In 2017, I had met up with some friends at a restaurant for a late night supper. One of my friend’s friends called Deborah who lived nearby dropped in for a chat. Deborah brought up that she was looking for friends to go with on a mountain trek in India. Our mutual friend (he had been in an outdoor adventure club with Deborah) had been her first candidate, but he was in a busy time of his career and couldn’t commit. However, another guy at the table (Shaun) and I became interested. Deborah pulled up the webpage of the trekking company she intended to go with, called Indiahikes. The trek was at a place called Har Ki Dun, and the pictures of the Indian Himalayas looked spectacular.
I had never even been to anywhere in India before; this might be a good start. A few days later, I messaged Deborah confirming that I wanted to join her on this trip. Shaun had agreed to join as well, and after a few planning meetings, we confirmed that we would be going to India from 20 April to 1 May 2018.
I had never really gone on a multi-day camping trip before outside of my time in the army, so I had to acquire most of my hiking and camping gear. This was before I discovered ultralight backpacking, but with memories of my unnecessarily heavy field pack during army route marches, I did resolve to carry only what was needed, hopefully without breaking the bank.
I visited local outdoor stores at Velocity@Novena mall and Decathlon. Lots of cash flew out of my bank account buying new shoes, baselayers, socks, and jackets. I was definitely getting prepared; maybe too prepared. I would learn in the future which purchases were good and which I would regret a little.
My final gear loadout was nowhere near ultralight; after packing it all in a 75L backpack I’d already owned, I realised all my stuff crept upwards to about 10kg, before water! And this was without food and the tent, which was going to be taken care of by Indiahikes. The backpack still had too much empty space and was more than 2kg; it had to be switched with a smaller one. I didn’t have time to properly figure out the best smaller backpack to buy. Thankfully, my friend had a smaller capacity backpack to lend me that was a kilo lighter. I managed to fit about everything in.
We were going up to a very high altitude; up to 3568m! The air was going to be thinner there; I’ll need to get fitter. Unfortunately, having planned a trip to Japan with lots of eating and sightseeing that would have only ended about a week before 20 April, I didn’t put in as much time exercising as I’d hoped. We (Deborah, Shaun, and I) did do a trail run together at MacRitchie Nature Reserve and also some stair walking up Bukit Timah (Singapore’s highest natural point, at about 200m only), where I struggled behind them. I did do a few short runs on my own. But my training was mostly at sea level, and I was anxious that it wasn’t enough. I would have to see.
Getting to Har Ki Dun
To get to Har Ki Dun, we first had to fly to New Delhi, where we planned to stay a night. The next day, we would take a train to Dehradun, a city in the north.
At that point, we’d meet up with the Indiahikes trek leader and other trekkers, and they’ll drive us to the town of Sankri where the start of the trail is. The whole journey would take us three days (I share about it here), spread out so the transit wouldn’t be so fatiguing, and hopefully we’ll still be in good shape when starting the trek.
After a night at Hotel Ashrey in Dehradun, we woke up early the next morning, packed up, and walked to the train station to meet up with the trek leader from Indiahikes. As we waited, more trekkers in the group arrived. Eventually everyone was there. The van hired by Indiahikes came, and we squeezed in.
The drive to Sankri was going to take a long eleven hours, although we did have regular breaks for toilets and meals. I listened to podcasts and audiobooks to pass the time between naps.
One of the towns we stopped on the way was Mussoorie. We were given some time to take a short walk around this busy highland town, with a constant flow of traffic passing through.
We tried a popular local dish at the Lovely Omelette Centre, made in their own style: an omelette wrapped around a piece of toast and cheese. This food stall also gives free omelettes to schoolchildren!
After Mussoorie, the long drive continued, with a good view of rural settlements as we sped past on a narrow road carved out of the mountainside.
A few hours before dark, we reached Sankri, where a small mountain hostel — The ‘Gypsy Child’ — has been booked for us to stay a night. That evening, we were given a short brief by our Indiahikes trek leader Bhupi during dinnertime, before we went to sleep in our bunks. I sat there quietly, but a few of the other trekkers initiated conversation, and we talked a bit.
We started walking at the bottom of the valley through the forest at the beginning, but eventually the foliage thinned out as we moved slowly upwards. Already from the first day, the snow-capped peaks were visible ahead as we walked.
For someone new to the Himalayas, the scenery was too picturesque. As we moved left of the river, I stopped way too frequently to take in the views and snap photos.
I tried to carry all my own gear (sans shelter and food, provided by Indiahikes and ported by mules) on the first day. But as the day passed, I was getting quickly exhausted. I was clearly a bit physically underprepared, and also discovered the torso length of the backpack I had borrowed was too short, with the bottom pressing into the small of my back. At the end of the first day, I requested to offload my backpack to the mules doing our portage. I was able to continue on this trek just carrying what I needed for the day in a foldable daypack I had brought.
The first campsite was still at a fairly low altitude with a warmer temperature, and flies buzzed around irritatingly. But as we climbed higher, the campsites got more scenic and more pleasant. Hot, piping Indian vegetarian food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was prepared by the kitchen and support crew that also went ahead of us and set up our tents before we arrived.
During the day, we also sometimes stopped by small shelters where a local usually had a fire going, ready to brew some chai or cook some instant noodles (with an extra egg scrambled in if requested) for trekkers they’ve come to expect passing by. We had been advised not to buy maggi mee from them, as that encourages them to bring in packaged goods. The packaging is either littered, or burned in the same fire they cook in (which I saw them do in front of me). I did eat the noodles a couple of times in moments of weakness. But I wouldn’t do it again next time.
During the frequent breaks we take from the tiring upward walking (especially with the thinning oxygen making it more challenging as we go along), we stopped at meadows to rest, and chat with fellow trekkers. In these moments, and also during our communal dinners in the dining tent, we got to know each other, and soon we were becoming fast friends with many of the others.
On our third day of trekking, we reached our final camp at Har Ki Dun, before the return trip. Reaching at noon, it was warm and sunny enough to strip down to our T-shirts. We choose our tents, get comfortable, and stroll around the meadow.
In a few hours, the wind suddenly picked up, the weather turned chilly, and the sky became cloudy. A snowstorm was brewing! We all went back and huddled in our tents as small specks of snow began falling, first bit by bit, then in greater quantities. A peek outside our tent during the storm saw the previously bare mountain we were camping at the foot of turning white with a new covering of snow.
The snowing ended by nighttime, and we’re able to head to the dining tent for dinner before turning in.
We woke up the next day, all bundled up, but still shivering with the temperature dipping below zero in the night. Today is a day hike departing from this campsite as a base, where we return to later. We walked on a fairly level trail in valley with snowy slopes on either side, further upriver where the stream is reducing to a small trickle, as this is the point the mountain ice is melting into river water. We stopped at an open area to have fun on the nearby slopes tobogganing down on their cheap ponchos, or making snowballs to throw at each other.
When we returned to our base camp, there was still plenty of daylight to relax or explore. A short walk took me to the view of the valley I saw online which got me to come here to see it for myself. Surrounded by such indescribable beauty, I started tearing.
After one more night up here, we have to go, as much as I would love to stay here a bit longer. The descent was not necessarily easier, with rocky paths to negotiate downwards this time.
The return trip back on the other side takes us past the old mountain village of Osla. Some of the buildings have religious designs in their architecture predating Hinduism. The kids played in tattered clothes. I noticed women doing the washing together in another part of town. There was a lot of plastic litter all over the village — the sad result of modern packaging materials entering a society that doesn’t know how to handle them.
The day after, we were back at the Gypsy Child in Sankri again. A night’s stay in town, and soon after, we’ll be back on the van, heading back towards the hustle and bustle in Dehradun, and eventually all the way back to Singapore. I’ve seen awesome mountains now, and made some new friends from India. This trip just stirred up a hunger to go out in the world, and hike more.
When I came back, I wondered where I could go next, and what new gear I should acquire. I may have just finished a mountain trek, but my journey as a serious hiker was just beginning.