Situated at an altitude of 4,890m, the Bhabha Pass in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, boasts some of the most breathtaking scenic splendours. Pine trees line parts of the valley through which flows the perennial Bhaba river while in the background craggy mountains rise up to kiss the skies. Nonchalant sheep graze on pristine green meadows carpeting the banks of the river and slopes of the mountains.
Adventure lovers Gaurav Punj and his wife Rujuta Diwaker were trekking through this area along what is known as the Pin-Bhabha pass trail, one of the lesser-known but spectacular walks in the region, admiring nature and revelling in its beauty. ‘During the entire trek, we didn’t meet a single person save for a government veterinary doctor,’ recalls Gaurav, author, a seasoned trekker and a founder of Connect with Himalaya, a company that specialises in shepherding small groups to explore the Himalayan mountains and go where ‘few urban souls have gone before’.
The doctor’s only duty, says Gaurav, involved taking care of the merino sheep in the area. He lived in this remote but spectacular location barely meeting anyone other than the occasional shepherd who came by if his flock had a health issue.
‘Living pretty much alone, even in that incredible landscape, obviously made him crave human company,’ says Gaurav, ‘and the moment he saw us, he came running wildly to invite us to his tent where he offered us the sweetest tea we’d ever had.’
The man’s enthusiasm and sheer joy at meeting someone other than a shepherd was so palpable that the trekker duo’s tiredness after the walk dissipated. ‘We were swept up in his love for his job and for the beautiful mountains that were literally his home,’ says Gaurav, whose new book The Land of Moonlit Snow and Other Real Travel Stories from the Indian Himalaya is kindling interest in adventure lovers.
It was not the only time that Gaurav, who has over a decade of experience trekking and organising treks in the Himalayas, was overwhelmed by the kindness of local people and by the brilliance of nature.
Growing up in a village near the foothills of the Shivalik mountains, Gaurav was always fascinated by the Himalayas. ‘On a rain-washed day, the mountains would appear on the horizon floating above everything else, and I would stare at them in awe from my terrace. It would happen once or twice a year, and this majestic, other-worldly sight would stay with me for the rest of the year. I think it left a deep impression in my heart and mind,’ he says, in an email interview.
An engineer by profession, he started his career in Berkeley, California, where he was bitten by the trek bug during a trip to the Yosemite National Park. After spending a few years working in the US — and exploring the country — he decided to return to India keen to pursue his passion of exploring places, and set up Connect with Himalaya, in 2008. The idea, he says, was to travel to new and unexplored places and meet and work with local organisations to improve the lot of people there.
The author of two books including The Land of Flying Lamas — both packed with information about lesser-known trek routes and how to explore the mountains responsibly — Gaurav believes that sometimes the best thing one can do while in the mountains is — nothing.
‘Doing things constantly is a very city thing,’ says the adventure lover, who spends around 10 days every month high in the Himalayas. ‘But when you are in the mountains, it’s best that you adjust to their rhythm. For us to adjust to that rhythm though, means doing much lesser and rediscovering that mornings are for breakfast, mid-mornings for chilling or reading a book, early afternoon for lunch and late afternoon for a nap, early evening for a nice walk and late evening for an early dinner followed by some stories around a fire. How can it not rejuvenate you?’
He claims that more than the beauty of the place, it’s the people there that draw him back again and again to the hills. ‘The people of the mountains do not fight and conquer the mountain; they simply surrender to it,’ he says. The residents of the mountains know their place in the scheme of things and are content to live a life in balance with nature.
So, when urban-dwelling trekkers hit the mountains, are they aware of the need to be sensitive and respectful of nature?
‘Trekkers, by default, have been sensitive and respectful people, starting from the shepherds of the Himalaya, the original explorers,’ says Gaurav. ‘But today’s trekkers are not entirely what you can call sensible. Majority of trekkers in Indian Himalaya go in groups of 20 or more, and go to the same few treks which their friends have been to or they have heard or seen on social media, following the trend.’
It’s only after a few experiences do they begin to explore the countless options on offer in the Himalayas and it’s often only after a few treks do they begin to learn to respect the mountains deeply.
The seasoned mountain man says that while there are more than 2,500 treks in the Indian Himalaya, most trekkers prefer the beaten track trudging the 10-15 popular trails. ‘The main reason being the insistence to trek with city-based trek agencies rather than local guides and organisations. That’s a reason I have included contact details of local guides and organisations in the book.’
Gaurav does not harbour fears that books like his which provide details and pointers for scores of treks in the region would attract legions of trekkers to ecologically sensitive areas leaving them worse than how they found them. ‘The point I make through my books is to spread out and explore the 90 per cent of the Himalayas where less than 10 per cent tourists are currently going to. This will ease the tremendous pressure that the ‘hot’ tourist spots and handful of treks are facing,’ he says.
The region has a plethora of places just waiting to be explored and experienced, he adds. Some of the spectacular treks are around Ghamsali, Damarsain and in Sikkim. Gaurav himself has had quite a few amazing experiences on the mountains.
‘Getting stranded in Pin Valley of Spiti or surviving a night-long snowstorm in Rupin Supin are unforgettable.The benevolence of the mountains allows one to feel adventurous,’ he says.
The Himalayas have instilled in him more than just a sense of adventure. ‘Three lessons the mountains have taught me are — to remain equanimous in the face of adversity and joy (something I learnt from the local people), that the best views are after the storm, and when travelling; and strive to blend in, don’t stand out.’