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!