The Old Shepherd Road – An Unforgettable Journey Between The Hilmalayas
“Hello! Where are you?” Teddy Singh’s baritone boomed through the cabin of the Audi Q5 thanks to Bluetooth. He was waiting for us in Dalhousie, refreshments at the ready and meat sizzling over hot coals and here we’d taken a wrong turn at Ropar in Punjab and now were headed towards Kangra in Himachal Pradesh rather than Dalhousie. But with a little help of the GPS and a lot more help from the locals we were in Dalhousie by 7:30pm—which was quite good timing considering we’d driven out of Chandigarh at noon. Teddy Singh runs the absolutely charming Teddy’s lodge, far removed from the cacophony of the town centre 7 km away. Now in his seventies, he has clambered all over the Himalaya in his youth and is a hilarious fount of stories and a valuable source of information.
And, we needed information. We’d left Bombay on a whim, to escape the sweltering heat and chance upon some snow and ice in the Himalaya. Just a few days before leaving, Neville, my engineering college classmate, and I pored over a map of Himachal Pradesh and a little dotted line in the northwest corner caught my eye. It was a faint track that joined Dalhousie, Khajjiar, Chamba and Bairagarh to the Pangi Valley which is a western offshoot from Keylong on the revered Manali-Leh road. For years, as the map rightly depicted, this route, that went over the 14,800ft-high Sach Pass, was a walking track or a cart track at best that locals, especially wandering gaddi shepherds, used as a short-cut route into Chamba and Kashmir.
But Teddy Singh assured us that with our car (essentially an all-wheel drive) the road was motorable. “Watch the edges, sometimes they crumble away. Watch for landslides. Cross streams carefully, the currents can be strong.” I had invited Anu and Kartik, my friends who have given up fat and lazy corporate lifestyles (and salaries) and are now very happily making jams and chutneys in the Himalayan village of Thanedar, to join us. They had just bought a new Mahindra Thar and were eager to put it through its paces.
Next morning, when the four of us came out onto the terrace that looks out at the Dhauladhar range, we found that Teddy Singh had been up at sunrise directing his two-man staff with military precision. The result was a smashing breakfast spread consisting of fried eggs, toast, bacon, sausages and mutton liver masala. As we were leaving he also handed us a packet of Goan sausages saying that they were very easy to cook when out camping. We drove to Chamba via Khajjiar. Since this is the tourist trail, the roads were wide with a steady stream of traffic. It is from Chamba that we went off the beaten track. After tanking up at the town’s fuel station, we headed off on SH 37 towards Tisa and Bairagarh. Most tourist traffic heads off on SH 33 back towards Pathankot and the plains.
The tarmac soon started deteriorating and by the time we’d crossed Bairagarh 87km away, the road was unsealed but still reasonably smooth. Teddy Singh had booked us into the Bairagarh PWD Guest House, which, like most PWD bungalows, had a prime location and looked out at the tall and majestic mountains within which stood the Sach Pass, which we would tackle the next day. We started off at the break of dawn because the day would grow hotter as we ascended the Sach Pass. And, sometimes, this causes parts of the huge glaciers to melt and move. The ‘road’ up the Sach Pass is more of a collection of stones. An hour and 19km later, we arrived at the Satrundi Police Post. From here the road bifurcates towards Kishtwar and Doda and towards the Sach Pass.