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Posted at: Oct 6, 2018, 12:30 AM; last updated: Oct 6, 2018, 12:30 AM (IST)MIGHTY THAMSAR PASS AT 17,500 FEET

Sentinel of Bara Bhangal

The Pass is imposing, serrated ridge-like feature, looking like ramparts of fort, result of erosion

Avay Shukla

At 17,500 feet, the mighty Thamsar pass holds eternal vigil on the southern approaches to the mysterious valley of Bara Bhangal in Kangra district, the only remaining landlocked and the only revenue village in India without a postal address! Its letters are delivered in Baijnath, 50 km and three days away, and have to be collected by the villagers themselves. It takes six days of hard trekking to get in and out of the valley: we made our first attempt in 2002 but had to return from just below the pass because of bad weather. Our second, successful attempt was in September of 2003.

Bara Bhangal lies at the extreme northern tip of Kangra, bordering both Mandi and Chamba, between the Dhauladhar and Manimahesh ranges, deep in the Ravi valley. It is huge, about 1,400 sq km, thickly forested, with just one large village of the same name. It is where the Raja of Mandi used to exile criminals, which perhaps explains why no one would choose to settle in such an impossibly difficult location. Its 600-odd residents are pastoralists and shepherds since little agriculture is not possible at 8,500 feet. 

We chose the Thamsar route. The road ends at Billing, about 8 km above the mainly Tibetan settlement of Bir on the Palampur-Mandi highway. Billing rises 2000 feet from the Kangra valley and is an internationally renowned paragliding location. From Billing one follows an old, disused hunting track northwards to a ridge and enters the valley of the Uhl river at a place called Salater. From Salater one follows the Uhl upstream in a NW direction for 10 km to Rajagunda, a large village with a forest Block office and a potato-seed farm. It has a commodious forest rest house, the last bit of relative luxury for the next four days! On day two we followed the Uhl upstream on its right bank for 10 km, past the tiny village of Kukurgunda to Plachek (9,000 feet) where the river is crossed.

Here onwards, the track enters a gorge and narrows and becomes steeper. We are now in the shadow of the forbidding Thamsar, trees give way to shrubs and grasses, the air turns cold and biting and there is an unnatural stillness all around, a kind of respectful hush. After 6 km, one crosses an ice bridge and arrives at Panihartu (12,000 feet), a godforsaken and inhospitable place, the second day’s campsite. 

Next morning it was raining but we decided to press on before the rain turned to snow. It takes four hours of strenuous climbing to attain the pass, over two steep ridges, past Bherpal Got where the shepherds camp, over an ice field, steep scree and moraine. Thamsar pass is an imposing, serrated ridge-like feature, looking like the ramparts of a fort, no doubt the result of erosion. But the contrast between the southern aspect (from where we had come) and the northern couldn’t be greater. Whereas the former was dry, windblown and craggy, the northern side was an amazing change: one huge glacier, 2 km long and a km wide, flowing down from the pass, ending in two huge lakes. Though it was fractured with crevasses and little ribbons of snow melt, one has no choice but to walk over it, taking extreme care not to slide into a crevasse or the lake itself! Many a poor mule has lost his footing and his life hereOne can camp either at Merh (14,000 feet) or Udeg (12,000 feet). Both are small patches of pasture on the banks of the Thamsar Nallah, well above the tree line, and uninhabited. We camped on the left bank at Udeg.

The fourth day dawned bright and clear, as it can only at these heights. To the north, the sun cast in gold a succession of magnificent peaks, behind which lies the holy Manimahesh Lake. There is a trekking route from here to Manimahesh, but it is so difficult that only the hardy locals ever attempt it. It’s three hours and six km of a steep descent to the Ravi and its junction with the Thamsar Nallah and the Kalihani stream. Across the river is the sprawl of Bara Bhangal village, on a bluff above the river. A rudimentary but adequate forest rest house was built there in 2002, and we were the first visitors to log in there! One should ideally spend a couple of days here, resting and getting to know this most unsusual village, its vanishing culture and fascinating residents. The exit is all along the gorge of the Ravi. westwards: a back-breaking 45 km and two days of sometimes dangerous trekking to the last village in the Bharmour subdivision of Chamba district — Nayagram. This is the road head and one can catch a bus from here to Chamba, 87 km away.


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