A trek in the Himalaya
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
Today we begin our 12 day trek. We will walk about 150km from Dharamsala across two mountain ranges: the Dhaola dhars, and the Pir Pinjal to reach our destination in Keylong.
In the morning we meet the guide Manu, the cook Swaroop, and the 5 porters: Sita Ram (carries food trunk), Ramesh (carries cooking utensils), Vinod (carries our 2 rucksacks), Viru (carries tents), and Chopra (carries everything else - but is sent back after first 4300m pass). We start with enthusiasm to climb to the first camp at Triund. The track winds uphill on an old shepherds path. This part of the trek is popular and we pass many refreshment stalls. It is hot and sweaty and we don't envy the porters who carry up to 30kg each for less than £2 pounds per day.
We reach Triund after 6 hours and the porters set up our tent for us. The view is fantastic as the clouds soon clear to reveal the mountains and our route up the glacier to Inderhara pass. The combination of the verticality of the mountain pass infront of us and the lack of oxygen at our first camp at 2975m makes us feel a bit weak in the knees.
Day 2 - Up to the Lahes (base) camp.
Wake refreshed in the morning. Climb up over big boulders and cross the bottom of the glacier to reach a dark cave formed by an enormous boulder resting on another large rock. The cave is fairly wide but barely 1m tall. It is used for sleeping by Gaddi shepherds during the summer as they begin their journey over the mountain passes to take their herds of goats and sheep to fresh grazing regions in Leh and Spiti many hundreds of kilometers away.
As the afternoon progresses the clouds clear again and Manu points out our route above us. The glacial pass looks more manageable today although I still wonder whether I am going to make it.
We have the luxury of a tent to sleep in tonight, although later on in the afternoon it begins to rain and water begins to seep into the bottom of our sleeping bags. The day gets worse as John dries his Thermarest sleeping mattress and manages to puncture it. The foot blister plasters fail to fix the leak. As the sun sets, the air becomes frosty and John is not looking forward to the 10 hard and cold nights ahead of him.
The night seems endless
Day 3 - Lahes (base) camp - extra day
In the morning, we wake to hear a roaring noise and feel the tent almost rising off the ground. The Canadian woman, her husband, and three sons have been taken to the sanctuary of the cave during the night. It is 5.30am and an army helicopter has arrived to transport the casualty to safety. She hobbles in pain as she crosses the rocks and is slowly winched up on a small seat up towards the helicopter. The whole operation looks extremely dangerous and after speaking to Adrian, the lady's husband, we feel worried about our climb which will follow their route
30 minutes later another helicopter arrives at the scene. However nobody knows the correct semaphore to let them know that the casualty has already been airlifted. So two burly guys drop down with an emergency stretcher and are informed that she's already been taken to hospital by the army. One of the guys is an Australian called Roddy, who who owns the helicopter and runs a heli-skiing operation.
It has been a long and tiring night for most of our team and we agree to spend an extra day resting and to attempt our mountain pass tomorrow. I feel quite relieved to feel the strains of mountain sickness pass as we spend the day enjoying the view down the glacier and up towards our mountain pass.
At dusk the sunshine dissapears and rain arrives. A second tent has been provided for us however we find that the ground is wet again. At first, a night sleeping in the cave didn't seem very appealing as it is very claustrophobic and full of sheep dung. However, now we happily retreat to sleep in the cave with everyone else where it is dry.
Day 4 - Inderhera Pass (4300m)
I wake in the darkness and confinement of the cave at 4.30am
We start the walk by scrambling up huge granite boulders. It is hard work but it is still early and cool. Soon we stop and metal crampons are tightly strapped onto our boots. We feel disabled with these heavy weights and with the high altitude it is really hard work walking and breathing. Manu and Swaroop use their iceaxes to hew small steps into the near vertical walls of snow and we slowly ascend. The sun rises quickly and soon we are captured by its intensity. It looks as though we are nearly at the top, but Manu informs us that we are only two thirds of the way up.
Soon we reach the point where the Canadian lady fell to. We see tracks in the snow where she was lowered downwards and we find an abandoned iceaxe and pair of snowgoggles. The thought of falling is really scary. We wonder how our porters can carry such heavy loads and can wear shoes which have no grips but most of our concentration is filled by watching our feet and with careful treading.
Finally we reach the top and our breathlessness and exhaustion disappear as we see the view. At this altitude the clouds mysteriously appear and disappear and now we can see into the next glacial valley. The glacier of virgin snow is spectacular and appears as a moonscape of contours and craters. In the distance we also see the Pir Pinjal range of the Himalaya which we will soon reach.
We meet a Gaddi shepherd with around 500 goats and sheep
Our descent is really exciting as we sit on our bums and slide down 1km of snow, several hundreds of meters at a time. This is certainly much easier than the ascent and it is really exhilarating speeding down the mountain. Several of the porters trousers are in tatters after the sliding.
We walk through pine forests growing around the glacier, past outlets of underwater streams and up rocky cliffs. Eventually after a total of 18km from the cave we reach a grassy meadow surrounded by mountains which will be our camp for the evening. As we relax and unwind, more Gaddi shepherd's and their flocks pass us on their long journey to new pastures.
Day 5 - Kuarsi Village (2100m)
This morning we wake to see a beautiful view of the mountains at sunrise. The peaks of snow are dazzling white against a blue sky and more shepherd's seem to be already on the move
As we approach Kuarsi village we begin to see terraced fields full of wheat, barley and vegetables. As we get closer, we are pleasantly surprised to see black slate roofs and timber houses. Kuwarsi is a delightful village that seems to be lost in time. Around 300 people live in harmony in this community. It is 12 km from the nearest roadhead and there are no roads, shops, sewage or showers (much to Rachel's disappointment).
We are staying in the local temple. The building is constructed of pine and in the central courtyard there is smaller building which houses the Gods. Water emerges from a hollowed out wooden tree and many people come and fill huge water brass urns which they balance on their head. It is clean and very peaceful here and we have an open plan upper floor all to ourselves.
After washing our clothes in the local stream outlet, we wander around the village. It seems as though most of the men are working in the fields, whilst the women harvest their crops for drying and storage at home. There are many children who each seem to be genuinely pleased to see us. They try to speak English and they all have beautiful smiles
The wooden houses are several stories high with cows accomodated on the ground floor and the living quarters upstairs. Many of the houses have huge wooden looms for weaving woollen rugs. The people seem to own nothing but they are extremely friendly and invite us to drink chai masala (spiced tea made with milk) on their balconies. We don't really understand oneanothers' conversation, but we all appreciate the company and the splendid views.
Day 6 - Bharmour
We are a little sad to leave Kuarsi as it is a really beautiful village. We exit via some tracks which soon open onto small paths which have been built onto the side of a cliff. The paths are very narrow and there are many people who don't seem to be bothered by the steep death-drop down into the river below. There are plans to widen this path to construct a road to the village, however we think seems to be highly unlikely. We pass a family who carry a small white lamb. Manu tells us that the lamb will be sacrificed in the Kuarsi temple later today and this makes us feel a little more pleased to be leaving.
We pass Hilling, another small village and after 3 hours reach a road
In the evening we visit the main attraction of Bharmour which are the Hindu Chausi temples. There are 84 temples, some dating back to the 8th Century. As the moon rises each of the temples are lit up by a visiting priest to expose elephant, monkey, and other half animal Gods. Many of the temples have intricate wood carvings and cool stone floors. There are many Indian tourists in this region, but we are still surprised to see no westerners.
For dinner tonight, we eat our first meat for six days - fresh goat stew with more chapattis!
Day 7 - Bharmour to Dharbala camp
In the morning we try to find a bus to take us further up the road to Hadsar to avoid the walk along the road busy with jeeps, buses, and cars.
The bus driver informs us that he doesn't know how far the bus will be going due to road
construction work, so we hire a jeep. Into one jeep we fit the entire crew of 2 clients (us), 4 porters, 1 cook, and 1 guide, plus driver, drivers assistant, and a small boy. Most of our luggage goes on the roof. The heavily laden jeep sets off with gusto - Rachel and I sit in the front, and we move between the emotions of fear and excitment as we drive along the dusty road, narrowly missing other road users. The jeep is pretty basic but has a stereo that blares out Indian music plus a very loud horn that can play several different tunes and is used almost continually.
After a while the road becomes rough and impassable, so we get off and walk. Many labourers are working on the road. Its an almost unbelievably tough life for them. I learn from one that they get paid about 1 pound per day- working 6 days a week they get paid for Sunday too. They live in Shanty towns where the houses consist of a wooden frame with a tarpaulin thrown over.
Its quite hot today and very dusty on this side of the Dhaula Dhur mountains and the walk is not that pleasant walking along a road construction site
We reach our camp after 3 hours or so - its beside a Forestry office and a shanty town full of Nepali immigrant construction workers. We take a look inside one of the huts and meet the warden for the forestry commission hut.
Day 8 - Kugti Village
Kugti village is reached after a fairly leisurely 3hr hike. It is another largely unspoilt Gaddi tribal village. Its much more squeezed together than Kuarsi. We are staying in the home of a local family. Downstairs there is a courtyard and accomodation for the cows, and there are two floors above that. The building is constructed from stone and wood, and has lovely balconies to sit on and enjoy the view. Our twin bedded room has been abandoned by its occupants, two brothers, in the 2 minutes since we arrived and walked up the stairs. It looks clean and tidy, and it's nice to have beds to sleep in.
In the afternoon we take a walk round the village and chat to various people including a
pharmacist who gets paid 200 pounds a month (equivalent of a doctor he informs us)
I am fascinated by the water powered flour mills down beside the river. We find one that is running. Its great to see 1000 year old technology in operation. Inside there is a man making sure that the grain runs into the centre of the top millstone at the correct rate. I always assumed these would run fast but the flow of grains is no more than a trickle. Everything, including the man is covered in flour dust. Outside water gushes down a lade underneath the building and exits in a spray after impinging on the turbine blades, which are attached by a long wooden shaft to the upper stone.
Day 9 - Kelang Temple
Another 3-4hr hike today. This is because we decide to stop earlier than planned because our intended camp at Duggi is covered in sheep poo due to the mass movement of sheep through the valley and over Kugti Pass.
On our way we pass a large group of people at a small hindu temple by the side of the road
We reach Kelang temple at 3000m and it's quite exposed. Around the temple there are lots of dogs that survive on the scraps given by the temple caretakers and passing shepherds and pilgrims.
There are a number of buildings and in one of them our team sets up the kitchen and sleeping area. They pitch a tent for us outside on a flat spot infront of the temple. I don't really like this temple as much as some of the others we've seen as it's really untidy and smells of dirty dogs and dead goats.
After lunch we wander up the hill to look at the sister temple. This one is completely open and commands amazing views of the mountains all around.
In the evening it starts raining and we think we might have to abandon the tent for one of the temple buildings. Fortunately the rain stops at nightfall and we can use the tent
Day 10 - Kugti pass base camp (Lahes)
This is one tough walking day. After 1.5hrs we reach where we should have camped the night before at Duggi. Our suspicions are confirmed that it is indeed covered in sheep poo. However the views on to the mountains are some of the most spectacular we've seen so far. We press on towards the camp at 4000m. The vegetation starts to change and we pass over high altitude meadows covered in all kinds of wild flowers. It's starting to feel difficult to walk at anything more than a snails pace.
We see many shepherds moving their flocks up the valley towards the pass. They shout and whistle at the sheep using a variety of tones that you wouldn't necessarily think were human. Our porters enjoy immitatating them as best they can. The shepherds dogs appear completely useless - as they play no role in making the sheep and goats move; they tag along quietly behind while the shepherds do all the work. The flocks are moved by one shepherd leading them and several shepherds rounding up the stragglers at the back.
We reach Lahes at about 3pm and get a cup of tea and biscuits to build the blood sugar level. It's a superb camp site - high in the mountains on a flat green meadow covered in anemonies with a glacial stream forming a ring of bright water around our tent.
In the evening we agree to a 3.30am start next day to ensure we get over the pass early, ideally infront of the sheep
Day 11 - Kugti Pass
At 3.30am we wake. Its a full moon and a completely clear sky, so everything surrounding us appears in stunning black and white. The stream is silver and the snow on the mountains is bright white. After a quick breakfast we start walking up towards the pass. We find the going tough as we've never walked at this altitude before.
After an hour or two we put on crampons to help walk in the snow. They add considerable weight to a boot so it feels like I have lead feet. We find that despite our early rise, the shepherds got up earlier than us and are ahead of us in moving their flocks over the pass.
Daylight breaks, but there's no sun till quite late because it's concealed until about 10am when it can finally filter into the steep sided valley. It's just as well because the hot sun can really slow you down when hiking at this altitude.
The last 200m altitude take us about an hour and half as we have a very steep 60degree scramble up snow and ice to the top of the pass. As always we are amazed how the shepherds do it in normal shoes or socks+string. The sheep find it easy too apart from one little black lamb that we find abandoned about 100m from the summit. It's too knackered to go on and I can sympathise with it.
Finally after 5hrs we reach the top and the views are the best of the entire trek. We can see mount Kailash to the south and the expanse of the Himalaya to the North. We take a few photos at the top and watch a large eagle soaring nearby. The flock of goats and sheep just ahead of us moves down the other side of the pass.
The height here is 5040m - so about 16500ft - the highest we've ever been. The air is thin but we both feel fine.
We start decending and its pretty steep downhill. Rachel slips and starts sliding downhill. She bumps into Vinod the porter and sends him sliding downhill too. They both start accelerating, but Vinod manages to bring it under control and stop. Unfortunately Rachel doesn't and is moving very fast downhill. She starts tumbling over like a someone in a bad ski crash, and everyone looks on in horror. Finally she stops in some soft snow 200m down and sits up. From where everyone else is we can see that she's not seriously injured as she moved all her legs and arms. I slide down to check that she is OK. She looks shaken and has a cut in her leg from the crampon coming off, but is otherwise OK. She takes it in good spirits and after having a 5min rest and reattaching the crampon we can go on. No more sliding though. I feel relieved that she is OK.
The walk downhill to the camp takes a further 5hrs and is absolutely knackering. The views are good though - if somewhat tempered by Rachel's fall.
Finally we reach our campsite at 3600m. We discuss whether this could possibly be the perfect mountain campsite. It has a small glacial stream flowing over a field of wildflowers. All around us are the most magnificent Himalayan peaks and the sky is completely blue. We pitch our tent beside the stream and enjoy a cup of tea. A tiring but memorable day.
Day 12- To Keylong
The last day of trekking. We have about 4hrs of downhill walking to Rapey village and then catch the bus to Keylong.
Approaching Rapey village we start to see signs of human habitation - aquifers to channel water into terraces where willow trees are grown for basket making. Other crops such as beans and potatoes are being grown as cash crops. We see stacks of cowpats laid out in neat rows to dry in the sun for use as fuel. Apparently cow dung burns much hotter and cleaner than wood and is an ideal fuel in these areas. At Rapey we wait a couple of hours for the bus.Surprisingly it arrives on schedule but it really is sardines on board. We endure the crush for 1.5hrs to reach Keylong.
We check into our hotel which has a TV, double bed and bathroom. We get an opportunity to use a mirror for the first time in 12 days and I reckon I've lost weight - not too much though. Rachel thinks that her hair has grown. We ask the team to a meal in the restaurant and we all have a beer. A real treat.
Manu informs us that the road to Manali over Rhotang pass has only been open for 20 days (since being snowed up for winter) and is in a very poor state. He recommends a 5am start to avoid any congestion on the road as overtaking is very difficult and huge queues can build up.
Day 13 - Rhotang Pass and Manali
The team hires a jeep and we load all our stuff on board. The first part of the drive up to Rhotang pass at 3600m is pretty uneventfull, although the drive is stunning. On the sides of the road the snow is sometimes over 5m high - almost like driving through a tunnel of ice.
Then we see huge queues of trucks. Soon the reason becomes clear. Theres a blockage on the road that means only cars can get through. Fortunately the jeep can squeeze through. On the other side of the blockage there are miles and miles of trucks and cars queuing to get past. We have to go past them very carefully often with the jeep's tyre only just on the edge of a huge scarey drop. It all starts to get nerve-wracking but we push on.
This road is the main route to Leh in Ladahk region. Pretty much everything going into and out of Ladahk goes via this route. In addition its an Indian holiday and lots of people from the plains like to drive up to the pass to see snow and experience what cold is. We keep passing the queues in the opposite direction and eventually encouter a block we can't pass. Our driver goes offroad. At several points we jump out and lay down stones to allow the jeep to proceed. We make it back to the road and everyone is delighted.
The drive down the other side of the pass is a nightmare as we encounter hundreds of cars on blind corners being driven by people inexperienced on the mountain roads, but driving like crazy. If only they knew that they would not be making it to the pass they might slow down...
Finally we reach Manali, tip the team, and check into the Mayflower Hotel. Now this reallly defined luxury with huge wooden balconied rooms, satelite TV, roomservice, open fireplaces, hot showers, and of course a Toilet.