Exploring In's and out's of Sarthal and Bani - (Kailash Kund yatra Part-1)

"I looked up ahead, I was riding somewhere, 
In the evening orange light, hiding nowhere
Wondered then I, what's shinning up there
Answered my God,
It's Heaven, come here"

Road from Sarthal to Chattragala

'Wake up, wake up, wake up it's a brand new day' shouted my alarm clock at 5:00 on a warm summer morning and I knew the immediate task to be accomplished after I finished my stomach cleansing process, which is another routine task for the healthy survival of humans. It was time for a bike ride alone to venture into the midst of less explored Himalayas. 
The sound of ignition was enough to make my sleepy neighbors peep from their window and their dog responsibly barking at a stranger whom he had seen in the dark. Humans of my small town usually don't experience such a site where an adventure lover with trekking gear on his back rides on a bike.

The route planned was - Dinanagar-Pathankot-Dunera-Basholi-Bani-Sarthal  in six hours which further got an extension of three hours, After all I was riding on 'The Great Indian Roads'.

The ride up to Basholi was a smooth two hour ride but the thrill couldn't last longer after getting the glimpse of town. I was expecting a big town with few good eateries to feed my taste buds but only I could find was few small dhabas on bus stop serving Rajma Chawal or Chicken curry at eight in the morning. 'No Pranthas??', I asked the owner of dhaba to get a negative reply. Eating Rajma early morning was enough to make me realize that I was in Jammu and Kashmir.
Kilometer Long, Atal setu Bridge Connecting Dunera- Basholi
The ride from Basholi to Bani is the smoothest ride on this route except for the last few kilometers. The Eighty Five Kilometer distance is a well maintained route and one comes across few villages enroute Bani. There are a few tea shacks but none selling chocolates but only candies and pan masala. I wonder how the kids of this region survive without chocolates. The clouds in cumulus in deep blue sky above the wide valley giving distant views of Chamba and Dhauladhar ridges was a clear sign that I was heading to a place what people often refer to as 'Heaven'. I knew the views would get better with each passing turn and I wasn't wrong.
There is a regular bus service from Basholi to Bani and in fact one can reach Sarthal in bus which can take upto 9 hours. I have enclosed all timings and contacts of bus operators at the last of this page.
Reservoir ahead of Basholi
Traversing the Long winding road I reached the poorest section of what Government claims to be a National Highway. The picturesque landscapes and cool winds were enough to make me forget the bumpy ride on a 15 km stretch and fortunately neither I nor my bike lost the patience. Little did I knew the route ahead was going to be more picturesque with beautiful waterfalls accompanying me. I reached a small hamlet assuming it to be Bani. This was one of the most beautiful settlement I had ever seen in past few years. A small river with water as blue as sapphire gushing through the stream reminded me of Pahalgam in Kashmir. This place has a NHPC maintained Dam called 'Sewa II Project'. I hopped in a tea shack for some refreshments and came to knew that I was wrong in assuming this place to be Bani, but Bani was another 5 km ahead and I had another 5 km to ride on a dirt road. BRO is working really hard to complete this stretch within time, though they are already working beyond completion scheduled date. After every 500 meters I could see a gang of workers doing overtime to meet the expectations of Government.

The small yet beautiful settlement

Deep Blue waters of Sewa river

Bani was a Traders market and less of a Locality. I had thought it to be a very beautiful town but the hustle bustle of market didn't allow the peaceful soul in me to stop there for more than a minute. It was already 12:15 PM and I thought of proceeding ahead to Lawang which was another 19 km from Bani. I had to meet my trekking guide in Lawang.
Route to Lawang was more picturesque than the one to Bani with road conditions improved. I could see another highway on the other side of Sewa River but only to get a reply from a nearby shopkeeper that it wasn't leading to Lawang. What an irony!! The National Highway is a Pot-hole road and a rural road as smooth as Mumbai-Pune expressway. Well, I had to satisfy myself by riding on an average road.

Cumulus clouds were now looking more beautiful than before and Sun rays trying it's best to cut through them to touch the Grassy slopes which I was amused to see. These grassy slopes were distinct in their own way from the one we experience in Kashmir. They were Enchanting, with their tip almost touching the clouds.
Lawang was much more appealing than Bani, as the people had built huge houses for themselves painted in bright colours. Lawang has a history of terror activities in 80's but is very safe since beginning of 21st century and I could experience a great harmony between every sect of that area. This was a pure sign that we all belong to a single soul- God.
Waterfall enroute Lawang

Road to Lawang
I had to meet my guide Jaswant Singh, who had been waiting there since long as I was late, cherishing 'The Great Indian Roads'. On my bike we proceeded towards Sarthal and the road becoming more picturesque was a sheer treat of mother nature. Though road at some sections was more irritating than a moraine walk on glacier, but nevertheless the sharp rocky cliffs on green pastures made us forgot the moraine drive which looked nonetheless than Pangi-Kishtwar Road accompanied by few himalayan lizards jumping over rocks. There is a waterfall nearby known as 'The Seven Falls', beginning from a high cliff and making seven steps before touching the lowest pool. It is neraly impossible to spot all the seven falls together from the road unless one chooses to hike down an 80 degree slope to a ledge strong enough to hold the weight of a person.
Jaswant told me that somewhere in the era of terrorists, once GREF was repairing this road and few terrorists threw their heavy machinery into the valley and the remnants of bulldozers are still lying down near the lowest pool. Destructive yet Interesting Stories!!
Road to Sarthal

'The Seven Falls' but only few can be seen from road
It was 3:00 PM and the clouds were turning dark. I got the first view of Sarthal which made me forget the pain in my butt I had developed riding continuously for nine hours. The first thought I came across was 'Finally I found an alternate to Kashmir' which holds very true. Wasting no time we threw our sacks in a tent at Tourism Department run Guest House and probably the only option to stay at Sarthal, we Proceeded to explore the Newly considered alternate to Kashmir.
Sarthal has few temporary shops which included a medical store as well. The place remains snow bound for six months but still lacks tourism in summers even if compared to other smaller hill stations of Himachal and Jammu. The most I loved about this place was selfless hospitality and friendliness they showered on me. Having a maggie in lunch and controlling the pace of my extremely curious feet dying to explore the meadows ahead, we began venturing into the valley right behind the guest house.
Sarthal - Touching the Heaven

Few Places worth exploring around Sarthal-

Valley behind the Guest House- A trek from Sarthal to Chamba
 This is one of the most simple yet scenic landscapes of whole sarthal valley where one can experience the rich culture of Gujars (Shepherds) and the purity of a glacial stream passing by. If you keep ascending this valley for an hour you may reach the base of mountains that divide sarthal and Chamba-Bhaderwah road,
If one wishes to trek to Padhri from Sarthal the route is worth exploring and doesn't appear to be a difficult trek so far we could observe the route is free of moraine and full of grassy slopes. Though wildlife can be an issue like the most Himalayan treks for a solo hiker.

There is a small temple on the ridge separating this valley with the one leading to chattragala pass and then to Bhaderwah. The same ridge shall lead to the top of mountain massif to cherish views of Chamba-Bhaderwah route and then to descend there. 
Sheep of Shepards (Gujars)
Behind that mountain range lies Padhri Gali pass and road to chamba. A plain grassy ridge leads to the top from the left hill visible in photo.

Grassy Ridge leading to the top
Makeshift wooden bridge- one of the sturdiest make shifts bridges ever seen

Sarthal to Chattragala

Another route we tried was Sarthal to Chattragala but let's talk about it in Part-2

Few Other Routes


Tourism Department has published briefs of few other routes on their website which I plan to explore in near future. Many of them leading to Kailash Kund via different valleys or ridges. One such begins from Sarthal if we begin climbing the Ridge at west of the guesthouse.
Another prominent trekking peak is the Chandi Mata Temple which may be approached from Lawang and appears to be the highest peak of this region. There are alot of trekking peaks available in this region and most of them unnamed. Apart from this there are a lot of Bouldering opportunities in the region.

A peak at Chattragala pass. It is part of the masiff that separates Sarthal and Padhri. A good dayhike if one wishes to practise some steep climbing

Temple atop a ridge at Sarthal

One feet space to worship. A shortcut to reach God

Lack of Infrastructure for hiking-
The area lacks Infrastructure for Hiking and professional guides. But this is not the case if we trek in Bhaderwah as there are a lot of adventure service providers. The tourism Department is trying it's best to equip good equipment and train few locals to be able to guide the tourists.
The guide I went with is one of the best hiking partners I have ever found so I recommend his contact if someone wishes to explore these valleys.

How to Reach?
There is a regular bus service from Kathua-basholi-Bani. If you choose to come from Pathankot side you can reach Dunera (town on Dalhousie road) and then via the new bridge reach Basholi.
The distance -

  • Dunera-Basholi is 10 km.
  • Basholi- Bani 85 Km
  • Bani - Sarthal (via Lawang) - 36 km. A Metador leaves everyday at at 7 AM, 1.30 PM and 4 PM from Bani (as on June, 2017). 
    • (Contact the drivers at- +91 9906373491, +91 8803651214). 
  • Sarthal - Chattragala - 15 Km. Few Metadors leave from Lawang and Sarthal for Bhaderwah daily.  
For Tourism Cottage- Contact Mr. Zaheer @+91 9906125786

Few Important Contacts-
CEO Tourism Kathua - Mr. Sudershan @+91 9419138820
SDM Bani                   - Mr. Ajit Singh @+91 9419245197

Back in the Guesthouse after short hikes we began planning for our next days Kailash Kund expedition. The care taker at cottage was an interesting person who had few stories to tell of how he got hit by a bullet of his hunting partner on a hunting expedition in winters. Poaching is very common in these areas. Other two men at cottage were the cook and his helper who poured a selfless hospitality by serving a lavish dinner at a place where there was no electricity. The cook Abdul Rashid is from jammu and has also been preparing food for Cricket matches of India & Pakistan in Kolkata some 10 years back. They helped us plan the route for the next day and were available at our service at 4 in the morning to serve the packed food.

In part 2 I will share how we reached the top ridge to cherish snowy views of lake and got water starved...Read Part 2.

It's only me and her in the end- Together always
Our host and cook- Abdul Rashid- A great helpful person.

Pink house in Lawang.

Gujjar Dera
Goat on Road- Gotroad
Medical shop at Sarthal


A Cliff waiting for someone to open the route


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