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Kalpa: Timeless High Mountain Grandeur

Drive through a once forbidden terrain, beneath the long shadows of mighty mountains, racing along a sinuous Sutlej over a trade route from ancient times.

Kalpa in Himachal Pradesh
Kalpa in Himachal Pradesh

Located close to Chinese-occupied Tibet, and far from the regular tourist traffic to Himachal, Kalpa continues to lure the bold and the adventurous. With its almost untouched environs, this erstwhile capital of the tribal region of Kinnaur has cautiously opened its doors to tourism. Security concerns had so far disallowed tourists from stepping in to this area without an Inner Iine Permit.

There are stories of how, back in the days of the Raj, Kalpa became a favourite haunt of Lord Dalhousie who, while taking a break from helping run the Empire for the Queen, would often make that soul-stirring journey by carriage to unwind amongst those breathtaking views of the sacred Kinner Kailash, the Raldang Kailash massif and its sister peaks.

One has to go to Kalpa to understand why Lord Dalhousie said that Kalpa offers the finest views of the Himalayas. There are few places in India where one can see Himalayan peaks like the Kinner Kailash from such close quarters. The drive through this tribal area takes you to a region totally unlike any other place in the world. The architectural heritage is beautifully defined by the regions fusion of Hindu and Buddhist cultures.

A driving holiday is the finest way to discover the splendiferous offerings of this unique, lesser explored region of Himachal. Ensconced in the comfort of our sturdy Gypsy we hit the high road to Kalpa, from Shimla via the Hindustan-Tibet Road, a strategic highway built all the way up to the Chinese border. Approaching some stretches like the shaky road bordering the Sutlej River, north of Rampur Bushehr required some deft driving. Yet nothing takes away from the gorgeous terrain you will cover along the way. The turn off from Rekong Peo sets us upon a particularly steep and winding, with a continuous series of blind hairpin bends to Kalpa. Even more caution was required covering this patch.

The chatter in the car automatically diminishes as the driver needs to concentrate on the road and your attention is pulled towards the dramatic beauty unspooling at every bend! Surely a peek-a-boo inkling of more wondrous things to come.

The old Hindustan-Tibet Road, manned by the GREF (General Reserve Engineering Force) and the Border Roads Organisation of the Indian army, is an ancient trade route. Kalpa, once an active trade post, was then known as Chini (after the Chinese and Tibetan traders in the district). The journey from Shimla to Kalpa takes all of 11-12 hours. Kinnaur falls in the rain shadow so you also get a splendid monsoon adventure option.

Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh
Outside a barber's shop and cafe in Kalpa Daniel J Rao, Shutterstock

Perched atop a craggy spur terminating from a stiff mountain trail, densely peppered with deodar trees and studded with fruit orchards and terraced farms, Kalpa is the legendary winter abode of Lord Shiva. There are those amongst us who are desperate to start exploring before the day is done, despite our late arrival. Evening shadows steal across the facade of the old Shiv Temple, now a mysterious silhouette in the dying light of a brilliant sunset that sets fire to the snow peaks in the distance. Rising from the valley, bang opposite Kalpa, is the sacred snow-clad Kinner Kailash (6,050 m) in the north, which reflects the play of ever-changing colours of sunlight through the day. Clear night skies offer you the galaxy on a glittering platter.

Next morning charged by a heavy breakfast and the invigorating pine-scented air we head out amidst alluring tree-fringed by-lanes past village homes reflecting the dying craft of traditional eco-friendly , earthquake-resistant kath kuni architecture…

Kalpa has some lovely walks and the views from the Chini Forest Bungalow are just fabulous.  On the hilltop you can spend time marvelling at the exquisite artisanal quality of the traditional Kinnauri workmanship on the Tibetan pagoda–style structure of the Narain Nagini Temple. The stiff haul up the hillslope to the shrine, where the Pandavas are said to have once worshipped, is really worth it. Though you are not permitted to enter the main chamber at the temple, there’s plenty to keep you engaged with this ancient temple. Unmissable too is the woodcarving of the doors of the Hu-Ba-Lan-Kar Monastery with its fluttering prayer flags, which falls enroute to the temple. Savour the gorgeous views of the Kinner Kailash. A tablet here reveals that it was established by Lochowa Rinchen Zangpo (950-1055 BCE), renowned for having translated Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. It is one of the 108 gompas built by the revered master. The structure you see today is on the original site which was destroyed by a fire in 1959 and rebuilt by the villagers. The holy staff of Rimpoche was also installed here at the gompa which was christened as Samdup Chhoiling. Soak in the deep serenity that pervades the gompa as you gently turn the row of prayers wheels in the corridor.

Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh
A wooden sculpture of a guardian deity on the doorway of a temple in Kalpa Shutterstock

If you have time on your hands you should try and visit the nearby village of Sapni famous for its beautiful architectural heritage as defined by the Sapni Fort. Entering Sapni is like slipping into a time warp as you encounter the massive structure which spreads across two buildings gathered together. On the fifth floor of the seven-storied tower is a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. The fortress, built by Raja Padam Singh of Rampur Busher, overlooks the gorgeous valley. You will love the rich wood carvings delineated in the doors and windows and the framework. The fort offers a superb window to the vernacular Himachali eco-friendly kath kuni architecture with its organic blend of wood and stone.

If you’re feeling up to it, plan the 2-km/ 45-minute khud hike to nearby Rekong Peo (13 km). Keep in mind that you will need a ride back. It’s a stiff haul up on foot.

Though Kalpa doesn't offer anything close to the bazaar entertainment of popular hill stations, its stunning location, high above the left bank of the Sutlej River, more than makes up for those transient pleasures. The market stalls are nothing to write home about, but you can pick up your stock of luscious Kinnauri apples, chilgoza (pinenuts) and wild apricots for which the region is famous.

A herd of sheep in the mountains of Kalpa
A herd of sheep in the mountain roads of Kalpa

Kinnauri shawls and silver jewellery embellished with turquoise are perfect take-home goodies. Immerse yourself in the bazaar where apple-cheeked Kinnauris , dressed for a day in town, haggle over fruit and enjoy a glass of angoori, the local brew or salted butter tea.

Rekong Peo, Kinnaur's district headquarters, is where serious trekkers pick up supplies and sundries. The Buddhist temple here was an integral part of the Kalachakra ceremony presided over by the Dalai Lama in 1992. The ancient villages of Powari, Morang and Kanum, situated nearby, offer excellent insights into Kinner culture.

UNMISSABLE DETOURS

Sarhan

Heading back to Shimla, we just could not resist the temptation of extending the wonderful mood Kalpa had put us in. Collectively we decided that the lure of Sarahan and the hitherto less explored Sangla Valley just had to be part of our memories of Kalpa. The Sutlej will be your companion throughout the trip. Snow-capped mountains follow your path as you leave Kalpa to clamber up the slope for forest-clad Sarahan (17 km off the main road off Jeori -- about 166 km/ 6 hrs from Shimla). We awake at dawn to marvel at the sheer wonderment of snow-bound Mt Shrikhand reaching for the skies. As the morning sun sears away the last vestiges of the night mist we find ourselves in the courtyard of the gorgeous centuries-old Bhimkali Temple, home to the tutelary deity of the rulers of the erstwhile Bushahr State.. Perfect for photo-shoots from every angle! In the village wood and slate-roofed houses merge seamlessly into the landscape. There’s not much to do but soak in the rich atmospherics of cobbled streets and blossoming apple trees. If you are here later in the year gorge on sun-warmed plums and early apples from tiny market stalls under a benevolent sun.

Sangla Valley

The Sangla Valley is simply delightful and even those two days we spent here were unforgettable. The friendly Baspa River defines the magical qualities of the stone-fruit bearing valley which is protected by gorgeous snow peaks. A hike up to Kamru Fort, (now a temple dedicated to the goddess Kamakshi) reacquaints us with Kinnauri wood craft. Following the cherry blossom trees lane we share hot buttery tea and chit-chat with a local family, whose apple-cheeked giggling kids peek at us from behind half-closed doors. Trekking, angling, river crossing…. Sangla is wonderful for all this and more. Banjara Camps who were pioneers in the valley provide excellent arrangements for a wide range of activities in the area. In fact they can even plan your trip to Kalpa and Sarahan as well.

THE INFORMATION

Kalpa is located about 250 km from Shimla, on a spur above Rekong Peo (2,290 m), district headquarters of Kinnaur, which lies in the northeast corner of Himachal Pradesh.

When To Go

April-November

Tourist Information Centres

1. HP Tourism Development Corporation Ltd, Ritz Annexe, Shimla. Tel 0177- 2652704. Website: www.hptdc.in

2. Himachal Tourism - Victory Tunnel, Shimla. Tel 0177-2654589. Website: himachaltourism.gov.in.

3. Banjara Camps - A26, Behind Spinal Injuries Hospital, Block A, Nangal Dewat, Sector D, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, Delhi 11007. Cell: +91 96546 41285. Tel: +91 1126895500,  +91 1126896600, +91 1126897700. 

Where To Stay

View from Echor The Alpine Crest hotel
View from Echor The Alpine Crest hotel

1. Echor - The Alpine Crest: Location Kalpa Cell 07901881880. Websoite - echor.in. Rooms 12, tariff Rs 2,800-4,500 (+breakfast). 

2. The Grand Shamba La Kalpa: Location Roghi Road, Kanag Saring. Kalpa Cell: 09811774781. Website - thegrandshambala.com.  Rooms 16, tariff - Rs 5,000-6,000 (+two meals). 

3. The Kinnar Kailash HPTDC: Location Kalpa. Tel 01786-226159. Website - htpdc.in. Rooms 12. Tariff Rs3,400-6,000; TE.

Getting There

Nearest Airport: Jubberhatti Airport, Shimla (245km) has direct flights from Chandigarh, Kullu, and Dharamshala.

Rail: Kalka Shatabdi Express and Himalayan Queen Express connect Delhi with Kalka. For the onward journey to Shimla, there is the option of travelling by the narrow gauge Toy Train or hiring a taxi.

Road: Taxis (Rs3,500-4,000 to Kalpa) are available on hire in Shimla.  It’s best to work out a round-trip contract in advance based on one's itinerary.  For those who don't want to do the trip by car, there are state buses that operate twice a day (6.15am and 11.20pm), seven days a week to Kalpa from Shimla.

Route: Follow the Hindustan-Tibet Road (NH5) from Shimla. You will drive past Kufri-Fagu-Matiana-Narkanda-Rampur-Jeori-Wangtu-Tapri-Powari. Here take the diversion from the Hindustan-Tibet Road to Rekong Peo (6 km). From there either take the high gradient 6-km road or the 12-km longer route to Kalpa. If you want to do the Sarahan and Sangla valley detour veer off from Jeori

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