Mr. Ramaswamy is a retired banking profession who now enjoys his time travelling around the world and analyzing the Economics & Climate change and the nuances of interrelation between these. He retired as DGM, Indian Bank. He was on Har ki Doon trek, March 2016 with WildBoots.
Sacred Geography has always been seen in the journey passages mentioned in antiquity, the prevalence of ‘energy lines’ wherein body and soul transcend the heights of personal fulfilment and achievement. Nestled in the higher reaches of the mountains from where Yamuna sees its water flow is the valley of Har-ki-dun. The name Har-ki-Dun incidentally translates as the celestial musical choir which is also interpreted as rhyming sweet love, as whispers in your own ear, bringing forth long forgotten memories of the ballads of the beloved. Good times pass quickly while sorrows haunt for long, bringing back those pleasant memories of the loving companionship of the past. Your invisible associate in this walkthrough revitalizes your mind and body with nourishment as it faces the tumult of daily existentiality.
In the conclusive phase of the Mahabharata, Pandavas or specifically Yudhistra embarked on a heavenly voyage for a tete-a-tete with the cosmic identity to the Swargarohini mountain peak. The folklore suggests of his passing through ancient villages of Mori and Naitwar which fall on the way, along the banks of the Supin River.
As one drives with ‘WildBoots’ through the distance from Dehradun to Sankri, one passes the Yamuna and Tons valleys and enters the domain of the Supin River. At Naitwar the Supin joins the Rupin River coming from the Rupin Pass to be thereafter called as Tons and passing through Mori downstream. The journey from Sankri to Taluka is a one way dirt road in which small vehicles ply with the blooming Rhododendrons of late March in many a hue making the route colourful as one splashed with the swathe of an artist.
WildBoots had put us up in comfortable rooms in Sankri, the last village having medical facilities and other basic conveniences. Like Taluka, Sankri too rests on gradually terraced fields having amongst others apple orchards producing possibly the best and most priced apple varieties, like the ‘Red Royal’ variety grown in the neighbouring Kinnaur valley of Himachal Pradesh. Sankri has few shops and shanties to cater to emergent requirements and ala carte food menu with local produce of many seasonal vegetables like cauliflower and cabbage. Local produce being limited after August, it means conveying most edibles from good distances at other times. When you eat at a California joint which prides on serving local produce to reduce the burden of transportation you realise how vulnerable these communities are in obtaining most of their requirements outside their area, merely to cater to your palate. I was reminded of the harshness of the times when a distinguished person with five Olympic medals served me drinks in Siberia and some of the dish servers at Sankri also spoke well accented English reminding me of how luck can make your existence from nether-land to higher platforms.
The pathways consist of walking on small and big boulders, tree trunks, cobbled stones laid out for you, stone cut terraces as you follow the river upstream. The noise is deafening at times and at others the wind preening an enveloping embrace around you and caressing your thoughts in the process. Though you are generally ascending many a time you descend to climb further and look forward to footwork to support your step and the trekking pole comes in handy. The journey follows the lanes virtually carved out from times immemorial by the multitude of sheep which appear to move in summer to the grasslands and in winter to the fields near Mussourie and provides vocation and occupation to the villagers. Passing through the village of Ganghad set out on a rock face after a 9 km walk, you cross the Supin River a further 5 km walk ahead after crossing a wooden bridge close to the village of Osla. Osla is also on a solid rocky background, to possibly avoid avalanches and landslide-landslip erosion.
Porters carrying 50 Kgs of iron material to build houses at Ganghad breathe heavily and they lighten the burden of the trekker with some humming tunes which makes you to realise that the burdens of life can be more bearable if we were to buzz the chant of a human heart wherein lost love comes back to keep company in these surroundings. WildBoots uses mules to ferry the rations, cooking material, tents and on this day the burdened animal let go the stove and WildBoots still improvised to provide food cooked on wood with some quick thinking. Manish the team leader checked the pulse rate and oxygen after some rest on reaching Osla at the back of the school, where tents were put up and found everyone was doing well. The group consisted of students from IIT, working professionals from Mumbai, Chandigarh, Delhi amongst others and personal experiences. Many a loving and moving anecdotes were exchanged over gulps of tea as the chilly wind was virtually uprooting the tents. The mountain peaks beyond the valley were glistening with a snow storm visible at the height coming from the intensity of the wind. But nearer, the bonfire was making the cold tolerable for us. The food prepared and served was wholesome with ‘chapathi’ and rice with lentils and vegetables brought for the journey. In the full moon lit night it appeared as though it was the long awaited picnic we were partying in. Shooting stars move across the sky in flourish and the trekker could perhaps hoist his wishes for heavens to smile; at least for the satisfaction of the mind. Manish like a true captain saw everybody in their tents, bed rolls, sleeping bags, with torches and water near them for the company of the night. During the journey we came across a herdsman complaining of a leopard attack on his sheep and in the silence of the night one could hear the hooting of wolves, hyenas and wild cats as they feasted; perhaps not far from the village. Such attacks suggest human – wild animal interaction/conflict with the thinning of the forests, even though the website speaks of pristine untouched forests all around.
The villagers in addition to shepherding spend a month collecting fuel, a month or two collecting grass for their livestock and another month or two in arranging for rations from the surrounding areas moving about in flocks. The livestock’s are boarded on the ground floor and they stay on the first floor of the mostly wooden house which may cost round five lakh rupees to build. Those who can afford send their children to Purola for studies and those without means eke out humble existence, with little of the crime that the plains witness. The biggest problem is the absence of doctors or even elementary medicines and a host of complaining villagers request for medicines to lighten their sufferings, which brings immense joy both to the giver and to the receiver. Perhaps we can take a larger pouch of medicines, to mitigate the suffering from problems of stomach, knees, back, head, chest etc.
Next morning the stove is ready even before daybreak and even before streaks of light appear on the horizon, the warming cup of cheerful tea is doing its rounds. The warmth of the sleeping bags keep many inbound but the air outside is freshening the spirits and the trekker claps his hands in joy with many a participant including the team leader breaking out with lines from golden melodies of the past. The breakfast is done and the caravan dusts its tents and begins the move to Har-ki-dun on an ambling path and reaches the destination after several hours, standing on snow-fields as far as one can see. As one goes up by the riverside gorge, the mountain narrows and the majesty of the Swargarohini group of mountains stands out as a sentinel of our illustrious past. Fresh snow makes the passageways as somewhat strident and one could look for footmarks to get good landing.
The excursion in the lap of nature brings one to enjoy the breezy solitude with the company of fellow trekkers and makes us readily forget our daily turmoil back home. The entire journey can also be encapsulated with the lens of an avid photographer looking at mountain and snow, flora and fauna, valley and water gorge, to recall the sight and might of the nature’s sights.
However greater purpose awaits us when we discuss the environment with the common folk. This year in the then grip of an El-Niño has seen less than 50% of the snow and 30% reduced water flow discharge indicating in advance water stress to follow for the riparian states using the water? Glacial snows which falls on the snow of the previous season and also at heights is less in comparison which could mean reduced flows in the months ahead. The dry winter with few winter showers could also intensify forest fires in the hot summer with small fires visible. This has already turned out to nastily snuff out huge forest tracts in the neighbouring districts. Thus a trekking journey can provide to the environmentalist and planner resources for predicting the near future and can become a class room study subject in the times to come.
The participants walked back to Ganghad and camped by the flowing stream coming from the high hills. After dinner the folks retired to their tents put up by WildBoots. The team leader constantly asked everybody not to drop even a small sachet and lived up by his example. He took care of everybody’s comfort providing medicines, balms and sprays. He went about photographing the birds and capturing their wild colours and shared it with the companions.
The trek back gave opportunity to the group to ponder on how to bond with nature enjoy the energy lines, and everybody appreciated the arrangements made along with the care shown by Manish, the team leader. It was truly a unique experience blending nature with the call of the wild and allowing us to live and treasure the most heart-warming moments in the ever energetic mountains.
Click here for Har ki Doon trek details.
After coming back from a Himalayan trek, it's never easy to settle down to your normal life. You always try to look towards ways and means to maintain a connect and keep that fire of going back burning.
While the less gifted of us look back to our photographs as a way of maintaining the connect, the artistic ones turn those beautiful pictures into something even more memorable. As truly said, what more, if not the mountains, can bring out the artist in you.
These charcoal paintings by Debapriyo Chatterjee bring out the Har-ki-Doon trek in the most exhilarating manner. Also posting the originals on which the paintings are based.
A typical Gharwali house. While the lower part is used to store food & animals feed for the winters, the upper portion are the living quarters. Wood & stones are extensively used in the construction and offers moderate temperatures both in the chilly winters and summers. This one was an out-house in the Seema village.
Click here for Chadar Trek Details
Priyanka Mitra likes roaming around in the mountains, she feels she is on deportation when on plains.
If she is not traveling, she is arm-chair traveling.
She is constantly exploring ideas and opportunities to give up her mundane proletariat lifestyle and is waiting for an "Alm Uncle" to adopt her!
Dates and Campsites
· 9th February 2014, Day 1: Leh to Chilling. Start of trek. Camped at Shingra Yokma.
· 10th February 2014, Day 2: Shingra Yokma to Tibb.
· 11th February 2014, Day 3: Tibb to Nerak.
· 12th February 2014, Day 4: Nerak to Tibb.
· 13th February 2014, Day 5: Tibb to Shingra Yokma.
· 14th February 2014, Day 6: Shingra Yokma to Tilat Tsumdo.
· 15th February 2014, Day 7: End of Trek. Back to Leh.
Helps to know:
· Temperature reads in minus. Always.
· Usually 4 or more layers of clothing required.
· Carry extra pairs of socks.
· Drink water. Lots n lots...
· Carry with you, one full set of clothing in the day pack, just in case you offload the backpack. Terrains are unpredictable!
· Apply enough sunscreen (high SPF) and cover entire face and neck. The Sun burn is dangerous!
· Store camera batteries inside jackets and sleeping bags.
· Carry steel plate/ bowl and mug.
· Carry cards. Evenings are long.
· Carry thermos. Water in the sipper freezes.
Early on around last year I had decided upon trekking the frozen Zanskar, the Southern tributary of river Indus, popularly known as the Chadar, meaning blanket of snow ! I knew this one would be different than just climbing slopes. The second week of February was an easy choice as that was the week of full moon. The temptation of a full moon on a silvern landscape was hard to resist! All the flights to Leh got cancelled due to heavy snowfall, and I reached a day later. I split with two of my friends travelling from Bangalore in Delhi itself, as they reached Leh two days later and we were accommodated in different batches.
Juleh ! (9th February)
The indigo skyline stretched from one end to the other with sharp silver peaks piercing it at frequent intervals. I was adequately layered before stepping out of the craft as I had been warned about the sudden temperature change in advance. The cold air hit me with full force as soon as I stepped out. The picturesque Kushok Bakula Rimpochhe Airport, cradled amongst white and grey peaks is one of the smaller airports. The narrow snow covered roads doted with Poplar trees on both sides zigzagged into by-lanes of the Hotel Auspicious, where we were booked for the night. We were received by the trek leads. More trekkers arrived on subsequent flights. Breakfast was served through the registration session at the end of which we were allotted rooms.
The sky was an intense cobalt, we lazed on the terrace soaking in the Sun. Buckets of precious hot water were put to good use. After a sumptuous lunch we headed out to the market in search of gumboots, which turned out to be life saving through the next couple of days!
We walked down the jolly lanes of Leh... cold but active, busy yet lazy, snowy and sunny...The spirited streets were strung with multi-colored prayer flags, secretly assuring the welfare and happiness of the citizens. After some looking around we got the gumboots, I had to make do with a size larger than mine. We visited the Post Office, stopped by a book shop, shopped for post cards, sipped on coffee... before it was time to head back to the hotel for the briefing session. Introductions and illustrations followed over the next one hour, rules laid, questions asked... I was given to document the trek. It was a harsh minus seventeen that night. We finished our dinner and retired early.
Shifting Terrains (10th February)
Groggy and cold we reluctantly munched on aloo parathas. By seven thirty we were ready to depart for Chilling. The journey to Chilling was close to three hours. The landscape shifted between varied shades of brown and white, barren for miles on both sides with an odd uninhabited structure popping up here and there! The road narrowed into a wind, with the gravelly mountain on one side, and a gleaming emerald valley on the other... we stopped at Nimu, the confluence of the rivers Indus and Zanskar and witnessed for the first time, the river we shall be treading on. The marble white frozen Zanskar curved into an euphoric Indus... it stole my breath away!
Finally it was time to take to foot. It was a steep and long descent to the riverbed, negotiating deceptive gravel all the way down. I held on to the walking stick, while some fellow trekkers preferred to slide down.
My heart leapt as I set foot on chadar... brittle and snappy on the surface, sturdy underneath. Taking one step at a time to prevent slips and falls, carefully we crossed over to the other side Tilat Tsumdo. We were given crampons and served tea before we embarked on the first leg of the trek. The first day was not so bad.... the crampons gripped amazingly well on snow, ice, slush! It was a rather flat walk towards Shingra Yokma campsite where we were to tent for the night. Barring the test to endure cold and carry one's own backpack, rest was vanilla! However, the experience of walking over the blanket of ice and snow alternately was dramatic... albeit the landscape was white and sometimes even monotonous (over the next few days), surprises were ample! After about two hours we stopped for lunch over cups of black tea and steaming, soupy maggi at Shingra Yokma. The Sun was harsh but lent amazing comfort to our wobbly psyches! We were hungry, the backpacks felt heavy and the day long... The tents were already pitched when we arrived at the campsite by four thirty, with tea and bread pakoda awaiting us. We were four girls in the team, due to the freezing temperature we requested for accommodation in one tent, but our trek leader warned us against claustrophobia and finally we were two each in a tent. Rest of the tents comfortably accommodated three trekkers each. We retired by nine after a delicious five course dinner. That and every following night through the trek, we would collect hot water before retiring, both for drinking and for the hot water bag, to keep us warm through the frigid nights. Fumbling clumsily in feeble torch light, I put on a few more layers and slipped into two sleeping bags along with the hot water bag, hoping to fall asleep... but a brutally cold night kept me awake, I cringed and curled through a long tedious darkness!
Every morning around six thirty we would wake up to the call of tea, served inside the tent, following which we packed, freshened up and headed for breakfast to the dining tent. Breakfast usually comprised of cereal with steaming cups of milk, aloo paratha and tea. Following a quick head count, we would start with the day's journey. Mornings were a medley of assorted activities at the campsite. Tents being dismantled, breakfast served and consumed with equal haste, porters stacking their sledges with offloaded backpacks, the trek leaders communicating with the local guide over the route plan, a worried fellow trekker applying double dose of sunscreen on her sore skin and a focused photographer busy creating memories.
Unlike other treks, where the landscape and terrain alters each day, this was pretty much same. But for me, the spell cast by a cerulean sky over ragged cliffs , the setting Sun pouring its gold over edgy snow peaks, the gurgling river flattering its way down the numerous cracks and crevices beneath the snow-floor, was anything but boring! It was haunting with a dream like quality! One night at Nerak I gathered enough courage to venture outside the tent to explore the night and savor the glory of a moonlit landscape that may be best described through these famous lines... “A savage place! as holy and enchanted... As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted... By woman wailing for her demon lover!"
Landmarks en-route (11th February)
The schedule for the next few days were set. We would leave around nine in the morning, break for lunch around twelve in the noon and reach the campsite by about four in the evening. On the way to the second campsite, Tibb, we crossed Tsomo Bao (Bao meaning cave), Tsomo Napung (Napung meaning nose, the waterfall gets its name from two nostril like vents, one frozen, one flowing) and Tsomo Tutu (Tutu meaning neck), the gorge gets narrowest here! It got the coldest and windiest in Tibb! The watch read a temperature of minus thirty!! Perched atop a mound of mud and patches of ice, the ground beneath our tents felt uneven. Routinely we stumbled into the tent, wriggled into sleeping bags and awaited dawn! Sometimes, I mustered enough courage to visit the girls in the neighboring tent and spend some time discussing a warmer vacation we should plan next!
Frozen Grandeur (12th February)
The following day we set out for Naerak, the last campsite onward. There were two landmarks enroute, one the prayer flag clad ancient holy Juniper tree that marks entry into Naerak and second, the much awaited frozen waterfall, about a kilometer ahead of the Juniper. It was a good clear day, spirits soaring with an incredible sense of achievement of having made it to the last campsite of the trek. Hereon it would be only a retrace!
Several pictures, solo and group, were clicked in front of the grand cascade and we continued for about thirty more minutes until we reached the trekkers' hut. Trekkers were relieved to settle down around the fire that was lit up inside the two big rooms. I went back to explore the stupendous cascade once more. We could not make it to the Naerak Village because it was already late and the slopes risky. That and the next few evenings we would huddle together and play cards and dumb Charades until late.
Volatile Landscapes (13th February)
Next morning we woke up to a completely different view, there wasn’t an iota of resemblance with the previous day's landscape! The snow had melted away, with a furious Zanskar drowning the base of the cliffs. The water level had risen substantially. We began walking over and along the cliff. Quite a balancing act, climbing and descending those steep ridges... an hour into the journey we were confronted with a steep perpendicular cliff that needed to be climbed. The water level below was not too assuring! Our trek guide and one of the porters, sat themselves down on the top of the cliff, dropping down a long sturdy rope, our assistant trek guide was now tying the rope around our waists, thrusting us upward one by one. We would now be crawling up the steep length of the wall, feeling like Spider-man of course! Wait! What?!
I freaked out watching fellow trekkers performing the stunt one by one. I was dreading my turn and before I knew I was being pushed up. I had almost made it when the rope flipped suddenly and there I was hanging off the cliff, midway in the air with a seething river straight down below, ready to take me in! And although I was holding on to the rope with all my might, I could feel it slip away from my wet grip little by little. I had lost my voice and not a sound came out! I looked down at the river and panicked at how cold it would feel, silly me! After hanging there for what seemed like hours, I felt someone from above slip an arm around mine, pulling me up with a jolt and pushing me off violently to the other side of the cliff. In between the pull and the push I have no recollection of what might have happened. The trekkers who had already made it to the other side, helped me gain back composure after a while.
Life on the icy slopes
We recovered from the trauma and resumed our journey over the fragile river. Most of the team was gone, with a few of us lagging behind we took another short break to change our wet socks when we spotted two lazy beautiful creatures strolling on a distant slope. Gradually another one appeared and then another.... We got a closer look through the lens of a fellow trekker . We saw a whole pack of Himalayan Ibex... a soft brown on the saddle and patchily white with horns curving backwards, they made for a rewarding sight!
Sight and sound of Chadar
Every step on Chadar resonated differently, sometimes echoing hollow, sometimes thudding heavy and sometimes mildly crunching on flaky snow. The rock solid, marble like floor looked transparent, I could see the turquoise river wandering beneath it. And in no time it would miraculously transform into an impenetrable, slippery white! The ever-changing sights and sounds surprised us anew. We walked on soft powdery snow, along narrow tracks filled with fragments of broken ice resembling shredded glass, on fragile ice sheets which would crack under the pressure of our feet. We climbed ridges, waded through trenches of knee dip water with walls of ice on both sides, sometimes balanced on craggy edges with not enough space to place a feet and once even jumped off a cliff from a height of about three meters!
We would walk in a single line, in receptive silence. The trek guide would lead, showing and sometimes creating the path for the team. The assistant trek leader walked at the end, ensuring no one was left behind while the trek leader mostly scanned through the length of the procession checking on and engaging with everyone.
Reunion and Farewell
I bumped into my friends on our way back at Tibb. They were now on their way to Naerak. Before long we were together again, curled up inside the tent, with much to tell each other. Next morning we started for Shingra Yokma and completed the expedition without much adventure. We reached the campsite early and lazed in the Sun, snacking over tea and popcorn. It was here that our team split with majority of them wanting to return to Leh the following day and the remaining few of us keen to stay back waiting to savor the glory of a full moon on Chadar.
Surprise of a Valentine (14th February)
It was Valentine’s day and also the night of the full moon! We bid adieu to the trekkers who headed back to Leh and started on a rather lazy note by ten thirty towards the next and last campsite of the trek. The plan was to camp at Shingra Yokma for the night. The remaining nine of us were bestowed with some new found cheer (was it the full moon or err... the flippancy of a teenage valentine!). It was cloudy, snowing every now and then. We were instructed to camp directly at Tilat Tsumdo instead of Shingra Yokma. And boy was that right! Further ahead the chadar had melted and this time there was no cliff to climb either!
The thrill of wading through a beautifully green but cruelly cold water rising till waist is unmatched! We were tied to each other with that same historic rope, as the current was strong, the river-bed slippery, the violent river could be unforgiving! Clutching the rope with both the hands we tried to find our steps on the rocks, all the while crying out at what felt like a thousand knives cutting through our bare skin. Soon the screams succumbed to a throbbing numbness! We were in the water for good six-seven minutes. When we clambered back on the rocks, I could not even stand, I could not find my feet, waist down all sensations were gone! All the three layers of my pants were wet. I somehow managed to pull them down my gumboot to avoid direct contact with the skin. Only a little more of the journey was left, I decided to reach the campsite and then change. The trek lead helped me back on my feet, the rest of the team had gone ahead by then, we spoke for a while and completed rest of the journey in silence.
At the campsite, it was a food fair! Tea, maggi, pulao, soup.... We changed and warmed ourselves around the fire. The men went to explore the mountains and I sat myself on the edge of a cliff waiting for the moon-rise, convincing myself it would not be too long before I would return. In the distance, the porters were idling over a smoke around the fire, engaging in conversation and songs.... what would it be like to call these slopes home, I wondered!
Then night descended with the moon hiding behind thick grey clouds. We barely caught a glimpse or few! A gleaming silver, the snow, a profound purple, the sky! It was electrifying! I peered out of the tent and reminisced over the last few days, not a single moment felt unworthy, I felt blessed to be a part of such grandeur.
So long... ! (15th February)
Next morning we climbed up to Chilling, where the vehicle was waiting to take us away. By now we had negotiated enough gravel and climbed enough slopes, so the ascent was not too much of a challenge.
Customarily, phone numbers were exchanged and good bye videos shot... We stopped by the magnetic hill on our way back to Leh. The rest of the day went in cleaning, washing, a quick tour of the market, team dinner and a night long game of cards, and dumb charades over plans of future meet-ups. I had a flight scheduled next morning.
A broken branch of the ancient Juniper and some jade colored pebbles clutter my desk as I relive the memories... It is not surprising that life-long friendships, lovers' trysts and ongoing reunions are often the culmination of such mystical journeys!
Click here for Chadar Trek Details