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This travel story was published on Borderless Journal in their June, 2024 edition.

A Story Carved in Wood, Snow and Stone  


As a traveller, I always try to zero in on destinations that are less frequented and hence, more likely to retain their pristine touch. The same thumb rule was applied during our recent ten-day visit to Himachal Pradesh.  Leaving the more popular venues to backpackers and robust tourists, my husband and I reached Sangla Valley to savour three days of undiluted peace and unsullied natural beauty at Batseri.

Situated at a height of 2700 metres (8530 feet) above sea level, Batseri is a postcard-pretty village in Sangla, in the Kinnaur district of Himachal. Our hotel was located right in the middle of an apple orchard – an embodiment of luxury and modern engineering juxtaposed against a backdrop of idyllic charm, antiquated structures and time-worn practices. As we stepped into our spacious room and attached balcony, the sight that greeted us was nothing short of a mic drop moment! Immediately outside the hotel boundary lay an enormous stretch of ivory, grey and beige – rocks, pebbles and shingles, accumulated through centuries of weathering and deposition – through which, gently meandered the Baspa with its wealth of shimmering emerald waters. This breathtaking layout was hemmed in by the giant deodar, fir and spruce trees on one hand, and the glistening snow-capped peaks of the gigantic Kinnar Kailash range on the other. The picture was perfected by a common sit-out area in the patio, where one could plonk down on the quaint, low seats crafted out of timber and have a leisurely breakfast, while the whispering conifers hummed a ditty. Or simply choose a vantage log-seat at an umbrous spot and catch up on some reading over caffein. The possibilities were endless and we were already rueing the prospect of our departure after a fleeting three days.

At Batseri, our bedside morning alarm was replaced by the natural birdsong. Relaxing in the balcony with a piping hot cuppa and waiting for the sun to peek from behind the peaks was an experience to cherish. We watched in awe as the sky metamorphosed into a fast-changing palette of peach, pink and gold, steeping the entire valley in a warm glow. Men and women, flora and fauna, welcomed yet another chance at renewal and opportunity.

One morning, we set off for a village walkthrough, after polishing off a hearty breakfast. The hotel exit was located about half a kilometre away from the building. The connecting pathway was smooth though quite steep, and was flanked by apple orchards on both sides. Summer is the time when the trees bear white-and-pink papery flowers, which are eventually blown off by the winds, leaving behind the core, which, subsequently bears fruit. The flower-laden trees, against a backdrop of green grass and snow-capped mountains, were a splendid vision in white. The women working in the orchards seemed a cheerful, gregarious lot who either tended to the apple trees, or prepared the soil for a crop of green peas, red beans and buck wheat – cash crops which can withstand the extremities of nature in these parts. During their break, I found them in the sit-out, sharing tea and chatting animatedly with the First Lady of the property. Class barriers and alienation of the non-privileged had clearly not tainted this picturesque hamlet, I mused happily.

The same camaraderie and co-existence marked even the simple, day-to-day interactions of the villagers, as we observed later. The highlight of the village was the hallowed temple of Badri Narayan Ji, an intricately carved wooden temple which sported a very neat, well-maintained premise. The original temple was destroyed in a fire in 1998 and it was rebuilt with the collective effort of the villagers. The young priest shared a familial bond with the local residents, who, in turn, helped uphold the sanctity and cleanliness of the temple and the shrine. No visitor is allowed to climb up the three steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum – the offerings are collected by the priest and offered to the deity. Nobody – young or old, rich or ordinary – challenges or questions his status. We had earlier observed a similar austerity in other temples of Kinnaur, as well. In fact, some mandate the wearing of the colourful, traditional Himachali cap for gents inside the premise. The women usually have stoles, scarves and dupattas to cover their heads with.

From the temple, a single path led us forward to the village. We met and spoke to the local store-keepers, animal herders, agriculturists, home-makers – everyone greeted us affably and spoke about their lifestyle and community. Their pride in their village and its traditions, along with their warmth and hospitality, left an imprint on my heart. We observed the houses which were a complete and welcome departure from the glass-and-metal structures that we usually see. They were all built of sturdy wood collected from the nearby deodar forests and burnished well to display a sheen. Each house had ample open area where they stowed away firewood and other essentials. There were no fences or barbed wires to demarcate properties. Piles of stones collected from the Baspa riverbank were stashed neatly to make a low boundary between two houses. I remembered noticing a similar demarcation among the orchards outside our hotel, too. Here was a community where people thrived on an innate sense of trust and fraternity; scaling of boundaries, literal or otherwise, was something unheard of.


Motor vehicles were not allowed inside the village, barring a rare two-wheeler, though we did see a couple of cars parked at the entrance. Fluffy, pampered street dogs dotted the paths and slept on the stairways of homes – they formed the extended family of the entire village. Just like the adorable Sheroo, a Bhutiya furry who ruled over our hotel like a boss!

The entire Sangla Valley is on the path to accelerated development with multiple road and hydel power projects being executed at regular intervals. The strong currents of the voluminous Baspa are harnessed for this purpose. These projects form an important source of livelihood for the local residents who cannot engage in extensive cultivation because of the inclement weather and soil conditions. Blasting the mammoth ancient mountains, drilling tunnels through them, fitting them with turbines and circuits, all amidst the extremely perilous terrain and inhospitable climate, stand testimony to the indomitable human spirit – its resolve and resilience!

The next to-do on our itinerary was a visit to Chitkul, the last village on the Indo-Tibet border. Perched at an elevation of 3450 metres (11,320 feet), this charming village with its panoramic view of the majestic Kinnar Kailash range and the verdant vistas, is often considered the ‘Jewel of the Baspa Valley.’ Our cab took us to the last motorable spot beyond which were located the Army and the ITBP camps. As we stepped out of the vehicle and looked around, we were left agape by the ethereal splendour of the place! The snow-kissed peaks alternated with rugged mountain faces and together, they stood like silent sentinels towering over the sprawling alpine meadows, pockets of dense green woods, and the gurgling, meandering Baspa. The Baspa is fed by the perennial Himalayan glaciers and shares a common catchment basin with the Ganga. Fifty shades of green, all in one canvas, I thought to myself!

Far away, we spied the Chitkul village, conspicuous by its symmetrical hutments and their colourful roofs.  We walked around the undulating meadows with cautious steps – a reminder for us to embrace the various ups and downs of life with grace and equanimity. The place abounded in rocks, boulders and pebbles of all sizes and shapes which prompted me to make a humble cairn of my own – a modest attempt at preserving my footfall on this slice of heaven!

At a distance, we saw our defence personnel going about their duty in a brisk, professional manner, unfazed by the grandeur of their surroundings. And undeterred by their starkness. I sent out a silent note of gratitude to these valiant souls for securing our country against enemies and gifting us a peaceful life. As the clock ticked by and the shadows lengthened, we knew it was time to turn back. We drove into the small hub of activity in the village which housed the last Post Office of India and also, its last dhaba. Rows of colourful prayer flags strung alongside the road seemed to whisper prayers for our well-being and safety. Multiple pictures and a hearty meal of rajma-chawal later, we headed back to our hotel in Batseri.

As we approached the premises, our driver pulled up on the side and switched off the engine. There was a pile-up of men and machine, and all vehicular movement was halted. We alighted and ambled forward to probe the matter. The sharp slope leading up to our property had been completely blocked by the sudden uprooting of an ancient tree around noon, its gnarled branches reaching up ominously towards the twilight sky. The administration had swung into action, aided generously by the villagers. The monotonous whirrr of the giant chainsaw cutter axing down the tree into large chunks, and the occasional thuddd of the felled logs, reminded us, yet again, of the unpredictability and difficulty of life in the remote mountains. We strolled around the nearby areas for about half an hour before a narrow tract was created on one side for us to walk through. The stranded people – visitors and villagers alike – trundled out, feeling thankful and relieved.

After spending three memorable days at Sangla, we headed out to our next destination. I spent the last few minutes on our balcony, listening to the gentle psithurism that seemed to whisper ancient secrets of the mountains. I admired the patterns created by Komorebi – the play of sunlight through the leaves –that gave me life lessons in gratitude for these fleeting, beauteous moments of life. As we drove away, I cast one last lingering look at beautiful Batseri –a fascinating story of life carved in wood, snow, and stone.

Image: from my own album


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