Himalayan Journal vol.02
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Kenneth Mason
    (PAUL BAUER.*)
    (DR. A. M. HERON.)
    (L. R. FAWCUS)
  5. THE SHYOK FLOOD, 1929
    (J. P. GUNN)
    (LIEUT. J. B. P. ANGWIN.)
    (DR. E. F. NEVE.)
    (LIEUT. D. M. BURN.)
    (W. E. BUCHANAN)
    (H. M. GLOVER.)
    (Captain J. BARRON.)
    (Captain A. A. RUSSELL.)
  16. NOTES



IT is now a little over a hundred years ago that the two brothers, Captain Alexander Gerard and Dr. J. G. Gerard, carried out their pioneer explorations in Bashahr, Spiti and Kanawar. Alexander seems to have made more journeys than J. G., and to have climbed almost every pass on the Cis-Sutlej range, between Simla and the Baspa valley.

Some time before the war two very interesting books containing the narratives of these travels came into my hands and fired me with a desire to go over some of the ground the brothers covered, but it was not till the 17th September 1917, exactly a hundred years after Alexander Gerard was at Simla, that I followed in his footsteps, and set out for the Baspa with stores sufficient for about two months.

Captain Gerard thus describes the last three miles to Simla, from about the site of modern Boileauganj :-

"The first half mile the road lay upon a right-hand hill and through oak and booran ; the next half mile upon a left-hand hill, and likewise through oak and booran, and the rest of the way sometimes upon the top of the range, and sometimes on one side and through cheer and keloo trees.

" Reached Semla, a middling-sized village at 12-30 p.m., stopped here during the day, and at 5 p.m. marched to Juko distant one mile and one furlong and encamped at a hut about 60 yards south-west of the flag-staff near a small tank almost dry.

" The road from Semla was an ascent the whole way, steep and rocky in several places, and through keloo and oak trees and with very thick underwood which is full of bears and hogs. The rocks from Syree to the Chand Nudee are all clay slate ; from thence to Semla there is a great deal of mica, and the hill of Juko is composed of dark blueish limestone."

It is difficult to follow this description to-day, and I have been unable to identify the “booran." Gerard's geology of Jakho is also at fault, for what little limestone is visible is definitely yellow and not dark blue.

Gerard probably changed his transport at Simla, and without much difficulty. Even in 1917 coolies were quite easy to get at a reasonable wage at all stages, for I had armed myself with parwanas authorizing me to do so.

My first marches to Fagu, and via Sainj, Jubbal and Rohru, roughly parallel to but south of the Hindustan-Tibet road, were spoilt by rain, for the year was one of the wettest on record, the rains persisting steadily till October, south of the main ranges. From Fagu my road wound down to the Giri valley, the first halt being at Sainj where there is a rest-house ; then on to Kotkhai and eastwards over the pine-clad watershed to Deorha, in Jubbal. Some six miles beyond Deorha the Pabar valley is reached, hot and steamy from its rice- fields. Rohru is about eight miles up the valley, and was the last place where there is a rest-house ; from there on I had to camp till I reached Sangla in the Baspa.

My road now led up the valley past Chergaon to Gunian, where I turned south-east up the Larut spur and crossed the Changsil pass (12,585 feet) to the little village of Dodra, to Ketruar on the Rupin river, and to Jaka, the last village from which I could obtain coolies for crossing the Rupin pass to the Baspa. At Jaka it poured with rain for two whole days, and, being September, snow lay down to 10,000 feet. Rather naturally the Jaka villagers tried to dissuade me from crossing the pass, which they said would be impassable, and suggested that I should return to Rohru and climb to the Hindustan- Tibet road at Sungri. But I was determined to make an effort to cross the Rupin pass, and on the 2nd October left Jaka with between thirty and forty coolies, lightly laden owing to the deep snow, and carrying five days' rations.

The march from Jaka is very fine, the road ascending gradually through forests of silver fir, and then of sycamore and birch, until suddenly the valley widens. The river is no longer a roaring torrent but a mere stream rippling through the open valley, and surrounded by huge cliffs. Further up this gives place to an amphitheatre of snow peaks and glaciers feeding a beautiful blue lake. Here, at Surubasa, and at an elevation of 11,000 feet is the foot of the Rupin pass.

The coolies passed the night in a cave, and were probably warmer than I in my tent, where the thermometer fell to 33°F. The following morning we were away by half-past eight, but after a mile of good going the path was entirely obliterated. Twice we crossed snow-bridges, about two feet thick and rent with chasms, through which we could see the river tossing over the boulder-strewn bed. The snow became deeper as we ascended, while the sun-temperature seemed higher than any I had experienced in the plains of India. The glare was terrible and many of the coolies let their long hair fall over their faces to shield their eyes. The last few hundred feet at an angle of about forty-five degrees were particularly trying, my servants having to be hauled up in a state of collapse by the coolies.

According to Gerard, the Rupin pass is 15,460 feet above sea- level. The Survey of India map, which does not seem to have been revised for many years, gives no height to it.[1] It was strange to be told by the coolies that when the pass is clear of snow the grass has a bad effect on the head-an exactly similar statement to the one they made to Gerard. It is normally reckoned to be an easy pass, but after two days' snow it is most exhausting, and I cannot recommend it for the ordinary traveller after the 15th September, when there is risk of a storm.

I was personally quite fit except for the usual shortness of breath at this altitude. The Baspa side was comparatively easy; much of the snow is deposited before crossing the range and there was little on the far side. Within a few hours we were down to cultivation again, and it was amazing to see the villagers reaping the beautiful dry barley, while all the amaranth and buckwheat on the Rupin side of the pass lay in sodden heaps, ruined by rain. We camped at Dogri, with a magnificent view of the Kanawar Kailas peaks before our eyes, and reached Sangla in the Baspa valley the next morning, where I paid off my coolies and gave them cigarettes. They immediately started back for the pass, singing and cheerful. I had found all the Bashahris in the Pa bar and Rupin valleys most pleasant to deal with. Few Europeans seem to visit them and at first I often found them running off to hide when they caught sight of us. But it was easy to gain their confidence by means of a few simple medicines, and their faith in a tabloid administered by a European was most touching. It was however amusing to note how the inhabitants of each village on the way to a particular pass would assure me that that pass was the worst in Asia, while the one in the neighbouring valley, which would entail using other coolies, was ridiculously easy.

The Baspa valley is well worth a visit, though for mere beauty it can hardly be held to compare with Kulu or Kashmir ; for it is almost beyond reach of the monsoon and the hills on the north appear scorched and barren. Yet here, as at Chini, the sky may be heavily overcast each afternoon, and there may be thunder. Rain appears imminent; yet it passes off generally with a few spots, though occasionally it drizzles for a few hours.

One of the great beauties of the valley is the vista of fields of pink buckwheat (ogla) in flower, and during August this is at its best. Wild flowers too are luxuriant, particularly a deep pink balsam. Geologically the Basp a interested me, and I have never been able to decide whether the enormous mass of debris, upon which Sangla itself is built, is an ancient moraine or merely a talus.* I incline to the latter, which would indicate that the rains at an earlier date must have been more torrential than to-day, for comparatively little detritus is brought down nowadays.

The landslide of rocks between Sangla and Rakcham is also most interesting. It has literally buried the valley to a depth of some hundreds of feet, and I can only conjecture that it must have been caused by an earthquake. The bridge over the Baspa at Sangla is noteworthy for the fact that the pier on the left bank is formed by a huge boulder which apparently fell from the hills and smashed itself in half on impact.

My second visit to the Baspa was in 1920, when I went to explore the Charang pass, leading out of it north-eastwards from Chitkul to the Tidong tributary of the Sutlej. This pass is described by Mr. H. M. Glover in his paper Round the Lesser Kailas, in this Journal, and I will therefore only refer to it briefly. Captain Gerard ascended it on the 9th July 1821, and describes it as follows

" About the height of 16,300 feet, the barometer being 16,536, there commenced the perpetual snow in continuous beds, the next half mile was also on a gentle acclivity over the snow, which gave way to the depth of two feet, and lastly we ascended the steep slope of the pass.

" It was scarcely half a mile, but it surpassed in terror and difficulty of access anything I have yet encountered.

" The angle was 371/2 degrees of loose stones, gravel and snow, which the rain had soaked and mixed together, so as to make moving laborious and miserable ; and it was so nearly impracticable that although I spread myself on all fours, thrusting my hands into the snow to hold by it, I only reached the crest by noon, and then under great exhaustion."

My own ascent was made on 28th September, when the snow was at its minimum. Nevertheless it was a tiring climb, the principal feature being the miles of rocks which have to be crossed, stepping from one to another. The final ascent, which from a little distance looks like a solid wall, is made by a rough zig-zag track up very loose stony slopes, where a footing is not easy. The view from the summit is wonderful, the barren Tidong valley and its glaciers on one side, and the southern Baspa peaks on the other.

It took me four and a half hours to reach the crest. Except for shortness of breath I felt no ill-effects. I sat down and sketched ; and except for the cold, I might have been at 7000 feet instead of 17,348, the height estimated by Gerard. The descent was very much more trying than the ascent, but I was back at Ckitkul by half-past four.

My third visit to the Baspa commenced from Simla on the 20th July 1926. Conditions had changed, for the begar system of coolie transport had been abolished. Delay in collecting coolies is therefore inevitable, and it is more economical in time and money to employ mules. I however told that it is still possible to get coolies in Bashahr in the side valleys off the beaten tracks, though at higher rates than formerly. Animal transport of course ties one very much to the main roads, where even ponies have to be unloaded in places if the track is narrow.

It was fine as far as Narkanda, but rained daily from here until I reached Wangtu* From Narkanda I went over the Hatu Dhar, or Whartoo, as the Gerards called it, for their description of the flowers on the summit attracted me ; but I was rather too early, and here, as elsewhere, August seems to be the best month.

I passed the mouth of the Baspa valley and found Chini very pleasant during August. No wonder that Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy, left the depressing damp and rains of Simla for the comparatively dry air and sunshine of Chini. Not that there is no monsoon at all here, for clouds gather daily, as in the Baspa valley; the moist air seems to penetrate right up the Sutlej, and the mornings are often misty, with an occasional drizzle of rain.

I went up the valley as far as Jangi and returned to Kilba on the 12th August, reaching the Baspa-Sutlej junction the next day. Here my troubles started. The road up the Baspa valley, which in 1920 was excellent as far as Sangla, had been very badly damaged by the heavy rains of September 1924 when it had poured at Simla for four days without stopping, and must have been as bad here to have so wrecked the road.

With the utmost difficulty I reached Brua, frequently over a path eighteen inches to two feet wide. I looked back with horror to watch the mules trying to cross this path, one man holding the tail and another the head. At Brua we could take the mules no further, and I had to leave them there and engage coolies to take me to Sangla. At one place we had to crawl over and under roots and branches of fallen trees, where a slip would have taken us down to the river. It was a marvel how the women coolies negotiated such places 'with a fifty or sixty-pound load.

Sangla was reached at last, and it was very pleasant to be in the old rest-house again, where I happened to notice that there had been only about half a dozen visitors since I was here six years before. The breakdown of the mule-transport upset my plans, for I had wished to explore the side-valleys, mainly for the flora above 12,000 feet. I have never been able to understand why the fact that an important trade-route was in a derelict condition could not have been notified in the rest-houses along the road for the benefit of travellers.

On the 31st August I met a coolie with some very beautiful blue flowers, and he promised to take me to the khanda[2] where he had gathered them. The following morning we set out at seven o'clock taking the road to the Rupin pass, but on reaching the nullah leading to it turned up a side valley. After clambering over rocks and mud we reached, about one o'clock, a height of about 14,000 feet. Snow lay about in masses; and here I came across blue poppies in a profusion I had never seen before, and among them the flowers I was seeking. They were, I think, some species of delphinium, but I have been unable to identify them in any botanical book[3] ; they grow about 18 to 24 inches high and have a very sweet scent. They are in great favour with the Bashahris, who gather them for the fairs which are held early in September in every important village in the Baspa.

In addition to these flowers, there was a striking plant something like a lettuce, with a dark flower in the middle, also beautifully scented, but whose name I do not know; and the " cobwebby" sacred Saussurea.

I think I must have been somewhere in the vicinity of Gerard's " Nulgoon pass," but with mist and rain coming on, it was too late to get to the summit; I therefore contented myself with gathering a large bunch of flowers from which to make drawings, and descended to Sangla, wet and weary. The poppies kept well in water for several days, but the others, though apparently less delicate, died quickly.

On the 4th September the Sangla fair was held, the deota being brought from the temple on the opposite side of the river to the little green just below the rest-house. The god was decorated with flowers, and, suspended on flexible poles, swayed up and down, while men and women in single file performed a slow movement round him to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals and trumpets.

First about twenty or thirty women in skirts and shawls, with their pigtails under their little circular hats, danced round the deota ; they were followed by about the same number of men in holiday attire, woollen coat and narrow trousers with red cummerbund, each carrying in a chudder on his back a load of blue delphiniums ; lastly came some thirty men and boys carrying poles, each with a bunch of ten or twelve " lettuce " flowers tied to it. And every man, woman and child wore the blue delphinium in hat or hair, and continued to wear it for days, until finally it dropped off.

The fair and dance lasted till about six o'clock in the evening, when the god was taken back to his temple across the river, and the villagers dispersed.

Life in the rest-house would be quite impossible but for the fact that the roar of the river drowns the noise of the temple horns and bells, and the barking of dogs. Before leaving Sangla I took a lovely walk through the glorious groves of walnut and pink ogla fields, and visited the picturesque Kanrru fort on the other bank of the river. On the 6th September I started homeward, following the route so well described by Major Shewen in the first number of the Journal.*

[1] Survey of India map 531, scale 1 inch = 4 miles. See also footnote Himalayan Journal, Vol. I, p. 68. A note on the survey of the Baspa valley appears in this volume, page 140.--Ed.

[2] A khanda literally means " a shoulder," but it is here applied to almost any hill above 12,000 feet.

[3] Kashmir Larkspur, Delphinium CasJimerianuml-Ed.