Day 3: Humkhani to Dhel Thatch (3500m). Distance 7 km, altitude to be gained: 1400 m
I am dreaming about the CEO and Chairman of the company I work for coming home to tell my dad that I have done well in my exams and were getting him to sign my progress report, when I hear Sahastra bidding me to wake up. The night wasn’t comfortable at all. My feet were constantly pressing against the wall of the tent, and I feared the poles of the tent would give away. The space in the tent simply wasn’t enough for me. Considering that I am only 5’7″, it would have been a lot more uncomfortable for a 6′ plus chap. I unzip the tent and poke my head out and shudder as the bone-chilling Himalayan breeze assaults my face. Sahastra smiles at me.
“Beej is back from the bushes. Your turn!”
I brush my teeth in ice-cold water and walk into the bushes, with a shovel in one hand and sheafs of toilet paper in the other. We are supposed to dig a hole and cover up once we are done. Beej notices the tree that had arrested my fancy and calls out from behind, “Don’t dig under the first large oak tree ahead. That one has already been dug!”
I correct my course ten degrees southwards and march into the bushes.
I realize that it had dipped below zero degrees the night before — the dew that has fallen overnight has frozen over the grass and makes a crunching noise with every step I take. Walking in slippers on frost-covered grass is plain wrong, I realise as my toes go numb. I find a suitable spot under a fallen deodar and start digging. The pressure in my bowels urges me to speed up. Per the guidelines issued by the forest office, the hole has to be 2 feet deep and must to be covered up at close of business. There are tree roots everywhere that makes digging laborious. I am out of breath soon, and my heart starts pounding as I dig deeper. Pant, pant, dig, dig. The bowels have a knack for knowing when you are at your indisposed worst and exerting more pressure.
Finally, the hole seems deep enough, and I am done and back in fifteen minutes. The entire affair doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should, as one feels very vulnerable squatting with one’s pants down in the middle of a forest.
As I hand over the shovel to Andy and borrow the hand sanitiser, Beej urges me to be faster the next time. I reply that these matters aren’t to be done under pressure and Sahastra threatens me with the lowest appraisal peer rating if I can’t work under pressure. Chironji, meanwhile, arrives with very delicious tea.
Time to trek, up to Dhel Thatch.
Off we walk, along the 7 km trek to Dhel. Uphill first, then downhill, past a waterfall, at the bottom of which is a turquoise pool as inviting as any spa. Again up another hill and down to a bridge. Charan tells us that there are no more descents, that it is all uphill and pretty steep from here.
Exhale, left foot; inhale, right foot. I walk like a zombie, not looking at anything around me. I am shaken from my reverie as a brilliant blue Himalayan Monal flushed by the porters walking ahead darts overhead with a shrill cry and hides in the bushes somewhere downhill behind us. Soon, we start seeing rhododendron bushes, with pink and white flowers. They are a sure sign of steady altitude gain. We break into an open meadow with yellow blossoms and the snowcapped mountains are now clearly visible in the open.
We all take a break at the meadow, soaked in sweat and soaking in the scenery, trying to catch some breath as well. There are again a few solitary nuthatches, but no other fauna is spotted. Charan asks us to speed up as it might rain soon. The air gets thinner and thinner and the breathing more laborious.
After strolling around photographing the rhododendron flowers, Sahastra and I realise that the others are way ahead. We move past a rhododendron clump when we see a flash of brilliant blue in between the brown unruly branches of the rhododendrons. It flits around for a while putting up a dazzling display and disappears back into the rhododendron thicket. We later discover, referring to our Grimmett & Inskipp field guide that it was a Himalayan Bluetail (Tarsiger rufilatus), about which Sahastra has already written here.
Another hour of climbing and we emerge into a clearing. This is the meadow of Dhel Thatch. There is a similar hut as in Humkhani, which the porters have occupied. To our left, snow-capped mountains tower. The porters have already started to pitch our tents. It starts to drizzle and we huddle up inside the hut around a fire. More sattu is distributed. Most of us have already started hating the smell and taste of the nutribars. I observe aloud that the rain has started lashing at the snow peaks, and Sahastra corrects me: “It is not rain that you see; it is a blizzard out there.” The raindrops falling near us are now making a sound like falling grains of sand. Sugary grains bounce off the tent canvas – hailstones, rather hail-grains. Soon tiny wisps of snow drift down as in a dream. But the snowfall stops almost as abruptly as it had begun.
Charan has disappeared but soon turns up again. He had gone to a ledge further ahead, and informs us that we are in mobile phone network there. All of us head there to make a few quick calls and get more than what we bargained for. Right ahead of the ridge is a steep cliff, and beyond that lies rows after rows of mountains. We can see a few villages down in the valley (using our binoculars). Dusk is falling and the sky is painted gold.
The temperature starts to drop abruptly. Jackets are put on, gloves too. Again, it is that time of the evening – saffron rice, roti, dal and a cabbage side – everything steaming hot. We stand around the fire and chat for a while, then retire to the warmth of the sleeping bags inside the tents. Tomorrow would be a rest day with an early start to try and see some wildlife — or birds.
And, yes, as we get into the tent, we have an epiphany. We were sleeping in the wrong direction the night before. When we sleep along the length of the tent, our feet don’t hit the walls.
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Next: Exploring Dhel and foiled plans
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