Saturday, 26 April 2014

Trudge to triumph: Trekking through north India's Bhapa Pass

The group start their trek at Kunzum Pass (4,551m) in high spirits.

The group start their trek at Kunzum Pass (4,551m) in high spirits.

A mountain pass in northern India offers spectacular snow-capped peaks and Tibetan culture plus lots of pain, and pleasure, for those who are willing to trek it.

Trekking, like computer games, can be addictive! So before my knees started to send out more 'warning signals', I set my eyes and mind on conquering Bhapa Pass in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. Bhapa Pass, also known as Bhaba Pass, lies at an altitude of 4,890m. 

We started the trek from Kunzum Pass at 4,551m. Along the way, we stopped at Chandratal Lake, also known as Moon Lake, famed for its crystal clear blue waters set against the majestic snow-capped mountains. The wind was extremely strong and cold and after some quick photos, we continued our journey.

The trail seemed endless. As the day wore on, our steps became heavier as the extended walk took its toll. Despite the wonderful scenery, taking photos was the last thing on our minds. All we wanted was to get to the campsite! And we finally did, after 10 gruelling hours.

Breakfast was often served alfresco style during the trek.
Breakfast was often served alfresco style during the trek.

Our guide Rajesh told us that, based on our 'performance', we should not have problems making it to Bhapa Pass – the the highlight of the trip.

We spent the next two days travelling in vans (ah, such relaxation...) from the second campsite (Takcha, 4,200m) to Kaza, visiting, among others, the famous Ki Monastery (4,066m) and Kibber Village, which at 4,270m, is one of the highest villages in the world.

Along the journey, we passed by small and barely inhabited villages. Althought rich in Tibetan culture, they are almost totally cut off from the outside world.

From Kaza (3,640m), we continued in our vans through the Pin Valley to Mud (3,665m), the starting point of the five-day-four-night trek up to Bhapa Pass.

Sleepless anxiety

The first day saw a relatively easy two-and-half-hour trek, though at times we were hampered by strong headwinds. When we arrived at the campsite in the late afternoon, several crew members – who had gone ahead on horses with the luggage and equipment – were busy setting up the tents and preparing food for us. We quickly freshened-up and spent the evening entertaining ourselves with jokes and storytelling!

The second day was an uneventful six-hour trek to our campsite at Bara Bolandar (4,040m), passing a varied landscape of verdant fields, moraines and several river-crossings. It was a very hot day and above 4,000m, there were no trees or even shrubs.

MADE IT! The group reach Bhapa Pass, 4,890m, after an arduous trek.
Made it! The group reach Bhapa Pass, 4,890m, after an arduous trek.

We had an early dinner and then I crept into the warmth of my sleeping bag. But, due to anxiety of the tough day ahead, for the first time in days I had trouble falling asleep. 

I tossed and turned and a minute seemed like hours. I started to have doubts – could I really make it? Had I been too ambitious? Words of friends who had been on the trek kept ringing in my ears: “Very tough one...”, “Thought I was going to die...”

I brushed aside the negative thoughts and managed to drift off to dreamland. After barely three hours sleep, I awoke with renewed spirit and energy and told myself: “I am ready!”

After a quick breakfast, we left the campsite at about 4:20am. It was pitch dark and we had our torchlights on. As we ascended, the trail became rockier, the beautiful meadows were behind us and snow fields were everywhere. The air got thinner and we had to stop ever more often to catch our breath.

I was not very good at walking on thick snow, especially on a steep slope. I often lost my balance and stumbled. The thought of slipping and rolling down the slope like a falling rock made my heart cringe. But the ever helpful and thoughtful crew members often came to my rescue whenever I needed help.

At one point, Lama, our chief cook pointed to a “saddle” far ahead: “That is where we are going,” he said.

Ki Monastery (4,066m)lies in a dramatic setting at Ki Village, in the Spiti Valley.
Ki Monastery, which lies in a rugged mountain setting, exemplifies the Tibetan culture of the Spiti Valley, northern India.

“Is that the Pass?” I asked. He nodded his head. The trail was steep, but it looked reachable!

“I will make it,” I said to myself. I had come so far, I would persevere.

After about an hour of walking, we were close to the saddle Lama had pointed out. I then asked Rajesh: “Is that the Pass we are going to?”

“No, you see the prayer flags in the distance, THAT’S where we are going,” Rajesh replied.

It was so distant that I could barely make out the prayer flags. And another “saddle” had appeared ahead. I felt disappointed and mumbled “Oh...” as my jaw half-dropped!

Inch by inch and step by step, I continued to move forward. Though exhausted from the climb, the thought of reaching my goal spurred me on!

Finally... I was up at the Pass. I was lost for words. The dramatic views and the rugged charm of the mountains overwhelmed me. A rush of adrenalin washed through me. I’d made it!

After congratulating each other, we huddled together for group photos but the biting wind and the freezing cold did not allow us to stay too long.

Going downhill on the snow-covered slopes was not any easier. Whenever we could, we would take “shortcuts” by sliding down the slope. Perhaps that was the most fun part of the trek and the tranquility of the mountain was shattered by our laughter and screams!

Captivating campsite

Throughout the trek, Lama, the chief cook; Kamal, the assistant cook; Rajesh, the guide and Vicky, the assistant guide, always awoke at the crack of dawn, before everyone else, to prepare our breakfast and packed lunches.

Trudging through the snow, inch by inch and step by step, in thin mountain air en route to Bhapa Pass.
Trudging through the snow, inch by inch and step by step, in thin mountain air en route to Bhapa Pass.

While we were getting ready inside the tents, Vicky would call out to us from outside: “Good morning, chai (tea in Hindi) here.” When we unzipped our tent doors, he would be there, with a smile on his face and cups of hot milky Indian tea in both hands. It was a very thoughtful and welcoming treat to warm us up on chilly mornings.

Later, after a day of tiring trekking, hot tea and cookies would be there waiting for us when we arrived at the campsites.

The landscape changed dramatically as we descended – from the barren snow-peaked mountains to lush green valleys. Soon the snow fields were behind us and wild flowers started to reappear. We finally reached the campsite – Fauti (4,000m) after close to 12 hours!

For the next two days, we trekked to Mooling (3,245m), the last campsite and finally to Kafnu.

Mooling was the most beautiful and captivating campsite of all. It was tranquil, with green meadows everywhere, sparkling river water flowed soothingly next to our tents while rows and rows of pine trees stood majestically on the opposite side of the river. 

We had BBQ lamb over the campfire here to celebrate the success of the trip. The crew started singing and dancing and some of us joined in.

The crew also gave us a surprise by presenting a cake with six candles – representing the six team members. We were overwhelmed by the warm gesture.

The fifth and last day of the trek was a pleasant four-hour trek through green meadows and thick pine forests. As houses and people appeared in the distance, we realised that our long journey was about to come to an end.

Everywhere the writer turned, she was treated to spectacular scenery.
Everywhere the writer turned, she was treated to spectacular scenery.

As we came closer, we could see the jeeps, with our luggage already taken down from the horses, waiting for us at the end of the trail. Bidding farewell had always been a difficult thing to do, and even more so now!

We had been blessed with kind and helpful crew members and the weather was superb throughout save for a little rain on the fourth day.

The trip was made even more memorable by my fellow trekkers – May, Joyce, Lynette, Candy and Zoey. Their jokes and laughter were like running taps, always flowing and never going dry. I have been very much enriched by this new adventure and can’t wait for the next one!

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Travel , Asia , Treking , Hiking , Mountain Climbing


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