A Year Older… Many Years Younger

It’s always been about journeys, rather than destinations. And this one has been amazing to the core. So many people, so many lessons, so many bonds, so many of so much more than can be expressed.

Everyone gave their hearts and their minds (yes, in that sequence) to our endeavour. And each little thing mattered. It’s really humbling to have such a huge loving family, each one giving their own small and big inputs. Each day we move ahead, I’m assured that this family of ours is there; in front of us – to enlighten us on new horizons; walking next to us – to be the co-bearers of our dreams ; behind us – to relentlessly support our vision…

I thank one and all for everything.

Cheers to the first birthday of The Mountain Walker.

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ShaikhSpear Winter Trip 2017 Diaries: Lost in Time

​I’ve had no reference of time since morning. Even though I made a few calls earlier in the day and saw the watch, the actual time didn’t register at any of the instances. Seems like I’m in a different world, in a different time. It’s been cloudy since morning so it’s comparatively darker even during the day. And we’ve been in this grayscale terrain for quite some time so it was just about watching different shades of white and gray. It’s only when the headlights of the car were switched on that I realised it’s 6:00 pm. We have a long drive ahead and I’m not sure whether I’ll have any reference of time going ahead. The places along this road will now just pass by in the darkness. Had we been travelling during daylight hours, I would’ve been able to see more around these locations. But that’s become a reason that’s good enough to bring me back on this road. When that will happen is something I shouldn’t worry about, for I’m finally on this road after a 18 year wait. Right now, I’ll just enjoy the night drive ahead with whatever is in store.

ShaikhSpear Winter Trip 2017 Diaries: Finally Off to Kaza

The first time I had heard about Kaza was in 1999, when Abhishek had gone there to officiate for the Raid De Himalaya. He and I had officiated a post together in the inaugural 1998 Raid De Himalaya and since I couldn’t join Abhishek in 1999, it bothered me a lot, and it continued to do so for a long time. The next best thing to do was a road trip from Shimla to Kaza along the Hindustan Tibet Road and I kept thinking about undertaking this journey for almost 16 years. 

In July 2016, Sanjay and Abhishek embarked on this exact road trip, on what was “My Dream Trip”. I couldn’t join them on that trip and Spiti eluded me once more.

However, destiny had a much better experience in store for me. I entered Spiti in the best possible way – “On Foot”, during our Bhabha Pin Trek in September 2016. And I think of it as one of the defining moments of my life – Walking into Spiti, rather than in a vehicle, as I had always imagined it would be. But I didn’t explore Spiti at all once we finished the trek, for the road trip had to be done, whenever it would happen.

I’ve been on this road till Powari a few times. And I have full theoretical knowledge of this road in terms of names of places and frequent study of Google Maps and other available references. I have done all the back-end publishing of Sanjay’s posts from the July trip so I know a few places that we will cross. 

And now I’m finally on “My Dream Trip”. After Powari, it’ll be the first time that I’ll actually be on the road to Kaza. And I look forward to at least seeing the places on the road. Considering our destination for the day is pretty far, I don’t know at how many places we’ll actually stop. Nonetheless, traveling on this road, which has been on my mind and heart for ages, in itself is good enough.

As we head out further along the Winter Trip to Spiti, I’m going in with a blank slate. I might or might not see or feel something different. It will be bitterly cold and I don’t handle cold very well, in spite of being born and brought up in Shimla. However, it’s never too late to experience something new.

On the right side of an HRTC bus

Apart from the other concerns during our drive to Kugti, Abhishek and I were wary about a bus coming in our direction; for it would be a nightmare to find space to let the bus pass us on such a narrow road. We were fortunate enough that our fears didn’t come true. And then, on the way back to Bharmour, we found ourselves driving behind an HRTC bus (instead of in the opposite direction). It was easy to see that the bus covered almost the entire width of the road and once again I admired the courage and skill of these bus drivers. The mountain side is roughly cut out and rocks keep jutting out, almost touching the roof of the buses. Commendable spirit of these drivers for undertaking such a duty so that people living in such remote areas can easily commute to nearby towns and villages.

The Road to Kugti

On the way to Kugti, Abhishek and I were totally occupied with surviving the tricky drive on this newly constructed road. Turning around at the small open area where the road ended was a little struggle as two Mahindra Pickup trucks arrived just after us. While one of the pickups was able to align right next to the mountain face, the other one was driven in reverse for almost a full kilometre before we could pass it. This small video taken a little after this incident, on our way back to Bharmour, should give an idea about the skills of the driver of the pickup, and also about Abhishek’s grit for having taken the Swift up this road.

And on to Kugti…

Sitting in Bharmour during an idle afternoon, I was indulging in one of my favourite pastimes – looking at different places in the vicinity of our current location on Google Maps. I had come to know that the traditional route of the Manimahesh Yatra started from Hadsar which was around 12 kilometres from Bharmour. As I kept scrolling along the road to Hadsar on the map, I saw the very thin outline of a road end abruptly a little distance after Hadsar. Scrolling further ahead, I could see the name Kugti and Kaylong Temple. I wondered if this temple had something to do with Keylong, the administrative centre of the Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, which could be seen in the map across the mountains ahead of Kugti. All this created a buzz of interest and I longed to find out more about these new places.

Later in the evening, we met Atul with a few of his friends and acquaintances at the Pool Den of the Bharmour View hotel where we were staying. These guys informed us that Kugti lay deep into the Budhil Valley and was also a heritage village. The Kaylong or Kelang Temple was dedicated to Lord Kartik and the followers of the temple could be easily recognised by the dark pink headgear that they sported. We had seen a few locals in such headgear earlier in the day in Bharmour, and with this latest information, we were better educated about this special attire.

With all the freshly acquired data at hand, Abhishek and I embarked on the drive to Kugti the next day. As we had spent considerable time at the Ghared and Thalla Waterfalls, it was early afternoon by the time we started for Kugti. The road to Hadsar was narrow but covered with tarmac so it was a smooth and fast drive. We saw the Manimahesh Yatra trail go up into the mountains at a wide hairpin bend after Hadsar. We crossed a bridge soon after and then reached another bridge. Across this second bridge, we saw two roads going in either direction. Since cellphone network was erratic, we couldn’t access Google Maps to figure out the direction to Kugti. We just trusted our instincts and took the road on the right.

The road was initially narrow but covered with tarmac and we were pleasantly surprised. We soon reached the spot where fresh tarmac was being laid and after a 15 minute delay, we started driving again. The road ahead was just wide enough for our Swift car to fit in, with a steep drop down the gorge on one side. Moreover we struggled with traction on the loose mud and rocks at a few spots. Even if the thought of turning around crossed our minds, there was no place to actually carry out the manoeuvre. And so we drove along till we reached a wide spot where a lot of vehicles were parked.

We met a young village lad, smartly dressed, sporting a typical Himachali cap, and aptly named “Billu” for his bright cat-eyed gaze. He told us that the road further ahead to Kugti was still under construction while the road till here was built just a year ago. As it was already 3:00 p.m., we unfortunately didn’t have enough time to walk to Kugti village and Kelang Temple. Billu told us about beautiful meadows and various spots for camping higher up the mountain. We also learnt that the Manimahesh Parikrama Yatra starts from Kugti and that the stream flowing in the valley below was Budhil Khud, which becomes the Ravi river after joining another stream at Khadamukh.

And so, while we couldn’t spend much time in and around Kugti, we did capture quite a few photographs which might be of interest … just in case you are planning to explore the area.

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Finally came across the nomadic “Gaddi” shepherds headed towards Bharmour; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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The road appeared to be going further deeper into the mountains as we approached Hadsar; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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The work on the road to Kugti is still underway; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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The rough road on the left and a rock face on the right momentarily take our eyes away from the looming mountains in the distance; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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This rock face had more from the top to bottom than the camera could capture; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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And we can’t get enough of the rock face, the road and the mountains beyond; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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The motor-able road to Kugti ended just a kilometre before the actual village; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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More signs of work in progress on the road to Kugti; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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An amazing waterfall cascade just a few kilometres ahead of Hadsar, enroute to Kugti; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Budhil Khud flowing towards Bharmour; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Ghared and Thalla Waterfalls – Bharmour, Himachal Pradesh

During The Mountain Walker road-trip to Chamba district in October 2016, we reached Bharmour without much information on what all this “Forgotten Capital” had to offer. We were fortunate, however, to have met Atul Thakur of Bharmour View, whose family has been in Bharmour for many generations. In fact, the yellow flag on top of the huge Deodar tree in the Chaurasi Temple complex is put there by members of his family.

Atul has roamed these mountains extensively and informed us about two beautiful but relatively unknown waterfalls very close to Bharmour. With exact directions and guidance on how to reach these waterfalls, Abhishek and I ventured out to check these places out on our own.

Here’s a video and various images from our visit to the Ghared and Thalla waterfalls.

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Ghared and Thalla waterfalls can be reached by taking a detour at this sign board; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Thalla Waterfall has various small pools to take a dip in; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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One needs to put in some efforts of typical Mountain Walking from the Thalla Bridge to reach the Thalla Waterfall; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Start of the trail to Ghared Waterfalls; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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The winding and steep cemented trail to a temple atop the hill also leads to Ghared Waterfalls; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Along the trail to Ghared Waterfalls; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Sneak peek of the Lower Ghared waterfall from the trail; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Upper Ghared Waterfall with the temple complex above; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Abhishek gauging the lighting conditions at Upper Ghared Waterfall (also gives reference of height of the falls against height of Abhishek); Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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“Yeh suraj waterfall pe kab padega…??!” Ameen waiting for lighting conditions to improve; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Rainbow at the bottom of the falls; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Looks like milk; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Upper Ghared Waterfall; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Nice spot for a dip in the cold water; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Mountain face seen across the Upper Ghared Waterfall; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Lower Ghared Waterfall seen from near the Upper Ghared Waterfall; Photo: Ameen Shaikh
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Lower Ghared Waterfall looks inviting; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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As close as we could possibly get to Lower Ghared Waterfall; Photo: Abhishek Kaushal
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Lower Ghared Waterfall; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

And then… A “Sheep Bathing Area”

I thought that after the Sarkari Bhed (Government Sheep) experience, my “sheep” related learnings were done with. However, on reaching the Bharmani Mata Temple at Bharmour in Himachal Pradesh, India, I was in for an even bigger surprise. The Department of Animal Husbandry of Himachal Pradesh had put up a designated “Sheep Bathing Area” here. Wow… Himachal does take proper care of it’s sheep.

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“Sheep Bathing Area” under the Department of Animal Husbandry, Himachal Pradesh; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

A small enclosure was filled with sheep who were huddled together tightly, bleating – pleading not to be bathed. And the shepherds were using all means – from fully carrying to lifting the rear legs and pushing the front legs – to make the sheep go into the bathing pool. Once inside, the sheep didn’t have much choice and they would wade through the water onto the other end of the pool. Once out, they would next walk down the stairs, shaking themselves dry.

Sarkari Bhed (Government Sheep)

In our daily lives, we so often hear about so many things that have the “Government” tag attached. But this I was not prepared for at all – “Government Sheep” of all things. I had come across lots of shepherds since we entered Kinnaur but I never really bothered about the details. And I was totally surprised to get this information when we met the shepherds in Kara, Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh, India. A team of 5 “Government” employees come to these meadows every year in the last week of May and stay till the last week of September. Their duty is to graze and take care of 250 Merino wool sheep allotted to them. And if one of these sheep stray of into other herds (as had happened when we were there) or get lost, it’s not too difficult to trace them back – the “Government Sheep” are numbered and their tails are cut off as marks of identification. And what more – in the video, the sheep can be seen running towards the rocks next to the stream to feast on salt. Phew… What strange things one gets to learn on The Mountain Walking Experiences…

The Stream Unseen

During our Bhabha Pin Trek in late September this year, I witnessed something for the first time in my travels in the Himalayas – a stream that could be heard loud and clear, but couldn’t be seen. I had already heard about the term “Subterranean River” while I was reading about the Bhabha Pass trek and naturally I was excited to see this phenomenon with my own eyes. In fact, I had imagined that it would be a flat ground with the water running through some channel just underneath the surface. However, on reaching the actual spot, I realised that the stream was buried under a huge pile of rocks and boulders, making its way by eating away through the base of the gulley. But the sight and sounds were mesmerising nonetheless – I tried to peek and see through the gaps in the rocks but Mother Nature teased me with yet another of her marvels, showing me everything that there was, and yet hiding it enough to keep me hooked on and remember this for the rest of my life. And such things are what keep attracting me to travel more in the high mountains – there’s always something new around the corner, waiting to put one in awe.