About Me

I am an explorer at heart and travelling is my passion. Love to travel to remote places and discover the beauty in people and places. Particularly in love with the Himalaya...

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Riding the Bolaven plateau bike loop

Bolaven Plateau Loop or Pakse Loop is one of the two famous bike loops in Laos, the other one being the Thakhek Loop through karst mountains. Bolaven Plateau Loop is a 350 km loop starting and ending in Pakse, a town in the south of Laos. It passes through coffee plantations, rice fields and has almost 18 waterfalls enroute. This is the Big Loop but it can also be done as a short loop of 200 km in 2 days, but that leaves out some of the most beautiful waterfalls on the route. So we decided to do the big loop. 

However since I went in the end of dry season, most of the smaller waterfalls had dried and the big ones also didn't have as much water. It takes 3-4 days to do this loop, but the villages on the way are so beautiful, I would have gladly spent a week.
Bikes can be easily rented from Pakse, with a choice of semi-automatic and fully automatic. But like most of South East Asia, the passports are kept as a guarantee while you are away with the bike. Miss Noy bike rental is the most famous here. It has great reviews on most online travel forums and is run by a Laotian lady Miss Noy and her Belgian husband Mr. Yves for their professional behaviour, support during the bike ride and ease of communication in English and French. They conduct a detailed briefing session about do's, don'ts, tips about driving the Bolaven loop. We also attended this session where Yves, the Belgian husband of Miss Noy explained all the fine details regarding the route, road conditions, guesthouses on the way, any other interesting places to see on the way, where to park, which waterfalls to avoid so that the bikes don't get stolen.  Unfortunately we didn't get bikes from them, as there were no more bikes available. So on Yves'a advice, we went to Nang Noi Guesthouse, who also rent good motorbikes. We rented semi automatic this time, as they tend to have better control due to the gears. Ariana tried some rounds in the town itself, before she was comfortable with the bike. 

On the bike in Laos, on dirt roads

Day 1:

And then we set off a little after 9 am. Although it was a delayed start, we hoped to make up for time. We had a brief stop at Mr. Vieng coffee farm, known for its ethical and organic coffee farming, to have some good coffee. 
Indigenous tea and coffee filters made of bamboo
The place also has great food at affordable price, but due to language barrier, the lady there didn't understand and said she had no food. We reached Tad Lo village only around 230 pm, a bit tired and famished. Looked for accommodation and had a quick lunch as we wanted to see the waterfalls. There are quite a few guest houses in Tad Lo and some of them overlooking the Waterfall. We took a double room at 60000 kip (around 6 USD), but there are dorms available at 25000 kip per person per night. 
There are three waterfalls to see from this village - Tad Lo, Tad Hang and Tad Soung (Tad means waterfall on Laotian, so all waterfall names begin with Tad). 

Tad Hang Waterfall

Temporary wooden bridge on Tad Hang waterfall in dry season

Tad Lo waterfall

It's possible to swim in the first two. The third one Tad Soung is about 7 km from the village. It was dry when we went but it was fun hiking from the base of the Waterfall to its top and enjoy the views from the top. The hike up was almost vertical and we scrambled up holding some wooden ladders and roots of trees.

The view from the top was worth the hike and the thin stream of water almost created rain like effect.

View from the top of Tad Soung

Sitting on top of a waterfall is quite rare

And on the way back Ariane and I hitched a ride on a local guy's bike as we were tired of walking more than 10 km. Spent the evening drinking beer at the Tad Hang waterfall. 

Day 2:

Next morning we set off again, a bit early as we wanted to go to Kok Phoung Tai village, which was well known on this route for its strange tribal culture. It is mentioned in many blogs and is kind of a must see place on the Pakse loop. The people in this village start smoking pipe at the age of 3, get married at 8 or 9 years and always stay in joint families, which sometimes results in almost 100 people staying in the same house. They believe that foreign visitors bring bad luck to the village, so don't open up to foreign tourists, but Mr. Hook, a guy from this village who speaks decent English, conducts tours twice a day. I thought the tour was overhyped. I did not experience anything additional by visiting the village, spent 3 hours just listening to Mr.Hook, and I had read everything he spoke, almost verbatim. While the village is very interesting, you do not get to actually see much of their daily life or visit a home. You will hear mostly about history of coffee and walk through coffee plantations. Mr. Hook also shows many local medicinal plants. If coffee farm or plants is your interest, then take the tour with Mr. Hook, otherwise just see the waterfalls. However, to really experience the village, it might be worthwhile spending a night in the village. If you have 4 days, you can stay in Kok Phoung Tai, but if you have only three days, then you can stay either in Tad Lo or Kok Phoung Tai. 
After spending around 3 hours in the village, we drove towards Tad Tayicseua, which has almost 7 waterfalls to see. On the way there were two more waterfalls - Tad Faek and Tad Houa Khon. Tad Faek was dry, and we stopped for lunch at PS Garden & restaurant near Tad Houa Khon. This waterfall is approached via a beautiful wooden bridge through a forest. There was not much water, but the place was lovely to chill and relax.

Tad Houa  Khon

The drive after this point till reaching Tayicseua village was the scariest part of the ride as there were anecdotes of bike thefts, attacks on this stretch. So we didn't stop much on the way as per the advice. The last bit of the road to the Guesthouse near the Waterfall was a dirt road with steep ups and downs, and it was getting dark, so it got a little unnerving… But we managed to reach just before dark.
There is just one guest house, almost next to Tad Tayicseua, in the middle of the forest. It has dorms and double rooms in cute bamboo cottages, priced at 50000 kip (5.5 $) per person or 100000 to 150000 per room depending on the configuration. The rooms come with all basic facilities - blanket, mosquito net and I also had the luxury of a hot shower.

The dirt road to Tad Tayicseua

Day 3:

Next morning we hiked to the most impressive waterfalls on this route - Tad Alang, Tad Jarou Halang (which is famous for a rainbow created due to water droplets and sunlight), Jarou Thalaleui and saw others from the viewpoint as some ladders were broken. There are no sign boards for all the waterfalls, but the staff of the guest house will gladly guide you using sign language, as almost nobody speaks English. I had a friendly dog guiding me to all the waterfalls. 

Jarou Thalaleui

Tad Jarou Halang

Rainbow in Tad Jarou Halang 

It was time to hit the road again and prepare for the finale of the waterfalls - the largest waterfalls were to be seen on Day 3 - Tad Fane, Tad Champi and Tad Yuang. There's also good coffee at Jhai coffee house in Paksong on the way - coffee straight from ethical farms.

Tad Yuang with a rainbow 

Tad Champi

Tad Champi from the top

Sitting on a bamboo raft in Tad Champi

Me and my German friend Ariane at Tad Yuang

Tad Yuang 

The ride back to Pakse was full of lovely memories and a great sunset. The roads were in great condition, mostly 4 Lane highway.

Sunset on the way 

We reached back to Pakse late evening…. only to find that we had no place to stay. Our advance intimation to our guesthouse was not enough to reserve a room - so some more walking around the town… We found a room for the night, had dinner and called it a day after 3 days of tiring but adventurous bike ride…. The waterfalls were every bit worth of the riding in hot sun… 

Rainbow and waterfall 

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Golden Triangle of South East Asia

Myanmar is to the left and Laos on the right 
The golden triangle near the North Eastern border of Thailand is actually a border of three countries - Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. If you are visiting Chiang Rai, I would recommend that you set aside a day to visit it. 
While I was already crossing borders between these countries, I was curious to see where all the three could be seen. And this was far from both border towns - Mae Sai (Myanmar border) and Chiang Khong (Laos border). So I took the local bus from Chiang Khong (fare 65 baht) which took 2 hours to get to Chiang Saen from where another 10 km by tuktuk (20 baht) took me to the famous (or infamous! ) golden triangle. You can also hire a taxi or motorbike from Chiang Rai and see the tribal villages on the way.

When you arrive at the Golden Triangle, there are many signboards announcing the same with photo opportunity. I took a few pictures too. 
This is also the place where the Ruak River from Myanmar joins the Mekong. The stark colour difference of the two rivers is clearly visible in the picture. 
The blue color is Mekong river and the muddy colored is the Ruak 
As was the tradition in Thailand, no place could be without Buddha, so you have some garish coloured structure housing Lord Buddha at the viewpoint of Golden Triangle. 
And since Buddha was not enough to protect the border, there was Lord Ganesha too 😂
It is also interesting to note the vast difference between Laos and Myanmar here. While the Laos side has a special economic zone and skyscrapers, the Myanmar side just has rudimentary border post and a few boats. 
The skyscrapers on the Laos side
The special economic zone on the Laos side
The crossing on the Myanmar side 
The border areas of these three countries have been known for opium cultivation - both legal and illegal, and have been a participant in the two Opium wars… Thailand and Laos have greatly controlled or rather curbed Opium cultivation by educating farmers on ill effects of Opium and giving them alternative crops. But Myanmar remains the highest cultivator of Opium, a large amount of it illegal. There is an interesting museum called Hall of Opium at the Golden Triangle entry to which is priced steeply at 200 baht, but it was worth the money for me, gave me an insight into the 5000 year old history of opium and how British and other Western countries used it to control their Asian colonies - China, India, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar. It was eye opening to learn about Opium wars even before world war 1. 

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Milam Valley Trek - a lesser known trek to see Nanda Devi up close

Nanda Devi at Sunrise - golden glory

This nine day trek to the Milam glacier in Uttarakhand takes you through the Johar valley – the ancient trade route between India and Tibet. In fact trade thrived between the two countries until the indo-china war of 1961, after which most of the villages in this region were abandoned by the locals and are now in a derelict state.
This is a unique trek combining the mesmerizing beauty of Nanda Devi and glimpse into the unpretentious culture of the local population of Kumaon. Although it is possible to camp at most places, it would be a better choice to stay in trekker’s huts or local home stays as it provides an opportunity to sample local cuisine and observe the traditions.
The trek follows the river Gori Ganga throughout its course – all the way upto its source in Milam glacier. Just a few kms. From Milam is Dung – the last border village of Uttarakhand towards Tibet. Because of the international border, a permit from ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) is required before the commencement of the trek and trekkers have to record their entry and exit at each check post.
This is a slightly longish trek – a 125 km in 9 days, making it more demanding than many others in the region. The trail is well laid out for most of the distance with rocky steps, but the avalanches on glaciers and landslides every season often alter the routes in sections each season. And although the highest altitude you will reach on this trek is just a little over 3500 metres, there will be ascents and descents of more than 1000 metres on many days – again raising the fitness bar. So you know that Johar valley is not for the faint hearted!
For all its challenges, you will be amply rewarded with stunning views of the highest and most beautiful mountain peak in India – Nanda Devi, and other major peaks like Hardeol, Trishul, Raj Rambha….
And, not to mention the rich flora of this region. The trail is strewn with plants of high medicinal and economic value. You will get to taste a few that are included in local cuisine like Temur seeds, Jimbhu, Kala jeera, Lai. The most interesting plant of this region is Keeda ghas (Tibetan name: Yarsagumba) which is a mushroom named Cordyceps sinensis grown over dead Hapilus fabricus caterpillars which die due to snow fall. This is sold at an exorbitant price of Rs. 12 lac / kg. in Tibet and China as an aphrodisiac. Men in this region go to high altitude to collect this plant every year.
This trail is also home to Monal – the state bird of Uttarakhand, bharals
The Johar valley is also a rich mineral source – all through the trek you will see mica scattered on the trail, and the bigger sheets are used by the local inhabitants for the roof of their houses.
On this trek you will have it all – lush green valleys, snow-capped mountains, meadows strewn with flowers, glaciers, small villages, the silver river bed, gurgling water streams, starry skies – so clear, you will feel like reaching out to the stars !!

An interesting use of goats is unique to this region as a transport system on narrow trails where horses / mules cannot go, goods are transported on goat backs – in tiny sewn gunny bags containing 10-20 kg of weight. Usually the army of goats is 500 odd in number, and they are the ones most likely to cause a traffic jam in the mountains but it is a unique sight – Johar valley transport system.
Johar valley transport system

Nanda Devi:
The highest Himalayan peak fully in India, this elusive summit is rife with anecdotes – the locals worship Nanda devi as a goddess, and have her temples in almost all villages – Martoli, Munsiyari, Milam. And true, goddess she is!  You will realize it when you see her from the Nanda Devi East Base camp or while going to Milam from Burphu. A lady with veil on her head, a head band and a nose ring – that is how she appears and so protected that she is surrounded by an entire ring of peaks forming the Nanda ghumti – the veil of Nanda devi. It was only in 1937 that Bill Tilman could summit this peak and thereafter there have been few ascents on this peak. In fact the inner sanctuary is closed from entering by tourists.
Nanda Devi - the goddess with a veil like a lady

Best time for the trek:
The best time to do this trek is in May and September-October. In May the route is opened by ITBP only after 15th May. June-July are months of heavy rain and landslides, so not much of trekking happens. Aug-September are reasonable with few bouts of rain but clear weather most of the time. It is in May that the residents of higher villages start their upward migration from Munsiyari. So trekkers can avail of the facility of home stay / Dhaba. Although trekking continues in Johar valley well past October, the villagers make their return migration in 1st week of October to avoid colder climate.

The Trek Diary

This trek was undertaken from 27th Sept. to 5th October in 2015. This is a late post of the trek.

Access: The nearest roadhead for this trek is Munsiyari in Uttarakhand. One can reach Delhi by train or flight and then take an overnight train to Kathgodam or Haldwani from Delhi. From Haldwani and Kathgodam there are shared jeeps to Munisyari which take around 8 - 10 hours, and leave quite early in the morning - before 7 am. There is also a Shatabdi train in the day, but that requires and overnight stay at Haldwani to reach Munsiyari next day.

Day 1: Munsiyari (2990 mts) to Bubbledhar (3300 mts.) via Nayansingh Top (3500 mts.)

Munsiyari to Chilamdhar by Jeep – 15 km - 1 hour
Chilamdhar to Bubbledhar – trek 10.5  km – 5 hours
[Chilamdhar to Pungdeo – 2 hours trek, Pungdeo to Bubbledhar – 3 hours trek]

Today we reached the roadhead for the trek – Chilamdhar by a jeep which took us out and down from Munsiyari. 
From Chilamdhar, we took a steep descending trail for about 30 – 40 minutes, down to Gori Ganga river at around 1900 mts. A temporary bridge made of wooden planks is used to cross the river. From here on we ascended on a narrow muddy trail with rocks from the landslides.
The makeshift bridge to cross Gori Ganga river
 After ascending for about 15 minutes and crossing a stream, there was a large walnut tree and a tea shop just after it. This is the tea shop of Sai Polu – the village is further up, but did not go to the village and just had a brief stopover for tea / snacks.
The walnut tree and the stream which we crossed - looking back

The earlier route to Milam via Lilam village has been washed away during the floods of June 2013. So one can go down to Lilam for entry at ITBP check post or directly head towards Pungdeo (locally pronounced as Pumteo). 

From Sai Polu tea stall, it is mostly walking on a flat wide road, after crossing the river stream. The road is being constructed as a motorable road to Bogudiar. 
The flat dirt road 

Village Lilam on the other side
After about half an hour of walking on the flat road, we  took a narrow trail amidst tall grass and shrubs. This trail  gradually ascended while providing clear valley views to reach Pungdeo in half an hour.
Narrow trail amidst tall grass
One might consider having lunch in Pungdeo as the trek from here to Bubbledhar is long and arduous. There are two dhabas / tea houses half an hour apart. The first one is one hour trek from Sai Polu tea stall – it is a traditional house with a couple of rooms and space for cattle. It offers some fantastic views of the surrounding mountains.
The dhaba at Pungdeo village

View from the Dhaba at Pungdeo

Some more stunning landscape from Dhaba at Pungdeo
But we were not too hungry, so took the left trail and walked up for another 15-20 minutes, only to be rewarded by a resort like tea house which is situated next to a huge cave. Both me and my trekmate climbed up the cave, and were swept off our feet by the 360 degrees view of the valley and hills. And boy... did we mind the half an hour wait for the food at this place... Naah... The place has water source too from where we filled up our bottles to reach the Nayan Singh top.
The cave

The Dhaba number 2 - half an hour from the earlier one

How can I miss a photo opportunity against such a stunning backdrop

The landscape just takes your breath away.... can't believe I was here for real
From this tea house it is a continuous ascent till Nayan Singh Top – gradual at places, steep at others. From this tea house there are three trails – the right goes towards Lilam village, the right most which goes down to Bhui pato village and the left and upward going trail is towards Nayan Singh top. The path from here follows the river course and the valley falls on the right mostly. We went around the mountain and then zig zag up towards the top. The trail does not have long zig zags but really short curves, so that we reached Nayan Singh top in about an hour and a half from the tea house.
Path towards Nayan Singh top

Steep steps leading upto Nayan Singh Top
 Nayan Singh Top is the highest point of today’s trek at 3500 mts. And is named after Nayan Singh a surveyor with British Survey of India in 1900 , who was fabled to have accurately measured steps by which he would measure distance travelled. This was a perfect place for some well-deserved rest as there were a lot of trees and shade.
Grinning on reaching Nayan Singh Top - Arun with our guide Jagat

People worship at the top - some bells, stones....

Bells and flags tied to pray for success of the expeditions
From here we again descended to Bubbledhar. The trail is well marked out, covered with pine trees but a little rocky.
Since the downhill trek from Nayansingh top is equally tough, and can get quite murky if it has rained the previous day, it will take long to reach bubbledhar. Thankfully it was not murky for us, but it did take a toll on the knees.There are three tea houses in Bubbledhar –about 30 minutes trekking time from each other. One can select based on one's energy levels and availability. The first and the second one are run by similar looking brothers. We stayed at the first tea house run by an extremely warm and friendly elderly couple. Right into the first day of the trek, I realised that I am going to be treated to excellent local food all the way – roti made of millets, freshly grown vegetables, soup made of temur seeds and of course, the butter tea made with thuner bark.
The tea house at Bubbledhar

Most tea houses will have beds like this
The couple running the tea house
View of mountains from bubbledhar 1st tea house
Peak extreme left – blunt roundish Hasling behind which is situated Ralam glacier; left sharp peak is Jhandadhar (near Martoli), right triangular peak is Rajrambha behind which is Rawlong glacier. One of the branches of Gori ganga emerges from Rawlong glacier. Further right the sharp peak is Jalong behind which Dharma valley – Darchula is situated.
Peaks seen from tea house at Bubbledhar

Day 2 - Bubbledhar (3300 mt.)to Nahardevi (3000 mt.) -  15 km -  6.5 hours

Today was going to be a slightly long day, so we started early. Right at the start, there is a steep descent on a rocky path with mud, can become very slushy and slippery if it rains even the previous night. The whole path is in shade of large trees, so it takes long for the water to evaporate and the path to dry.
Take the right trail going down
About 40 minutes of trek on this descending trail takes you to another trekker’s hut which has the added advantage of some space available for camping –especially if you are a large group. The trail opens up a little here providing with excellent views of the mountains but as you trek down further, after about 10 minutes it is once again through a dense growth of trees.
The last of the three tea houses - has place for camping

Open vistas after almost one hour
It is about half an hour’s downhill trek on this trail in the shade of thuner and pine trees till Rargari bridge on Gori ganga river.
Raragari bridge
This is at an altitude of 2000 mts., so we had descended almost 1300 mts. In less than 2 hours. This had taken a bit of toll on my knees, so be careful! One may opt to rest here or trek further for about an hour to reach a tea stall at Siuni. We went up to the tea stall.
From here you cross the river using the hanging bridge (Raragari bridge) and go over to the other side. The trail winds its way around the mountains as the river flows on the right all the way up to Nahardevi. 
The river flows to the right all through
It is half an hour of uphill trek on a fairly even trail after which there is a water stream and thereafter the trail is land slide prone – full of loose rubble and rocks for the next hour or so. On the way there is a tea stall at Siuni, which again, is extremely prone to rock fall. We stopped here for some tea and maggi. Closer to Siuni the river flows very close to the trail, almost as if it was beside us, so we rested for a while, had snacks and even wet our feet in water. If the camp is at Bogudiar, there is no need to hurry and one can indulge in playing in water.
The cool river water is tempting to wet the weary feet

The trail after Siuni is rocky with sand and mud all through and fairly wide mostly except for a few places where we needed to walk in a single file. We  had company and competition for right of way from large herds of goat and sheep in this stretch as they carry rations to Milam.
A common sight - sheep and goat carrying ration to Milam post

Traffic jam caused by herds of sheep and goat
The trail gradually winds its way up the mountain after Siuni to reach Bogudiar (2450 mts.), so we did not feel the strain of an ascent. Most of the trek after Rargari bridge was in wide landscape with a lot of sun with a few patches in the shadow of the mountains or trees. However the last half an hour towards Bogudiar suddenly becomes pleasant with lot of breeze from the river and lush green bamboo on the side.
The shaded path towards Bogudiar
We reached Bogudiar by lunch time. It is required to make an entry at the ITBP check post before you proceed for lunch.
The ITBP check post at Bogudiar
There are 3 – 4 dhabas offering simple lunch. We rested for sometime after having lunch - actually took an afternoon nap.
The few Dhabas at Bogudiar - everybody takes a break - horses, men

The path inside Bogudiar village - I kind of loved this place..

Bogudiar village - a few dhabas, 2-3 structures of ITBP...so little, yet so enchanting

Our stop for the day, Nahardevi, was about 4-5 km from Bogudiar but it took 2 hours since it was quite arduous. Although the absolute altitude gain is 500 mts., it involved multiple ascents and descents winding around a couple of mountains. Just after leaving Bogudiar the trail went all the way down to the river where we crossed the river bed to go to the other side.
The little wooden bridge to cross the river
Once again we were following the river and gradually climbing up for about an hour after which we sharply descended for around 500 mts. We had to make up for this descent and ascend almost 1000 mts.to reach Nahardevi. This part of the trail was the most scenic so far. We also had company of sheep enroute.
The sheep added another dimension to this picturesque landscape

So rugged, yet so soothing himalayan landscape
As we arrived at the Nahardevi campsite  we saw Peak Nagphuli in the distant front, Nahardevi mountains on its left and Soupano on the right. We caught last bit of lightAcross the top we saw a vast expanse of the river bed with sharp rock cut on the left. The trail for the next day was clearly visible from the top. There is only 1 dhaba here but ample space for camping and cooking with water source. We decided to camp, as the place inside the dhaba was dark and claustrophobic.
Nagphuli Peak in front, Nahardevi mountains on the left and Soupano on the right

The river bed and rock cut behind our camp, next day's trail - but more importantly, sheer bliss

Our camp - peering at the stars at night with river sound as a lullaby

Day 3 - Nahardevi (3000 mt.) to Martoli (3500 mts.)-  18.5 km -  9 hours

Today again we had a long distance to go, so we started early, especially since we needed to cross two glaciers with crevasses. Soon after the camp at Nahardevi, we crossed the river bed and walked on a trail made by blasting the rock. 
Trail made by blasting the rock

 After 30 minutes of rolling trek (slight ups and downs but almost level) we crossed a mini glacier with narrow crevasses. Another 15 minutes after the glacier we crossed another glacier with huge crevasses. These glaciers are not permanent structures and change every year since they are formed due to heavy snow fall and separation of the ice deposits post winter.
The first mini glacier or avalanche ice that we had to cross

The crevasse was long and deep but narrow enough to cross

The crevasse in the second glacier required a little wooden plank to cross

Makeshift bridge of wood to cross the crevasse

The crevasse with a water fall
These are not really glaciers in the strict sense of the word, but local guides refer to them as glaciers.  We continued on this rolling trail for another 30 minutes and reached a waterfall. We had to cross underneath this water fall, so covered ourselves and the bag to avoid getting wet. 

After this the trail slightly opens up and there was bright sunshine as the sun was on our right, just above the river. We ascended for almost 30 minutes till we reached a nice corner where we stopped for a brief rest and snacks. This is also a good place to stop if you are in a large group and are carrying packed breakfast.
Bright sunshine after a cold morning

Looking back from our rest stop

The trail ahead after the rest
An earlier bridge on the river was broken during the 2013 floods, so we had to trek down to the river bed which took us almost 2 hours from this point.
The bridge on the river washed away in the flood

Previous landslides washed away parts of the trail

We had to cross boulders like this after getting all the way down to the river

Arun and Jagat crossing the boulders - this was for almost 1 hour
 After crossing the riverbed, the trek is a steep uphill climb to Laspa, but it did not take more than 15 – 20 minutes. And after Laspa we walked in the meadows all the way till Rilkot, on a rolling trail. It took almost 6 hours to reach Rilkot from Nahardevi as the distance is around 12 km. We had lunch and rest at Rilkot. It is also possible to camp here.
Rilkot is an excellent campsite – picturesque location, ample camping ground, availability of satellite phones at the ITBP check post, a river flowing nearby, and abundant water. If you camp here, you could trek to Martoli or Burphu the next day.
Trail enroute Rilkot

Rilkot - no words to describe the serenity of this place

Taking in the beauty as I rest at noon after lunch
After a hearty lunch and well deserved rest at Rilkot, it is another 7 km of trek till Martoli. From Rilkot we once again trekked down to the river for almost half an hour on a steep downhill trail and then gradually ascended till the road head to Martoli. The trail is mostly made up of loose rocks and sand and the last bit before the road is a little steep. Just 5 minutes from the road head, we saw old Martoli on our right side, which the residents had fled following a thunderstorm. Out of curiosity I walked up to the village to see empty houses without roofs.

Looking back at Rilkot from the road head

Empty houses of Old Martoli
We continued walking on a flat motorable road  for about 2 km. after which we came across a sign board showing an upward trail to Martoli whereas the straight road leads to Burphu. One needs to take the upward trail to Martoli which is a proper pathway made of stones through the meadows all the way upto the village. It is not necessary to go to Martoli if you are heading to Milam, but I had read so much about Nayan Singh Rawat and his brother who were from Martoli and were instrumental to discovery and conquest of many Himalayan peaks in India by the British survey of India during early 20th century, including Nanda Devi herself. For me it was a pilgrimage to the village of Nayan Singh Rawat.
This is where the trail divides - upper one to Martoli and lower to Burphu

This board is seen once you take the upper trail

Route to Martoli - big peaks seen in the horizon
From Martoli peaks like Nanda Devi, Nanda Devi East, Nandakot, Hardeol, Trishul can be seen. There is also a temple of Nanda Devi on a hill called Jhandadhar.
Martoli looks like a ghost village with some 40 – 50 houses and a village Panchayat, but mostly unoccupied. The roofs are made with Mica sheets which are abundantly available in the region. There were inhabitants in just 2 – 3 houses which double up as home-stay for trekkers. We stayed with an old lady who cooked excellent millet roti (called Madhuve ki roti in local language) with a chutney made with hemp leaves and some yellow-orange coloured tangy berries called 'Turruchuk' in local language. 
A village home in Martoli where we stayed - notice the roof made with mica
A room in a traditional home in Martoli - Arun slept on sheep skin, but I preferred the sleeping bag!

Martoli Village with Jhandadhar Peak in background
Sunset over Trishul
Day 4 – Martoli (3400 mt.)to Milam (3500 mt.) -  15 km -  6.5 hours + trek to Jhandadhar and back ~ 5 km
Today we would be trekking to the final destination of our trek i.e. Milam from where we would go to Milam glacier. The trek is about 15 km. It is highly recommended to try and trek as far as possible towards Jhandadhar peak in the morning to get magnificent views of sunrise on the Nanda Devi. It takes about 3-4 hours to get to the peak, which meant that we start at night, but we were headed to Milam the same day, so we decided to start at 5 am and trek till the midpoint to Jhandadhar peak from where we would get unhindered views of Nanda Devi and would be just in time to catch the first rays of sun on the lovely twin peaks of Nanda devi and also see Trishul on the other side. However, in the retrospect I think it would have been better to stay for a day at Martoli - enjoy the ghost village and also trek to Jhandadhar Peak. 
The first 15-20 minutes of the trek was straight forward – on a paved pathway and took us to the Nanda Devi temple. This temple is highly reverred, not just by the locals, but also by mountaineers. Many expedition teams tie a metal bell engraved with the name of their expedition / team in the temple to seek blessings of Ma Nanda Devi for the success of the expedition. An annual festival is held in this temple where people from surrounding villages gather to perform religious rituals. Surprisingly the practice of animal sacrifice has been discontinued in this particular temple. We went to the temple after the sunrise, so that we could see it properly.

Nanda Devi temple with Nanda Devi in the background - after sunrise

The bells tied for success of expeditions - we could read names of mountaineers and expeditions

The bell for lesser mortals like us - I was satisfied to ring it

Nanda Devi at dawn - when we started trekking the moon shone brightly over the beautiful peak
We reached the point from where we would get unhindered views of Nanda Devi in 1 hour from our homestay. As we sat on the grass enjoying the crisp mountain air, the sky around was still blue, the moon shining on the peak of Nandadevi and Trishul – making them look like silver. And then the drama unfolded – a ray of sun just touched the tip of Nanda devi peak colouring it in pink-orange hue, the colour gradually spread over the entire peak and changed from pink-orange to a golden yellow. In front of my eyes was a shining mountain of gold. And gradually the color lightened and in another 20 minutes the majestic peaks of Nanda devi and Nanda devi east stood in front of us in all their splendor. I was speechless....I am glad I and Arun made the effort to start the trek early and could witness this grandeur.

Nanda Devi at dawn - the colours are yet to begin

Trishul at dawn - it is on the opposite side of Nanda Devi, so does not become orange-golden...

The first rays of sun on twin peaks of Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East 

The colour grows on the peak and on you

The gold is spreading

When the sun touches tips of Trishul

Finally in full glory...

Coming back to the village after seeing the sunrise - the landscape is surreal

Longstaff col - discovered in 1901 while trying to reach Nanda Devi

Back to Martoli village - our humble dwelling
We started the trek after breakfast from our rations as the old lady of the house didn't have anything left. The trek from Martoli began with a steep descent of almost 1000 metres to the river that comes from Nasanapatti. We had to cross the river using a makeshift bridge of bamboo. There used to a permanent metal bridge but it got washed away in the floods of 2013.

The makeshift bridge to cross the river
Soon after crossing the river we started ascending 800 metres till the road head leading to Burphu. But surprisingly it did not take long – just 20 odd minutes. From here on it is a flat to slightly ascending trek of 13 km on a motorable road to Milam village via Burphu and Bilju. However vehicles regularly ply between Milam and Burphu for ferrying workers of GREF and ITBP road projects. Since we did not have a proper breakfast in the morning, we stopped at the tea house just near the Burphu bridge as our guide told us that we will not find food anywhere until Milam. Since there was no trail from Burphu to Milam, we decided to hitchhike in the GREF truck, and it was an experience of a lifetime. The ride was extremely bumpy, we had to hold the rails of the truck hard  or a rope tied to it. We were bathed in mud and our spines ached by the time we arrived in Milam.

Burphu bridge seen from the tea stall

Notice the little structures - that is the tea house
The trek from Martoli to Milam takes about 5 hours, so one can have lunch on reaching Milam. Milam is the strictest of the ITBP checkposts on this trek, as it is the border. They checked our camera and warned about areas that we were not supposed to photograph. One has to comply with the instructions as this is a sensitive Indo-China border. In fact foreigners are not allowed to take pictures and their cameras are deposited at the check post and handed over to them only on return.

Milam used to be an important border village on the silk route to Tibet from India. It was a thriving village of 500 – 600 families, but urbanization and lack of opportunity in trade with Tibet after the Indo-China war of 1961 has resulted in the town becoming deserted (becoming a ghost town?) with hardly 5 – 10 houses now which also double up as guest houses for trekkers / tourists in the months of May through October. We also stayed in one such house.
Most houses have such small doors through which you have to sit and crawl inside

The simple room coated with mud where we slept

There is a Nanda Devi temple in Milam which is maintained by the ITBP and has been reconstructed after it was damaged during the flood of 2013. The sky is also clearer than other campsites due to altitude and open terrain, hence we had the opportunity to watch the night sky studded with stars. I and Arun chatted away late into the night under the stars....

Day 5 – Milam (3500 mt.)to Milam Glacier and Back then to Bilju (3400 mt.) -  20 km -  5.5 hours for the glacier visit (14 km) and then 1.5 hours to reach Bilju (6 km)

Today was an eventful day - trekking upto Milam glacier and then going down towards Bilju village from where we would be able to see Nanda Devi at really close quarters. So the trek diary is divided into two parts:
  •            Milam to Milam glacier and back
  •       Milam to Bilju village
Milam to Milam glacier and back:
One needs to start early so that the glacier can be visited before the sunlight becomes strong. It is 14 km to and fro on a difficult terrain, so would easily take 5 – 6 hours at a moderate speed.

We started at 5:30 towards Milam glacier. At the start we passed through the ruins of Milam village on a paved trail and continued walking on a rocky path surrounded by meadows, full of edible berries, herbs etc. on both sides. After a brief 5 minute walk on a straight path, there was a fork on the road – we took the right and kept walking through the village. The village path was well made with big rocks made into a sort of road, and after the village we walked on moraines with rounded stones for about 3 ½ km to reach a view point from where the peaks of Hardeol and Trishul can be seen. It took us almost one hour to reach this view point at 3500 mt.  
As the sun came out, it fell on peak of Hardeol, colouring it golden. Trishul was on the right side, so slanting sun rays fell on it.
Sunrays falling on Hardeol peak, colouring it golden

After the sunrise - Hardeol in the centre, Trishul on the right and Rishi Pahar on the left

After breifly stopping here for pictures and having our packed breakfast, we proceeded ahead towards the glacier. There were bushes of tangy berries called Turruchuk which are made into a tasty chutney along with hemp leaves. There were also bushes of Shepla – another yellow coloured sweetish berry, which I had also seen near the Nanda devi temple.

Turruchuk berry bushes on both sides of the trail
It is believed by the locals that the glacier was originally 19 km long and reached upto this view point at 3500 mts.

The glacier is further 3.5 km away from this view point and it took us about 1.5 hour to reach there from the view point.  As we walked on moraines and mud further, we slowly went down all the way to the Gori ganga river bed, in fact walked next to the river, so close – I could touch it.  
We descended and walked next to the river - notice my shadow in the water
 The original path to the glacier had been washed away in 2013, so now the only approach was through the river bed for about 1 km, and then ascending towards the snout as we reached closer. The
last 2 km of the trail to the glacier snout was all moraine and it is believed to be on the glacier itself.

The barren flat landscape before descending to the river

At places we could see huge blocks of ice on sides, separated from the main glacier. Since this is an old glacier, it is covered by rocks, sand and mud and one cannot really see the ice… but the very fact that you are walking on a glacier feels creepy…The last ½ km was quite tough on scree and I had a tough time slipping and climbing.

We reached the point from where snout of the glacier was visible at 8:15 am - almost 3 hours after leaving our camp.  We took pictures and sat for a while. We could see large blocks of ice separated from the snout. The glacier snout had changed direction, hence the river was now coming out from the left side of the snout. This glacier is different from others in the way that one can hardly see any ice due to deposition of debris,mud,moraine on glacial ice. If one has time and facility to camp, one can also go around and go to the other side of the glacier and further to Suraj Kund, but specialized equipment might be required for it.

My trekmate Arun at the edge of the glacier - Milam glacier snout in the background - notice the river coming out from the left of the snout

The team at the final destination - me, Arun and Jagat our guide from Munsiyari

Nibbling at an apple while descending on scree - this was difficult going up
After descending on scree we rested for a while near the river, nibbling on the apples Jagat had brought for us.

We reached the guest house at 11 am – quite exhausted. Due to early morning or cold winds – not sure of the reason but I had a terrible headache on coming back. So I had breakfast and slept after takign medicine for half an hour. As everyday we were once again treated to a hearty breakfast of soft fluffy rotis with jeera aalooo flavoured with locally grown shahjeera and Jimbhu leaves. Thankfully I felt better after the sleep.

The team - two of us with our guide and porter
Milam to Bilju village:

We had already trekked almost 14 km, so didn't want to trek long distance till Martoli. We decided to stay at a village closer - Pachu, Bilju or Ghanghar. Jagat – the guide, had inquired with some people about possibility of stay at Bilju. We were told that by now most people from the higher villlages were migrating back to Munsiyari. So there was no one in Pachu and there were 1-2 families in Ghanghar, but to our goodluck there was a family in Bilju who was migrating to Munsiyari the next day and was willing to host us. 
We started our journey to Bilju at 2:30 pm. After collecting the documents from ITBP check post we started walking down towards Bilju. The trek to Bilju is 6 km from Milam and is mostly downhill on a motorable road. Soon after leaving Milam we came across Kolganga river – coming from Tibet. 
The bridge on KolGanga river

KolGanga river coming from Tibet

Rest of the route was also lovely with views of Hardeol, Trishul, Jhandadhar and front view of the majestic Nanda devi as we reached closer to Bilju.
Hardeol, Trishul and Jhandadhar peaks

Moraine mountains - almost a flat walk out of Milam 

Mountains, moraine and a path leading to nowhere... I want to be lost here

Magical terrain - as if from a different planet
 We also saw another river joining Gori ganga around the village Bilju. On its opposite banks are villages Ghanghar and Pachu which are used as a base to go to Nanda Devi East Base camp.
Another river meeting near Gori Ganga just before Bilju - Nanda Devi east base camp is across the river
The highlight of the day was Bilju village. We had selected it for the ease of reaching after a longish trek to the glacier and back but it turned out to be the best place of stay so far into the trek. Bilju is a quaint little village of just 15 houses, well laid out with some land in each house to cultivate vegetables. The people and their hospitality are remarkable. We stayed with a family who hosted us inspite of it being their last day in the village and treated us to authentic local cuisine – Sattu with salt tea, millet roti (Madua) with mixed dal and home grown cabbage curry. The house was a neat one with mud lined walls and floor and a small entrance through which one has to stoop to enter.  In fact most houses in other villages also had similar small entrances – probably to prevent cold wind from coming into the house. The people do a special puja / ritual and pack their houses before their annual migration to Munsiyari in October. They then tend to their other agriculture / business in Munsiyari for the next 6-8 months till May – when they come back to their hill abodes.
Bilju village seen from a hill top shrine near it

Our five star accomodation in Bilju - great food, lots of love
Day 6 – Bilju (3400 mts.) to Rilkot (3130 mts.) – 17 km trek – 4.25 hours + trek to view point to see Nanda devi about 4 km

This day was once again an early start. We left the guest house at 5:15 am to see the first rays of sun falling on Nanda devi twin peaks. Each early morning so far has been better than the previous one. Today was by far the best. Her highness Nanda devi revealing her majestic beauty in its golden splendour. The snow clad peaks turn from dull white to orange to golden and then shining white again. As if the Sun comes out to adorn the goddess Nanda Devi with golden ornaments! Nanda devi is truly the queen of peaks in India. 
Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East peaks before sunrise

The first rays falling on the tip of both peaks

The changing colours to pink-orange

The golden taking over the pink

Both peaks resplendent in gold

The peaks shine in white as the sun rises fully
Thereafter we returned back to Bilju by a different route where we crossed the village houses and realized what a well planned village it was. Each house with a designated living room, kitchen, space for cattle, some kind of farming. There were also public utility buildings like Panchayat house.
The perfectly planned village with neatly lined houses and alleys

A typical house with place for cattle, farming, storage and living
We came back to our home stay just to collect the bags and say good byes to the family we stayed with. Their goats had already been sent off, the house was neatly packed with some ration left for emergency, and now it was time for the family members also to leave. They were going to reach Munsiyari in 2 days flat, and we had planned to reach in 4 days!

The family that hosted us - bidding good-bye to them and the village as we all leave
We started the return journey at 7:15 am. Having trekked for 5 days now, we were much fitter and reached Burphu bridge , about 6 km, in about 1 hour 15 minutes. The trail was all through on a motorable road and downhill. 
The magical landscape soon after leaving Bilju village
 We took a breakfast break at the tea stall near the Burphu bridge and resumed our trek towards Martoli after 40 minutes . Here we met a mother-daughter duo from Austria and wished them good luck. The trail was still the same for about 3-4 km and there are a few streams almost every half an hour. After this we reached a downward trail towards the river. This area is Laspa. We crossed the bridge and went up on the other side towards road head.

We had an interesting experience . The rocks were being blasted to make a road by GREF. We waited on the other side and watched the entire process excited like little kids since it was a first experience for both me and Arun.
The place where the blasting took place. I was so engrossed that forgot to make a video
Then we continued walking on the road for 4 more km till finally Rilkot can be seen. In between we saw Tola villge on our left – just next to the river. We descended to Rilkot by a muddy trail. Rilkot is a beautiful camp because of the vast river bed interwoven with multiple streams of the river.
Rilkot - river at sunset

An interesting thing has happened in these 4 days. Our capacity of walking has increased significantly. Today we reached Rilkot in just 4 hours – a distance of 17-18 kms. We had reached by lunch, so had ample time. After lunch we went down to the river and hung around till sunset. Yesterday also we joked that we were not tired since we had not walked much – and we immediately recollected that we had walked for 20 kms. !
That is why we hope to walk 20 km + over the next two days and reach Munsiyari a day earlier than our original plan.

Today we met a major from Indian army going for a leisurley trek towards Milam with his beautiful wife. He had summited seven major peaks in the world including Everest!! it was truly a privilege to meet him. And what a handsome guy he was... how I wish his wife was not accompanying him :)
We stayed at trekker’s hut in Rilkot and enjoyed the evening.

Day 7 – 3rd October 2015
Rilkot to Bogudiar  18 km – 5 ½ hours
Today we had decided to start early so that we could cover more distance, but we ended up starting at 8:15 am from Rilkot since Arun lost his wallet and we spent almost 1 hour in searching for it and subsequently reporting it at the ITBP check post in the hope that someone at least returns the wallet – sans the money. Today's trail was mostly rocky with some very sandy patches. One of the glaciers near Nahardevi had broken off, so we had to go down to the river bed and then go up again to reach Nahardevi.
The broken pieces of the glacier near the river bed

Many large chunks of ice had fallen off in the river the previous day
We reached Nahar devi at 12:30 and stopped briefly for Maggi and tea. Now we were crossing familiar trail, so were walking at a hurried pace, as there was not much new to see. We finally reached Bogudiar at 2:30 where we had lunch and met an interesting elderly couple from Germany who trekked to Milam every year! We had originally planned to go to Siuni, but it started raining in Bogudiar, so we stayed there in the forest guest house – a luxurious accommodation in the hills with a bed and thick warm blankets !! We had lots of candle light gossip and candle light dinner!

Day 8 – 4th October 2015
Bogudiar to Bubbledhar – 11 km - 5 hours
We started from Bogudiar leisurely as it was not a very long trek today. If we started early, we could reach Munsiyari today itself and would have 2 spare days. Instead we decided to take it slow and enjoy the mountains. We chatted with locals on our way. A family was carrying a new born calf down to Munsiyari with them. Arun enjoyed petting the calf.... We reached Bubbledhar around lunch and lazed around. Explored the vegetable garden of the family we stayed with, played with sheep and rested.
One day old calf with its mother and caretakers

The landscape from Pungdeo dhaba

The dhaba at Pungdeo where we had lunch - looked even more enchanting while returning

Day 9 – 5th October 2015
Bubbledhar to Chilamdhar and Chilamdhar to Munsiyari
We bid good-bye to the family that ran the tea house at Bubbledhar after breakfast of Roti and Lai ki sabji. Today was an arduous trek - once again climbing up to Nayan Singh top and descending it, but we were at the peak of our fitness and it was the last day of the trek - so nothing seemed much. The only boring part of the trek was the last 2 hours from Sai Polu to Chilamdhar on a road that was being made motorable. We reached Munsiyari by evening.
We were happy to have completed a 125 km trek in 9 days, the views of Nanda Devi still lingering in our minds...