Bairagarh: Stranded at the gates of the Sach Pass
It was practically the end of the tourist season in the Himalayas and I was at Chamba with another friend after a few days of unplanned Himalayan backpacking. The November cold wasn’t hostile yet but one could feel its severity increasing by the day. We were advised by all around us to not venture any further – but then we had to. Our lust for the obscure and the unheard of took us places.
The last thing we wanted was to end up in nearby Khajjiar, the hotspot of every generic tourist. A random google search at a seedy cyber café led us to be introduced to the Sach Pass – the pass that connected the secluded Pangi Valley to the rest of the world. We’d never heard of it before -which is why we had to go!
At 4400 metres or 14500 feet, the Sach Pass was higher than any place we’d ever been to at that point. Buses go all the way to the valley beyond the pass during the summer. But that’s till the end of October, post which the buses go no further than Bairagarh, the last real human settlement before the pass. We were still unsure about the rest of the route. More importantly there was no way to know about the availability of any accommodation once we’d reach.
Braving against our doubts, we caught the Bairagarh bus early in the morning, only to find ourselves clutching our seats as the bus bumped along on a narrow and perilous road. As we rapidly gained altitude, I observed the population getting sparser. Finally at around noon, the bus dropped us at Bairagarh, turned around and returned to Chamba before we could figure out our options (or the lack of them!), leaving us technically stranded.
Bairagarh’s a sleepy settlement with a few houses scattered across the hills. There is a government tourist bungalow, which we were told required an advance booking. Inquiring about any available options from a couple of locals sitting idly by the side of the road, we were directed to a multi-storeyed but partially constructed concrete structure. Bairagarh wasn’t that deprived after all! The place – Mannat Homestay - is owned by a local farmer, Prabhdayal. Led into a room on one of the upper floors by him, we couldn’t help letting out a whistle. With a row of windows looking out onto the lush Pangi valley in front, the room looked and felt far better than the one we’d left at Chamba. On enquiry, we were assured about the availability of private vehicles for hire, even though the lone bus had ditched us merrily.
In conversation with Prabhdayal, to our delight, we found him egging us on to visit the pass having come thus far. A renewed vigor surged within us after all the negativity and confusion. It was afternoon and the light wasn’t going to last much longer. Stretching our legs in the waning light gave us a feel of the pervading remoteness of the place. At that altitude, the air was heavier and breathing took some effort. There was a certain silence in the air, occasionally disturbed by passing vehicles. While the sunlight was comforting, the chill in the shadows bit into our skin. Distant roads looked like serpents in hibernation, unlikely to stir awake anytime soon.
Farming seemed to be the main occupation but even that had limited options. The farms on the many steep inclines mostly seemed to be growing maize. Terraces were full of colourful maize ears and kernels left out to dry in the sun.
Sach Pass is not exactly visible from Bairagarh. One needs to move some distance before the pass can be viewed. But we could still experience the grandeur of the Pir Panjal Range in the rapidly dying light of that afternoon. Bumping into a person from Pangi, we found he made his living by selling the medicinal herbs unique to that region in the bigger cities in the plains – an aspect I made a mental note of to explore in a subsequent visit.
Back at the homestay, the first thing I noticed at the kitchen was a tray with reddish brown eggs – not the pale white ones we generally see in the city. The colour indicates natural diet and upbringing of the birds. This is the way it was meant to be! Dinner consisted of flavoured rice, beans and lentils, mostly locally produced. These items did not come labelled with any glamorous brands, but we could taste and feel how truly “organic” they were.
On travels, often there are times when the best experiences meet us at places we least expect them to. Bairagarh was intended as a mere stopover – we did not even know its name till the previous night. The experience just reinforced the joy of impulsive and unplanned travel – a joy that defies logic but often gives beautiful returns. Also, in case you are wondering, we did find a driver who was spending the night at the same place, and who drove us up to the Sach Pass the next day. But that is another story.
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