There are three major passes between Chamba and Lahaul Valley namely; Chobia, Kugti, and the Kali Cho Pass. The Kali Cho Pass is, arguably, the toughest pass in Himachal Pradesh. It stands at an approximate height of 4980 meters and only gaddi’s [shepherds] or hardcore trekkers walk over this pass. Even the villagers of the nearby villages prefer a bus over this pass because of its extremely tough gradient.
Kali Cho is comprised of two words: Kali for the Goddess Kali (Bhawani/BhadraKaali) and Cho means a waterfall.
Few months ago, in April 2012, I attempted the Manimahesh Trek and it turned out to be a huge disappointment because of excessive snow. The Kali Cho trek meant a lot to me because of my Manimahesh failure. I was told by experts that Kali Cho is not easy at all and I was wondering all the while what made it difficult. I was excited to face the Himalayan challenges one more time and this time, believe me; it turned out to be a long and tough journey.
Normally, this trek takes more than three days but the gaddi’s [shepherds] complete their journey in just two days.
Our trek started from the ‘Banni Mata’ temple, which was a two hour walk from the last motorable village, Tundah. There is a forest rest house in Tundah and if you are lucky enough, you can catch a glimpse of the Manimahesh Peak from Tundah.
We did see the peak but could not click a photograph because of the restricted hand movements inside the cab. After all, adjusting with 14 passengers sitting in an 8 seater cab is a tough task.
The Banni Mata Temple is located at a handsome height and the valley view beneath was mesmerizing. We tried to find a guide who could guide us to the top of the pass. We met two guys and they agreed to accompany us as guides. Little did we know about their misguiding capabilities.
They invited us to stay at their place for the night and discuss the monetary aspects of the job. Eventually, they turned out to be pot smokers. I had lost faith in them because of their nonsensical chit-chat. The ‘stuff’ was too good and after two joints they lost the plot.
One of them said that he was ready to take us to Srinagar. The other one was confused and he repeatedly kept saying, “Kali Ka Khappar.” Eventually, we realized that they had never attempted the Kali Cho Pass, let alone successfully climbing it. I figured out that they were either scared or were too intoxicated to say anything sensible.
We somehow persuaded them to leave our room and we slept in a confused state of mind. Early morning we left for Bhadra Village, which is the last village of the Chamba District on this route. We were hopeful of finding someone in Bhadra else we had made up our mind to go on our own.
Faith, as they say, is a very dangerous system.
Luckily, we found our guide, who worked in the village school. He was a talkative man and he believed in leading the way, in a weird manner. He would disappear walking ahead of us and left us wondering if he was alive, dead, or sleeping. Our stop for day 1 was Bansar Koth.
Koth or Kothi is a temporary settlement where gaddi’s, pilgrims, or gujjars stay during their journeys. These Kothis are mud houses with no doors. Here you can cook and sleep safely.
There was a gujjar couple roaming around and they invited us to stay in their Kothi, which was at least 4 kilometers up in the mountians. I was in no mood to walk as ‘Gujjar Kothi’ was just opposite to the direction in which we had to go next morning. However, my partner and the guide found out that it would be interesting to see a Gujjar Kothi. Now, unwillingly I had to walk for four hours.
Those gujjars were singing songs because it was a homecoming day for the newlywed couple. The bride was coming to her husband’s Kothi for the very first time. Gujjars are Muslims yet their rituals were not different from the rituals of Hindus except for the fact that they repeatedly used the word ‘kafir’ in their songs.
To quote one line from their songs, “Inhan Kaafiran da beda gark ho allah! (May all these Non-Muslims rot in hell)” It made me wonder if we were guests or the sacrificial goats.
After four hours we reached inside their Kothi and there were plenty of them. The whole mountain belonged to them and because of the homecoming event, all of them had gathered inside one Kothi. There were forty of them and all of them were joyous to see the newlywed couple and strangely dressed three of us.
Animals and humans lived in the same Kothi and I somehow stepped over a buffalo, which scared the shit out of me. They were religious people and as it was the holy month of Ramzaan, they were listening to religious prayers playing on a radio. In the name of technology, they had torches and mobile phones. They were all very fond of mobile phones and each one of them wanted to either browse through our phones or copy the songs we had in our mobile phones. One of them asked my friend to exchange his iPhone with his Lava Blast phone, which sounded like a 2000W speaker.
Our guide was not comfortable with the idea of eating their food so he decided to cook on his own. He borrowed their utensils, their butter, their water but he was not ready to eat what they had cooked. I drank salty tea, which they called ‘Lakkad Tea’.
Lakkad tea in the evening and sweet tea in the morning and lots of milk, lassi, and curd in between, that’s what kept them healthy and fit. I ate with them and asked a lot of questions about their roots, beliefs, and education of their kids.
They were still sending their kids to ‘madarsa’ to learn the traditional stuff. Girls were still forbidden to go out and study. They were cute girls curious to see the external world and excited to get their photographs clicked. The old man of the family was a tough man and he told me about his ancestral property in Punjab. Supposedly, they owned prime property in Pathankot yet they chose to live like this. They were milk suppliers of the valley and if I were to believe his words, they sold milk and butter worth lakhs every month in the peak season.
In India we say,” Neend na dekhe bistara, bhookh na dekhe maans” and that’s what happened with us. We all slept like dead logs and only in the morning we realized that we were sleeping amongst goats, sheep, and dogs, like everyone else inside the building.
The kothi was located in the ‘Jajvar Dhar’ and we could see the ‘Bansar Dhar’ from their Kothi. Their kothi was constructed at least 30 years ago and the head of the current family was a young man when this building came into existence. He had spent 30 long years of his life in this building.
Next day we thought of crossing over the pass.
If only we knew what awaited us.
We slept in a 4 X 6 (feet) shed next day, this time with 1500 sheep and four dogs.