The world admires the adventurous spirit of solitary sailors and climbers and explorers. Is this quality, the adventurous spirit, unique to them? Or is it latent in everyone, awaiting the right set of circumstances for its awakening?
I’ve been fascinated by the mountains, especially the Himalayas, since my childhood days when I first read about Everest and saw the photograph of Tenzing Norgay on the summit. Fortunately, the right set of circumstances, job related stress and a whacked out personal life, came my way this August and I decided to go up north to the mountains for some trekking and have a relaxing holiday. Unfortunately, I had to go on the trip alone as my mate couldn’t make it due to job related stresses, hah!!!
The hustle and bustle of Mumbai left far behind and an uneventful journey later, I found myself in Manali and brought the monsoon rains along with me!!! This is by far the way the highest place I’ve set foot on…Kalsubai, the highest peak in Maharashtra is 1648 mts, Manali is at 2050 mts approx. Manali town is too commercialised for my liking, but man what a sight…mountains hidden in clouds and mist and the Beas roaring down the Kullu valley, a sound you can never be too far from anywhere in town. I just sat and took in the sights the first afternoon I was there.
There are quite a few trekking options around Manali. The most frequented ones are to Chandra Tal (Moon Lake) in Lahaul and from there on to the Baralacha La on the Manali – Leh road, over the Hampta Pass, Deo Tibba base camp, over the Chandrakani Pass into Manikaran. Most of these treks are spread over 4 – 21 days depending on the circuit. Every second shop, or thereabouts, on the Mall provides Trekking and Camping equipment along with guides/porters at reasonable rates. I was recommended by a friend to go to Snowland Holidays, where I met the jovial and very helpful Mohinder Singh. We discussed and arranged a 4 day – 3 night trek to Chandra Tal and I so looked forward to starting off. Unfortunately, the road to Kaza in the Spiti valley was closed due to landslides and I had to put off my trek by a couple of days. No problems though, since in those two days, I got to see a lot around Manali.
Solang Nalla, about 13 km away is near the head of the Kullu Valley and Beas Kund – source of the river Beas. Paragliding during the summer months and skiing during winter are the main activities out here. Vashist is about 3 km from Manali where the hot sulphur springs are quite inviting and was very relaxing after a day of walking. Nobody minds if you do a bit of skinny dipping, though it’s quite embarrassing to look up and see that you’ve got an audience!!!!
We had to cancel the Chandra Tal trek and instead made arrangements to do the trek over Hampta Pass into Chatru in Lahaul. A little disappointed at missing out on Chandra Tal but I looked forward to at least getting started on a trek.
The highest point on the Hampta Pass trek is 4268 mts. We left Manali by taxi to the village of Prini, the start-off point of the trek. Mohinder Singh has provided me with a guide cum cook, Ramji, a short rather jovial and unassuming Nepali who I’m told is an excellent cook and two porters, Narender and Maniraj, also Nepalese. After a final check of all our equipment we started out with the best wishes of Mohinderji. The first stage is a steep climb through thick pine forests to the village of Sethan (2800 mts), a height gain of almost 800 mts in 3 hours. We made good time and my entourage were pretty surprised I didn’t whine like a typical city babu whom they come across quite often…quite a compliment!!! It was hard and exhausting work though….Kulang (a tough trek in Maharashtra – Sahayadhris) for that matter is like a walk in the park compared to this one. We were treated to fantastic views though, of the Kullu Valley and Manali Pass – across the valley. We took a few breaks near some ice-cold mountain streams and then a lunch break below the village of Sethan. Just past the village is a clearing called Pandav Grove and we set up camp here around 1:30 pm.
Legend, according to Ramji, has it that when the Pandavas were in exile, they spent some time at this place and did rice farming in the grove. Once the saplings had grown, they were bunched up and flung across the high ridge into the valley (Manali) where maidens collected and planted the saplings.
Tea and hot steaming pakodas were served at 3:00 pm – just a sampling of how good a cook Ramji really is, can’t wait for dinner et al!! Had a nap on a flat rock near the camp and woke up when it got a bit chilly and I got into my thermal underwear and trousers. Dinner was at 6:00 pm (earliest dinner I’ve ever had!). Ate quite a lot…and yet these guys say – bahut kum khate hain aap!!!
…a really full stomach…a beautiful and pleasant evening…now all I wanted to do was to get into my sleeping bag and get cozy. Unlike other treks I’ve been on with friends, Ramji and the porters do not let me do any work…it was like being in hotel….but then I think I deserved some rest after a long and tiring day…got into my sleeping bag and went off to sleep like a light….
Woke up to the aroma of black coffee and a beautiful, clear and chilly morning. As is usual with most folks, after coffee, you get THE URGE!!! I found a nice place, with a view, and did a bit of unloading. Washing up with ice cold water was PURE agony…not recommended for the faint hearted!!! On my return to the campsite, visibly uncomfortable, Ramji told me that he normally provides warm water for calls of nature and that I should tell him the next time I needed to go…a classic example of …after the horse has bolted !!! After a hearty breakfast, we packed up camp and headed up the Hampta Valley around 7:45 am.
It’s another 800 mt climb and about a 10 km trek to our next camp at Juara (3600 mts approx). The weather was clear and pleasant, a light breeze wafted across the valley, spreading the scent of wild flowers that carpeted the valley floor. Nature was immersed in its necessary work, oblivious of us intruders, flowers blooming and lazy honey bearing bees sipping nectar in the old, time honoured way. Thin light clouds like fluffed-up cotton sailed in the blue sky, as if out on an excursion in their white shikaras… It’s very difficult to feel tired when you are in such surroundings and I thoroughly enjoyed this stage of the trek. We have to cross the Hampta river and fortunately, there’s a log bridge that’s maintained by the sheppards…didn’t fancy getting into the icy waters after my tushy washing experience in the morning. We walked on the true right of the valley through the Gujjar grazing grounds of Chikka over side streams fed by beautiful waterfalls and past several herds of cattle and sheep. We were now above the tree line and only a few birch trees could be seen higher up.
Just as we turn into Juara, we were treated to a spectacular view of the entire Hampta Valley below us with the river in full glory, cascading down, carving a gorge and into the faraway Kullu Valley.
We had to cross another side stream to get to the camp site and there was no other way than to wade through the water. I flung my shoes across the stream and waded in the icy cold waters up to my thighs….man, if I were 2 – 3 inches shorter, I’d have frozen youknowwhat!!!
Settle into camp around 12:30 pm and had lunch. All I wanted now was a short nap and a bath…I smell so bad the normally inquisitive horses won’t come near me!!!
Had a short nap and at around 3:00 pm I went to the stream and have a bath. After a few minutes of agony, I felt refreshed….I had put on clean underwear…heaven….
It was very cold in the evening and I wore almost every piece of clothing I was carrying…needed something to warm us all up. Narender and Maniraj, our very resourceful porters arranged a bottle of rakshi (locally brewed apple liquor) from the nearby Gujjar camp….not my cup-o-tea though and I preferred to stick to my usual couple-o-pegs of whisky. Another good dinner and we were all out for the count….wondered what my mom would say if she heard I was eating vegetarian food and going to sleep at 6:00 pm!!!!
brrr…brrr..extremely cold morning…coffee…and the damn URGE. This time though Ramji was prepared and handed me a bottle of warm water to do the needed washing…
After breakfast, we set out up the valley at quite a fast pace. The weather is turning bad as dark clouds creep up the valley from below. We pass a few Gujjar sheppards who have already made it over the pass from Shiagouru…I’d never seen so many sheep and goats in my life!!! As we got higher, the grassy flower filled meadows gave way to loose rock and scree as the climb got steeper. We entered a gorge with sparkling waterfalls on the true left of the valley, called Bhalu Ka Khera as bears are known to use the caves on the mountainside to hibernate during winter. We could now see snow-capped peaks at the head of the valley as we approached the pass and the source of the Hampta river. A tough climb over ice and rock later, we reached the pass…4268 mts. We waited at the pass for some time amidst the mist and clouds and enjoyed a biddi…ran out of cigarettes quite some time back!!!
And then, as if the Gods of the mountains were waiting for me to reach the top…the clouds cleared up and what I saw was a magnificent vista of Indrakila and Indrasan (6221 mts) with its huge hanging glacier (source of the Indrasan river), Indrasan valley below us and the mountains across the Chandra river on the extreme left in Lahaul.
As compared to the Kullu Valey, which is full of lush green meadows, Lahaul & Spiti has a barren, lunar like landscape but beautiful in its own way. We descended to the base of the Indrasan valley via goat trails, a fine balancing act on the six-inch wide winding paths !! The tents at the campsite of Shiagouru were up in no time…tea served quickly as usual and then I settled down to a long session of photography.
We had an early dinner and then I got into my sleeping bag for a well-deserved nights rest. The temperature got down to almost freezing and there was a thin layer of frost lining the tent. Sleep was difficult to come by and even after a couple of swigs of whisky I was still twisting and turning the whole night through….zzzz. turn, twist, turn…zzz…twist, turn, twist…zzzzzz
Extremely cold morning today…beautiful blue sky with not a cloud in sight. We had breakfast, banana pancakes with coffee…man I was being spoilt !!! We packed up camp and got ready for the crossing of the Indrasan river at 7:00 am….the only thing worse would have been to cross the river at 6:30 am !!! Ramji and the porters quikly get over while I stood on the bank and looked at the icicles in the water…I removed my shoes, and as advised by Ramji, quickly crossed over…to hesitate while in the water would most like freeze your legs. I couldn’t feel my feet and my soles were all purple and blue. We got a fire going and spent the next half hour trying to get our feet warm….quite an experience !!! This is by far the most painful incident I’ve gone through…it’s funny how we don’t associate cold with pain…people who doubt this should try what we did !!!
We descended at a very rapid pace as we had to be in Chatru before 9:30 am….the bus from Kaza to Manali passes through anytime between 9:30 am & 10:30 am !!! We reached the valley floor and recrossed the Indrasan river…over a log bridge, fortunately, just before it flows into the raging Chandra River. A short walk along the Chandra and we are in Chatru…the hike was completed…we made it…yeah !!!
It’s amazing how much patience the locals have when it comes to waiting for transport at remote villages here. There are no fixed schedules for buses and most of the services depend on whether the roads are clear of landslides!!! The bus to Manali finally arrived at 11:00 am…and boy was it loaded. To a person used to the clockwork precision of Mumbai (hah!!!), the waiting and twiddling of thumbs was pure torture….on the other hand, the loaded bus with people crowded onto the roof felt just like home!!!
The journey back to Manali via Rohtang Pass was through some of the most treacherous road conditions I’d ever seen though. The narrow road winds up the true left of the gorge and felt like the bus was clinging to the mountainside and I really admired the driver who was busy chatting with the conductor while negotiating the sharp turns with some awesome skill and speed. Rohtang Pass was an anticlimax after all the hype I heard about it…crowded with tea stalls, taxis, buses & tourists. The drive from Rohtang to Manali, about 50 km, was again beautiful and we reached town in the afternoon…back to the hustle and bustle of the crowds!!!