Our camping site at an altitude of 3900 metres was quite literary the high point of the trek. This was at a convenient source of water on the route from the little village of Belak to the bugyals of Kush Kalyan. At times a heavy mist lay over the valley and dark rain clouds all but covered the distant mountain peaks. At other times the weather cleared, the valley rolled languidly downwards and the majestic Katling and Janoli peaks glared back at us from a distances.
Heavy incessant rains for over twenty hours kept us zipped down in our three man tents and led to aborting the trek for the day. The rains subsided later in the morning and we spent the rest of the day in the fabulous settings that surrounded our camp site.
A whole herd of goats, there must have been over a hundred of them, bleated loudly in protest at our presence on their grazing grounds. Every voice cried out in protest, some baritone from the rams and some sopranos from the lambs and they left their droppings for good measure. The goats soon accepted our benign presence and filed past our tents to return later in the evening in a spirit of live and let live.
On the previous day one of the goats had given birth to a tiny little lamb and today was the day for mama goat to take the little one for a walk around and even a little hike up the mountains. They learn early to be sure footed Even the little sheppard children scramble up and down the mountain slopes without a care in the world. We on the other hand trudged up the mountains with our eyes glued to the trail that was often stony and treacherous. On one or two occasions landslides had eroded portions of the trail to just a foot or two in width making for tricky traversing. That apart the trek over the first two days was reasonably comfortable.
On day one we set off from Malla, a town about 20 kilometres from Uttarkashi, and crossed the Bhagirathi River before trekking up fairly steep slopes. The 12 kilometres we covered on the first day was perhaps the most taxing of the trip and some of our 16 member team struggled a bit. Day two was a lot easier as we had beautiful rolling meadows to traverse as against the forest trails we trekked through on the previous day. Our camp site on day two was near the village of Belak.
Belak was at a height of 3000 metres and stood at the border between Uttarkashi District and Tehri District. This little village of a dozen households or so had a dorm for weary travellers and also a little café. The houses were made of stones and wood and each house had a fire place for cooking that also served to keep it warm. Some houses had a solar panel for charging a small inverter that provided power for transistor radios or a few light bulbs.
Water for the residence came from the nearby mountain stream that provides them running water all through the day. In fact this site had one of the more copious streams of water that encouraged some of our team to take a bath. Bathing is a luxury on such treks and most of us are reconciled to a bath only at the end of the trek. Over time you long for the day when you can have a good hot water bath scrub away all the grime and curl up to sleep in a nice warm bed.
The monsoons had arrived and most evenings the skies would darken and rolls of thunder would announce impending rains. The rains thankfully came on most days after we had completed trekking for the day and had an early dinner. When they did descend on us we were tucked away in our tiny, and need I say again, three man tents. The rains lashed out at us and from time to time the crack of thunder sounded agonizingly close by. Gusts of wind shook the tents alarmingly yet we remained dry and safe from the fury of the monsoons.
Stepping out of the tent for a pee during the rains was painful and a necessary hurdle to cross. A reasonably water proof jacket and track pants ensured that I could dash out and back with minimal damage. I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to know that indeed you can step out for the mandatory pee even when the rains were at its worst and Murphy’s Law demanded that you had to go!
Camp sites were chosen by the trek guides based on the availability of water and a reasonable clearing to house our tents and the kitchen tent. Water was available at most times we needed them on the first two days of the trek but thereafter it was not so freely available and one had to conserve and ration water intake during the days trek. We would fill our water bottles from tiny mountain streams that I was a little sceptical about initially but the water was so good to taste and cool and refreshing that it was miles ahead of the bottled water we trust so much.
The meadows or bugyals of Kush Kalyan offered magnificent views of the mountains and also the soothing rolling meadows. Many of our team
members, young and old, rolled down the sloping meadows in gay abandon. Sheppards tended to their flocks and a little restaurant provided a place the porters to play cards and for some of us to lounge around drinking delicious lemon tea as we watched the birds flittering to and fro. These were magical settings
Kush Kalyan was at a height of 3300 metres and offered some respite from any potential high altitude sickness at the previous camp site located at 3900 metres. Thankfully none of our team members had any serious effects of the high altitude. I had read up a fair deal about high altitude sickness and knew that it can strike any one of any age, sex or fitness level. When it does you are faced with a life threatening situation and the effected person needs to be rushed to lower altitudes as quickly as possible.
On the first night at camp 3900, it was raining heavily and the cooks asked us to assemble in small groups in the kitchen tent to eat dinner. With the rains and howling winds I moved too quickly towards the kitchen tent and immediately felt breathless, the winds slamming against my face didn’t help either. I stuck my head into the warm kitchen tent as quickly as possible and gulped in air as I recovered. It was a timely reminder to me not to take these altitudes lightly. I was careful thereafter and moved around at a sedate pace.
The cooks served us well on this trek. They cooked simple vegetarian food and served it hot. We had the choice of several drinks such as Holicks, Boost etc to serve as night caps. Tea would be served in our tents at 5.30 am and on most days we commenced our trek around 6.30 am. At Kush Kalyan we purchased a goat and the porters and cooks helped clean and cook it for those of us who were non- vegetarian. I was recovering from a tummy upset that day but couldn’t resist the temptation to have a small piece with a little gravy and rice. The mutton was soft and tasty and on the next day I had recovered enough to eat a little more.
My tummy upset was a bit of a dampener but not a major source of discomfort .I was put on an anti-biotic straight away and after a couple of days I was ok. I had to go slow on food for a few days and was a trifle weakened but we were well on the downward trek by then and I didn’t face any difficulty in completing each days trek. A few other members also had stomach upsets so there must have been an element of un-hygienic conditions at the mess tent.
The return trek from Kush Kalyan was by a different route via the town of Sila. Sila had electricity that lit up the town at night and had DTH TV antennae. It had a semblance of civilization that we didn’t see any where else on this trek. However the simple uncluttered lives that the sheppards, their wives and their children lived made you hope that they remained un-touched by what we call civilization. In contrast our group of porters, all from Nepal, where young men with high aspirations that was writ large in their dressing and on their visages. They had seen more luxurious and affluent lives and dream some day of getting there. Now they live from one trek to another in the short trekking season, leaving their aspirations frustratingly unfulfilled.
The return trek to Malla from where we head by road to Uttarkashi was relatively light and easy. We trekked for short distances each day and took plenty of time for rest halts and to observe nature. The strong odour of sheep and cattle droppings are a feature of these treks and you associate it with the freshness of life around you. Many of our team members spotted interesting herb and plant species Eagles flying majestically and swooping down on their prey was a treat to watch as were the little birds that twittered and whistled as they hopped around amidst the scrubs.
On the penultimate day of the trek, it rained steadily all through the day. Most of us had ponchos and as we snaked our way along the trail or gathered around for a rest pause, we looked like the members of a secret cult! I had for some reason staunchly refused to wear the poncho I had brought along and by the close of the trek I was soaking wet. At these lower altitudes and under wet and rainy conditions the leaches have a field day and most of us had multiple leaches sticking to our ankles and calves. Quite unfortunately the porters simply yanked them off our legs although the wiser thing to do would have been to apply salt and let them fall off on their own.
When we finally reached our last camp site just a few kilometers away from Malla, the rains had completely inundated the camp site and some of our back packs were wet. The Bhagirathi was in full flow and river roared and crashed against the rocks along it’s course. It was decided that we drop the idea of camping for the night and instead head by road to Uttarkashi. A prospect that all of us just loved.
We had a little drama before we were to reach our hotel. A landslide threw boulders across the road and all vehicles came to a halt. For a while we had no idea what would be the outcome of the day. Then it was decided to get off our vehicles and walk across to the other side of the effected pathway and there get fresh ones to take us to the hotel in Uttarkashi. It was a dangerous walk or sprint as we cleared the area that is called the shooting stones area. Loose boulders menacingly poised to hurtle down the mountain was a risk that we faced.
Thankfully all of us crossed over safely and so did our vehicles and we were soon screeching our way, in a let’s get it over mode by the drivers, to our hotel in Uttarkashi. We were soon there and with immense relief had the long awaited hot water bath and change of clothes. The hot khichdi we had that afternoon for lunch never tasted so good.
That brought to a close a wonderful and exciting trek in the Himalayas and I am already looking forward for the next one.