Friday, April 3, 2015

Dodra - Kwar diary June 2014

4 June 2014:

I first hear of Chanshal pass and the Sandasu HPPCL guest house during an early morning conversation drinking tea at a dhaba near the Himachal government guest house in Rohru (pronounced Rohdu). Keen to get away from the traffic, noise and pollution of Rohru as quickly as possible, I rush back, pack and head for the bus stand. If I am lucky, I should be able to leave my luggage in Sandasu and catch the 11am bus to Dodra-Kwar that will traverse the Chanshal pass. (See wikipedia for more on Chanshal)

I get to Sandasu in quick time, but getting the room at the guest house takes longer than expected. The caretaker is not to be found and I am directed to the Executive Engineers office, some distance away. I meet the EE's assistant, fill a form and then meet the EE. After a brief chat he agrees to give me a room for 3 days. After a lunch of Rajma chawal at the Sandasu market, I get the last bus for the day to Dodra-Kwar around 1.30 pm.

There is only standing room in the bus. The bus conductor is a tall man ever smiling and constantly joking with the passengers. When I ask for a ticket for Chanshal pass, he is surprised and starts to dissuades me from the idea of getting off the bus there saying that there is a good chance that I will not get a return vehicle. Not wanting to be stranded in the cold onmorthe road at night, I buy a ticket for Dodra - Rs 95. At 3 pm, the crew stops for a break at Larot ( pronounced Ladot), still some distance short of the pass.

View from Chanshal pass
There is still some snow in patches on Chanshal top which presents a magnificent view of a range of snow clad peaks and deep valleys of green. The bus stops and the crew and some passengers get down and walk to a small shrine to pay obeisance. Coconut pieces and freshly gathered snow get distributed around the bus. The atmosphere is jovial. Everyone seems exhilarated, not just the few obvious tourists. The villagers of this area must have been over the pass many times, but Chanshal still has this effect on them.

This pass is snow bound in the winter and I learn that it was opened for busses only 5 days ago. The Dodra-Kwar region is ringed in by high snow covered peaks on all sides and this road is its only connection with the rest of Himachal Pradesh. ( There is another route used by people - a trekking path along the Rupin river, but that leads to Netwar, a remote region of Uttarakhand). A high range separates this area from the Sangla valley. Trekkers take several days to cross this range into Sangla, but I hear that that local villagers reach Sangla valley in 7-8 hrs from Kwar.

View from Chanshal
The descent from the pass to Dodra village is rapid and offers spectacular views. Most of the passengers get down at Dodra. The conductor has been on his feet for 6 hrs! Altogether, I am amazed at his good humour. He has been extremely tolerant of villagers and their idiosyncrasies. The government bus is the only affordable means of transport for most villagers and the conductor has been diligently picking up all including women and children who flag the bus along the route. Here is a man who breaks the stereotypical image of the dour and unfriendly public servant.

The conductor introduces me to the dhaba owner at Dodra. That is when I decide to carry on take my chances at Kwar. The dhaba accommodates people at night in its kitchen cum dining room. This is the only 'hotel' in Dodra.
At Chanshal

My immediate neighbour for the last part of the journey is a well built man who knows some English and carries himself with confidence. I learn that he belongs to Nahan in Sirmour district and is a graduate. He is a building contractor and executes local works in Kwar with his work gang whom he has brought from Sirmour.

Life is very difficult here, he tells me. Besides the usual agriculture and animal husbandry, the only source of livelihood for people here is the jadi booti that they collect and sell in the market. Though he is also a Himachali and from a neighbouring district, he cannot understand a word of the dialect of Kwar and converses with the locals only in Hindi. We reach the village of Kwar in pitch darkness. The bus empties and in a few moments all the passengers have vanished. Luckily for me, my new found friend has not abandoned me. He hails various shadowy figures seen in the light of his torch asking for the whereabouts of the the caretaker of the lone government rest house in Kwar.

Dodra from the Chanshal road
The caretaker is not to be found but my friend finally locates his son Suhit, only to learn that the key is with the father who is not in the village at present. Unfazed, my friend now works out an alternative - a rooming house deep in the village where I can get a bed for the night and a hot meal. He also points out Suhit's house so that I can take his help in the morning to find the rest house toilet.

It is time to say goodbye. That is when my friend and benefactor introduces himself as Gulab Singh. We shake hands warmly and bid good bye.

The boarding house is an interesting place. The other residents are a group of young men from Sirmour who sell blankets. The salesmen are all crowded into one room. I have a room made entirely to myself. A third room with a center table is occupied by a group of noisy local youth who have music blaring and are playing cards.

Kwar in the morning
5th June:

I wake up by 5 am after a disturbed sleep. It is chilly in the morning for Kwar is at 2300 m. The salesmen are up and give me a cheery greeting and enquire if I would like to take a morning walk with them. I decline and instead spend time looking for Suhit.

Unfortunately, Suhit is missing and so is his father. I am not destined to see the insides of the Kwar government guest house toilet.  An old villager offers to guide me to the outdoor toilet area of the village. He takes me to a bridge across a small stream towards one end of the village and motions that I should go under it. There are a few other men squatting along the stream and that gives me the general idea.

The temples of Kwar
I am at the bus stand by 7am. The room and dinner cost me all of Rs 120. A Mahindra SUV is standing ready and the driver convinces me to travel with him instead of taking the bus. While waiting for other passengers to turn up, the driver is also trying to fix a problem - the brake fluid is leaking steadily from a broken pipe. The problem gets fixed eventually with Mseal and an old plastic packet - an example of the much derided Indian jugad - and we are on our way though without our full complement of passengers.

Travelling in daylight I get a better idea of the lay of the land. We head upstream along the left bank of the Rupin river, cross over an iron bridge and then head downstream along its right bank. We stop at a dhaba by the river where our driver decides to wait for a friend following in another vehicle.

Rupin river
At the dhaba I meet an injured trekker returning from a failed attempt on Rupin pass. He says he is a criminal lawyer practicing in Rohtak. He prefers to avoid large groups while trekking. He and his friend attempted Rupin pass carrying 16-17 kg each but he apparently slipped on ice and sprained his leg. His friend has gone ahead with a sheppard as guide leaving him behind. He seems quite shaken up by the ordeal he has been through. The dhaba owner has been very kind and looked after him for a day. He is now waiting for the bus to get to Rohru.

The banks of the Rupin down below the dhaba are busy. Several groups of trekkers all heading for Rupin pass pass by. There are the young and the old and many girls walking by and waving to us. It is a regular procession.

Resuming our journey we pick up a whole bunch of school girls heading for their school in Dodra. Here, the bus catches up with us and I exchange greetings with the bus conductor now on his return journey. I also meet a boy from Haryana who along with 3-4 others were the only tourists in the bus with me yesterday. They spent the night in Dodra and plan to trek in the area for a few days.

Sheep cooling themselves at Chanshal
For the rest of the ride we are just one step ahead of the bus. I request the driver to stop on top of the Chanshal pass. The view is of a vast and breathtaking panorama of the range guarding the Sangla valley stretching all the way to the peaks of the Yamunotri range. In the distance a little below us, a huge flock of sheep make a beeline for a large patch of snow and settle down on it. A shepherd standing nearby explains that the sheep can't bear the heat of summer. I learn that they are kept for the wool and meat and sold after 4-5 years for sums as much as Rs 15000 to 18000.

On the descent from Chanshal, the views are of the green Pabbar valley and the line of snow peaks separating it from the Sutluj valley. After Larot, the descent continues through a thick and beautiful forest of Devdar like trees. I get off right in front of the guest house in Sandasu late afternoon. The jugad on the brake fluid pipe has held through our perilous journey.

The lawn of the guest house at Sandasu
I spend the evening at the grocery shop across from the guest house. Lala owns an apple orchard above the village and this shop. His brother looks after the farming while he occupies himself with the shop. He has a son and daughter - both going to school. The son is in 1st year of PU in a nearby school. The daughter goes to the 8th std in an English medium school in Karnal where her aunt lives. She is smart, confident and personable and very keen to try out her English speaking skills on me. Lala talks of how difficult it is to maintain Apple orchards - the tree has to be nurtured for 15-16 years and guarded against numerous diseases. He strongly feels that education is the only way for his family to progress.

Several villagers gather and partake in the conversation at the Lala's as the evening progresses. Among them is 'maharaj', the portly cook and caretaker of the guest house whom I was searching for yesterday. My day ends with a nice meal cooked by Maharaj.









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