Travel to Bada Bhangal from Bir Billing.
Irking us since 2013 when we had to do the Jiwa Nal – Parvati Valley trail instead since we couldn’t find a guide in Manali, the stars aligned for us three years later — in the Chinese Year of the Monkey to note — as a constant drizzle hung around the otherwise pleasant morning at Bir.
We had reversed directions this time around, starting from Billing to end in Manali, as ponies and other logistics were arranged by Varun, a friend and colleague from these parts, and also a budding adventurer local and a budding entrepreneur (you can go through his wares at Travel Bir Billing). Karan took an overnight bus from Gushaini, acclimatising at the bus stop in Bir in the wee hours of the morning before at dawn dawned the realisation that the designated guest house was only a kilometer away, hardly deeming the wait for want of transport.
The drizzle was in no mood to yield, so driving up to Billing and leaving the ponies to be loaded, we started hiking up, remnants of the Paragliding World Cup held here last year staring unassumingly at the valley below. A steep 15-minute climb of a hundred odd meters brings one up to the trail, or rather a jeep road that is can be used as during the dry season.
The trail winds up slowly up for a couple of hours to Chana Pass (2,700 mts), not really a vista of snow and rocks looking out to lofty peaks but a humble cusp in the middle of a lush mixed forest. The walk is always easy on the first day come what may — the weather has to get better, the ‘let’s see’ and ‘we’ll manage’ have an ensued sonority about, and foot sores have not yet muffled that spring in one’s step. The usual itinerary would range from 10-12 days, the locals do a 4-6 day version — as a standard operating procedure over the years, Karan and I took the median of 8-days, not a tough ask but the weather can always play spoilsport. We had started hiking from Billing around 1 pm, but the easy trail would help us compensate without much effort.
Halting at the tea shop in Chana for maggi, the trail descended thereafter into the village of Rajgundha. The Chota Bhangal region still adorns a lot of its tribal heritage, as can be observed from the architecture and dresses. The Barot valley is rich in agrarian activity, and is famous for its trout as well as the (now defunct) rail system.
The trail was irritating now, heavy mud and slush painting us in earthen colours to our knees. Leaving the jeep track at Rajgundha, the path narrowed down into the quintessential forest trail, climbing for around a hundred meters through undulating terrain. It was however, the highlight of the day — my 5-year affair with the 55-300 mm was brought to an end by a rather unassuming yet slippery boulder, hurtling the optical contraption a hundred feet down the mountain as it split into two.
Plachek (2,700 mts) is a forest guest house and a shepherd hut in a dark gorge. Crossing the bridge over a gushing Uhl River, we saw no need to pitch tents and settled in one of the dinghy rooms of the guest house (should’ve pitched the tent, creepy crawlies made up for an itchy sleep). Dining with the Gorkha and his family in Plachek for a few years now, the evening was dedicated to his yarns over rice and lentils. We hit the sack early, in anticipation of all that lay beyond the treeline.
It was a scratchy sleep at Plachek, after having my fair share of nights under the stars and across the fifty shades of monsoons, man-made shelters are the castles of the thick skinned, for the defiers of gravity like us, the chemistry of the insect world is nothing less than an irate vagary for the skin, a tryst with morning lesions that you know shall accompany the week long ‘bathlessness’.
That apart, ’twas a cloudy morning of a narrow, noisy gorge, one of those geographies where the hunt for arenas of digestive deliverance is a time consuming affair, and the disgust with the consummation of such with peat is but a triviality.
Otherwise, the drizzle carried forth the conversation from the day before. Nevertheless, we hit the trail at 9 am, looking to make it to the base of Thamsar pass in time to recover for the knee-jerking descent to Bada Bhangal the next day, critical to sticking to the 8-day plan — for their was more company here, the trail from Bada Bhangal to Manali the lesser frequented of the segments, since the major towns lie closer to Thamsar than Kalihani.
Uhl was getting noisier now, the trail was slushier, and landslides started doling out time consuming detours, especially with the arguments we were having in general with the traction around the ecosystem since yesterday (no more broken lenses, I’d vowed, without much conviction with only a fraction of the stroll under the belt).
Couple of hours of a swift hiking took us across Jhodi towards the first snow bridges of the trek — we usually plan our itinerary on the tenet of minimum snow, although emulating ballerinas across moraines, one does ponder over the fact if a bit of white powder and crampons would make life more linear rather than zig zagging across landslides, throwing involuntary instigations at the wind — the first sight of snow is always a relief, having finally broken through the tree-line, the landscape can only open up for the heights now, and the meadows, the green embalmment of all that violent paraphernalia gushing across the gorges and bouncing of mountainsides.
The trails climbed and undulated a lot till Panihartu, not very technical but highly diversionary, many a time separating by a kilometre, and one could easily find oneself choosing between a seventy degree climb or careful traverses across loose landslides.
We hit Panihartu at noon, just in time to beat the drizzle and mist – Karan and Varun storing up on cat naps as the ‘hotel’ owner — yes, they insist on ‘hotel’, not that we would be critical for the relative degree of comfort the stone huts provide from the biting wind and in the shepherd season, they do provide board and lodge — sheep meat was hung dried on the tarp for smoking, to be added to a variety of food items in winters. 15 August had been the last day with clear sunshine, we learnt, as the pressure cooker gasped for air.
Plateful of rice and lentils, and another half an hour of chasing rose finches augured return of the clouds, and we continued upstream to make camp before the rains come in, for drizzles are more often than not punishing in this treelessness.
The trail climbs steeply upwards after Panihartu, and two hours of fast climbing with one tricky water crossing brought us to the congregation of moraines called Bhadpal (deriving from ‘bhed,’ translating into ‘shepherd’s shelter), an intermittent hillock resting just below the base of Thamsar. A lovely vista beckoned, although we’d have to brave the night winds for the luxury, and we camped as the mist swirled all around us. The sheep started returning home, smoked chimed out of the shepherd huts, and we sat in the backdrop of contentment over a shepherd dog’s expression. We dined at twilight, although the bear activity around kept us star gazing for another couple of hours. Maturing over the fact we could not afford a 9 am start tomorrow, we tucked our sensibilities into the sleeping bag.