Breaking the rules of trekking

As a child, you often rode a bus that crossed a bridge over a river. You would look out the window at the river meandering toward its source in the mountains, and you would wonder. You grew up, went to college, found work on another continent and forgot about the river — for a while.

You put the work on hold and returned to your home, once again riding your childhood bus across the bridge. Now’s the time, you thought. A few days later you returned to the river, found a trail, and began to walk upstream, into the unknown.

This is the true and recent story of Vagablogging commenter and grown-up child Shalabh. The river is the Sutlej, and the bridge is in the tiny town of Slapper on the Chandigarh-Manali highway in Himachal Pradesh, India. Here you can read his raw and inspiring account of the improvised trek.

Shalabh started by knowing only that he would follow the river, and that the river led to the Indo-Tibet border at Shipki La. Expecting desolation, Shalabh’s curiosity drew him into the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys — two of the world’s most magnificent trekking regions.

“People had talked about the remoteness of these places, their inaccessibility and the dangerous road over the Sutlej gorge,” he says. “I had pictured a world where one would get nothing to eat, a narrow, winding, unpaved road would lead to a village, some hovels would form a village, which would double up as district headquarters. How wrong I was! If you are reading this diary, I advise you to at least try once what you have feared a lot since childhood.”

Shalabh’s trip often runs counter to standard trekking procedure, challenging beliefs and behaviors many of us might no longer question. Here are a few examples:

Maps aren’t essential — as long as you’re informed enough to know you won’t be entering areas where maps are essential. By sticking to the banks of the river and not getting close to the Indo-Tibet border, Shalabh got by without a map or guidebook. As he explained via email: “I just consulted a political map for 10 minutes before starting and noted down some place names. I figured more and more as I went along.”

Camino de Santiago in spring without a map? No problem. New York’s Adirondack Park in winter without a map? Bad idea. Still, I think a map is always handy, especially if there’s a volatile border in the neighborhood.

Go however you want. Shalabh’s trek combined walking and buses, reminding us that no matter how much we’ve planned to walk, there’s no penalty for hopping on a bus. Especially when it’s winter in the Himalayas and you forgot to fill your water bottle.

Go whenever you want. Speaking of winter, places don’t disappear in the off-season (although you might wake up and find a centimeter of ice on your window pane).

You don’t have to make a loop. Even if Shalabh had planned to take the high-altitude crossing from Kaza to Manali prior to starting, it’s blocked by snow in the winter. He ended up backtracking with a non-stop 32-hour bus ride.

Backtracking on a trek is often seen as undesirable, but it can bring an out-and-back element of pilgrimage to a journey. Shalabh’s account suggests that the ride home was a standalone adventure, and he only hints at subzero temperatures, landslide crossings, and slow-bus camaraderie.

There’s more, of course, but you’ll have to read the story.

What rivers have you been wondering about? When will you discover where they lead? (See Scott’s post from yesterday for more on this theme…)

Relevant Reading: — “The most informative resource for all high altitude pursuits.”

Photo “Spiti Valley All in White” by Shalabh.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | January 13, 2010
Category: Travel News, Vagabonding Advice

3 Responses to “Breaking the rules of trekking”

  1. Nishant Says:

    we wonder about so many things as a child but are told either to explore them after growing up or not to think about it anymore.

    But as we grow up, we forget everything in the rat race of this world. Shalabh has proved the saying – ‘You are never too old to be grown up’. This child like curiosity is the essence of life.

  2. gaurav singhal Says:

    I have known Shalabh from B School. He is clearly one of the most energetic and driven guys that I know of. With a slight caveat though – only for things that excite him! it is truly inspiring and heart warming to see that someone is chasing his dreams – with / without maps who cares.
    Jai Ho!