LOST BY THE RIVERS ~ On the trails of Satluj, Baspa, Pin and Spiti.

Part I – Mudh ~

View of Pin Valley from Mudh Village.

A Walk in the Park

The uphill climb, along the edges of a gushing stream at 13,000 feet, wasn’t exactly what my wife had in mind, when I’d proposed an afternoon stroll. But over the years, she has much enjoyably espoused my way of ‘a walk in the park!’. It was late June, and the snowline had receded farther up the mountains, revealing the snow peaks only occasionally through the veil of transitory clouds. The source of the stream was apparent from there. On its way down, it flowed over the dirt road making a water crossing or a ‘nalla’, as the native would say. Further downstream it passed under a wooden bridge, made for the cattle to cross over to the other side of the valley. The icy torrent continued further down to the valley floor, emptying into the Pin River.

The remnants of the glacier had become prominent, as we walked up the mountain. To that point we made our way up through a rocky path, on a trail that was dry and fairly defined though. The ascent, gradually becoming more difficult with the steeper gradient. Rocks and boulders precariously positioned, kept us alert for the ‘Rolling Stones’. The patches of ice, mixed with debris carried down by the glacier had become hard and slushy. More than once we had lost our footing hand-in-hand, but up there in the mountains, it was the moraine that disbalanced us; not the nosey influences.

It was late noon and the Sun had moved behind the mountains. We could feel the wind piercing down to the bones. Breathless, both by the vistas and half the effective Oxygen level, we decided not to go up further. Up in the mountains, there is nothing unheroic in knowing and accepting the limits of ones’ abilities; or anywhere for that matter. We settled on a boulder for a while to catch our breath, and after she’d become content with her ‘selfi’esh vanity, we started the descent.

The sharp vistas of the valley faded into a bleached landscape as dusk befell on Mudh. On the distant horizon the mountains of Pin-Parvati Valley, in their snow caped crowns stood testimony as the azure sky turned into hues of fluid gold and then into grey. The road had become desolate, the tranquil only disturbed by the occasional thump of a biker’s arrival. Even the dogs couldn’t bare the chill and retreated to whatever shelter they could seek. The last of the grazers had disappeared down into the village, as fog engulfed the valley.

A calf had wandered away from its herd, chasing and clinging to objects it had perceived as one it’s kind, in a rather playful spree. And my brown corduroy trousers therefore, for a complete Yak perhaps. To escape the embarrassment, I sprinted into the gates of Pin-Parvati Homestay, our abode for the night. A group of Israelis had been sitting on the porch of Tara-Guesthouse, across the road, overlooking the cliff. They tried to console the meowing animal, but the marijuana didn’t pacify it’s trepidation. The rocky descend to the village was a far cry for any one inexperienced, let alone an infant that was still suckling. It meowed frantically, running from one spur to another, trying to find a way down. Naïve, and intimidated, the calf eventually succumbed and settled on the porch.

Sunken in guilt and pity, more for being restrained, than not being able to help the poor thing, I was watching the scene unfold from the confines of the corridor of the lodge. All the while, secretively craving for another escapade into the open. My wife sensed the grumbling, and made a rather dubious commitment to walk down to the river with me; But in the morning. Unlike in Tabo, she was much apprehensive about my venturing out alone in the dark, fearing the ‘Ghost of the Mountains’. For the night the calf and I were in the same predicament.

A glacial stream in Mudh.

The Magic

It was the second night of the mysterious illness, that had Stephen down with high fever. He would appear fine during the day, but with night fall would get into intense rigor. That evening it was worse. He shivered, despite being under the not one, but three layers of blankets. We had only basic emergency medicines and days away from any proper medical assistance. A dose of Paracetamol did get the fever down the previous night, but that wasn’t good enough to alleviate Steve’s condition, nor our worries that evening. At such altitudes there is always the risk of mountain sickness, but his symptoms tricked me. I didn’t get any of the usual signs to attribute the illness entirely to the thin air. Bewildered, I visited Sonu, our chauffeur, who was resting in the car and informed him about the situation. He seemed a lot less concerned, and tried to convince me of nothing serious. He would say “Aisa hota hai, aap tension matt lo…” {It happens here, you should not worry…}. But my uneasiness was elevating with every passing minute.

We contemplated the option of getting Steve to Sangnam, where a nurse was to be found and could have been able to provide a more accurate prognosis. But that was a 15 kilometers drive down to the village, in the cover of darkness. Driving just inches away from the cliffs, and with rocks rolling down from above was a risk that we both were hesitant to undertake. Instead we decided to move to Kaza with first light. Being the district headquarters of Spiti region, Kaza has a hospital and better facilities.

All the while he was serving food, the cook had very successfully maintained his sobriety, but his drab eyes sunken deep into the blackish-purple sockets gave away his weakness for the dope. Having completed the last serving for the night, he had probably fancied a sniff of the intoxicating air, and found his way to the cover of the parked vehicles. Another man who seemed in his late fifties accompanied him. On seeing the unusual conversation, between me and Sonu they inquired into the matter. A boy of about twelve or thirteen followed suit. He was the cooks help. The cook seconded what Sonu had said earlier, but instructed the boy to put some water on the stove.

The other villager seemed a bit warier though. In a garbled but authoritative voice he muttered, “Sir, in paharon mein to totke chalte hain…” {We rely on natural remedies up here in the mountains…}. I’d stared into his protruding eyes, with a rather disapproving gaze. The man, didn’t seem bothered though. He had a blanket draped around his torso, and length of white cotton around his head for a turban. He was wearing a shalwar and kameez, which seemed not to have been washed for ages. After some fidgeting, he took out a pouch, improvised out of a piece tattered cloth from one of the pockets in his shalwar and wanted me to have it. The pouch had some dried herbs, which he said he’d keep with him always, when he would be wandering for days in the mountains, with his herd, searching for pastures. He instructed me to have it mixed into drinking water and believed that it had magical properties. Magical or not, the hills of Pin-Valley are littered with such plants and herbs that have proven medicinal properties. Notwithstanding my initial hesitance, I accepted the aid.

The boy was on his toes to accompany us down to Sangnam. His eagerness would surprise us later in the night when he knocked on our door and asked for reaffirmation on whether we would to go to the nurse and that he must accompany us if we did so. Innocence or over-enthusiasm of a teenager, I would rather not judge, but I have always admired the generosity and friendliness of the villagers in the mountains, irrespective of their age, man or woman. I have been indebted to their helpfulness more than once in the past.

Our worries did appease, when Rachel informed that Steve’s condition seemed improved later in the night. I wasn’t sure, whether it was medicine or magic, but we were spared for the night.

In the Himachals, a hot meal of Rajma-Chawal (Boiled Kidney Beans and Rice) is always a delicacy. A post-supper stroll was the perfect excuse for stargazing. The previous night I had had the liberty to venture out in the open, but in Mudh, the restrictions imposed were rather harsh. I don’t blame her of course; there were enough reasons to be apprehensive.

After dinner, she’d preferred to retreat inside, while I went up to the terrace to get the most out my temporary freedom. The last night, I insisted that she must take a look out of the window, and she was flabbergasted by the sight. In reward, I’d earned the permission to take a stroll in the village. But that evening, even the heavens could not overpower her unwillingness to stay in the open, and I did respect her decision. I’d managed two more bottles of hot water from the kitchen, into which I’d thrown in crushed garlic and ginger and with it some of the ‘magical concoction’, and had those delivered to Stephen and Rachel. They were in the room, adjacent to ours and provided the much needed company to my deserted spouse, during my clandestine escapades.

The Seductress

Behind a diaphanous veil, studded with millions of shimmering diamonds, she stood in reverent silence, under the night sky. Her necklace of a thousand strands of pearl, rolled down her bosom, while her silvery anklets reverberated in mesmerizing symphony. Her beauty unrivaled; she was the epitome of grace.

Mountains take on a very different appearance in the night. In the backdrop of a billion stars, the snow clad peaks, surrounding the valley shimmered in moonlight. The constellations seemed embroidered in the fabric of space. The glaciers sparkled evermore in the astral light. Sound of the gushing River echoed in the valley, the harmonies even more pacifying in the absence of man-made cacophonies.

The Milky Way, spread in a North-South alignment, rising from behind the ridgeline like a fountain of stars. Of all the constellations, the Scorpion was the most easily identifiable. But, I had had to use a special App in my cellphone to make out the more complex ones.

“Do you get signal here?”. A voice penetrated the silence.

The cluster of lodges and home-stays in Mudh are concentrated on this dirt road, that continues into Pin Valley. This is the last point reachable by a motor vehicle.

To be continued…

In a remote interior of Pin Valley National Park, is a pristine hamlet called Mudh. The village is spread on the banks of the Pin River, and is flanked by jagged mountains on all sides. In stark contrast to the rolling hills of Spiti, the mountains of Pin Valley protrude upwards forming razor sharp ridges and near vertical precipices. The [Neoproterozoic-Cretaceous] rocks showing tell-tale signs of the [Orogenesis] of the [Tethyan Himalayas].

 

The jagged mountains of Pin Valley.

 

Layer formations, typical of the mountains of the Zanskar-Spiti basin. Layered deposits of cross-bedded fluvial rocks, arranged in upward abrading shoaling cycles.

 

Mudh is home to a native population of a hundred odd villagers, who are mostly farmers and herders. Their houses built of a rocky mortar formed by a concoction of mud and pebbles, all having identical facades and the distinctive white exteriors with colorful windows. Buddhist prayer flags fluttered all around. From the Chortens to houses, to handlebars of motorbikes; Om-Mani-Padme-Hun resonated in the air and echoed in the canyons and ravines. The village has few homestays and lodges, that double up as hotels in the summer months, when the influx of bikers and backpackers increase. Being the last village in Pin Valley accessible by motorable road, Mudh also serves as a base camp for the Pin-Parvati Pass and Bhaba Pass treks.

From Dhankar-Gompa, Mudh is about 50 kilometers. The dirt road from the monastery meets the Kaza road at Shichlling. In a northwest heading on this road for about 8 kilometers, is the Attargoo bridge. The road runs parallel to the Spiti River hugging the valley floor allowing spectacular views of the conflux of the Pin and Spiti Rivers. A diversion from Attargoo to the south bank, takes one in to the peripheries of Pin Valley. Travelling a further 30 kilometers into the valley one reaches Mudh. On the way are Gulling and Sangnam, villages having prominent human habitation.

The landscape is dominated by upthrusting rocky mountains, a characteristic of the Lahaul-Spiti region. These layered mountains sculpted by millions of years of tectonic shifts, stand testimony to the [Precambrian-Cambrian] origins of the Valley.

 

The conflux of the Spiti and Pin Rivers at Shichlling. A view from Dhankar.

 

South bank of Spiti River and the road that goes in to Pin Valley.

 

A tributary of the Spiti River, chiseling its way into a deep gorge.

 

 

[Explanation of the scientific terminology used.]

Neoproterozoic – The period of geologic time from 1,000 to 540 Ma, it was the last era of the Precmabrian, marking the dawn of Cambrian Eon.

Cretaceous – The Cretaceous Period began 145 Ma and ended 66 Ma. It followed the Jurassic Period and was succeeded by the Paleogene Period. The Cretaceous is the longest period of the Phanerozoic Eon. Spanning 79 million years, it represents more time than has elapsed since the extinction of the dinosaurs, which occurred at the end of the period.

Orogenesis – Geological processes that results in the formation of mountains, due to structural changes in the Earth’s lithosphere (the upper Mantle and Crust) caused by tectonic shifts.

Tethyan Himalayas – The Higher Himalayan mountains spreading across Kashmir, Chamba-Bhadarwah-Tandi, Zanskar-Spiti, Kinnaur-Kumaon, Nepal, Sikkim-Bhutan and Arunachal constitute the Tethyan Himalayas. The Tethyan has extensive sediment depositions from the Precambrian to the Eocene periods. Around 200 Ma (also known as the Middle Permian Period)an extensive sea stretched along the latitudinal area presently occupied by the Himalayas. This sea was named the Tethys. Around this period, the super-continent Pangea began to gradually split into different land masses and move apart in different directions. As a result, rivers from both the northern Eurasian land mass (called Angara) and the southern Indian land mass (called Gondwana) started depositing large amounts of sediments into the shallow sea that was the Tethys.

The Earth’s continents continued to drift toward their present positions, having broken apart from the northern super-continent Laurasia and the southern super-continent Gondwana, giving rise to western mountain ranges of North America and the Himalayas.

Eocene – The period between 55 million years ago (Ma) to 39 million years ago (Ma), was marked by remarkable transformations in the biosphere that paved the way for present day life forms. The atmospheric conditions were set right for large trees and forests which eventually favored the evolution and sustenance of mammalian life.

Precambrian and Cambrian Eras – The period between 540 Ma to 490 Ma is marked by profound the evolution of multicellular organisms. The Cambrian Period is the first geological time period of the Paleozoic Era (the “time of ancient life”). This period lasted about 50 million years, marked a dramatic burst of evolutionary changes in life on Earth, known as the “Cambrian Explosion.” Fossils in Pre-Cambrian rocks are of simple life forms such as bacteria, with more complex soft-bodied creatures appearing towards the beginning of the Cambrian. Cambrian rocks show large numbers of many different types animals, many with hard shells.

The Precambrian Era comprises all of geologic time prior to 600 million years ago. That is the era that predated the emergence of life in the Cambrian Period.

 

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