In my day-dreams, I envision a place. A cottage in the countryside, compact, having a garden and a sit-out. Often, I imagine living in a place like this, peaceful and contented, tending to my garden, eating organically grown food and taking long walks in the countryside, with lush fields on either side. Of course, it should not be too remote and have a fairly good connectivity to nearby towns and cities, which one can visit occasionally. Does it paint a wonderful picture? Perhaps, this is a vision which is not uncommon among the urban dwellers, especially those who are past their prime. Serenity in a great setting? I would like to have that, please.
When I was younger, I would often imagine buying a small house in the countryside after I have earned and saved enough to quit my job. This was to be done some day but, in the meanwhile, I kept visiting the countryside, sometimes as a day-trip from the nearest town where I could stay, sometimes as a part of hiking in the mountain trails, a few times when I could find a home-stay in a village or farm. These have given me the opportunity to live for a day or two in the countryside and walk a good deal. Over the years, I find that this is better than buying a house with all the attendant problems of ownership, local politics and being tied down to one place. Also, serenity is a state of mind, is it not so? And I should attempt to move in that direction, in the here and now, wherever I am living. So, my new mantra is “earn well, save well and travel well”, with more journeys into the wilderness rather than to big cities of the world. During my ramblings in the countryside, when I come across a quaint cottage with a garden, I re-visit the day-dream with a slight twinge of regret. And then, I tell myself that being there and experiencing the beauty is more important and has greater value.
My recent visit to a place called Igatpuri (a small town in Maharashtra, India) and the walks I had in the countryside around this place were sheer joy.
As I crossed the ridge, quite out of breath after the three and a half hour’s stiff climb, my eyes fell on kareri lake, with the Dhauladhars rising majestically from its banks. It was like a jewel shimmering in the midst of that vast landscape! Kareri dal is a natural lake at an altitude of about 11000 feet, fed by the glaciers of Minkiani Pass in the Dhauladhar range of Upper Himalayas. We had trekked for 3 days to reach this piece of heaven on earth. The lake can be reached directly from Kareri village, involving a trek of 13kms, but we had taken a circuitous route and returned to the road head through Kareri village.
Every summer, as the temperatures soar in the Indian plains, the higher regions of the Himalayas beckon the avid trekker. And forgetting all the travails, the weary feet, and the leaking tents of the earlier treks and buoyed by the selective memories of the time spent in the lap of nature, the trekker starts collecting the gear for yet another hike in the Himalayas. Believe me, the pull is very strong.
There are two ways to do this trek. You have to reach Dharamsala in either case and from where arrangements have to be made for porters, guides and provisions. The route commonly taken is Dharamsala – Gera(roadhead) – kareri village – kareri lake – Minkiani top – Kareri lake and return the same way. The other route (which was what we took) is Dharamsala – Salli(roadhead)-Chandrela Mata Mandir – Daler – Kareri lake – Minkiani top and the return is through kareri village and Gera. The first night, after engaging the cook and porters and making other arrangements at Dharamsala, we halted at Drini Forest Rest House, an hour’s drive away. The Rest House was well maintained and we spent an enjoyable evening and the next morning there on the lawns.
Day 2:- Our rucksacks packed, we left Drini after breakfast for Salli village, 8kms away, on a hired jeep, and started the first day’s trek of 6-7 kms to Chandrela Mata Mandir(temple). The terrain was initially barren and with the sun blazing, the uphill walk was quite tedious till we reached a stream and had our first break. With our shoes off, sitting on the rocks with feet in icy water and sipping fruit juice and munching biscuits, we got into the groove of Himalayan trekking. The rest of the trek was along the stream as the path ascended gradually and there was more vegetation.
This is a well trodden path with villagers going to the temple, women returning from the forests with sacks of lungdu, a variety of leafy greens, which is a speciality in this region. We were to taste this eventually when we had lunch at the home of our cook in Kareri, our last camp. We reached Chandrela temple at around 2 in the afternoon. After stopping briefly at the temple of the Goddess, which was manned(?) by kids who blew the conch and put a dash of vermillion on our foreheads, we pitched our tents on the grassland adjacent to the temple. An unused shepherd hut was to be our kitchen, and the same pattern followed at the higher camps too. A huge flat-topped rock served as our sit-out, chatting room, dining table and lying on it after dinner, facing the star-studded sky and identifying the constellations, it somehow seemed to be worth all the trouble taken to reach here.
Day 3:- There were dark clouds in the horizon as we left the campsite after a breakfast of parathas and pickle with tea. The day’s trek was along the stream as the boulder-strewn path ascended gradually. There was very little vegetation and but for the interest generated by the hydro power project that is coming up in this area, with the tunnel for the water course nearing completion, there was nothing much to recommend for the day’s route. A little drama while crossing the stream, which required jumping from boulder to boulder, with two participants slipping and getting wet, and we were through with the day’s trek as we clambered up, passed the shepherds’ hutsand reached our campsite at Daler, at the base of Baliyani Pass.
And what a campsite it was! It was a flat meadow with fresh grass that had come up after the snow had melted and the lower ridges of Dhauladhar loomed all around. The top- most ridge to the right was our next destination as Kareri lake was beyond this ridge. Every time we looked up in that direction, a little apprehension crept in, despite years of walking in the Himalayas, as the trail seemed very steep and quite difficult to negotiate. This place got the name Daler as the excess water from the kareri Dal(meaning lake) used to overflow from over the ridge to this area. Now, the excess water from the lake has been channelled to flow down on the other side to kareri village through the kareri nallah. We spent a wonderful and sunny evening at this camp, interacting with the gaddis (the shepherds who take their flock of sheep every year for grazing in the high grasslands which come up after the snow melts) and were treated to tea and fresh khoya ( thickened milk) by a warm-hearted gaddi woman.
Day 4:- It was not a clear day and dark ominous clouds were gathering all around. We debated on whether it would be better to leave early and go through the stiff climb before a heavy downpour or wait till it rains and the weather clears up. We finally took our guide’s advice and set off soon after breakfast. This trail was not only steep but also risky at certain patches, which had to be negotiated carefully, consciously keeping to the mountainside, as an accidental slip could mean a fall down the steep gorge to the right. To add to the woes, it started raining and climbing became more difficult with the rain sheets. A first time trekker of the group used all fours to negotiate the risky stretches and this was promptly categorised as “octopus-style climbing”. It was a very sensible thing to do, under the circumstances. No looking around, no photography – we concentrated only on where our next step was going to be. After an hour and a half of this kind of scary climbing (thrilling in retrospect), we took a break as we had covered half the distance and had crossed the “danger area” as our guide put it. It was still drizzling and we huddled within our rain sheets, and de-stressed by munching biscuits and wafers. We covered the rest of the trail in an hour and crossing the ridge, came upon huge grasslands and then the lake. As I said earlier, it was indeed like a shining jewel in the midst of that vast landscape.
There is a temple on the banks of the lake, with a few make-shift log huts (with no doors – just stacked logs and a tin roof) but having a large cemented terrace overlooking the lake and facing the Dhauladhars. We set camps in these huts and had all our meals on the open terrace, around the fire on which the food was being cooked. Soon after we had reached Kareri lake, the weather changed again dramatically with hail storm and heavy rain, which is typical of Dhauladhar ranges.
Day 5:- We did not have to move camp this day and everyone was relaxed. We had no specific plans for the day – just walking around the lake, through various trails leading to shepherds’ huts, up the trail leading to Minkiani Pass and as far up the glacier as we could climb without difficulty, on to an adjacent meadow for a game of cricket, lazing under the sun on the terrace with a book and of course, waiting for the next meal. It was such a wonderful day, spent in the lap of nature, with good food and friends around, far from the worries and stresses of urban life.
Day 6:- We left Kareri lake after breakfast and started the downhill trek of 13 kilometres to Kareri village. It is a beautiful trail passing through forests, with the gurgling stream never far away, and but for the length of the trail and several steep stretches (which take a toll on the knees and toes) it can be rated as one of the most delightful hiking trails of the Himalayas. We reached Kareri village at around 2 in the afternoon and stayed at the old and poorly maintained Forest Rest House, built during the British time. The cook belongs to this village and he invited us for lunch at his home. We had no energy to explore the village that day.
Day 7:-In the morning, feeling fresh and energetic again, we walked through the village, its alleys and terraced fields and were invited by many to enter their homes and have tea. It was a pity we could not say yes to all of them. The village has a primary and middle school, and almost all the children continue their schooling in the High School at Gera, involving a 12 km walk every day. After breakfast, we too walked the 6 kms to Gera and then onward to Dharamsala.
This was a nice, circular hiking trail, which took us from 5000 feet to a height of 11000 feet, through green meadows and forests, glaciers, lake, shepherd huts and a vibrant village with hospitable folks.
This place just took our breath away, literally and figuratively. We were at Dalotu in Himachal Pradesh at 11000 feet, and had trudged for the last three hours up the steep mountainside through dense pine forests. We were gasping for breath, as it is, but what really took our breath away was the 360 degree view of unparallelled beauty around us. We were totally unprepared for the magnificent surroundings of this place and the “been there, seen it all” seasoned trekkers amongst us were also awestruck by the sheer beauty.
We were a part of Indian Himalayan Adventures, a Delhi-based non-commercial adventure group consisting of people who share the passion for trekking in the Himalayas, and had decided to go to Kugti Pass, the highest pass in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas. The plan was to go up to Kugti Pass from Bharmour(65 kms from Chamba) in Himachal Pradesh, along the shepherds’ trail but unlike the shepherds, who cross over the pass with their flock and descend into Lahaul valley, we planned to return the same way from the top of the pass. But the plan had to be modified, based on reports from Bharmour, of excessive snow not only around the pass but even below alyas, which is a generic term for the camping place before the ascent to the pass. Kugti pass, at a height of 16500 feet and prone to avalanches, is daunting and is generally opened by the nomadic shepherds (Gaddis), who are the first to cross over to Lahaul. But before that, they pray to Goddess Marala Mata for safe passage and sacrifice sheep at her altar. Our modified plan was, therefore, to go up to Kugti village and further on to Kelang temple or Duggi depending on snow conditions and thereafter, take a diverted route towards Chobu Pass, which is at a lower altitude of 14000 feet.
The trekking route falls in Kugti Wildlife sanctuary. Hence, necessary permission for the trek has to be secured from the forest authorities at Chamba. Bharmour is also the base for the trek to Manimahesh lake, a pilgrimage undertaken at the time of Janmashtami by lakhs of devotees. Bharmour has an excellent PWD Rest House, for which prior booking is necessary. At Bharmour, we finalized the arrangements for the trek, collecting tents and other equipment, meeting the guide, porters and cook who would accompany us and purchasing and packing necessary provisions as practically nothing is available beyond this point. We left Bharmour the next day by a hired jeep for Dharol, 19 kms away. Places like Dharol are quaint and hard to find, even by Himachal’s standards. It has exactly two house-cum-shops, one on each side of the road. The trek to Kugti Pass via Kugti village begins from here.
Kugti is the last village on this trail and is at an altitude of around 8500 feet. The trail from Dharol to Kugti ascends gradually, winding along the river Budhil, a tributary of Raavi. The Budhil valley is green, consisting of dense mixed forests and the snow-capped mountains of Pir Panjal range are visible right from the start of the trek. The gradient is moderate and after 4 kms, the path winds down to Kugti secondary school, located on the banks of Budhil. The school was having a lunch break and the children were playing or moving around happily. The school, catering to the children of Kugti up to class 10, is about one and a half kilometers ahead of the village, though the primary wing is located in the village itself. The stretch from the school to the village was uphill all the way and it was a relief to reach the Forest Rest House where we were to stay that day. Most of the Forest Rest Houses in Himachal Pradesh have idyllic settings and the Kugti FRH is no exception. A walk through the village in the evening reaffirmed the general belief that cricket is indeed the national passion! The village has three or four paved open spaces surrounded by houses on all sides and cricket was in full swing at each of these courtyards, with spectators cheering from the windows and ledges of the quaint houses. Kugti is indeed an active and vibrant village!
This was the lower Kugti and there is an upper Kugti as well, with about 40 houses. The village is electrified and dish antennas sprout out of every house top. While there is no telephone connection, Kugti remains connected to the outer world through television! Dinner on the verandah of the Rest House, under a starlit sky, was a great way to complete the first day of the trek.
We left for Kelang temple the next day and came across streams of boys and girls on their way to school. It was Monday morning but the kids were cheerful and smiling and there were no signs of Monday blues, which is perhaps an urban concept perfected by weary urbanites. The tiny tots were also heading to the primary school within the village.
At the end of the village is the khud or the stream which is the water source for the village, and a separate ledge has been made for the womenfolk to wash clothes in running water. Kelang is about 5 kms from Kugti and is at an altitude of around 10000 feet, the height where the tree line generally ends in the Himalayas. The trail out of Kugti runs through terraced fields for a kilometer or two. Barley, potato and rajma are the main crops and there are apple trees on the higher slopes. Thereafter, the Budhil valley opens up, unfolding its beauty and the trail continues gently along the river.
After crossing a large stream which gushes down to join Budhil, the stiff climb to the Kelang temple begins. Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, is the deity of this temple. About 200 metres further up is the temple of Marala Mata, whom the shepherds worship before venturing out onto the Kugti Pass. We stayed in a large bare room within the temple complex.
After having a hot lunch of khichdi, which the cooks had rustled up in no time, we walked towards Duggi, which was originally planned to be our second camp. After just a short walk from the Marla Mata temple and with a turn of the path, the majestic Pir Panjal range comes into full view. It was a lovely walk through forest and alpine meadows but we could not take our eyes off from the range in front of us! The route from Duggi onwards was completely snow-bound and a couple of avalanches seemed waiting to happen.
It was on our way back to Kelang that we saw two brown bears – a mother and a cub – on the opposite mountain. They were engrossed in digging out and eating something (a type of insect, the locals told us) and were also moving up gradually. For over an hour, we watched their movements and were thrilled to see them cross a glacier effortlessly. Kugti wildlife sanctuary is rich in high-altitude Himalayan wildlife like the brown bear, Himalayan black bear, goral, leopard, and Himalayan tahr. We spent an enjoyable evening in the courtyard of the temple, looking across the valley at the alluring green ridge far away, which would be our next camp. But to reach there, we would be going all the way down to the level of the river and then climb to a greater height.
The next morning, we walked back towards Kugti for about 2 kms and then took the narrow trail on the left, which led us downhill to the stream, crossed two picturesque small wooden bridges and were at the foot of the mountain on the other side. The initial climb was through tilled fields and we struggled uphill through this terrain in the hot sun with practically no shade. But as we climbed higher, the fields gave way to thick pine forests.
The trail being narrow, we were ambling along single file, laughing and joking, until some swift black movement in the path ahead was spotted. Suspecting that it could be a black bear, we advanced cautiously. Sure enough, there was a cave and fresh droppings nearby and thankfully, the animal seemed to have moved off on hearing human voices. It was with some trepidation that we covered the remaining forest area and came on to a clearing. As we moved uphill towards Dalotu, the ridge that we had seen from afar, we were treated to spectacular views of the Pir Panjal range. Dalotu is at an altitude of about 11000 feet and is a flat wide ridge, connecting the mountain that we had climbed up to the higher snow ranges. The place was covered with fresh grass with small purple flowers scattered all over. Dalotu is surrounded by valleys on all sides and gives a 360 degrees panoramic view, with half of it being dominated by the Pir Panjal range, including the Kugti Pass and the Chobu Pass. One look at the latter made it clear that this pass would also be inaccessible. It was early May and the shepherds had not yet reached this height.
We pitched tents and camped at Dalotu for two blissful days. The place is so beautiful, that any description would fall short of the magnificence that meets the eye. Playing cricket with makeshift stumps and bat, with the mighty Himalayas as the backdrop, was pure unadulterated fun!
In the morning, as the top of the snow peaks glowed with the first rays of the sun, we had some tranquil moments, doing yoga or meditating. A huge rock served as our dining table and we relished everything that was put before us by our able cook. Giving due thought to the menu at the planning stage had ensured that we had fabulous food all through. While walking further up towards the snow line on the second day, there was an adrenaline rush as we spotted a Himalayan black bear on the snow above us and right ahead in the direction we were heading. Himalayan black bears are dangerous to approach as they are known to attack and this one was watching us advance but stood its ground. After several photographs and video clips were shot, the bear decided to move away and disappeared into the forest. After waiting for some time, we slowly moved up and reached the snow line, with the thought of the bear making another appearance hovering constantly at the back of our minds. This episode of seeing the bear, coupled with bear tales recounted during the campfire, led to some drama at the middle of the night as one of the members mistook the wind rustling against the tent to a bear sniffing around!
The two days that we spent at this uninhabited and totally unexplored part of Himalayas were sheer magic. We left Dalotu the next day and after an easy downhill walk of 2 hours through a different trail in the forest, reached Kugti village and from there, on to Dharol and then Bharmour. In this circular trail, one encounters forests, rivers, glaciers, glacial streams, waterfalls, meadows, valleys, snow ranges, wildlife, temples, quaint villages and lovely people. WHAT A DREAM PACKAGE! It was a complete and total experience of the Himalayas. And something which a travel operator cannot simply offer!
“Yeh daulat bhi le lo, yeh shauharat bhi le lo, bhale chheen lo mujhse meri jawaani, Magar mujhko lauta do bachpan ka saawan, wohkaagazki kashti woh baarish ka paani”.….. (a popular hindi song by Jagjit Singh) (Take away my wealth, my status and even my youth if you will, but return to me the monsoons of my childhood, those paper boats and those rain drops) What is it about the Indian monsoon that it evokes inexplicable feelings and yearnings? The first monsoon shower is awaited in all parts of the country with eagerness, hope and anticipation. After all, this puts an official end to the Indian summer and as you watch the parched earth greeting the rain with abandon, you cannot but experience some of it. The sense of joy and wild abandon touches a common chord in all, cutting across the barriers of age, class, social status and IQ. The Indian summer is harsh and has to be endured every year for at least three months. The summer does have its redeeming features – mangoes(which get sweeter as the temperature soars), blooms of fragrant madhumalti and mogra and the call of the koel. But these are small mercies and ways to beat the heat remains the dominant preoccupation. The heat, dust and the weariness of the body and mind have traditionally been kept at bay with cooling agents – cold water baths, thin cotton clothing, sherbets, water cooled in earthern pitchers. Believe me, these work better than the air conditioners and the refrigerators! If only we had the patience and the time to try them out! You have to go through the Indian summer to be a part of the magic of the monsoon that follows. The monsoons advance from the Arabian sea and hit the Kerala coast in the first week of June. It advances up the konkan coast and towards the east, covering almost half the country by the third week of June, leaving the northern and north western parts of the country thirsting and longing for the monsoon rains. And after that first spell of rain, the trees look freshly washed and are a treat to the sore eyes, the wind is cool and you sleep very well that night. The woes of continuous rains thereafter will surely follow but it does not take away the deep sense of joy and peace that pervades at the time of arrival of monsoon. It is also a great time to travel. Wear sensible footwear, carry an umbrella and don’t worry too much about clothes getting a little wet and you can have an enjoyable time. Driving on a long and winding road on a rainy day or standing at the door of the train watching the rain- drenched countryside pass by with an occasional spray caressing your face, you will feel so alive. I intend to be childlike and greet the monsoons with joy, let go of my inhibitions and apprehensions and get drenched in the first showers of the monsoon this year.
It was a cold but clear December evening and we were at Sandakphu, at an altitude of 3600 metres, witnessing the mighty Kanchenjunga – the third highest peak in the world – come aglow with the rays of the setting sun. Much as the horizon at Sandakphu is dominated by Kanchenjunga, which is bang across – in your face, so to speak – our eyes kept darting to the awesome threesome far away at the extreme left – Makalu, Lhotse and Everest. It is only on a clear day that these can be seen and of the three, Everest seems to be the shortest as it is farther off and is distinguishable by its midriff and above perpetually swathed in clouds.
The trek to Sandakphu, which is at the crest of the Singalila ridge near Darjeeling in India, is one of the popular hikes in the Himalayas, as it is the only easily accessible place in India from where four of the five highest peaks in the world can all beseen together! Four out of five is a grand score indeed and that too, for someone who is not into serious mountaineering. Singalila surely merits the title of “a ridge with a view”.
This trek can be easily attempted by first timers but is no less enjoyable for the seasoned trekker. It is a typical tea-house trek, with good lodgings available en route. So, no need to pitch tents or carry sleeping bags! Just hire a guide from Manebhanjan and hit the trail!
It is a short five day trek starting from Dhotrey, which can be reached from Darjeeling by road in an hour, via Ghoom and Manebhanjan. You climb for the first three days, halting at Tumling and Kalipokri to reach the ridge top at Sandakphu and then descend on the other side of the ridge to Gurdum and finally to Rimbik via Srikhola to reach the road again. The distances to be covered each day range from 6km to 13 km but certain stretches are steep, like the final ascent to Sandakphu.
A fascinating aspect of this trek is that you go in and out of Nepal for the first two days as the border is quite porous in these areas. When we reached Tumling after the first day’s trek, we were amused to learn that the road belongs to India and the village on the side of the road is in Nepal!
At Tumling, make sure to be up at the crack of dawn to catch the first rays of the sun on the peaks of Kanchenjunga. It was a magnificent moment for us and we were to experience it again at Sandakphu, at a much closer range. Kalipokri, where we halted after the second day’s trek, is also on the Nepal side of the border but being positioned below the ridge, offers no views of Kanchenjunga. We had a great time playing with the kids of the Nepali owner of the lodge at Kalipokri.
The trek also passes through Singalila National Park, which is a natural habitat for the red panda and himalayan bear. Both are elusive and cannot be sighted easily but the walk through the forest is enriching nevertheless. The trek from Kalipokri to Sandakphu is short but steep and suddenly, we were there on the ridge, with an unhindered and magnificent view of Kanchenjunga. November and early December are the best times to go to Sandakphu for clear views of not only Everest, Makalu and Lhotse but even Kanchenjunga. April is also considered a fairly good time with rhododendron blooms all around but clouds and mist could act as the spoil sport. On a misty day, you could be standing at Sandakphu and not even have an inkling that the mighty Kanchenjunga is right across, let alone have any view of the Everest group.
We woke up to a very clear morning the next day and feasted our eyes on the changing colours of Kanchanjunga – a glowing orange at dawn to a blinding white by the time we left Sandakphu. The trek for this day was downhill all the way and passed through lovely forests on way to Gurdum, a picturesque hamlet. The trail on the last day of the trek is fairly level and passes through Srikhola and then, on to the road head Rimbik, from where you can either go up again to Darjeeling or come down to Siliguri to take a train to any part of India.
If you are reasonably fit and yearn to walk in the Himalayas, a trek to Sandakphu to gaze at Everest and be awed by the grandeur of Kanchenjunga should certainly find a place in your list of things to do! Make it happen.