Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh is known for its perfect setting. It is also the region where local people have overcome odds to protect the environment.
About 200 kilometres from Shimla on the Hindustan Tibet Road (NH22), is Wangtu Bridge, the gateway to Kinnaur. Till a few years ago it marked what was known as the ‘Inner Line’-to go beyond this point one needed a permit. Kinnaur is flanked by Spiti on its west, Tibet on its north and east, and the districts of Kullu, Shimla and Garhwal (Uttaranchal) in the south. The great Himalayan range, both geographically and culturally, divides Kinnaur into two distinct parts. In the south is the lush green Baspa Valley and the picturesque Kalpa district. To the north of the mountain range is trans-Himalayan Kinnaur. The region is quite similar to the barren and arid Ladakh. Geographically, trans-Himalayan Kinnaur occupies two thirds of the total area of Kinnaur, but has only 15 per cent of the population, which is predominantly Buddhist. The districts of Kalpa and Baspa, however, have a majority of Hindus. In between, along the 30-kilometre stretch of the Sutlej gorge, there is a mixture of both communities living in complete harmony.
The mighty Sutlej river, with its source in Tibet, cuts through the Zaskar range near Ship Kila. It has a run of 130 kilometres through Kinnaur of which 90 kilometres is through trans-Himalayan Kinnaur. Kinner Kailash, the magnificent mountain, regarded as Lord Shiva’s favourite abode, overlooks Kinnaur.
Thirty three kilometres from Wangtu is Powari. From here begins the 30-kilometre stretch through the deep Sutlej gorge. The Hindustan Tibet Road follows the west bank of the river, running slightly above it, at an altitude of 7,000-7,500 feet above sea level. Towering on both sides are imposing mountains with the Sutlej river chalking its own path through the slopes. The Kinner Kailash massif rises up to 14,000 feet to the right. This is a journey that requires considerable grit-one comes across fragile slopes, boulders on loose soil which could give way at any moment, and sharp hairpin bends with sheer drops to the thundering waters of the Sutlej below.
At Jangi, the 30-kilometre stretch through the Sutlej gorge comes to an end, but it does not change the immediate scenery, except that at places the gorge widens offering you open views of the Sutlej Valley and the barren slopes leading to even more barren ranges.
Spectacular snow mountain crests enclose the trans-Himalayan part of Kinnaur. On the west, across the Manirang range is Spiti, to the north and east is Tibet, and to the south is the great Himalayan range. From these perennial snow and ice-capped mountains radiate spurs and valleys leading to the Sutlej. Glaciers in the mountain hollows are a continuous source of water for the streams. Most villages lie in the main Sutlej valley or nestle in narrow glens. The snow-fed streams are ideal for setting up mini hydel power projects.
On the west of the Sutlej, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, lies Poo. This is the administrative centre and also the main base of the army, with its own helipad. Many years ago, Poo was an important base for trade with Tibet across Ship Kila. It offers spectacular views of the Sutlej and the Zaskar range.
People living in the Shimla-Kulu-Spiti region have taken it upon themselves to improve their living conditions. Encouraged by the army, they have undertaken largescale plantations of trees, apple orchards and vineyards in the valleys, mountain slopes and spurs. More greenery has meant more rainfall resulting in a better quality of crops, bringing good profits to owners and workers. Today the steep slopes above the Sutlej have apple orchards in abundance. This is also helping to check soil erosion.
Today, this part of Kinnaur grows the best apples in the country. Hard work, spirit and courage have ensured that the people have the highest per capita income in the entire Himalayan region. This is only the beginning, and with a little help, the people of Kinnaur will show the world how the most environmentally degraded river catchment area can be restored.