Thursday, 29 August 2013

Trek to Sangla & Helicopter Evacuation – Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh

The saying goes, ‘man proposes and God dispose’. The summer of 2013 will rank as one of the worst experiences to the visitors to Uttarakhand and to lesser extent the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh. Having watched the extreme vagaries of Himalayan weather, in the same period, from Rakcham in Kinnaur district of Himachal, we were getting restless, unable to start our journey through the blocked roads to Sangla. Sangla was only 14 km, yet so far as there was no sign of road clearing of the huge boulders fallen from hills, for resuming of regular vehicular traffic. Finally, on 20th June, we were told by hotel manager to trek 14 km to Sangla to avail of the helicopter service for Rampur for further journey. Our tour itinerary having gone haywire did not bother us anymore; we wanted to reach Mumbai - our home town as early as possible.

By 8 am in the morning, biscuit packet and water bottle in me and a porter to carry our back pack, we three were on the weather ravaged road for trek to Sangla. A 14 km down the slope walk through motorable road did not appear too taxing till we approached our first obstacle – road covered by mud, stone and boulders. To our dismay, we had to encounter 7 to 8 more obstacles - noteworthy among them was two uprooted huge pine trees lying across totally blocking the road. We surmounted one by going beneath it’s huge trunk and the other by scaling over. Almost reaching Sangla, the last obstacle was the most difficult one with scattered boulders occupying the entire road width, with a lot of mud entrenched in between, with no easy way to squeeze through. The porter’s advice came handy and commanding all my resources and cautiously on all the fours, by the edge of the road, dragging myself across was really scary and taxing. A minute’s rest thereafter enabled us to recover our wits to cover the final stretch to Sangla bringing us cheers!  We were surprised to have made the whole of 14 km in 2 hr and 45 minutes. Following frames show the road blocks we encountered shot by my travel mate S Rajagopal. 



Reaching Sangla market, we were waiting for our driver, who started late from Rakcham through an alternate short cut route. He was supposed to meet us and find for us an accommodation at Sangla. Finding no trace of him and our hunger pangs getting preference, we climbed the steps to first floor restaurant in the name of Sonu Tibetan Café and settled down on the verandah overlooking the street, so we could keep an eye on other tourists arriving from Rakcham. Sangla market is one street entity, with all possible types of shops lined up. Our ordered veg. Momo came within no time. As we were digging into our food, in came Sonu the driver and he was tad surprised to see us reach here so early.
Market Place, Sangla
Sangla is a small town with most of it consisting of market place and administrative buildings located some distance away. Most of the good hotels are situated 1 to 2 km from market place. Some shops doubled up as information source for hotel accommodation for tourists. Sonu took us to a shoe shop across the street and the guy made some enquiries telephonically and informed that there were rooms available at Praskash hotel. We took the taxi service offered by same shop and landed atleast two km from market, through the very same road which we traversed earlier on our trek. After dumping our luggage, it was urgent need to book our helicopter service at Tehsildar’s office. We left in post haste taking our driver along in our taxi, who, having kept his vehicle at Rakcham was eager to reach home at Shimla. After crossing the Sangla market we arrived at Tehsildar’s office situated at a higher elevation reached by steps. At the office we found Dy. Tehsildar managing or trying to make a show of managing tourist evacuation by Helicopter. We were told to write our name in a plane paper and it became part of many such papers scattered on his table written by tourist who came earlier. There was no proper registration or date of entry or any receipt of any kind. We were told that there is a huge back log and will be informed telephonically, as and when our turn came which could be after 3 to 4 day. A group of foreign tourists squatting in the same room were assured of a helicopter service the very next day; must be instruction from top administration. 
Prakash Hotel, Sangla
Hotel Prakash turned out to be a spacious and comfortable, with entry through dining room. Reception provided us with Room 205 at the rate of Rs. 900/- for a double room plus Rs. 200/- for additional bedding, on first floor with a clear view of Sangla valley on one side and apple orchard on the other. The room had unhindered view of Hills, with snow peaks becoming prominent after the recent snowfall. For a change, our double room was provided with additional bed consisted of folding cot with full beddings, whereas most of the hotels as our experience show, provide with only beddings spread on floor. 
Snow View
Coming out of hotel and overlooking the valley is a large open cemented place for tourist to sit and soak into the nature. Two cars were parked, with its 18 inmates staying in the same hotel for past four days. They had their own cook to provide the delicacy with a lot of raw materials carried by them. They were chatting and enjoying but lurking within was the worry that they had no news of their turn coming up for helicopter pick up for further journey to catch train at Kalka. Daily twice a day they made it a ritual to visit Tehsildar’s office for follow up.
Sunset From Sangla
The evening sunset was a spectacle. With the recent unseasonal snowfall, the additional snow-packs on hills reflected the setting sun; it was time to get some footages.
Apple Blossom
Next day dawned into a bright sunlit morning. An early morning walk is the most pleasant experience in the midst of the greeneries at Sangla which the tourist just enjoy. One goes along the main road with both sides full of trees like Apple, Pears , Apricot, Plum and Cherry. The numerous fruit gardens owned by local residents lie in close vicinity, with colorful birds not to be missed. I had a catch of a yellow bird named Indian Golden Oriole during my walk.
Indian Golden Oriole
The breakfast in hotel had a number of good choice menu and cost was most reasonable compared to that I came across other towns in the state. Having settled down, it was time to explore more of the place. A walk of 2 km to market place for purchasing medicines which were supposed to last me upto 20th June and withdrawing cash from SBI ATM counter was a priority. Sangla in this respect offered basic requirements of every tourist. My two friends walked to Tehsildar’s office for updating on helicopter service. As usual the officer was in no position to guarantee any service immediately. The tourist backlog was in hundreds. Our Rakcham hotel manager had entered our names along with other inmates of his hotel the day before and we were told the serial number of round 142. The helicopter service being erratic, one could not hazard any guess about length of our captivity in this Kinnaur town.

22nd June was a hugely disappointing day. For the entire day no helicopter flights were seen. The hotel was a scattered with cluster of tourists discussing the bleak prospect of getting out of their forced hibernation. My travel mates were equally anxious contemplating of trekking through the valley for Karcham a distance of 14 km through some unknown terrain. However, I was in no mood to undertake the trek and join them. I had made up my mind to stay put in safety of hotel till I was able to take my helicopter flight. Most of inmates of the hotel were equally worried about their important dates and reluctant to wait for the copter service. All through the travails at Sangla, the long walks through the scenic place, photography and videography kept me somewhat calm. 

23rd June did not bring any cheers either. There was no whining sound from blue sky nor any sign of helicopters. My two travel mates, having made up their mind, hired a porter to take their luggage, set off at 7.30 am in a hired car for a distance of about 5 km from where they were to resume their trek. I gave them company and saw them off upto a point where the road had collapsed, stopping the road bound traffic. They promised to send me the info after reaching Karcham, from where the road were supposed to be in order for further journey.

Back to hotel for hot water bath – thankfully the electricity was restored.  As I was loafing around the hotel after breakfast, the Bengali group like other tourists were fidgety and were slowly getting mentally prepared for the trek. By 10 am with still no sign of copter, they could not take it anymore and just boarded their cars and drove off bag and baggage, for a trek to unknown with a hope in heart to come out of the strangle-hold and reach Kalka to catch their train. One could not blame them as they were exasperated of visiting Tehsildar’s office time and again with no assurance of copter flight. The administrative lapses and unsystematic approach by them was apparent. Otherwise, how the group members were stranded in Sangla for past six days?

Loneliness suddenly hits you. The feeling becomes more apparent when you think whether it was a wise decision to stay put in a hotel, which everybody vacated? Around 12 pm, I was having a chat with Mohan Prakash, the young hotel owner who sensing my state of mind asked me to take walk across the slope above hotel Prakash Regency ( another of his newly built luxury hotel ) to pass my time. He also suggested that I should talk to his father who has lived all his life at Sangla and will be able to provide much info for my Sangla blog. 
Prakash Regency, Sangla
The fruit orchards and flower garden behind Prakash regency kept me occupied for a while and at around lunch time I was back to hotel and found Mohan Prakash’s father taking his lunch. My conversation with Mr. Om Prakash Aswan Negi on overview of Sangla Social life was very revealing and interesting.
Helicopter Sortie
In afternoon, while resting in my room, I heard the welcome whining sound of helicopter. Peeping through window it was apparent that the helicopter service was resuming. It was 3.30 pm. Our hotel was empty save for me. From other hotels, tourists made their way to helipad some 5 km away. I was not so sure of securing a place in today’s service considering the backlog; the same thought was shared by Mr. Mohan Prakash. In any case I was not in a mood to reach Rampur in evening for undertaking further journey. At 5 pm, Mohan Prakash informed me that there was some chance of getting into today’s flight. However, I had made up my mind of staying for an additional day and check out by next morning. Meanwhile the last helicopter flight left at 5.30 pm. In evening there was info that, at the helipad our names were called for the copter flight, as many tourists had left Sangla by trekking route. Seeing my chance lost, I decided that come what may I must leave Sangla by next morning.
Copter Against Sky
On 24th I got up early, had a bath, sans breakfast, checked out of hotel to reach helipad by 8 am. Already some 20 tourists were waiting at the helipad gate. Some were coming back after not being able to avail yesterday’s flight and others who were hoping to get into today’s flight. Only 20 tourists were allowed to go right upto the helipad which is situated at a higher elevation and were made to line up on the road around the central landing site. Around 8.30 am we were allowed to go inside and made to sit on a tarpaulin spread on floor near the warehouse like structure. Still, no copter in sight.
Helipad, Sangla
Around 9 am we climbed the stairs to the elevated area and were allowed to wait at a place from where we could see all the action like helicopter landing, tourists boarding and take off. Munching biscuits and just loafing around till about 10.30 am when I could hear the welcome drone of copter sound and gradually to our relief copter landed and immediately huge amount of cargo was removed. Tourists who were lined up were made to board, about 20 of them. After an hour the second sortie also took off. 
Helicopter Landed
I was in third list and at 1.30 pm, we were asked to sit near helipad on road. By 2.30 pm copter came and landed. We were seated so near the helipad that, the landing process of copter, rotating blades blowing a storm around it, as if it will blow one away. Seated on the road with my back to the copter, I had to hold tight on my cap lest it gets blown away. The copter rotor coming to standstill, door opened and what followed was unloading of cargos meant for Sangla and beyond.
Tourists In Helicopter
Getting inside the Copter was the most relieving and happy moment of my present trip. The sideways seat inside copter left space in the middle for keeping luggage. After a few minutes, I took off for the first ever copter flight of my life. Flying at low altitude very near to the hill slopes and green cover, view of rivers flowing and narrow hill roads, was a visual worth capturing. 
View From Copter
Most of the tourists were shooting through window and enjoying; I had my Handycam busy to capture the exciting half an hour. The slight discomfort could be whining noise of the rotor blade. Reaching Rampur was like coming out of captivity and the roads to lead me for further journey to Shimla.

Sangla Footages can be accessed from following captioned link:

Important Informations:

1. Accommodations:
a) Hotel Prakash: Owner – Mohan Prakash
Cell Nos. 098162 83268 / 091805187680 / 0730770 82136
b) Prakash Regency – same as above
c) Shruti Guest House : Owner – Shrawan Kumar
tel:01786 - 241394 Cell: 098165 14461
d) Banjara Camps: Cell Nos. 09816119871 / 09418758111
2. Sightseeing:
a) Local: Sangla Village & Baspa river: 1/2 km from market
b) Rakcham: 14 km & Chitkul 24 km
3. Communication: BSNL & Airtel network
4. Climate: During Summer May / June, hot during day and pleasant during early morning and evening.


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