The Gujjars wanted us to stay with them. And we wanted to reach Lahaul on the same day itself.
The idea was to reach Alyas, the start point of Pass climb by 0900 Hours and cross over the top by 1200 Hours.
We overestimated ourselves, and underestimated the Kali Cho Pass.
The walk from Gujjar Kothi/Bansar Koth was a pleasant one. Lush green valley, psychedelic sound of the Kali Cho nallah flowing by, and the silent walk towards the unknown. If you have seen ‘Into the Wild’ then you might remember the scene when Supertramp runs amidst wild horses. Almost similar patch comes on the way. There were 13 horses and they belonged to the Gujjars.
Those Gujjars, owners of those horses, were living at least 5 kilometers away and they had left there horses to graze, to roam around, and to be free. The sight of the horses was enough for me to forgive our overenthusiastic guide. He was nowhere to be seen, as usual. After walking silently for an hour, the two of us did not speak at all, we finally spotted a human being. There was a temple nearby and from then onwards, the mystery and the magic of the Kali Cho pass started unfolding.
There was a shed close to the temple and it was nicely decorated, probably because of the temple nearby. Shepherds use leaves of a wild plant as bedsheet. It keeps the body warm. In Pahadi language, these leaves are called ‘bithal ke patte’ . The temple belonged to the local deity ‘Digga Devta’ and every year, whenever gaddis’ start moving towards the Lahaul Valley via Kali Cho, they take permission from the deity as well as from Banni Mata. Sheep are sacrificed and alcoholic prasad is offered to the devta to seek his blessings.
Arguably, Diggu was the first man who climbed over this pass and opened the gateway to the Lahaul Valley. The temple is called ‘Diggu Ka Gohad’ .
From the temple it was another long walk to reach at the bottom of the pass, the Alyas. The journey was peaceful and obviously our guide had disappeared once again. The Shepherd’s den appeared after walking for few hours and then we realized that even thinking about crossing the pass on the same day was a huge mistake. The pass was not visible when we reached and the shepherd duo told us stories about the hardships they face while walking over this pass.
Their beliefs surprised me greatly.
Every time they cook their food, they pray to the Diggu Devta, seek his blessings.
Every time they sit to eat, they don’t leave their place until the meal is over.
Every time they cook their food, they don’t put salt in the food until they sit to eat.
And, above all, they climb the pass without eating anything, with an empty stomach. No water, no food, no snacks, nothing whatsoever, until they have reached the top, even spitting and pissing is forbidden on the way. Once they offer their prayers to the Bhadra Kaali, only then they are allowed to eat.
They cooked food for us and gave the best possible place inside their hut to us. We slept on a bithal leaf bed and it was warm enough, enabling us to forget about the freezing temperature outside. The hut or rather Shepherd’s Den was 2 feet high, 6 feet long, and 10 feet wide. We were five guys sleeping inside and hundreds of sheep surrounded us.
Why I call it a den?
Well, living in the middle of nowhere, in freezing temperatures, with no connection to the external world, calling it a shed would be a disrespect to the spirit of the Gaddis’.
The old gaddi was an experienced man and even he admitted that Kali Cho is short but tough. He narrated his stories of old times. He told us about the Darati Jot, Makori Jot, Chobiya Jot, and other passes connecting Chamba to Lahaul and Pangi Valley.
He was an amazing flute player, without any formal training. His music was the best dessert I had tasted in my life.
The next morning, we started walking towards the Pass and we expected to be on the other side in 3 hours.
We were mistaken, again.
It took us exactly six hours to reach at the top.
Because we were staying with the gaddis’, we decided to follow their rituals. We didn’t eat anything in the morning and decided not to drink water either. However, without water it was going to be a suicidal task.
There were three crucial patches that remain dangerous in every month of the year. We walked over the snowy patches, which included risk of slipping and dying. Even if we take snow out of the picture, heavy boulders keep coming from the top making it even more dangerous. After an hours climb, fog surrounded us and even the experienced gaddi accompanying us forgot the path.
Yes, we asked the gaddi bhai to help us, and he agreed happily. Our guide was actually of no use to us.
Finally, after toiling for two hours, we decided to drink water. Once we found our way, we decided to send the shepherd back.
Surprisingly, the gaddi and the guide, who was a local, started smoking. I questioned them. They pointed towards remnants of bidis lying on the floor and started laughing sheepishly.
Faith and fear have a close relationship. Fear induced faith is the most dangerous thing. At such places, you have to rely on an external force, which gives you assurance that you will make it through. Walking over stone boulders in a foggy condition surely needs a guiding angel. And then you believe in any ritual, even if means drinking no water and eating no food while climbing on a tough pass like Kali Cho.
After helping us reach at the safe zone, the gaddi left us and while we were resting, he had gone back to his den. He was fast beyond my imagination. We could see his fragile body moving on the glacier and it gave us a happy feeling to see him go back to his den.
The top was yet to be seen and I was not sure if we were going in the right direction. However, in the end, after crossing the Kali Khappar Zone, which actually looks like a bowl full of snow, we saw the top. We were told not to look down near this zone but I couldn’t help. That part is quite dangerous because there is nothing but snow and boulders down there. One minor mistake and you become one with the mountain.
The top is just a small window connecting one valley to the another. Trishuls and red ribbons are tied to a rock at the top and that’s where Bhadra Kaali is believed to live and protect the passengers.
As we reached at the top, I lost all my pain. The Lahaul Valley view was mesmerizing and it appeared that the glacial plane in the valley was inviting us to walk over it.
Now the terrain had changed and we were walking on a mule track surrounded by ice and boulders. This part of the journey could be called Illusive Zone because every turn gives you a feeling that you have finally arrived. However, turn after turn, the same pattern appears and it lasts for at least 10-12 kilometers.
The endless path ended when we reached Hinsa Village. It took us 7 hours to reach Triloknath Mandir from the top of the Pass.
On this trek I missed food badly. While walking towards the top of the Pass, I realized that one must value food, rather everything with which one has been gifted by the Universe.
Contentment is the first law of the Universe, curiosity is the second.
To Zanskar Valley via Sansari Nallah, soon.