3rd September 2015 (Thursday)….Killar to Kishtwar…130 km
Killar, located in a deep and narrow gorge of Chandrabhaga River, is the headquarters of landlocked Pangi valley. The place is blessed with incredible natural beauty. There are three road routes to reach Killar:
1. Killar-Chamba (156 km) via Saach Pass….open for only four months.
2. Killar-Kishtwar (120 km) via Gulabgarh…..open throughout the year.
3. Killar-Keylong (127 km)….the road further connects to Manali via Rohtang Pass and is open for four months.
All these roads are rough, remote, steep, slippery, potholed and nothing short of a miracle. There is a bank but no ATM. Patrol is available at a premium, nearest filling station are at Bairagarh (Chamba road, 70 km), Kishtwar (120 km) and Tandi (120 km). Taxis are available for all the routes. BSNL network is available but very very slow.
There are few hotels, homestays, rest houses and ample basic eating shops. The valley is further divided into three valleys, Saichu Hudan Bhatori and Sural Bhatori. Cultivation of peas and apples have done wonders to the well being of the people in a big way.
Got up very early in the morning and went walking on the beautiful mall road. It was still dark and daylight was about to break. The air was light and fresh. The landscape looked amazing in the early morning light. The mountains and valleys looked like as if waking from a deep slumber.
Prayer songs were being played at the temple music system. Few morning walkers walked passed me with a smile. All in all it was an amazing atmosphere, similar to the one which I experienced last time also.
Last evening when I reached Killar, my entire fatigue vanished the moment I saw a happy atmosphere. People were making merry, chit chatting, eating and drinking together. There are many migrant nepali families in Killar and many shops are run by woman. As mostly is in Himachal pradesh, women enjoy equality and freedom.
There were many truck and taxi drivers eating in dhabas too. There were few tourists as well. Met Deepak and Sanjay but for a brief moment. Spent most of the evening walking in the streets, market and observing activities of the people. The market closed by 10pm and I went to sleep at around same time.
One of the biggest advantage of sleeping inside the car for me has been the habit of ‘early to be and early to rise’. Normally I get up before sunrise and the first thing I do is, look for a place to freshen up. Normally, I take care of this aspect at the time of parking the car in the evening.
The most appropriate place being public convenience, a guest house, a dhaba, a hotel, a restaurant or a patrol filling station. Got up at around 4am at Killar. After freshening up and morning walk, had a small chit chat with early risers over a cup of tea. By 6am I was ready for the most adventurous drive of my life on the famed cliffhanger road.
The first four kilometers of the drive were on the same road which goes to Saach Pass. After four kilometers, the straight road leads to Kishtwar, which the locals normally call Kashmir road, and turn to the left leads to Saach Pass. The drive is all along Chandrabhaga river which flows in a deep and narrow gorge all the way till Kishtwar. The road to Saach Pass is reached by crossing a bridge on the same river.
I was now driving on Kishtwar road. Last year, I took a day off during my “Solo bike ride to Ladakh 2014” and rode to Sural Valley, first few kilometers of which were on this very road. At that time I saw number of small snakes crawling on the road riding along a bhoj patra forest. This time I did not see any snake though. Instead of taking upper road to Sural Valley, I continued straight towards Kishtwar. The first village that I came across was Luj, a cluster of four small villages.
There is a provision of cell phone charging in my car but not the batteries of my camera and laptop for which I have to use outside sources. Needed to charge battery of both of these devices. Since I was driving on the most remote road, was doubtful of finding any source like a restaurant, dhaba or a tea shop. Luckily, I found a tea cum provision shop at Luj and stopped immediately. The man running the shop was an ex-serviceman, a very nice gentleman. He told me many things about the people of the area.
He told me that the people of the valley give top priority to education and send their childern to far off places like Shimla, Chamba and Kullu for higher education. Also, most of the people of the valley have built their second homes in places like Kullu, Chamba and Shimla and move to these places in harsh winters. He also told me that theft and dishonesty was rare in the area. He was all praise for the people of Lahaul Valley, whom he considered to be more hard working, innovative and wealthy.
After having nice time with the gentleman at Luj and getting the batteries charged, I began driving further towards J&K border. After few kilometers reached Himachal Pradesh police check post where two young and well behaving policemen checked the vehicle and papers. The road was looking very desolate now.
I did not see a single vehicle on the road since morning. The grass on the middle of the road had grown very big and it felt as if this road was not being used lately. I was told, since Saach Pass was open, the people of Pangi Valley were using that road these days. The frequency of using this road increases after Saach Pass gets closed, usually by the end of october and until June next year.
The road was all loose dirt trek. There were loose stones and rocks lying scattered on the road. At many places huge debri was lying on the road due to some recent landslide and land erosion. The middle of the road got raised as the sides of the road had gone deep with the weight of tyres on dirt trek , resultantly, lalpari was frequently getting hit on the middle.
I was now approaching Sansari Nalah after crossing over to J& K. The road till Sansari Nala was a steep descent, passed through a thick forest and ran along the Chandrabhaga river bed.
The road just after Sansari Nallah was a steep,rocky ascent on loose dirt trek. There was a sharp hairpin bend and lalpari lost momentum for a moment. I had to use handbrake to stop it from skidding back. After due caution and building enough momentum I was able to take her safely till the level road at forest check post. I stopped for a moment at the unmanned barricade, clicked few pictures and drove on.
The road was a steep rocky ascent all the way till Ishtiyari the first J&K village . Despite the fact that I was driving very slow and carefully, the underbelly of the car was being hit constantly. My car has never been hit so many times ever, not even on the dreaded Saach Pass road. This was perhaps the first time I was little worried about the car. I was finding it tough driving through the rocky and potholed road. Did not see any other vehicle as well.
The ordeal continued for another 10-15 kilometers. Lalpari had survived so far. A little girl walking on the edge of the road was a very welcome sign. I knew some village was closeby. Soon reached first village of J&K, Ishtiyari, a totally different village than what I saw in HP. I saw some curious faces peeping through the windows of their homes. Perhaps they were seeing red car after a long time. There was a sharp difference in dress of both men than what I saw in HP.
There were big trees laden with peers on both sides of the road. There were few shops on the road but they were all closed. May be they are open when Saach Pass gets closed and there is more traffic on this route. I saw a man wearing kameez and salwar, greeted him with ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’ and asked few questions about the remaining route. The man was very polite, answered my questions and pleaded me to visit his home for tea before driving further. At the far end of the village was the first J&K police check post where I was asked few questions then allowed to go further.
The road became even more rocky and tricky thereafter. About a kilometer from Ishtiyari I saw a beautiful waterfall on the road. The water was getting collected in a small pool which looked very inviting. As I said before, I follow my gut feeling most of the time and the gut feeling told me to take bath in the pool. Came out of the car, checked the water, it was bone chilling. I could not dip my hand for more than few seconds as it got numb pretty soon.
I was in a fix now. Wanted to bath but water was toooooo cold. Kept waiting for a while, got the guts back, took the clothes off and slowly started taking bath, going in and coming out of the pool as fast as I could. A little later I became used to and enjoyed bathing. A few village folks walked by, looked at me with curiosity and a smile.
After the bath felt very fresh and little later bit feverish too. This part of the road was a real cliffhanger of a road. This stretch of the 10-15 kilometer road between Ishtiyari and Tiari is a rock cut wonder. The huge cliffs are blasted and road is carved through the middle of them. Chandrabhaga river flows deep down in a gorge and at times it disappears like a jinia and only its roar is heard. The fall to the river bed is almost 90 degrees.
The road was all stones and rocks, big boulders lying in the middle of the road owing to frequent landslides. There was loose dirt at places which sometimes hampers vehicle in getting traction. There are several steep hairpin bends and very difficult to maneuver. The road was very narrow, I had to sometimes drive with the tyres very close to the edge of the falling road. Traffic was sparse. There are no villages in between Ishtiyari and Tiari.
In case of car breakdown or a landslide or any such eventuality, the chances of getting help soon are very very remote. This is a zero error road. A small error and the vehicle disappears in the deep valley. Chances of its recovery are remote. There is no mobile connectivity and one has to rely very heavily on the chances of vehicle appearing from either side.
I did not see many vehicles as well. Yes, I did see a bus, few PWD trucks, few maxi cabs but no passenger cars or bikes. I did not see a single tourist vehicle. My biker friends, whom I met on the Saach Pass route, Deepak and Sanjay might have already gone ahead. So I was all by myself on this most dreadful, desolate and tough road. My car was constantly being hit from underbelly despite driving very slowly and carefully.
Perhaps first time I was bit worried, worried about car breakdown or rim damage or boulder falling from above. There were number of waterfalls on the way and at times water falling from them was quite huge and fell on the moving car. At times I felt as some boulder was also falling with the falling of water.
Kept on…enjoying the drive. I knew these kind of things do not happen every day. Even had the guts to take few pictures of the car and shot a small movie as well. Forgot to take selfie though which I regret now. May be a reason to go back on this road again. This was the toughest road I was on and felt like so at that very moment. I would not advise anyone to drive on this road especially solo on a low ground clearing passenger car. The road is a thrill for biking.
Enjoy the video….
Reaching Tiari was a big relief. The setting of the village and few road side dhabas looked fantastic. Tandoori roti and daal fry at such a remote place was a big big surprise. Meanwhile a young local teacher asked me for lift till Gulabgarh, his hometown, which was still 20 kilometers away. He pleaded that chances of getting vehicle was very remote and if I did not give him lift he might have to walk all of 20 kilometers on foot. Since I drive at a leisurely pace and also stop now and then for pictures, I advised him to better look for some other vehicle.
While I sat down for food the teacher decided to walk down towards Gulabgarh hoping to get lift in some other vehicle otherwise continue walking all the way. Enjoyed the food like anything, perhaps it was one of the best of the whole 24 days trip to Kashmir. When I finished the food and drove I saw the teacher walking on the road. Stopped and asked the teacher to come in.
Few kilometers later we were asked to stop. A PWD machine was being repaired right in the middle, blocking the road. We were told it would take around one hour.While I felt like sleeping, the teacher decided to walk. After about one hour I woke up to the sound of a horn to get moving. Road was open now. There was a fast flowing nalah just after that. There was a sharp hairpin bend with a steep ascent after crossing the bridge over the nalah.
I lost momentum right in the middle of the ascent half way through the sharp hairpin bend, the tyres spun on the loose soil and the car started skidding backwards even with full handbrakes on. I controlled the car with great difficulty. Got the breath back, gathered momentum again and tried climbing…but failed again. Tyres were spinning and car skidded back again and again.
I tried few times more but every time in vain. In the meanwhile an engineer of PWD department, who was watching all this, came up to me and advised me to get more weight in the car as I was solo, there wasn’t enough weight in the car. I requested few workers who were working on the roads nearby and filled the car with four of them.
Car was now full and had enough weight. I tried one more time, trying to keep at least one tyre on the hard surface of the road, after building enough momentum. Lo and behold lalpari climbed the dreaded hairpin bend huffing and puffing leaving a mountain of dirt and smoke behind. Thanked the workers, offloaded them and moved further on. A few kilometers later found the teacher parading down on the road again. Asked him to come in and drove further on.
The road was bit wider now. The teacher told me that the road widening work was going on a faster pace now and soon the road will have turmac. The road till Gulabgarh continued to be gravel, dirt trek but wide enough. Driving was comparatively easy now.
My progress throughout had been very slow and It took me around 11 hours to reach Gulabgarh. I had started at around 6am from Killar, stopped for two hours for charging battery and tea break at Luj, one hour bathing break at Ishtiyari, one hour lunch break at Tiari and numerous photo clicking breaks. Of course there was another one hour break at machine repair spot. That means 6 hours driving plus 5 hours break during the whole 50 kilometers drive on the dreaded cliffhanger road.
Gulabgarh looked like a big town, have few hotels, restaurants, mosque and a monastery. It is a base for famous 32 kilometer Machail Mata Yatra which concluded last month in August. It lies in Padder Valley which is famous for Sapphire deposits and large buddhist population. It borders Himachal Pradesh, Warwan-Marwah Valley and Zanskar Valley.It was already 5pm evening, Kishtwar was still 70 kilometers away. The layout of the town, beautiful houses, large buddhist settlement, a serpent like meandering Chandrabhaga river appealed to my senses.
For a moment I thought of spending the night at Gulabgarh. When I entered the town and saw the scenario, my heart immediately dropped the idea. Shops were closed, there were strange looks all around, a large gang of dogs were feeding on a huge dump of garbage, lot of policemen were marching in the market. A small gathering of buddhist people in the monastery was though an encouraging sight though. There was some a function going on and buddhist men and women clad in colourful attire were feasting and making merry.
The situation of the town looked tense. I hesitated even to ask for the reason for closed shops. I looked for the right person to ask this question. I found one, gathering courage and I asked the reason for the situation. The man gave a very hazy answer. He told me that there was a bund (Call to close the shops and vehicle movement) due to some police inaction and that vehicles were not allowed to move and all the shops were closed due to that. He was not sure whether I would be allowed to drive to Kishtwar.
Looking at the depressing situation of the town, this being the first impression of J&K, which is already infamous for bunds and disturbances, my mind started painting bleak pictures of the times to come as this was my first day in J&K and I plan to be here for another 20-21 days. I crossed the bridge and drove through the twin village Atholi. Again I observed people looking at me and my lalpari with strange looks. Saw some people walking on the road with luggage.
They told me that vehicles are not allowed beyond a certain point and people are allowed to get off from the vehicles and allowed to walk from that point. Stopped for a while and decided to wait for the right moment. I knew for sure that vehicles would be allowed after the dusk. I also came to know that discussions were also going on with MLA of Kishtwar who had just arrived at the spot. The people who know me also know that I am a man with good luck. Lucky favoured me again, a car came from the opposite side and the driver waved to me that the blockade was lifted and vehicles were being allowed now.
So I did not have to wait for long. It was 6pm and Kishtwar was still about 70 kilometers away. The road was tarred, broken at some points but still much better than the roads I had been driving the whole day. Nothing much happened during the drive except that I reached Kishtwar at 8.30pm and straight away went into a filling station to get the diesel topped up. This is my habit that I keep the tank full during my travels. Last time I got the tank filled was at Banikhet near dalhousie.
While I was getting the tank filled, a man came and told me to follow him as my friends were waiting for me inside the office of the filling station. It was a surprise. He was none other than Deepak my fellow biker. He jumped up with joy and hugged me. Sanjay was waiting inside the guest house of the filling station. On that day they were the guests of the owners of the filling station. Deepak and Sanjay had met me at Saach Pass the previous day and were riding on almost the same itenrary. They had completed Killar Kishtwar about one hour earlier to me.
After taking leave from Deepak and Sanjay I drove through Kishtwar. It looked to be quite a nice place. It had a good thriving market. I drove to bus stand and found the entire area to be suitable for night stay. There were enough hotels, guest houses and eating places. The market was abuzz with lot of activity. There were few things which were different though. There were lots of meat shops, boards and hoardings were in urdu. There were lots of muslim brethren clad in their kameez, salwar and cap. There were no liquor shops. There were many women in the market. Army men were patrolling the streets with grim faces.
For a while I was double minded as to what to do. Should I stay in a hotel or inside the car. As I have mentioned before I follow my gut feeling most of the time. My gut feeling told me that I should stay inside the car. Things looked different but there seemed nothing to fear. So I decided to stay sleep inside the car. The other thing I was confused about was what to eat. Although there were enough options to eat both veg and non veg, I did not feel like eating. Instead bought few apples, bananas and potato chips although I am not a fan of potato chips.
For about two hours I kept walking in the market enjoying people’s activities and also reflecting on the things that happened throughout the day.
I knew enough things have happened during the day which are already lifetime memories. Driving on that fearsome cliffhanger of a road.solo on a low ground clearing passenger car being a very satisfying experience. I was feeling like a winner. I felt a surge in my self image. I felt as if there was no fear. As if it had vanished in smoke. It was a very thrilling experience. I was feeling very happy and elated.
When I got tired of walking, I sat inside the car and listened to old hindi songs on fm radio. Soon I felt like sleeping. Put the covers on, slipped into the car, locked the door from inside and went into a very sound and satisfying sleep!!!