Annapurna – The Journey Begins

In Anticipation of the Mother Divine…

The Magic of Annapurna

The grandeur of Annapurna Massif makes Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek one of the most sought after Himalayan treks. This moderate level trek entails a stunning journey bringing you face to face with the majestic Annapurna Massif in a very short span of time. The Annapurna massif includes the world’s 10th highest peak, Annapurna-I or Annapurna main. At 8091 m., the unforgiving Annapurna-I has the highest fatality ratio among the 8000 m. peaks across the world. It also holds the distinction of the first eight-thousander to have been scaled. The other peaks are in the range of 6000-7000 m. and consist of Annapurna II, Annapurna III, Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, Machhapuchchhre, Gangapurna, and a few others.

Among these, Machapuchare or the ‘Fish-tailed Mountain’ holds a special place because of its unique shape and exquisite beauty. It is believed to be one of the homes of Lord Shiva and is revered by the Nepali people. Also known as Matterhorn of Nepal, the sacred Machapuchare has not been officially summited as it is not permitted by the Nepal Government.

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Pic 1: The golden peaks of Annapurna-I at sunrise

My interest of trekking ABC finally culminated this October. I have already written a post on my soul-touching experience of the magnificent peaks at ABC. Click here to read.

Here’s a detailed account of my journey.

The Bumpy Jeep Ride to Nayapul

Tossed and turned and churned I tried my best to focus on the greenery all around me. Travelling on a bumpy off-road in the back seat of a Tata Sumo is not the most comfortable experience, if you know what I mean.

The bumpy muddy road did everything to make sure that a part of my attention remained on it even as my mind and heart was captivated by the surroundings. Winding roads snaking through tall green hills and deep valleys, clusters of tiny colourful houses nestled erratically on the green slopes, quaint tea houses intermittently scattered alongside the dusty road, sporadic areas of lush green pastures separating the road from the hills, terraced cultivation here and there up in the hill slopes, the meandering Modi Khola (Khola means river in Nepali) playfully appearing and disappearing, sudden gushing waterfalls cascading from nowhere making a noisy pool of water on the road before flowing off on the other side.

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Pic 2: Tall green hills, terraced fields, and clusters of village homes nestled here and there.

We were on our way from Pokhara to Nayapul, about 43 Km. away, to start our trek to ABC. The road from Pokhara is paved until Ulleri after which it’s just a dusty track that seems unfit for any vehicle. From Ulleri, one can take various routes to arrive at the village of Chomrong, beyond which the route is common upto ABC. The route is decided mostly based on the number of days one has at their disposal. The trek can take between 6-10 days on an average. After Ulleri, it is a common sight to find trekkers walking through the muddy stretch, lugging their small and big backpacks.

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Pic 3: A quaint village home, notice the beehive made from a tree trunk just below the roof.
Climb to Chomrong via Jhinu

It was a little past noon when we arrived at Nayapul. A quick lunch and we were set to hit the trail. Our destination for the day was the village of Chomrong, via Jhinudanda.

Initially we walked through a near level ground with only negligible ascent and descent. The trail passed through dense vegetation on either side with views of green mountains interspersed with terraced fields and village homes. Soon we reached New Bridge, beyond which is Jhinudanda – commonly called Jhinu. New Bridge is a metallic suspension bridge that runs for nearly a kilometer. I normally don’t suffer from vertigo but on this bridge I found myself feeling a little unsteady each time I looked down. The fact that it vibrated with the number of people walking on it didn’t make things any easier and I tried my best to cross over as fast as I could. On the other side of the bridge, a flight of stairs greeted us that took us to Jhinu.

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Pic 4: The metallic suspension bridge that was a little unnerving.
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Pic 5: A closer view of the same bridge, clicked from the other side.

We didn’t take a break at Jhinu and continued towards Chomrong, little knowing that the entire trail constituted of rustic stone steps. Soon after, my sister started complaining of indigestion and feeling unwell. We rested for a while, she took some medicines and we continued. My sister was very slow and I was finding it difficult to keep going at her pace.

Day-1 in any trek is usually tougher as the body is still getting used to the new situation, so this wasn’t totally unexpected. Our guide, Amar, was with her and hence I continued walking ahead. Very soon I was way ahead and couldn’t see them.

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Pic 6: The climb just starts with the steps from Jhinu to Chomrong.

After a while, dark clouds came in and it started drizzling. I had forgotten to keep my raincoat in my day-pack. It remained in my main bag, which was with Amar. The rains intensified. I tried to take shelter underneath a huge rock but the rains splashed me anyway. This rock was on a turning and I couldn’t see beyond. Realizing it was no point waiting, I decided to keep walking ahead. Just a few steps ahead, I could see a small restaurant. And, luckily enough that turned out to be the starting point of Chomrong village – our destination for the day at 2700 m. I waited here for Amar and my sister. By the time they arrived, the rains had stopped. We climbed a few more stairs and soon landed at the tea house that was booked for us.

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Pic 7: Annapurna Range as visible from the tea house at Chomrong.

The rains resumed in the evening and it continued pouring off and on. The snow peaked Annapurna Range remained shrouded by fleeting white clouds. As I went to bed that night, I thought to myself it would be a good idea to be up around midnight when the clouds would most likely clear up and the mountains would be visible. However, I slept through and when I woke up it was well past midnight. The first thing I did was to lift the window curtains and peek outside. And Ah! There it was – the glamorous snow laden peaks as though eagerly waiting to greet the dawn. I looked at my watch. It was 4.00 AM. I could easily distinguish the triangular Macharepuchare but wasn’t sure of the other peaks. It was not until breakfast that Amar helped identify the other peaks as Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, and Gangapurna.

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Pic 8: This is what we wake up to, from the window of our room. R-L: Macharepuchare, Gangapurna, Annapurna South
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Pic 9: Annapurna South from the terrace of the tea house. 
Into the Forest towards Bamboo

Our trek for the day started by climbing down a series of steps that seemed to continue forever. We learned it was a series of 2500 steps and along with that knowledge came the not-so-comforting thought that we would have to climb up the same on our way back. The entire ABC trail is like a roller coaster ride, all you do it go up and go down with only very few level walks. Somewhere we crossed the office of Annapurna Conservation Area Project where our permits were checked. Thereafter, we passed through trails overlooking terraced fields, crossed over another hanging suspension bridge over a deep valley, and climbed through some uneven rustic stone steps as we headed towards Tilche and then Sinuwa – Lower Sinuwa and Upper Sinuwa, the last village enroute ABC. Annapurna-III was visible from some places while Machapuchare kept us company all through.

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Pic 10: The smaller metallic suspension bridge beyond Chomrong towards Sinuwa.
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Pic 11: A closer view of the same bridge.
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Pic 12: Macharepuchare gives us company all along, providing the much needed motivation for the steep climbs.
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Pic 13: Finally Sinuwa is here.

After taking a break at Upper Sinuwa, we moved towards our last stop for the day, Bamboo. The trail started with a thick forest dominated by tall Oaks. There were Rhododendron, Bamboo, and few other trees as well.

Forest trails are my eternal favourites, where I always find my imagination running wild. The trees and the bushes seem invitingly mysterious as though dozens of invisible eyes are scrutinizing my every move. And, I walk along building my own fantasy world of fairies and witches. Sometimes I blend in and feel one with them, at other times I feel I am encroaching upon their secret and sacred territory. Complementing the overall forest charm was the gurgling sound of Modi Khola flowing alongside that could only be heard but not seen and the twittering birds, calling out occasionally in a variety of melodious tunes. All of these were interrupted by one large and several small waterfall.

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Pic 14: The amazing forest trail begins.
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Pic 15: A waterfall in the forest.
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Pic 16: The steep flight of stairs descending to Bamboo.

A steep descent for about 30 minutes, somewhere in the forest and we reached Bamboo at 2,145 m., after covering a distance of about 8 Km. from Chomrong. Almost immediately the rains started and we were thankful for arriving just in time.

Bamboo was bustling with trekkers it being peak season for ABC trek. We got to know there was no space for us, even the benches in the dining room were taken. Amar made a quick call to Dovan, the next tea house about an hour and a half away. That was fully occupied too. Amar recommended we have our lunch while he figures a way out. After waiting for close to 2 hours, Amar informed that he had finally managed a room, much to our relief. He had struck a deal with one of the tea house owners who agreed to give us his personal room. I have no idea where Amar or the tea house owner slept for the night. My repeated probing with Amar yielded no results.

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Pic 17: And we finally arrive at Bamboo.
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Pic 18: Ponchos and raincoats drying in the tea house add a dash of colour to the rainsoaked evening.

By dinner the rains had stopped and the skies were clear. As expected, we woke up to a bright and sunny day.

Continued here

In the Lap of Mother Divine

Just two more days to go and the discomfort in my body with the fever and its associated symptoms were still going strong. The frantic visits to the doctor, the dengue scare, concerns from friends and family were making me nervous and adding to my stress. On D-day, I just took the leap of faith, trusted the doctor’s words and went ahead with my flight to Nepal. I was still unwell and here I was off to Annapurna Base Camp, on a trek to see the mighty Annapurna massif constituting some of the most dangerous peaks in the world.

I made a deal with myself. I am not going to push myself, if my health doesn’t permit at any point of time, I would just retrace my path. At least I am getting to visit Nepal, a place I hadn’t been to before. And, most importantly I wasn’t alone, my sister was with me. With all that uncertainty, and the Nepal Airlines flight being delayed by 5 hours, we reached Kathmandu at 1.00 AM. And, with a bus to catch at 7 AM there was hardly any time to rest.

However, as my mom had predicted, by the time I boarded the bus for Pokhara I had forgotten that I was ill.

In the following days we walked through scenic villages experiencing the local culture, through deep green valleys, and dense and damp jungles with the various peaks of Annapurna playing hide and seek till we reached our destination – Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).

It was the time of Durga Puja, the most important festival time for Bengalis. Five days of festivities to celebrate the Goddess’ arrival on earth (her paternal home) along with her children. On the 3rd day of Puja – Mahasthami, considered to be the most important of the five days, we arrived at ABC. Ideally, I should have been home with my near and dear ones celebrating the Mother Divine. Yet, I was far away from home, in the lap of the Himalayas. However, I did celebrate Mother Divine in the form of Annapurna – the Goddess of Harvest, who is just another form of Ma Durga.

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Pic 1: Everything was whitewashed when we arrived at ABC.
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Pic 2: At the same place as as the previous pic on the next day

When we reached ABC, late in the afternoon, we could see nothing. Everything was whitewashed by a thick layer of fog that lay between us and the mountains. We knew the mountains were just behind the thick white curtain but we saw nothing at all.

Was there any chance of the cloud clearing later on? “No”, said our guide, “Not until tomorrow morning.” We made peace, had lunch and headed to the viewpoint nevertheless, which was just a 5 min walk from the tea house. It was quite cold and nothing was visible with the clouds still forming a barrier between us and the mountains. We walked around marveling at the various memory stones and plaques commemorating fatalities of the climbers.

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Pic 3: This is what we saw when we went to the viewpoint.

The mighty Annapurna massif has some of the most dangerous peaks in the world. Annapurna – I stands at an elevation of 8,091 m (26,545 ft) and is the 10th highest peak in the world. This unforgiving mountain also carries the legacy of the first eight-thousander peak to have been scaled.

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Pic 4: Our first view of Annapurna-1 around 5 PM when the clouds decided to gave way.
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Pic 5: Machhapuchchhre or Fish Tail mountain in the evening with Gangapurna peeking on the left.

I looked at my watch and it was a little after 4.30 PM. With the cold getting worse, there were only very few people at the viewpoint. My sister and I decided to sit quietly with our eyes closed for a while and then leave.

After 15-20 min., we opened our eyes and were stunned by what we saw. The clouds had moved, the sky was blue, and the 360 degree panoramic view had miraculously opened up. This was unbelievable. We hadn’t expected this at all. Dumbfounded, we found ourselves desperately looking all around – what if the clouds decided to come back!

The peaks around us constituted Annapurna-I, Annapurna South, Annapurna-III, Machhapuchchhre, Hiunchuli, Peak 10, Gangapurna. The view remained for a good 20 mins before the clouds started taking their positions once again. The mountains seemed so close that I felt I could touch them if I extended my arm.

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Pic 6: Annapurna South and a part of Annapurna-I, seen from the Tea House just before dawn.

At night, just after dinner, the sky was clear studded with millions of stars. The moon was bright with full moon just a few days away. The mountains glittered in the soft iridescent rays of the moon. The view was nothing but ethereal. Never had I seen such tall mountains from such close quarters lit up by the moonlight. It was one of those times when I missed having a camera. My mobile phone could not capture a thing.

We didn’t stay out for long though as it was extremely cold and we wanted to get to bed early in order to wake up early for sunrise on the mountain. Assured of having a great view the next morning with the sky being clear, we went off to a blissful sleep for the night.

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Pic 7: The molten gold peak of Annapurna-I at sunrise.
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Pic 8: The molten gold peak of Annapurna-South at sunrise.

Sunrise was just as gorgeous as I had expected. The peaks of Annapurna-I and Annapurna South looked like molten gold. It was magical. The Sun seemed to be waking up with utmost delight, putting up a show of painting the peaks for all the curious onlookers. The peaks seemed to be indulging the Sun like a mother reveling in her child’s playful activities. No words can do justice to the breathtaking view. The moment lasted for 6-7 mins and this was one of the most beautiful sights I have witnessed in my life so far.

All along I found myself profoundly thanking the majestic Annapurna for all the divinity I was experiencing.

Click here for a more detailed post on my experience of the ABC Trek.

Note: Pictures are unedited raw photos, clicked by iPhone 6.

Love and Gratitude for the Himalayas

“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.” – Rene Daumal

Nature has that power to enable unburdening of our hearts leading to joyous experiences of inner peace. What better place to experience nature than the higher reaches of glorious mountains!  My sincerest gratitude to the mighty Himalayas, to whom I humbly surrender each time I set my foot on them.

Coined from the Sanskrit words of ‘hima’ meaning snow and ‘alaya’ meaning abode, the Himalayas are the loftiest mountain system in the world. With more than 110 peaks rising to elevations of 24,000 ft. (7,300 m.) or more above sea level, the Himalayan Range includes the highest mountains in the world.

My first encounter with the magnificently regal Himalayas happened rather abruptly – one fine day, I randomly decided to go for a trek. It was just an impulse act and I had no clue what high altitude trekking entailed. In fact, I had never trekked anywhere before. I have been a nature-lover forever and that was all I knew. That incident turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

I will not hesitate to say that the mountains changed me in ways more than one and I have become a much better person today (at least I’d like to believe so). Many things I do today, I owe to the Himalayas – this blog for instance.

The snow-clad Himalayas are mystical mountains associated with divinity and spirituality. And, I do find the divine in them. They seem like a living-breathing entity to me watching over me, blessing me, and helping me. Possibly, it’s their tall and grandiose appearance or perhaps just the initial intimidation when I look up at them.

I always feel they have a mind of their own. I firmly believe that you can set foot on them only if they allow you do so. You can plan and desire and do what you want but in the end it’s their wish and not yours. With that in mind, I truly feel fortunate and privileged. In the last two years, I have trekked in the Himalayas five times. Without blessings from the majestic mountains, that would have never happened. Each time the mountains ensured that everything worked in our favour, which is especially true with respect to the unpredictable weather.

Earlier this month I discovered the Northern Himalayas as I trekked in Kashmir savouring the gorgeousness of the high altitude glacier-fed alpine lakes. Here are some pictures of Kashmir Great Lakes. I will write a detailed post later.

[All of these are unedited photos clicked through iPhone-6.]

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Pic 1: Vishansar or Vishnusar glimmers in the late afternoon soft sun.
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Pic 2: A flock of sheep at Vishansar Lake – blessed they are to graze on such heavenly grounds.
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Pic 3: The purity of Kishansar Lake can be felt through the sweet taste of its pristine water.
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Pic 4: Kishansar Lake as we walked away climbing the mountain along the sides.
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Pic 5: The twin lakes of Vishansar and Kishansar as seen from the top of Gadsar Pass.
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Pic 6:The green tinge of Gadsar Lake sets it apart from the bluish tinge of Vishansar and Kishansar.
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Pic 7: Shepherds with their flock in one of the Satsars. Satsar literally translates to seven lakes. 
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Pic 8: Another Satsar. Out of the seven, we could see only three. Two lie behind the mountains and are difficult to access. Two others had dried up as it was the fag end of monsoon.
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Pic 9: The twin lakes of Gangabal (R) and Nandkol (L) as seen from the top of Satsar Pass.
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Pic 10: Gangabal up close, peace and quiet reigned all around!
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Pic 11: Nandkol up close, its closer to civilisation and I was saddened to see signs of that as one side of the lake lay littered with bottles and plastic.

 

 

Rupin Pass – Nine Days of Paradise

The Mystical Himalayas Beckons Again – Part 2

As we moved on from Jiskun, the true essence of the Rupin Pass trek started unveiling itself. (Read Day 1- Day 3 here)

Day 4: Udaknal – Passing Through the Hanging Village of Jhaka

We walked through the narrow forest trail as we left Jiskun. The greenish-blue Rupin River seeping and dribbling as it merrily swerved through the tall mountains appeared much closer today. On any other day, my heart would have been dancing immersed in nature’s gorgeousness but not today. My right ankle was hurting with every step and I felt helpless wondering how I would go on. The dreaded steep climb towards Jhaka was here and I struggled with every step. Loosening my shoe lace, as suggested by our Trek Leader, turned out to be immensely helpful. Once again I was my sprightly self and found myself at the beginning of the team.

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Pic 1: The houses in Jhaka Village are literally stacked one on top of the other on the steep slope

The village of Jhaka, situated on a steep slope of the mountain was extraordinarily beautiful. The villagers are staunch believers of the ways of Satsang and are strict vegetarians. Even the mention of animal food is blasphemous here. We spent some time at a home in the village before continuing our onward journey towards Udaknal.

This day wasn’t easy as it consisted of steep ascends and descends. However, the long stretch of the magnificent fir forest with towering pines and a forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles was tonic to the eyes and mind.

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Pic 2: Stepping into the forest with tall trees watching us silently

My forest happiness was short-lived as we soon encountered the steep slope consisting of loose soil that goes down to the Rupin River. My mind-block with such terrains made me jittery as I cautiously took steps fearing that I would slip and fall to my doom. Hell, I’m here to enjoy and not to go back with an injury! The burbling water of the dazzling river down below came closer with every step and that’s what kept me going one step at a time.

Soon we reached Udaknal at 10,100 ft. The yellow tents stood bright amidst the lush green surroundings as Rupin River hurried through the valley down below and the elegant mountains stood tall and watched us gracefully. The evenings started to get really cold.

Day 5: Dhanderas Thatch – Nature’s Grand Amphitheatre

I was told that Rupin Pass is a trek where each day only gets better and there are surprises at every turn. And, here I was witnessing that and soaking in the ever-changing landscape of Rupin Valley.

We left Udaknal and started climbing up through yet another forest trail, the irregular blocks of stones here made it different from the other forest trails we covered so far. A trekmate had a slower pace than the rest of us and almost always lagged behind. On this day, she was recommended to start half an hour before the group by our Trek Leader. I decided to tag along, fearing my ankle problem could slow me down. Slowly and steadily the three of us walked on.

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Pic 3: The calm and poised Rupin with dark clouds looming large

Very soon dark clouds loomed in and it started raining. Almost simultaneously, we encountered snow for the very first time on the trek. By then the group had joined us and many in the group were overjoyed, experiencing snow for the first time. Snow fights (hitting each other with snow balls) ensued notwithstanding the rain that had just started. Our raincoats and ponchos were out, and the trail got a tad slippery slowing down our pace.

My ankle was in a very bad shape causing me to limp and that was a distraction, diverting my attention from the exceptionally brilliant surroundings – the earthy fragrance of wet mud, the rugged mountains, the green meadows interrupted by sporadic bursts of yellow flowers, the sudden calm and poised Rupin.

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Pic 4: A carpet of green with bursts of yellow flowers against the first patches of snow made for an utterly gorgeous view

A little while later we crossed two snow bridges across the thundering Rupin one after the other. This was my first experience of a snow bridge, I didn’t even know such a thing existed! And crossing it was thrilling to say the least.

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Pic 5: As we crossed a snow bridge clad in colourful ponchos and raincoats
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Pic 6: Another snow bridge – fascinating to say the least

The rains had stopped and a wide green carpet adorned with blue and yellow flowers welcomed us at Dhanderas Thatch. The wide expansive valley of Dhanderas Thatch at 11,680 ft. was a perfect melody of snow-clad mountains, green meadows, several cascading waterfalls trickling down from all sides, and the ever present elegant Rupin River.

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Pic 7: Dark clouds, snow wrapped rugged mountains, green meadows – dreamy surroundings
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Pic 8: A green carpet welcome

The main waterfall was a three layered one that distinctively stood out right at the center and it’s the first thing that you notice in the valley. And, we would be climbing up to the mouth of the waterfall, looks daunting and undoable today. The Dhauladar Range was clearly visible beyond the waterfall.

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Pic 9: The cascading three layered waterfall with the Dhauladhar Range behind it                           [P.C. Arunesh Srivastava]
Day 6: Dhanderas Thatch – Lazing Around

We spent the next day at Dhanderas Thatch. It was our acclimatization day. An entire day at such heavenly abode – oh what bliss it was! I for one was so looking forward to this day – a day of thoughtless moments doing nothing but soaking in the depths of nature and admiring the divine Himalayas. My ankle got the much needed rest too.

We spent the day chit-chatting, playing games, practicing walking on snow, building cairns along the river while making secret wishes, sitting by Rupin quietly listening to its rapid gurgling sound, wandering aimlessly admiring the various waterfall, and watching the shepherds pass by with their sheep and sheep dogs. The rain and sun played hide and seek on this day forcing us in and out of our tents. Brief moments of hail happened too.

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Pic 10: Those purple flowers. [P.C. Vineet Prajapati]
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Pic 11: And. one of them poses for me
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Pic 12: Soaking in the sun with the morning cup of tea
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Pic 13: The cairns alongside Rupin River entrapping secret wishes and desires.

Day 7: Upper Waterfall – The Wonderland

We woke up to a bright sunny day. Once again a team of three of us started off early. This was going to be a short and difficult stretch. As we approached close to the waterfall, the boulder strewn tall mountain stared at us rather menacingly. The 2.5 Km. climb was steep and not easy by any means. We had to carefully maneuver our steps through small and large loose rocks. With slow and measured steps, we trudged over the snow patches and the snow bridges as we gingerly made our way to the top.

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Pic 14: The top later of the waterfall, just a little more to go. [P.C Sachin Vidyasagaran]
In between the adventurous moments, I paused and gaped at the thundering waterfall, which was our constant companion on this day. The valley below that we just left looked spectacular and the gushing Rupin now appeared like a branched out narrow canal meandering its way through the valley. A deep sense of admiration filled my heart with nature casting its spell and my soul bursting with happiness and joy.

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Pic 15: Navigating precarious sections with great caution [P.C Sachin Vidyasagaran]
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Pic 16: A section of the waterfall with yet another snow bridge
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Pic 17: The valley we left behind, where we had camped the day before.

At the top, we were greeted by an amazingly serene and picturesque campsite. The melting glaciers from the heaven-touching mountains flowed down gracefully and quietly moved towards the waterfall. Much of the tall mountains flanking either side were draped in snow. The vast blue sky was in perfect harmony with the surroundings. The soft grass on the banks of the river was moist displaying the first signs of green, an indication of just melted snow. The warm sun beckoned us and everyone was lazing around on the soft grass. Peace and tranquility reigned here, and I loitered around feeling like Alice in Wonderland.

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Pic 18: The wonderland of dreams and fantasies
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Pic 19: The cold water therapy for my ankle
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Pic 20: Our tent opened to this!

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Pic 21: A well captured reflection [P.C. Vineet Prajapati]
Day 8: Rupin Pass – The Grand Finale

This was the day we were all waiting for – the day we climb up the ‘gully’ to Rupin Pass. ‘Gully’ is a 250 m. stretch of 70 degrees inclination that leads to the Pass. A team of two technical guides armed with their ice axes joined us on this day. They were qualified mountaineers who we met the day before and who had briefed us on the do’s and don’ts of the big day.

Just as the past few days, a team of four of us started off earlier than the rest. While the group started at 5.30 AM, we had started off at 3.30 AM. Our aim was to reach the Pass by 8.00 AM so that we can climb the ‘gully’ before the sun finds its way through. Once the snow starts melting, it gets difficult.

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Pic 22: Our tents reduced to tiny colourful dots as we climbed up

It was still dark when we started walking with anticipation and excitement building up at every step. The initial climb was a grueling one through the rugged mountain where we had to be cautious not to step onto the thin film of ice that made its appearance every now and then. There was a precarious frozen section of a thin layer of flowing water that we had to cross where the technical guide made good use of his ice axe.

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Pic 23: A precarious section of frozen flowing water crossed only with the help of an ice axe

Soon the vast rolling snow fields took over and we walked endlessly and silently in one straight line. All I could hear was click clack of microspikes that provided the much needed grip on snow. It was dawn by now and the larger group had caught up with us as we were engulfed in a sea of white with our clothes being the only specs of colour.

After walking for a while, we paused to take a break. The air was thinner and we were rapidly gaining altitude. At this point, we spotted the ‘gully’ and excited chit-chatter filled in the air.

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Pic 24: Walking in one straight line towards the mountain pass [P.C. Rajiv Namathirtham]
Once we approached the base of the ‘gully’, the technical guides arranged us in one straight line with the ladies at the beginning. I turned out to be the first one following the technical guide, who was making steps for us through the snow.

The arduous ‘gully’ climb and the most exciting part of the trek begun. The 250 m. distance felt like a lifetime as we climbed up with focus and concentration one step at a time. I could see the sun shining bright at the top of the ‘gully’ and couldn’t wait to get there. It must have taken us 20-25 minutes to reach the top but I can’t say for sure as I had no track of time.

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Pic 25: The rather vertical climb through the ‘gully’ [P.C. Surjo Dutta]
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Pic 26: Nearly arriving at the top through the ‘gully’ 

Once on top, I squealed in joy. I couldn’t believe that I had done it.  It was an exhilarating experience at 15,380 ft. The breathtaking panoramic landscape left me spellbound. I felt like being immersed in a huge bowl of vanilla icecream with a few chocolate chips inserted here and there. The mountains blessed us and the weather was perfect. The deep blue skies seemed to be rejoicing with us as the morning sun smiled at us warmly. There was no sign of the expected gusty winds. The razor sharp Kinnaur Kailash was distinctly visible in the horizon.

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Pic 27: At the Pass – a huge bowl of vanilla icecream!

I silently bowed to the mighty Himalayas and expressed my gratitude for enabling me to experience such splendor. While we were still immersed in the intoxicated surroundings along came the herd of sheep with their sheep dogs and shepherds. Could we have asked for more? It was PERFECT!

Day 8: RontiGad – Time for Celebrations

It was time to start descending. We slid through the snow in two stretches and it was the craziest thing we had ever done. No amusement park in the world can match up to the Adrenalin rush we had here. We screeched and hooted and laughed and cheered as each one of us went down one by one.

After walking on snow for some more time we arrived at a sharp descent that goes down to meet a stream below. As always, my descending demons were back making me extremely slow and cautious. Not surprising, I was the last one to reach the stream.

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Pic 28: Walking back after reveling at the Pass and after sliding down

This was a very long day and the walk seemed unending. My knees were hurting and I couldn’t wait to reach the campsite. At every turn I expected to see the bright yellow tents but it was only after walking for 6-7 hours, we arrived at Ronti Gad and had descended to 13,100 ft.

At the campsite, it was a relaxing day for everyone. We basked under the sun laying over the green meadows just outside our tents. In the evening, we celebrated, shared experiences, and received certificates. Before long, night descended and we retired into our tents with a sense of accomplishment.

Day 9: Sangla – Time to Bid Goodbye

This was a day of mixed feelings. We were on our way back. As much as I looked forward to going back home, a big part of me was also saddened about all of this coming to an end.

It was a gradual descend towards Sangla, situated at 8,600 ft. We walked leisurely and were in no particular hurry. Deliberately, I chose to trail behind the group to savour the last bit as much as I could. It was a beautiful walk through vast green meadows where yaks and cows lazily grazed. There was no snow in the path, only very little at the mountain tops. Slowly we approached civilization as we passed through tiny lanes of small hamlets dotted with apple and apricot trees. Stony pathways with pine forests on either side formed connecting links between these hamlets.

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Pic 29: The first glimpse of civilization
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Pic 30: For some reason, this reminded me of ‘King’s Landing’ from ‘Game of Thrones’!

After walking for about 6-7 hours, we arrived at Sangla. Here we bid goodbye to each other with promises to keep in touch and traveled to Shimla in smaller groups based on our respective travel itineraries.

Another fascinating rendezvous with the enchanting Himalayas comes to an end with cherishing memories for a lifetime. They say the Himalayas are addictive and I tend to agree. I know I will go there again. I feel fortunate and blessed to have experienced their mysticism yet another time. It’s the mountains who decide who steps on them and experiences their grandeur from close quarters. I am immensely grateful and bow with sincere reverence.

For some more stories on Rupin Pass, click here.

Here are links to my past experiences with the majestic Himalayas.

Rupin Pass – Nine Days of Paradise

The Mystical Himalayas Beckons Again – Part 1

Am I dreaming or is this for real! I questioned my wakefulness trying to comprehend the unbelievably gorgeous milk-white sprawling vista that lay before my eyes – a widespread fluffy blanket of untouched snow, sharp and pointed peaks of the Dhauladhar range, clear blue skies with no cloud in sight, early morning warm sunshine, and not a hint of the expected gusty winds.

The ecstatic bunch of us hooted and cheered at 15,380 ft. Our child-like innocent glee reverberated in the pristine surroundings. We couldn’t have asked for more but the mountains were extraordinarily gracious that morning and had another delightful surprise in store for us. A herd of sheep came strolling by with their shepherds and sheep dogs only to exhilarate the already intoxicated us.

This was the moment we were waiting for and all the days of long walks, difficult climbs, and cold weather was more than worth it.

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Pic: It was magical at the Pass

I was back to the Himalayas and this time I was trekking Rupin Pass, a notch higher in the difficulty level as compared to the others I had done so far. Moreover, this time I was alone. I was nervous as I signed up and was not sure if I could make it. My nervousness ensured that I was putting in an extra effort towards fitness – more on that later.

It was an early May morning, when a bunch of us huddled at Dehradun railway station. A quick round of short introductions and the vibes were positive. I was already feeling comfortable with the gang. It’s been sheer coincidental that so far all my treks to the Himalayas started from Dehradun. Hence, I was familiar with the route and even have a fair idea of the good eateries on the way. We bundled into tempo travellers and Boleros and proceeded towards Dhaula.

Day 1: Dhaula – The Beginning

At 5,100 ft, Dhaula was our campsite for Day 1. We arrived at Dhaula late in the evening after a long ride of 10 hours. Deep valleys and thick Pine forests kept us engaged all through the journey. The characteristic bright yellow tents of IndiaHikes were ready for us. (I chose IndiaHikes, once again.) The rapidly flowing water and the gushing sound of Rupin River was music to our ears taking off all the tiredness from the day’s ride. After a quick briefing by our trek leader and a more formal introduction with one another, we retired for the night with countless anticipation for the next day and the days to come.

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Pic 2: Our camp at Dhaula
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Pic 3: Rupin River gushing away in great hurry at Dhaula

Day 2: Sewa – Getting to Know Each Other

We started early and this was technically the first day of the trek as we walked up towards the village of Sewa. It was a long walk of 11 Km. through patches of undulated terrain surrounded by tall trees and a couple of steep ascents. Most of this day however, was through a rugged pathway, which is a road in the making. The surrounding greenery with the Rupin River appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in the deep valley made for an interesting walk even though the the sun beat down on us relentlessly.

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Pic 4: As we started off from Dhaula

As we trudged along, the large group of 24 people chit-chatted, breaking barriers, and learning more about each other. There were people from all walks of life. A big gang of young engineers who just completed their graduation and were yet to start their first job; a group of three men from Chennai led by an inspiring 57 year old, whose fitness regime put the rest of us to shame; a group of three friends from my city of Bangalore; the ‘Gujju’ trio who weren’t from Gujarat and who were teased mercilessly for all the eatables they got; and the rest, including me, who were solo travelling from various parts of the country.

However, very soon it was forgotten who belonged to which group as everyone easily blended into one large group.

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Pic 5: Towards Sewa – a section with the deep valley on one side and a narrow pathway on the other

At 6,300 ft. Sewa was a peaceful village surrounded by tall green mountains where we stayed at a small and cozy wooden homestay. However, what I remember of Sewa is the unique two-storied pagoda-like village temple that had medals and coins adorning its wall and the crazy mosquito bites leading to itchy rashes that affected most of us and healed only after we got back home after completing the trek.

Oh yes, I had a splitting headache too that resulted from walking in the sun all day long without putting on my sunglasses.

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Pic 6: The Pagoda-like temple at Sewa Village. Note the medals and trophies hanging on its wall. 

Day 3: Jiskun – Luxury at the Homestay

As we left Sewa, the pleasant walk descending through the forest trail delighted most of us. The trail took us straight to Rupin River that sparkled in the morning sun splashing the stones and pebbles as it curved gently to make its way behind the tall mountains. We spent a few refreshing moments beside the river before continuing our walk through the forest. And, now it was time to step over to Himachal Pradesh from Uttarakhand through the wooden bridge hidden in the jungle that separates the two states.

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Pic 7: The glimmering Rupin River in the morning sun
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Pic 8: The wooden bridge  between Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. On the right is Himachal Pradesh and left is Uttarakhand.

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Pic 9: The group posing on the bridge. Thankfully it didn’t give way under our collective weight.         [P.C. Sachin Vidyasagaran]
Soon after, we landed onto a dusty track snaking through the mountains, which was again a road in the making. The sun was merciless and I made sure to put on my sunglasses. My ankles had been hurting since morning and it got worse. It was the sides of my shoe that was rubbing against the ankles making it quite difficult for me to walk. I chose to ignore thinking that it would go away. I would discover the next morning how wrong I was!

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Pic 10: View of the valley as we walked on the dusty track towards Jiskun.

After a 10 Km. walk we arrived at Jiskun. At 7,700 ft., Jiskun was again a beautiful and simple Himalayan village, where everyone you meet greets you with a smile and a ‘namaste’. We stayed at a homestay, which had several very sunny and airy rooms – quite a luxury at a trek. The guys huddled into two rooms, even though there were several rooms lying empty. The four girls were smarter and selected two rooms giving them a lot of space to relax for the rest of the evening.

So far the trek seemed easy even though I struggled walking the long distances with my sore ankle. Next day onwards, it was a different ball game altogether.

Continued here…

My other Himalayan Treks:

Har-Ki-Dun: The Hypnotizing Wonderland

Trekking the Himalayas for the Third Time in a year…

It was the month of April, my favorite month of the year. The reasons are many – because it’s spring; because it’s my birth month; because it was in this month that I had fallen for the mountains all over again.

This was that time of the year when I had a promise to keep, a promise I have made to myself the year before about spending my birthdays with nature and experiencing its supreme splendor– the only thing that gives me utmost joy and happiness. With a corner of my heart now permanently occupied by the majestic Himalayas, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

This time I was off to explore Har-Ki-Dun. Also known as Valley of Gods, Har-Ki-Dun is a cradle shaped valley and the legends of this trail go back to the Mahabharata*. It is said that the Pandavas had taken this very route on their way to heaven after the great war of Kurukshetra. The trek goes right up to Swargarohini, the peak which is supposedly the pathway to heaven.

* The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic poem revolving around Pandavas and Kauravas, the two branches of a family who fight the Kurukshetra War for the throne of Hastinapura. The Mahabharata includes Bhagavad Gita and with 100,000 verses it is the longest epic poem ever written. (Read More)

I was once again trekking with Indiahikes. This time, my sister was accompanying me. All geared up for yet another extraordinary experience, we arrived at Sankri. I was back to this tiny little beautiful village situated in the lap of the Himalayas exactly after one year. Last time I was here during my trek to Kedarkantha Peak.

Crossing the Nallahs on way to Taluka

After spending a night at Sankri, the group of 20 of us boarded two Boleros to go to Taluka, situated 12 Km away from Sankri. The entire route with lush green valleys, hanging cliffs, forests with tall tree all around, sporadic waterfalls here and there was simply spellbinding. The broken road passing through these waterfalls kind of interrupts their flow leading them to convert into streams before continuing their fall on the other side of the road. These streams are known as nullahs by the locals. As we crossed the nullahs, our Boleros tossed and jerked with the cliff on one side and a vertical fall on the other. Those were moments of additional excitement laced with a tad bit of nervousness for many of us – the city-bred delicate darlings!

Camping Beside the River at Puani Garaat

From Taluka, we started our trek alongside River Tamosa. The bright crystal clear turquoise water of Tamosa lifted my spirits the moment I laid my eyes on her. Tamosa was to be our constant companion flowing, dribbling, and swerving through the trees and hills while glistening and smoothing the already shining rocks and boulders. The flowing water seemed to be in constant hurry and always playing hide and seek with us, disappearing sometimes only to reappear again.

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Pic 1: River Tamosa meandering across the lush green landscape

We had walked beside the river for close to 6 hours maneuvering countless twists and turns alongside a constant interplay of light and shade caused by green forests of tall Chestnut, Pine, Walnut, Cedar, Oak, and others. Finally, we arrived at our first camp site, Puani Garaat. The exhaustion from the 13 Km. walk disappeared the moment I saw our tents pitched in a tiny little clearing right beside the river. The constant sound of gushing river radiated an energy that was highly contagious touching the soul and soothing the mind. It was not the least monotonous as one might presume. The sound of the river magnified at night but its rhythm served as the perfect lullaby as we drifted into a deep sleep.

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Pic 2: River Tamosa dazzling with the early morning sunlight.
Charming Osla Village on way to Kalkatiyadhar

The trek route passes through a couple of ancient villages, most noteworthy being Gangaad, Osla, and Seema. These tiny villages left us bewildered with their remoteness and exclusivity. As we passed by Osla village, the wooden homes of the village arranged haphazardly on the mountain slope captured our imagination. Seeing our enthusiasm, our trek leader suggested that we could stay at the village on our way back. And, that we did leading to an experience of a lifetime. [I’ve described that in a separate post.]

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Pic 3: The village of Osla with River Tamosa flowing below

It was the second day and we covered the 7 Km. trail through some level walks, few steep sections, and finally a continuous ascent through a gradually increasing incline. As we approached Kalkatiyadhar, the stunning views of the Bandarpooch and Pir Panjal ranges of mountain was just what we needed to sooth our tired mind and body. The magnificent Kalanag or Black Peak was also clearly visible just before arriving at this campsite.

Kedarkantha peak also provided a brief glimpse somewhere in this route. As dusk approached, Kalkatiyadhar displayed a dramatic sequence of changing colours with the sun painting the sky in myriad hues of bright oranges and yellows as it slowly departed for the day and set behind the horizon. (I miss having a camera at such times! A phone camera is largely insufficient.)

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Pic 4: Just before reaching Kalkatiyadhar, Kalanag can be seen in the backdrop
Getting Closer to Our Destination – Har-Ki-Dun

The entire trekking route had multiple steams, some we crossed directly by jumping over boulders and stones while some others through rickety wooden bridges. Besides the streams, on this day we encountered two fascinating waterfall as well. One cascaded in a narrow single flow with a great force and from a great height, the other was mildly spread across falling from a much lesser height. The latter enticed us and we waded across the stream to go right upto it, washed our faces and even filled in our water bottles.

Once again, passing through a forest dominated by pine trees with a sizable number of rhododendron trees we ascended and descended, walked through some flat land, and crossed some narrow ridges with a valley on one side and a cliff on the other. As we passed by a bend in the mountain, Har-Ki-Dun peak and Hata Peak made their grand appearance inducing a dose of instant happiness and delight.

The entire route, right from Taluka was as picturesque as can be. It truly lives up to its name of Valley of Gods. The meadows and the mountainsides were sprinkled with colourful spring flowers of varying shades though yellows, pinks, blues, and violets dominated. Not to forget the pink and white rhododendrons that illuminated portions of the forests.

Once in a while shepherds with their flock of sheep or mules would appear bringing in a sudden pause to our walking rhythm as we let them pass. Women of all age groups in their traditional attire and ethic jewellery from the villages would appear every now and then – some of them collecting wood, some on their way to Taluka, smiling and greeting everyone on their way. Sometimes giggling young girls and playful children would merrily pass by making us envious of their carefree demeanor.

Unveiling of the Scintillating Wonderland:Har-ki-Dun

We walked for about 5 hours and arrived at a steep incline. It was tiring in the hot afternoon sun as we inched along. The thought that this was the last climb for the day kept us going. As we approached Har-Ki-Dun at an altitude of 11,500 ft, it was a moment of disbelieve. The phenomenal valley was like an amphitheater and revealed itself bit by bit before my eyes. I felt that I was stepping into a wonderland. Was this real? Am I in a dream? Valley of Gods it indeed is! If there’s a place where Gods live, this has to be it.

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Pic 11: Har-Ki-Dun Valley as we first laid our eyes on it

The soothing sound of the rippling Har-Ki-Dun River with a patch of green on either side strewn with rocks and boulders that effortlessly blended into tall mountains all around was a sight to behold. On one side of the river stood tall jagged bare mountains adorning various shades of green, grey and brown with a rocky and stony surface. Their counterparts, on the other side, were elegantly dressed in a cloak of pristine white snow.

I stood there for a while drinking it all, trying to fathom all that lay in front of me. This was God’s perfect painting. I had seen such scenes only in calendars and posters. Words are failing me and I cannot do justice to that moment of picture perfect brilliance.

Spending my Birthday with the Mystical Swargarohini

While others went to their camps to rest and change, my sister and I had no patience for all that. We dumped our bags and rushed to the river bank to take off our shoes and dip our feet in the alluring river water. Fed by melting glaciers from the mountains, the water was very cold and we couldn’t keep our feet in there for long. It was around 1.00 PM in the afternoon and we had the entire afternoon and evening to ourselves. Moreover, we would be here the next day as well – a thought that made us ecstatic. We had enough time to explore the entire fairy tale like land. This was brilliant, I couldn’t have asked for more!

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Pic 12: The mystical Swargarohini

As we sat by the river facing the snow-clad mountains, for the first time we wondered which one of these was Swargarohini. It turned out that Swargarohini wasn’t right in front of us, rather up in the corner.  Swargarohini, covered off and on by clouds, did stand out as being starkly different from the other mountains and had a mystical charm to it. We walked ahead for a closer look. I could imagine the Pandavas and Draupadi walking up the peak and falling off one by one. Yudhishthira reaching the top with the dog behind him, a ladder dropping from the sky, and they climbing up to heaven.*

* The Pandavas were five brothers and Draupadi (also known as Panchali) was their common wife. After the war of Kurukshetra the Pandavas and Draupadi renounce the world and go to the Himalayas where they finally start ascending the Swargarohini peak towards heaven. A dog who had befriended the Pandavas during the journey also accompanies them. During the ascend, one by one everyone falls except the eldest of the five brothers, Yudhishthira and the dog, who are the only ones to go to heaven. (Read More)

This was my perfect birthday, my kind of happiness and joy. With that thought, my lips curled into a pleasurable smile. I did keep my promise!

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Pic 13: Few minutes of rest just before reaching Har-Ki-Dun

It was evening and I realized that I hadn’t seen my sister in a while. We were both sitting beside the river after lunch soaking in the afternoon sun. While I kept expressing my thoughts and feelings, she was relatively quiet. I then went off strolling around and was too busy taking in everything around to pay any attention to her. But now afternoon had given way to evening.

I walked back near the river looking for her and caught her sitting in the same place – all alone. I approached her only to find her weeping. Overwhelmed by the mountains, she felt very insignificant and small. This does happen to many people, so I wasn’t surprised. Her eyes were swollen and she just couldn’t stop the flow of tears rolling down her cheek. I sat beside her for a while and then let her be.

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Pic 14: How insignificant and tiny we are before the majestic Himalayas

The next morning we trekked 3 Km, up the mountain to visit Maninda Taal, which is situated behind the mountains. We were back by lunch time. After lunch, my sister and I took off once again voraciously absorbing all that we could of the valley on both sides of the river. We crossed over to the other side, walked till the edge of the valley, climbed up the mountain towards the forest rest house and visited the Shiva Lingam located in its premises, climbed up another mountain to get a better view of Swargarohini, interacted with other people we met, and so on.

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Pic 15: The Shiva Lingam with a glimpse of Swargarohini behind the mountain

The next day we woke up early while it was still dark, as we wanted to have some more time with the valley before leaving. Once again, we went for a walk while waiting for the Sun to rise.

Soon it was time to go. As I started to walk away, unknowingly I turned back for a last glance of the gorgeous breathtaking landscape. A feeling of gratitude took over as I felt fortunate for having had the opportunity to spend a few moments of my life on this slice of heaven on earth. My soul is blessed to have had Har-Ki-Dun charted in my destiny! With this thought, I happily turned away to trace my way back with precious memories etched in my heart and mind forever and ever….

A Few Addendums

  • Indiahikes, the group I trekked with, follows a principle of eco-friendly and sustainable trekking with minimum impact on the environment. They take several measures to make that happen, one of which is handing over an eco-bag to all trekkers. Any waste we generate while trekking goes into that bag. Not just that, if we find any litter on the trekking trail, we collect them onto these bags. On this trek, I had collected a lot of garbage and often went out of my way to do so. Indiahikes awarded a special certificate in recognition for this and, I was absolutely elated!
  • We bought Rhododendron Juice on our way back from Sankri, which was a huge hit with our friends and colleagues in Bangalore.
  • The gorgeous Tamosa river is formed near Osla by Har Ki Dun and Ruinsara Nallah. Flowing through Taluka, Tamosa merges with Supin River at Sankri. Supin river then joins with Rupin River to form Tons River at Netwar.
  • The valley houses rich Himalayan fauna, like Black bears, wild boars, Barasingha, Langoors, Golden eagles and massive Himalayan griffins. The colourful Himalayan monal, the state bird of Uttarakhand also thrives here. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any of these except the horses and cows grazing in the meadows. However, during the night at Kalkatiyadhar, we got to know of a mule calf being attacked and killed by a wild animal possibly a leopard.

The Calm and Composed Maninda Taal

Its Silvery Serenity was Beyond all Imagination…

A bright and sunny day with sapphire blue skies stretching right through to the horizon is what greeted us that morning. There wasn’t a single cloud in sight. It was spring time in the month of April, hence no surprise. We were camping at the gorgeous Har-ki-Dun valley where we had arrived the day before. The more I talk about this heavenly place, the less it is. For now, I am parking that for another post.

Having an entire day in this valley, gave us the opportunity to hike up further beyond and see a lake called Maninda Taal hidden behind the mountains. Taal refers to lake in the local language. The night before at dinner we had a discussion on the two places that we might want to visit that day – Maninda Taal, located around 3 km from the campsite and Juandhar Glacier at around 10 km from camp site. Most of the votes went for the lake. I wasn’t sure, as I wanted to go to both but on enquiring got to know that wasn’t a possibility.

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Pic 1: As we climbed up there were patches of snow and the mountains appeared really close

It was still early in the morning when we started walking up the mountain. It was a steep climb through a loose muddy trail with sparing vegetation. As we neared the top, the gorgeous snow-hooded mountains spearing up to the sky surrounding the valley appeared unusually close. They seemed to be gazing at us scrutinizing each and every move we made. A little ahead, we came upon a place that was covered with fresh snow. The blanket of white seemed unending in every direction and this continued for the rest of the trail with no sight of animals or plants.

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Pic 2: The snow fights had started

The snow fights (throwing snowballs at each other) had already started and it intensified along the way and all hell broke loose when we took a bend and landed onto a mound of snow. This mound was created by an avalanche that must have taken place in the recent past. I for one hadn’t seen such heaps of snow before. It reminded me about those calendar pictures of *Shiva and Parvati sitting in a cloud of snow with Ganesha on their lap.

*Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesha are Hindu deities, Parvati is Shiva’s wife and Ganesha their son with the head of a elephant (Read More).

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Pic 3: The mound of snow caused by a recent avalanche.

Everyone was engrossed with snow fights and unconsciously divided ourselves into two teams. We had to reign in ourselves by reminding that the lake was our destination and not the snow fights. We walked across the knee deep snow for some more time while the strong mountain sun continued blazing above us.

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Pic 4: We continued walking through knee deep snow.
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Pic 5: I just love this pic!

Finally, the lake was in sight! And, what a spectacular moment that was! I could feel utter joy surging up my heart. The silvery shining water of the lake lay still with occasional small ripples as though surprised to see the sudden curious onlookers.  The gravity of the greyish-blue water was sending out invisible rays of energy that was gently piercing my heart filling me with contentment and happiness. The snow-draped mountains around the lake seemed to understand my feelings and I felt they were graciously smiling with acknowledgement. As my eyes dropped to the water for a deeper look, I noticed how divine and sparklingly clean it was. I was compelled to bend down and feel the water with my bare hands.

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Pic 6: The calm and composed lake

As I looked up from my cupped hands, my gaze moved a little beyond and fell upon the tall wall of a mountain that appeared to be on one corner of the lake. I could see our trek guide sliding down the snow from the top. How did he reach there! This was an adrenalin rush and I knew I had to go there too.

After spending a few more moments beside the lake and capturing some of it through my mobile lens, I started walking toward the tall grand mountain wall that seemed to be eagerly reaching out for the heavens above. A few people joined in. My sister, who was on this trek with me, also came along. Going over to the tall mountain wasn’t all easy as the snow was really deep. It was only with help and support from my fellow trekkers that I could make it there.

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Pic 7: Walking up the mountain wall only to slide down

We walked up the mountain wall and then sitting on our water proof jackets, using them as props did a slide down. And, oh what fun that was! Some of us repeated the act several times as we slid individually and slid in small groups together with others. We captured videos for one another, clicked photos, and laughed our hearts out!

After all the fun and laughter, it was time to go. Bidding goodbye to the charming lake that exuded such elegance and grace was not easy. I felt I could just keep staring at her for the rest of my life.

Maninda Taal, I remember you with fond memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Lots of love to you…..

Imagination

In Pursuit of the Elusive Rainbow

I stepped out of my room and looked up at the sky. The moon shone brilliantly and looked like a perfectly rounded sphere of white radiance sailing in the cloudless night. Millions of twinkling stars accompanying the moon seemed to be looking at me knowing exactly what I was thinking.

We were spending the night at Nongriat in a homestay, which was right next to the double root bridge – a bridge that epitomizes the harmonious blend of Nature’s abundance and Man’s hard work. Braving 3600 steps, we had arrived at Nongriat earlier that day.

Later that night, we befriended four travellers staying at the homestay. Gautam and Om were from Mumbai and were biking in the North East while Rajat and Ashwin were solo travellers. Rajat came from Delhi and Ashwin all the way from the city of Mysore in the South. I was with two of my cousin sisters and we were exploring our own home state. Our destination for the next day was Rainbow Falls and we decided to go there together as a team. Our guide, Droning was quite amused to find the three sisters multiply into this little army in just a few hours. Droning lives in Nongriat and is a young 15-year-old lad, who is preparing to appear for his school final this year.

Next day started early for us. We were up by 5.30 AM and left the homestay at 6.00 AM with our newly found acquaintances. The sun wasn’t up yet but the skies looked clear. Soon, we found ourselves crossing a shaky iron bridge that threatened to throw us off as it swayed to and fro while we crossed it one foot at a time. We had encountered such bridges the day before as well, but I for one was still not used to them and could feel my knees quiver. This particular one was worse as the iron was rusted in places. After a while, we crossed another root bridge and the root bridges are so much more stable!

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Pic 1: Another precarious hanging bridge, this one had few rusted iron rods making it scarier!  [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 2: Another hanging root bridge, this particular one was supported by iron rods. Root bridges were much more sturdier. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]

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Pic 3: Towards the end of the root bridge as we stepped into the jungle. Isn’t that glorious!

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Pic 4: Through the jungle trail, one step at a time. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 5: Sis takes a break. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
The sound of running water of the falls teased us for a long while as we continued walking and expected to see it at every turn but the falls kept eluding us. Then, in a flash it suddenly emerged from the thick green envelope. There it was! Rainbow Falls – a hidden treasure in the deep jungles of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya. The mighty roaring water was spectacular leaving us transfixed for a moment.

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Pic 6: Rainbow Falls as it emerged through the dense green thicket.

I stared at it from the top of the hill for a while before convincing myself that this was not a dream. Only then, was I able to descend the final flight of steps towards the falls. As I looked on, I noticed the enormous force of the water as it pounded its way right into the pool below. The pool was a brilliant sparkling blue and looked serene and calm, unaffected by the torrents of water pounding on it with such great force.

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Pic 7: I just had to admire it for a while before making my way down.

The sun was just about making its way through the tall hills around the falls. So, we would have to wait a while to see the rainbow that appears on the falls. It’s this permanent rainbow across the falls that makes it unique and gives it the name.

I found myself a comfortable seating area from where I could view the falls in its entirety. One of my sisters joined me. The rest were already making their way down through the huge formidable boulders. We watched them go down. Two of the guys couldn’t control their urge and very soon plunged into the crystal clear blue waters of the pool below. The water was so clear that we could see right through into the pebbles at the bottom.

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Pic 8: The pristine blue water was just too alluring!

The dazzling blue water was too inviting. My sister could hold herself no longer and decided to climb down.  The huge boulders intimidated me and I wasn’t sure. It’s my short height that limits me, shaking my confidence at such times, as I know my legs will not reach out to all places. I felt quite comfortable where I was but my sister insisted. Soon, Droning was summoned to give me a hand and help me navigate my way down to the blue pool.

Down below, the falls was magnificent but at the same time terrifying and unnerving. I stood there for a while watching the rest of my gang braving the chill and swimming and wading in the water. At one point all of them climbed up a huge boulder that had a ladder against it for a closer view of the falls. I wasn’t able to muster the courage.

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Pic 9: The  clear blue water through to the pebbles below. The water was comparatively shallow, as it was Winter season.

Another sparkling green pool of water amidst huge rocks and boulders glistened in the morning sun and lay quietly away from the falls. While the others went towards that, I decided to go back to my comfort place and again not without Droning’s help. One of my sisters and Rajat joined me too.

We chatted and waited patiently for another hour and a half as the sun’s rays slowly descended down the falls. The rest settled in a place down below after they had their fill of exploring and posing for photographs of kinds. We didn’t know at what point the rainbow would appear and every now and then imagined seeing colours when there weren’t any.

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Pic 10: Sis poses at the crystal clear green pool at the far end of the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
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Pic 11: At my comfort place overlooking the falls. [P.C – Ashwin Chandru]
And when the rainbow actually appeared, we literally shrieked in unison. It was so sudden that I felt as if an invisible fairy godmother had touched it with her magic wand. We reveled in the enigmatic beauty of Mother Nature for a while.

It was almost 10.30 AM. A few more people had now started coming in and it was time for us to leave.

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Pic 12: Do you spot the rainbow? We had to wait till the Sun’s rays reached that point just before it touched the pool below.

In our anticipation of the rainbow, we had forgotten that we had missed breakfast. Having been up for more than 4 hours with quite a bit of physical activity, our stomachs had started growling. The girls had meticulously packed in a few bread slices from our Homestay the night before. The boys had none. The food was far from sufficient and we still had a long way to go. We had decided not to go back to Nongriat, instead follow a jungle trail that goes straight to Cherrapunjee.

We had already invited trouble, just that we were still unaware…. (Continued)

The Dreamy Desert Mountains

Sketches of my experience at Spiti Valley

It was dark in the room as I lay cozily tucked inside warm cotton quilts and blankets replaying the day’s events while my sister was fast asleep right beside me. It always takes me a while to fall asleep and this wasn’t unusual but today I wasn’t bothered as all I could see was the rugged roads and the radiant mountains. I smiled my way to sleep and couldn’t wait to be up the next morning.

The cold desert of Spiti Valley, with its austere barren mountains, deep gorges, emerald green river, ancient monasteries, gorgeous villages, and unique culture has given me a lifetime of memories and experiences. Here’s an attempt to capture the essence of Spiti through a brief outline of the places we visited.

Kaza – A Tiny Little Commercial Hub

Kaza brings memories of walking through narrow lanes of the busy little market area that sits right at its center.  Surrounded by jagged mountains, and situated at an altitude of 3,800 m. above sea level, Kaza is the capital of Lahaul and Spiti district. It is like a central place which connects all other places in the valley. On one side of the market area is a series of Chortens or Stupas that face the 14th century Tangyud Gompa. Just besides the Chortens is the only petrol bunk in the valley, which also happens to be the world’s highest retail outlet. The only ATM in the valley belonging to State Bank of India is also located in Kaza.

Solitude at Rangrik

While Kaza was bustling with activities, Rangrik’s solitude appealed to the nature-lovers in us. Situated at an altitude of 3699 m. from sea level, the quiet and sleepy village is marked by the large golden Buddha statue and prominent prayers written on the mountains. The village has a couple of good schools that attract students from all across Spiti. Our hotel, Spiti Sarai, was located a few meters away from the village homes just across Spiti river with sprawling open spaces. Initially we were disappointed about being 5 Km away from Kaza, but it turned out to be just as we would have wanted. We did things that we love to do, which wouldn’t have happened had we stayed at Kaza.

Walked in the open fields while watching the sun set behind the mountains; climbed up the long flight of stairs painted in white across the road to take a look at the Chorten up in the mountain but discovered a temple instead; clambered up the mountain looking for the cave with a magnetic rock that the hotel bell boy had talked about but took a wrong turn and ended up on a cliff overlooking the river on one side and the cave on the other and had to be satisfied with only a view of the cave from a distance. Most importantly, we spent a considerable time lazing on the banks of Spiti River.

Autumn Colours at Mane Village

The most notable thing about Mane was the vibrant Autumn colours in various shades of yellow and gold. Situated at an altitude of 2926 m, the village has a small Gompa that did not appeal much to us. Other than this, there is nothing much in this village. We spent  most of our time here interacting with the village kids. Later, we got to know that there is a lake known as Sopona Lake, which is a 2-3 Km trek away from the village.

The Buddhist Mummy at Gue

The intriguing mummy at Gue had captivated my imagination right from the first time I had heard about it. After I landed in Spiti, I could no longer contain my curiosity and kept asking about it to everyone I met. Finally, I was at Gue and as I knelt in reverence, it was a moment of awe that no words can describe. The remarkably well preserved mummy in a sitting position with intact hair and nails left us astonished. That no chemicals are used, the natural mummification just left us marveling. At a distance of about 80 Km and a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border, Gue is the furthest village from Kaza. Situated at an altitude of around 3200 m, Gue is famous for this 500-600 year old naturally preserved mummy of a Lama that was discovered by the army after an old tomb containing the mummified body had opened up following the earthquake in 1975. The mummy is now kept in a separate chamber inside a glass casing just beside the village Gompa. Locals believe that the mummy is of Lama Sangha Tenzin, who had sacrificed his life to free the village from a menace of scorpions. They say when the Lama’s soul left his body there was a rainbow in the sky and the scorpions had disappeared. Carbon Dating has scientifically established the mummy to be of a 45 year old Lama from the last quarter of 15th century. The Lama apparently belonged to Gelugapa order who are practitioners of Zogchen, the highest form of meditation. This is the only Buddhist mummy in the world and also the only known naturally preserved mummy in India.

Apple Orchards & Mud Monastery at Tabo

The extraordinary Mud Monastery at Tabo took us by surprise as I had not heard/read about this before. Tabo is situated at an altitude of 3279 m. and the monastery dates back to 996 CE, the Tibetan year of the Fire Ape, when it was founded. The monastery, consisting of temples and Chortens, is completely made of Mud and is surrounded by tall mountains that supposedly have a number of caves carved into the cliff face that are used by the monks for meditation. That’s why Tabo Monastery is known as the ‘Ajanta of the Himalayas’. We read about the caves in the description provided in the signboard but didn’t have the time to go see them. We got to know that the Dalai Lama considers Tabo Monastery to be one of the holiest and has also expressed his desire to retire in this ancient monastery. He has also held Kalachakra ceremonies here in 1983 and 1996.

The same compound also has the new monastery, which is concrete and of modern architecture. We were fortunate to attend a prayer ritual that was happening at the new monastery when we were around. Tabo Gompa houses many ancient and priceless Buddhist manuscripts and is considered second in importance to the Tholing Gompa in Tibet.

Tabo also fascinated us with its apple orchards, which start off many miles before reaching the village and continue many miles beyond it. To top it all, the apple trees were covered with ripe red apples and it was with great difficulty that we controlled our desire to just go and pluck off a few. Even the monastery has a garden of apple trees with the tonnes of apples hanging from the trees.

The Quaint Villages of Kibber, Lhalung, & Chicham

We experienced the local culture through our homestays at Kibber and Lhalung village. The enriching experiences at the homestays demanded a separate post altogether. An important highlight worth mentioning here is catching a glimpse of the red-eyed fox on our way to Lhalung as it quickly passed by our car and went down the mountain.

While at Kibber, we went to visit the newly inaugurated bridge that connects Kibber to Chicham village – a bridge that took 17 years to complete. It is unnerving to think that before this bridge, people would use a trolley tied through a ropeway between the deep gorges at a drop of about 150 m. to go to Chicham. It’s not surprising that many people have lost their lives during this commute, which was the only mode of connectivity to Chicham.

Dhankar Gompa from a Distance

Dhankar village is famous for the 1000 year old Dhankar Gompa and the mesmerizing Dhankar lake, which can be reached only after a steep climb of about 3 Kms up the mountain. The quiet and solitude at the lake made all the climb totally worthwhile.

The Dhankar monastery is built on a high spur of the mountain overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers. Dhankar was the traditional capital of Spiti Valley and the monastery is like a fort that also served as a prison. Dhankar literally means fort on a cliff (Dhan: cliff, and Kar: fort). Most of the fort is in ruins now after the 1975 earthquake. A new Gompa has also been built but the old one is truly fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore the fort and had to satisfy ourselves with the view from a distance. However, we were lucky to have spotted a few blue sheep grazing up in the mountain on our way to Dhankar. You can’t have it all…can you!

The Pristine Beauty of Pin Valley

Pin Valley mesmerized us with its gorgeous landscape. Pin River, with its majestic greenish-blue color runs throughout the length of this fascinating valley before merging with Spiti River. Pin also houses the ‘Pin Valley National Park’. We took a drive down the valley upto Mud village but did not have enough time to visit the National Park.

Our Pin Valley drive can be summed up as a sunny day with azure blue sky alongside the graceful and sinuous Pin River through the enchanting silence of miles and miles of isolation accompanied by stunning views of the mottled desert mountains.

We crossed several villages on the way of which Mikkim is worth mentioning as its population of only 30 amazed us. We also walked on a hanging bridge over the river and visited Kungri Gompa on the way. Kungri is the second oldest Gompa in the Lahaul and Spiti Valley and has the distinction of being the only monastery, which belongs to the Nyingmapa order of Buddhism.

Looking for Fossils at Langza

Situated at an altitude of 4400 m., Langza village is dominated by a large statue of Lord Buddha, overlooking the valley. Langza is also the place to find fossils of marine animals and plants, which is attributed to Spiti Valley being submerged in the Tethys Sea millions of years ago. We expected to see a few but got to know that they can be found only if we trek higher up in the mountains.

Seabuckthorn Tea at Komic

Situated at a towering height of 4587m, Komic’s distinguishing feature is that it is the highest village in the world connected by a motorable road. However, our memories of Komic is associated with Seabuckthorn tea as this was where we had tasted it for the first time.  Seabuckthorn are orangish berries, the shrubs of which are scattered all over Spiti Valley. These fruits are a rich source of vitamin-C and due to their therapeutic properties are used in traditional medicines. The dried and crushed form make amazing organic tea that tastes like hot Fanta though we enjoyed eating them right off the plants too!

Posting Letters at Hikkim

Hikkim was super special – after all not everyday you get to post letters from the highest post office in the world. We sent post cards back home to our parents, which they are yet to receive and which is a surprise. Can’t wait to see their reactions. We also posted cards to our own addresses in the city and which have already arrived. At an altitude of 4440 m., Hikkim also has the highest polling booth in India. While driving back from Hikkim, we got lucky again and this time witnessed two Ibexes looking down at us from the mountain top.

Praying at Kee Monastery [or Key Monastery]

Picturesquely perched on a hilltop, Kee Monastery appears like a fortress with its haphazardly stacked rooms and temples. At an altitude of 4,116 m., the over 1000-year-old monastery is the oldest training center for Lamas and has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Besides invaders, it has also dealt with natural calamities of fire and earthquake. It has a vast collection of ancient murals, books and centuries old thangkas. We had expected to see a flurry of activities in the monastery with Lamas of all age groups busily carrying out their daily activities. None of that happened and the monastery wore a barren look as all the Lamas had gone over to Kaza that day for attending a ceremony. Also, we had plans of spending a night at the monastery but our amazing homestay experience resulted in swapping it with another homestay instead. So, we explored the monastery, prayed, and chatted with the only Lama available and headed for Gette.

Tying Prayer Flags at Gette

Dozens of prayer flags fluttering in the strong wind tied around an old Chorten on a hilltop is what greeted us at Gette. Surrounded by tall mountains and situated at a height of 4270m., it is also a viewpoint for Kee monastery that lies on one side of the valley.  On the other side is the Gette village, which has only 2-3 houses. There was nobody other than us at Gette at that point of time and we spent our time leisurely tying prayer flags and clicking selfies while reveling with the wind in our hairs.

Kunzum La and Chandrataal

It was afternoon and the wind was blowing strong when we reached Kunzum La on our way to Spiti. The prayer flags were fluttering and the landscape around it breathtaking. Situated at an altitude of 4,590 m. Kumzum La is the gateway to Spiti being the only motorable route that connects Kullu valley and Lahaul Valley with Spiti Valley. It also offers a spectacular view of Bara-Sigri, the second the longest glacier in the world. A series of Chortens and prayers written on flat stones are prominently displayed. All vehicles passing by this route stop here and pay respect to Kunzum Devi. The stunning Chandrataal is at a distance of 9.5 Km from Kumzum La and the more I say about Chandrataal the less it is and definitely demands a separate post.

Spiti Valley feels like a dream. The surreal landscapes that remain cut-off by snow from the rest of the country for at least 7 months a year is a different world altogether and has completely enthralled me. I have already written so many posts on it but it still feels like I have so much more to share…..And now I can totally relate to Rudyard Kipling’s description of Spiti –

“At last entered a world within a world – a valley of leagues where the high hills were fashioned of the mere rubble and refuse from off the knees of the mountains… Surely the Gods live here.”

Rugged Road to Radiant Mountains

The rollercoaster of a ride to Spiti Valley

As the car started climbing up the winding mountain road from Manali, I could sense the rush of that familiar feeling of excitement and happiness – which surfaces only when I am headed to the mountains, Himalayas to be more specific. And this time I was about to explore the cold desert mountains of Western Himalayas.

We were on our way to Spiti, the land between Tibet and India. The name ‘Spiti’ literally means ‘The Middle Land’

Spiti had been on my mind for a long time now, right from the time I came to know about it, 7 years back. However, it happened rather suddenly when impulsively I asked my Manager for leave amidst extremely busy times at office not knowing that it would be granted and everything was planned in less than two weeks. And, then my sister offered to join in. Magic just happens, all you need is the intent!

The winding roads continued as we feasted our eyes on the green conifers shining in the early morning light. As we crossed Rohtang Pass, the green trees disappeared almost suddenly being replaced by massive rocky mountains. Almost simultaneously, the tarred road also disappeared and it was replaced by a pathway strewn with pebbles and loose mud.

The pathway got narrow and narrower and seemed to hang precariously on the mountain slopes. Further ahead, the pebbles were replaced by larger stones and there were huge rocks planted randomly here and there. Every now and then I thought we were about to hit a dead end but a hidden path would emerge from nowhere. On occasions we were asked to step out of the car and walk up a few meters only to reduce the load and make it easier for Raju, the driver of our car.

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Pic 1: A glimpse of the road!
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Pic 2: A test of your driving skills and your patience

We rode across several waterfall, which we learned are known as ‘Nalla’ in everyday verbiage in this part of the world. These constitute water coming from the glaciers and the quantity of water increases as the day progresses. Some of these were pretty risky. For us, it was sheer Adrenalin rush but not quite for Raju who had to manipulate his way carefully and at one time he even sent out a sincere prayer to the Almighty. He had already displayed his driving expertise, why did he have to do that! He revealed a couple of experiences – once when his car had gotten stuck at one such nalla forcing him to spend the cold night in his car and another when he saw his friend’s car skid and fall into the deep gorge, thankfully his friend was saved. Raju also entertained us with other interesting stories of the road – sudden snow falls, increased water levels in the nallas, traffic jams created by broken vehicles, etc.

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Pic 3: Back-breaking but views that more than compensate

The bumpy ride rattled every bone in our body but we weren’t bothered. Just one look out of the window is all it took to forget the tumultuous journey.

Humongous mountains fiercely stared at us revealing their might with river Chandra gushing below with its emerald green water. It’s difficult to comprehend that there can be so much splendor in the rugged and starkly bare sky-touching mountains. We marveled at the various shades of brown, black, white, and grey. Later on in Spiti, we also found splendid shades of peach, amber, orange, and yellow. The mountains were intricately patterned and curved and each one looked uniquely different. The impressive craftsmanship is attributed to the melting snow as it flows down towards the river.

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Pic 4: Those colours and intricate patterns curved out by melting snow.

It was the beginning of October and there wasn’t much snow around. Though the mountain tops did have some snow and some of them were fresh. Winter was just round the corner and soon everything would be carpeted in white. In fact, the route from Manali would also close down. The way from Shimla would however remain open.

We learn from our driver, Raju, that the route from Shimla is what we should have ideally taken. Usually people start from Shimla and end at Manali. Though getting to Kaza, the main town of Spiti through Shimla will take you upto 3 days as compared to just one day through Manali. However, that route will take you through the beautiful places of Kalpa and Chitkul of Kinnaur Valley. Also, the road from Shimla is a properly tarred one.  I realized in my hurry I hadn’t done my research well enough.

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Pic 5: The long and winding roads across fascinating landscapes
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Pic 6: One of the many magnificent bridges we crossed

The route though Shimla would have been wonderful but I don’t regret having taken the one from Manali.  It was definitely worth the experience in its entirety and it also appealed to my adventurous spirit. At one point we even landed at a place where the road was missing, a huge boulder had apparently fallen from the mountain taking along with it a portion of the road. We had to wait for a while and a make shift road was put in place by using stones. Another time a local villager stopped us asking if we could drop him to Losar, which was a village on the way. We readily agreed and had some interesting conversations on the way. Not just that, when we saw yaks grazing in the wilderness our excitement took over us and he drove one of the yaks towards us so that we could get a good picture.

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Pic 7: The villager chasing the yak for us
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Pic 8: When the herd interrupted us
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Pic 9: There were hundreds of tiny birds on this shrub, which flew away the moment we approached. I feel handicapped with my phone camera at such times!

After all the adventures, as the sun was setting for the day, we reached Spiti. To our surprise, we were greeted by superbly tarred and smooth roads that were starkly contrasting to what we had endured so far. “This feels like butter!”, I heard my sister remark from the backseat. “Now, that’s cheesy!” I grinned from the front seat, where I had shifted to be alongside Raju a long while ago.

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Pic 10: Just when the roads were getting better 

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