2nd September 2015 (Wednesday)….Koti to Killar…160 km.
The first night of the trip was as usual as it ought to be. I don’t know whether it was excitement of the first day’s drive or anxiety in anticipation of things to unfold, I hardly slept for two hours. During my solo drive to HP & UK 2015 in february this year I had slept in the car parked outside a road side tea shop at Nainikhad, which keeps open throughout the night. I remember I could not sleep well on that night too, still I enjoyed it a lot.
This time again, I tried Nainikhad, somehow didn’t like it as much as last time and continued till Banikhet and then to Bathri. Tried sleeping inside the car at Bathri, where I stayed during my Solo Bike Ride to Ladakh 2014. Could not sleep till midnight and then decided to move on an isolated road towards Churah and Pangi valleys. I left main road to Chamba and turned left at Goli on a deserted narrow road which runs along Chamera lake. At around 2am morning I reached a small town just ahead of Koti, saw few vehicles parked on the road, felt like sleeping, parked the car and slept for about 2 hours.
Got up at around 4.30am, tried clicking few pictures of the car but could not due to pitch darkness. Decided to move on slowly and steadily. Saw a tea shop open early at a small village, stopped and had two cups of tea along with free advice. The advice was not to attempt Saach Pass on my ford figo as it has low ground clearance and might not be able to negotiate steep climb as well as rocky road. More so I was solo and city lad, might not be able to handle any eventuality of car breakdown or a puncture or a landslide or any kind of eventuality related to an inhospitable terrain.
Then the man narrated me a story of a man who tried to climb this road last year on a newly bought car, had engine seizure and had to incur heavy expenses in towing and getting the car repaired. I noded in affirmation without saying anything. When I was about to leave his shop he asked whether I was going back. I noded in the negative and turned the car towards Saach Pass. I could see an expression of disbelief on his face. I knew he was thinking that this man must be a fool.
Drove a little further, saw an open tap, running water on the road side. Parked the car, brushed the teeth, took bath and felt fresh. Drove little further and reached another town. Asked for the free advice again, got the same answer, no way, your car can not climb Saach Pass. Moved on further and reached Tissa. Asked for the free advice again and got the similar answer. I kept on though and reached Bairagarh, the last village before Saach Pass. Bairagarh has a hotel, few home stays a beautiful PWD rest house and few eateries. Had another cup of tea and saw a sumo parked outside the tea shop. Decided to check on with the driver of the sumo.
The driver turned out to be the same man whom I had met last month in Chamba during my visit to the town during Minjar fair. Recognised him and he recognised me as I asked the same question I had asked last time. At that time he had told me that the road to Saach Pass was not good enough for a low ground clearance car like figo as there was too much slush, potholes and water crossings. This time, he told me the road was good enough and stable as the rains were over and the road was quite dry. He told me that he was also going to Killar and gave me his cell number in case I needed it in case of an emergency.
Perhaps this was the kind of advice and assurance I was looking for. It was 9am morning. Weather was just perfect for the drive. It was pleasantly cool morning. The sky was azure blue and landscape just awesome. After the bath, tea and assurance I was feeling very fresh too. Lalpari was looking sparkling red as well. The setting was perfect for the drive. I was now driving through Churah valley. Soon reached Kalaban, a beautiful dense forest, the site of massacre of 35 innocent labourers who were killed by terrorists mercilessly in 1998 so that road linking Kashmir through this route could not be completed.
My heart bows in respect to all those who have been involved in building these roads, paving the way for people like me, to drive on these beautiful lands. Met many migrant labourers, mostly from Jharkhand, who were toiling hard, building and repairing these roads in such an inhospitable condition and that for too meager wages. Jharkhand is the same state from where famous cricketer, captain cool Mahendra Singh Dhoni hails. I was wondering how come there be such a cruel difference in destiny.
Soon reached Satrundi, the police check post, where identity of each and everyone, along with papers of vehicle are checked. Then everyone is videographed. Few questions are also asked to check the purpose of visit. Photographing the police post is prohibited. There is a small dhaba near the post which serves simple snacks, food and tea. The dhaba also serves as shelter for night stay, at a nominal price.
After mandatory check and a cup of tea it was now time to climb last 10 kilometers to mighty Saach Pass. These ten kilometers are perhaps the steepest, loneliest and the toughest of the drive. The road climbs steeply on a rocky trek. There are huge rocks all around. Traffic is sparse and maximum during the middle of the whole day. I barely saw 8-10 vehicles cross during the day. The pass is open for only four months in a year mostly from July to October. The people of Pangi Valley use it the most during these four months. During remaining 8 months, they use Killar-Kishtwar route and also Killar-Rohtang-Manali route.
I felt lucky to be driving on this road one more time. This was the 3rd year in a row, I was on this road. Incidentally all these drives happened in the month of September. First time, I remember, I had booked holiday home in Dalhousie in September 2013 for a week and I was solo on my bike. One fine morning I decided to ride 175×2=350 km from Dalhousie to Saach Pass and back, which I did successfully and had chance, one on one meeting with a leopard in the middle of the road at midnight (12 pm) near Dalhousie Cantonment. The 2nd time, last year, I chose to ride on my Lal Ghora (Red Glamour) to Ladakh via Saach Pass in September 2014. That was again an amazing ride.
So this was my 3rd attempt at Saach Pass but a little different. I was driving solo on my Lalpari. It has low ground clearance and also I am a novice as far car machinery and repairs were concerned. I did not have any back up support in case something went wrong with the car or something happened along the way. I do not even know how to change the stepney. I was driving this car for the last four years and have not changed its stepney even once. So I was heavily relying on my driving skills, performance of the car and luck.
The scenery however was becoming more and more beautiful. Besides rocky mountains, there were large green valleys. The grass all along the road was brimming with blooming flowers. It looked as if I was driving through valley of flowers. It was almost midday and the sky was fast filling with non threatening clouds. There were still few patches of black ice walls at few places. When I reached Saach Pass it was bright sunny afternoon, quite in contrast to both the previous two occasions when it was raining and shivering cold. There was some repair work going on near the temple and some workers working on it. On both the previous two occasions I did not see anyone on the pass for whole the time I was there.
So this time it looked as if Saach Pass was crowded and did not feel as good as I did on both the previous occasions. More so, I reached at the pass with ease in comparison to both the previous times. No doubt this time I had to be more careful as the underbelly of the car was being hit by rocks on the road constantly and I had to maneuver it in a way we do while playing a car racing video game.
Also, I feared the left front tyre of the car which got deflated fully the previous evening, which I had got repaired at Pathankot. I was in constant fear of it leaking again. Still the feeling on reaching Saach Pass was very uplifting. I felt very good about it. It was a good start to the journey. Paid my respect at the temple on Saach Pass, clicked few pictures, sat for a while in silence, chatted with the workers and then moved on towards Killar.
The other side of pass is very desolate, raw and rustic. The mountains look like huge monsters and bare valleys like sleeping giants. At times it resembles a bhoot ground. There were still few snow walls but they had lost their shine and were black and dirty. Luckily there had been no rain for the last few days and the steep downhill trek was not as slippery as it usually was. Also, there was a constant risk of falling boulders, which get riskier during rains. There was hardly any habitation until close to Killar which was still 43 km away. I hardly met anyone on the road and the whole scenario looked very fearsome.
Suddenly I saw two bikers coming down from behind. This was a very welcome sight. I stopped in amusement and checked on these bikers. They turned out to be Deepak Gupta (Delhi) and Sanjay Chadda (Faridabad). They were pursuing almost the same itenrary as I was. They were bit perplexed to see a middle aged novice roaming casually in a desolate area. I recognised Deepak as I had seen his pictures and read travel stories on some travel forums. So it was very nice feeling having someone riding on the same route.
Moved on and suddenly saw a huge volume of water coming out of a glacier and running over the road. The flow of water looked menacing and deep as well. There was fear of big boulders hidden underneath the water. I hesitated and needed to make it sure before attempting to cross the stream. In the meanwhile biker friends came and felt the same. Deepak volunteered, changed into gumshoes and went inside the chilling water to check for the depth and boulders. After getting assured Sanjay and Deepak crossed the stream first with each other’s help and bit of a difficulty. It was easy for me and my Lalpari though.
Stopped for a while at Bagotu for a cup of tea. Bagotu is a small hutment in an open valley with huge cliffs all around, few nepali people are running two shops here. They also provide shelter to the travelers during the night at a nominal price like dhaba at Satrundi. It is almost at the same distance from Saach Pass (10 km) as Strundi on the other side.
After a cup of tea I moved on towards Killar. The landscape continued to be uninhabited and overpowering. The road continued to be as tricky if not more. The entire road is build by cutting huge rocky cliffs. There was hardly any traffic on the road. It was rocky, full of potholes, water loggings, waterfalls falling on the road, huge monstrous cliffs and a roaring nullah flowing deep in the george. Killar was still 30 kilometers from Bagotu and going by speed I was clocking 10 km/per hour during the day, it meant another test of grit and patience for the next 3 hours.
On reaching Killar I faced the same problem I faced last year. On crossing the bridge there are three roads, the one to the left goes to Kishtwar, the immediate right to some village and upper right to Killar. Killar is four kilometers from this junction. The road continued to be bad. The problem I faced was, there was no sign board and no one to tell the right way. So had to guess which road to take and like last time drove on the wrong one before finding the right one.
Finally reached Killar in the evening. The market of Killar is very lively. Since I was here last year also, most of the things were familiar to me. There are few guest houses and hotels in Killar, enough dhabas and restaurants too. Since I did not have enough sleep last night, was not sure whether staying inside the car was the best options. For some time I kept walking in the market observing the lifestyle and activities of the people of Pangi Valley before finally deciding to sleep inside the car.
Parked the car in the middle of Killar bazar near the temple, put on the covers, locked the car from inside, wrote some notes in the diary and went into nice sleep………..a very satisfying one after having successfully driven on Saach Pass on a low ground clearance passenger car!!!