As per the last “plan” that we had made, we hoped to spend a few days in Dalhousie. Dalhousie was also meant to be our last stop in Himachal Pradesh, before we made our way to Kashmir through Pathankot.
Now that Dalhousie had turned out to be a complete fail, we were left with a decision to make. Do we end our time in Himachal Pradesh on a sour note and set off in search of happiness in Kashmir? Or do we give Himachal one more chance, and if yes, where do we go?
As we were looking at a map and tossing around ideas, we came up with the idea of entering Kashmir from Killar (in Himachal). This route which crosses over into Kishtwar (in Kashmir) is supposed to be one of the most exciting (and dangerous) roads to ride in these parts, and instantly seemed like an appealing thing to do. This also meant that we would spend a little bit more time in Himachal Pradesh before heading into Kashmir. The problem was that we were still in the month of May and we weren’t sure if it would be open. We knew that Sach Pass was closed, but there was no information available about the road from Killar to Kishtwar. We asked around in Banikhet but nobody had a clue. The only way to find out was by going there. If the route was closed, we would need to ride an additional 180-odd kilometres back to Banikhet and then make our way to Kashmir using the normal route through Pathankot and Jammu. It seemed worth the chance, and so we decided to scrap the plan to head towards Pathankot and instead ride in the opposite direction towards Killar.
By now, the anguish from the ordeals of the day before were forgotten. In fact, I don’t even remember feeling bad about settling the biggest bill yet for accommodation (which is a huge thing when you’re on a tight budget). We were entirely focused on what lay ahead.
Going towards Killar (and if the road was open, then towards Kishtwar) meant that we were now heading into the middle of nowhere. ATMs and fuel were not going to be available. I hadn’t yet found a system to carry additional fuel. When I finally found a shop that had a few jerrycans, the shopkeeper looked at me and my motorcycle and asked if I was going to Ladakh. I was a bit surprised because I didn’t expect someone in a remote town (many hundreds of kilometres away from Ladakh) to be able to guess. He went on to tell me that he had ridden to Ladakh on a motorcycle several years ago and when he saw me he knew that I was probably off to do something similar. When I asked him for one jerry can, he insisted that I take two. He charged me for one and less than half-price for the other. He also threw in a funnel for free and gave me some rope to tie up all of my new acquisitions. He then spent five minutes regaling me with stories from his ride, and particularly about the several punctures that he had when he rode to Ladakh. He warned me that whether or not anything else breaks on the bike, I was certain to have a few punctures at least. It wasn’t the most reassuring thing to hear, but the fact that I could have such a conversation with someone in the most random of places was enjoyable. I’m constantly amazed by how travel and motorcycling can create an instant connection in unlikely circumstances. Since we didn’t know where we would find fuel next, we promptly stopped to top-off fuel in the tanks and also filled up the jerrycans.
The route we took was beyond scenic. We first wound our way down one set of mountains towards the River Ravi. We then rode across the Chamera Dam and then climbed another set of mountains on the other side which offered equally breathtaking views. The motor boats zipping across the river near Taleru were a particularly nice touch to the setting.
We didn’t have a lot of distance to cover, but the roads were very twisty so the going was quite slow. The grab from Google Maps below shows a particularly winding part of the route. I enjoy ghat roads, so it wasn’t a bad thing but we were taking a lot of time to cover distance.
We stopped for refreshments at a village called Kandi. The shopkeeper, a gentleman who looked very grumpy but turned out to be anything but, was the first person who told us that we might have undertaken a pointless exercise by coming this way. So far, we had assumed that we would be able to make it to Killar, but may not be able to ride through to Kishtwar. Now, from what we were being told, it seemed that Killar itself might be out of reach. Since he wasn’t entirely sure whether it was closed, he suggested that we ride to Bairagarh (which would be the last place where we would be able to find accommodation of any sort), stop there for the night and then figure out what to do next. The suggestions seemed sensible, so, the end destination for the day was changed yet again and the ride continued.
We left behind the views of the river and moved onto vistas of mountains and snow-capped peaks. They were now closer than ever before, and the landscape was absolutely gorgeous. We cruised up the narrow mountainous roads, stopping constantly to take photographs and to also simply look around. Ride fatigue should have been setting in, but the place itself was so beautiful that we had no problem mustering up the enthusiasm to keep going. As the sun set and light began to fade, we finally reached Bairagarh.
The town/village was nothing more than a few buildings on either side of the road. A few houses, 2 hotels, a small store, a local school and an alcohol shop. One of the hotels looked decent and in good repair, so we instantly knew that it would be outside our budget (and it was). The other place, called Mannat Home Stay, was a suitably run-down building and seemed far more appropriate for budget-class travel. Rakesh, who owns the place, was dealing with a customer when we got there. I think he looked at us and knew that we were likely to haggle on price, so he politely asked us to wait while he sealed a deal with that person at INR 800 for a twin-sharing room for a night. He then walked up to us (out of earshot of his other customer) and offered us the room right next door to the one that he had given the other person at INR 500 a night. I would like to believe that this was because we now looked like seasoned travellers, and even a hotel owner knew that it was simpler to offer us his best price right up front. But in reality, it could have just been that we looked impoverished and malnourished and unlikely to be able to pay anything more. Whatever the reason may have been, we didn’t need to haggle on price and that was a relief.
Rakesh was a warm and soft-spoken chap. His brother Manoj, was a little bit more outgoing, but also very helpful. One of them helped us unload the bikes and take our stuff to the rooms while the other one made some lovely warm tea. They then showed us around their building (which they are mighty proud of) and took us to the terrace which had a spectacular view of the mountains all around. Rakesh confirmed to us that Killar wasn’t yet accessible as the road from Satrundi was still blocked with snow. The process of clearing out the route had begun but was unlikely to be completed for another few weeks. I should have been dejected by this “bad news”, but this place itself was so stunning and beautiful that I didn’t really care. While in search of one place we had stumbled upon a different one – a place that we would have never seen otherwise. Rather than fretting about what wasn’t possible, I decided to sit back, watch the gorgeous sunset and relish what I did have. Finding a silver lining had never before been this easy.
Route: Banikhet – Hunjar – Chamera Dam – Taleru – Kandi – Badoh – Tissa – Bairagarh
- The entire route from Banikhet to Bairagarh consists of winding ghat roads, so progress is likely to be slow.
- The road is quite broad until Taleru, but it keeps getting narrower thereafter. So one needs to be more and more cautious as you progress.
- The roads all the way up to Bairagarh were in good shape when I rode this route in May 2016.
- The weather can be unpredictable, so be prepared from some rain along the way.
- If you’re up for it, you can stop for a motorboat ride on the way at the Taleru Boating House.
- Make sure you carry as much fuel as you will need to be able to ride at least 300 kilometres after the last petrol pump. Even though you might not actually ride that much distance in total, you will be riding at higher altitudes and colder weather, so it is likely that your mileage will drop. Best to be prepared for a fuel shortage because it isn’t easy to find.
Mannat Home Stay – At the time I was there they only had very basic and run-down rooms on offer. However, they were in the process of building some better rooms on a higher floor. If those rooms are ready, this might be a place worth considering to stay in. If not, I would not recommend it. The people were sweet but the place was quite a dump.
I later also found out that there was a PWD Resthouse in Bairagarh. It would make a lot more sense to check for availability there before trying any of the hotels. If I had known of its existence before, I would definitely have tried staying there instead.
There are no restaurants or dhabas in Bairagarh when I was there. I was there right at the beginning of the season so I’m not sure if anything opens up later (after the Killar road and Sach Pass open). If you don’t carry your own food you are probably best off asking one of the families to cook for you as well. Don’t expect value for money though, because they are aware of the monopoly that they have and hence food comes at a premium.