OVER THE HILLS
The trek from McLeodganj to Bharmaur takes about a week and is not for the faint-hearted. But the rewards are spectacular, and arachnophobes should do just fine.
Eight of us set out for Bharmaur – Wendy, Neil, Dave, Claire, Ramesh, Jaggi, Pappu and me – a motley crew assembled in McLeodganj over a couple of days, hoping to get over the Dhauladhar range before the snow. It is the beginning of December.
Ramesh is our guide, a man longer in body than in leg who runs up mountains like a cartoon bear. The two porters take the same approach, though slowed by packs bulging with kerosene, stoves, pressure cookers, dal, rice, soy protein, glucose biscuits, and two bottles of whiskey bought on the specific instructions of Ramesh – ‘because you will be feeling the cold’. The rest of us have known each other for a day, getting better acquainted over tea at the Om Hotel. Wendy is a robust zoologist, Neil a sensitive psychologist looking for insights from Tibetan Buddhism. Claire and Dave are realistic idealists who are active in politics. Claire confesses to a slight problem. She has a recurring nightmare where her body is covered with spiders, and has a history of waking up screaming in the middle of the night. ‘It hasn’t happened for ages, though.’
Night one, forestry department hut, Triund. 3am. Screeeeeeeeeeeech! Leopard? No. Spiders? Yes.
Night two, below the Indrahara Pass. No screaming, but a freezing night in the lee of a giant slab of rock. Wake up to discover the whiskey bottles empty, Jaggi and Pappu having cleverly used them to at once enhance the warmth of their sleeping bags and lighten their loads. The honking of truck horns wafts faintly up through the marshmallow haze of the Kangra Valley, a mournful farewell from the lush foothills. The sky above the pass is crystal clear and rock hard.
Day three, Indrahara Pass. Gasp from the back of the line. Wendy. ‘I can’t breathe!’ We turn round to see her lips have turned blue. Stop, recuperate, carry on. The track is a faint zig zag through a vertical doggle of blond rocks flecked with ice. Each step heavier than the last. Did we actually discuss attempting this without a guide? Madness.
Top of the pass. The Pir Panjal range looms dark and ragged to the north, crowned by the arrowhead of Kinner Kailash, close yet far away. We are entering a land of brilliant light and strange perspective. The Himalaya. Our first task is a descent through fields of snow. We each trudge down at our own pace, and I stumble on a rock, feeling the acceleration as I roll uncontrollably down the mountainside. I come to a halt, dust myself off and keep walking. Three hours later we rendezvous at a tiny alcove in front of a springy meadow. Mists play about the Pir Panjal as snowflakes drift down. Inside the cave, we push down glucose biscuits and adrak chai as the pressure cookers hiss, warming us with their cabbage fug. Dave, with his beard, is now known as Sadhu. Neil has a rock solid steadiness. Wendy and Claire have become best mates.
From the Indrahara Pass it’s downhill almost all the way to Bharmaur, a scruffy pilgrim town with a stupendous view and 84 ancient temples laid out like an overpopulated chessboard. Kinner Kailash stays in our sights the whole way down the narrow valley, growing taller as we descend. The path is a thin thread around loose mountainsides, hundreds of metres above a stream. During the second day of descent we watch every step, dropping down to cross the stream through a fantasy world of ice stalagmites. The next couple of nights are spent in old Shiva temples, open-sided platforms with pillars like carved chocolate. In the forests there are pine trees so thick that if you hugged them your arms wouldn’t get halfway round.
Dave has his own revelation to share. He used to suffer from crippling vertigo, often freezing when confronted with a small drop. ‘It hasn’t happened for ages, though.’ Ahead, footpaths have been hacked out of sheer cliffs, with rock ceilings so low we sometimes have to crawl. After picking our way across the loose leavings of a landslide, there’s a stretch of forest and then a stream to be jumped, with a sheer drop to our left. Dave freezes. Claire talks him through it. Neil sails through it all, unflappable. Soy protein for dinner. Not bad. No more spider dreams.
Five days after leaving McLeodganj we cross a road, and it’s a relief. From here we climb another ridge to camp on the terrace of a rough schoolhouse. It’s warmer here, and we talk long after sunset on the cold concrete. Dave has one last stab at launching a political discussion. Neil humours him while Claire, Wendy and I take the Mickey Bliss. Whiskey would be nice. In Bharmaur we stay in a guesthouse with a real bathroom. Looxury. After a morning spent lounging in the sunlight in the mediaeval square drinking chai, we take a bus to Chamba and another one back to McLeodganj. It feels like the centre of the universe. One more dinner at McLlo and we go our different ways, separate souls who have shared a little adventure. Angus McDonald