Day 1: Ropa to Neuli (1500 m) to Shakti (2100 m above MSL) – 22 km, and around 600 m altitude to be gained
We start early from the guest house at Ropa, walking along the dusty, rutted road leading to Neuli village. Our luggage has been dispatched with the guides who would be waiting for us at our starting point. Trucks pass, showering us with silt, and we later learn that they are heading towards a dam site beyond Neuli. We cover the 3 km to Neuli along the Sainj Nala river in an hour and half, munching on Nutribars. On the way, a Grey-Hooded Warbler (Phylloscopus xanthoschistos) hopping around with an insect catch gives us some moments of unadulterated birdwatching joy.
The road descends to the level of Sainj Nala and there we catch sight of a pair of lovely Spotted Forktails (Enicurus maculatus) and the Plumbeous Water Redstarts (Rhyacornis fuliginosa), which are a given in the Himalayan streams. A few hundred yards ahead, we are at Neuli, a small village with a few hundred people. Desperate for breakfast, we wander into a Tibetan Aunty’s tiny tea shop. All she has on the menu is bun omelette, momos and chowmein. Aunty takes out huge buns stored in a larder, slices them horizontally along the centre, and applies lavish smears of butter on the insides of the bun. I cringe thinking of the calories, then realise I would be burning them off later in the day. She toasts it on a pan and the smell of butter spreads in the air, and our hungry stomachs rumble in anticipation. Steaming hot double-omelettes get thrown between the slices, and every mouthful tastes like a bite of heaven. The fried chicken momos are just as good, but we hog without remorse, for we have no idea when and what would be our next full meal. Soon after breakfast, a jeep that Thek Ram has arranged picks us up and rattles along to our starting point, the dam site.
The climb starts from the dam site, where the jeep driver bids us goodbye. I have trained on a treadmill for three months, three to four days a week, and I feel in a better shape than I was during my trek last year. I recall the trekking lessons from the previous year and start syncing my steps with my breathing. Exhale at the left foot, inhale at the right foot. Climb, climb and climb. and only focus on the rhythm. Don’t think of the altitude to be gained, just where you would keep your next foot. Within no time Sainj Nala is a hundred meter below. The road is spattered with mule dung, as the villagers use them to transport goods between Neuli and Shakti. The path is a few feet wide and uneven. We pass a few smaller villages en route, where kids stare at us as if we were aliens.
Acclimating… Acclimating… It’s an oxymoron.
This day is supposed to be an ‘easy paced acclimatizer’ that helps condition your body. Don’t be misguided by this term; generally such ‘acclimatizer’ days stretch you till you no longer feel any part of your body, getting you in shape for the rest of the trek in the process. You climb nonstop to gain altitude with a lot of pain and perspiration only to groan in frustration as the path descends, making you lose the precious altitude you have gained. It happens once, twice and then I lose count. We stop seeing a makeshift hut on the wayside, look around for snakes and scorpions before we sit down, to munch down a few dry fruits and resume walking. Sahastra has taken a fancy to the name Jujurana, and to humming “Saaave Jujurana” to the tune of “Hey Macarena” as he walks.
Pretty flowers and birds abound, but I focus only on my breathing. I am out of breath soon and swear that the next time I will train even harder. I start cramping up, starting with a tingling, pulsating sensation in the thighs, which builds up into pain. We stop to rehydrate with electrolytes, and resume climbing. By evening, we realize we are near Shakti as some goatherds are seen. Shakti turns out to be all but a few houses. As we near the village, I step on a loose slab of rock, which slips underfoot and plummets into the Sainj Nala. I am at the back of the pack and no one ahead even hears the splash — I shudder to think what would have happened had it been me instead of the rock. I hurry to catch up with the others.
Beyond a curve we see a small forest guest house. The place looks cozy beyond what words can describe. This is the last place where we would find a bed and sanitation for the entire duration of the trek. A solitary red poppy smiles at us as we walk into the camp. We huddle for warmth around a fire lit by the porters in front of the guest house. The weather at Neuli feels cozy in comparison to the cold here, which bites and causes shivers. Thankfully, our porters who have reached before us have prepared hot rice and roti, which we wolf down.
Andy doesn’t look anywhere near his cheery self, and soon he is bent over above the tiny garden saplings throwing up everything he has eaten since noon. He munches on a few slices of dried rusk and a cucumber and goes to sleep, and we too tuck ourselves in. The title of a chapter from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World is the last thought that loops in my head.
‘Tomorrow, we venture into the unknown.’
Previous: Day 0 – Warming up
Next: Day 2 – Beyond the bridge, the wilderness
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