Read first part Spiti Valley over here
Running further upstream towards Kunzum La the Spiti river becomes smaller as it originates from the same pass which separates Lahaul from Spiti district. We now run at higher altitudes towards 4550m through a moonlike landscape – a barren rock desert, highly eroded with unusual color gradients. We pass through the check-post of Losar, the last village in Spiti valley where we pack up final rations as we head out for a complete day in no man’s land on both sides of the pass. Plan is to run up to Kunzum La and then get into a small trail which directly takes us to the beautiful Chandra Taal lake, a crescent shaped high altitude lake at 4300m.
At the top of the pass we find a few stupas with colorful Tibetan prayer flags and piles of mani stones engraved with prayers to the Gods. From here we climb up further to the Balchamo pass at 4680m from where we head into the Chandra river valley flowing down from Chandra Taal. We now run on a scenic rocky single trail 400m gradual downhill through a desolate landscape passing a few fertile meadows and shepherd shelters along the way. The eyes get treated on majestic snow capped peaks in the background separating Lahaul and Kullu. The Chandra river valley originates all the way from the Baralacha La – a 2 day interior hike from Chandra Taal which I would be doing the next summer in 2018.
We finally step into a fairytale setting – thick wooly sheep grazing lush green meadows around the steel blue lake bordered by snow capped peaks, a green/blue oasis in the barren brown/orange desert. The thought to take a refreshing dip quickly fades as we feel the ice cold clear waters of the lake. After soaking up the enchanting sights we continue our run now towards Batal, a seasonal settlement of dhabas at the base of the Kunzum La in Lahaul providing food and shelter to travelers between Spiti and Lahaul. The cyclists have gone straight across the pass and are waiting for us near one of the dhabas. My co-runner Saba falls down exhausted after a long tiring day running sunrise till sunset at the end of the first week. We also regroup with our third co-runner Mani who has been having trouble with running / eating / high altitude and vomiting along the way for the past several days. The signs of pushing the physical limits of your body while running through this desolate high altitude environment in extreme weather conditions starts showing.
After refueling the lost calories and a peaceful night rest in one of the dhabas we resume our run from Batal at 4000m altitude to Gramphu where we hit the Manali-Leh highway. This high altitude stretch is completely off-road as many side-streams have washed away the road surface in several places. Perfect for dirt track trail running and this where the runners get ahead of the cyclists who focus on balancing on rocks now rather than speed. We meet more travelers in taxis and bikes on this section which connects Manali and Kaza, two tourist destinations. As we cross Chhatru and drive below the Rohtang pass we come across several sections where large parts of the road are washed away and vehicles are stuck. Groups of bullet motorcycle riders are pushing their bikes through knee deep streams over bumpy rocks.
Since I have been biking on these roads from 2001 this is an annual repeating sight as the government is not constructing bridges to funnel the side-streams crossed. Meanwhile we runners fly across these sections – the more off-road we go, the more efficient the human body performs against modern transportation. While running with a 10L minimalist pack past the heavily loaded motorcycles the fully-geared bikers are literally staring at us wondering how we manage food and night stay in this barren world. I guess very few people can let go of the city comforts even while roaming in the natural world. With a little bit of pre-planning and insight you can really go light. As we get down to Gramphu at 3300m the landscape slowly turns more green.
Once we step on the Manali-Leh highway we hit proper road again and traffic increases. Time for a second in-between break where we skip highway traffic and we hitch a ride to Shansha in the serene Pangi valley to bring down our overall target mileage of 700km so we can reach our destination Kishtwar on Day 12 before we corporate slaves have to surrender our freedom again. Along the bad Batal-Gramphu stretch one of our cyclists bent his wheel in one of the stream crossings and decides to drop out along with his co-cyclist. At the same time another runner joins us from Manali and meets us at a designated location/time agreed one week before as there was no mobile signal in Spiti valley.
We are now in a new configuration of 4 runners and 1 cyclist to carry our camping gears. Karthik’s cycle is now fully loaded with two tents and 5 sleeping bags – a good thing we did not bring much extra baggage. On the way to Shansha we cross Tandi at the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga river flowing down from the Baralachala pass to become the Chandrabhaga or Chenab river. Very few travelers take a left into the Chenab river valley, most head straight to Leh Ladakh. Near Tandi I see a rusted board put up by the HP Tourism Department which shows several interior trails / passes between the valleys which I had been exploring since 2000 on motorbike, cycle and while running in previous years.
At this very moment a seed got planted in the mind for my first Trans Himalayan ultra journey of 2018 where I would be crossing 40 high passes over 1500km, my first foray in the interior high passes, away from the valley roads which I followed so far. The planning work would involve weeks of studying topographic and satellite maps and hiking blogs to plan such a vast journey. Once we reached Shansha we were running again in peaceful surroundings with little vehicles on the road. The Chenab river valley flows at a much lower altitude then the Spiti river from Tandi at 3000m to Killar at 2400m finally exiting at Kishtwar at 1600m. As a result we enter a much greener world now with less extreme climate.
As we cross the last major village of Udaipur in Lahaul we leave the metalled road and step onto a dirt track for most of the remaining journey. Even though at lower altitude with more vegetation the Pangi valley is as dramatic as the highly eroded desert of Spiti. The Chenab river gains force as more glacial streams join in between from melting glaciers and it cuts deeper into the surrounding landscape. In some sections we run through beautiful pine forest on gradual valley slopes. In other sections the road cuts into the rocks of the near vertical slopes. At all times we remain on the “true right” (right while proceeding downstream) of the river. At regular intervals we cross side-streams which cut deep into the main valley, sometimes across bridges, sometimes simply wading through the water.
Majestic waterfalls are dropping down from the skies above. After running through the high altitude 4000m+ Spiti valley we are now fully acclimatized and with a mileage of 500K the legs are feeling rock solid now. Running at sub 3000m with more oxygen and moderate climate is much easier. Whenever the valley opens up we can see picturesque farming hamlets on slopes above. Sometimes you run through 15-20km of no-man’s land in between where you run through a steep gorge with the thundering Chenab raging below. Separated by the 5000m high Pir Panjal range from the lower Himalayas, the Chenab river valley is completely isolated in winter only accessible when the Sach or Rohtang passes are open.
In 2018-19 I would climb several passes across the Pir Panjal directly entering from the Chamba valley into the Chenab river valley. Kugti, Cheni, Chobia, Kalicho, Darati, Marhu – all passes used by the shepherds from Chamba to graze enormous herds of 500-1000 sheep in the high alpine meadows of Lahaul. As the road is mostly a dirt track and frequent landslides or side-streams wash away the road in some sections you hardly find any vehicles on the road. There is just one bus connection which halts mid-way at Tindi, the last village after which you leave Lahaul and enter Pangi valley, part of the Chamba district. Pangi has three beautiful side-valleys of Saichu, Hudan and Sural where you’ll find remote Bhuddist settlements.
A bit further we cross the main town of Killar at the base of the Sach pass, the only motorable pass that connects Chamba and Chenab river valleys. We now soon leave Himachal Pradesh and enter Jammu & Kashmir through a remote police checkpost. The well manned & armed checkpost ensures that no militants enter HP. We are now touching 2100m altitude and running through beautiful lush green pine forest – a feast for the eyes which were earlier deprived while running 1 week in a high altitude rock desert. Here again there is a long, beautiful no-man’s section where the jeep track hair pins up 700m above the river. The sun is setting already and we still have a long way to go till Ishtyari, the first village in Jammu district.
A bit further the runners get separated from the cyclist as we hike through shortcut trails while Karthik pulls up a heavy load while cycling uphill on the hair pin dirt track. It’s pitch dark by the time we reach back onto the main track and Karthik is nowhere to be seen. After waiting for a while we see a faint torch light slowly approaching in the still night. Yes! The team is complete again. Running gradually downhill now we pick up the pace trying to reach the village before people sleep and we don’t find food at the end of a tiring day. As the villagers see a few torch lights appearing from no-man’s land they are initially a bit wary whom to expect. Finally when they recognize us as travelers we get treated to warm J&K hospitality.
Some villagers get up, start cooking food for us and find a nice comfortable place with warm blankets to settle down for the night. We seem to be one of the first ones to run through this remote valley. We dream off like newborn babies with full tummies in the silent night. The next day we resume our way downstream and cross Paddar at the intersection of another major side-valley from where several passes (Umasi La, Poat La…) cross over the Great Himalayan Range into Zanskar. There is also a J&K police check post here. Next we enter another steep canyon-like section along the Chenab river where the road is blown out from the rocks using explosives. Glacial meltwater is flowing from the rocks above.
After a while the valley opens up again and we run through mesmerizing farming hamlets above the river. The villages are getting larger and the road in better condition as we approach Kishtwar where the Chenab river takes a sharp turn and finally exits the Himalayas near the city of Jammu. We are now running at 1600m and the midday sun is felt again so a refreshing dip beneath the waterfalls along the way is in place. The facial features of the local people here are quite different from Himachal – they have a more Hindu Kush type of appearance. After 4 days and 200km from Shansha we finally reach our destination Kishtwar from where we hop into a bus to Jammu. Regrouping with the entire team we dismantled and boxed up our trusty support cycles and flew back South to our home base in Chennai.
Spirits were high as the team successfully completed its 700K self supported journey through the mesmerizing remote valleys of Spit and Pangi, running a 50K ultra every day for 12 days non stop through high altitude, treacherous terrain. It was an inner journey through self discovery while pushing our physical boundaries in a remote, unseen world. An outward journey through mesmerizing, raw natural beauty untouched by human hand. A journey which took us to remote inhospitable places where we discovered humanity which we lost in our cities. As our plane took off from the runway of Jammu flying back home but our mind and soul remained behind wandering in the land of the Gods.