Day Two: Shakti to Humkhani (2500 m), about 4 km of ascent, 600 meters of altitude to be gained
It is an early start at 8 am after freshening ourselves up in the (luxury) toilets at Shakti guest house. The sky is overcast and so is Andy’s visage. A forlorn puppy barks at us as we pass the last house we would encounter before we cross into the Great Himalayan National Park. Mobile phones are already useless. A creaky hanging bridge is crossed and we enter the broad-leaved forest. Once we are across the bridge, it feels as if behind us a huge wall of forest has grown, shutting us out completely. It is silent, dark and mysterious and the air too smells different, as if the bridge was our door to another dimension.
Beej and Arun are left behind on the bridge as they stand photographing. We have already climbed a couple of hundred meters when we realise that they are not behind us. Chironji, a tall, active porter, runs after them and fetches them back on the trail as they stood lost at a fork behind. There is a light drizzle but Charan isn’t worried. The canopy is really thick and he says the drizzle will not get any worse and would clear off in a couple of hours. I wear my rain jacket and dump the camera inside the backpack to prevent it being drenched. The trail is very steep and is no longer paved, just a zig-zagging one foot wide path that keeps on climbing steeply.
I look back and see Andy clutching his solar plexus and groaning. He is sick and wants to go back to Shakti and possibly die there all alone. Beej brainwashes him in his inimitable Yoda-style, giving him instructions on how to do pranayam and get his breath back. Andy soon gets up and bravely saunters along. The porters have given up walking and are huddled under a tree, kindling a fire. We don’t want to stop, we have a momentum on our side, which we would like to keep going. While taking short breaks we realize that we start shivering when we stop walking. The sweat under our rain jackets is soaking us from the inside, and it can give us a cold. So, the breathers are kept short.
Nutcrackers are heard calling from the high canopy, though we are unable to spot any. The trees have changed; now we have pines and conifers all around us that do not branch out as much as the broad-leaved trees. It is quite dark here, moist from rains, and overall gloomy.
It takes us about four hours of this steady climb, and I call out for a dry fruits break. Simultaneously, Arun, who is at the head of the trail, signals, “We are there!” We emerge out of the woods to Humkhani, a marvellous meadow at the end of which we find a quaint wooden hut. All around us, we can see snowcapped peaks peeking at us. The sky is clearing up and the sun has started to peep out.
I take off my jacket and shirt to dry and stand bare-chested, but Sahastra reprimands me to put them back on, “It may not feel very cold because your body is warmed up, but it is really freezing out here and that could give you pneumonia.”
Soon a glorious fire is roaring and we pass on a packet of soupy noodles to the porters who prepare it and hand it to us. We devour it messily in no time, not bothered about the slurping noises we make.
Warmed up, we walk around, birdwatching and photographing the hundreds of ladybirds that are everywhere. The porters pitch our tents near the hut. Arun is ecstatic for having seen a Chestnut-headed Tesia (Cettia castaneocoronata), a tiny rotund bird with a rusty red head.
After a round of birding, we assemble in the hut at around 4:00 pm and Sahastra delivers a lecture on the goodness of sattu and initiates us to it, with a glass each of sattu mixed with powdered sugar and water collected from a stream. It is difficult to swallow, but half a cup of it feels solid and filling, once inside. We roam around a little more until sundown trying to catch some birdlife.
At seven, the porters are done with the dinner, which is served near a fire: hot roti, rice, dal and spicy bhindi (okra) curry. I generally hate bhindi, but somehow this one tastes different. For all I know, it could be the hunger. I have had nothing other than sattu and dry fruits all day. Andy seems to be better and has started cracking his trademark PJs. By the time the fire goes out, we are all yawning, and I slip into my brand new sleeping bag inside the tent.
Sleep comes on swift wings to whoever climbs these mountains…
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