Wooden houses a couple of storeys high are perched in clusters on elevated slopes. Their intricate carvings and cantilevered balconies blend seamlessly with the landscape. The ancient architecture of Himachal Pradesh’s Banjar Valley is striking. The small settlement of Jibhi where I stayed isn’t very well-known to travellers, but it has several camps and guest houses from which the many splendours of the area can be explored. It is also blessedly quiet. Over the week I spent in Jibhi, I came across very few travellers in this remote, unspoilt valley. The mountains surrounding Jibhi are lush with pine and cedar forests and it is also just one hour away from the Great Himalayan National Park. A short drive from picturesque Jalori Pass, Jibhi is a good base for hiking, birding, fishing, and enjoying the outdoors.
I arrived at my guest house picturing a perfect week with nothing on the agenda. My lazy intentions went right out the window as soon as I spotted the hand-drawn maps, illustrating the area’s walking trails, hanging around Doli Guest House’s reception area. B.S. Rana, a retired military officer, founded the guest house 27 years ago after renovating his ancestral home, built in the traditional Pahadi, or mountain, style. A small group of devoted foreigners began visiting every year, and tales of Jibhi’s charms spread by word-of-mouth. Of late, domestic travellers looking to experience a slice of mountain life, without all the frills of a hill station, have been coming here. But though Jibhi may be a low-key tourist destination, it brims with possibilities.
My first walk was a four-kilometre stroll to the village of Chaini (Chehni), with my guide Narendra. A thick coat of deodar trees covers the mountain slopes around the small village where it seems like little has changed over the decades. Apple orchards abound. The nearest road is a kilometre below (it is also possible to drive eight kilometres to this point). Walking a trail through tall pine trees, we arrived at the fringes of the village and I caught my first glimpse of its watchtower. The five-storey structure dwarfed the surrounding houses. The leaning tower is supported by a masonry wall, reinforced with horizontal timber logs. It has a secret tunnel underneath. We climbed a steep flight of stairs carved from two large pieces of wood and sneaked a quick glimpse inside the tower, now a Yogini shrine.
This type of temple tower is a rare example of Pahadi architecture, notably in the Kullu and Kangra districts of Himachal Pradesh. Isolated deep within the folds of these Himalayan foothills, the builders developed construction methods of kath-kuni and dhol-maide in which timber and stone are layered and interlocked to withstand environmental constraints. These methods have enabled the Chaini tower, which is at least 40-metres high, to stand for centuries, and survive such ravages as the debilitating Kangra earthquake of 1905.
Opposite the tower, the remains of the crumbling Chaini Fort, built in a similar style, have been converted to a Krishna temple. On the other side of the tower is the bhandar, or storage house, where religious artefacts related to the Shringa Rishi, Banjar Valley’s presiding deity, are stored. The Shringa Rishi temple, half a kilometre below Chaini in the village of Bagi, is garishly painted, but underneath its lurid veneer is the same marvellous wooden architecture.
The stunning and steeply inclined eight-kilometre drive from Jibhi to Jalori Pass, winding through treacherous twists, is an adventure in itself. It is also the prelude to two hiking trails that branch off in opposite directions from the top of the pass (an altitude of over 10,000 feet). One goes towards serene Seroyul Lake and the other towards the ruins of the ancient Raghupur Fort.
The trail to Seroyul Lake is a gentle five-kilometre hike, first over a ridge overlooking bare mountaintops rising out of green lower ranges, then through an enchanting oak forest. Shortly before the lake, the forest floor comes alive with wildflowers blossoming between mossy oaks. In a meadow along the way, I rested by the side of a pond surrounded by jagged pinnacles, with a thick bundle of clouds above me. After much ambling, Narendra and I arrived at the clear waters of Seroyul and settled down on a rocky outcrop. The lake is considered sacred and there is small temple on its shore.
On our way back, we encountered an afternoon mist that had enveloped the forest in a grey coat of gloom. With the sunshine gone, there was a surprising lull in the forest. Considering it was already past 4 p.m., I debated hiking to Raghupur Fort. Drawing from the lessons learned on previous travels, however, I remembered that it is never good to say no to an adventure.
The ruins of Raghupur Fort are just an excuse to hike up to a bird’s-eye view of the Seraj Valley, from a verdant clearing at the top of a hill. The four-kilometre trail from Jalori Pass to the remaining fort walls gently descends through thick forest, before a steep ascent and then a long but gradual walk through open meadows.
The afternoon mist followed us well into the evening, with dull skies and obscured views dampening the walk. But the skies cleared up just in time for the gorgeous evening light to wash over the landscape. The meadows glistened green, and light filtered through the gaps between the mountains. Content with these panoramas, we were on our way back when I noticed a rainbow ring around my shadow reflecting off the mist a few metres ahead of me.
Had I not heard of this disorienting phenomenon before, I might have freaked out. Even so, I was astounded at glimpsing the rare Brocken spectre, also called a glory. In this optical illusion, a 360° rainbow appears around shadows cast from a height into the mist below.
Though the day’s 18-kilometre-long hikes to Saroyul and Raghupur had been exhausting, I spent the last leg of it bouncing along on a rainbow-induced high. I was glad I had said yes to adventure.
As you enter Jibhi, a handful of posters for angling tours remind you that the gurgling streams of the Banjar and Tirthan valleys are famous for trout fishing. After listening to the tall tales of two fishing enthusiasts at the guest house one day, I was sold on the idea.
Narendra quickly procured a fishing permit and brought me up to speed on the basics of angling with a rod and a lure in the shape of a fish. One afternoon, fancying some fresh catch for dinner, I cast my line in the stream flowing beside the guest house. Narendra quickly landed his first catch. Finally, after four hours and a growing sense of disenchantment with fishing, I landed my first catch using a dangling metal spinner bait. I’m not entirely sure whether it was the glorious rainbow trout I reeled in that tasted so good, or my triumph that was the perfect seasoning for my meal that night.
Jibhi is situated in the remote Banjar Valley of Himachal Pradesh. It is 40 km/1 hr southwest of the town of Aut, which is located on the road from Delhi/Chandigarh to Manali. Jibhi is 600 km/14 hr north of New Delhi.
By Air The closest airport is in Bhuntar in the Kullu district, 60 km/2 hr from Jibhi. Taxis charge about ₹2,200 for the one-way trip from Bhuntar. For a group, a more economical option is to fly to Chandigarh and take a taxi (₹6,000 one-way) to Jibhi.
By Rail The closest railway station is at Shimla, 150 km/6 hr south of Jibhi. There is no direct service from Delhi to Shimla, so passengers need to change trains at Kalka, but there are plenty of connections for the comfortable ride (5 hr to Kalka and a further 5 hr to Shimla). Visitors can use the opportunity to experience the iconic “toy train” from Kalka to Shimla. A one-way taxi from Shimla to Jibhi starts at approximately ₹6,000.
By Road The simplest way to travel to Jibhi is to board a bus for Manali from Delhi and disembark at Aut. From Aut, arrange for a taxi pickup through your accommodation (₹1,000 one-way), or take another bus to Banjar, which is 8 km before Jibhi, and get a taxi from there. If driving from Delhi, it is quite possible to do the 520 km/12 hr drive to Banjar Valley in a day, provided you get an early start. However, Ambala or Chandigarh are good places to break journey if needed.
Vehicles for transportation and sightseeing can be arranged from the nearest town of Banjar. A round trip to Jalori Pass, including waiting time, costs ₹1,500, and a drop-off or pickup between Aut and Jibhi costs about ₹1,000.
During summer (Mar-May), the temperature in Jibhi is pleasant, and rarely goes above 30°C. During the monsoon (Jun-Sep), the forests are resplendent, but be prepared for torrential showers and landslides that may block mountain roads. Autumn days (Oct-Nov) are mostly pleasant with a nip in the air early in the morning and evening. Temperatures range between 15°C-25°C. Winter (Dec-Feb) is very cold, and temperatures can plummet below freezing at night. Daytime temperatures range between 5°C on cloudy days and 15°C on sunny days. There is a good chance of snowfall as well.
One of the biggest charms of Jibhi is the lack of commercialisation. Most accommodation consists of either tented eco-camps or simple guest houses run by local residents.
Doli Guest House, located near Jibhi’s main market, is a 65-year-old ancestral house converted into a simple yet cosy guest house Its wooden rooms have attached bathrooms (01903-228231/98160 58290; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles ₹700-800).
Rana Swiss Cottages is run by the owner of Doli Guesthouse, and is a good option for those seeking a bit of comfort. The four wooden cottages, inspired by Swiss chalets, sit on a mountain slope along a river, and have a great view of the entire valley. This is one of the few properties in Banjar Valley that stays open all year round, even during winter (01903-228231/98160 58290; doubles from ₹2,500).
Tirthan Jibhi Camp on the riverside on the outskirts of Jibhi offers Swiss tents and mud cottages in a large open space close to the waterfall (01903-227090/+91 94184 64764; jibhicamp.com; doubles from ₹2,500).
Banjara Cottage And Retreat perched on a hilltop at Sojha village, is 5 km before Jalori Pass. It offers excellent views of the valley and Dhauladhar ranges. Ten rooms and cottages are available (95994 81133; www.banjaracamps.com; doubles from ₹4,900).
Hikes can be done independently, since routes are well marked and frequented. Most of the guest houses can arrange guides, fishing permits, and camping, trekking, or angling equipment at a nominal fee (₹700-1,000 per day, depending on the activities).
Fishing permits can be obtained from the Fisheries Officer at Nagini village near Banjar for Rs100, except from November to February, when angling is prohibited. Most of the guest houses can help procure a fishing permit. Permits are valid for streams in the Banjar and Tirthan Valleys and allow a catch of six trout per day, with each trout measuring not less than 24 cm.
Appeared in the Feb 2016 issue as “Hidden Valley”. Updated in May 2018.
Neelima Vallangi is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.