ON THE DREAM TRAIL - ACROSS THE HIMALAYA
THE MOON was still visible in the sky, although the sun had begun spreading its rays across the vast expanse of mountains around us. Strong and cold winds whirled around as we stood atop the famed Karakoram Pass (5638 m).
It had been a long journey. We had traversed the entire length of the Himalaya on foot in 198 days. Seven months ago we had set out from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh. We were part of an eight member women’s team ‘Indian Women’s First Trans Himalayan Journey 1997’.
On the first Leg... Arunachal
It was on a wintry 4 February 1997 that we started on the trail from Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh. There was thick snow on the ground, but in our hearts small dreams were blossoming just like the wonderful orchids in shades of purple and pink that we saw along the way. From Bomdila we trekked via Rahung, Panchwati, Derang, Baisakhi and crossed the Tse la (4215 m). Though motorable, due to heavy snow conditions it was closed for vehicles. The pass had seen battle during the Chinese aggression.
We had a most enchanting sight of Tawang (Ta
horse and Wang
ruler) from a hill top. The town lay huddled under a blanket of snow with the picturesque roofs forming a symmetrical pattern. It was like a scene out of a Russian painting. We had a brief glimpse of the Tawang monastery and the handicraft centre. We could not linger and had to make a quick march via Lumla to Blating, the gateway to Bhutan.
In the Land of Monasteries... Bhutan
We were excited as we would be entering a ‘foreign’ country-the kingdom of monasteries where we would traverse from east to west, across ten of its 19 districts, in 33 days. Each state has a different language though the customs are more or less the same. We entered Tashigang in the far eastern side of Bhutan and walked across Lhuntshi, Bumthang, Thongsa, Wangdi Phodrang, Thimphu, Paro, Ha and Samchi, exiting from the far western side at Sibsu.
The landscape bore winter’s signature: In the icicles hanging from the branches, in the heavy snowbound passes and the chilly winds - but the warmth of the people was overwhelming. Simple gifts of roasted corn and suja or namkin chai touched our hearts. As state guests we received valuable help from the District Collector of each state as well as from the local people. As we climbed through thick a forest of rhododendrons, juniper, bamboo and ferns above Tashiyangste, the climb got steeper towards Dong la. The descent from Dong la led us to Yanglapong. A beautifully painted monastery provided us shelter for the night. We trekked via Darchen Pong, visiting another monastery on the way to Tangmachhu.
Thence towards Robong la. We reached Pelphu via Gortsham. However the weather packed up the next day and due to the heavy snow conditions we had to abandon the attempt to cross the Robong la. Our local porters were ill-equipped to walk through waist deep snow. We returned to Pelphu and trekked across the Yotang la (3526 m) to Sengor. We enjoyed a steep trek across the Thrumsing la (3758 m) before reaching Bhumtang.
In Bhumtang we rested for a day. On the day we reached there, the District Collector had organised a big party in our honour. There were over a 100 people dancing and singing. We dressed up for the evening. Though we had walked for about 10 hours on the trail having crossed Sheythang la (3576 m), we danced hand in hand with the local men and women till midnight. On our rest day, the District Collector generously made arrangements for us to drive around Bhumtang and visit some of the monasteries. Lots of legends are told about these monasteries. We were also invited, as special guests, to a Bhutanese music programme by a local troupe.
We crossed Pele la (3300 m) and Dochu la (3080 m) before entering Timphu, the capital of Bhutan. In Thimphu, we got a glimpse of its famous, colourful, useful and durable bamboo handicraft.
The trek across Pum la (3050 m.) and Jilay la (3780 m) was a good change after experiencing the hustle-bustle of Thimphu. Golden Orioles and other birds were a treat to spot as we gradually climbed to Pum la. The climb towards Jilay la was steep and an equally steep descent led us to Paro. The only airport in Bhutan is situated here. A trail through a thick forest led us to the motorable pass at Chele la (3395 m) in Western Bhutan. The pass led us to Ha district. We could feel the change in the climate. We crossed the Sele la (3490 m) and headed for the Indian Border, towards Samchi.
In many ways trekking across Bhutan was a unique experience. We were in relatively unexplored territory with protected thick forests of rhododendrons, magnolias and different species of bamboo. There was a sense of mystique about the place. The colourful Buddhist flags fluttered their prayers to the breeze. The distinctive architecture and symbols of Buddhism carved or painted on doors, panels and windows and the Chortens that dotted the country added a special charm.
Of the nine passes that we crossed, Thrumsung la at 3758 m. was the highest. A high bamboo forest trail saw us leaving Bhutan and entering Sikkim at Lingtham after crossing Pangolakha (3062 m).
Through beautiful Sikkim...
In Sikkim, it was spring. On the way we had glimpses of the famous orchids of Sikkim in one of the private gardens. Gangtok, with its modern conveniences as a hill station, was a contrast to Bhutan.
We had special permits to visit Nathu la on the Chinese border. Actually seeing no-man’s land and some Chinese posts across the Chumbi valley sent through in a ripple of excitement. A simple wooden board gave in stark detail the strategic importance of the site in modern Indian history. An old fortress-like structure on the Indian side was a touching reminder of those who perished whilst guarding our frontiers.
We took a day off roughly once every fortnight. This we used for washing our personal and group gear and making arrangements for supplies for the onward journey.
A distant view of Kangchenjunga dominated the horizon at Gangtok. The trail to Gangtok and Yoksam was a trudge along a motorable road but we were soon able to put our mountaineering skills to use as we went over Rathong la (5180 m), our highest point in Sikkim. The Rathong peak (6636 m) towered on one side of the pass.
Rathong peak( left), Rathong La & Kokthang peak from Yalung glacier in west (Vineeta Muni)
We climbed the pass from Yoksam via Bakhim and Dzongri la (4320 m). We descended through the heavily crevassed slopes into Yarlung glacier in Nepal. This was a trek that required adequate mountaineering gear. We were grateful to our local guide. We hired five Yaks from Yoksam that carried our loads to the base camp. Accompanied by six Sherpas from Darjeeling , we crossed the glacier carefully as many
crevasses were hidden under a deceptive cover of snow. We were suitably rewarded for our painstaking effort when we came down to the Yalung glacier on the Nepal side. With its stupendous views it made a superb campsite. Seeing the elusive snow leopard’s footprints added to the thrill.
In the Land of High Mountains... Nepal
A fairly good trail climbed to a pass (3400 m) across the ‘Deorali Danda’. A precarious, slippery and steep descent through bamboo forest saw us at the local school at Yamphuding village. We had now been on the trail for 58 days and were averaging 25 kms. a day carrying heavy sacks. The initial aches, pains and blisters had worn off. Like horses we had been ‘broken in’.
We always carried our waterproof and windproof gear as well as warm clothing in our sacks. Special mountaineering gear like ice axes, snow shoes, crampons, etc. was to be carried only in case of need, otherwise our support team would carry this equipment to the next meeting point.
Slowly, a tension was beginning to show between members of the team. Sparks flew, the venture became more demanding but we remained committed to our goal.
In one section of eastern Nepal, on the way to Salpa Dhara (3315 m), we came across a local who had pile of big round vegetables, which resembled watermelons. Throughout the day, we had been trekking under a hot sun. Though the man declined to sell the vegetables (or fruits, whatever they were) to us, we insisted that he sell us a few. Having bought two of them for Rs.10/- each, everyone felt happy. The old vendor had a strange, meaningful smile on his face. The load was carried for another hour or so along the steep slopes. When we reached our destination we were all eager to cut the vegetables. The local women and some of our porters started laughing as we discussed how we should cut it. Finally when it was cut open, it was white and raw with tiny seeds inside. One of our porters said, ‘don’t you know, this is kaddu
. This is pigs’ food and burst out laughing again.
We had a breathtaking view of Makalu on the distant horizon. The scenic beauty of Salleri was exceptional. Each pass was unique. We crossed Lamajura pass (3540 m) walking through one of Nepal’s thick rhododendron forests. Magnolias were in full bloom. The Lamajura Pass lead us towards Jiri, a fairly big town.
We had to rely heavily on local guides as the maze of trails was very confusing. Here every other day we would cross a ‘Dhara’ or ‘Danda’ or ‘Devrali’ - all meaning a pass. These were not difficult to tackle but it was like taking a roller coaster ride - up and down. We took 23 days to cross over from the Yalung glacier to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
In Kathmandu we indulged in goodies (junk food actually!) vegetable burgers, pizzas and pastries. All the pampering to the taste-buds of us city-slickers. Yet we had relished the simple fare of rural Eastern Nepal.
We now moved into Central Nepal towards the Annapurna circuit. This is a popular trek. After making hectic arrangements for the remaining trek across Nepal, we proceeded to Besisahar. It is an old town and the starting point of the Annapurna circuit trek. The beauty of the place captures one’s heart. Annapurna II from Chame is very prominent.
The villagers maintain their traditional lifestyle and warm hospitality. At the same time, they can whip up continental dishes and other delicacies. Fresh bread and cake too at 4900 m, in a typical Thakali lodge - what more can a trekker ask for?
The trek across the Thorung la at 5416 m passed through some picturesque spots like Pissang, Manang and Muktinath.
From the fascinating village of Kagbeni, with its distinguished red Gompa and strong Tibetan influence, we trekked into the upper Dolpa region. We crossed the Sangda pass (5123 m) - one of the most wild places on earth. We had many ocares on its precarious approach with loose scree on its slopes, and scarcity of food and water. There were many ammonite fossils in this arid terrain.
None of us ever missed breakfast at 6.30 am. Lunch was in tiffins that we carried with us. Throughout the trek we sustained ourselves on a diet of rice and dal. Breakfast consisted of tea with puries. Vegetables could be eaten only when available and affordable to the team. We basically depended on locally available provisions. Sometimes we picked wild edible vegetation like ‘zankar leaves’ (local name) to garnish our dinner.
We were now on our way towards India beyond the Dolpa and Dunai regions. The terrain was comparatively simple. However the scarcity of food, the humid weather and long distances between two camping sites made this stretch an arduous one. This region of Western Nepal does not have motorable roads and therefore has remained underdeveloped. We trekked in the lower foothills where our trail often crossed from village to village. We crossed Devrali (2700 m), Bhoti Lekh (2445 m) and Goshada pass (3200 m) before reaching Chainpur. The name suggested a well developed place and we hoped to have a good bath. It turned out to be a place where we had to camp out the night.
We had seen all kinds of extremes in our 66 days walk from east to west Nepal covering 14 districts - in vegetation, comfort, terrain and climate.
After crossing Shivripakha (3110 m), and finally Dal Lekh (3440 m) we reached the India-Nepal border at Dharchula on 7 June - 124 days after we had set off.
The beginning of a new odyssey.... Kumaon and Garhwal
Dharchula marked another significant milestone. Three of us, - Malika Virdi, Sumita Roy and I - decided to break away from the group and form an independent team to complete the venture since we had several points of dissent with the leader.
We reorganised ourselves and after hectic preparations set off on June 16 under the name ‘To Walk Across the high Himalaya. A Journey by Indian Women ’97’. Our onward journey was sponsored by The Himalayan Club.
In Eastern Garhwal, from Munsiary we trekked to Martoli along Gori Ganga. From Milam we entered the Goenka gad. With a support team and porters, we crossed over the Unta Dhura (5360 m), climbed the Khingurla (5244 m) and descended at Lapthal. Once the bed of the Tethys sea, long before the Himalaya had been formed, Lapthal became a happy treasure hunting ground for ammonite fossils - remnants of marine life going back to nearly few million years.
Peaks around Bamlas glacier, west of Unta Dhura Pass. Nital Thaur (left), Nanda Gond and Bamlas glacier. (Vineeta Muni)
View south: looking to Unta Dhura pass (centre left). Nanda Devi partly seen (extremely right). (Vineeta Muni)
We also visited the Matoli pass (5350 m) which provides an alternative route to Khingurla from Topidunga. It gave us a magnificent view of the valleys all around us.
History was visible in other forms too. Our trail throughout the Milam glacier up to Malari is part of an old trade route to Tibet and China and is well maintained even today by PWD workers.
Now that we were a small group we had to travel as light as possible, eating basic foods like dal, rice, sattu, cheese and dry fruits.
For this stretch we had a cook by the name of Duryodhan Singh, a villain in the epic Mahabharata
. His unusual name provided an interesting glimpse into the customs of the region. Duryodhan, head of the Kauravas, is not regarded as a villain in these parts. Rather he is venerated as a god and there are even temples dedicated to him.
We exited at Malari from where we proceeded along the Amrit Ganga that rises from the snout of Bank Kund glacier. From Malari we trekked on a well trodden path to Gamsali. A road is under construction. From here we reached the base of the Bhuidhar Khal (5057 m) in two days. As the track climbs, the terrain changes from green pastures to the debris of the moraine. We carefully chose our route through the glacier, fully aware that this khal is not technically very difficult but has proved dangerous thanks to two major crevasses just below the pass.
Our experience over the Bhuidhar Khal brought home the fact that any excursion in the Himalaya is a serious affair. The weather packed up as we began our steep ascent over loose scree on the true right of the icefall. Visibility dropped to 3 m. The wind chill factor increased every minute. Our 73-year-old guide Madhoda kept issuing directions all the time. Carefully we made our way up the crevassed slopes and then down the long steep slopes to Dhada Kharak at the beginning of ‘The Valley of the Flowers’.
Looking to the Valley of Flowers. Left to right: Prominent snow-gap of Bhuidhar Khal, Rataban and Ghori Parvat. (Vineeta Muni)
The next day was in marked contrast. We walked down to Bamani Dhaur into The Valley of Flowers, and were greeted by slope after slope of flowers - in different shapes and colours. This was the valley that Frank Smythe named in 1931. Now sixty odd years later, despite the destruction by trekkers and climbers, it was still a most enchanting spot particularly as the flowering season was beginning.
The flowers we saw included Anemone tetrasepala, Anemone obtusiloba, Lilium oxypetalum, Alliumhumile, etc. more than fifty varieties of flowers on the whole trail.
We picked up some raw wild onion leaves and ganjari (a mini carrot) to garnish our khichdi for the night. The lingering fragrance of this magic carpet of flowers kept us company all through the changing landscape. It was good we had no inkling of what the next day would bring us.
Our guide, who was once a shepherd, suggested we go through the Khunt Khal (4365 m) instead of the Govind Ghat route. This, he said, would bring us out at Hanuman Chatti on a motorable road, 11 kms before Badrinath. The thrill of the unknown was exciting.
The initial climb with the views of Hathi Parbat and Ghori Parbat shining in the morning light seemed like a good omen. However, we soon realised that we were in wild country. Since the shepherds had been forbidden to enter the Valley of the Flowers the trail had become completely overgrown with trees and shrubs. This was one of the most difficult descents of our venture.
These steep, loose, rocky slopes passed through thick jungle. So sheer was the descent, that we were forced to spend a night in the open wedged between bamboo trees for safety. There was, of course, no question of pitching a tent. The water source was a trickle on the mountainside two kilometres away. As it so often happens in the mountains there was one bright dazzling moment during that unforgettable day - our first and only sighting of the rare Himalayan Blue Poppy.
From the holy town of Badrinath we moved via Mana village towards the Kalindi pass (5750 m.) in the Saraswati valley. The monsoons were upon us, but so far the weather seemed to be holding out. This was literally the ‘high point’ of our venture, it being the highest of the 39 passes, above 3000 metres, that we crossed during our trek. Carefully tackling a delicate path around a huge icefall on the vast snowfield, we set out accompanied by Kusang Dorji Sherpa and Pasang Dorji Sherpa.
The snow was crisp as we set out at 7 a.m. At 9.30 a.m we stood atop the pass. We waited for an hour for our porters to join us and then began our descent, roped up for safety. However our 73 year-old guide, who had begun the morning on a ‘spirited’ note (having drunk more than a litre of the potent brew), scorned all this. In a masterly performance he glided and flew over the crevasses, smiling benignly at us. It was another lesson from the mountain people and their obvious empathy with the surroundings. Kamet, rose above the clouds to the east. The majestic rockwalls of the Arwa towers was an impressive sight. We were fortunate that the weather remained clear till we crossed the pass.
We roped up to descend carefully over crevasse-crossed slopes below the pass. The weather started to deteriorate. It was a long walk on the Chaturangi glacier via the Vasuki Tal. Vasukhi Parvat’s north face towered impressively above the camp. The Bhagirathi group of peaks were bathed in the golden rays of the setting sun. The famous Shivling (6454 m) came into view as we overlooked Tapovan and Nandanvan. One more day’s walk through the glacier brought us to Gangotri via Gaumukh. By now we were well into the rainy season and the Bhagirathi roared in full fury.
At Gaumukh we heaved a sigh of relief at having overcome our high point without any mishap. During our day off at Gangotri, we washed our clothes, mended our torn jackets, repaired our shoes, wrote letters and did some hasty personal grooming. We also planned the food and porterage for the next section. A rest day was often as hectic as any other.
Sumita’s parents and brother had come specially from Delhi with cash, rations and other supplies - replacements for our medical kit, extra clothes and shoes but most important of all, news and precious letters from friends and family - those vital morale boosters. Their presence did wonders to us.
In the land of gentle people ... Himachal
Sukh Tal, en route Lamkhaga Pass (Vineeta Muni)
We strolled on the road from Gangotri to Harsil. We went up the Jalendri gad. The route to the Lamkhaga pass (5282 m) was particularly scenic with the bhojpatra
(birch) forest, a small lake and the mosaic of flowers - violet poppies, yellow and red potentillas and anemones.
The loose scree climb before the pass provided some tricky moments but at last we were atop Lamkhaga that divides Garhwal from Himachal. We descended the icy slopes. At places one needs to be careful while traversing the loose scree near Ranikanda. We trekked along the Baspa river crossing and re-crossing almost 15 times in one day the numerous streams that fed it.
We reached the small scenic village of Chhitkul. The distinctive old Kinnaur style of architecture and the sight of a weaver engrossed in her work provided us with vivid and (literally) colourfull memories.
I would love to go back one day to Rakchham near Sangla if only to meet the gentle lady who offered us fresh green vegetables from her farm for dinner. When I asked her its price she smiled and said, ‘You are like my younger sister. This is all I have in abundance to offer you here.’ What I was holding in my hand wasn’t just green vegetables but her love and generosity. Throughout this journey incidents like these kept our spirits high.
Our next objective was the Bhaba pass (4865 m) and Parang la (5545 m) leading into Ladakh. We would be trekking across Kinnaur and Spiti. We were joined by Hem Tiwari from Joshimath who brought us goodies like condensed milk, cheese tins.
From Sangla, the walk up to Kafnu in the Bhaba valley, was along the metalled road. Just two kilometres after Karchham there was a hot-water sulphur spring. We longed to take a dip but had to wait till after dark for our free luxury bath since our ‘bathing room’ was right on the motorable road. A new footbridge took us across the Wangar river.
We were then joined by three other ‘members’- Sadsukh and his two horses, Sundari and Kalu. We did a ‘double-stage’ the next day and camped below the Bhaba pass. Next morning we were ready to leave but the weather was ominous with thick clouds. We re-pitched the tents hoping the storm would pass. The horseman would have none of it. Sometime later he came by yelling, Mausam khul gaya, aaj par karo, kal ka kya bharosa
. (The weather has cleared, cross today, there is no guarantee for tomorrow). He was one of those rare I highly motivated porters who was eager porters to move although the team had declared it a rest day. We too did not want to waste precious time. We set off although we knew it was not going to be easy.
Slowly and steadily we gained height. The top of the pass seemed within our reach when suddenly Sundari gave out a frightened cry. We saw her hind legs sliding helplessly on the ice and a few kitbags bounced off. We all threw off our own rucksacks and rushed to help Sundari back on her feet again. She made a valiant effort only to slide back in terror again. All seven of us strained to helpher up but she seemed terrified and rolled her eyes in fear.
Somehow we grabbed her, Sadsukh removed her loads and the others began cutting steps into the ice, pressing mud and stones to arrest her fall. Slowly with Sundari on her feet we began moving again. We decided to ferry the loads that the horse was carrying up to the pass to prevent any further mishaps.
We were so relieved that Sundari was not hurt. She was a special horse, with her dappled grey colouring and lustrous black eyes with a mind and spirit of her own.
In the ‘middle country’... Spiti
The rugged terrain of Spiti was an exciting change. The descent to Gulling along the Pin river was on a well- trodden path, along the rugged brown terrain of Spiti interspersed with small oasis of green patches. The Pin river looked like a smooth serpent winding its way along the valley.
We began our walk towards Kaja, the administrative headquarters of Spiti, on the metalled road while our support team left for Gulling by car with all our extra loads. Sometime later Hem came back by bus to inform us that our previous team mates were in Kaja. We had to make up our minds. Should we continue according to schedule and risk meeting them? It would create not only an embarrassing situation, but one in which we would be forced to compete. We desided to avoid them. We deliberately dropped our pace and reached Kaja late at night. Hem Tiwari, our support member, then informed us that the other team would also be following the same trail. We changed our plans and moved on to Leh, leaving Kaja early at 4.30 am.
On the way to Kibber we enjoyed a distant view of the Ki gompa that is perched on the cliff. We found fossils scattered on the way to Thalda - our day’s camp. The route descends and ascends on steep scree slopes several times before climbing up towards the Parang la (5578 m). On the descent below the pass we had to be cautious while breaking trail through heavy snow that covered hidden crevasses. We camped at Dutung, where the two tributaries meet to form the Pare chu. Parang la is an important pass that connects Spiti in Himachal to Rupshu in Ladakh.
The moonscape of India - Ladakh
Yaks and horses are used for trading even today. Yak meat is the staple food and the Yak skin makes a perfect home for the nomads of Ladakh. We met some locals leading their horses for trade.
We followed a trail along the Pare chu and switched banks at Narbu Sumdo. Here, we stood on the border between Himachal and Ladakh. Finally on 29 July, some 175 days after leaving Bomdila, we were in the last State, of Jammu and Kashmir. Although under the rain shadow, this region was experiencing heavy rain and wind - a combination which made the cold seep right into our bones.
In dripping rain we walked for some four hours towards Tso Moriri lake. The sight of a half-circle rainbow made us forget our aching misery. It rose from the jade-green water and merged back into it while soft sunlight fell from behind the hills. The light slowly faded as did the colours of the rainbow but the spectacle remained in my mind and we trudged on for eight more hours to Karzog. Distances are deceptive in this land of the ancient Buddhist culture.
View from Parang la : Parilungbi peak on Rupshu - Lingti valley (Spiti) divide. (Vineeta Muni)
In Ladakh we were struck by the extraordinary terrain and its unique architecture. Beyond Parang la, although the walk was along flat terrain, the long distances and the lack of drinking water made the going tough.
Our next stage was across the Pologongka la (4800 m) via Tsokar lake leading to Rumtse towards Upshi. Yaks grazed on the slopes of the pass. We had three passes to cross beyond Tsokar lake - Gyamar la (5170 m), Manda la (5050 m) and Kamder la (5100 m). We hit bad weather and it was often freezing cold. Again there was a small surprise on the horizon - skyangs or wild horses crossing over the Gyamar la as we started off early in the morning.
The walk to Upshi was torturous because we had to cross an icy river. Often our feet would turn numb by the time we reached the other side.
Golma and Sange, our recent four-legged companions joined us on the trail to Leh. Golma loved not only the grass but whatever we ate. She would often snatch rotis and other food from our hands, eyeing us mischievously. Each day was filled with happy memories.
Eventually we reached Leh on 5 August halting at Thikse which is famous for its monastery. Our visit to Leh coincided with that of the Dalai Lama. The whole city was out on the streets to welcome him. Besides we got a chance to observe and meet Ladakhis from different villages who had also come into Leh.
We now trekked to Khardung la (5545 m) via Ganglas village. At 11 a.m. on 6 August we stood atop Khardung la. We knew we had to make it to the Karakoram pass to be true to the essential spirit of our venture.
An army truck drove us back to Leh and we spent three leisurely days eating, shopping and we even saw a movie. On August 9 Jean Thomas, a 59-year-old avid trekker from Meerut joined us as a support team member to the Karakoram Pass which she had attempted 13 years ago. The very afternoon she arrived, she discussed with us and Maj. Chhatre the route we would take. The army promised us accommodation and food so our tents and other equipment could go back.
Towards our final destination... ‘The Skeleton’s Trail’
‘Karakoram’ - the word itself was exciting. We had walked in the footsteps of history - bones and skeletal remains along the trail were grim reminders of former travellers who had not been so lucky. Our guide Norbu was full of stories of Yarkandis who in the past had attempted the perilous journey to Mecca - men, women and children with their laden horses, striking out into the unknown, driven only by the will to continue against all odds. How different from our venture - and yet how similar.
Our route proceeded via Khardung village, Khalsar and Panamik to Sasoma (meaning new earth) along the Nubra river, 158 kms from Leh. Norbu, a guide from the Ladakh Scouts, met us here. A tough Ladakhi, he expressed doubts over whether an old lady and three fragile-looking women would make it. However the driver of the army truck, who came as support team from Leh upto Sasoma, assured him that we were quite capable. We had taken three days to walk 119 kms from Khardung la to Sasoma.
Now we had another tough lady - Kara, the dog, who had accompanied us from North Polu beyond Khardung la. All attempts to dissuade her had failed. She was determined to be part of our team.
Our first destination was Turtyailak which we reached after climbing 36 bends and crossing the Tulung Puti la (3595 m). This trail was built by Ali Hussain in 1646. One admires his architectural skill and knowledge as one gains height towards the pass.
The trek to camp 2 was a gradual climb through scree and shrubs. Sumita and I walked at a relaxed pace observing the birds pointed out by Jean. We knew we were one of the lucky few to have been able to come here. On the way to Saser la, Kara would often roll in the snow as if to show how happy she was to be there.
On 15 August on the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian independence we stood on Saser la (the pass of golden earth) at 5710 m. After a long ascent on lateral moraine and toiling up hard snow and ice slopes, we stood on one of India’s windiest spots.
At Saser Brangza the soldiers and occupants of the army camps were quite flabbergasted to see women suddenly descending down on them. Their words of praise and encouragement touched us deeply.
Our next stage was to cross the river Shyok. Known as the ‘river of death’, its murky black waters can bring a chill to the heart as much as its swift icy waters can chill your body. The horses plunged in, swimming expertly, but we took the aerial route on the Garari
(a crossing by a trolley hanging on iron-wires). Delicate flowers were blooming despite the hot dry stony surrounding. Karakoram is a geologist’s paradise. We had a distant view of Chong Kumdan. A blue glacial pool en route made one believe that Mother Earth had bedecked herself with a huge turquoise pendent.
Following the nala route, we had to cross the river some 28 times when we finally climbed up to Chhongtash. Here we found that vehicles were plying between Chhongtash and Murgo providing supplies to the troops. The vehicles had been assembled here. Even in this remote region the army functioned with clockwork orderliness. We, however, walked on.
Murgo, 'Gateway to Hell', en route to Karakoram Pass. (Vineeta Muni)
We climbed up to Depsang la (5475 m) from Burtse Gongma slowly gaining altitude. Burtsa is a name of a plant that grows there and can be used instead of fire wood. A huge plateau opened out ahead of us like a brown carpet spreading out all the way into the east. Far in the distance were Rimo I and II, the Saser Kangri peaks and Mamostong Kangri. It was a full moon night and the moon looked like a huge football which rose above the ground of the camp that we were staying in.
Track Junction (5370 m) is one of the highest camps run by the army. Our goal was now very close. If only the weather would hold out for a day or two. Leaving camp early morning at 5.30 a.m. we climbed steadily.
A dream had come true
At 6. 45 a.m. holding hands we walked the last few metres to the Karakoram pass (5638 m) together. We had done it ! Three of us, accompanied by Jean, Kara and Norbu stood atop this historic pass. We took photographs, walked into the Chinese side and picked a few stones as mementoes. At 9.30 we began retracing our steps. It was time to make the journey back home. We still had to battle inclement weather as dark clouds hovered menacingly on both sides of the Karakoram Pass.
What we had seen in these six months was only a fraction of the mighty Himalaya. Tears of happiness filled our eyes as we held the Indian Tricolour. We could see the mountains of China a few hundred feet away. Seeing the colour of the stones on the pass, I understood why the Karakoram Pass is called so, the pass of black gravel. It was a grand finale to a grand journey across the Himalaya.
For the record, we had achieved the distinction of crossing 39 passes above 3000 m., 15 passes above 2000 m. and had trekked 4500 kilometres in 198 days.
The real treasures could never be tangibly counted. My life had been enriched by the natural beauties and treasures of the mountains, the people I had met, my own personal experiences of human relationships. A satisfaction of having lived through tough times.
It was like the colours of the rainbow I had seen above Tso Moriri lake on a rainy grey day...... merging imperceptibly, lighting up the horizon and then fading away to live on in my memory.
I had discovered simple but profound truths - knowing the thin line between the possible and impossible, enjoying each moment, taking each day as it came and leaving the rest to God, nature, Reiki, call it what you will.
||‘Indian Women’s First Trans-Himalayan Journey. 1997’
||4 February - 8 June. No. of Days : 124
||Bachendri Pal (leader), Chawala Jahagirdar, Chetna Rana, Kokila Sudha, Nanda Patel, Sumita Roy, Malika Virdi and Vineeta Muni
||Tata & Ministry of Youth & Sports Affairs, (in Bhutan-State guest of The King of Bhutan)
||‘To Walk Across The High Himalaya. A journey by Indian women ’97’
||9 June - 20 August. No. of Days : 74
||Vineeta Muni, Sumita Roy and Malika Virdi
||The Himalayan Club - Bombay