Kalpa: the timeless grandeur of the high mountains

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Located close to Chinese-occupied Tibet and far from the regular tourist traffic to Himachal, Kalpa continues to attract the daring and the adventurous. With its surroundings almost untouched, this former capital of the Kinnaur tribal region has cautiously opened its doors to tourism. Security concerns had so far prohibited tourists from entering this area without a domestic line permit.

There are stories of how, during the days of the Raj, Kalpa became a favorite haunt of Lord Dalhousie who, while taking a break from helping to run the Empire for the Queen, often took this emotional journey by horse-drawn carriage to relax among these breathtaking views of the sacred Kinner Kailash, the Raldang Kailash massif and its sister peaks.

You have to go to Kalpa to understand why Lord Dalhousie said that Kalpa offers the most beautiful views of the Himalayas. There are few places in India where you can see Himalayan peaks like the Kinner Kailash up close. The drive through this tribal area takes you to an area 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 best way to discover the splendours of this unique and less explored region of Himachal. Settled in the comfort of our sturdy Gypsy, we took the high road to Kalpa, from Shimla via the Hindustan-Tibet road, a strategic highway built to the Chinese border. Approaching some sections like the rocky road bordering the Sutlej River north of Rampur Bushehr required some skillful driving. Still, nothing takes away from the beautiful terrain you’ll pass through along the way. The Rekong Peo diversion puts us on a particularly steep and winding path, with a continuous series of blind hairpin bends towards Kalpa. Even more caution was needed to cover this patch.

In-car chatter automatically decreases as the driver has to focus on the road and your attention is drawn to the dramatic beauty that unfolds around every turn! Surely a preview of more wonderful things to come.

The old Hindustan-Tibet road, occupied by the GREF (General Reserve Engineering Force) and the Indian Army Border Roads Organization, is an old trade route. Kalpa, once an active trading post, was then known as Chini (named after Chinese and Tibetan traders in the district). The drive from Shimla to Kalpa takes 11-12 hours. Kinnaur falls under the rain shadow, so you also get a splendid monsoon adventure option.

Outside a hair salon and cafe in Kalpa Daniel J Rao, Shutterstock

Perched atop a steep spur terminating in a steep mountain path, densely strewn with deodar trees and dotted with orchards and terraced farmhouses, Kalpa is the legendary winter abode of Lord Shiva. There are some of us who are desperate to start exploring before the end of the day, despite our late arrival. Evening shadows fly over the facade of the ancient Shiv temple, now a mysterious silhouette in the dying light of a brilliant sunset that sets the snow-capped peaks afire in the distance. Rising from the valley, just opposite Kalpa, is the Kinner Kailash (6,050m) to the north, covered in holy snow, which reflects the play of changing colors of sunlight throughout the day. A clear night sky gives you the galaxy on a shimmering plateau.

The next morning, laden with a hearty breakfast and the invigorating pine-scented air, we head down seductive tree-lined lanes past village houses reflecting the dying craftsmanship of kath kuni architecture. traditional, eco-friendly and earthquake resistant…

Kalpa offers beautiful walks and the view from the Chini Forest Bungalow is simply fabulous. At the top of the hill, you can spend time marveling at the exquisite craftsmanship of traditional Kinnauri work on the Tibetan pagoda-style structure of Narain Nagini Temple. The steep transportation up the slope to the shrine, where the Pandavas would have once worshipped, is definitely worth it. Although you are not allowed to enter the main chamber of the temple, there is plenty to keep you busy in this ancient temple. Also not to be missed is the wood carving of the gates of the Hu-Ba-Lan-Kar monastery with its floating prayer flags, which falls on the way to the temple. Savor the magnificent views of the Kinner Kailash. A tablet here reveals that it was established by Lohowa Rinchen Zangpo (950-1055 BCE), renowned for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. It is one of 108 gompas built by the revered master. The structure you see today stands on the original site which was destroyed by fire in 1959 and rebuilt by villagers. Rinpoche’s sacred staff was also installed here at the gompa which was named Samdup Chhoiling. Soak up the deep serenity that permeates the gompa as you gently spin the row of prayer wheels in the hallway.

Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh
A wooden carving of a guardian deity at the door of a temple in Kalpa Shutterstock

If you have free time, you should try to visit the nearby village of Sapni famous for its magnificent architectural heritage as defined by the fort of Sapni. Entering Sapni is like slipping into a time warp when you encounter the massive structure that spans two buildings joined together. On the fifth floor of the seven-storey tower is a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. The fortress, built by Raja Padam Singh of Rampur Busher, overlooks the beautiful valley. You will love the rich wood carvings outlined in the doors and windows and the frame. The fort offers a superb window into vernacular Himachali eco-friendly kath kuni architecture with its organic mix of wood and stone.

If you feel up to it, plan the 2km/45min khud hike to nearby Rekong Peo (13km). Keep in mind that you will need a return. It is a hard transport on foot.

Although Kalpa offers nothing close to the bazaar entertainment of popular hill stations, its magnificent location, high above the left bank of the Sutlej River, more than makes up for these fleeting pleasures. The market stalls are nothing to write home about, but you can stock up on delicious Kinnauri apples, chilgoza (pine nuts) and wild apricots for which the region is famous.

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

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

Rekong Peo, the district headquarters of Kinnaur, is where serious hikers 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 nearby ancient villages of Powari, Morang and Kanum offer excellent insights into the Kinner culture.

THE ESSENTIAL DETOURS

Sarhan

Back in Shimla, we just couldn’t resist the temptation to extend the wonderful mood that Kalpa had put us in. The Sutlej will be your companion throughout the journey. Snow-capped mountains follow your path as you leave Kalpa to climb the slope to forest-covered Sarahan (17 km from the main road off Jeori – about 166 km / 6 hours from Shimla). We wake up at dawn to marvel at the wonder of snowcapped Mount Shrikhand reaching into the heavens. As the morning sun burns away the last remnants of the night mist, we find ourselves in the courtyard of the magnificent centuries-old Bhimkali Temple, home to the tutelary deity of the rulers of the ancient state of Bushahr. angle! In the village, the wooden houses with slate roofs blend harmoniously into the landscape. There’s not much else to do but soak up the rich atmosphere of the cobbled streets and apple blossoms. If you’re here later in the year, feast on sun-warmed plums and early apples from tiny market stalls in the benevolent sunshine.

Sangla Valley

The Sangla Valley is simply delicious and even those two days we spent here were unforgettable. The friendly Baspa River defines the magical qualities of the Stone Fruit Valley which is protected by magnificent snow-capped peaks. A hike to the fort of Kamru (today a temple dedicated to the goddess Kamakshi) makes us rediscover the craftsmanship of Kinnauri wood. Following the alley of cherry blossoms, we share hot butter tea and chat with a local family, whose apple-cheeked children watch us from behind half-closed doors. Trekking, angling, river crossing…. Sangla is wonderful for all of this and more. Banjara camps, pioneers in the valley, offer excellent arrangements for a wide range of activities in the region. In fact, they can even plan your trip to Kalpa and Sarahan.

INFORMATION

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

when should we go

April-November

Tourist information centers

1. HP Tourism Development Corporation Ltd, Ritz Annex, Shimla. Such. 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 Ridge: Location Kalpa Cell 07901881880. Websoite – echor.in. Rooms 12, rate Rs 2,800-4,500 (+breakfast).

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

3. Kinnar Kailash HPTDC: Kalpa location. Tel 01786-226159. Website – htpdc.in. Rooms 12. Rate Rs3,400-6,000; YOU.

Getting There

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

Rail: Kalka Shatabdi Express and Himalayan Queen Express connect Delhi to Kalka. To continue your journey to Shimla, you have the option of taking the small narrow-gauge train or hiring a taxi.

Road: Taxis (Rs3,500-4,000 to Kalpa) are available for hire in Shimla. It is better to draw up a round-trip contract in advance according to your itinerary. For those who don’t want to make the journey by car, there are public buses that run twice a day (6:15 am and 11:20 pm), seven days a week, to Kalpa from Shimla.

Road: Follow the Hindustan-Tibet Highway (NH5) from Shimla. You will pass Kufri-Fagu-Matiana-Narkanda-Rampur-Jeori-Wangtu-Tapri-Powari. Here, take the Hindustan-Tibet road diversion to Rekong Peo (6 km). From here take either the 6 km steep road or the longer 12 km road to Kalpa. If you want to detour to Sarahan Valley and Sangla, get out of Jeori

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