It started to drizzle the moment I got off the bus at Utrala. The drizzle quickly turned into a lively torrent and I ducked furtively under a dhaba roof. Standing under the roof it occurred to me that “crossing Jalsu pass without being caught in rains is just next to impossible”. 1 Fortunately, Utrala has a two dhabas and a Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB) canteen where you can seek shelter without being coerced into buying something. Nevertheless, it was already noon and as I waited for the rain to relent, I decided to splurge on a ‘diet’ of dal-chawal (lentils with rice). A ‘diet’ is a fixed price plate of ‘all you can eat’ food. You can unashamedly go in for seconds or even thirds. A diet is a boon for all trekkers. Trekkers are a hungry bunch by default. The dhaba was a homely mum and pop run affair. The parents were desperately trying to keep their young kid indoor while the kid wanted to go out in the rain to sail a paper boat. The rain relented at about 1430 when I hitched up my rucksack and camera bag, bid goodbye to my hosts and started walking towards Jalsu Pass.
Jalsu Pass at 3450m in the Dhauladhar mountains is an outcast. The Dhauladhars have a peculiar topography. Although mostly composed of granite, the flanks of the range exhibit frequent formations of slate (often used for the roofs of houses in the region), limestone and sandstone. Ascending from any side is a difficult affair, given the near vertical incline. 2 Yet, Jalsu Pass with its easy to moderate approach and rolling lush meadow exhibit none of this ruggedness. Locals, shepherds and trekkers regard this as the easiest and the most languid way across the Dhauladhars. It is also the westernmost pass across the Dhauladhars that links Kangra and Chamba districts in Himachal Pradesh.
The Jalsu Pass trail starts as a metalled road at Binwa Power colony in Utrala and winds its way through the colony, over a bridge to just before a power station. Before the power station, a wide pony trail bifurcates from the metalled road and leads uphill to your left. A half hour walk from the power station brings you up to the Binwa reservoir. The reservoir is a man-made water store with an accessible watch tower. Water from Binwa stream is stored in this reservoir and then flushed down to turn turbines and keep the HPSEB cash registers ringing.
Along the reservoir is Raju Thapa’s well-stocked tea shop, the first of its kind on the trail. It is a potential overnight stay if you reach Utrala late in the evening and can’t find a room at the HPSEB Rest House. Locals refer to this as the ‘The Sukru Tea Shop’, which is hardly ambiguous since this is the only tea shop in Sukuru. I met a group of young lads at the shop led by a smart alec pusher named ‘Monu’. They were high on weed were ‘tripping’ across Jalsu for some sweet leaf. Monu tried to sell me some from his personal stash but I told him that I preferred better and more processed ‘stuff’. Once he got ‘pushy’, I bid him a polite adieu.
After the Utrala reservoir, the trail cuts a straight line across a series of switchbacks. The switchbacks were conceived as a part of the grandiose government plan to construct a road link from Utrala to Jalsu and beyond. There was a lot of talk and a lot of money spent on surveys, and yet the plan remains just that…a plan.
It is imperative that you stick to the trail rather than be tempted to take the less steep yet longer road. This is because, in the end, the road doesn’t link with the trail. Since I had ventured onto the road for a photograph, I spent a good 30 minutes trying to find a shortcut from the road end to the trail. Yet after thirty minutes of bushwhacking and getting stung by nettles I gave up and retraced my route to the original trail. I had hoped that experience would make me wise one day but apparently today was not that day.
After losing over an hour and a half to my trail debacle, I made a quick time to Bakluddu. After the steep initial climb, the trail eases out as you get close to Bakluddu. Stark, stony Dhauladhars peek over the green hills at this point. Bakluddu is just two tea shops along the trekking trail. One of these ingenious shops is constructed under an overhanging boulder. It is a unique sight.
The other shop is a routine stone and wood hut, run by Krishan and his wife. I met ‘the pusher’ and his merry gang again at this shop. Apparently, they had overtaken me while I was ‘lost’ on the well-marked trail. Krishan discretely suggested that I should spend the night here in Bakluddu, instead of continuing on to Khodtru and Parai Goth as I had planned. The time was four pm and I wanted to be rid of Mr Pusher and his merry men. Therefore, I decided to spend a night at Krishan’s shop. After the merry gang had departed for Khodtru, Krishan and his wife adopted me for the night and treated me as one of their long lost relatives.
My tea shop selection criteria are quite simple. I prefer shops run by a couple because it usually means a cleaner place to sleep and better food. If the shop has a dog, then its extra brownie points for that shop. In this case, the shop met both of my criteria. A dog called ‘sheru’ and a fresh cow dung implanted, clean floor.
Despite the recent ban on religious animal slaughter in Himachal Pradesh, it is still a common and prevalent practice. Krishan had slaughtered one of his goat kids this morning as an offering to the local deity and he was desperate to share the bounty with his friends and family. Late in the evening his friends, Gurkhas from the other (boulder) shop and relatives crowded in his shop and relished the meat amidst great revelry. A clean bed was laid out for me on the floor, blankets provided and the five of us with 3 sheep and a dog settled down for the night.