Saurkundi pass trek – A travelogue.
(First published in May 28, 2007, and I would have written differently if I had to write now. But I am keeping the original piece here)
I just came back from a truly memorable vacation in the Himalayas. It wasn’t your usual routine of hill stations, hotels and shopping, but an 11 day trek! I am a member of Youth Hostels association of India (YHAI). This is a nonprofit organization that, in addition to providing low cost accommodation, arranges some extremely wonderful adventure trips all over the country, at an unbelievably low cost.
The plan was hatched by Freyana and I. Freyana was my classmate in Rishi Valley, my boarding schoo. Last time I met her, we were both teenagers! It was pretty exciting to see her after ages, and we had a great time catching up old stories on the train to Delhi.
In a few days met some great people in my batch and made some interesting friends. Here is a part of the story of my travels – I say a part because some of the topics I reflected upon and discussed with people are separate talking points by themselves.
Our group name was SK 13. It consisted of:
The senior citizens:
Phatak Ji, Joshi Ji, Kulkarni Ji, Saifuddin, Amin, and Makarand Lele.
The young guns:
Anirudh, Bharath, Purva, Ruchitha, Rohan, Soham, Ameya
The Surat, Bhopal brigade:
Dev, Kalpesh, Nilesh, Kaimas, Vineet
The Bangalore gang:
Venky, Ramya, Srinivas, and of course, yours truly!
The global traveler – the one and only Freyana Polad!
Others were the Ganapatye family, Mandhre family, which included Rajendar – Purva & Rohan’s dad, Mr. Neelkanth Mandhre aka Senior Mandhre – a regular trekker and a versatile musician.
The build up:
The story starts with our train journey from Bangalore to New Delhi by the Rajdhani express on May 3rd. Traveling by train is a fantastic way to discover the country, with the landscape, culture, language changing by the hours as you head north.
We reached Delhi on May 5th and caught up with another old school mate – Kadambari. We had a fairly quiet day in Delhi, content to do a lot of catching up as we are all meeting after ages!
That evening we took a HRTC Volvo bus to Manali. Quite typical of a Bangalore resident, I had done sufficient reading on the net, at various forums and booked the tickets online. We met some Bangalore folks on the bus – they belong to SK12, the batch that was reporting a day before us.
We did not report directly to the base camp of YHAI at Babeli, but decided to go all the way to Manali and spend a relaxing day there.
The bus route was very scenic, and in some ways nostalgic as I had done the same trip 7 years ago with my college friends. I saw snow for the first time out of my window and saw the River Beas winding its way through the Kullu valley.
The highlight of this route is the tunnel at Aut – it is around 5 kms long and never seems to end. My memory of when to expect this tunnel was intact and I was awake just in time to re live this experience.
We had a fairly normal day at Manali and behaved like the usual travelers – eat, shop and chill out!
Manali is filled with Multi cuisine restaurants (surprise package – Tamil, Andhra style food, not so surprising: Israeli, Tibetan). I always try to eat the local cuisines whenever I travel and tried Momo’s for the heck of it!
Amongst the interesting places we went to were Hadimba temple, a Tibetan monastery and Vasisht kund.
I did river crossing off the park – 8 years back I don’t think too many people heard of adventure sports in Himachal – now every shop has something adventurous to offer! It was fairly tough and a reminder of how unfit I was.
We met lots of people at different stages from all over the world. We hung out with an Israeli who did a trek in Dharamsala and is now off for the Chanderkhani pass trek.
Manali is also full of the trappings of typical hill stations – restaurants, shops, hotels, clubs (would you believe there are at discs in most hotels there!), crowd, traffic jam
Reminded me of Kodaikanal – I guess Manali is no more a place for a quiet holiday.
Some nice places were Johnson’s café, Blue moon Café in Old Manali, which we discovered very late in the night!
The river looks less full as compared to my last visit which was in monsoon time
I thought it was gentle until I did rafting there some time later and experienced the Beas in full fury!
Day 1: Manali to Babeli (reporting at base camp)
We took bus to Babeli and reported at base camp in the afternoon. We were struck by the warmth of the people out there…it felt like family
I sat by the Beas for a while and quietly meditated…this is the closest I have been to heaven!
There are loads of shops around YHAI selling food, utilities, tickets, trekking stuff
The base camp provides a good view of the hills, forest and rivers and is really a serene atmosphere.
The first day was all about introductions, travel stories and diplomatic chit chat!
But the people you meet first up tend to be your favorites pals on such trips and it was the same case with this one as well.
My tent is full of senior citizens – little did I realize how well I would bond these people and become a “senior citizen” myself in a few days!
Most if the people are from Bombay and regular YHAI trekkers
They need not wait for the information on the YHAI websites, but have their grapevine for getting early news of exotic treks. I made a mental note of doing some treks in North east, doing the Mount Everest base camp & Mount Kailash Parikrama & Manasarovar Lake treks.
The big inspiration was Phatak sir (age 72) and Saifuddin sir (75). Their physical and mental fitness and the impact of that on their happy demeanor were tremendous. They never had any trouble at any point during the trek and always managed a glowing smile…
I called our free time discussions “infotainment” sessions. They were entertaining and extremely informative. The star of the show was Mr. Vijay Joshi who has a tremendous knowledge of India’s history and socio political scene. His pet subjects were the armed forces and mountaineering!
I and Lele sir would bombard him with questions or which he would give us witty and detailed answers. The rest of the tent would listen to the conversation!
I felt like a bridge between two generations.
One generation of Indians grew up with the freedom movement, independence and a period of hope. That generation was also saddled with a narrow view of the world, a socialist legacy that was tough to shackle and had to grow up in the license raj, which meant an entire lifetime of service (you don’t get into business unless you were born filthy rich or were Dhirubhai Ambani), where your last take home pay would be a fraction of your kid’s first paycheck!
My generation, on the other hand, is not very hands on with the reality and the real politic of the country, mainly because:
We are faced with tremendous opportunities in the corporate world and want to devote our full energy and time to it.
1. We have developed a tremendous sense of cynicism with the way this country is run by in efficient politicians cutting across party lines.
2. The growth is in the cities, and this leads to a disconnect with the rest of India. There is a huge wide gap in the lifestyle, aspirations, and education levels, thought process of people in the country.
A classic case in the point is the HRTC bus from Manali to Delhi. I could sit in Bangalore, do some reading on the net, and manage to book my tickets online from Delhi to and fro Manali. There is a town called Mandi, some 100 kms from Manali, en route to Delhi and a local got into the bus and was involved in a squabble with seats. He made some remarks about how poorly the locals were treated, which appeared junk until I realized that he has to travel 4 hours to Manali to book tickets for the bus! As the gap between the rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and not so educated widens, this would lead to a polarized nation, which appears far more dangerous than an India polarized along religious and caste lines!
As someone who is extremely fascinated by history and culture, and its impact on the society, it was a treat to listen to people who were walking encyclopedias on India’s post independence history and its future on the global stage.
There were a host of other topics we would talk about such as films (mostly old Hindi films, and the Wild West type films, tourist places in India and across the world). In addition, I had some amazing conversations with Srini who has tremendous knowledge of Indian mythology amongst other subjects. Forgot to add that we had some amazing food. The taste and quality of food we had throughout the trek was excellent and I really relished them.
Day 2: Acclimatization and orientation.
Day begins with Bed tea, PT, and already it feels like school!
Being woken up at 5 AM gives you a license to be pissed; until you realize the guy who is waking you up with bed tea probably had to get up at 4.30!
Once you step out of your tent, you realize how beautiful it is outside. The sun is just getting up, the birds are chirping, and it’s going to be a lovely, warm day!
We all assemble in a line, and start our job up hill. It was a tremendous experience amid such a break from the treadmill routine in the gyms.
For once in my life, I felt like running even after reaching the destination – I wanted to keep running as far as I could go.
I did some exercises by the river side, and after wards I sat down to meditate. As I am writing this, it’s been a few days upon my return, but I can still hear the gentle music of the Beas, feel the clean air I was breathing, and see the lush greenery all around me. Nothing is as beautiful as nature….
Post breakfast, we went on our acclimatization walk – our first test of endurance. It was actually a fairly easy walk, but since we were carrying our rucksacks, it gave us a feel of what we can expect. We reached a small Kali temple and it started pouring. We were getting drenched, and took shelter in the temple. Some folks started singing, and it turned out to be the best ice breaker. Soon we were having a musical choir of old Hindi songs, and loving every bit of it. We had a round of formal introductions a little later and shortly after that started deliberating on the cultural show we had to put together for the camp fire that night.
I had become the MC for the event, and it also meant rallying the folks to put together something decent. With the talent in the group, it wasn’t so difficult.
We decided to stick to our core strength of music, and this is where Dev and his gang from Surat showed their mettle. Kalpesh , who was a walking encyclopaedia on hindi films and music helped with the lyrics and after intense preparation, we came up with the goods and managed a very lively show.
With Senior Mandhre enchanting the audience with his mouth organ, we managed to keep them interested with appropriate songs and concluded with a funny song on trekking. This was one of the more entertaining camp fires we had at the base camp.
Day 3: Rappelling & Rock climbing
Started with the same bed tea, PT routine.
We had Rappelling in the morning and Rock climbing in the afternoon. Although it would take weeks to master these things, it was like a beginner’s guide to rock climbing and rappelling. It was good enough for me to begin thinking of doing some mountaineering courses. Anybody that has done such courses is free to give me some gyaan on the same!
I spent the evening doing last minute shopping in Kullu. (gloves, socks, paper soap, sun screen, rain sheet)
I had no idea how useful that would be in the coming days!
Day 4: Base camp to Segli
So we actually start trekking today!
After breakfast and packed lunch and a rousing send off, we took a bus to Pathlikot, and then started on our long and fascinating journey. We crossed a village called Badagram, and got to know of some of its peculiar customs from the guide. Apparently, we are not supposed to touch anything as we pass the village, especially around its temple. Violating this rule ensures in a fine of up to Rs. 6,000!
This sounds like the other village Malana, whose tales I have heard from people who have trekked the Chanderkhani pass. The story of Malana is indeed fascinating.
We stopped after a steep climb in a dense deodar jungle, which was to be our route for a fair part of the trek. There were little boys and school girls selling juice, and pushing to school after that. We tried, a dark red colored concoction called “brass” juice, and it tasted divine. I figured out the fruit is also red in color, but never got to see it! Trust a hard core foodie to be interested in such details!
After all this comes THE cricket match, that is going to hog the rest of the space for awhile. Those of you who equate cricket with Indian cricket team, please move on to the next section!
We reached Sukhni for our lunch and post lunch started the most bizarre cricket match I have ever played: At a height of 6K plus feet, in a place full of ditches, ups and downs, bushes, and with a ball made of cloth!
The match was SK 13 vs. the locals and the guide played for the local team. (It made a huge difference in the end!)
The locals, in addition to home advantage, were fantastic athletes, playing for pride and money (Rs. 10 / person to be paid by the losing team – I guess this amount means much more to them than us!), and had been unbeaten for 13 days in a row.
Once I saw them play, we knew that it required a Herculean effort to beat them!
We scored 20 odd runs in 8 overs and it was no easy score to defend. I was run out without scoring, underestimating the athleticism of the local fielder.
We lost the first match badly, in spite of a heroic bowling performance by our own Wasim Akram (Bharath), purely based on terrible fielding.
I was guilty here, dropping two tough catches while keeping, although I managed to hold on to an inside edge down the leg side. I would never forget taking a brilliant diving catch to my left in the second match, only to hear the umpire scream not out, and the batsman pretend he never nicked it. They were close to winning and we were anyways out in a no hope situation. There was a sensible voice inside me that said this money means much more to them, so don’t make a fuss and I asked my team mates to drop the appeal. Bharath was furious screaming “Aise haar nahin maanthe bhaiyya”. At his age I would have fought like crazy to make an issue, but age does fny things to your personality 🙂
The second match was much more competitive, as we were better prepared with the conditions. We lost in the last over, but fought gamely. Had there been a third match we would have surely won, but we had to move on.
The real tragedy for me was the fact that I had a huge blister on my foot, as I was playing bare foot and my skin started to peel off. I was so pissed I could not get to bat because of this, but bigger problems lie ahead of me and my left foot!
We finally reached Segli (7,100 feet) in the afternoon, and it was then that I started to realize the extent of my injury. The camp site was not great, and thankfully, the other camps were much better. I decided to take rest, and not to venture out for the day. I was so touched by how well I was taken care of by all around me. It felt like I was with my family, and it made me feel so good in spite of the severe pain.
Day 5: Segli to Hora thatch
We had a lazy and relaxed start, and later discovered this would be the pattern for the rest of the days as well. Crossed a village, and spotted a lovely young girl, Tannu, playing on the ground. I tried to make some conversation with her, but found it tough to make her smile.
At many times during the trek, I would just gaze in awe at the majestic mountains & the dreamy river & thank god for the beautiful life he has given all of us.
We reached Hora thatch fairly wet as it was just starting to drizzle. I must say the rain spoilt our time at what was the best camp of all. Right in the middle of the jungle, it could well be called a jungle lodge.
I guess my foot was the focus of my thoughts for most of this day and apart from the rain don’t recollect anything great to keep note.
Day 6: Hora thatch to Maylee thatch
This was the toughest day of all. The climb was relentless and steep, and there was just no respite. The snowline was clearly visible now, and in some sense, it kept us motivated to climb higher and further. After a tough climb, we reached a huge open meadow flocked with sheep. We could see the camp but it was deceptively far away from us. But we had enough time, and the sun was in full splendor, so I could relax and enjoy the view and the sound of the sheep. I had a tough time getting the sheep on camera – they were extremely timid and would run away if I got anywhere close to them. There was one brave heart that managed to, and posed for me and I love how this picture came out. Makes every minute of the hour I spent stalking him worth it!
Maylee camp was one of the most picturesque locations we had. And it was on a locale large enough to have a mini cricket ground. Tried batting against the locals and could not get bat to ball – they were too good or I have just forgotten how to bat and should stop trying – I guess the truth lies somewhere in between. But I must mention how extremely athletic and fit the locals are. These are the places where our sportsmen should come from. Somebody who treks up and down a steep mountain everyday for his living is surely fitter than most of us city bred, gym going individuals!
The camp leader at Maylee was a very proactive, interesting person. He teaches geography in Bombay and arranged some games for us in the evening. It was great fun, and got as all excited we started playing Dumb charades after that and the real star was Ruchitha. Ruchitha’s sister is studying dance, which Ruchi dropped off but she is still very expressive. This helped her act some near impossible movie names – sometimes we were too DUMB to figure it out! The most hilarious episode was when I asked her to enact ““Omkara”,a movie I really enjoyed. She tried to act the song “Beedi” by smoking. The folks were guessing all kind of things but came nowhere near the song and the movie and she finally gave up. When we broke the name of the movie, Kalpesh came up with the explanation that her acting of a beedi smoker was misleading. Then he came up with a demo on how a beedi smoker squats and holds his beedi in a way very different from a cigarette smoker. It was a laugh riot. Since I don’t smoke and hate smoking, I had not bothered to spot the difference – it is safe to assume a Cigar / pipe smoker would have a completely different style.
The radio at the kitchen was playing some of my favorite Hindi songs, and it was so wonderful to sit at 11k feet and listen to some soulful music!
Day 7: Maylee thatch to Dora thatch
The next morning we had a cartography class conducted by the camp leader, although I felt it was too short to understand such a complex subject. Anyways it aroused my interest in map reading and that I guess was good enough.
This was followed by PT and breathing exercises and I was so thankful for them.
Soon it was good by time to the lovely Maylee camp and time to ascend further.
We were soon to set foot on snow and really charged up as we came nearer to snow.
The walk was very pleasant and not very steep. While walking I was pleasantly surprised to hear somebody whistling from “For a Few Dollars More”. Who else could it be, apart from the irrepressible Mr. Mandhre. I realized how distinct and clear sounds are on top of a hill as there is no interference and disturbance, it made the whistle even more haunting and magical. He followed that performance with tunes from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and had all of us marching to his tune!
We were soon walking on snow and quickly realized it’s not as fun as it seems. You never know how solid the grip is, and you don’t know how deep the snow is.. we were following the footsteps of the previous person, but even then I would slip further into the snow with my weight! I made an important discovery, that the breaking point of this snow was around 80 kgs! We stopped for lunch at a spectacular natural rock formation. I forgot to mention how well some of our lunch spots were chosen – there was always a stream of water, enough open space, and some place for the locals to set up a shop and sell tea, coffee, juice and omelets. This one was by far the most awesome, with the shop housed securely under a boulder of rocks.
We had our first slide on snow post lunch and it was amazing experience. The toughest part was lifting your legs up, the way it should be done, because you are so tired aft6er days of trekking up! The pants get fully wet, your body aches with the impact of ice and you are scared whether you would land up in the right place – but it was worth all the pain eventually.
We reached Dora thatch, which was our highest camp, and probably the toughest conditions we faced – snow all over the camp, low oxygen levels and freezing cold water. It took a toll on Purva & Rohan’s dad and he decided wisely to return the next day. I must share his cousin – Ajay’s story at this stage. Ajay accompanied his brother back two camps lower, lost two days of the trek, but made up by climbing up rapidly with only a villager company, and completed the trek along with us. All Ajay said was “There was no way I am going back to Pune without completing the trek!”. And I thought I was brave, walking with my blistered foot!
It is in these circumstances that we realize how rudimentary, our lives needs are. All we need is a place to lie down, clothes to protect us, food & water, and that is it. The rest if life is about figuring out how you live with the essentials and keep your mind and body healthy.
Day 8: Dora thatch to Saurkundi pass & descend to Longa thatch.
Finally, D-day arrives. We awake with the realization that we are finally climbing the pass today and it kind of pushes us out of the tents fairly early in the day. Or was it to find a nice spot to “download”? Since al the water was frozen and I am extremely finicky about being clean, I decided to walk a fair distance to a stream of water. The water was splendid but also terribly cold. I could not move my hands for half an hour or so after I returned!
It was a fairly tough climb, that too on snow. There were stretches of hard snow which made the whole affair terribly scary. The weather had started to become gloomy and in some ways it dampened my spirits. It was fairly dark at Saurkund – the lake near the peak, and this took the brightness out of the photos. The lake itself was nothing great, but the color of water was very interesting, and if I were braver, I would have ventured to its surface, but nobody bothered to go there.
We finally reached the peak before noon, and had a superb 360 degrees view, which was spoilt only by the sun and clouds playing hide and seek. We could see some other trekkers climbing up through an alternate route and we could see our next batch at the point where we had lunch the previous day.
Reaching the peak, took a strange toll on my mood. I suddenly lost all energy to trek further walk. There was a strange empty feeling, which we all get once your goal is reached. The question is always “What next?”.
I guess I was thinking that in a few days I would have to say bye to all these people and this place and head back to my routine city life. This tendency to live in the past and future and not in the present, has been the bane of my life, and I so desperately wish I could change it.
Post lunch we had a long rest and prepared to “slide down:. This slide was very dangerous, and in some sense bizarre. I do not think the slide route was laid properly, and the guide strangely decided to stay away from us. There was a stretch of around 50 meters we walked on hard and slippery ice, to reach the sliding point. Trouble was, we could have slipped any time and slid down without control. I had to stay at one point and help people down one by one, and I know how precariously I was placed for those 20 – 30 minutes!
The slide itself was long, slow and painful, but in hindsight I would rather use the word “adventurous”. We had to constantly get up, clean the mounds of snow that would accumulate in front of you, and continue till you stop again. For the last 5 minutes or so , I grabbed an extra stick that a lying down and walked / skied down. It was extremely thrilling J
As usual, we were welcomed at the next camp (Longa thatch) with a welcome drink, followed by tea and then soup. This daily routine at all camps was literally refreshing. We were also feeling much lighter, knowing the tough days are behind us.
Day 8: Longa thatch to Lekhni.
This was the day of serious descent. I am so thankful for my Woodland trekking boots, for helping me enjoy this tough workout. I had a very good grip for most of the day and really enjoyed walking down, in fact managing some short sprints downhill that were so exciting!
The route was lush green and pleasing. The meadows were rich in vegetation and the plants were lapped by the flock of few hundred sheep that were grazing. I particularly enjoyed our lunch point, which we shared with the sheep! These sheep appears much bolder than the previous ones I encountered and did not mind me patting them. I can still feel their soft wool on my fingers.
I could not help realizing that my face had become so dark, whenever I looked at in the camera. Some folks like Freyana, really enjoyed the tan, and I guess that was her ulterior motive on this Indian visit! I am usually not concerned about skin color, but I just could not recognize myself and learnt the importance of sunscreen the hard way!
We reached our last camp at Lekhni, which was actually a set of wood houses. I was already missing the tents, and realized I was getting closer and closer to the civilization I so longed to escape from. We were all busy chatting and planning our return trips. We had our first proper camp fire since we started trekking. Almost everybody participated and entertained the audience with some songs / jokes / stories. It was like a magical night , and I was a little upset it ended so early, when our camp leader asked us to shut stop.
We were woken up that night by a hail / snow storm and it was so much fun!
The last day of the trek, and we were inching our way to the road. A fairly un eventful day considering the adventures we had gone through earlier. This is the stage when the body starts complaining to the mind for the entire toll it has been out through for so long. This is the day when you realize this magical journey is soon over.
I went to Manali along with Mr. Lele, booked my return tickets, and got back to junk food! Came to base camp just in time for lunch and amazed everybody once again to plan things so perfectly that I never miss my food.( I had set a precedent by going to Kullu and returning bang on the stroke of the dinner bell!). I had bath after a week and it felt so good and clean. I changed into the only clean pair of clothes I had, and shortly realized what a big mistake that was.
Mr. Lele and I decided to raft along the Beas and walked up to “Rim Jhim adventures” which was organizing this close to our base camp.
It was a terrific experience for a beginner and the only spoiler was my clothes getting completely drenched. It helped me make up my mind about rafting and I promised myself I would do longer rafting sessions next time. I am not too much of a water sports enthusiast, but that afternoon on the chilling Beas changed my opinion completely.
We collected our certificates at the camp fire that night and I felt a sense of pride I haven’t for ages. For somebody who has just been taking it too easy in life of late, it was a great way to come out of my “Comfort zone” and endeavor to do more in life.
In spite of a yearning for this experience to continue, and a touch of sadness that the reality is quite different, I had the most blissful sleep in years.
Time for good bye…
The last day was sad, but I keep the goodbyes very brief. Once we get back to our routine life, the memory starts fading away slightly and the people become somebody from a different world. I still think of all the amazing people young and old that I met, close my eyes and see snow clad peak, unplug my headphone and hear the sound of the river, but it becomes fainter by the day. May be it’s time to go back again, to live a kind of life our ancestors would have lived. They were certainly poorer than us, but I have a feeling they led much happier lives.
I want to trek more, travel more, meet more people and enjoy life in this peaceful manner and keep going on till I can….that is the best way to pay a tribute to this wonderful planet we are all blessed with!
P.S: It’s nice to look back at this post every once in while and reflect on a truly memorable experience. I do realize how much I have changed as a person, and a writer over these 3 years, but like the raw feelings and words expressed here far better than any refinement I could think of doing now.
This truly feels like an online diary now! There is no paper like in a real diary that could turn yellow, or smell of a different age, but I am still nostalgic whenever I recollect images and conversations from the trek.
And yeah, I am still in contact with quite a few people from the group (Facebook, of course!). The kids have grown up into men & women; some of the men & women have kids now and a few have receding / grey hair; and the elders are becoming kids again.
Such is life 🙂