Continued from Part 1
The next day began much better. It wasn't exactly bright and sunny but it was tolerable. White clouds with patches of blue sky and the sun peeping through at times, just as if to remind it existed. I had wanted this so badly, I did not need a cue. Before we had packed up, I was off, at a scorching pace too. Before Jango knew, I had reached Plachek. He had estimated it as a 4 hour walk, I did it in less than 2. By the time he reached, I had rested enough, ordered dal and rice and requested the wonderful tomato-garlic chutney I had the last time around and was getting ready to eat. The next stretch to Jhodi was quite steep but not much of an issue. I was having second thoughts about camping at Jhodi when a waterfall and an abundance of strawberries convinced me otherwise. Oh boy, if I ever took a right decision, this was it! I had tons of strawberries and we ogled at the waterfall for ages.
At Jhodi, I also had the second best meal of Kadhi and roti. The best was at Banni Mata a few months ago. If there is one thing I have learnt about cooking in the last 1 year, its that you can make kadhi in a thousand ways and I now know 3 of them. Instead of gram flour, this one had boiled, mashed-to-paste potatoes in it. The night was not very peaceful with a raucous group of drunk mule drivers making it difficult to sleep but therein lay the fun, reveling with them and sharing their celebrations.
The next day's walk was uneventful till Panhartoo except clicking a vulture from close range. Once I reached Panhartoo, things livened up. I met Digti Ram, a man of about 70, resident of Bada Bhangal. One thing led to another and I soon discovered this man and my dad are old friends. The chatting continued till Jango arrived and we had meals. By the time I left Panhartoo for Bhedpal, I was already feeling acquainted with the trail and the people. The chat with Digti Ram and other people made me feel part of Bada Bhangal and its trail. It was as if retracing in my dad's steps, I was going through the journey again. The walk to Bhedpal was in a trance, reliving what I had not lived earlier. It was strange and unexplainable but wonderful, as was the coloured meadow at Bhedpal.
It rained all through the night. While the water did not enter my tent, it did soak through the bags shaded under the rain fly. The start for the pass was delayed partly because of the rain and partly because the wet equipment. When we started, for the third day running, I had a rocket attached to my backside. I haven't still been to figure out why. Perhaps the urge to reach Bada Bhangal was strong, perhaps the mind was scared of weather ruining the trip. I clocked 1:45 to the pass, including a 40 minute circumnavigation of the Thamsar Lake. Others clocked 3:00 without the lake. For the third day running, I was cutting other's by more than half. Whatever it was, it was bliss. A 4747 metre pass felt like nothing. Once I was at the top, it felt like everything. The high Pir Panjals, the lake from high above and just the feeling of being at the top. Its another thing I discovered most of the photos I took there had to be deleted later.
Reaching the pass early meant I had tons of time to walk around the pass, observe the minute details of what all could be seen (like the tip of the Manimahesh Peak), celebrate by shouting out loud, a little bit of a dance juggle (all in the privacy of loneliness). After I had crossed the pass and I was sure we would not be turning back, the rockets were automatically switched off. The pace suddenly slacked, I was feeling lazy, as if going down was much tougher than climbing up. Which is as well, for I was living the dream I had for 25 years. I would reach Bada Bhangal the next day and I wanted to live the dream well, savour it slowly, let it sink in and have a blast.
Over the last 1 year of trekking, many people I have met have asked me a question. 'Which trek did you like the best?' I have always been unable to answer this question because genuinely, I have not liked any one more than the other. After Bada Bhangal though, I can answer the question. It was the best trek hands down. Over the next 3-4 posts, I will narrate the Bada Bhangal experience. It starts below.
It was in the mid eighties. I was a toddler, perhaps 4 or 5. My brother was an infant. We lived in Bir and dad worked for the State Forest Department. My father was packing up to leave. I, curious as ever, asked my mother 'Mamma, where is Papa going?' 'Bada Bhangal' was the reply. 'Where is Bada Bhangal?' For a moment, mom was at a loss to explain. She had also perhaps only heard of the place or maybe she had no words to explain to me where it was. Dad came to her rescue. 'Its beyond Billing.' To a 4 year old kid, who lives in a village and takes a bus to school 14 km away everyday, is occasionally scooted to granddad's place 16 km away and has once been to Billing, the world pretty much ended at Billing. I don't remember my reaction but I can imagine it being wide eyed wonder. Did the world really extend beyond Billing? Beyond that ridge where we had been once to see colourful hang-gliders? Was it possible to go 'beyond' there? Didn't the world end there with a sharp drop from the ridge? Was the jungle not infested with wild cats?
Those are my first memories of Bada Bhangal. Over the next 3-4 years, dad often went to Bada Bhangal. It was so frequent that the only answer I remember to 'Where is Papa going?' was Bada Bhangal. He says he went there 7 times. My memories seem to be more like 70. My dad was never a man who would share his adventures with his sons. Still, obstinate and talkative that we were, we managed to get some details from him. Back then, I remember him telling us they camped in tents, carried their own rations and that it took them almost a month to go and come back (that ofcourse included work he went for). There was also the time (and I remember it vividly) when there was a long and loud argument between my parents because dad, according to sources, had taken risks in walking along a 15 inch wide path, with the Ravi gorge on one side and a mountain face on another. When his companions refused to accompany, he went back to them, goaded them and again went ahead to demonstrate how easy it was. So, Bada Bhangal, the place where my father always seemed to be, the place which was literally out of this world for us, the place which caused tensions at home stuck in my mind like wood sticks to fevicol.
It was partly a dream, partly a primitive urge to see what really Bada Bhangal is. When I left my job last year, the first trek I tried was Bada Bhangal. I was new to trekking, had not much clue about the mountains. So, my dad and the man who went me on that trek, together managed to con me into believing that the trek is 'closed', whatever that meant. I only went upto Plachek and went to Bir from there. All of last year and till 22nd July this year, I dreamt of Bada Bhangal. I created visual images of what it would look like. They said its a flat piece of land in the Ravi basin. If you have seen the Ravi near Chamba, you will know it takes a lot of imagination to visualize a flat basin for the Ravi, more so when it is upstream from Chamba. I still imagined! I also imagined Thamsar Pass, which leads to Bada Bhangal and Kaliheni Pass, which leads from Bada Bhangal to Manali. Imagined them full of snow, deep, old glaciers with crevasses in them.
22nd July this year, I finally started for Bada Bhangal. It was already late. I had planned on 16th but it came to 22nd and when it did, it was pouring. The bus journey from Palampur to Bada Gran was an eternity, had me changing 4 buses. Then, when we reached Bada Gran at long last, we had our first setback. The rain wouldn't let us walk an inch, leave aside walking all the way to Plachek. So, the day started at trekking from Bada Gran bus stop and ended at the Bada Gran school yard. The walking was postpone to the tomorrow, which I hoped would come. The last thing I wanted was to have to cancel the trek because the monsoons so decreed.
The schoolyard all muddy with the trees washed clean at Bada Gran after the epic downpour.
They call them 'The rubbish pickers'. Its part literal, part derogatory. Its because they dont care about the mountain and cannot fathom why would someone spend better part of 2 days a week cleaning up a ridge top called Triund. Walking along the trail, getting down into ravines to pick plastic bottles, reaching the top, cleaning and segragating the chai shop waste, finding historical dump sites, putting gloved hands into ancient rotting garbage. Its not really exciting life! Is it? Most people dont seem to think so.
I was with The Mountain Cleaners this last Tuesday. There were just the 4 of us, a day with less volunteers. We had to walk along the ridge south of Triund to clean a new guest house. Its not a place you would normally go to if you were at Triund. The natural tendency is to climb up and not go down along a ridge. The guest house is a good 15 minute walk from Triund. Even with The Mountain Cleaners who normally have a double digit set of volunteers, not everyone goes down there. So, the only 2 reasons I walked down to the guest house were because I was cleaning the mountain and there were too few of us.
The sun was setting, lighting up the Dhauladhars in an orange glow. A few clouds were floating deep in the valley below. A saintly group of cows was grazing on the ridge. Some had enough and were just ambling around, making for some beautiful silhouettes in the setting sun. A yellow flag was waving in the wind. Wherever I looked, I was enchanted. Cleaning a mountain is not only about picking rubbish left by others. Its also about sitting speechless at the sudden changes of weather on a high ridge, about seeing the magic the mountains weave around you as the sun sets. May everyone get to clean rubbish in the mountains.
I know! I know!! Its been a flood of posts given my standards. Take into account the fact that this is the longest (5 days) that I have had internet access since middle March. The temptation to post is high and I normally don't resist temptations. Uruguay are playing Germany for the 3rd place in FIFA WC and the fool I am, its posting time. So, we go back a little.
Its the middle of June, about a little less than the middle of my 45 day trek. Having changed the route from Kugti to Chaurasi ka Dal, we find ourselves in this area of Chamba called Churah. Mr. Shalabh is desperate to cross the Pir Panjals. Mr. Jango is nowhere near as desperate. The weather gods have been really screwing with us. They made it hail when we crossed Gaj Pass, they let us be when we crossed Sukh Dali, they kicked us out of Kugti, they almost made it impossible to cross Chaurasi Pass. I am an obstinate ass though, not ready to give up, not even if the gods decree. So, we get our asses out of Bhanjraroo, which is some obscure town in Churah, on the the top of a mountain with some beautiful views and deodar jungles. Last 2 days has all been about drinking Director's Special with a relative of Jango's who has come to admire my onion chopping skills. Its just that on treks, its almost become an art for me. Chopping onions really really fine, I can spend 30 minutes doing just one. It then gets mixed with namkeen and we have it with Director's Special. Oh, its bliss, I tell you!!
From Bhanjraroo, after an arguement with an arsehole of a police officer who thinks he owns the world and a long wait for a bus, which culminates in the impatient Shalabh hiring a jeep, we land up in Trela. Its the traditional start point for Sach Pass. Traditional because it was used long ago. Now there is a road all the way to Sach Pass, sadly! I am all for tradition though. I get Jango to get off at Trela and start off on the traditional trail. I can see the decline of the trail. Alwas, once an important stop on the Sach Pangi trail, alike for locals as for trekkers is a deserted village now. The guard quarters are locked and the shops which used to serve 'simple meals' in western trekking parlance are long shut. The only life is some villagers. No trekker comes here any longer. The road is an easy option and humans always find it easier to do the easy. No one wants to take the 'road less travelled'. Jango wants to stop at Alwas. I am young blood though, I push him onto Bhanodi, a police post. The police guys are better there and I participate in a cricket game there. I lose one, I win one and I am happy at the end of the day.
Next, we reach Satrundi, the base camp. On the way, we pick a lot of jungle fruit. Ok, we pick and have all of it. Its a really satisfying experience. At Satrundi, we stay in an abandoned PWD (Public Works Department) hut. Satrundi is infamous for a terrorist attack in 1998, when 35 labourers were killed in the middle of a deodar jungle. Quite how can someone get themselves to perpetrate such an act of atrocity under such beautiful trees is something I will never quite understand. This also has the distinction of being the only terrorist act in the confines of Himachal. Such are the mental scars that we still have a police post at Bhanodi and Satrundi. While the former does not do much except playing cricket all day and the latter does not even exist till its too late in the summer, it does speak volumes about what it meant for the local community and the government.
Cutting the crap, we spend the night in the PWD shelter. The night is starry and clear and we are optimistic. The morning is cloudy and I am pissed. Jango is indifferent, he thinks its not good enough to cross the pass. I, who no longer thinks Jango is god and has enough experience of his own, thinks its good enough. I dont want to enter an argument though. So, I just sulk in one corner. From 5:30 in the morning, when we wake up, I dont utter a single word till 7:30. Thats when we notice a group of horses going up to Sach Pass. I sulk even more. I just remark once 'What the f*ck! If horses can go up, whats wrong with us?' Jango gets the cue. He sees my impatience and the hopelessness of the situation from his point of view. So, he decides we go up at 8:30.
I just need the chance. We start and for the first time in 10 months, I refuse the stop at all climbing a pass. Who knows when the weather will worsen and Jango will want to climb down citing all his experience, which I by now think is useless anyway. So, at 11:30 we are at the pass. Jango is surprised because he has never seen me not rest at all. I am honest enough to tell him the truth. 'Would you have let me do it in these overcast conditions if I stayed with you? I know the answer is no. So, I decided to climb anyway. I knew you could not leave me, so you had to follow me.'
Sach is the gateway to the mystic land of Pangi. They made a road but they did not realize the futility. The road opened for all of 2 months last year. This year, its already June and the road is nowhere near opening. There is too much snow. Sach was long the foot gateway to Pangi. In the days when there was no road and no horse trails, sheep used to carry the essentials to Pangi. Imagine salt on sheepback. Sometimes I wonder how salt played such an important role in the years gone by and its valued so little these days.
So, anyway, we reached the top of Sach Pass. There is the customary temple, enlarged by the presence of the road and 2 bulldozers, fuel frozen in extreme cold, deserted by their drivers. There was no time to look around, contemplate and think about life. It was cloudy and about to snow. Life is far more important than the views from Sach, atleast to me and at any rate, Sach is a depressed pass, so there is not enough to look around. The climb cum slide down is painful. There is waist deep fresh snow, neither good enough to walk down on, nor good enough to slide down on. Its worse for the group of horses. They are sinking all around and their owners are having a tough time pushing them.
We are already across Sach, Jango cant possibly shove me back over the pass and that was my greatest concern. I am going to take is easy now, watch the stream take its course, watch the tree leaves wave in the breeze, watch the snow flakes make their way to the ground, slide easily over the snow, melt into the mystic land that Pangi is with its lazy elegance, beautiful people and eternal magic. Its time to be one with the surroundings, the passes, the snow, the dangers of trekking can wait for another day. The land is magical and so is the feeling. Sach is crossed, life can wait!
Unlike last time, this is not even an invite. I am just FYIing. A friend of mine called me a trekking addict. At that time, I did not take it seriously. Now I do. I have been without a trek for the last 10 days and I am feeling trek sick. I feel the inaction, my bones are creaking, the muscles are aching to get out. I want to walk, feel the pain in my calves, camp out in the open, cook some dal and rice, have a large hot glass of tea and think about nothing but the weather and food. I want simple worries. Its not far actually. I leave tomorrow for a 2-3 day cleaning drive to Triund with the Mountain Cleaners.
On the 16th, I leave for a long one. It starts with the realization of (hopefully) my dream of going to Bada Bhangal, that promised land and then continue walking all the way upto Zanskar valley via Miyar Glacier and back through Darcha and then the route blurs. I want to get out for as long as is possible. I want to shepherd goats at some point in time. I just cant muster enough courage right now. One day, I am sure I will.
While I said this is not an invite, people interested are still welcome. None of this long one is easy. Min committment of 12 days and wading through snow guaranteed all the way. Miyar will be tough. It will also be my first climb on a glacier. So, I hope its not that big a deal. Even if it is, to heck with it, thats what I trek for. Its a challenge I like.
Now to some Royal Challenge.