The Kunzum Pass

A tale in two parts, the first by Wendy and the second by Eski. The Pennine trip to the Himachal Pradesh was from 27 August – 28 September 1998. Part I was published in the Northern Pennine Club Newsletter February 1999 No. 46 and Part II in the May 1999 No. 47 one. A bit of editing has been done here to correct glaring mistakes.

The Indian Half Hour – Part I

Sub-title: Your Wen No Yen Ya Ken

                                                    Wendy (sub-title added by Eski)

When I heard that Eski was going to India I thought, there’s no way I can let my dad go on his own. So off I went too. It was a bloody good job too, otherwise he could really have had some fun.

As the leading team to the Himalayas (pronounced Himaaliyar by those climbing greats – Bonnington, the Im Shallah bloke, and of course, good ol’ Brian Blessed…) in HP (Himachal Pradesh), it was our mission to set up a basecamp for team 2 who’d be arriving in a week’s time.

It’s in this account I shall describe the (un)fortunate events that led to us being left penniless and beerless, swinging our tanned, toned legs from the Guest House balcony. Well, camping just wouldn’t have been the same without the others.

It started off a wonderful trip. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, beggars grinned in New Delhi station as they shouted

“One rupee, one rupee”

and Uncles Col and Roy smiled back as they replied

“Bugger off!”

Finding the “Uncles” had been a little difficult – (I say Uncles coz you try explaining what a 23-year-old girl is doing with the Pennine) the description given was look for a clean-shaven bloke and a Teletubby. But this wasn’t taking into account it was Delhi airport amid a mass of Dutch tourists. I mean, come on, all these gaijin look the same. (Gaijin = bloody foreigners)

New Delhi station was an eyeopener. It’s just the place to go if you want to be harangued by starving, crippled kids and, for an extra $52, you can rebuy your ticket on the express train, The Himalayan Queen, and get to sit in an office across the street from the station and be lied to. Of course, we didn’t fall for that. Instead we sat in the luxury European waiting room, ie on the platform with the rats. Uncle Col had a magnetism with rats.

Some express train – it stopped for every car, person, and cow. It finally pulled into Shimla though after many, many chai stops to men rattling the windows and dragging us and our bags from the carriages.

Shimla was like walking down Skipton High Street, except there was no sign of WHSmiths. There were more cockroaches too. The Indian equivalent of The New Inn was the Hotel Mehmen with its wonderful aroma of eau de damp and background music of screeching monkeys. But it all added to the ambience of the trip and we didn’t waste time in sampling the local brew, Golden Eagle.

It was here however, we, or rather I suffered my first setback. In my back pocket was 90,000 Japanese yen (roughly 450 quid) and whaddya know, it wasn’t worth a penny thanks to collapsing Asian economy. A frantic phonecall was made to get Eski to bring more money. (Well, that’s what dads are for, isn’t it?)

And then it was off to Kalpa, further up in the hills. The Mehmen hotel porter was a fine strapping lad. He literally strapped all 4 of our rucksacks to his back, then plodded off down the road leaving us to stroll empty-backed behind him. From the road we went by Kamal – that was the driver’s name.

Climb high, sleep low

An acclimatization period was announced. We woke to a mountain ridge towering above us across the valley from Kalpa. We were suitably impressed. A bit cloudy, but…

And then the clouds rose.

“Bluddy ‘ell” exclaimed Uncle Col. He quickly ran to check on his clean underwear drying round the corner of the balcony. A further cry was heard. He’d just seen the mighty Kinner Kailash in typical Pennine fashion – framed by socks and grundies.

Day 1 was spent looking at the mountains, taking photos of said mountains, then going downhill to Rekong Peo, while keeping an eye on the mountains, to get essential goods to maintain the running of camp – beer, ketchup, and bog roll.

Day 2 came and saw us making a concerted effort to reach the ridge that loomed up behind us. Goddamn it! We were surrounded by mountains. The aim – get to the top… OK maybe the treeline. No? How about that hut? That looks pretty close. Hey, why’s everything going green? Can I have my eyesight back now?

After a slight bout of altitude sickness on my part, we decided to repair to the South side of the Kinner Kailash in the Sangla valley for further inspection. However, to get there involved a mobile boom box that jaya jaya buli bulied its way up a dirt track that’s classed as a national highway, plus a nice breathtaking, bowel-sucking 200m drop to what looked like a small glacial stream, but was in fact a raging river. And what Indian experience would be without its demons – giant orange trucks with the boding phrase

“Oh God Save Us”

Emblazoned on the front, a lone flip-flop hanging from the back (apparently to stop unwanton covetness of said bloody big orange truck, but is more likely to be a tally for the no. of people shoved down a ravine today).

You never see the driver, just the occasional scrawny hand beckoning you on into the path of… yes, another truck. While usually to your right is a narrow piece of crumbling gravel and THE DROP.

It’s well worth it though, as this road leads you to something akin to the lost valley. There you’ll meet kids who parrot “Hello, hello” and friendly old women who nod knowingly as you gasp and wheeze your way up their garden path.

Now, I’m not a climber and have no intentions of following in the wetsuit of Eski down those dank, dark holes, but I can tell a good mountain when I see one. Uncles Col and Roy did lots of oohs and aahs, then started formulating plans. If I remember rightly, please correct me on this lads if I’m wrong, the best place for a base camp would be Chitkul, up the valley from the village of Sangla. From there, those who just wanted to hike could go off on a 5 or 6 day trek, or even lots of little day treks because the valleys seem to flow one into the other. But the big boys could get together with porters from Sangla and push up to the base of Kinner Kailash. From what we could see there’s cultivation on the steep sides to nearly two-thirds of the way. A base camp could be set up around there, and an alpine assault could be done, a quick up and down with as little gear as poss. Time involved was estimated at 3 days with maybe a week or 2 weeks before as acclimatization, waiting for it to stop raining, or just knocking off a few of those smaller 6000m unnamed peaks.

“Has the sun gone down yet?”

came the familiar cry from Uncle Col. In other words, beer time. Rationing was of course in effect. Two bottles a night (between 3 people I may add) except in Sangla where it rose to four coz there was a festival on and it wouldn’t have done to be outdrunk by the locals. The festival was something to do with aromatic flowers – you know the kind of thing – mad monks go up mountain, collect smelly flowers, get high, come down mountain and hack up a few sheep and goats, all to keep tradition alive.

Buying beer was like going to the local jail to bail your mate out, what with the cast iron bars you had to speak through and the general seediness of the place. We weren’t very spoilt for choice – either super strong or superstrong. The names were interesting though. Godfather, with its mellow yet ominous undertones, or Thunderbolt, that hit you straight in the throat, then carried on into your stomach.

We got the first inkling that the second team had arrived in India coz

  1. It started to cloud over for the first time that holiday, and
  2. We got a strange phonecall from a pissed Rason and a freaked out Eski. And we mean really freaked out, man.

While Rason giggled in the background, Eski waxed lyrical about the evils of Delhi, the shit that pours in streams down filth-ridden streets, collecting in pools of human festering. Chill out, dude – shit happens ☺

He also mentioned something about feeling Hapi Hapi, or was that the other way round? Whichever, it was very confusing as he’d unwittingly got engaged to him and now wanted to break it off to be with Sanjay the Superstar.

We returned to Kalpa to sit it out until Team 2 arrived with beer and cash. By now the GH family had taken pity on us, giving us fresh walnuts, apricots, and apples. It could also have been to stop Uncle Col raiding their orchards, under the pretence he was practicing his climbing techniques. Then he had to excuse his limp, from falling out of the trees, on the high altitude.

The arrival day for the follow-up team came ….. and went.

We sat on into the night, swinging our legs over the edge of the balcony, wondering if and how we were going to be able to pay the GH bill. All the lights that could have been 3 white jeeps turned out to be tractors, uses, and the local guerillas doing their night manoueuvres. Give it another half hour, we thought.

Then there was a commotion from below, engines revved, doors slammed, and voice carried up along the path.

“Hey up youth, where’s the beer?”

And why had they been so late? Well, that’s another story. Let’s just say it had something to do with schoolgirls….

Three Jeeps – Route 505 between the Kunzum and Rohtang Passes

The Indian Half Hour – Part II

                                                           Eski

‘Namaste’, depending on your translator, means ‘God go with you’ or ‘I salute the God in you’. Say it to the meanest Indian beggar and the reply ‘Namaskar’ (which is a far more polite form) will be delivered together with a prayer-like joining of the hands and a smile of such joy that the shit covered bag of bones responding is immediately transformed into a ragged angel bestowing a blessing.

Contrast this with the greeting of the Pennine advance team, swinging their toned, tanned legs from the edge of the guest house balcony. ‘Where the fuck have you been? Wiv no beer n’ no money!’ and ‘S’right Dad, it’s not tobacco, just REALLY inhale’. Fortunately, I was immune to its effect….

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet… Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked, death is abroad…… and children play.

The B team was at least a day late, delayed by, well, India, in the form of con men (everyone needs to be conned once – it’s like a vaccination), militant schoolgirls prostrate on the road (what better way to stop the trucks), bureaucracy, insanity and an unusual form of population control that involves stuffing ninety people onto a bus designed for thirty then driving it over a cliff or into a river or, best of all, slam bang into a train designed to carry five hundred but now containing enough smorgasbord to feed the rest of the world for a month.

Anxious to make up for the delay we hit the main Hindustan – Tibetan Highway (picture the Hull Pot track tacked half-way up a bloody great cliff of crumbly cheese, now picture something worse – you’re still nowhere near) and made our way via tracks clinging and precipitous to our first campsite in a farmyard at Thangi, intending a three day warm-up trek over the Charang Pass (5266m), knocking off a peak on the way over, then down to Chitkul in the Sangla Valley (a spot that the A team had become enamoured of and apparently well worth a visit).

Unfortunately we were halted by the Indian army who for some reason didn’t think that Tibet, China, Pakistan, nuclear weapons and the Pennine was a good mix.

A pompous little colonel arrived together with the army camp doctor ‘to engage us in debate’. He introduced himself as being from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (‘like MI5 you know, isn’t it?’). He informed us that the ‘British are spineless’ but we didn’t feel miffed because shortly before he’d pointed out his ‘top secret listening post hidden in the trees up there’, and asked us not to let on to the Chinese or the Ameri……..’

They’re all watching me man. They’re putting needles in my head when I’m not looking… You know?

After an hour I’d learned nothing except he was a sad little bastard. He complained that he couldn’t communicate with the locals and seemed to think that that was the fault of the British too. Shortly afterwards the farmer’s raggedy wife rolled up. She did a swift double take of me and Wendy and her face lit up. ‘Papa? She asked. I nodded. She pointed to a raggedy child, then to herself and said ‘son’ with immense pride.

India does stuff like that – in a look, universal joy, universal sorrow, universal life.

So we retreated and headed to Musrang for a six-day warm-up trek over the Tarikhango Pass (4866m) to the Pin and Spiti Valleys. At Musrang we had a delightful campsite between the school and an embryonic hydroelectric tunnel. The occasional surprise explosion from the tunnel peppering the campsite with shrapnel was nothing compared to the attentions of the local kids, most of who produced equal parts of industrial strength snot and ear discharge.

‘One pen, one pen’ they’d beg or, more mysteriously of Roebuck and Hall, ‘one lipstick, one eye shadow’.

We journeyed complete with mule train up a steep valley between 5000m peaks and containing, to my surprise, ancient mixed woods, glades and high pastures. It was pure delight, real lost world stuff, complete with prayer flags, hanging glaciers, and wheeling eagles. The guidebook spoke of ‘The Land of Ibex and Snow Leopard’ and optimism reigned.

Eski in a lost world or just lost?

Unfortunately (again) during the night the other kind of rain began. When the cloud occasionally lifted a little, we could see that the snow level was coming down faster than we were going up. It became obvious that we’d never get the donks over the pass because of the deep snow, so it was back to Musrang and the decision that we’d have to suffer a long drive to the Spiti Valley via Manali and the Rohtang and Kunzum Passes to try to get in the rain shadow of some big hills.

Words cannot describe the next few days. ‘Hotels’ sluiced out with Jeys fluid of such concentration that it made your eyes bleed. It could have cleaned out Chernobyl, but it couldn’t handle the crap output by Indian society.

It’s the kitchen?!! Oh man! I just had a shit in there.

The sodding schoolgirls were prostrate on the road again and we spent hours sitting boiling in the jeeps on one of the few fine days of the trip. Ancient trucks died in front of us, blocking the ‘road’ interspersed with landslides which, in an interesting variation on job creation, were cleared down the mountain by the local gang to create a slightly bigger blockage on the same road for the next brigade a couple of hundred feet lower.

We just drove past there!

However – the Lahaul, Pin, and Spiti Valleys are a raw, savage, awe-inspiring high desert environment of mostly 5-6000m peaks with the valley floors reshaped by glacial floods every spring. We hauled up in pitch darkness and horizontal sleet at an altitude of about 4000m by a roadside restaurant – well, some dry stone walling with a tarpaulin over the top. Stepping inside was like going back a thousand years. Mr and Mrs restaurateur presided over an ‘oven’ in surroundings only slightly more soot blackened than themselves. Lounging on stone benches and ran around the walls, wearing funny hats and cloaked in blankets sat about thirty weather blasted brigands.

A hut fit for brigands

As Wendy, Keith, and I walked in, the obligatory wide-eyed, jaw-dropped, deathly silence fell. ‘Namaste’ says I. The place immediately erupted into the Tibetan / Indian equivalent of ‘Get thi’selves in ‘ere by t’fire an ‘ave a drink wi’us owd pal! What a bastard night init?’ (The translation may not be perfect but you get the drift).

Amongst the brigands was a group of Bengali climbers who, along with their porters, had left virtually all their equipment on the mountain and sprinted down to avoid the storm. They’d managed to climb a 7000+m peak in 1960s boots and C&A jackets and were quite deservedly getting pissed.

Down in the Spiti Valley, we had a warm-up trek to the Dankar Gompa, which is one of the many 1000-year-old monasteries that the Dalai Lama is going to retire to. It was allegedly built in one night and it shows. If you like your religious buildings and artefacts in the form of large lumps of mud, then this is the place for you.

The Ki monastery, just up the road, sits majestically on a knoll in a pastel and watercolour dream. We didn’t spoil the illusion by visiting it, but we did have a warm-up trek in the Pin Valley, including a dangle-in-a-basket river crossing, to Mud, where our six-day walk would have ended.

The geology in this area is incredible with huge slabs of bedrock ripped from the horizontal to the vertical and it doesn’t just make pinnacles, it makes mountains. I counted the equivalent of the Grandes Jorasses fourteen times on one fantastic lump. There’s unclimbed peak after unclimbed peak for miles in every direction…

but just to be there in that light, in that country, in that company.

The snow level coming down

But…… the weather just got worse and worse. We made an abortive attempt to get to the lake at Chandra Tal, but the road was literally getting washed away around us, so we beat it back to the hot baths and chip shops in Manali with every intention of going to Dharamsala.

In fact, the whole of Northern India seemed to be getting the treatment. Just going from our digs to the chippy involved dodging (literally) rockfalls, so we retired, via Chandigarh, to the sophisticated, cultured, civilized world of Delhi and then home.

People ask me what I think of India. Well, I’ve never heard girls dying on the streets referred to as ‘economic transients’. I’ve never seen small boys sitting under wagons without a mask or crippled, crawling, begging in a city. I’ve never imagined such a stench, such filth, such poverty, such utter deprivation.

I’ve never seen families working as gangs for 70 rupees a day, maintaining mountain roads almost barehanded at altitudes that made me breathless, with no shelter, in winds of glacial ferocity.

The younger women mask all but their eyes against the elements. I’ve never seen eyes like those. Eyes to drown in, eyes to die for.

I’ve never seen smiles like their children’s smiles. Smiles of pure delight for now, for this instant because nothing else exists, only now – and now I’m happy because you acknowledge me.

Everyone who’s been there says that India will change you, but it didn’t affect me, I’m too ld, too world-weary. And would I go back? I might. And when? Well, I dunno, I’m not fussed – but, if you want, we could go tomorrow.

Spiti Valley

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