Hello! Where are you?” Teddy Singh’s baritone boomed through the cabin of the Audi Q5 thanks to Bluetooth. He was waiting for us in Dalhousie, refreshments at the ready and meat sizzling over hot coals and here we’d taken a wrong turn at Ropar in Punjab and now were headed towards Kangra in Himachal Pradesh rather than Dalhousie. But with a little help of the GPS and a lot more help from the locals we were in Dalhousie by 7.30pm–which was quite good timing considering we’d driven out of Chandigarh at noon.
Teddy Singh runs the absolutely charming Teddy’s lodge, far removed from the cacophony of the town centre 7 km away. Now in his seventies, he has clambered all over the Himalaya in his youth and is a hilarious fount of stories and a valuable source of information.
And, we needed information. We’d left Bombay on a whim, to escape the sweltering heat and chance upon some snow and ice in the Himalaya.
Just a few days before leaving, Neville, my engineering college classmate, and I pored over a map of Himachal Pradesh and a little dotted line in the northwest corner caught my eye. It was a faint track that joined Dalhousie, Khajjiar, Chamba and Bairagarh to the Pangi Valley which is a western offshoot from Keylong on the revered Manali-Leh road. For years, as the map rightly depicted, this route, that went over the 14,800ft-high Sach Pass, was a walking track or a cart track at best that locals, especially wandering gaddi shepherds, used as a short-cut route into Chamba and Kashmir. But Teddy Singh assured us that with our car (essentially an all-wheel drive) the road was motorable. “Watch the edges, sometimes they crumble away. Watch for landslides. Cross streams carefully, the currents can be strong.”
I had invited Anu and Kartik, my friends who have given up fat and lazy corporate lifestyles (and salaries) and are now very happily making jams and chutneys in the Himalayan village of Thanedar, to join us. They had just bought a new Mahindra Thar and were eager to put it through its paces.
Next morning, when the the four of us came out onto the terrace that looks out at the Dhauladhar range, we found that Teddy Singh had been up at sunrise directing his two-man staff with military precision. The result was a smashing breakfast spread consisting of fried eggs, toast, bacon, sausages and mutton liver masala. As we were leaving he also handed us a packet of Goan sausages saying that they were very easy to cook when out camping.
We drove to Chamba via Khajjiar. Since this is the tourist trail, the roads were wide with a steady stream of traffic. It is from Chamba that we went off the beaten track. After tanking up at the town’s fuel station, we headed off on SH 37 towards Tisa and Bairagarh. Most tourist traffic heads off on SH 33 back towards Pathankot and the plains.
The tarmac soon started deteriorating and by the time we’d crossed Bairagarh 87km away, the road was unsealed but still reasonably smooth. Teddy Singh had booked us into the Bairagarh PWD Guest House, which, like most PWD bungalows, had a prime location and looked out at the tall and majestic mountains within which stood the Sach Pass, which we would tackle the next day.
We started off at the break of dawn because the day would grow hotter as we ascended the Sach Pass. And, sometimes, this causes parts of the huge glaciers to melt and move. The ‘road’ up the Sach Pass is more of a collection of stones. An hour and 19km later, we arrived at the Satrundi Police Post. From here the road bifurcates towards Kishtwar and Doda and towards the Sach Pass. Due to the proximity to Kashmir, people crossing the police post are videographed along with their vehicle. So, after smiling into the camera, we carried on. The Himalaya can be traversed only at a few places, and Satrundi is one such place.
The first glaciers came into view 5km later and, as we climbed higher, they seemed to crowd the mountainsides. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if they all went mobile at once. The temperature at the top of the pass was —2°C. The drive up the pass and down, though precarious due to the width of the dirt and rock track, is an amalgamation of vertigo and wonder. The path is so narrow that it seems that the mountains have reluctantly relented just enough width to make motoring possible. We were fortunate that we didn’t face oncoming traffic.
The going had to be cautious because this road is by no way passive. Rocks come down, glaciers crawl, melting ice forms streams that grow more voluminous as the day goes hotter and change course. It is the combination of these geographical dynamics and dangers that makes driving across the Sach such a thrilling and adventurous experience.
The descent from the Sach into the Pangi Valley is even prettier. The landscape is verdant compared to the grey and rocky one on the Chamba side. We crossed the Sach and slowly drove through the narrow Pangi Valley to a fork on the road 32km away. It took us three hours. From there, we turned right and headed to the Kilar PWD bungalow about 6km away. This one, however, was booked up as a regional civil servant and his entourage were visiting. We headed from Kilar to Dharwas, which was 10km down the left branch of the fork. Here, thankfully, though the guesthouse was full up, the chowkidar was kind enough to let us pitch our tents on the spacious lawns and provide us with both dinner and breakfast next morning. He also told us that the road from Dharwas heads to Kishtwar via one of the scariest roads in all of the Himalaya.
This, of course, piqued my curiosity and hence the next morning we set off to check out exactly how scary it was. It was, in fact, terrifying!
We had a tough time convincing the guard at the Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir border to let us go across the border and onto that road. He thought that as urban folks, we would not have the requisite proficiency at the wheel.
The road has been cut across a sheer 2,000 foot wall of rock in a such a way that its cross-section looks like a square with one side missing. If you go off this side of the square, it is a sheer 1,000 foot drop below. The road itself is barely the width of a truck and there are regular outcrops to facilitate two vehicles to pass each other but more often than not one of them has to reverse to the closest outcrop or wait if the driver spots an oncoming car. It was truly nerve-wracking to drive. We drove for about 15km and then made an eight-point U-turn on that narrow road with one rear wheel hanging in space. We returned to Dharwas, where we stopped at a scenic spot and brewed tea on my portable stove to calm our nerves. We then carried on past Khillar.
As we were leaving Khillar, an old villager flagged us down. Neville, who suffers from a mild form of OCD by way of a compunction to offer a ride to all and sundry sometimes even against their will, asked me to stop.
“Will you please give me and my friend a ride to Cherri?” the old man asked.
“Sure, sure, hop right in,” replied Neville, as if he was the lord of this land who was today particularly benevolently disposed towards his subjects.
The man disappeared behind a tree and returned with his friend. It was a donkey–an actual full-grown, mangy and malodorous donkey.
The animal seemed accustomed to riding in vehicles and hopped into the trunk of the Audi Q5 and settled down quite comfortably over our luggage. “Please drive a little cautiously,” requested the old man, “Harkishan is a bit nervous inside a car and has often vomited if agitated.”
The fear of donkey barf over the rear seats made me drive as if I had an egg between my foot and the accelerator. It took us an agonising hour to cover the 15km to Cherri. Needless to say, Kartik and Anu had a hearty laugh throughout that section in their Thar that was following me.
The old man and his donkey trotted off and we checked into the Cherri PWD guesthouse fervently hoping that the heady scent of Harkishan would have gone from the car by the next morning.
Cherri’s PWD Bungalow is simply the best located we stayed at on this trip. It is surrounded by wooded hills, with the Chenab gushing by. The broken roads were replaced by smooth tarmac after Cherri at Udaipur, the gateway to Lahaul. There is a valley going off the main Udaipur-Tandi road and that is the Miyar Valley. Our last night’s camping was by the Miyar River in this valley. Kartik had packed dry spices needed to cook biryani and we bought a leg of lamb and some goat liver from Udaipur. That night we had a feast as we dined on tasty biryani and washed it down with Sula Riesling that we’d chilled in the ice-cold river.
To get back to civilisation we joined the Manali-Leh road at Tandi, which is also the next fuel stop after Chamba–291km away. This was good as by now both cars were gasping for diesel. We crossed the Rohtang Pass and finished our trip in Manali. That night as we sat at Johnson’s CafÃ© eating freshly caught trout, I played the last five days back in my mind. We’d seen a not oft traversed region of Himachal Pradesh, arguably its prettiest and most rugged. We’d started off from Bombay looking for a driving adventure and had found it in full measure.
Where to stay
There are PWD guesthouses at Bairagarh, Khillar, Cherri and Udaipur. They cost about `500 a room. The watchman at most of these guesthouses will usually rustle up basic fare and tea. To stay at Teddy Singh’s Lodge contact Teddy Singh on +91-8427656302. It costs about `12,000 or so for the whole lodge, except his quarters.
Where to eat
There are basic dhabas on the way regularly after the Sach Pass.
Keep in mind
You have to be fond of road trips to enjoy this one. As a rule of thumb if you arrive at Bairagarh later than 1pm, try and stay the night there and cross the Sach Pass only the next day.