Before 1992, the remote backwater of KINNAUR, a rugged buffer zone between the Shimla foothills and the wild western extremity of Chinese-occupied Tibet, was strictly off-limits to tourists. Although visitors are now allowed to travel through the “Inner Line”, and on to Spiti, Lahaul and the Kullu Valley, permits are still required. Other areas of Kinnaur, notably the Baspa Valley and the sacred Kinner-Kailash massif visible from the mountain village of Kalpa, are completely open.
Straddling the mighty River Sutlej, which rises on the southern slopes of Mount Kailash, Kinnaur has for centuries been a major trans-Himalayan corridor. Merchants travelling between China and the Punjabi plains passed through on the Hindustan–Tibet caravan route, stretches of which are still used by villagers and trekkers. The bulk of the traffic that lumbers east towards the frontier, however, uses the newer NH-22, which veers north into Spiti just short of the ascent to Shipki La pass, on the Chinese border, which remains closed.
In the well-watered, mainly Hindu west of the region, the scenery ranges from subtropical to almost Alpine: wood-and-slate villages, surrounded by maize terraces and orchards, nestle beneath pine forests and vast blue-grey mountain peaks. Further east, largely beyond the reach of the monsoons, it grows more austere, and glaciers loom on all sides. Buddhism arrived in Kinnaur with the tenth-century kings of Guge, who ruled what is now southwestern Tibet. When Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055), the “Great Translator” credited with the “Second Spreading” of the faith in Guge, passed through, he left behind several monasteries and a devotion to a pure form of the Buddhist faith that has endured here for nearly one thousand years. In the sixteenth century, after Guge had fragmented into dozens of petty fiefdoms, the Bhushar kings took control of Kinnaur. They remained in power throughout the British Raj, when this was one of the battlegrounds of the espionage war played out between agents of the Chinese, Russian and British empires – the “Great Game” evocatively depicted in the novels of Rudyard Kipling.