Hard Drive: Treacherous Paths and Wild Joys in Himachal Pradesh

Project #100DaysinHimalayas on a risky road trip.  
Sach Pass Himachal Pradesh
The silence is piercing at Sach Pass, whipped only by the rush of wind. Some say the resident deity is intolerant of noise. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Between February and December 2016, the twosome will make a series of trips in the Himalayas as part of their Project #100DaysinHimalayas, spanning from Jammu and Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, even in the neighbouring foothills of Nepal and Bhutan.

Their Himachal Pradesh leg began at Shimla, and traversed several of the state’s natural wonders. They drove through waterfalls that spilled over the roads in the lush district of Kinnaur, and enjoyed spotting birds against the rugged greens of Pangi Valley in Chamba district. In contrast was the cold desert landscape of Pin Valley National Park in Spiti Valley, home to the elusive snow leopard and ibex. They spent a night camping at Chandratal (“moon lake” in Hindi) that Mukherjee observed was far more touristy than he remembers.

Chandratal in Himachal Pradesh

Chandratal is one of India’s two high-altitude wetlands marked as Ramsar sites for their ecological importance. The lakeside is frequented by pastoral shepherds, campers, and trekkers. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The thrills began when they approached Sach Pass en route to Pangi Valley where the richly forested approach route gave way to a narrow strip of road hewn between glaciers. The high-altitude route was once solely frequented by nomadic shepherds, locals, and trekkers and was opened to vehicular traffic only over a decade ago. “We were in a tunnel of ice,” Moitra recalled, “I’ve never seen ice walls so high.” The treacherous passage was compounded by the threat of landslides and the adrenalin rush of fording swiftly churning streams along the way. The car was sliding so uncontrollably in the last one-and-a-half km that it felt like they were tobogganing, Moitra said.

Travellers remember the porters who helped them scale a mountain but Moitra believes that it’s the drivers who are the unsung heroes. At one point on their journey, perceiving that the driver of an oncoming car seemed inexperienced, their driver turned around and said, “You’ll be scared for a second but don’t worry,” before backing the jeep off the strip of road. “The tyre of our car was on the road but I was hanging out,” Moitra remembered, “It was the most scary experience.” A string of nerve-racking moments and 14 hours later, the driver felt like family, he said.

Forest at Pangi Valley in Himachal Pradesh

Below the rocky, glacial strip of Sach Pass lies the green paradise of Pangi Valley. “The entire Himalayas is good for birding,” Dhritiman Mukherjee says, “There are sanctuaries like Kibber in Spiti Valley where you can see blue sheep and ibex, but in Pangi Valley, and for an hour after Sach Pass, you can spot a lot of birds.” Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Moitra’s favourite moment came unexpectedly in Pin Valley. After travelling in the car for a few days, and just watching the scenery fly by, Moitra decided he “wanted to be a part of the beautiful world”. Mukherjee suggested riding atop the jeep so Moitra clambered on the roof armed with a few pillows. “It was like being a jockey at the rodeo,” he said, “Plus, I had 360-degree open views going through the valley. With the smell of the leaves and flowers and the songs of the birds, my senses opened up.”

It was during the close of their trip, around the picturesque town of Udaipur located a 5hr-drive from Manali, that Mukherjee really felt like they’d ventured into lesser chartered territory. “There were no tourists, only travellers,” Mukherjee said, and the facilities available were basic. Udaipur’s guesthouses were booked out with the ongoing elections, so they decided to go along with a man who had a hotel under construction nearby. Their room that night didn’t have a fourth wall but it didn’t matter. “Tourists need facilities; their goal is to see new things within their comfort zone,” Mukherjee said. “Travellers just want to see new places, they are willing to compromise.”

Grey Bushchat Bird Himachal Pradesh

The grey bushchat chiefly dines on small insects like beetles and spiders, and occasionally, seeds. Chats, despite their names, are solitary creatures or move in pairs. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Keep posted for updates from Mukherjee and Moitra, as this mountain bromance yields stunning photos of the Himalayas’ stark beauty, and stories of its charming people. Missed the previous dispatches? Read more on #100DaysInHimalayas.

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    Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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    Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife.

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