My experience with Himalayan Trekking Expedition to Saurkundi Pass – Part 1 of 3
I participated in Himalayan Trekking Expedition to Saurkundi Pass this summer. This trek was organized by Youth Hostels Associations of India (YHAI). I want to share this amazing experience in detail. You can check out the YHAI website for other adventures.
This blog is exclusive of my views/opinions/thoughts of this trek. I do not intend to hurt feelings of any individual or group or region. While we continue to respect each other, we must also enjoy benefits of “Freedom of Speech & Freedom of Expression” for being part of the largest democracy in the world. One of the core quality of a Trekker is being SPORTIVE. I hope everyone who reads this blog and whose names were mentioned would take the entire story in the right spirit. To reiterate, I love everyone and I only mean well and share our true experience of the entire Trek. Some of us take plenty of photos and some even take videos to capture our memories, I like to write about my experiences. I am not much into Photos or Videography but I love to write and love to share my opinions/thoughts/views. I am not sure how many people would have patience to read this excruciatingly detailed write-up. I wanted to write only because this is my way of capturing my memories.
Why did I want to do this trek?
When I was working as a Consultant for a large oil company in Houston, Texas, one of my American colleagues travelled to India for a Himalayan Trekking Expedition. If I remember correctly he was here for about three weeks in fourth quarter of 2004. Being curious to try out various adventures and fascination for beauty of the Mother Nature especially mountains I wanted to try out Himalayan Trekking Expedition once we moved back to India. Father of one of my son’s friend went on Himalayan Trekking (Pindari Glacier) organized by a private group last year. I did not come to know about this Trek until he came back. If I had known about this trek, I would have taken part last year itself. I have been doing a bit of research on Himalayan Trekking expeditions. I came to know about YHAI program on a local news channel (TV9) coverage of Sar Pass Trek. TV9 had shown about 30 min special program on this trek. I checked out YHAI website after watching this TV program and decided to venture out this summer.
I tried to motivate my colleagues at my current employer as well as friends from my previous employer. Surprisingly I came to know one of my ex-colleague (Rahul) has already done couple of Treks organized by YHAI and he was also planning to do one more this year. Although twenty odd people from my current employer expressed interest in Himalayan Trekking, no body turned up when it comes to actually doing the trek. Luckily, a few of my colleagues from my previous employer and their friends & family signed-up for this trek.
When to do this Trek?
We reported to YHAI base camp in Babeli (just outskirts of Kullu in Himachal Pradesh) on May 19, 2008. Ideally, you want to trek early May. You have greater chances of rain during later part of May. Rain is your worst enemy on the Trek so I suggest to trek in the first week of May.
What else to do in Kullu area?
River rafting is a popular adventure sport in Kullu/Manali area. You want to do River rafting when there is water flow (current) so that you can get excitement of Rafting. If there is no current in water flow it almost feels like a boating exercise. Needless to say, you should try River Rafting while you are in Kullu/Manali area.
Manali is right at the foothill of Himalayas; Manali is about an hour drive (50 K.M) from Kullu. Babeli is only 7 K.M from Kullu on the way to Manali. Manali is a great tourist place with lots of resorts, restaurants etc. It is quite refreshing just to walk around Manali watch beautiful mountains in comfortable temperature.
How to get to Babeli?
There is no train route to Kullu/Manali area. It is about 8 hour Bus drive from Chandigarh and 12-14 hour drive from New Delhi. If you catch any Bus to Manali you can simply get-off at YHAI base camp in Babeli which is located right outside of Kullu. Perhaps taking the Bus is only the realistic option.
There is a small airport near Kullu; I believe Deccan and Kingfisher Airlines fly there. You may also consider this option if you don’t like long bus journey.
You can catch train to Ambala or Chandigarh in Punjab then take a private taxi or Bus to Kullu/Manali. It is about 8-9 hour Bus drive from Ambala or Chandigarh to Babeli. It is only about 250 K.M distance but you are driving on the ghat road so it takes 8-9 hours drive and private taxi can be fairly expensive. If you have 7-8 people, private taxi can be cost effective and convenient option to consider than Bus journey.
Do not travel by Himachal Pradesh Bus Service, they are horribly not comfortable. In addition, they only drive slightly faster pace than a bullock cart. I will share my experience with bus travel below, Himachal Pradesh State Bus stops for any passenger they find on the street, they operate like a local/city bus service. You should find VOLVO or some other Private Bus Service. You can find Private Bus Services in New Delhi (Connaught Place area) and Chandigarh.
Gang of Ten:
Srini – There is so much about me on this blog so I don’t have to give any special introduction.
Rahul – Has already done couple of Trekking expeditions, he was our group leader – he handled 46 member trekking group to Saurkundi Pass exceptionally well. Rahul is very talented when it comes to singing, mimicry, drama, dances, sports etc.
Chintan – Simply fun to be around. Chintan just wanted to do this trek purely for the sake of adventure. Chintan has enormous data bank of names of big-time flops and one-off Hindi movies, this makes tough to play dumb charades or any sort of movie game with him.
Manan – First time trekker, he just finished 12th grade and eagerly waiting to get into Engineering college. We all know how to slide on the snow, Manan can also slide on the mud – he gave new meaning for trekking on the downhill.
Trupti – What can I say about Trupti, a women of many talents and lots of aspirations.
Neha – She had finished couple of Half-Marathon runs, she is definitely ready for any challenge. Neha and Trupti were supposed to drop out of this Trek. On the 11th hour they decided to join the group, they did not have much time to acclimatize yet they were able to challenge themselves to complete the trek.
Laddu – I am terrible when it comes to tongue-twisting names so I have decided to use her nick name. By all means, she does not look anything like a Laddu. She is skinny to bones but she is sweet like a Laddu, she wears pink shirts and drinks coffee in “Winnie the Pooh” mug. From overhearing her conversations in Marathi, she still has a bit of baby talk. She also had done 3 or 4 treks in the past.
Prachi – One talented young woman, I really think she should give her best shot with next Indian Idol contest. She is a good singer, trained in classical vocalist – she has potential to pursue career in her passion which is music.
Sonal – Like Rahul, she has also done trekking in the past. Sonal was our Environmental Leader, responsible to keep folks from trashing camp sites, mountains and pathways. Frankly it is not an easy task because we Indians love to through away junk anywhere as long as it is not our house. We have no regard for community or public hygiene.
Vysali – First time trekker and determined to finish the trek. I must say I am impressed by Vysali’s determination; she did very well on the trek. She wanted to collect couple of live lady-bugs so that she can talk about Lady Bugs with pre-school kids where she works.
Times of India ran a campaign called “India Poised” in January 2007. They talk about Two Indias:
One India wants. The other India hopes
One India leads. The other India follows.
To describe our Trekking group, I have to relate to “Two Indias” quote. We also had 13 (12 men and 1 woman) from West Bengal – we started calling them Bengal Babus or Blue Birds, they all wore same Blue colored trek suit. They reminded an example of what decades of communism can do to human beings, they can quickly become “Wanting things” rather than “Making things”. When I was in college, I read a quote –“if you are wise you become a communist. If the wisdom continues you get out of communism”. I grew up attending RSS Sakha in the evenings while I was also an active member of SFI in my high school. There are only a few patches of communism still alive in the entire world – I belong to a district, we still elect most number of communist leaders in our state. Communism is definitely engrained in my genetic code; I am absolutely inspired by Lenin philosophy. However, I have to say my wisdom continued so I no longer believe in Communism or associated with RSS. Coming back to our trekking group, these Bengali babus pretty much stayed as one sub-group, they always had their own tent and they did their own things. Rest of the group was a bit scared to associate with them closely, it could be a perception issue more than any reality. They looked like typical state govt employees; some of these guys had done multiple treks in the past. One of the Bengali babus had done 8 treks; another one is suffering from all kinds of knee/joint pains but still decided to take part in this trek – to me, that is crazy!
Out of 46 members in our group, we had significant number of folks from Maharashtra. People like Raj Thackeray cribs about Marathi sentiment and sounds like Marathi is a dying language. Believe me, I heard most Marathi in my entire life during this 10 day trek. Most of these folks from Maharashtra were only speaking predominantly in Marathi. As per YHAI guidelines, we were only suppose to converse in Hindi or English, guess what I can only hear so much of Marathi or Bengali. I also figured “Ekkada” or “Akkada” mean the same as in Telugu and in Marathi. These are the only two words I picked-up hearing from so much Marathi during this 10 day trek. Laddu kept on saying she can teach me Marathi, I know my linguistic inability so I didn’t take up on her offer.
Our group comprised of 13 women and 33 men, ranging from 15 years to 64 years old. We had lot of teenage boys/girls in our group, quite a few of them gave 12th standard exams and anxiously waiting for engineering entrance exam results. When I saw these young folks, I felt good about India’s prospects in next decade. I am sure these young kids can take on any global challenges; they can stand upto global competition and make India proud.
Who should try out this Trek?
I strongly suggest folks with any knee/joint pains should avoid this trek. Anyone in reasonable shape can complete this trek. To me Trekking is nothing but an adventure, if you love mountains and enjoy Mother Nature at its purest you should consider in Himalayan Trekking. I do not suggest family re-unions for this expedition. Furthermore, do not consider trekking as a relaxation or a vacation, it is definitely a physical activity which requires your physical capability as well as mental toughness to deal with constant changes in weather conditions and rough terrain. As I mentioned above, we had folks ranging from 15 yrs to 64 yrs old so I really think it is no big deal, anyone with an ounce of brain and commitment can finish the trek. More important thing, you should self-examine why you want to put yourself through? Men and women can do, teenagers certainly enjoy this experience. I suggest folks to go for these sorts of camps in groups (at least 3 or 4) so that you will have decent company as well as help each other with any unforeseeable things. Unless you are in excellent physical shape, I do not recommend trekking expedition for folks above 50 years old. As I mentioned, walking downhill can take toll on your knees and ankles. Also, you may not be able to handle high-altitudes as well and you may not enjoy living in the tents.
Things to Bring for the Trek (all of these items to carry with you in your back-pack for a reasonably comfortable trek – don’t worry about weight, you can easily carry 5 to 6 KG without much difficulty). Knowing what I know, I strongly suggest taking the following things for Trekking Expedition:
YHAI provides backpack so don’t need to take rucksack or backpack. Rain is your worst enemy while you trek so you must have rain-proof light jacket, trousers and hood. Buy a comfortable pair of Sports shoes (needs to have good grip, try to choose light-weight trekking/outdoor shoes). If you can find a pair of sports shoes relatively rain-proof with good grip they make perfect trekking shoes. I bought Jungle/Hunter Shoes from a Military Store in Secunderabad. They are pretty cheap (170 Rupees) but they are not comfortable and they soak pretty badly if it rains. Lots of trekkers buy these shoes, YHAI folks also told me these are not good shoes when it rains so you need to check out various options at Nike, Reebok, and Adidas etc. Some of the trekkers used their normal running/tennis shoes, they are comfortable but they do not provide necessary grip to walk in mud or on snow.
Socks (4 to 5 pairs plus one pair of woolen socks to handle cold weather), Tracks (2 or 3 pairs of track pants), t-shirts (3), undergarments (3), jacket (light jacket which is rain-proof with hood), steel plate, cup (for Dal), spoon, lunch-box, glass (steel), water bottle, wax candle (1), torch (with extra batteries), water purifying tablets, cold cream, sun-screen, chap stick, medicines (any prescription medicines, cold & cough, pain killers etc.), soap, soap strips, small shampoo, slippers, toothbrush, paste, thermal wear, monkey cap, baseball cap, rain-proof gloves, glove sleeves (cotton gloves which you can wear inside leather/rain-proof gloves), sun-glasses (any color, you MUST NOT wear Blue Sun-glasses), tying rope (to hang clothes in the tent), body deodorant(remember you won’t take bath for number of days you trek so deodorant is your best friend to keep basic personal hygiene, toilet paper(remember you may be using outdoor toilets so you must take toilet paper), wet-baby wipes (I am not sure you get them in India, these are baby wipes since they have moisture, they can maintain hygiene better than standard toilet paper), talcum powder(to keep feet dry), towel, 200 to 300 Rupee cash, cotton (to place it in shoe to prevent shoe bites and to put it in ear at high-elevations) and shawl/muffler. You also want to carry a stick which can help you a great deal on the trek. Locals sell these sticks for 5 to 10 rupees on the trek, stick is very handy on the snow, waling downhill and walking on the mud.
You should buy a good pair of shoes with good grip and use it for 2 to 3 weeks prior to the trek. It would be beneficial to go for 5-6 K.M walk on daily basis; preferably you try to walk in hilly area (such as Jubilee Hills to Whisper Valley in Hyderabad). Also, learn to hydrate yourself. You want to drink lot of water when you go higher elevations. Usually people drink 3 to 4 liters of water a day, when you are at higher elevation you should drink 5 to 6 liters. Again, there were lot of folks in our group who had almost no experience of physical activity yet all of them finished trek. I am suggesting these things to make things easier during the trek. I strongly suggest you practice stretching/yoga and Pranayamam for 2 to 3 weeks prior to the trek. Pranayamam helps you to increase your lung capacity; it is well known fact lung capacity helps with endurance for physical activity. Pranayamam help you to breathe through nose rather than through mouth. When you start breathing through mouth during any physical activity, you get tired quickly. Breathing exercises also help you to deal with low-oxygen on higher elevations.
Cell phones do work throughout the trek however you won’t be able to recharge cell phone. Therefore, you can get D.C (Duracell has a product) Cell phone charger so that you can continue to use cell phones while you are on the trek. You can hear to F.M Radio stations so having a D.C charger and cell phone with F.M radio option is a nice thing to take. Camera, of course you will find lots of interesting things to take pictures. I don’t like to carry camera. I prefer to enjoy mother nature while trekking and capture memories than photos. Junk food/snacks, playing cards, UNO cards, shaving kit, small board games (something like a ring/tennicoit – there is absolutely nothing to do at most of the camps; it would be nice to have small/easy to carry games).
Our Trekking Expedition:
Saurkundi is a small pond located in Himalayas, the pathway between two hills in this mountain region near Saurkundi is called “Saurkundi Pass” which is located 12,900 ft above mean-sea level. Saurkundi has holiness, local people take a bath in this pond to cleanse their body and get rid of their diseases. Our guide told us that there is a Mela coming up where locals pray Lord Siva and take cleansing bath in this pond. One of the local school kids told us a story: if you walk to Saurkundi without footwear and take bath early in the morning (around 5:00 A.M before anyone can watch you) they believe that it can cure any disease. This kid actually told us he had some sort of severe rash which got cured after he did this ritual. I don’t believe in these sorts of superstitious beliefs but water in this pond is pure and full of minerals so you might benefit from taking a mineral bath. I visited Budapest couple of years ago, Budapest is popular tourism destination for SPA services, water suppose to have higher levels of minerals and SPAs do all kinds of mineral water treatments/messages to help heal pains and skin problems. I can relate to both of these things in the same lines.
Day minus one: I caught a flight from Hyderabad to Delhi and reached Delhi by 3:00 P.M. Our train from Delhi to Kiratpur Sahib at 11:15 P.M so I decided to put my luggage in Clock Room at Old Delhi Train station and go on city tour. I heard so much about scorching heat in Delhi during the summer, I personally witnessed it. I could not stand for an hour roaming around Delhi in the afternoon in an auto rickshaw. To save myself from the heat, I decided to watch a movie at PVR Cinema in Connaught Place. They were only screening “Bhoothnath” movie at that time and I could only get front-row seats. I did not want to spend another minute in the scorching heat so I had to watch no-so-good Boothnath movie from front-row seating by spending 200 Rupees for the ticket.
After the movie, I walked around Connaught Place for a while. I realized Delhi is extremely crowded place and still quite muggy even at 7:00 P.M. I saw TGI Friday’s restaurant, my taste buds started to kicked-in. I had enough with Delhi heat and crowd so I went into TGI Fridays to cool down with a chilled beer and enjoy their famous Cajun Chicken Sandwich. Lucky me, TGIF had happy hour until 7:00 P.M where you buy one drink to get another for free.
I headed back to Old Delhi Train Station around 9:30 P.M. I met rest of the gang at Train Station around 10:30 P.M. Train supposed to leave Delhi at 11:15 P.M but it was late nearly by an hour. Old Delhi Train Station is no better than a solid waste dump site – it stunk big time! I had bought train ticket in Tatkal so I was in different bogie than rest of the gang.
Day 1: Reporting to Base Camp in Babeli
I woke up at 5:00 A.M hoping to get-off at Kiratpur Sahib by 6:00 A.M. Train was late arriving Kiratpur, we reached Kiratpur around 8:00 A.M. Once I got-off in Kiratpur, I asked folks on how to reach Babeli or Kullu. They said I was still in Punjab and needed to go to Himachal Pradesh. Day 1 started off with a shocking surprise. I asked them how far is Kullu from Kiratpur, they said it is about 5-6 hour bus drive on the ghat road. I was simply shocked started searching for rest of the gang on the platform. I did not see anyone on the platform so I got worried. I started calling couple of my buddies in the gang I can only hear background noise. I asked someone again if it is Kiratpur Sahib or not, he said it is but we are at least 200 K.M away from Kullu. We purchased train tickets with the impression Babeli/Kullu is only about 30 to 40 K.M from Kiratpur.
I came back to platform after 10 to 15 min chaos to see if I could find my friends. I noticed our train was still on the platform; it was only suppose to stop for 2 or 3 minutes. Finally, Rahul and rest of the gang arrived; they missed the stop so they had to pull the chain. Since they pulled the chain for non-emergency reasons and faced with tough questions, railway officials wanted to take them to nearest train station to launch complaint etc. Luckily Rahul managed to get out of the ordeal without much trouble. I must say I only saw folks pulling these chains in movies; this was my first live experience. Once we were re-grouped I told them where we are and what are our options. We decided to rent a private taxi instead of catching bus to go to Babeli. This whole episode is a good example how difficult to travel within India and how little information you can get on-line. Unless you know someone who has been to a place where you want to go, it is still difficult to get right information remotely.
At this time, we were only eight members in our gang; we started driving in a Taxi from Kiratpur to Babeli. When you trek, you will always face uncertain situations like bad weather, terrain, body condition/health, missing stuff etc. As a trekker, you must always be ready to take on these challenges and make things most out of the situation. Well this travel experience set us to face one of those unanticipated events. We stopped for breakfast at Himachal Pradesh Tourism hotel in Swarghat. After completing morning rituals and breakfast, I went to a local store and bought couple of decks of playing cards. Perhaps best 30 rupees I spent during this trek. We started playing “Knock Knock” cards game in taxi, there was no radio/stereo in the taxi so folks started singing to pass time. We stopped for lunch in Mandi; Mandi looked like a decent size town. Finally we reached Kullu around 3:30 P.M. Kullu is a decent size city yet it has narrow roads, only one vehicle can pass through these narrow roads. After travelling for 6 hours on the Ghat road, we finally reached YHAI Babeli base camp around 4:00 P.M. We completed the check-in formalities, volunteers at YHAI assigned tent (separate tents for Men & Women). Base camp is pretty good, it has proper Indian style bathrooms and toilets, tents are well built to handle any weather challenges. Once you checked-into the base camp, you cannot go out without taking permission. You must be back to the camp site before 6:00 P.M. They try to impose certain discipline, they kind of run it like a boys-scout or RSS Camp. They clearly display hour by hour schedule for day 1, 2 & 3 at the base camp. In our tent, we had 12 guys. We were four of us plus eight guys from Pune. YHAI provides rugs, inner/bed sheet and Rucksack (backpack) when you check into base camp. You must return Rug before you head on the Trek and return inner & Rucksack after completing the trek.
Taxi journey was not bad at all. We got to see a glimpse of Himachal Pradesh and drove through an long tunnel on the Ghat road. This tunnel is at least a kilometer long, definitely showcases achievements of Indian engineering. When we used to drive from Denver to Ski Mountains in the U.S, I used to be surprised when we passed through 3 to 5 mile long tunnel. Well our Indians Engineers proved that we can also build highly-engineered tunnels.
There is absolutely nothing to do at the base camp so we were glad we only reported at 4:00 P.M instead of reporting early in the morning. After having evening tea and snack, we started wandering around to pass time; we played dumb charades with Hollywood flicks until dinner time. They serve full course dinner: Roti, Rice, Curry, Dal and Desert. After dinner, they conduct “Campfire” to socialize for couple of hours. I was too tired so I did not go for the Campfire. I decided to take “Tylenol P.M” tables to get rid of any body aches as well as to get good night sleep. By the way, Campfire is just the name. It is against YHAI policy to burn wood so there is no real Campfire. However, folks kick it off by shouting Campfire, Campfire, Campfire. YHAI management takes this opportunity to award certificates for batch which completed trekking, give motivational speeches then folks started showing off their talent: Jokes, Shayaris, act, mimicry, sing songs etc. You get to enjoy Hot Bournvita drink at the end of campfire and lights off by 10:00 P.M.
Day 2: Acclimatization and Orientation
We stayed first three days at the Base Camp to acclimatize, get to know each other in our group and prepare the body for the Trek. We had to wake-up by 5:00 A.M; they served Bed tea as we woke up. We lined-up for the morning exercise by 6:00 A.M. 1 hour morning exercise consisted of jogging, stretching and fitness routine. They served breakfast at 7:30 A.M; you get about 1.5 hours to complete daily morning rituals. We went on acclimatization walk to a nearby hill for a couple of hours. After the acclimatization walk, we chose our Group Leader as Rahul and Sonal as Environmental Leader for this Trek. We also had a Bengali Babu as Co-Leader.
Upon returning back from the Acclimatization walk, we had lunch and got couple of hours of break. We got orientation from Base Camp leader, Field Director, Deputy Field Director etc. which included an overview of the entire Trek and tips/instructions. All of these folks are volunteers, they spend anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks as volunteers for YHAI. I am impressed by their commitment and passion to help Trekkers. They served evening Tea and snack following the orientation. There were no other scheduled activities until dinner at 7:30 P.M. and Campfire at 8:30 P.M. At the Campfire, they had rewarded certificates for returning Trekkers followed by usual talent show. YHAI folks constantly advised group to speak Hindi or English when we are together. However, most of the sub-groups continued to speak their own languages. I heard so much of Bengali, Marathi and Hindi than I have ever heard. My Hindi is pretty bad yet I was forced to speak as much Hindi as I can (or as bad Hindi as I could). Bengali babus shared couple of semi-dirty jokes, sang Vandemataram in Bengali accent – being a liberal Democrat (U.S), I should be broad minded but I simply could not take funny Bengali style Vandemataram in which they kept on pronouncing “V” as “B”.
Day 3: Rappelling and Rock Climbing
Trupti and Neha joined our gang; they dropped out of this expedition due to work pressures. However, their work priorities changed so they decided to join us for this Trek. They took lot of pain to join us on the day 3. These two girls did not have adequate time to get acclimatized like rest of the group yet they were determined to participate in the trek. We became “Gang of Ten”.
Again we got to wake-up by 5:00 A.M with bed tea on Day 3. After morning exercise, daily routine and breakfast, we went for Rappelling. It was first Rappelling experience. We had couple of mountaineers helped us to set-up whole Rappelling off a large stone. They demonstrated how Rappelling works and helped all of us to enjoy this unique experience. I must say I was a bit scared getting off the cliff first-time so I decided to try again. Since we had a large group, we only got to do rappelling once. I had to charm my way with these mountaineers to do Rappelling second time – I loved it! I would have felt bad if I did not get to do the second time.
After lunch and a short break, we went back for Rock Climbing. I had tried indoor Rock climbing at NTR Garden, Prasad IMAX etc in Hyderabad. Indoor Rock Climbing is nothing compare to the real-thing. I decided not to try Rock Climbing. I am sure I could have done it. I was afraid if I scratch my knees it would hinder me from Trekking. Only about a third of our group tried Rock Climbing.
After evening Tea and snacks, we had to turn-in our extra luggage. Once we stored extra luggage, we were left with Rucksack full of stuff we wanted to carry on the Trek. You want to take bath every chance you get, because you never know when you will get chance to take next bath. I took bath again after playing volleyball for a little while in the evening. There is no hot water and the tap water is pretty cold. This was my last bath until we finished 7 day Trek and returned back to the base camp.