THE GORGE OF BLOSSOMS

Print edition : July 04, 2003

Peach blossoms splayed against snow-covered peaks. The blossoms are everywhere - on every slope, branch, twig, crag and cranny, with nary a leaf in sight. -

A photographic pilgrimage along the Sutlej.

THE Sutlej gorge is at its seductive best in late March. Every hamlet sports a pink skirt of varying shades - the pale pink peach of blossoms, the rose pink of apricot blossoms, the deep pink of almond blossoms and the creamy pink of apple blossoms. The riot of pink partially covers the otherwise bare gorges, and offers tantalising glimpses of the moonscape that is Kinnaur. The blossoms are everywhere - on every slope, branch, twig, crag and cranny, with nary a leaf in sight. At this time of the year, it appears that nature brooks no other colour. Pink petals carpet the slopes and the asphalt, they float like snowflakes in the breeze, and caress your face and lodge in your hair. And they fill the valley with their heady scent of anticipation - of the profusion of fruits to come.

The Kinner Kailash peak, a view from Kalpa.-

For the fruits and the attendant prosperity, signs of which are ubiquitous in the Sutlej basin, the hardy people of Himachal Pradesh have Samuel Evans Stokes to thank. For it was he who brought apple seeds all the way from the United States in the early part of this century and even taught the local people the tricks of growing the tree on seemingly unyielding ground. Stokes came as a missionary and went on to settle down in the region and eventually came to be known as Satyanand. Today, he is venerated and remembered for his pioneering contribution to making this remote region prosperous. Every village in Kinnaur is electrified and each hamlet has at least one telephone connection. Mechanical trolleys that move along cables strung between mountains offer an innovative and easy mode of transport for the produce.

My photographic pilgrimage along the Sutlej commenced at Khab, 13 kilometres from Shipki la on the India-Tibet border in Himachal Pradesh. But before this, I had travelled all the way to Nako, on the border of Kinnaur district and across the Spiti river. Here I was treated to a racy cricket match that was played out against a spectacular backdrop of snow-carpeted peaks. Nako is perhaps the highest cricket ground in the world and a pointer to the popularity of the sport. Two giant chortens seem to umpire the match. The corridors of Nako's primary school echo with the intonations of first and second graders who break mid-sentence to come and greet me with shouts of `Julley'. Most of the village is out on the barley fields, which they must prepare now if they are to take advantage of the brief summer months in these parts. A few Bhutia women sit in their mud-plastered courtyards, grinding incense from juniper branches. The sun is well behind the snow slopes and the Spiti river that was a shimmering ribbon of jade a moment ago now appears limp and supine in the afternoon sun.

Sutlej is one of the chief tributaries of the mighty Indus. Before it sneaks into India near Shipki la, the Sutlej has already traversed 300 km from its maiden home in Lake Manasarovar in Tibet, where it is called Langqen. As it enters India, it is joined by another river, the Spiti, at Khab. The confluence is watched over by Reo Pargyal - the rock demon - and three other crimson peaks. Shrubs of wild rose, known in these parts as Sia, are strewn over the hillsides, where a kuccha road wends its way up to Namgia village, from where one can only trek to Tashigaon, the very last hamlet on the Indian side in Kinnaur district. My vehicle splutters and wheezes over rocks and pebbles, and refuses to go further. So I decide to turn back and cruise along the Sutlej, which will be my constant companion for the next five days.

The Sutlej, near Puh, is a muddy and limp stream.-

Gathering boulders, rocks and glacial streams, the river gurgles along cheerfully at an altitude of over 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). A few twists and turns later, I spot a bridge that is balanced on two spectacularly serrated rocks, connecting Puh town to Dabling, a village across the river. By now, the setting sun has worked alchemy on the muddy Sutlej, turning it into a sheet of molten silver. And suddenly, Puh swerves into view. Flanked by a glacier-topped range, the town is perched on the slope overlooking the river. On the distant slopes, one can see orchard plots staked out and water pipes tracing patterns on emerald green barley fields arranged in terraces. The pink of the blossoms is so pale that from my perch in the valley, they look more like the locks on a wizened head fluttering in the breeze.

Children play cricket in Nako on what is perhaps the world's highest cricket ground.-

Puh has a few hotels where one can get a room for some Rs.200 a day. There are also booths offering long-distance telephone services that are operated through satellite links. A lone shop has sacksful of almonds and apricots - the only local commodities on offer. But it also stocks a variety of packaged goods, including instant noodles, cheese and soft drinks. The road from Shimla right up to Puh is in excellent condition, although you can hardly spot a vehicle in these arid stretches. Every few miles, I come across Border Roads Organisation workers who are busy melting tar and patching the potholes on the road. It is too late to drive any further, so I halt at Puh and settle for a room with a view of the river.

The next morning, I drive down along the river to Spillo. The 22-km stretch from Spillo to Puh is the most arid of them all. It is the longest stretch of the journey that is unbroken by habitation. Here, nature seems to be at its primordial best. Harsh, unyielding, jagged rock-faces. Not a blade of grass, no shrubbery, no evidence of any life-form. The mid-morning sun casts long and eerie shadows that accentuate the aridity and hostility of the surroundings. The river, when it comes into view, is a lame muddy trickle too deep to be accessible. This is a stretch where one crosses no vehicles and hears no sound except the harsh blare of the horn of one's own vehicle. The only sign that the route has been traversed before is the existence of the road itself and the festoons of electrical and telephone wires that mar the view of the mountains.

Lunchtime at the Nako primary school near the India-Tibet border.-

From Puh to Kalpa is a dramatic ride with awesome views. The gorges are so steep that I do not see the river except at the bends. The dynamite-hewn hillsides create dramatic frames that provide tantalising views of the gorge. Every turn brings into view a different snow range. At times, a single snow peak nestles between two black granite peaks, picture postcard perfect. It looks as though a fair maiden is guarded by two dark and fierce mastiffs. As one drives towards the trio, the angle keeps changing; the granite slowly, but surely obstructing and eventually blocking the view of the snow peaks. The road is smooth like a silken ribbon and meanders endlessly. Every few metres, waterfalls drench the top of my vehicle and cool it down a bit.

By evening, I am in Kalpa. The setting sun bathes the soaring snow peaks of Kinner Kailash and Jorkhanden in a dazzling shade of pink, to match the blossoms lining the route. From the porch of the Kalpa circuit house located at a height of 2,900 m, the snow range appears so full and frontal, so tantalisingly close, that one is tempted to reach out and touch it. Sunset at Kalpa is a magnificent experience, well worth the two-day Jeep ride from Kalka. As in most other places, it is the circuit house that has the dress circle views. No routine, run-down, ramshackle government building this. The Kalpa circuit house is ancient, elegant and quaint. It has glazed corridors offering an unhindered view of the peaks and the stately firs. And the caretaker tells me that I am standing at the same spot where Sven Hedin, the Swedish explorer, once stood and gazed at these very peaks over a hundred years ago.

A bird's eye view of Namgia village from an adjacent peak.-

The next morning I spot Kalpa town in the valley below, its slate roofs glinting like mirrors. The headquarters of Kinnaur district was Kalpa until the official complex was shifted to Recong Peo, lower down the valley, a few years ago. I stroll down the winding road lined by apricot trees in full bloom. Tiny, decrepit saw mills dot the roadside. Constable country this - cottonwool clouds on a clear azure sky, and curling smoke from the sloping rooftops. I spot two cowherds in their hill outfits and patronisingly ask them if I could take their picture, only to be told in clipped English, "Why not?" My sheepishness is greeted with a disarming smile as one of them chats me up.

The last leg of the journey is a smooth drive on an almost plateau-like stretch along the old Hindustan-Tibet road. I halt at the impressive Nathpa-Jhakri hydel project, a run-of-the-river project with a capacity of 1,500 megawatts. The 27.4-km-long tunnel, 10.15 m in diameter, is said to be one of the longest tunnels among hydel projects in the world.

Border Roads Organisation workers repairing a remote mountain road.-

Not far from the dam site is the almost-finished rainbow bridge that glints in the evening light. The entire stretch is a beehive of activity with dumpers, cranes, trucks and helmeted men swarming all over the slopes. I am told the Sutlej is a virtual powerhouse of Himachal Pradesh and the various hydel projects under way will produce as much as 10,000 MW of electricity when complete.

I cross Rampur Bushahr, the capital of an ancient princely state, 130 km from Shimla, on the Hindustan-Tibet Road. Just before Narkhanda, I reluctantly part company with the Sutlej, which continues its journey into the dusty northern plains, where it joins the Chenab and eventually the Indus and continues its journey into Pakistan.

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