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Offbeat Places in Himachal

Images of vigorous treks, snow-topped peaks, deep valleys, gleaming lakes, and ancient heritage spring into life as a life-sized reel at the mere mention of Himachal Pradesh. The land ensconced in Himalayan territory is sprinkled with adventure, warmth, soul-stirring views, and all things nice. Every time I step into the state, it embraces me in its all-familiar sincerity of a promise of fresh memories.

Seasons: Himachal is an all-weather destination; however, summers do tend to find favour with tourists with cool temperatures between 5 to 24 degrees Celsius. Effortlessly accessible and clear of snow, leafy greens sway in the breeze. The monsoon season witnesses a drop in travellers’ footfall, due to the vulnerability of landslides and blocked roads. Even then, tarred highways and the merry dance of droplets on hilly ground, draw in ample visitors. The winter months from November through March coat the alpine terrain with an opaque blanket of white with the mercury hovering below 0 to 13 degrees Celsius. Although certain sections of the province are blockaded, the allure of a silvery sheet of snow on mighty cliffs beckons many to savour the majesty of the landscape. 

Unusual Destinations

Jibhi: Wrapping One in a Tranquil Embrace  

Located in the Tirthan Valley, along the bank of the Tirthan River, Jibhi is a sanctuary away from crowded cities, polluted alleys, noisy markets, and the more cramped areas of Himachal. The quaint hamlet is home to surprise waterfalls, comfortable homestays, Victorian-design wooden cottages, multi-hued flowers, and fragrant apple orchards amidst pine forests. With a spectacular view of the Himalayan range, it offers unique trekking trails through its myriad landscapes. 

A charming offbeat destination in Himachal, Jibhi remained largely unknown until the 90s. A local ex-army man, Bhagwan Singh Rana, born in a farming family in Himachal Pradesh, almost single-handedly put Jibhi on the unconventional tourist trail. After serving for a few years in the Indian Army, the call of home made him quit the defence service and follow his dream of introducing tourism in his hometown. After much persuasion, he convinced his family to allow him to renovate one of their family homes, retaining much of its original character, as a lodging house. The Doli Guesthouse – the first one in the valley – opened its doors in 1992. With an in-depth knowledge of the local culture and crops, the ex-serviceman conducted guided excursions, including the Great Himalayan National Park, on his home turf, unearthing new routes each time. Eventually, tourists began visiting more often to participate in these hikes, thus opening the charms of Jibhi to the outside world. 

Although tourism has expanded in Jibhi, it remains largely unaffected by mechanisation, with no direct train serving the village. There are various ways to reach Jibhi.  From Delhi, the shortest route would be via Chandigarh. One can hire a cab from the airport to Jibhi. Alternatively, a longer route through Shimla and Narkanda can also be undertaken. Breathe in the fresh mountain air and reach a land where one can hear tweeting birds and get a large whiff of fragranced blooms. Homestays and lodges are built with local materials and vegetables are grown organically in residential backyards. 

Places to visit in Jibhi:

Jibhi Waterfall: Secretly tucked away inside thick timberland, the Jibhi Waterfall appears as if by magic, with loud gushing sounds reverberating through the forest. The slap of water washing over stones is almost musical to the ear. Several small wooden bridges and stone steps lead to the waterfall, offering an ideal platform for scenic views. The water resembles a thick frothy coating, much like a cappuccino, and then gently falls into a clear pool revealing its rough bed. One can take a cool dip and walk straight in. It is recommended to go in the morning to perhaps catch the sight of a rainbow. 

Jalori Pass:

Located 12 kilometres from the village of Jibhi, at a height of over 10,000 feet, Jalori Pass is the highest navigable pass in the region, fenced by pine trees and stony hills. The trail to the pass is teeming with varied species of wildlife, notably the Himalayan Bear, and birds, such as the Monal Pheasant. The long, yet beautiful trek from Jibhi traverses through Shoja village, dense forests, large patches of rhododendrons, and a clear stream. One is almost tempted to try a little trout angling before proceeding further. The wind whispers sweet sounds and lyrical hums of nature are exhibited through melodious bird calls, the rustling of leaves under one’s feet, and the swish of a gentle breeze swaying the sea of flowers. As one ventures deeper into the forest, the air gets a cold bite and finally leads to the majesty of snow-tipped peaks.

An additional three-kilometre walk from Jalori Pass leads to a mass of ruins or the Raghupur Fort. The hike traverses through dark oak forests littered with rhododendrons, leading to a steep ascent with numerous footpaths, eventually giving way to an undulating grassy meadow. Orange-yellow tints in the sky welcome the eyes with a grand bird’s eye view of enormous mountain ranges and the little towns dotted on them. 

Chehni Kothi:

In the quaint hamlet of Chehni stands a 1500-year-old tower-like edifice that served as the walled residence of Raja Rana Dhadhia, the erstwhile ruler of Kullu. Although the age of the tower is disputed; some locals claim the tower is merely 300 years old. What is undisputed is the fact that it is the tallest standing structure in the Western Himalayas. Set against a backdrop of deodar and pine trees, the tower comes into sight when taking a casual stroll between the Banjar and Jibhi villages. Originally said to be 15 storeys high, the current tower is a ten-tiered architectural marvel built by padding stone slabs between two layers of wooden beams. Because it was initially constructed as a fortified structure, there is an absence of a stone stairway at the entrance. Instead, a steep wooden staircase runs along the fortification without railings for support. Climb at your own risk! 

The topmost floor houses a few idols and residents of the area narrate stories about a 400-metre escape tunnel, adding to the mysterious allure of the wooden tower. The intricate craftsmanship and the connected tales about its construction leave one in a lost state of fantasy. 

Lahaul and Spiti: ‘A World Within a World’

Celebrated author Rudyard Kipling once said, “This is no place for men, for the Gods must live here.” Sitting on the Tibetan plateau is a county with a bouquet of remote, picturesque mountain settlements, cedar woodlands, captivating Buddhist art, and iced summits resembling inverted snow cones, alpine lakes, enormous glaciers, and Himalayan deserts. The two valleys of Lahaul and Spiti are connected through the renowned Kunzum La mountain pass at approximately 14,500 feet. The twin regions, or ‘Country of the Gods’ are similarly splendid but differ somewhat in their facade. Lower in altitude, Lahaul is greener than Spiti as it is nurtured by the Chandra and Bhaga rivers originating at Baralacha La Pass. The Chandra river originates from the Chandratal lake which is a popular tourist attraction in the s ummer and the Bagha river originates from the Suraj Tal Lake.

The Spiti Valley is an infinite stretch of barrenness and highland meadows with its haunting beauty heavy in the quietness of the air. 

Ethereal magic sweeps the region in winter making Lahaul and Spiti spectacular offbeat places in Himachal to visit in December and view snowfall. Landscapes metamorphose from an effervescent green to a carpet of sparkling white, with old-world hamlets dotting the hilly terrain. Lakes and high-altitude passes freeze and the powdery snowy surroundings teem with exotic wildlife such as Yaks, Tibetan Wild Fox, Ibex, and Snow Leopards. The opening of the Atal Tunnel has greatly helped in putting Spiti and Lahaul on a winter destination map. 

Places to visit in Lahaul and Spiti:

Sissu: The Swiss-like winter wonderland is a secluded hamlet tucked away in the Lahaul Valley. Located on the banks of the voluble Chandra River, Khwaling, or Sissu, is an untouched jewel. The opening of the Atal Tunnel has greatly contributed to Sissu’s opening to tourists – even in winter – in recent years, truly making it an offbeat destination in Himachal. Often a base for treks to Lahaul, Spiti, and Ladakh, the tiny village is garlanded with gigantic glaciers, white peaks, and old willow and poplar trees that turn silver when the snow falls. 

Incidentally, India’s first and the world’s highest Snow Marathon, designed for long-distance runners, was held in Sissu in March 2022. The marathon has been a tremendous success, and it encompasses 42-kilometre, 21-kilometre, ten, and five-kilometre runs for men and women. It is recognised by the Government of India as part of the Fit India Movement initiative.

Traditionally Sissu was a significant trading route for several centuries, linking India with Tibet. Today this centuries-old exchange of culture is reflected in the vibrant fusion of Indo-Tibetan aesthetics. The conventional wooden houses are ornamented with elaborate etchings showcasing architectural finesse, and the locals follow a distinct way of life adopted from Indian and Tibetan customs. One can even witness the unique societal amalgamation during festivals such as Losar and Fagli, each with a rich blend of traditional dances and music. Furthermore, Buddhism’s indelible mark is evident in Sissu with countless monasteries speckled across its grounds. 

Sissu Waterfall and Lake:

Winter also allows the traveller to visit the Sissu waterfall and lake, both frozen white delights. The former is situated at 10,000 feet and the majestic block of frozen water is visible far in the distance. However, its true majesty can only be experienced up close. The man-made Sissu Lake is a short trek from the waterfall, enrapturing one in its loveliness in peaceful stillness, while making perfectly round chilly rings from one’s mouth in the frigid weather! 

The frost calls for a warm car and tranquil drive to nearby Keylong – the district headquarters of Lahaul & Spiti. Prettily perched on the banks of the Bhaga River, eleven thousand feet above sea level, its rustic allure is hard to ignore. The fringes of the township sparkle with emerald slopes and jagged cliffs smoothen out to varying tints of brown against the green. The township springs out like an oasis amidst the tan backdrop. It is the only site in Lahaul Valley with a bustling market where one can shop for natural oil, shawls, carpets, and bamboo products. 

Kaza and Key Monastery:

The administrative centre of Lahaul and Spiti, Kaza, is draped in snow during winter. Outlined by snow-capped peaks, the town is a sheet of white canvas with temperatures dipping to minus 30 degrees at night. The postcard-pretty route to Kaza is accessible through Shimla in frosty weather. Steaming cups of tea and fiery plates of Maggi are one’s best friends whilst taking a chilly stroll around Kaza. Hop back in the car to drive on further to reach Key Monastery. 

The oldest and largest gompa in Spiti Valley, the thousand-year-old Key Monastery sits majestically like a powerful monarch on its throne with its external white façade merging with the snow-white summits surrounding it. At thirteen-and-a-half thousand feet, it offers a magnificent view of the Spiti River. The picturesque hilltop is a photographer’s delight. 

Founded by Dromton, a pupil of the renowned Buddhist teacher, Atisha, in the 11th century, the shrine has been frequently renovated over centuries. Constantly plundered by the Mongols and other local armies fighting for supremacy, a devastating fire in the mid-19th century, and a violent earthquake in the 20th century, the monastery required recurrent modifications. Eventually, it came to resemble a defensive fort rather than a temple. 

Also known as the Kye or Ki Monastery, an enormous collection of ancient texts, and manuscripts, thangkas, Buddhist paintings on cloth, stucco images, and idols in the Dhyana position, are enshrined here. A considerable assortment of weapons – possibly used to ward off raiders – and musical instruments such as cymbals, trumpets, and drums, are also housed in the monastery’s floors. The three-tiered gompa showcases a prime example of monastic architecture with narrow, dark corridors, tiny doorways, and winding staircases, connecting the irregular prayer rooms. The walls are covered with paintings and delicate murals, especially in the Tengyur room. The ground floor is intricately carved and today, the shrine doubles as a religious training and housing centre for lamas, who are often seen singing, dancing, and playing their musical instruments, particularly when the masked Chham dance is enacted in summer.

Lahaul and Spiti are seemingly trapped in times of a bygone era where lives were unhurried and people had time to smell the flowers. Winter reduces the pace even further with the skies and land merging in perfect union. 

Arki: Untouched Historical Splendour 

The erstwhile capital of Baghal, Arki, was founded by Rana Ajai Dev in the mid-17th century. One of the smallest towns in Himachal Pradesh, in Solan district, it sits on the base of the Shivalik range at a comfortable 4,000 feet, offering deep historical snippets for seekers of the past. Solan is located about 45 kilometres from the capital city of Shimla.  

Places to Visit in Arki:

Arki Fort or Palace: Known for its rock-walled 18th-century fortress built by Rana Prithvi Singh, the Arki Fort displays a mix of Rajput and Islamic styles of architecture. Its bloodied history has witnessed several battles between successive Ranas, Gurkhas, and the British. The fort is adorned with sculptures, artefacts, and muralled interiors exhibiting the brilliance of the Pahari style of fine art in the Diwan-i-Khas or Audience Hall. Frescos of a variety of styles such as Rajasthani, Kullu, and Kangra forms of paintings, specifically the wall images of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava, folklore, and engravings from Puranas, are artfully displayed capturing myriad emotions and conditions. It is the ideal spot to hold a steaming cup of coffee and get a panoramic view of the mountain ranges and deep valleys. 

Lutru Mahadev Temple:

A well-developed hill town in the past with horse and mule tracks connecting it with Shimla, Arki is renowned for its cave temples, most notably the 17th-century Lutru Mahadev temple, devoted to Lord Shiva. Legend has it that Shiva appeared in the monarch’s dream asking him to build the temple. Sitting atop a hill, the shrine is built in a cave and is a classic example of the Shikhara style of architecture, with a glorious view of its surroundings. A Swayambhu Shivling inside serves as a huge draw for devotees who offer cigarettes to the idol! 

Things to do in Arki: 

Sair Festival:

Also known as the ‘sunny place,’ Arki’s pleasant weather makes it an ideal offbeat destination in Himachal. Its annual two-day Sair fair held in September is celebrated to mark the end of the harvesting season. It is a time to prepare for the impending harsh winter and welcome the return of Gods from heaven. Locals don traditional clothing and accessories, beat drums, blow trumpets, cook delicious fare such as Kachori, bread stuffed with dal, buy utensils, and offer gathered crops to the Gods. Traditionally, the fair was renowned for bullfighting as bulls are symbolic of regeneration and reproduction in agrarian societies. Local people used to train buffaloes and mix alcohol in their food for the event, but the practice has been currently banned by the Indian courts. However, other forms of revelry and sport such as wrestling or dangal, are a big attraction during the festival. 

Himachal Pradesh offers a tapestry of experiences, from the draw of snow-kissed settings in winter to the opulent verdancy of summer. A land where weather, culture, and nature meet to create treasured memories. Let Offbeat Tracks help you chart out an itinerary for unconventional destinations in Himachal by unveiling its secrets and peeling the layers of its hidden gems.