Mountains, Nature

A Riverine Rote – Trekking in Sainj Valley

In terms of life cycle, a mountain river would be akin to youth, the glacial infancy evolving into that quintessentially moody teenager – sometimes effervescent, sometimes sulking – all the while hurling itself incessantly down gorges till it reaches the maturity of the flood plains, and from there on the slow trudge towards that horizon lining the infinite sea…

Sainj valley was the only major watershed I’d not seen in GHNP, having roamed around Jiva Nal in 2013 and Tirthan in 2017 (and how so much the official records might state, I personally don’t consider Parvati valley a part of the park, it’s starkly different in the sense how tourism has shaped, or misshaped, that area over the past few decades)… it’s relatively small expanse of ~1,200 sq kms is an explorer’s delight, lack of any grazing activity for the past three decades has led to thick canopies carpeting narrow, unforgiving gorges, and sheltering some of the rarest fauna and avifauna…

Compared to the other two valleys, Sainj, as they say, was historically well developed due to better connectivity… and that also proved to be the bane as the need for development – which it inadvertently does so often these days, came calling – and on its coattails hung a hydropower project which is neither here or there at present except for a pandemonium of landslides and a couple of very dodgy tunnels, the construction’s gone awry at places, and the valley has been left to bleed for now…

But enough of the urban whine… we’d come for the backcountry, the antidote… so duly I landed in Gushaini and partook in an own personal ritual of two fried rainbow trout… Karan Bharti wouldn’t be accompanying this time, but was graceful enough to arrange a couple of guides-cum-porters and all the camping fare… we drove next morning for a couple of hours to the end of the road at Niharni, stopping at the park office at Ropa in between to get the permits and at Neuli to get some grub…

Starting from Niharni around 11:30 am, we climbed steeply for a brief bit to reach an old defunct jeep road, veering back on to the trail to reach the village of Gadaparli with slick cement walkways and Swacch Bharat Abhiyan boards… the trail stuck to the river for another three odd kilometres, crossing two bridges in between, this was already looking like a much bigger river that Tirthan or Jiva Nal, one could hear it more than see it… after the second bridge the trail climbed steeply in switchbacks… this was a much more connected part of the park and there was decent mule traffic till Shakti, which one won’t find in other valleys…

We reached a village called Shugad around 4 pm rather leisurely, and as I waited for the porters to catch up, it started drizzling, a faint mist rolling up the valley but the kind that would give up rather easily to cause any great alarm… herb collectors were huddled up at the porch of a grocery shop, all non-committal on their harvest, but from constructing houses to getting kids married, hundreds of aspirations are stuffed inside a handful of muddy gunnysacks… mountain cultures epitomize the hypothesis that banter and kinship alleviates physical hardships, and soaking in a bit of that with the drizzle for a bit, we tottered off again… the river had caught up with us once again, and a large stream thundered into its fold on the other side a little before Shakti…

The trekkers’ hut at Shakti saw us comfortably around 5 pm… a pretty non-descript day I thought… this much human movement translates into very little wildlife or solitude… there were tonnes and tonnes of electric poles lying at Niharni, supposed to take electricity till Maraur, a few dregs of power to pacify the locals… we camped in the grounds of the forest hut complex, fresh pine wood cottages humming a low bumblebee tunes as the river howled a little distance away… this hike would be mostly about hearing the river, it seemed, and it did turn out to be so…

Next morning was clear and bright, and we started off around 8 am, crossing a bridge at Shakti from where the trails towards Dhel meadow and Raktisar diverge. The trail stuck close to the river again, its loud green waters shimmering brightly in the morning sun… this was a decent trail to walk on, hence one could easily converse with the river, politely inquiring about its source… a shady part of the mountain, the rocks and roots were weeping here, leaving slush on the contours, the kind of water always too confused to go anywhere…

Crossing another bridge on to the sunny side, we reached Maraur village in a couple of hours, a congregation of a dozen houses around a pretty recently constructed temple in kath-kuni style… we lazed around in the sun for a bit before setting off… the trail became interesting after Maraur, the woods now beginning to grow thinner, giving way to meadows, the sonority of the river distributed into fragments of large streams crashing down the steep hillsides straight into its belly…

We walked for an hour or so along the river after Maraur, having a couple of chapattis at Karechar thatch… and then the serious undulations began as we left the river to snake up and across countless subsidiary streams… the trail was still well marked and clear with only one major river crossing aided by sturdy logs… despite the larger volumes of water around us there were surprisingly hardly any stream crossings… though I suspect there would be quite a few on the other side of the river… around three thirty in the afternoon we found ourselves in the yellow green meadows of Parkachi thatch, a rather defunct hut guarded by gazillions of stinging nettles and thorny bushes… on the positive side though, there were bumblebees aplenty…

The camp was set up five minutes ahead of the hut in a clearing below the trees, this would be the only day we’d have some fuelwood (and wood fired chapattis)… the river was a hundred meters or so below us, its roar now distant… it was turning out to be an experience in sound, walking close to the river stirring up a cacophony of thought and pointless pondering, climbing up to leave its sides opening up a moment or two of calm… but we were out to seek the headwaters in the first place, and they, not the backpacker, manipulate the trail… having an early dinner at six, we hung around the campfire for a bit before settling in… the stars would have to wait for another night as the canopy shrouded the sky…

Another clear morning greeted us and consistent as we were, the camp was broken at seven thirty and we were off at eight, today would be a lot of climbing as we were still in the fringes of the treeline… the trail was tougher now, hidden and stone strewn, climbing steeply between the meadows, ones that look beautiful but are a drag to traverse… twenty minutes or so saw us at confluence of two large streams that converge to form a major chunk of the river…

There was a shrine at the confluence where incenses were duly lit, a rather apt position as the trail started playing with us after that… we followed the stream to our left and skipped large boulders for about fifteen minutes or so to arrive at the base of a landslide that we climbed straight up to disappear into a thicket… the bushes were quite ‘manly’ now, easily up to five feet and eager for a brawl, and thus we began the grind… it had taken some time coming, but these are the quintessential autumn trails of GHNP – thick, unrelenting bushes peppered with mischievous stones, but unless its raining, one happily takes it in their stride…

The bushes took their toll eventually on one my boots as the sole came off, so much for all the Vibram and Gore-Tex brouhaha, but we managed to improvise by tying the sole with the laces through the sling at the back, a lesson learnt in ingenuity… getting tired of all the bushwhacking after an hour or so, stuttering across grounds we couldn’t see, we decided to stick to the boulders along the river, a more tiring task physically but it greatly reduced the risk of twisting one’s foot…

Two hours of grinding brought us to the first proper view of snow-capped peaks, and another two hours saw us at Raktisar… there were around 5-6 major peaks, with a beautiful fluted summit on our right (around 5,300 meters) … we camped next to the river a couple of miles before the glacier, sheltering behind a large rock…

After setting up camp and a cup of tea, we ventured ahead to explore… ‘twas 2 pm when we reached a sandy portion with the river flattening out for a brief distance… a couple of herb collectors crossed over from the other side and advised us to cross at this point itself… loath to take the boots off, we ignored the advice and ventured higher up to look for a boulder crossing, but half an hour of thrashing around led us nowhere, the clouds had started rolling in rather threateningly, so we decided to turn back… the river was not amused anymore, for these were business hours before dusk when the clouds would raid the valley, dump precipitation with one quick swoop and disappear as fast as they’d come…

Thus we headed back… the trails were not very good here, and one pretty much had to hack their way through… we reached the safety of the camp just as a slight drizzle rolled in… it lasted no more than 5 minutes for us but the clouds were busier on the summits, and in an hour they literally came and went, as if the mountains were gargling…

Twilight brought about the scenic amber hues, the river was still thrashing about angrily but one wasn’t avoiding it anymore… here, at its source, it was belittled by the forces that wrung it out, and its protests were more childish tantrums than youthful revolts… one, with a hint of caution, could even be a bit patronizing… the river might make its own course, but ‘tis the mountains that shape its destiny… 

The night was the highlight of the trip, as the sky lit up with stars, from the milky way to the Big Dipper to shooting stars and satellites, all was laid bare for our consumption, and I was literally choking at the sight, for one couldn’t simply drink enough from this chalice of the cosmos, this overwhelming, overpowering sense of being an infinitesimal, yet blessed with the ability to be able to comprehend the infinite…

A series of clear, crisp mornings, one couldn’t have asked for better weather, and we woke up to see the sun coming out from its snowy slumber… maybe due to the villages being so deep inside the park on this side, there is very little wildlife or avifauna to be spotted here, only a few water redstarts and dark clouded yellows, on the other hand the trail was teeming with the bovine till Maraur… we took a bit longer to break camp today, choosing to spend some more time in the meadows, and started back around nine thirty, this was the only time I’d be taking the same route back while trekking in the park, not a very exciting proposition but time was a constraint, and thus we raced back, reaching Maraur around four in the evening and setting up camp in the forest hut complex, just as a procession of the local devta came up… the deity would be going up till Kutla thatch we were told…

The clouds had been kind, but they were clouds after all, and the next day a five hour drizzle from noon till evening made us camp at Shugad, which was hardly a two hour hike down from Maraur… a day wasted in a way but ‘twas fine… we camped in a flat patch of land just above the trail… time was dancing with the mist as it wandered aimlessly through the gorge, canines here and there wafting through them as aimlessly… 

Another two, two and a half hours’ run down saw us back at Niharni the next morning, packing into a taxi back to Gushaini for a hot bath before the journey back to Delhi… I guess this is one of the easiest trails in the park till the headwaters, a touch ironical considering ‘tis probably the biggest river… but it had to be done before electricity made its way I guess, for then the roads would come… one might want the romance of remoteness to remain, but if that can supersede the aspirations for a better quality of life is a difficult question… the mountains will remain big enough to not be all scratched and scarred in our lifetime though thankfully, and for every nook stolen by ‘development’, the seeker would still have the chance to squeeze into another unknown cranny…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
’twas a mildly steep but well-broken trail from Niharni…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
Himalayan chestnut tiger…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
a prominent waterfall between Shugad and Shakti…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
Shakti is the last largish village, scattered along the Sainj at 2,100 mts…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
the temple at Maraur in kath-kuni style, built around 2013-14…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
an inquisitive bunch…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
mulling over the immediate future…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
the trail went along the river from Maraur till Karechar thatch, then started climbing steeply…

 

we reached Parkachi thatch around 3 pm, a seven hour walk from Shakti…

 

while the thatch itself was in a dilapidated state, bumblebees around it created quite a buzz…

 

the camp at Parkachi thatch…

 

a slope full of ferns…

 

the jogini about a kilometre ahead of Parkachi thatch going up, where the river splits into two…

 

the trail became tricky after the jogini, with large boulders and tall bushes…

 

the meadows looked appealing, but with the trail hardly broken, ’twas cautious going…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
after bush whacking for a while, we decided to try out the boulders for an easier passage…

 

the boulders were physically more demanding, but they could let us enjoy the vista atleast…

 

the trail eased off for a bit as views opened up and Raktisar came into view…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
after setting up camp, we ventured ahead and came to flat bit where we could have crossed but decided to go up and find a dry crossing which turned out to be in vain…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
the clouds started looming in fast, and we rushed back to the safety of the camp…

 

a play of the clouds…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
it cleared up soon though, leaving us to enjoy another dry evening…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
a panorama of Raktisar…

 

a beautiful, fluted peak at Raktisar, ~5,300 mts…

 

Patish (Aconitum heterophyllum)…

 

steep, rocky hills lined up one side of the valley…

 

Sainj river valley, Great Himalayan National Park, India
the camp at Raktisar…

 

we made good pace getting down from Raktisar, reaching Parkachi thatch in about 3 hours…

 

the only tricky water crossing in the entire trail, around a 15 min descent from Parkachi thatch towards Maraur

 

forest hut at Maraur…

 

the camp at Shugad…

 

scampering down from Shugad to Niharni…

 

Trek to Raktisar, source of Sainj River, Great Himalayan National Park, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh

 

Itinerary:

Day 1: Niharni roadhead (1,710 mts) – Gadaparli village (1,820 mts) – Barsha forest hut (2,020 mts) – Shugad (2,240 mts) – Shakti forest hut (2,270 mts), 12 kms, 5.5 hrs

Day 2: Shakti village (2,270 mts) – Maraur village (2,540 mts) – Karechar thatch (2,830 mts) – Parkachi thatch (3,080 mts), 18 kms, 7 hrs

Day 3: Parkachi thatch (3,080 mts) – Jogini at Parkachi (3,110 mts) – Raktisar camp (3,710 mts) – Raktisar highest point (3,800 mts), 12 kms, 6 hrs

Day 4: Raktisar camp (3,710 mts) – Jogini at Parkachi (3,110 mts) – Parkachi thatch (3,080 mts) – Karechar thatch (2,830 mts) – Maraur camp (2,540 mts), 22 kms, 7 hrs

Day 5: Maraur camp (2,540 mts) – Shakti village (2,270 mts) – Shugad camp (2,240 mts), 10 kms, 3 hrs

Day 6: Shugad camp (2,240 mts) – Gadaparli village (1,820 mts) – Niharni roadhead (1,710 mts), 10 kms, 2.5 hrs

 

 

Author: Parth Joshi

Allured by the outdoors, the author is made up in parts of that quintessential lost soul wreathing under the pangs of biophilia in a desk job, a wannabe elegist mostly ending up in dungeons of poetasters and an optimist waiting for the senility of the modern world to fade away while sampling shoots and leaves. In saner times, he has a keen interest in areas pertaining to tourism, history, agriculture and climate change, especially with respect to historical interpretations, emerging technologies and future livelihoods. An avid trekker, runner, cyclist, birder and photographer, he is more often than not found gloating over anything hinterland, on foot or over computer monitors, and fantasizing solutions that can foster inclusive growth and sustainable livelihoods for communities at the grassroots.

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