Travel beyond the mainstream hill stations of Himachal Pradesh and visit the charming villages of Bir and Jibhi to get an insight into life as it’s lived in the high mountains of India. By Japleen Kaur
The best thing about about Himachal Pradesh, apart from the incredible landscape, is its diversity. Every region, every district, every valley is so remarkably different from each other. Which is why the best way to experience this mountain state in all its glory is to go off-the-beaten path and travel to the interiors, to little villages where you can sample local delicacies, traditions, and culture, and get a peek into the way of life in the mountains. While Jibhi is remote and intimate, Bir is a lively place to be in. And both have plenty of different experiences to offer, each more enchanting than the other.
About three hours before one reaches the hill station of Manali, in the Banjar Valley of Kullu district, is the tiny village of Jibhi. With a homestay, tree house, tented accommodation or hostel every few metres, this little hamlet has slowly turned into a preferred offbeat destination. Surrounded by tall Deodar trees and magnificent mountain ranges, the valley is densely forested, and a beautiful part of the Great Himalayan National Park. There are several trekking routes inside the park that are perfect for anyone looking for an adventurous, week-long getaway. The Jibhi waterfall, a five-minute walk off the main road, has several wooden bridges along the way, making for a picture-postcard stroll—great for those who are not big on hiking, but still wish to soak in all that nature has to offer.
Situated at 10,800 feet, about 14 km away from Jibhi, lies Jalori Pass that connects Shimla and Kullu, when it’s not under snow. From November till March, the pass becomes inaccessible for vehicles, as it lies blanketed with 10-feet-high snow walls lining the entire stretch. During summers, however, you get to see mountains as far as the Dhauladhars of the Kangra district from here. At the top of the pass are a few dhabas or local kitchens, selling the best kadhi and rajma chawal.
From this point, there are two ways forward. You can either take a left and walk for six km to Serolsar Lake—an alpine lake located at 10,000 feet, surrounded by lush jungle and a temple on one side. Or, if you choose to go right, there’s an easy four km hike to Raghupur Fort. The trail opens up to green meadows, from where you can get magnificent 360° views of the Himalayas. This is also a great spot for a picnic lunch or to simply sit and soak in the breathtaking views before you.
Between Jibhi and Jalori Pass lies another little village called Shoja, which has a tiny tea stall selling piping hot and spicy noodles and chai with spectacular views from its window. Chaini Kothi, another picturesque spot 10 km away from Jibhi, has a century-old tower that is sacred to the local community and a treat for those interested in architecture. Climb up the tower for some amazing views during sunset.
If you keep driving on the waterfall road, you reach a village called Baahu. Here, there are stalls that serve lip-smacking momos with chutney for you to gorge on. About an hour’s walk from here through the jungle, you arrive at the Baalu Naag temple in the middle of nowhere. The trail also allows you to feast on beautiful valley views, sprinkled with slanted roof houses that look like tiny ants from far away.
If the remoteness of these villages and the scarcity of civilisation start to get to your city-bred soul, head to the main town of Banjar to experience the hustle-bustle of a Himachali market place. The narrow lanes are often jam-packed, and the colourful shops put up quite a show. You’ll see married women with scarves tied on their heads, known as a dhattu, while men always have their Himachali topis on at all times. You can shop for handwoven shawls and jackets here. Do try the local delicacy called siddu—steamed buns filled with sesame, walnut and potato paste, topped with copious amounts of ghee and served with mint chutney. Other things to do while in the valley include a walk through the village of Sarchi; taking a dip in the natural pool of Lotla, a 10-minute walk from Jibhi; angling for trout by the riverside; and just kicking off your shoes, sitting back, and conversing with the locals.
The terrain changes slowly and the landscape gets a makeover of sorts as you leave Jibhi and head towards Bir. On the way, you pass through one of the major towns, Mandi. You might notice local eateries with dhaam written on them, as you cross the bus stand in Mandi. Dhaam is an old-school, traditional way of eating meals in Himachal; it consists of seven to 12 courses served with rice, and is a must-try while here. Usually served during weddings or special occasions, these hole-in-the-wall joints do a decent job of giving you a sampling of the real deal.
Once you see tall, snow-capped mountains appearing in the distance, know that you’ve entered Kangra district—the home of the mighty Dhauladhars. Soon enough, you are welcomed by a signboard that reads: Welcome to the world’s second highest paragliding site—Bir-Billing. Bir is essentially a place that has all the trappings of a modern world in the garb of a serene town. Made up of several tiny villages with little houses scattered in the middle of fields, Bir is a great place for those who like to take it slow. Being just two hours away from Dharamshala (where the Tibetan parliament in exile operates out of), you see a lot of Tibetan influence in the culture here as well. Tibetan Colony is one of the main roads in Bir; it’s lined with monasteries and shops selling Tibetan artefacts. You find monks walking by and the sound of chanting emanating around. Walk a little ahead on the same road to reach the paragliding landing strip of Bir. Paragliders take off from Billing, about 10 km uphill by road, and land at Bir on a lush green ground, which is thronged by tourists during season time. The most convenient way to explore the remote areas around Bir is to hire a bicycle and paddle off. Visit the Sherabling Monastery, which is so big that it houses a colony in itself. The Kangra Toy Train is highly underrated and lost amidst the hype of paragliding. But if you can spare some time, take the train from Ahju and embark on a slow, yet miraculous journey through jungles, over bridges, with tiny huts passing by and the mountains always in the background.
According to locals, no two sunsets in Bir are the same. After experiencing a few here, I can assure you that it’s true. The best spot to view one such sunset is the landing site. You have to witness it first-hand to believe it, because words can’t do justice to the experience of watching hundreds of paragliders in the sky, gliding off into the sunset as the hues of the setting sun lend it a riot of colours—a sight to remember for a long time to come.