“Yehi best time hai ji!” (This is the best time), proclaimed Raju, our guide and driver for the past 3 days at Spiti. As I looked at the way ahead towards Dhankar Lake with the afternoon Sun at its blazing best, I couldn’t stop myself from asking Raju if some other time would have been better.
This timing was the result of a tweak in our original plan for that day, which was to arrive at Dhankar village in the morning, visit the spectacular 1000 year old Dhankar Monastery, explore the village for a while and then make our way to Dhankar Lake. However, we changed our plan while on our way, did other things and landed here in the afternoon instead. It was about 2.45 PM, and by now we had learnt that afternoon is the time when it gets really really hot in this cold desert mountain.
Raju had informed that it would take us about an hour to climb up the stretch of about 2.5 Km. It is considered an easy hike but the steep climb in that altitude can make you breathless within a few seconds. It can be physically challenging if one is not used to steep climbs.
A muddy trail marked by the beautiful colours of Autumn welcomed us as we took our first step towards our destination. Armed with a bottle of water each, the three of us set off determined to reach the top in less than the stipulated 1-hour time.
As we climbed up, Dhankar monastery and the village homes against the intricately designed surrounding mountains was a sight to behold. A particular patch looked like a termite hill, another had a tunnel like opening and looked like a secret cave leading way down to Spiti river, the new monastery was sparkling in its golden yellow colour, the meandering road snaking its way up to the village was clearly visible, dotting here and there were brightly colored shrubs in hues of orange, yellow, brown and green. It appeared like a scene of some other planet, straight out of a Sci-fi movie.
Further ahead the muddy trail became steeper and gave way to loose pebbles scattered all along the pathway. One mis-step in the steep ridges and you will go down the rocky mountain. I thanked my foresighted decision of wearing my trekking shoes to Spiti instead of my normal sports shoes or any other shoes. Up here, the wind was pretty strong too.
Dhankar lake lies hidden behind the mountains that surround the Dhankar village. Situated at a height of 4136 meters, it remains frozen and inaccessible for most part of the year. Dhankar lake is considered holy by the local people.
We made the climb in about 45 min. As we approached the lake, it looked like a tiny pool of water that totally disappointed my sister who had put in quite a bit of effort to make the climb. Raju chose to ignore the snide remark she made at this point, urging us to walk along the side of the lake.
As we continued walking, the colour of the lake kept changing and on reaching the far end of the lake we were speechless, mesmerized by the amazing view that lay in front of us! Stunned by the turquoise colour of the water and the barren mountains with their snow covered peaks in the backdrop, we were dumbstruck! To add to it, the azure–blue sky and complete silence. No sound rang out from the shimmering stillness of the lake other than the gentle whistling of the wind. The idyllic scene looked like nature’s amphitheater that simply took our breath away.
I felt complete peace and everything seemed utterly beautiful. There was nobody around at that time other than the three of us. Absorbing all the calm and serenity, we sat in complete silence and conversed in unspoken words as my mind and heart rejoiced with joy. Perhaps a manifestation of the divine presence in the lake, as believed by the locals.
“Ab chale, Madamji?” (Shall we leave now, Ma’am?), Raju’s voice bounced me back to reality. I smiled and nodded in agreement. I had lost all track of time. A quick glance at my watch informed that we’d been there for more than an hour. With a huge deal of effort, I reluctantly rose to my feet to bid farewell to the soothing time and moment beside the calm and dreamy Lake. With the resolve to come back someday, I tied a prayer flag before I followed Raju retracing our way back.
As I write this today, it feels like a dream and I long for the same feeling to take over my senses once again.
Note: All pictures are unedited, raw photos clicked through iPhone-6
“Jhulley ji!” I greeted the old lady soaking in the sun outside her home. “Jhulley, Jhulley” she returned the gesture with a toothless smile before going back to counting the prayer beads that were held together by a decorative tassel. ‘Jhulley’ means Hello in the local language, a word I had learnt even before setting foot onto Spiti Valley.
It was about 5 PM in the evening and the sun was still shining bright. We had arrived at Kibber about an hour back and after settling down at our homestay, had stepped out to explore the village making sure that we were layered well enough. Soon the sun would go down and it would become really cold. I chit-chatted with my travel companion – my sister – while walking down leisurely through the only dusty lane that ran through the center of the village.
Just a few meters down the road and suddenly a herd of sheep came rambling down from nowhere. We did expect to see sheep and other livestock in the village but not at that time and in that manner. Completely taken by surprise, we were jubilant at the sight of least a 100 sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. As we moved to the side to give way, I scampered through my jacket pocket hurriedly trying to locate my mobile to capture the moment. The sheep were too fast and by the time I was ready many of them had moved on. I had seen herds of sheep in many of my Himalayan sojourns before but this was different as the animals blended perfectly into the surrounding colour of the landscape, which was sharply contrasting to how I had seen them stand out in the green meadows. I regretted not getting a good shot and wished I had my mobile handy at that time!
We walked around the village for some more time, climbing up and down, passing through the narrow lanes, talking to the villagers and reveling at the beautiful surroundings against the setting sun. The leisurely pace enabled us to actually feel the evening slowly giving way to night. This was refreshingly different from the mad rush in cities where we don’t know where our evenings go.
The village was really clean and much to our delight we found it well equipped in terms of a school and even a dispensary. There were solar panels all around and most houses had a television and satellite channels as well. This turned out to be different from what we had seen at Osla village (in Uttarakhand) a few months back.
The village of Kibber, situated at a height of 4205 meters is about an hour’s drive from Kaza, the main town of Spiti. As you drive from Kaza through the steep and winding roads, Kibber can be seen from a distance as a green patch of land with a cluster of houses with white walls and red roofs surrounded by formidable mountains. Kibber is the biggest village in Spiti Valley, having around 80 houses that are densely packed to make sure that not an inch of agricultural land is lost in this dry and arid mountain area. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the major occupations here. Snow leopards have been sighted in Kibber during the winter season making it a much sought after destination for wildlife photographers. Kibber houses a Gompa and also the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary, which is India’s only wild life sanctuary in a cold desert.
Back at our homestay, we found Padma waiting for us with the evening tea and snacks. Padma and her husband owns the Kanamo homestay, which they had built recently. They lived there with their 4-year old daughter, Saraschotun. We soon discovered that Saraschotun was a bundle of joy with a contagious energy that cannot be escaped. We spent the evening playing with Saraschotun and chatting with her mother as she prepared dinner for us. Padma had two more daughters and a son, all of whom were in boarding schools at Kaza and Rangrik. The importance she gave to education was praiseworthy.
The spick and span homestays in Spiti turned out to be much more comfortable than hotels. Our itinerary had just one day of homestay but we ended our travel with three. Two in Kibber and one in Lhalung.
My Kibber story will remain incomplete without mentioning Tashi’s home. 20-year old Tashi was the bell boy at our hotel in Kaza, who stole my heart with his simplicity and innocent dimples. I almost felt like adopting him. Tashi belonged to Kibber. When I showed him the pictures I had clicked in his village, he was quick to point out his home. He urged us to visit his home when we go back to Kibber. We did as we wanted to respect his wish. We met Tashi’s father and brothers, his mother and sister had gone over to Kaza. Unlike Padma’s homestay, Tashi’s home was very ordinary and their only source of income was livestock. Tashi was their eldest son, who had studied till Class 12 and wants to do better rather than spend the rest of his life at Kibber. We were humbled by the immense respect showered on us by Tashi’s father.
Lhalung is situated at a height of 3,658 meters and is another beautiful high altitude village in Spiti valley. The word Lhalung means ‘land of God’ (lha for God and lung for land). It is said that the Tangmar Mountains, which surround Lhalung village changes color depending on the mood of Lhalung Devta, who is the head of all the Devtas in the valley. Red denotes anger while yellow signifies happiness.
At Lhalung we stayed at Khabrik homestay. Tandup Dolma, the owner and lady of the house was very hospitable and a great story teller giving us glimpses into the indigenous spitian way of life. Tandup lived a happy life with her two husbands. Her husbands are brothers – one of them is in the army and stays away most of the time, while the other is a farmer and lives with her in the village. Their three children were at a boarding school in Rangrik. We met her nephew Nuwangsonam, who was staying with her as his school was closed. Nuwang was in 8th grade and studied in the village school. However, his innocence appeared to us like a usual 5th grader of the cities. Lhalung does have a school but no dispensary. If anybody falls ill they have to travel all the way to Kaza.
We spent the evening chatting with Tandup while Nuwang desperately tried to teach us the local language. The next morning Nuwang took us around the village, especially to show the old Gompa of the village. The Gompa is also known as the Sarkhang or Golden Temple and we were told that it is 1020 years old. A new Gompa has also been built recently besides the old one. The old one appealed to me much more than the new one. Nuwang introduced us to an enthusiastic septuagenarian man who had the keys to the Gompa. This man took us through the Gompa with elaborate descriptions, much of which we just weren’t able to follow. Though we learnt that villagers believed the Gompa was built by angels one night. Hence, touching the murals on the Gompa wall is forbidden as that will anger the angels and they might leave the village.
Later Tandup played their traditional musical instrument, Kho Poh, and also tried teaching us a strum or two.
Everything about the lives of the villagers fascinated us. It was amazing to see the villagers holding on to their beliefs and customs. In spite of the tourist influx, their culture is still intact and modernization has not eroded their traditions and values. The people of Spiti live a life of happiness and pride despite their problems of long winter months and isolation from other parts of the country. They are very hospitable and more than happy to have you as their guest. The sense of compassion and the spirit of Buddhism is deeply rooted in everyone.
Padma and Tandup have not set foot outside Spiti and have never seen a city, but guests like us are their window to the world. They have their own hardships but are happy and satisfied and in many ways lead much more meaningful lives than those of us in the cities.
Here are some snippets of the villages, the people and the culture:
The tandoor in the village homes have the chimneys passing through the center of the homes making the homes warm, much warmer than hotels. Dried yak dung and cow dung are the main source of fuel for heating the tandoor. The floors of the houses are made of mud and the roofs made of dried twigs/branches provide the much needed insulation.
The rooms are clean and well furnished, however there were no mirrors in the rooms. The local women didn’t seemed to care about their looks though we found them exceedingly beautiful and simply loved their unique jewellery.
The homestays are better than hotels and are easier on the pocket too. They are much warmer, food is great, and you get to learn so much about the culture.
The practice of polyandry is seen and all the brothers in the family maybe married to one woman. The main reason is to avoid division of property. This system was fairly common before but now is not accepted by all, especially the youngsters.
During the brief summer (mid-May to mid-Oct), people work really hard to prepare for the 8-month long winter.
During the long winters, there is snow everywhere and most of the villages are cut off from civilization. People don’t have much to do. They spend their days soaking in the sun, knitting sweaters, and feeding their livestock. In the cold evenings, everyone in the family gathers around the tandoor and spend their time singing and dancing. So they work hard during summer and party hard during winter.
During winter, sheep are usually shifted to lower altitudes where the temperate is not that extreme. Cows and mules remain with the owners and are kept indoors. Yaks remain active through the winters and people even ride them to move through snow.
Green peas, potatoes, and barley are the main crops. The government is also promoting the cultivation of Seabuckthorn – the orange-coloured berries growing all around Spiti that are rich in vitamin C. The farming is organic and most of the crops are free from pesticides.
Some local way of saying things, that we learnt from Nuwang:
It was biting cold as we stepped out of the car. I have no idea of the temperature but the cold hit us hard especially out of the warm and cozy car. I felt like my body was about to convert into a mound of ice even after putting on additional layers of fleece. It was 8 AM by then and we had not expected it to be so cold at this hour. Regretting my decision of wearing yoga pants and not denims that morning, I couldn’t help wonder how it might have felt a few hours earlier, at dawn. The sun was glowing bright all along the edges of the snow-capped mountain tops but was yet to reach the base of the mountain where we walked. Our anticipation of what awaited us kept us going even as our teeth chattered and our limbs were near numb. Also, we knew the cold was temporary and it was just a matter of time before the sun would warm us up.
Our destination appeared like an unimpressive greenish-brown pool of water as we saw it from a distance. As we approached closer, the colour changed dramatically to a turquoise blue, and then a blueish green and then deep blue blending with the green edges. The magical crescent shaped Moon Lake or Chandrataal revealed its jaw-dropping gorgeousness. Its magnificence glimmered in the morning light – a slice of heaven on earth it was! It was kind of a lightening-bolt moment for us.
Chandrataal is situated in the Spiti part of the Lahul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh. The name of the lake reflects its crescent shape (Chandra – Moon; Taal – Lake). It is fed by the Chandra Glacier, which lies within the Chandrabhaga range that overlooks the lake. Hidden behind the mountains and situated at an altitude of 4300 m, its pristine and clear waters is sure to put you on a trance.
I had never seen such profound beauty before and my heart and mind was captivated instantaneously. There was instant peace and calm. The hypnotic tranquility had cast its spell and it seemed too beautiful to be true. I felt like I was in a reverie as I tried to absorb all the divinity emanating from the surroundings. The water was still with the brown mountains casting their reflection on one side of the lake, the prayer flags fluttered on the other side, the sky a deep shade of blue – creating an atmosphere too good to be true.
We just stood there speechless totally engrossed and don’t remember feeling cold anymore. If there is a heaven, it’s got to be like this. A few minutes and the sun was up, its golden rays spreading all across the lake.
We walked a few meters by the side of the lake, tad reluctantly, not wanting to disturb the divine magnificent tranquility we were soaking in. As we moved on, another splendor unfolded, this time it was the reflection of the snow-clad mountains and the water had turned a indigo blue.
It was bliss! Words are falling short and I have no language to express my feelings. Is this real? If I am dreaming, please don’t wake me up! The more I saw, the more I wanted to see….it was just not enough. We kept gazing and even a blink seemed to be wasteful.
After walking for a bit, we sprinkled a little of the cold water on our face and sat down to absorb the quiet emanating all through the bluish-green expanse. One can also choose to do a parikrama around the lake, which takes about 2.5 hours.
No wonder this place is considered holy. Such glorious scene has to have a divine presence. We read the clear instructions provided at the start of our walk about maintaining the sanctity of the holy lake by observing silence and not littering around. The place was absolutely clean. Not sure if it was due to the handiwork of the local people or it was because of the travelers abiding by the instructions. I do hope with all sincerity that it is the latter. There was no noise either, however, there were very few people at that time. The ‘monastery-quiet’ had a soothing and healing effect. Vehicles are not allowed in the vicinity of the lake, hence the 1.5 Km walk. Kudos to whoever took this decision and implemented the same.
One can do a day visit to Chandrataal or can camp overnight. There is a place 3Km away from the lake which has an assortment of tents of all shapes and sizes. Most travelers camp overnight. During our visit in October, the night temperature was around -7 degree Celsius. Some people camp with the hope of catching a glimpse of the Milky Way, some for the sheer adventure of it, while some others expect a party-like atmosphere with bonfires and music. We had decided not to camp there as the idea did not appeal to us, it was full moon so chances of seeing the Milky Way was slim and parties don’t interest us anyway.
We could have spent an entire day sitting beside Chandrataal absorbing its divine splendor but our plans to go back to Manali on the same day restricted us and we had to leave after spending about 2 hours. We were truly lucky to be able to witness the perfect reflection on the lake. The reflection depends on the weather conditions and is not always visible. The mountain Gods had ensured a blue sky with very little wind.
I feel blessed to have witnessed such immense beauty and I bow to Mother Nature in gratitude. Chandrataal gave me moments of perfect bliss and left me yearning for more. With a sigh, I traced my way back with the resolve to return to this halcyon paradise some day again…..
A corner of my mind and heart now stand permanently reserved for the enchanting Himalayas after my first rendezvous with the majestic snow-clad magnificence.
I was back from Kedarkanta Trek with millions of tales to tell and I’ve been told a couple of times that each time I reminisce the Himalayas my face lights up and my eyes sparkle – a comment that doesn’t fail to amuse me!
I had deliberately planned the next trek during the Christmas week in the month of December. This was to be my second Himalayan trek in the year 2016. This time my friend, Papia, was joining me and I was delighted. Papia always nurtured a sincere desire to trek the Himalayas but felt she couldn’t and it took me quite an effort to convince her. Once convinced, there was no looking back and she plunged wholeheartedly into it. She even got her brother’s family and two other people with her. A colleague of mine also joined in. So, this time we were a big gang of 7 people from Bangalore.
Thoroughly satisfied with my previous experience, I once again decided to trek with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). We had chosen Har-ki-Dun and it was the prospect of walking in snow that excited many in our group. While we were busy planning Har-ki-Dun, destiny had something else in store for us. Just a fortnight before the trek, we got to know Har-ki-Dun was cancelled as the government had decided not to allow winter trekking in the area. IndiaHikes gave us the option of taking our money back or trek Kuari Pass instead. We chose the latter as we already had booked our tickets to Dehradun. I for one, was totally disheartened and my enthusiasm subsided considerably. The reason being Kuari Pass wasn’t rated amongst the top 10 Himalayan treks by IndiaHikes. Well, the saying ‘whatever happens is always for the best’ revealed itself later during the trek.
This time, we traveled to Joshimath from Dehradun. Needless to say this was yet another journey that is etched in our memories forever. As we passed through the ‘Panch Prayag’ (Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag) one by one with Mother Ganges in all her glory for constant company, it was a journey through paradise. By the time we reached Joshimath, dusk had set in. However, even after travelling for 12 hours on road there was no exhaustion whatsoever.
The following day, a 45 min drive took us to Auli, considered as one of the best ski destinations in India. The season’s snowfall hadn’t happened and Auli bore a barren look much to the disappointment of many in our group. After all, it was late December and Christmas Eve for heaven’s sake! We climbed the Auli slope for a little more than 2 hours. The rugged mountains in the background with glimpses of snow gave us some respite from the barren slopes and noisy tourists.
Pic 3: As we climbed the barren slopes of Auli
As we left the slopes and moved higher, Mount Nanda Devi made a brief and grandiose appearance bringing in the much needed excitement to all of us. Very soon the much awaited Oak forest greeted us. The interplay of sun and shade, the ground strewn with fallen leaves, and the gradual climb made for a mesmerizing walk that I will cherish for the rest of my life. In a tiny clearing at the edge of the woods is ‘Padiyar Devta’ temple. The serene and tranquil temple seemed to be in perfect harmony with the calmness and silence of the surrounding woods.
We reached Gorson Bugyal, our camp site for Day 1. The group of 18 odd people from various walks of life were slowly getting to know each other – a bunch of young scientists from ISRO, an ophthalmologist from AIIMS, an executive from a well-known MNC, the tech engineer duo, entrepreneur couples, instructional designers, and last but not the least a computer scientist with degrees from top-tier institutions across the world, who quit his high-flying career to be with the Himalayas.
An acclimatization walk in the afternoon followed by an abundance of ghost stories around a bon fire marked the other highlights of Day-1. The temperatures dropped as we retired for the night amidst a bright and twinkling sky with millions of shining stars. Our wishes for snowfall intensified and someone even sent out a fervent prayer to the universe. We hoped for a miracle as the weather prediction didn’t mention snow for the next one week.
And miracle did happen…..
All night long we thought we heard rain drops splattering across our tents. It was cold and the thought of rain was enough to dampen our spirits. Just before dawn, Papia put on her headlamp and opened the tent to inspect the rain…..and she squealed out in joy as all she saw was white flakes all around. It was the season’s first snowfall and it was Christmas morning. What could be more magical than this! We felt we were nature’s chosen ones and this was special. It was Papia’s first experience of snow as was for most others in the group.
It snowed intermittently as we walked making for a very special Christmas Day, Day-2 of our trek. It was a cloudy day for most part. The sun did make brief appearances during the morning half but it lacked the usual warmth. It was freezing and the cold seemed to seep in through our skin. The snow mountains peeked through the clouds once in a while allowing us glimpses of Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri. The twin peaks of Haati-ghoda had become our constant companion right from the time we had spotted them for the first time on our way to Joshimath. The setting sun had painted them a bright orange that had stolen our hearts in an instant.
Walking right ahead with those at the beginning of our group, we approached the ridge, which was an adrenalin rush for many but not for me. My heart froze as I saw the narrow trail with the almost vertical cliff on one side and the deep valley on the other. Khusiji, our guide, offered a hand and I covered the entire 1.5 Km clinging onto him. I couldn’t concentrate much on the mind-blowingly beautiful stretch with shades of green, brown, yellow, black. It had started to snow once again while we were midway onto the stretch, which intensified as we were towards the end. At the end of this stretch, I sent out a small prayer of gratitude to the Almighty for enabling me to cross over to the other side safe and sound. Simultaneously, my mind raced to Papia and the rest of my gang who were trailing behind wondering how they were faring. It was not until later that night I got to know it was just as challenging for them as well.
Passing through the gorgeous Tali lake that was half frozen, we entered the fascinating Oak woods once again. This time, it was even more magical as the entire place was covered with snow. It was a surreal feeling of fantasy as I could imagine Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer passing by with Santa’s sleigh and leaving behind an illuminated trail for us to follow. My joyful mind quietly hummed the Christmas Carol (Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer…..) and I felt I could hear the jingling bells all around me.
As the temperatures dropped further, we reached Chithrakantha camp site, situated in the heart of the forest. It had gotten extremely cold and I have to admit that we were feeling miserable despite the layers of warm clothes we had on. Some sat around a fire while others wouldn’t step out of their tents. I felt my blood was freezing and was in no mood to even talk to anybody – a behavior alien to the otherwise exuberant me. We retired for the night apprehensive about the weather next day and wondered how deep the snow might be higher up where we would trek the following day. The sleeping bags kept us warm and cozy but we couldn’t sleep well, which was for the unevenness of the ground rather than the cold.
It was Day-3, the summit day and we had started early. The Mountain Gods had smiled and a bright and sunny day greeted us, which lifted our spirits considerably. There was sparkling snow all around us and we couldn’t be happier. The terrain constituted several steep ascents and steep descents. The snow peaks glistened at the distance and their elegance and splendor kept multiplying with every ascent. Once again, it was Haati-Ghoda and Dronagiri along with the spectacular Neelkanth that were most prominent peaks accompanying us all the way.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for me and Day-3 felt tough especially the stretches of steep ascents. Despite that, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the good weather had a lot to do with that. I was intermittently sending my gratitude to the Mountains for giving me this opportunity to experience their supreme splendor.
Passing through Chitrakantha top with a panoramic 360 degree view we arrived at a ridge with gradual slopes. Here, the strong winds threatened to throw us off and we struggled to maintain our balance.
Passing through a part of the legendary ‘Lord Curzon’s Trail’ we reached the breathtaking frozen waterfall. Precariously we made our way down through the sides of the waterfall with crampons attached to our shoes that provided the much needed additional grip.
Finally, we reached Kuari Pass! We were overwhelmed at 12,516 ft and each one of us rejoiced in our own way. While some of us preferred to sit in complete silence, others got busy clicking selfies and freezing the moment forever through their lenses.
As I sat there absorbing every bit of the surrounding gorgeousness, my mind ran to Papia and I wished we could enjoy this moment together. Papia, along with a few others had opted out of the summit and had instead descended to Khullara, our next camp, where I would meet her later that day. The miserably chilling conditions of Day-2 drove them towards this decision.
With the summit over, we retraced our path and proceeded towards Khullara. While most of the people moved ahead, a group of five of us decided to take it slow as we rested, chatted, clicked pictures, and made the most of our descent towards Khullara.
Khullara was the most beautiful campsite of this trek. It was a small clearing, surrounded by forest slopes and mountain ranges. The brilliant sunsets and sunrises we witnessed here across Neelkanth, haati Ghoda, Dronagriri and other peaks was a feast for the eyes. People who chose not to go to the summit ended up having a wonderful time exploring Khullara and it was not a bad bargain after all.
Starting early the next day, we commenced our journey towards Joshimath through the Tapovan valley. During the onward journey as always, I was way ahead with the group of people who were always at the beginning. On the return journey, I chose to go slow, stay behind and relish each and every moment. Who knows when I’ll be back again!
Another fantastic trail of about 9 Km awaited us as we pass through forests partially covered in snow with steep descends in some places, overlooking the snow-mountains all along. Towards the end of the trail we passed through a cluster of hamlets that provided a glimpse of the lives of the local people. As we passed through one such village, someone remarked “How lucky are these people to wake up to such a view of the Himalayas everyday!” It took us a good 60-70 minutes from the village to the nearest motorable road. Joshimath was a 45 minute drive from here. Are the village people really all that lucky? And to think that they don’t have a hospital.
My second Himalayan trek had come to an end. Captivated and spellbound I was once again. Additionally, this time two realizations dawned upon me. First, a Himalayan trek is about feelings and experiences that are beyond all words. You have to go there to know what I mean. Second, the belief that our desire and intention is nothing before the mighty Himalayas (and perhaps all other mountains). The mountains decide what they want you to experience. If the mountains concede, only then you get to set foot on them to experience their majestic grandeur and I bow in reverence.
A lush green montage of rolling hills, sprawling grasslands, and tropical forests….
“Good Lord, Eewwwwww!” I shrieked. A swollen wobbly leech just fell off from my upper arm as I took off my rain-jacket. Stuffed and all pumped up after a sumptuous blood meal sucked out of my arm, the hale and hearty leech was wriggling on the ground trying hard to move around. Sounds gory, isn’t it? Not quite! Leeches are creepy but pretty harmless creatures, something I learnt after I trekked to Kudremukh peak in Western Ghats.
I soon discovered that there were three more leeches – one on my stomach and two on my feet that were happily feasting on my blood while I was engrossed with all the wonders of Mother Nature surrounding me. I had managed to dodge tonnes and dozens of them all the way and these were the lucky four that secretly found their way onto my skin. And it was not until I was back from the peak that I discovered them.
I’m still not sure if I have overcome my fear of leeches – not fear, rather the uncomfortable creepy feeling associated with these creatures. However, these wriggly-wiggly creatures surely added to my overall experience of Kudremukh.
Trekking in the lush green Western Ghats had been in my wishlist for a long time now. Kudremukh was an obvious choice to experience Western Ghats for the first time after having seen mesmerizing photographs of the chain of rolling hills laid out in a mosaic of sprawling grassland and dense forests. It was with this motive that I had started following Tranquil Voyagers on Facebook and it’s been more than two years now. However, life is paradoxical and I landed up discovering Himalayas in the far north while I kept contemplating Western Ghats, which is right next door.
Tranquil Voyagers is a trekking company in Bangalore run by Shravan Kumar. Having observed them on Facebook for quite a while I decided to join them in my quest to discover the beauty of Western Ghats. Being with the right people is extremely important when it comes to hiking, trekking and exploring nature and I must say I am quite selective about that. Shravan himself leads all the treks conducted by Tranquil Voyagers and they exceeded my expectations with their idea of fun combined with high levels of energy, responsible trekking, and ecofriendly practices. I highly recommend them. (http://www.tranquilvoyagers.co.in).
It was early monsoon in the month of June. We reached Kudremukh National Park at dawn and were put up in a homestay with very basic amenities. Surrounded by tall trees, thick vegetation, and green hills, it was nothing but heavenly. Soon after breakfast, we started out towards Kudremukh peak.
Kudremukh or Kudremukha is a peak in Chikkamagaluru district, in Karnataka, located within Kudremukh National Park. The name ‘Kuduremukha’ is derived from a view of a side of the mountain that resembles the face of a horse. ‘Kuduremukha’ is a Kannada word meaning ‘horse-face’.
A group of 18 of us walked along chit-chatting with the early morning sun shining brightly and adding cheer to the newly found acquaintances. An important topic of discussion was the leeches that we knew we would be encountering and everyone had their own theories and stories to tell. All of this was doing little to drive away the discomfort I had at the very thought of the slimy wriggly-wiggly creatures. I had done my own research and had read up quite a few articles but the knowledge I gained did nothing to ease my apprehension. Very soon we started encountering them. And as we stepped into the forest, they were all over. It took me a while to recognize them as they can be easily mistaken for twigs scattered amidst the big brown leaves all across the forest floor, until you see them moving and stretching all around looking out for potential unsuspecting victims.
Keeping aside the leeches, the wide variety of landscapes throughout the trail was a source of constant delight. The green carpets of grasslands would merge into smooth hill slopes with a very few or no trees at all. Patches of shrubs and bushes would appear intermittently. This would quickly give way to stretches of evergreen Shola forests with foliage so thick that the sun rays could hardly penetrate. (Shola is the local name for stunted tropical montane forest in South India). Once in a while the gurgling streams showed up gushing through the forests complementing the humming cicadas and chirping birds creating a surrealistic experience of dream and fantasy. Crossing the streams was great fun as we carefully made our way through the stones and pebbles, some of which were slippery due to the moss, lichens, or algae covering them.
It rained every now and then, adding to the enchanting aura created by the varied landscapes. The National Park houses a variety of wildlife and herds of sambars, spotted deer have been seen on the trekking route. However, we weren’t that lucky but we did see a couple of birds including a few peacocks. Not to forget the leeches though! To make sure that the creepy creatures didn’t catch us, we literally ran across the leech-infested forest floors and didn’t dare hang around to admire the pure serenity of crackling leaves, crunching twigs, and rustling foliage. There was no escape, whatsoever! Every now and then we would have to stop to remove the slimy creatures off our clothes and shoes. Once they sneak in and attach themselves to our skin, it gets tricky. Then, it’s important to take them off along with their suckers or else infections may set in. I was armed with a packet of salt but contrary to my knowledge, I learnt that sprinkling salt on leeches is not a good idea at all as that not only entails killing the leeches mercilessly but can lead to severe skin infection. Apparently, once the creature attaches to your skin, leaving it there and letting it fall off after it’s done with sucking your blood is a safer bet. Of course, I have no idea how you can do that without psyching out at the very thought of it.
As we were nearing the peak, after a few stretches of steep climbs, it started raining and a thick layer of fog engulfed us. I felt like I was walking in a vacuum of white as I couldn’t see anybody or anything ahead or after me. The heavens were not kind enough and by the time we reached the peak, the rains intensified. Along with that, the winds blew strongly and it was really cold. Drenched from head to toe, our raincoats provided little respite. The thick fog ensured that we got no view at all. Shivering and trembling in the cold coupled with disappointment of not being able to see anything, we decided to descend. After a while, the rains stopped and the fog cleared just for a few minutes and that was our only window to catch a glimpse of the hypnotizing rolling hills undulating in all shades of green.
The rains lashed hard again and didn’t stop till we were back at the homestay. Some areas, especially while climbing downhill had become slippery, forcing our concentration on the path ahead of us leaving us with no opportunity to stop and admire the enthralling surroundings. Though a few of us did stop at the clearing that was lined up with mango and jackfruit trees. With the raw mangoes hanging low, we couldn’t resist gobbling up a handful of them with salt before the salt was washed off in the rain.
Back in the homestay, after clearing the leeches, we bathed in hot water and feasted on onion pakodas and hot tea. The hot water bath was quite a luxury I must say!
It was an experience of a different kind, even though we couldn’t see anything at the peak. The journey is always more important than the destination and the beautiful and varied landscape we experienced made for an enchanting experience.
However, I have to say that having experienced the Himalayas, nothing else truly makes a mark upon me. Though, I know it’s unfair and I should not compare a hill with a mountain!
The leeches turned out to be harmless but something else almost killed me that night after I was back to my city in Bangalore but that’s another story. You can read that here – When my Immune System Overreacted
The year 2016 was particularly difficult for me. Certain things happened that negatively impacted my personal environment changing the course of my life, perhaps forever. Alongside something else happened. Again impacting me, but in a positive way. Even though this cannot compensate for the other things that have gone so wrong, I feel fortunate and blessed. And here’s what happened – I undertook two fascinating journeys discovering the intriguing beauty of the majestic Himalayas as I trekked to Kedarkanta and Kuari Pass in Uttarakhand. In an attempt to share my wonderful experience, I am penning down the story of my Himalayan sojourn.
Let me start with Kedarkanta…
I am not getting into the details of how I landed up deciding to go on a Himalayan trek. It was a very impulsive decision and how grateful am I for that!
It was the third week of April, the week of my birthday. Accompanied by my friend, Partho, I embarked on my maiden venture to the Abode of Snow with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). Kedarkanta peak is located in Govind National Park and the trek starts from a tiny village called Sankri, tucked away well within the park. We started from Dehradun and the entire route to Sankri was a picturesque one, making the 10 hour drive really pleasurable. Sankri is a tiny little beautiful village with a population of just about 300 offering some stunning views of the mountain ranges in Uttarakhand.
I was trekking for the first time, though I had gone for a day trek in Bangalore before but I don’t consider that to be of any significance. Kedarkanta is considered an easy trek but for people like me with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, it wasn’t all that easy. I did have an edge though – at least that’s what I would like to believe. After all, I belong to the mountains, having spent the first 30 years of my life in the Eastern Himalayas in the beautiful little hill station of Shillong. My hometown, fondly known as the Scotland of the east, the capital of Meghalaya – abode of clouds!
We were in a group of 25 people of all age groups with the youngest being 9 years old. Most of us were first timers. There were three families and half the group constituted members of the same family. However, by the end of the first day, the entire group had become like one big family.
As we climbed up towards Juda-ka-Talab on Day 1, it was raining intermittently. That didn’t stop us from enjoying the steady ascent through the forests of pine, deodar and oak trees. Occasionally, we would pause to admire the rhododendrons that were blooming all the way. We even plucked a few to satisfy our curiosity of tasting the flower petals. This was totally new to me. I had no clue that we could eat rhododendrons!
The changing landscape kept us engaged all along – forests with shades of all kinds of green with tinges of yellow and orange; trees with intricate trunk patterns having roots that spread far and wide; occasional green meadows irresistible to our already aching feet. We also came across one or two shepherd huts that appeared abandoned. These are places where the shepherds spend the night when they come up grazing their sheep as they cannot go back on the same day. We later learnt that the shepherds of the adjoining villages usually move around in team of twos armed with ‘kukris’ so that during the night while one rests the other watches over the sheep, protecting them from wolves and bears.
After a continuous climb of 4 Km for about 4 hours through countless pines and oaks, Juda-ka-Talab revealed itself as a small pond in a tiny little clearing amidst the lush green and dense forest. Legend has it that Lord Shiva opened a little of his hair and water flowed out to form this small pond.
A little after we reached Juda-Ka-Talab, the rains intensified, forcing us inside our tents. After a continuous spell of about an hour or so, the rains disappeared without trace and a bright and sunny afternoon greeted us. We didn’t see a frozen Juda-Ka-Talab as the ice had melted just a week before we had arrived. No complaints, especially with the snow-clad mountains around us and the reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the ‘talab’ making the entire place an ecstatic visual delight. With our minds and hearts overwhelmed, we retired for the night as the stars shone bright and beautiful making the whole experience blissful and magical.
We looked up and saw the Kedarkanta peak at a distance that was partially covered in snow. It was Day-2 and we had just arrived at Kedarkanta base after a very short and steep climb. The quick ascent left us pleasantly surprised. While most people were delighted with the thought of being able to rest and relax in such heavenly abode, I was excited about the prospect of exploring the adjoining woods. Being the naturally energetic person that I am and with my mind busy fantasizing the witches and fairies of the woods that surrounded us, I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day just idling around the tent. At the same time, I couldn’t master enough courage to venture into the woods all by myself. I found the 55-year old Vinod for company whom I had befriended the day before, and who amazed me with his stamina and fitness, passion for trekking, his grit and determination, and his love for the Himalayas. We shared our common love for yoga.
Time stood still as we walked through the enchanted forests of oaks and pines, admired the lichens and mosses, listened to the rustling of dry leaves below our feet, took note of the birds calling out every now and then, discovered streams and waterfalls, relaxed in the meadows, clicked selfies, talked to the occasional shepherd appearing from nowhere with his flock of sheep and disappearing in the same way, encountered the extraordinarily friendly mountain dog, and chatted about our lives and experiences. I was living in a picture postcard. Life seemed perfect!
It was 3.00 AM in the morning and we were already on our way to Kedarkanta peak with headlamps and torches lighting our paths. It was cold and we walked in silence in one straight line being led by our trek guides. The cold eased a bit as twilight approached giving us hope and making Day-3: the Summit Day seem a little more achievable.
As twilight gave way to early morning, we were delighted to see patches of snow glistening with the first rays of the sun. There was some fresh snow indicating that it must have snowed the day before. The terrain constituted patches of steep ascents and continuous gradual ascents as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top. In some patches, the snow had turned to ice making it a slippery and risky affair.
Finally, after a climb of 6 Km for 6 hours, we reached Kedarkanta summit standing tall at 12,500 ft! The 360 degree panoramic view of some of the famous snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges was simply jaw dropping. Swargarohini, Bandarpoonch, Black Peak, Gangotri and the Yamunotri range, Chanshil Pass and Kinnaur Kailash ranges were clearly visible. Keeping my eyes wide open, I was gorging on every moment as my heart and soul danced with joy.
Climbing down was tricky at times especially during the initial descent where the slope was steep and in those places where there were patches of ice. We also did a slide in one patch that had some good amount of snow. It was some real fun as we twisted and turned, rolled and slipped, amidst hooting, laughter, and cheer!
After a brief rest at Kedarkanta base camp, we continued walking down towards Hargaon. While I was always amongst the top five people while climbing up, I was mostly lagging behind while climbing down – a clear sign that my knees needed some workout. Once again a spectacular trail through oaks, pines and streams led us to a meadow laid out in a carpet of green where we were camping for the day. It was a sunny afternoon with clear skies and we spent the rest of the day chit-chatting, reveling in the beauty of the surrounding snow-clad mountains, watching the horses grazing in the distance, walking barefoot on the soft grass, and playing cricket.
As Vinod and I basked in the sun along with a few others, a shepherd we had met the day before passed by with his flock of sheep. It was a moment of mutual delight. This time we chatted longer and learnt more about their lives and it was by no means an easy one. A pang of guilt hit me slightly as my mind did a spontaneous comparison of the kind of life I lead with all amenities at my disposal and here was someone whose life was a constant struggle oblivious to all the comforts that modern life has to offer.
Starting early on day-4 and revisiting our rhododendrons through the forest floor laden with dry pine needles and cones, we descended back to Sankri, the village where we had started.
At Sankri, we further explored the village, visited the ancient wooden temple of Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Shiva), mingled with the locals, bathed in river Supin, watched young children play joyfully without a care in the world before finally calling it a day.
It was the end of my first Himalayan trek. However, for me this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a newly discovered love and passion for the mountains. I was spellbound – the enchanting Himalayas had captivated my soul. It was intoxicating and I knew I would be back very soon, which I did…. (Kuari Pass Trek)
The Mythology of Kedarkantha
Uttarakhand is considered to be the land of Lord Shiva and Kedarkantha peak has its own mythological story related to the Lord. The word Kedarkantha means Throat of Lord Shiva. The story goes back to Mahabharata. After the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were looking for Lord Shiva to atone for the sins committed during the war. First they went to Varanasi, Shiva’s favorite city, which has the famous Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Lord. Infuriated by the death and dishonesty at the Kurukshetra war, Shiva wanted to avoid the Pandavas. So, he assumed the form of a bull (Nandi) and hid in the Garhwal Himalayas. Not finding Shiva in Varanasi, the Pandavas went off to the Himalayas. Bheema spotted the bull and recognized it to be Lord Shiva. He held on to the bull not letting it go. In the resultant struggle, the bull was torn into five parts that appeared at five different locations. This resulted into the Panch Kedar: Kedarnath – Back of Lord Shiva; Kalpeshwar – Hair of Lord Shiva; Rudranath – Face of Lord Shiva; Tungnath – Arms of lord Shiva; and Madhyamaheshwar – Navel of Lord Shiva. Locals believe that during that time, the throat of Lord Shiva fell at Kedarkantha peak and that’s how the peak got its name. A small temple dedicated to the Lord is situated at the summit.
It was a bright sunny April afternoon when we were on our way towards Har ki Dun, walking alongside river Tamosa. As we took a turn in the valley our gaze instantaneously fell upon a bunch of beautiful wooden houses on the mountain slopes. The haphazardly arranged houses almost appeared to be rolling down the mountainside in some form of a disarrayed haste. This was Osla!
Awestruck we were by this neat little village tucked far away in the Himalayas. We took a spontaneous decision to visit the village on our way back with the help of our guide, who had friends and relatives in the village.
Situated in Uttarakhand, in Western Himalayas, every little thing about this quaint little village intrigued us – the city dwellers. Stuck in some bygone age, this unfrequented and relatively unseen village has millions of stories to tell. As we set foot into the village through the narrow pathway lined with randomly arranged stones on one side and a mountain slope on the other, we noticed the place was dotted with apple trees all over. Just a few meters and the narrow pathway ended at the village temple.
Beyond this there was no clearly defined pathway. Dedicated to ‘Someshwar Devta’, the unique wooden temple has a charm of its own. The area around the temple appeared to be some sort of a village square. Young men were idling around, smoking ‘beedis’ while playing cards without a care in the world, children with cheeks as red as cherries chased one another as they ran around unmindful of the dust all around. Some people say the temple used to worship Duryodhana*, who was a well-loved king in the region but the villagers deny this.
*An important character in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, whose desire and ego blinded him leading to the famous war of Kurukshetra.
The beautiful wooden homes that had caught our attention earlier had roofs made of flat stones that were apparently procured from some faraway place. The stones provided the much needed protection during the harsh winter months. With wood appearing to be the primary source of firewood, furniture and construction, a rapid discussion on deforestation ensued between us, the cognizant city dwellers, only to die down quickly as our focus was on the villagers and their lives.
The indigenous people of the village stole our hearts in an instant with their hospitality, innocence and simplicity. Untouched by the vices of the modern world, the love and respect they showered on us was overwhelming, something we can never experience in the cities. Almost everyone we met invited us for tea or dinner. A young girl, Shamita insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea and we had to oblige. The teenagers, Kashmina and Krishna weren’t tired of showing us around the village. They even got their best clothes to dress up my sister in their traditional attire – something that the whole village gathered to see and which they found profoundly amusing.
The concept of community living and the self-sufficient people truly appealed to us. There were villagers who were spinning yarn from sheep wool. The sheep is again reared by themselves and they use the yarn to weave their own warm jackets. They proudly announce that their wool is priceless and cannot be found anywhere in the world – a claim that perhaps cannot be denied. We notice that almost everyone in the village was busy doing something or the other, not many are seen idling time away. We were amused to see a lady stomping her feet in a large wooden basin that had clothes and water. That’s a community laundry where everyone goes to wash heavy clothes like blankets. Also, we were astounded to find children barely 7-8 year old busily washing clothes in the only tap in the village. Tap would be a wrong usage, it was rather a pipe through which water flows out constantly into Tamosa.
There is just one tiny little shop in the village which sells a few packets of chips, toffees, and potatoes. There is no grocery, no vegetables. The hard working villagers cultivate and grow their own rice, rajma, and potatoes. These constitute their staple food. Besides, some thorny leaves, bushes, and roots gathered from in and around also constitute a part of their food. There is no concept of storing these items, they are simply plucked as and when required. Cows, sheep, and mules constitute their livestock – cows for milk, sheep for wool, and mules to ferry things from outside. The mules also cater to trekkers like us to carry necessities like food, tents, etc. and in some cases carry our bags as well, enabling us to walk light.
A typical well-to-do home constitutes three floors – upper floor for people, middle one for sheep, and the lowest one for cows. Mules stay outside. Upper floor typically has three rooms alongside a long balcony overlooking the snow-clad mountains. The rooms are minimalistic having only cotton mattresses and quilts. Most of the homes however are smaller, constituting of just one room that serves as the bedroom, kitchen, living room, and everything else.
The tough life of the villagers brought tears to our eyes. The village has no network and hence no phones, Internet is out of question. There are no toilets, no roads, no electricity. A few homes do have solar panels that provide some basic not so bright lighting. Young girls barely 12-13 year olds carry a minimum of 20 Kgs of firewood regularly from the forests and walk 11-12 Km with that load.
In spite of such adversities, the village folks wore a happy smile complementing their unparalleled hospitality. As we bid goodbye the next day, they packed rajma for us in keeping with their tradition of not sending off visitors empty-handed. With an experience of a lifetime we left Osla.
It is incredulous to think that even after 70 years of independence, such remote and backward villages still exist in India. This is strikingly contrasting to the digital India and smart cities that we are supposedly moving towards.
There is a primary school but children are uneducated as the teacher is always drunk. A few children have the good fortune of being educated in other villages or in cities but mostly can’t afford the cost. In some families, especially those with several children get only one or two of their children educated while the rest remain in the village either because the parents cannot afford to educate them or they are needed to run the chores of the home. Amidst all of this, we happened to meet a young man who was completing his Masters in Botany at Dehradun and who had come home during the holidays. This was so refreshing and hopeful indeed!
The worst part is the village has no clinic or dispensary. The nearest medical help is 27 Km away. With no roads, seriously ill patients are tied to a chair that is then carried by four people, who walk 16 Km to reach ‘Taluka’, where they get transport and then drive another 11 Km, and that’s the nearest medical help.
We are back to our comfortable city lives with precious memories of Osla etched in our minds forever. However, each time we remember the lovely time we spent at the village it is accompanied by pangs of guilt as our mind does a spontaneous inadvertent comparison of our comfortable lives with the difficult lives of the villagers. The innocent villagers continue their daily struggle relatively oblivious to all the amenities of modern living.
Note: I am not quite sure I have been able to express myself well enough to do justice to the wonderful experience we had in the beautiful village of Osla. Hence, sharing a few more pictures below with the hope that you might be able to relate to our surreal experience at the village. (All pics are clicked through phone and are unedited raw photos.)