It had been an excruciatingly long and sweaty journey. What from boarding a train on Friday morning (1st May) at 6:00 hrs, and then changing a train at Mumbai at 11:00 hrs the same day, and then finally getting out of the train at 18:00 hrs the next day evening at Chandigarh. All of this in the scorching heat of May. Without A/C. But this wasn’t the end of our journey. We still had another 14 hours of travelling by bus to look forward to, but that would start after a break of about 5 hours. It was actually a good chance to see the city, but any hope of doing that evaporated when we realised that one of us needed to buy a few personal items, and the rest of us (mainly me, I hate using toilets when the train keeps rocking to and fro!), needed to use a toilet really urgently before we started the next leg of the journey. After all of this, we boarded the bus at almost midnight. The seats may have been very comfortable, but the bus ride most certainly wasn’t. At first, the roads were horrible. The bus was rocking even more than the train we had come in! It was almost impossible to sleep since the bad roads continued for a very long time. But the landscapes were beautiful, that is whatever was visible in the lights of the passing vehicles. After a fairly long nap, I woke up at 6:00 hrs the following morning (3rd May) to the most beautiful thing I had seen so far. The bus stopped for a tea break, but it had started its journey in the mountains, that is, it had left Punjab and had entered Himachal Pradesh. I had never seen such beauty before. The large mountains, the sun still trying to peek from between them, the tall, dark green trees filtering whatever light that fell onto them. To top it all off, the river Beas flowed at the foothills of those large mountains. This picture will forever remain with me. I can always go back to the scene in my head and always be overcome by the awe and the calm that came over me on actually seeing this. The rest of the journey was just as picturesque and delightful, except for the ever climbing, winding roads. Those roads made quite a few travellers in bus feel nauseous. The bus dropped us off just outside Kullu, on a large bridge over the mighty river Beas. Standing on top there – with snow clad mountains one side, the town on another, the green trees covering mountains in front, the white, foaming, river underneath, and the powder blue sky above – was an extremely exhilarating experience. We were on the doors of paradise. Our journey didn’t end there, the destination was another 5kms away, which would be reached by one of the local buses.
The Youth Hostel Association of India Chanderkhani Pass base camp was mostly a collection of tents, on the bank of the river Beas. After stepping in through the high entrance gate, you immediately found yourself at the reception tent. On the left hand was a brick building, or rather four walls painted a bright orange (geru) covered by a metallic sheet roof, with very catchy boards explaining that it was the toilet. And everywhere behind the reception tent were tents for the trekkers as well as the volunteers and staff. The tents were arranged around a central open ground, which was deserted by the time we reached the camp. There was another brick building, built in a fashion similar to the toilet block, but looked a little smarter than it. This housed the storage room as well as the camp office. There was another structure adjacent to this entire arrangement, the kitchen, but not visible directly from the entrance. The space in front of it was the designated dining space, only covered from the top, with a spectacular view of the river and the surrounding mountains. At the reception tent, we were allotted a tent (tent 12). After freshening up a little, a tasty breakfast and completing the registration process (we were assigned the CP-8 batch since we were the 8th batch to start the trek this year), we were ready to explore Kullu.
We walked almost half way back to the town, and took a rickshaw from there. During our walk we saw a beautifully quaint bungalow still under construction. The walls were very elegantly clad with the local stone and wood, with a fishing pond abutting one side of the house. The stunning vistas around were captured by simple semi-circular arches. On reaching the town we realised that the market was closed since it was a Sunday. But we still wandered around the market since there was nothing else to see in Kullu. We did find a few shops open and bought a few items we were still missing for the trek. There was also a small ongoing fair, but not enough to captivate us. We hence decided to go to the nearby Vaishno Mata Mandir, a temple just outside Kullu. After a little bit of confusion, we caught the right bus, and reached the temple in about 15 minutes. It was a very peculiar temple, quite unlike any I had seen before. It was a large building, at least 5 storeys high. It looked like a newly constructed building, with brick walls and glass windows on the first few floors. Going Above the third floor, I realised that the temple was much older than it seemed to be. The new construction was just a contemporary shell for the ancient cave temple. It was a small cave, you had to literally crawl inside it to get the devi’s darshan. There was another cave, slightly higher than this one. The higher cave housed the Shiva temple. There was a tall pagoda like structure to reach the higher cave. The pagoda was made out of wood and roofed with the local slate. Pictorial stories and floral motifs were etched into the wood, very intricately carved, it left every visitor stunned by its beauty and precision. After descending the temple, we walked back to our campsite. On the way, just before the camp, we stopped by a restaurant. Imagine hot and delicious food, in cold weather, slightly drizzling, sitting on the riverside (it felt like I was almost sitting on the river), with your best friends. That was one of the meals that I can never forget.
By the time we reached the camp, it was full of people! There were about three batches in the camp, so roughly 100 people. One batch (CP-7) was back from their acclimatisation walk and another batch (CP-6) was back from rock climbing and rappelling exercises. CP-6 was also getting ready to leave the comforts of base camp and start off the next morning. So, after settling back into our tents, we could see several people that had arrived from CP-8. Seeing so many new and strange faces made me very anxious. We strolled around the camp, trying to familiarise ourselves with the people and also the surroundings. Soon it started getting dark, and dinner was announced at 19.30 hrs. It was a sumptuous meal. I never expected to get such tasty and wholesome food here. After a quick meal, we were all called in for the nightly campfire session. I was eagerly looking forward to this part. It had become very cold by then, and was becoming very difficult to be able to keep my hands warm. Hence, a fire was what I was looking forward to. But when the campfire started, I was in for a big surprise! There was no fire. The fire was replaced by a sculpture of electric bulbs. They did radiate a little heat, and a hundred people huddled together singing and clapping helped too, but it was no fire. Soon, I got used to the idea of the fireless campfire, it was actually inspiring. Short performances by several participants was exactly what was needed to make me feel comfortable, and I went back to the tent feeling warm and confident of the upcoming events.
The whistle blew at 5.30 sharp. We (CP-8) were supposed to be ready and in line by 5.30 for morning exercises. As usual, I was late, accompanied by many more. All my sleep was swept away by the jog and the strenuous exercise session that followed in the biting cold. I still wasn’t used to the cold here. After the exercises came the camp cleaning session, where we picked up all the plastic and paper litter from the camp floor. After this was what I like to call as the ‘seeing-off’ session. We made two lines, clapping and cheering, as the team leaving for the trek passed through us. It seemed good to boost other people’s confidence and bid them a safe and happy trek. CP-8 was asked to fall in line after a quick breakfast and freshening up, with the rucksack containing two blankets (given to us the previous evening) and a filled water bottle. This was much lesser weight than my rucksack, but it still felt heavy on my back, knowing that I had to carry it for several hours ahead. So, after a quick pep talk, we were led on our acclimatisation walk by two of the camp leaders.
Continue to part 2…