign state, is to pack up one's kit in a Simla hotel, and set a course for Wild-flower Hall where an excellent lunch and a yarn about the road with mine host, who has travelled it as far as Chini, will put one in a good humour for the onward march. The first 40 miles as far as Narkanda is well known and needs no description. The road is wide and good and easily graded, but although a small car can negotiate this bit without difficulty, the traveller need not entertain hopes of thus rapidly putting the first stretch behind him as the privilege of the motor is reserved for the exalted few. Fagu and Matiana are the two intermediate stages and then a gradual rise for 11 miles brings one to Narkanda which stands at 9,000 feet and affords magnificent views.
It will be well to state here, for the benefit of the impecunious, that the dak bungalows as far as Narkanda, though excellent, are ruinously expensive, and it pays the traveller to pitch his tent in the compound for a small fee and feed himself.
Beyond Narkanda he has a choice of ways, either by the upper Briggs' road which follows the hill-tops, or by the Hindustan-Tibet road proper along the Sutlej valley. If pressed for time, the latter is the shorter by two stages as far as Sarahan, where the roads again unite, but whereas the upper road is cool, through lovely woods and flowers, every step down to the Sutlej at Nirth makes one warmer and stickier, and the hillsides are brown and bare.
Choose then the upper road, which after four miles downhill towards Thanedar, breaks off to the right and winds through dense woods to Bagi, a pleasant morning's walk of ten miles. The mules will be glad of a rest here while lunch is consumed, and then the remaining seven miles to Khadrala is level going, through woods and blue flowers, green hillside and flowers, flowers and woods again.
Khadrala is however disappointing, with scanty supplies, no grass, and water a mile distant, whereas Sungri, the next stage, has plenty " to eat and drink " for man and beast. It is better therefore to halt at Bagi after a short march and go through to Sungri, sixteen miles next day, all level and easy marching. From Sungri, six miles downhill through pretty woods to the Machhad Gad followed by six miles up on green but open hillside brings the traveller to Bahli dak bungalow perched on the far side of the spur, overlooking the Nogli Gad valley, with a wonderful view in clear weather.
THE DESCENT FROM THE RUPIN PASS TO THE BASPA, WITH THE KANAWAR KAILAS GROUP RISING STRAIGHT ABOVE THE VALLEY TO 21,000 FEET.
(Photo. R, Maclagan Gorrie.)
Another alternative is the Nela pass from the head of the Baspa valley across to Karkuti and Harsil in the Baghirathi valley in Tehri Garhwal. This, however is over 17,000 feet, and entails a considerable amount of difficult glacier-work. From the Baspa side the pass is two very difficult marches beyond Sanchu village ; both supplies and coolies would be decidedly difficult.
The road beyond here was broken by heavy rain on the occasion of our trip and had still not been repaired a month later on the return journey ; I regret therefore that I can give no account of it. We were forced to drop down the hillside by a rough track to join the Sutlej road at mile 67, and follow this for four miles into Rampur,— a march of thirteen miles from the cool hill-tops to the warm perspiring valley.
Rampur (3,000 ft.) is worth mention as the capital of the State of Bashahr, and has a big bazar, post and telegraph office, school and hospital and the winter palace of the Raja, while a Tibetan library containing a gigantic prayer-wheel is the first sign of Buddhism on the road. The State rest-house a mile below the town is very comfortable and has a pretty garden ; there is also a P.W.D. bungalow two miles further up river. The road now leaves the river and climbs steadily for ten miles and 3,000 feet to Gaura, a hot march at first until the trees are again reached about eight miles up. From here it is ten miles to Sarahan, with the Manglad Gad to be negotiated en route. The road beyond Gaura deteriorates, and after a steady drop to the Manglad, which is crossed by a wooden bridge, the subsequent steep climb is rough going, until the Briggs' road is rejoined at Dheu, whence a good level track of three miles leads to Sarahan bungalow.
Sarahan, the summer capital of the State, is a widely-scattered series of hamlets on a gently-sloping hillside, terraced with cultivated fields. In September there is a big fair, the people bedecking their headgear with blue flowers ; and the music, heard in the distance, is strikingly reminiscent of a Tibetan devil-dance or a service in a Buddhist monastery.
From here onwards this tendency towards Buddhism is much in evidence. Beyond Sarahan the road is wide and good and drops gently for nine miles through pretty woods to Chora forest rest- house, a delightful spot a hundred miles from Simla by the H. T. road.. The Matla cliff, scene of a fatal accident in the days when the Government of India, with no Legislative Assembly to criticize extravagance, migrated to Chini for the hot weather, is passed at about mile 95. Its peaceful air and apparently safe and well-engineered road sets one wondering on the nature of the accident which is so carefully recorded among many others on the charts to be found on every rest- house wall, to cheer the nervous traveller on his way.
Taranda is reached at mile 106 after another climb down to the Chhaunda Gad, followed by a steep rough ascent, the bungalow being surrounded by trees over the spur. As this is only fourteen miles from Sarahan a good alternative halt for the energetic traveller is Paunda rest-house five miles further on. Between the two places lies the Soldang Gad of evil repute.
It is two miles of good going from Taranda to the steep zig-zag descent to the Soldang Gad bridge below the infamous cliff which periodically fells man or animal with a rock.
The local people of Paunda and Nachar and also further up the road were full of unpleasant stories of this cliff, one legend being told of a Djin " who lived at the top and demanded an annual victim, Altogether the cliff has a most unsavoury reputation. When I was here with Lieut. Macleod Carey of the Royal Artillery last September, a large boulder, dislodged after heavy rain, came bounding down the cliff with a shower of smaller rocks and stones. The file of men and mules was negotiating the steps of a narrow steep path and although a dash for safety was made at the first warning shout, one of the mules was hit and killed on the spot. When the fall was over and " All clear " sounded, Carey's Sikh orderly was missing. He was discovered unconscious behind the dead mule and died in five minutes, a tragedy which marred the whole trip.
Nachar, where a day's halt was called to rest a somewhat shaken party, is reached after four miles of easy going through woods from Paunda, and here is to be found the Divisional Forest Officer's head™ quarters. If the Forest Officer himself is occupying the bungalow, there Is an excellent camping-ground below, and although the grazing is reported to be poisonous, good grass can be obtained through the stage mate.
Beyond Nachar a change comes over the country as the monsoon limit is passed, but the road is not uninteresting in spite of dry hillsides. An abrupt drop for three miles leads to the Wangtu bridge just beyond the P.W.D. rest-house, and crossing to the right bank the road almost immediately straddles the narrow mouth of the Bhaba river by a wooden bridge, over a tumbling cascade of foam, and plunges into the Wangtu gorge, where it clings to the cliff-side until It emerges on gentler slopes beyond.
The next few miles are dull and warm as the road undulates gently on a dry boulder-strewn hillside, never very high above the ri ver, until the H. T. road is left to wind its course to greater heights, while the traveller to the Baspa keeps straight on to recross the Sutlej at the Sholtu bridge. Leaving the charming little forest rest-house of Sholtu with its delightful garden away on the right, the path, bow a forest-road, mounts steadily through a parched and desolate country to Kilba bungalow, four miles from the bridge and high above the river.
The village which is down near the river, was making high holiday on our arrival, and sounds of revelry and deep trumpeting Tibetan music were all that came up from below, everyone being too drunk to attend to our wants. Kilba however produces but scanty supplies at the best of times and it was a relief to get away next morning.
The road from here winds downhill back to the Sutlej bank, among the same dry country of stunted bushes and trees that have not enough colour between them to tinge the hillside green, and then to the Baspa's mouth, an hour's march across gigantic rock-slides of ancient origin. The traveller feels within reach of his destination at last as he turns up the wind-swept valley, with the roar of the mingling rivers in his ears, the Sutlej emerging in front of him from a narrow gorge flanked by high cliffs, with the H. T. road winding its way to Chini far above on the other side.
The Baspa road mounts steadily at once, passing Brua with its holly-groves three miles up, the gradient getting a little stiffer as Sangla is approached. The hills slope steeply down to the water's edge and the river, which falls very suddenly from the Sangla valley, is a foaming mountain torrent the whole way. The road enters greenef and prettier country as it rises above 7,000 feet, crossing one or two mountain streams en route and about eight miles up from the mouth, zig-zags suddenly up and over a wooded cliff. As this spur is rounded the forest suddenly opens out and the " Promised Land " bursts upon the view, a lovely scene backed by a fine snow peak.
The way now leads down grassy slopes and across a peaceful smiling valley richly coloured with pink and russet crops in late summer. The river flows lazily across this valley and a country lane with yellow flowers and walnut-trees winds pleasantly for two miles until another cliff is passed, beyond which is the forest rest-house with the wooden bridge below it, and Sangla village on the opposite bank.
Here endeth the made road, and the mules must be left to graze gorgeously on the luscious Sangla grass, while the traveller who wishes to wander further afield must hire coolies from the village and pitch his tent where he rests.
Bakcham and Chhitkul are the only villages above this in the valley, eight and fourteen miles respectively from Sangla, but we marched as far as Sanchu, the camping-ground that marks the " inner line," beyond which none may go without a pass. After crossing to the right bank at Sangla there is a path all the way up, a minor route into Tibet; but for one or two rocky spurs it is easy enough for mules to traverse, until the gorge is reached four miles below Sanchu where it degenerates to a mere goat-track on steep and treacherous shale slopes.
THE BASPA VALLEY AT SANGLA SHOWING IN THE BACKGROUND THE GROUP OF 20,000 FT. PEAKS ABOVE RAKCHAM.
(Photo. R. Maclagan Gorrie.)
Water is plentiful everywhere below here, including the good camping-ground half-way between Chhitkul and Sanchu, called the Black Rock Parao, from the spur opposite the camp ; at Sanchu itself river water only is available. Supplies must, however, be brought out by coolie from Chhitkul, which village produces milk, chickens and potatoes, while a sheep or goat can always be bought with a day or two's notice. Rakcham can also provide the same fare while Sangla can produce a few eggs in addition.
The Baspa valley is undoubtedly beautiful—narrow between steep hills as far as the Raturang Falls where the valley widens suddenly, and beyond the defile at Sangla it widens again, the river passing through one or two similar defiles formed by rocky spurs until the Chhitkul plain is reached, when trees are left behind and the flanking hills are bare except for dried-up grass, and an occasional silver birch. The numerous peach-trees at Sangla and Rakcham attract black bear at night, and the villages have extensive fields of barley, ogila and papra.
A climb to any of the grassy spurs affords a magnificent view of snow-peaks in every direction, but the snow is very high late in the year, and I only reached snow on one occasion while stalking burrhel, at about 18,000 feet. The peaks run from 19,000 to 21,000 and at the head of the valley where the road crosses the pass into Tibet a fine snow-peak not twenty miles away can be seen from Sanchu.
The people of the Baspa are friendly and ready to help in any way, but dirty beyond description. They are rapacious in their demands, caring nothing for the State rates. Their religion seems to be a hybrid, calling itself Hindu, but savouring strongly of Buddhism, and a red Lama and his chela were met on the road spinning a prayer- wheel, a form of worship popular in the villages.
The road up the valley is marked at intervals by large Mani pani stone altars, with neatly carved inscriptions on slabs bearing the Buddhist inscription Om mani padmi hum; these are carved by local lamas and sold to Tibetan travellers, two or three of whom we met trekking into India, with their wares on their backs. A most curious sight at Chhitkul was an almost exact replica of a good- sized dog-kennel, described as a dipta (deota) by the villagers; the word is applied to the shrine or house for the local god, though strictly speaking it is the name of the god or goddess. Apart from this, all buildings were picturesque and somewhat Mongolian in style of architecture.
There is a pass above Sangla village that looks easy, but on which an evil spirit is reputed to live ; it is said to deny the right of way by the simple process of hurling stones on any who have the temerity to dispute it with him. The pass is approached from the village through crops and abundant wild raspberry-plants and thence over dry stony ground where chikor are to be found. The route would probably be a short cut to some of the greater peaks.
On the return journey our party, travelling against time and finding the upper road still blocked, took the lower road and marched two stages from Rampur in one day, a practice which is not recommended unless the weather is very cool. The first eleven miles follow the Sutlej to Nirth, a warm march, but in the next nine miles to Thanedar, a climb of 4,500 feet has to be negotiated in seven and a half miles on a blazing hillside, devoid of water or cover from the sun. As the cool shade of the trees is entered at the top the temperature drops suddenly, and the little bungalow of Thanedar is a cosy haven in the evening with a good log fire. An easy and pretty march of eleven miles next day brings one to Narkanda and so back to civilization, which in fact never seems far away on such a well-organized road.
A stage mate, maintained by the State, is found at every bungalow, who will produce supplies in a very short time and coolies if required, and both he and the P.W.D. chaukidar can be very helpful in many ways if judiciously tipped.
Chickens, eggs, milk, sugar and vegetables are always on the menu, while fruit in season is to be found in some of the bungalow gardens, many of which also abound in chestnut-trees. The vines at Sholtu provide a welcome change of diet if permission is obtained to use this bungalow, which is however just off the beaten track for any but forest officers. Some day it may be a halting place for charabancs on the road to the Baspa Hydros. Who can tell ? God forbid !