We were as prepared and acclimatised as we would ever be and raring to go out for the trek. Our versatile guide, Shiv Singh, arranged for the necessary permits for the Kinner Kailash Parikrama and assembled a band of five porters for the six days we would be spending out in the mountains. Next morning, a 50 km bone-jarring ride through Karcham, Rekong Peo and Morang saw us at Thangi, the road head. Thangi is an incredibly beautiful place, situated high above a deep gorge, with the old village perched even higher and looking extremely picturesque. We registered at the ITBP outpost here and unloaded the jeep. After distributing the load amongst ourselves and the porters, we set off on a gradual climb through a path which is soon slated to become a motor able road. A few kilometers out of Thangi the path ended and Shiv Singh directed us towards the cliff side where a path was visible by the side of the river about 300 feet down. We made our way through a rock fall to come down almost to the bed of the river. We set up camp here and settled in for the night.
The next morning, we started off early for what is a long and arduous walk right up to Charang village. After about 2 hours of we reached the ITBP camp at Lambar, which according to the map is actually lower than Thangi. From here on the path follows the river and is mostly along the riverbed.
A little more than halfway to Charang, at Shurtingting is an ITBP camp where we had to register ourselves again before proceeding further. We reached Charang late in the evening. There is a PWD rest house overlooking the beautiful village situated on top of a ridge. The rest house has beds, a fully equipped kitchen and most importantly, a toilet with running water. But we decided to set up our tents on the cliff edge and settled in for the night.
We spent the next day here acclimatizing as the next couple of nights we would be sleeping above 4000 mts. Charang is the last village on this side of the Indo – Tibet border. Here, as we were above the tree line, it’s a whole different world, one where nature grabs hold and seeks out strongholds wherever she can and flowering shrubs dot the sparse landscape as in a multitude of colours.
We paid a visit to the Rangrik Monastery in the morning, a 2 km walk along the Tirung nala above Charang. The monastery, situated at the base of the beautiful peak of Rangrik Rang, is the most sacred in Kinnaur and the Lama enthusiastically took us around the shrine and treated us to tea.
The next morning we started around 8 in the morning for Lalanti aware that we would have to cross a pass above 15,000 feet. The climb along a well-marked path is tedious but gradual. The views from the top are superb and we stopped for a rest among the chortens.
From here we could see the small village of Kunnu which is a detour from Lambar and Charang. In the distance, peaks bordering Tibet could also be seen. The path after the pass is extremely difficult and hazardously narrow to manoeuvre.
After a while the path eases and we followed the Shurtingting nala to a trekkers hut at Lalanti. The hut is on the other side of the river and we had to wade bare feet across several icy streams before reaching the spot.
The hut is poorly maintained and it is difficult to find a place to spread your sleeping bag. We opted to pitch our tent in a nearby clearing. On the right, the river bed rises to the glacier point on Charang La pass (5242 mts). The sky was slightly cloudy and we were treated to some mind-blowing colours of the sunset. This was our first night out at freezing temperatures and sleep, whatever we could get, was not easy to come by.
The next morning, we packed up and moved on towards Charang La base camp about 6 km away, the terrain now changing from a compacted trail to large broken up boulders that slipped around as you walked on them. There is no path but an endless boulder hopping, sometimes across iced up streams.
We set up camp near the base of the pass, near a small pool of water. We had water close by and snow for the booze – medicinal purposes only, and we would need it for it is difficult to get sleep at this altitude.
The stark landscape was beautiful indeed, but the ever present wind drove us hurriedly into the shelter of our tent. The night was bitterly cold and we shivered uncontrollably in spite of a good dose of ‘medicine’! Finally, fatigue overwhelmed us, and within a few minutes, we were all curled up in our sleeping bags, tossing and turning in fits of sleep. How much space does three guys take up in a tent that was a huge 15 x 15 ft at least if not more??? Apparently just 6 ft x 3 ft and we don’t wanna talk about that night!!!
The next morning was clear and we saw the mountains in all their morning glory, brooding and hazy where the early morning sun reflected off the snowbound peaks. We set off from our camp site and after crossing several streams we started our climb for the pass.
There is no path and we climbed through glacial moraine, at times on all fours. Rarely was I able to get one foot more than, well, one foot in front of the other. The same was the case with the others. I heard nothing but the wind and my own hard breathing. I saw nothing but mountains and valleys. I think that adrenaline took over at some point as all the tiredness in my body disappeared. We made good pace, for a bunch of guys disgustingly out of shape and woefully optimistic, up the mountainside until about 100 meters from the top where we found a flat section to take our last rest before our push for the top. There was something else to consider – altitude. What that meant as far as breathing goes is quite simply this: when we breathe in at sea level there is 15 pounds of pressure which forces oxygen through the lining of our lungs and into our bodies, thereby sustaining us. At higher elevations, that pressure diminishes. At 10,000 feet, the pressure drops to 10 pounds, and at 18,000 feet, it drops to half of what it was at sea level. So one can see breathing becomes more and more laboured as one climbs higher.
Gasping for breath in the rarefied air we reached the top at around 10 am. Then elation, we had made it to the pass, at an elevation of 5242 meters, the highest I have ever been.
From the top we had spectacular views; I was almost overcome by the scale of it. We could see for miles – definitely time for more of that medicine. A steep fall eases out to the lush green Baspa valley.
I tossed a stone into the frosty air and watched it tumble in slow, arching loops. It seemed to fall forever, but finally crashed silently against the boulders below. We looked at each other, and I think we developed a new respect for gravity at that moment. Our hands seemed to grip the smooth stone a little tighter and only then did we release the breath that any of us knew we were holding. Nevertheless, wore our grins like proud badges and began our descent. We were sorry to leave, but nothing could remove the lightness in our hearts for having made it to the top.
The descent, again, was just endless boulder hoping. Our leg muscles, so used to ascending over the last few days, were put through an agonizing torture of steep descent. We ran out of water too. Things couldn’t get any worse, when finally we reached a stream just above the village of Chhitkul in the Baspa valley. Water never tasted sweeter than when we laid there lapping it up as though we’d crossed the Sahara!
We reached Chhitkul village late in the evening. Returning to civilization, we had not seen anyone else for more than 2 days, was a jolt to one’s senses. From here we hired a jeep to take us back to Kinner Camps – home at last!
It was unanimously decided that everyone looked a little worse for wear and needed another small dosage of the local “medicine” on hand. Ooooohhh yeahhhh! It tasted so good!
When I woke on the last day to a cloudless, soundless vista, my body and mind were fully relaxed. I was finally able to drink in this beautiful place with all my senses.
I realized that I had finally gotten what I’d come for. All around me, nature was in full blossom. And, like me, everything here was enjoying this brief burst of summer to the fullest. Yellow and purple flowers looked to the sun in all directions. The sky was bluer than was believable, and there in the near distance Kinner Kailash stood guard on all of this glory. I had never been calmer, happier, more at ease than I was in that moment. Stunning scenery and a complete sense of solitude all, for one fleeting morning, came together in a way that I’ll never forget.
With this being our last day of the trip, things were getting rather quiet. For those who have spent time out here you would perhaps know what I mean. Everyone is realizing that this is it, tomorrow we would have to be on our way back home and oh my god, reality is going to come and slap us in the face!
It’s time to leave. Everyone is moving slowly. Taking in the last of a great thing, one last look at the mountains we’d woken up to almost every morning we were here. There was also some discussion as to where next years trek would be, but no final decisions yet. It was obvious we were all stalling to keep from leaving this fine place. But, you know how some people are, they will do anything to stay high – and one thing about our group, we love to get high and stay there! We were taking much with us on our return home, memories to keep us going until the next trek – wherever that may be.
Some pictures didn’t turn out, but the negatives in my mind are “fantastic” and everlasting…all I have to do is close my eyes and I’m back there, gazing up at heaven.