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With a few days in hand to explore Himachal, before we started a photography assignment we had undertaken, we looked at the map for some travel ideas. It was the month of June – the peak tourist season for Himachal. Wanting to stay away from the crowds, we focussed on the small white lines, away from the known names like Manali and Jibhi, zooming in on places in between.
What came up was a name we had never heard before – Sainj. An unknown valley nestled between the more popular Parvati valley to the North and the now known Tirthan valley to the South. Near the big green patch of the Great Himalayan National Park. A quick search came up with blogs by Shubham and Jitaditya vouching for this valley. That was enough prodding we needed.
Reaching the Sainj valley and onward to Shangarh
The HRTC bus to Manali reached Aut in the morning. We got off after the Aut tunnel on the highway itself (where the road expansion work is on in full flow). Behind the highway is a narrow flight of steps which takes you to a few shops. Once you cross these shops, you are at the Aut bus stand.
The size of the bus stand here clearly indicates that Aut is a relatively small place. Only the local buses make it to the bus stand. The buses to Manali and Kullu generally go directly from the highway, without entering the Aut bus stand. There are a couple of food stalls which are nothing much to talk about.
You’ll find a few state-run and several private buses in the bus stand. Buses ply to Banjar in the Tirthan valley and to Sainj and villages beyond in the Sainj valley. These buses are quite frequent. It makes sense to wait for the next one if the one leaving next is full. The people around will be happy, in fact, eager to guide you accordingly.
The buses do come back on the highway and cross the Aut tunnel. The only reason to not just wait on the highway is, the bus does get quite full in the bus stand and finding a seat on the highway, though not impossible, can get quite chaotic.
First impressions of the Sainj valley
Most part of the journey to the Sainj Valley goes parallel to the Sainj river over which NTPC operates a hydropower plant. As the roads climb up deeper into the valley, you see the gates that lead to the turbines, higher up in the mountains. Most of the buildings belong to the power plant. What follows are a few nondescript villages along with the pine-lined roads.
And suddenly you enter a dense marketplace. More shops, more people, more cars. The Sainj river still gives you company, but other than this, there’s little indication of the beauty that lies further ahead.
Don’t be disheartened by the overall busy buzz of Sainj. Sainj is the main town of the entire valley – where the banks and offices like the tehsil office are. It is also the biggest marketplace. Naturally, people from all over the valley come to Sainj for some or the other work, some every day.
In this marketplace itself, you will find shared jeeps to take you to the villages beyond Sainj. You will also find a few private cabs here if you don’t want to travel in a shared cab.
As you leave the town of Sainj behind, you start ascending. The roads cease to be as smooth as they have been so far. At times you are crossing muddy patches instead of a paved road. You leave the pine trees below and the darker green of the deodars brings with it a deeper woody fragrance and, more importantly, cooler air. As you rise up, leaving behind one small village after the other, apple orchards start coming into view.
After around an hour, a little paradise called Shangarh greets you. It’s bordered by deodar trees. Beyond which a few snow peaks and glaciers are seen. Green peas farms were almost harvested when we visited. A few apple trees are spread around the village.
Tourism in Shangarh
Conspicuously absent from Shangarh are the big boards announcing hotels or restaurants. There are no lines of shops urging you to buy things which are of no real use, nor are there agents quick to spot your questioning glance and approach you with, “madam, hotel?”.
There is a lone shop, though. And you can ask the shopkeeper if there are any places to stay in Shangarh. That’s what we did, he said there were a few homestays. He called one of the homestay owners who soon came down to take us to his place. Considering the absence of any tourist signs in Shangarh, we were sceptical about the quality of this homestay and didn’t want to commit before we had taken a look. We asked the shopkeeper if there was somewhere we could leave our bags.
“Keep them in the shop, here.”
“Won’t they come in your way?”
“No no, no problem”
The familiar welcoming, unassuming attitude where there was no space for such small matters.
Off we went to see the homestay, expecting just a bed in a room. What we saw, instead, was a tastefully done room, with full-length windows on two sides. Facing one of the windows was a comfortable bed. From the bed, all we could see were the deodar trees, some farms and the snow peaks at a far distance.
There was enough space to keep our bags, and also set up our laptops. The bathroom was spic and span with a view that could keep you inside for a long time.
Our host had four other rooms, like this one. All these arrangements took us by surprise. The village definitely didn’t have a tourist influx. Why then, did they have all these rooms, and more importantly, how did they know what the tourists would like?
Prem, our host replied that while there wasn’t much tourist activity in Shangarh yet, the people of the village were aware that tourism would only grow here. Even though many hadn’t needed to go beyond Sainj in real life, they were virtually connected to the outside world. Internet connectivity had made them aware of online bookings and international tourists. Prem even knew of the concept of being a digital nomad. Last year someone had stayed at his place for a week, working during the day, and going for a walk taking pictures, in the evenings.
Shangarh comes under the buffer zone of The Great Himalayan National Park. Which means there are plenty of trekking options around Shangarh. Some of the most interesting treks are the ones traversing southwards to Tirthan valley and northwards to Parvati valley. You can do short treks to open meadows, lakes or even to other villages in the Sainj valley which are even more remote.
The GHNP officially organises accommodation for trekkers in the villages like Shangarh, which fall on these trekking routes. However, the people themselves are keen on conducting their own treks. They are using the internet to understand the demand for these treks and get in touch with trekking companies to start doing business.
Shangarh, and effectively, the Sainj valley is an example of how the locals are directly developing tourism in their villages without an outsider mediator all thanks to coming digitally closer.
Places to visit in Shangarh
1. The Shangarh meadows
Shangarh meadows are at the centre. There’s a temple with slate roof on the meadows. Cows are left around on the meadows to graze. In the evenings, a few old men gather around for some chit chat on these meadows.
You hear the blue magpie in the mornings. The snow peak shines bright. A small stream flows by. Its water powers the flour mill (we will have the roti made with this flour today. There’s also a school next to the meadows. You’ll hear the prayers in the morning.
Other than all this, there’s not much else in Shangarh. Just calm and quiet, and some spectacular beauty.
These meadows are the reason people from outside come to Shangarh. There are 4 temples on the meadows. A small area around the temple is fenced and boards are placed stating clearly that no one’s allowed to enter the fenced area. Intruders will be liable for a hefty fine. The locals believe that “devta” resides in these fenced spaces making them holy.
Visitors are allowed to enter one of these temples. Built with deodar wood, the pillars and the door adorn some beautiful carvings. Right behind the meadows is another temple that can be spotted from afar. It’s the Shangchul Mahadev temple, built in the architectural style typical to temples in this part of Himachal. Multi storeyed, made entirely in wood, these temples are a work of art. Exterior walls have rows of carvings, each row unique throughout the wall. The front walls of this temple had detailed carvings of the dashavatars. Visitors are not allowed to enter the upper storeys of the temple, but everyone is welcome to seek blessings of this resident deity of Shangarh.
2. The Barshangarh waterfalls
While most treks from Shangarh are multi-days which involve at least an overnight stay, the Barshangarg waterfalls can be visited in a day. If you take a cab or drive down to the waterfalls, then a visit to these waterfalls is a matter of a couple of hours. But that’s also only half the fun.
Once you cross the meadows, the walk from Shangarh to Barshangarh goes through villages like Goshati and Darari. You cross small streams and several wildflowers. At a certain turn, the village of Barshangarh lies in front of you, across the valley covered in rampant wild growth of “bhang”. It now feels like a walk through a dense coniferous forest.
An iron goddess, resting by a deodar tree now catches your attention. This is your cue that you have reached the waterfalls. This is where you’ll park your car if you are driving. You cross the small food stall on your right. A few feet ahead, hidden by the bicchu and other wild grass is a narrow muddy path. It first climbs up, till you can no longer see the road you just walked. After a while, you start hearing the rush of water. Further ahead the waterfall starts giving glimpses. Until you reach an opening. There’s a small bridge here. You cross it, and in front of you is a beautiful waterfall, cascading down into a cold pool. The sound of water now overpowers the bird calls. It’s just you, this waterfall, the blue sky and lush greenery. No one else.
Reaching under the waterfall involves navigating small and big rocks and crossing small streams. While I was happy with my dry perch on a rock with the waterfall in full view, Chetan wanted to take a closer look. He did manage to reach closer to the waterfall, but even at the peak of summer, the water was too cold to get under the waterfall.
We will recommend visiting the beautiful village of Barshangarh as well after you visit this waterfall. Make sure you leave enough time for this visit and return to your homestay in daylight.
In every village that you cross, you will come across construction activity. On our way back from the Barshangarh waterfall, we took our time to talk to the locals about what they were building. Invariably, they all said they are making homestays for tourists. We asked them why they were building so many rooms, we hadn’t seen any tourists around. “Right now, there aren’t. But everyone who visits talks about it on social media. Soon, there will be more coming, and when they do, we want to be prepared before the outsiders start building hotels.” And how did they know people were talking about these places? The answer to this was kind of obvious. Their children, who all used social media would tell them.
We had managed to upload a video to Instagram, using our Airtel 4G connection, while we were climbing up to the waterfall. While doing that, we hadn’t imagined that internet and digital connectivity would play such a vital role in the pre-tourism development stage of a valley in the Himalayas!
3. Village trails
This was our favourite thing to do during our stay in Shangarh – just ambling around where the road (mud path, in most cases) would lead. Some villages were right next to the road, some hidden behind the forest.
The villages still had wooden houses with several windows opening into balconies on all sides of the house. Next to the house would be a smaller structure, where their cows lived. Around the houses would be apple orchards. And at the top were their farms. Some villages had a stream passing through it. Some had views of the Shangarh meadows. Some others had views of the snowy peaks. All of them had wooden temples, some small, some several feet tall.
A small trail would take us to an apple orchard hidden behind the deodar forest. Some trails had wild strawberries (which we didn’t eat), some had golden cloudberries (which we did eat, after ascertaining from an old lady passing by, that it was safe to eat).
Every village we walked through, had enough people curious to know more about us. And eager to have a conversation. Ask us if we liked their village, and even ask us to take a picture of them (or with them). The order of things here is important – conversation, connection, then (if at all) a photograph.
We spent around four days in Shangarh. With its unspoilt surroundings, comfortable homestays, fresh local food, fully functional internet connection, and so much to do and see – we could have easily spent a month. Not just visiting, but actually living!
Who knows, in the next few years, Shangarh (and maybe the entire Sainj valley) might become a digital nomad hub? Or a trekker’s paradise. Or a beautiful valley to visit for all kinds of tourists, a valley that’s popular yet well preserved!