Kinnaur: Land of Gods, Kullu Shawls & Untold Adventures

by Abhinanda

Like music, travel has its own set of genres too. There are explorers, there are adventurers, the vacation brooders and of course, the history and culture followers. I am more of the explorer-culturalist sort; I like taking my own sweet time on treks , getting versed with the local cultures and things like that. But this monologue, is dedicated to the first real adventure of my life, the kind you don’t plan, the kind which just happens and you live to tell the tale. Cut to about a year and a half back to Kinnaur, a district on the Indo-Tibetan border in Himachal Pradesh - much underrated amongst the travel community and much exploited by the 'big guns'.

It all started with a university project to document any two ancient handicrafts in the country. Being a craft-textile design student and a traveller, I pinned my spot on Himachal Pradesh to document ‘Kullu Shawls’ - very popular commercially for their excellent quality but somewhere lost in the pages of history. Spending about a week out there in the ruthlessly cold month of February, I explored Kullu and its shawls. Being on a tight student budget, I put myself up in a Dharamshala, in the campus of the famous Sheetala Mata mandir, right off the rickety iron bridge across the Beas leading you into the small town of Kullu, for INR 50 a night (less than a dollar). For a room with all basic requirements and a bathroom, definitely not a bad decision!
The Dharamshala room in Kullu

Luxury at less than a dollar!

Exploring the craft of shawl making, I gathered from the locals that this craft is not authentic to Kullu, but was born thousands of years ago in the heights of a place called Kinnaur. Never heard of the place before but I knew I had to be there. The following morning after a much scrumptious breakfast at the Sita Dhaba in the main market (a must visit!), I walked up to the Kullu bus stand and enquired about buses to Kinnaur. The fair, pink-cheeked local man behind the counter lowered his spectacles at me and said,
"The road via Manali-Rohtang to Kinnaur is shut for six-seven months a year. The road via Rampur and Wangtu is longer but open all year for the army. For the colder months, there is just one bus to Kinnaur from Kullu in a week and it leaves today at 1 pm."
I took that as my sign and bought the ticket - INR 110 for 283 km and a 14-hour bus journey. I hadn't done my research on Kinnaur as it was an ad-hoc plan but I managed to find out that it'd be snow laden and at an altitude of over 3500 metres. With hard-to-find internet on my phone, I did what every person should do - called my mum (Yes, she screamed) and got onto the most rickety, uneasy, long yet oddly satisfying local bus ride of my life. The bus stopped every few minutes as the locals carried on with their regularities of everyday life. Landscapes changed every few hours, roads narrowed and widened and the locals got shorter, stouter, more reserved, but remained cheerful as ever. The bus ride was so enchanting that I was wide-eyed and up the entire day, in the adrenaline rush of which, I did not realise when the sun fell and I slept.
Sunset en route to Reckong Peo in Kinnaur

Sunset from the bus ride

I woke up to a starlit sky, chilly winds, the sound of gushing water and bright lights in the stout black of the mountains. On looking closely, I figured that the lights were perched on huge cemented structures - Hydroelectric Power plants! Not 1, not 2 but at least 8 on the Satluj river. I had never seen such huge structures in the Himalayas before, and something in my gut wrenched, 8 times over. In the midst of many questions I wanted answers to, the bus came to a halt and everyone started getting off onto a deserted bus stand. On asking, the conductor told me that we had reached Tapri and there is a connecting bus to the ‘block’. I knew I had to reach Reckong-Peo, the district headquarter of Kinnaur and the block was a stop in the way. What I did not know, was that it was really going to be a major stop, in every sense of the word.
Dangerous Road to Kinnaur

The crazy road to Kinnaur. Pic Credits

It was 3:30 am and I was the only girl on the bus, but never for once did I feel unsafe - this for all my girl friends out there. I sat in the connecting bus and at 5:00 am, it stopped in the middle of nowhere. I got out to see what had happened, like many did and man, was it cold! A frizzy snowfall, enchanting snow capped grey-black mountains, the sun slowly rising above them and about 300 metres of the highway GONE! Just, not there! I was frozen, in every way possible. I looked towards everyone’s faces for some information. This was the ‘BLOCK’. Why did we come here if there was no road? I climbed onto the bus and here are a few things I was told: "Kinnaur mein iss time kyun aaye ho aap?" (Why did you come to Kinnaur at this time of the year?) "Yahaan landslides hona roz ki kahani hai. Banjar hai na." (Landslides are an everyday affair here. There is no vegetation, right?) "Kal Shivaratri hai. Yahaan Shivaji baste hain. Kinnaur Kailash hai aage. Shivaratri se pehle durghatnayein hoti hain, Shivaratri ke din baraf padti hai aur ye sab anubhav nahi kar paate." (Tomorrow is The Maha Shivaratri, the grand night of Lord Shiva - The God of Gods and this is where He lives. The Kinnaur Kailash is a few kilometres away. Before Shivaratri, there are often such accidents - it snows every year on this day and not everyone is destined to witness the mega event here) It wasn't long before I figured that we were waiting for a bus which was coming from Reckong Peo to the other end of the fallen highway. We were to slide down over loose boulders into the river Satluj, walk over brisk stones on the river for almost half a kilometre and climb up on a steep pile of fallen rocks. I saw death. I had two options - I could either sit in the very bus that got me here and head back to the safety of Kullu or I could brave this with a 17 kg rucksack and a camera bag. I took the leap of the latter. At around 7 am, I saw a tiny speck crawl up from the other side to the end of the block; the bus was here. The locals started climbing out the bus and walking towards the broken rocks. And as they walked down in a slanted posture, I saw them disappear over the edge. I did not have a stick or any support. I was terrified and shaking! I sat and slowly pushed myself down and I skid. After a good three second drop, I hankered to hold the stones next to me and somehow managed to stop. There were tears and burning sensations on my palms. Suddenly, I felt someone take my rucksack and camera bag and walk past me while the next person pulled me with him till the river. I decided to stay limp and clutch the kind person’s hand with as much force as I could. At the edge of the river, I started crawling, mostly on all fours over rocks that boasted prints of wet shoes on them and about forty minutes into the walk I was at the base of the other end. There were about twenty people on the top cheering me and telling me how to climb the damned thing. And I just let my body do what my ears heard and after what seemed like an eternity, I felt two hands hold both my elbows tightly and pull me up. I sat on my haunches waiting for the shivering to stop and looked back at what I had just lived through. They gave me my time as I sat there, sweating but frozen. I was the last one to get into the bus to loud cheers and applause. One of the most beautiful moments of my life, although I was still shaking from the adrenaline and fear. Someone handed me my bags and I cried through much of the journey, till the tears suddenly felt happier as someone pointed out the Kinnaur Kailash to me, a whopping 6090 metres high, barren and charcoal grey.
Mount Kailash glowing peak from Kinnaur

Mt. Kailash - The peak that glows. Pic Credits

I reached Reckong Peo in a few hours and made my way uphill to a village called Limbo - where master weavers lived. A beautiful short trek led me to houses half sunk in snow. I asked around and waddled through knee-deep snow as I reached a master weaver’s house - a graceful wooden cottage frozen in time. The sound of the hand loom rattle was the only thing breaking the eerie silence of the village.
Kinnaur - view of the valley Sipping hot tea next to a locally made furnace, I got to know not only about the craft that goes back to the on-play of the wool route via Tibet and China in the East and Uzbekistan and Iran in the West, three thousand years ago but of their lives there too. The craft of making Kinnauri shawls is their way of living which is why they accept no offers to commercialise it.
The master weaver's family in Kinnaur village

The generous family

Kinnaur is the largest provider of hydroelectricity in South-East Asia. The locals were asked to give their lands to the companies and were promised electricity all year long and newly built houses elsewhere. They were relocated, no houses were provided and they have gone without electricity for as long as three months. Power cuts ranging between 4-9 hours are common every day. The irony of the situation is appalling. The locals grew peas and carrots on the hillsides when the snow melts and weaved shawls in the warmth of their snow laden houses when winter came. I lived with them for two days - learnt that they acquire wool from their own herd of sheep and that one shawl takes six months to weave. 6 months! Theirs was a majorly patriarchal society where men have to display their knowledge of weaving to get a girl’s hand in marriage. They told me how tourism is almost non-existent in this part of the Himalayas, how they don’t believe in the urban lifestyles, how they consider themselves to be a tribe of mixed races and how the monotony of their lives is what they hold on to, every day. Learnings were endless and the hospitality was overpowering.
Master weaver in Kinnaur teaching his weaving skills

The Master and the Apprentice

I experienced Shivaratri viewing the Kinnaur Kailash, among the continuous ringing of bells, heavy snowfall and a bright beam of magical sunlight on the mountain top. The feeling, till today, is indescribable. The trip back home via Shimla was a blur and I slept most of the way except when the now-usual landslide had to be crossed. There is no best time to visit Kinnaur, because all year round, the weather changes in every road-affecting treacherous way possible. But to witness the massiveness of worship to Shiva in a place pious for His existence, right out of Hindu religious texts was an adventure of a lifetime. Header picture by Krishna G S What was your favourite part of the story? Share & comment below! Here are some amazing offbeat experiences around Kinnaur Kailash that you could experience: The Hampta Pass trek Trek to the Pin Parvati base camp The Beas Kund Trek Snow trek to Kedar Kanta Trek to Bhaba Pass

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