Many years ago, when I first started visiting Himachal Pradesh, I bought a tourist map of the state. The northwestern corner of the map ends exactly where Pangi Valley begins. This is not an exception. I have seen numerous travel and trekking guides on Himachal that do not even fleetingly mention Pangi, the only honourable exception being Minakshi Chaudhry’s Exploring Pangi Himalaya: A World Beyond Civilization. Nevertheless, this is what makes Pangi Valley one of the last remaining corners of the Indian Himalaya yet to be touched by the tourism boom. For the uninitiated, this tiny region is sandwiched between Kishtwar in J&K and Lahaul and Chamba regions in Himachal. Technically, it is a part of Chamba district, but the Pir Panjals guard it against the rest of the district in such a manner that the very act of reaching the valley feels like an achievement. The valley is primarily fed by the Chandrabhaga (Chenab) river and its numerous tributaries that form various sub-valleys within the valley. The people in Pangi have their own unique culture and language. Generally, the last village at the end of every sub-valley is inhabited by Buddhists while the rest are predominantly Hindus.
“This is nothing. You must cross the Sach Pass and visit Pangi someday,” said Prabhdayal, the elderly homestay owner in Bairagarh, the last major settlement before Sach Pass. This was the autumn of 2012. I was in Chamba with a friend and had no clue about the region. We just took a bus to Bairagarh on a whim. Winter was approaching fast, and it was already too late to cross over to Pangi. We managed to visit the pass and come back but the seeds of Pangi had been planted firmly in my mind by then. Nevertheless, any talk about Pangi is incomplete without mention of the 4,400-metre-high pass, which connects it to Chamba. It is one of the steepest and difficult roads and the topmost parts remain perennially covered in snow even at the peak of summer. This is what has made it popular among adventure bikers and drivers in recent times. Although I am more interested in the fecund valleys beyond these threatening roads, even I have had my share of adventures at this pass. For example, once my bus broke down at the top of the pass and I had to hitchhike in an ambulance to escape. But that is a long story for another day.
“Killar? Is it called so because of the killer roads?” asked a friend sarcastically when I first mentioned the place. In the summer of 2016, I finally entered Pangi as a part of my solo trip. I took an HRTC bus from Keylong and reached Killar, the headquarters of Pangi and the only place in the valley that resembles a town. There are a couple of hotels and a homestay here along with a few basic eateries, thus making it the only option for tourists. On the positive side, despite the remoteness, Pangi does have a functioning bus service. Daily buses ply between Killar and the remote villages. Located at an altitude of 2,600-2,700 metres, Killar lies on the edge of a deep gorge dropping down to the Chadrabhaga; it’s a town scenic enough to deserve a visit on its own.
Although concrete is fast replacing the old wooden bungalows, it still tells us what Shimla probably looked like 100 years ago with floating clouds caressing the cedar groves and sparsely populated slopes. There are many smaller streams that criss-cross the hills around the town and eventually meet the river. The most prominent one among them is the Mahalu Nala that forms a formidable waterfall just on the outskirts of the town. On a clear day, Killar offers excellent colours during both sunrise and sunset.
“Why have you come here? What is there to see?” asked Kungaramji. He was not being offensive, he was just curious. As these areas rarely receive tourists, they don’t even realise their own potential and what we find exhilarating is probably banal for them. Nevertheless, he invited me inside his house for tea (and soon upgraded his offer to local liquor as he was out of milk). I had reached Hudan Bhatori, the last village in Hudan Valley, after a 12-km tiresome hike, simply because I had missed the morning bus. I was tired, and I could not even see a small shop to buy refreshments. So, his hospitality was a welcome respite. We started drinking and talking about our lives. His house, though, was pitch-dark inside with only a couple of small windows for the light to enter. This may seem awkward in the summer, but such constructions protect them during the harsh winter when the valley gets cut off from the rest of the world for several months. He eventually advised me to go higher up to get better views of the valley and also visit the lake if possible. I thanked him for his hospitality and moved on to explore the rest of the village, which seemed to be precariously hanging onto a very inclined slope. In fact, I struggled to find a horizontal portion throughout the entire valley. All the houses were on the steep inclines and they also cultivate a limited variety of crops during the short summer on the slopes. Eventually, even these steep inclines nosedive almost perpendicularly to meet the tiny but powerful glacial stream. I left the village behind and hiked farther up to reach what looked like an uncharacteristically well-made house. It turned out to be the PWD resthouse—another option to stay in the valley. However, it has to be booked priorly from Chamba. I left it behind and climbed up to a pretty well-maintained herb garden—a plot of land that is being maintained by the agriculture department, representing another important facet of Pangi Valley that is rarely known. Many rare and valuable plants grow in these valleys and although most people don’t realise it, several big pharma companies source their ingredients from Pangi. The slopes higher up are used mostly as grazing grounds for cattle. Himalayan fleece and blue poppies dominated the landscape, although many other colourful seasonal blossoms could also be seen. From that height, one also gets excellent views of the village, which is populated by sundry stupas, as expected of a Buddhist village. There was also a temple dedicated to a goddess here. I also visited the Hudan lake, more like a small pond, just a kilometre away from the village. While it did not look that epic compared to the rest of the landscape, the open space around it plays host to the Hudan Fair during the monsoon. People from the entire valley visit the fair and it can be a great way to experience the culture of Pangi at one spot. Finally, I walked back to the point where the famous “swords” of Hudan could be seen. These are basically longish rocks, partially buried in the ground. According to local legend, some saints with supernatural powers put them there. This is when I saw my bus coming, negotiating the narrow roads where the margin of error is practically non-existent.
“Keep it. It will bring good fortune,” said the youngster while handing me a small piece of bhojpatra. It took me one more year to make it to Sural Valley. Due to lack of data connectivity in the valley, it is hard to last long out there. So, I finally returned the next summer, this time with a couple of friends. We again set up base in Killar and one fine morning caught the bus to Sural Bhatori. Just like Hudan, the last village here is called Sural Bhatori. While the landscape here is similar, this village is known for the monastery set amidst a grove of bhojpatra (Himalayan birch/ Betula utilis) trees at the end of the village. The bark of this tree has been used to write sacred texts for centuries and this is one of the rare places to still witness this tradition. The monastery itself was going through some renovation when we visited. So we could not exactly see the famed thangkas inside. However, the birches were all over the place, and so were the Tibetan prayer flags overlooking the mountains. We were in a hurry to return that day because we had taken the last bus and needed to find a lift to return to Killar. So, we left after spending some time in the sacred grove. Hudan and Sural are thus two of the nearest sub-valleys from Killar.
There are other areas in the valley that are even more remote and will require further trips to explore. I intend to go back soon to do so but as I write, I also hope that even when the inevitable tourism boom strikes the valley, they manage to find a way to do it in a sustainable manner while keeping their cultural uniqueness intact.