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The craggy Dhauladhars beyond the Kangra Valley
Over the last decade, the stretch of the Dhauladhar range, which falls within Himachal Pradesh, has become the most favoured and frequented part of the Himalaya, primarily because of its ease of access from Delhi.

IT'S A fairly flat drive through the Punjab plains for most of the way to the base town for the Dhauladhars, Dharamsala in the Kangra Valley. A week of hiking and climbing in this region can rival even the best that the Greater Himalaya offers. The only features missing here are glaciers and peaks above 6,000 meters. Dense forests full of flowers and rhododendrons flowering almost the year round, abundant wildlife including leopards, black bear, deer, migratory and resident birds, wild gurgling rivers and ferocious waterfalls, frozen lakes, holy places and temples, little known trails, sky-kissing peaks covered with snow and ice, sheer rock faces and sharp voids to eternity all make this region an adventurer's paradise. When you add to this the quaint villages and their generous inhabitants who welcome every outsider as an honoured guest, you have the perfect Shangri La, the enchanted land.Ahead of Ghera, one crosses River Gaj across a rickety wire rope bridge with iron sheets below that had seen better days.

The sheets had holes, were rusted and broken at several places; the bridge looked as if it could collapse or plunge into the frothing river any minute, yet it has been there for all the years. From the bridge the trail starts climbing gradually, first going through the courtyard of several houses of Rawa Village, and then steeply the shepherd's trail along the river. Overcoming a massive landslide zone one enters a thick forest which is infested with black bears and leopards. Then appears a temple with a small shelter. One really sweats profusely; hence one must rest for a while and munched on some biscuits. The upper reaches of the valley are normally deeply submerged in snow.One can walk quickly along the well- marked trail winding into the forest, scattering birds with my movements. After some time one comes across an old shepherd sleeping on a rock under the sun, by the river. His dog gives a friendly growl, while his flock of sheep continued to munch grass unconcerned.

The river twists down the hillside, as did the upward trail that literally follows its bends. Long thick vines swing from the trees and a pleasant breeze plays a symphony through the rustling leaves. One can stop at the junction of the two streams which join to form River Gaj, A rope bridge weighed down with boulders swung gently in the wind. One should be insane to use that bridge for the crossing. One can wade through the chilly water of the smaller stream and drop one's load on dry ground on the other side. One can also build a small fire with dry twigs and got some tea going. The path ahead involves a near vertical climb of about 150 m; after 20 minutes rest, one is ready to go.The first step has to be substantially raised to hit the trail, which is cut sharply into the steep face, plastered with stones and rocks over centuries. It was one of those trails where you should not stop in between. Once you start, you must pause only when you reach the top. One has to regulate one's breath, count one's steps and keep climbing steadily.

Mercifully one should be out of the sun; else one would have been sweating in no time. It takes 20 minutes to reach up till a small Shiva temple, beyond which lies the plateau atop the climb. When one reaches it, one has to drop my sack on the ground and simply gaze in wonder at the view. It is a joy to stand on a flattish patch of green with a towering wall right ahead with thick wood in the foreground. To the left the valley deepens and rises towards the blue sky. One should continue on the trail that lead directly into the wood. Shortly one crosses a small stream, hopping across boulders and sighted the shepherd huts and the temple of Bagga. It is a tiny hamlet; a cluster of a dozen mud thatched huts that are occupied by shepherds only during the grazing months of summer. It has two Shiva temples and a small house that belongs to the temple trust. Bagga is rarely visited by outsiders and is primarily a grazing field surrounded by towering peaks and snow-covered ridges. It sees local pilgrims during Janmashtami, when able-bodied men begin their pilgrimage to Lam Dal Lake from Bagga. This is a hard trek and not many attempt this trail to Lam Dal. For the rest of the year Bagga is literally forgotten by the outside world.

One loves the complete isolation, the solitude of the hills and the hush of the forests. One can also take shelter inside a mud hut, barely able to stand upright under the low roof. There is firewood that keeps one warm through the chilly night. The night sky above is a brilliant canopy of stars. The next morning one can follow the trail which dropped down about 50 meters to the left of Bagga, and cross the stream gushing down from the upper ridge across a series of loosely scattered boulders. The trail is overgrown with nettles and prickly leaves. One can climb up to another field and then turned right to enter deep woods. The trail is moist under morning dew and a thin sheet of fog lay atop the trees. Birds chatter and one spies a flock of brown deer. One should stay as quiet as possible. Though the trail is overgrown and nonexistent for most of the way, it is not difficult maintaining orientation as there is little room to get lost.

One can walk along the slope of the mountain, with a deep gorge where a stream raged far below to the left, while to the right rises the sheer rock face. And all one has to do is continue gaining altitude and one is sure to reach the top of the ridge. Tall trees impair the vision and one has to switchback several times, and at places squeeze under or through dry tree trunks. There are sharp drops, tumbling boulders, ice fields and waterfalls and it is pure improvisation and route-finding using the natural instincts. One has the entire day ahead so one should not get worried about the slow pace. The jungle is redolent with purple flowers and one cannot help stopping every now and then just to take in the view and inhale the heady scent.Rarely did the trail is even, it is almost always spiraling up towards the sky, getting steeper with every passing minute. One has to resort to pulling oneself up with the help offallen branches or hanging on to some rocky outcrops.

Despite the hard going, one really enjoys the climb and the rarefied air that filled the lungs. One finds several pools of crystal clear water lying in the bowls formed by the rocks, and drank my fill. One then has to jump across a sizeable stream, as one does not want to wet one's feet and there was no other means past. As one gains altitude, the jungle thins out and one realizes that one is nearing 3,000 m. The trees thin out as well and the sun finally filter down to the ground, throwing intricate designs on the grass.The trail and the jungle are so captivating that one forgets to look up, beyond or behind till one reaches the crest of the ridge. One also comes up on the ridge that is another summer grazing ground. Here and there patches of snow still lie about. One can take a sip of water and then turn one?s head towards the right to follow the line of the ridge.

The view is really spectacular. Despite the low altitude of around 3,300 m on that ridge on the Dhauladhar Range, one is at the periphery of a curvature on the ridge that offers one uninterrupted line-of-sight views of the passes of Gag, Bhimghasutri, and Indrahar and the south face of Mun Peak that catches the full flare of the sun. Totally carpeted beneath the consolidated snow, the peaks and the passes entice one like a promised land. It would be months before anyone could visit them though. From the got (grazing ground on the ridge), one has several options. During summer one can descend on the other side to Karen Lake and then take the trail down to Karen and further to reach the road at Ghera; or from the lake climb to Minkiani Pass for Lam Dal or to Bleni Pass and exit towards Chamba. The next morning one can make an early start. What lies ahead is unknown territory. One can also intend to climb to the top of the ridge that rises from the got and then one can follow the top of the ridge through thick forest all the way till one reaches the ridge above Karen, and then finding one?s way down to the village below. One can possibly think that it is a simple and straightforward plan. One can turn out to be a nightmare lived during the day under bright sun.

The climb to the ridge top is the easiest part. Literally bushwhacking through the trees and tumbling several times, it takes one nearly four hours to descend merely 1,200 m and cover a distance of 14 km to Karen, reaching with large patches of my shirt missing. One the finally learns a lesson that at times it is better to use the well-worn trail; not that one follows this lesson in the future. A night's rest at Karen and one reaches Ghera the next morning for the bus back to civilized madness.

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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