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Misty mountain hop: A flaneur finds fulfillment in the Parvati Valley

Located 2,960 metres above sea level, Kheer Ganga is a breathtaking meadow surrounded by snow-capped mountains that nestle hot springs. Abhirup Dam writes about the difficult yet perspective-altering trek to this paradisal spot.

Abhirup Dam  22nd Mar 2014

On the road from Barsheini to Kalga | Photo: Rahul Ganguly

he town of Bhuntar is slowly transforming into a morphed version of the commonly understood mofussil. Though there hasn't been much change from the last time I visited, one can perceive, or rather sense, transformation. Global capital has slowly started creeping uphill in Himachal Pradesh. Just before one hits the majestic Beas at Mandi, Ford, Renault and a host of other automobile showrooms line both sides of the road. The hills will soon be packaged and sold at retail outlets. But Bhuntar, along with a host of other hamlets, is yet to walk that path. About 50 km away from, and en route to the popular and tourist-filled Manali, Bhuntar is where you alight if you are headed towards Kasol. Kasol is situated in Parvati Valley that gets its name from the rapid flowing Parvati river, which also runs through this sleepy little town. It has progressively grown into a preferred destination for backpacking hippies, mostly from Israel, and is well known for its dope culture (not unusual as the neighbouring hills of Malana produce some of the best hashish in this country). But Kasol is only a pit-stop on my journey further upwards this time. I am headed to Kheer Ganga, a meadow situated 2,960 m above sea level.

"This is the spring time/ But not in time's covenant."

It is early March and short -lived spring has begun for most of the country. But at such an elevation, Kheer Ganga is mostly under snow around the year. I hop onto a local bus bound for Manikaran, a Sikh pilgrimage built around the natural hot springs the place has to offer. The plan is to rest the night at Kasol before embarking on the uphill journey. There are ample places to stay in Kasol that suit all possible budgets. The cafés that dot the sleepy village are friendly and offer decent food — it is safe to order regular Israeli fare as most of these kitchens are used to catering food designed for the Israeli palate. Kasol is in the throes of spring. Pink and white cherry blossoms are in full bloom. I had a few hours till sundown and decided to walk to Chalal, a nearby village. It takes half an hour to walk to the village from Kasol. The path winds through a coniferous forest cover. More than once, little wooden cottages with bright yellow mustard and cherry blossoms growing in the courtyard will greet you right in the middle of the woods. A trail goes down from the small mountain village to the banks of the Parvati, with glorious snow-capped mountains dotting the horizon. I reach Kasol soon after sunset and after a modest dinner decide to call it early. The bones and the sinews need as much rest as they can get. The next two days will substantially knock them out.

"Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?"

Kheer Ganga is 22 km away from Manikaran, the next stop after Kasol. Early in the morning I boarded a bus that would take me to Barshaini, the last motorable point where the Parvati and Tosh rivers meet. Once the rickety bus starts ascending the through the narrow mountain roads, you get acquainted with a whole new world of "travelling on the edge". Steep valleys with the river gorging through and mountains with melting snow soon occupy the landscape. The road from Bhuntar upwards opens in March as heavy snow makes it inaccessible during winter months. Steel and concrete from the Parvati Hydel project now dominate the landscape at Barshaini. Tosh has become another popular destination for hikers as it is just four km away from Barshaini and takes 45 minutes to walk to. Once off the bus, I start walking towards Pulga, a village which marks the first leg of my climb towards Kheer Ganga. Pulga and Kalga are two adjoining villages still waiting to shed their winter snow. Kheer Ganga is roughly a 14 km trek from Kalga and takes around five hours to reach. There are two paths that lead there — one, a short but difficult trail involving crossing frozen waterfalls and narrow walkways along deep valleys, and the other a relatively easier but longer track. Just up from the village is the Rudranag waterfall and temple. Rudranag lieterally translates into "the serpent of Rudra (Shiva)". The waterfall runs out like the raised hood of a snake, and hence the name. The trail after Rudranag is through thick pine forests and numerous waterfalls line the way. One can also make a short stop at Nakhtan village, but I decided to move on.

Kheer Ganga is 22 km away from Manikaran, the next stop after Kasol. Early in the morning I boarded a bus which would take me to Barshaini, the last motorable point where the Parvati and Tosh rivers meet.

he vegetation changes drastically after Rudranag with the flat-leaf conifers giving way to the spine-leaf variety. The best time to travel to Kheer Ganga is between May and November, so my early March trek proved to be way more difficult than my previous one in June.

"And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time"

After almost slipping on a frozen waterfall and somehow saving myself from tumbling down from the edge of a valley, I reached Kheer Ganga — a sudden expanse guarded by sky scraping promontories on all sides, painted in white. Hot springs fuelled by sulphur are located right next to the temple here — a true song in fire and ice. This was my second visit to Kheer ganga. Nothing has changed since then. Yet when I arrived, I was faced with a completely unfamiliar terrain — a sort of a purgatory en route to paradise. The calmness and silence was both profound and unbearable at the same time in my urban consciousness. My legs were killing me and the scratches and cuts encountered on the way were making their presence felt, the cold only exacerbating the pain. Treks like Kheer Ganga push you to the limits of endurance and make you feel ashamed of the self-importance you afford yourself. Standing amidst the vastness, I felt the same emotion overcoming me as it did the first time I tumbled half-dead into Kheer Ganga: humility.

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