I speak to Mahi about the possibility of a 3-4 day trek in the Great Himalayan National Park area. I ‘d heard many times about Lapah village that lies farther away from Shangarh and also because it has a Forest Rest House built during the British times. On my first visit to Shangarh, our host Rana Ji had told us that the trail to Lapah village takes 4-5 hours and is very pretty.
At that time, I didn’t know that there was a different trail too for reaching Lapah. Mahi makes a full traverse plan where we will hike to Lapah from one trail via Niharni and return from Shumga Top via a different trail from Shangarh.
We take a Volvo bus from Delhi to Aut and enter Sainj Valley by a local HRTC bus. After reaching Aut at about 7 am, we have a quick chai at the usual chachu dhaba on the main road. Once we reach Sainj, Mahi is already at the bus stop and has fixed a camper that will drop us to the last road head of Niharni village. We make a brief stop at the GHNP Sai Ropa Rest House from where we have to collect the sleeping bags and tents for the trek. We also keep the extra stuff that we have with us at the Rest House complex from where it will reach Mahi’s village to be kept at the homestay.
Mahi and another local guy from Shangarh, nicknamed ‘Italy’ is with us. Our backpacks feel really heavy, what with me even carrying a bottle of wine to be enjoyed on the trek! After an hour or so of the drive in the camper, we reach Niharni at around 1030 am. It feels very hot and humid in the direct sunlight.
At the end of the road in Niharni, there is a solitary shop in a small wooden hut. We buy some candies and Mahi buys the required groceries and supplies like oil, dal, flour etc for the trek. The walking trail initially follows a road being built and is close to the river flowing by. The hike is a steady ascent and is in full sunshine. We are thankful that our water bottles are full since there seems to be no water source on the trail. The distance from Niharni to Lapah is around 7 kms and we are hopeful of making it to Lapah by 2-3 pm.
After about 40 odd minutes of trekking, the trail shortens and we are now walking in the shade. There are 2-3 Forest Rest House huts to our left and the place is called Bah. There is a lot of greenery and we are walking amidst endless Himalayan blue iris flowers. We continue walking and reach Bah village. It is a small village with 15-20 odd houses, almost all of them are wooden but there are one or two new homes being built in concrete. There is also a small spring water supply tap in the village and we fill our half empty water bottles.
We are a team of 6 trekkers and make steady progress. There are wildflowers growing in different colours like yellow, dark yellow, orange, white, pink etc. There is a shop in the village and Mahi buys some snacks and sweets from there. The villagers ask us for tea but we decide to continue trekking after a short breather. Mahi spots Lingdu ferns growing so he also picks some of them up to be made later for lunch or dinner in Lapah.
Mahi’s and Italy’s bags are really heavy with the tents, utensils and supplies. Even our backpacks are heavier after we pick up one sleeping bag each! After crossing Bah village, we come across a pretty wooden bridge over a flowing river. The trail is a nicely shaded walk through the jungle after a while and a cool breeze picks up.
It has taken us an hour and 20 minutes to cross the Forest Rest House located on the way to Lapah. It is set in a great location with the sound of gushing river with ample variety of greenery, and is recently renovated with fresh paint. The caretaker cannot be seen but Mahi confirms the Rest House is indeed open and one can stay here.
If it was not so close to our starting point, we might have actually wanted to stay at this Forest Rest House in Bah. I really like the look of this place, it is nice and pristine and is only an hour’s walk from the road. From here the uphill ascent to Lapah village begins.
Through the jungle, the path is well defined and the sweet aroma of deodhar wood and the beauty of wildflowers is very inviting. The trail seems to be quite well used and is clearly visible. There are shrines of Banshera Devta and Jehar Devta visible near the bridge. It is a steep ascent from now on and we keep taking short breaks on the climb wherever there is ample space to sit and catch a breather with the nice breeze blowing.
We are amid a sea of Himalayan iris flowers and as the altitude increases, it is an incredibly pretty setting especially with the flowers in bloom. The trail is zig-zag and we are in a thick canopy of the jungle with other flowers in pink and red colour similar to bougainvillea. After an hour or so of the ascent, the views open up and there are mountains and a valley visible to our left. The weather still feels quite hot in direct sunshine.
Just as we wish, the breeze picks up and we are in a gorgeous landscape on all our sides, amidst towering pine trees. It is around 2 pm and Mahi tells us we should reach Lapah in another hour. I am also aware of the old British built FRH in Lapah but Mahi is not sure if the caretaker is in the village. Mahi and Italy know someone in Lapah village though and are certain that we can stay at a local’s home in Lapah.
We make one final ascent and see the first homes of Lapah at about 2 pm. They are nice huge homes, built in wood and stone in the traditional architecture style. In the valley below, 3-4 homes can be seen spread across a large area. These appear especially pretty due to the green roof on them!
After walking for a few more minutes, we reach the main square of Lapah village where stands a tall temple. Mahi knows someone here and we say hi to one Babli Didi who’s home is adjacent to the temple. A few of Italy’s relatives live in Lapah village. First they set about finding a way if someone can cook lunch for us. The villagers of Lapah have a traditional mindset and say hello to us but don’t really invite us inside their homes. That is also the reason why we are unable to get a local to host us for a stay in Lapah.
We cross the open space in the centre of the village and go to the Forest Rest House. Almost all the buildings in Lapah are old and the lower storey is used as a place for storing fodder for cattle and livestock. Our first target is to agree on a place to stay because even though we have our tents but we would still prefer to stay at the Forest Rest House (FRH). The Forest House is located in one corner of Lapah and comprises of two hut rooms with a green roof. The kitchen is separate and can be accessed by a flight of stairs.
We unload our backpacks and lie down in the open space just outside the rooms of the FRH. Mahi and Italy go to find the caretaker and take the key from him. There is ample sitting space in the verandah and we park ourselves there as there is direct sunshine in the open area. Mahi returns with the keys and tells us that our lunch is ready in the house adjacent to the temple where we had entered Lapah from. We keep our bags inside the rooms and rush to the home where our lunch is going to be served! We are very very hungry after hiking and not having had even a proper breakfast.
The door of the temple in Lapah is very beautiful. The village itself looks even more prettier bathed in the afternoon sunshine. The homes are spread in wide open spaces and maybe that gives Lapah a very spacious feel. The path to the Forest Rest House is lined with Himalayan iris flowers and is a majestic sight. When we are sitting at the local’s home for lunch, someone is supposed to bring the bedsheets and cushion covers and blankets for the rooms of the FRH.
At the local’s home, we sit in the beautiful open courtyard that overlooks the valley below. The boundaries of the house are surrounded by colourful roses in a wooden fence. The family has laid out mattresses for us in the open space and a nice breeze blows when we are in the shade. We are surrounded by wild roses growing in abundance.
After a while, when the plates are given to us outside the home; I finally realise that Lapah village is a village with a traditional mindset and they don’t want us to come inside their houses. Lunch is freshly cooked simple dal and rice but is very tasty and we have second helpings because we are ravenously hungry! We are super lazy after the heavy lunch and end up lying down on the mattresses and doze off for a bit. Village kids come after a while and chat up with us.
The washing space of the house is located in the open near the washroom and we are supposed to wash the plates and keep them on the pavement itself. When I see that there is only an old lady in the house, I offer to come up and help her keep the plates inside but she refuses and subtly indicates that I should not be climbing the stairs.
We relax for an hour in the open space and had already got our towels for us to have a bath. Bathroom with geyser is there in the washroom and we are overjoyed with the possibility of having a bath. It is getting cooler as the day is progressing and we understand it is better to have a bath when the sun is still out.
After a refreshing bath and round of chai later, we walk back to the Forest Rest House at about 430 pm. We are relaxed and take a leisurely walk around the entire village and see the locals going about their daily life and kids playing cricket.
It is a fun moment when we are about to reach the Forest Rest House and spot an open green space on an elevated area. Kids are playing and have made a small wooden devta which they are carrying around like in a ceremony or festival. A furry goat comes by and a kid who has a stick tries to scare it off. Instead of getting scared, the goat get aggressive and it ensues in a hilarious moment when the kids run around shelter-skelter with the goat around! A few cute sheep also come by as the evening progresses.
We get back to the FRH at 515 pm and are greeted with gorgeous evening light on the Himalayan iris flowers. Mahi picks some of them up and puts them on my white Himachali hat. The views from the Forest Rest House are impeccable and we can spot some snowy peaks too.
It is with disbelief that we hear the sound of thunder; the weather suddenly changes and we can see dark and ominous clouds. Local women come by to chat with us and the caretaker’s wife also visits to check the beds etc. We sit on nearby rocks and hillocks and enjoy the evening breeze.
In no time, it starts raining and Mahi is ready with the batter for pakoras. It seems as if the weather gods were listening to Mahi because he has been talking about making pakoras since lunch and we kept telling him pakoras would be great if it rained! He and Italy cut the onions and potatoes to be mixed in the flour for pakoras.
Mahi gets a wok for the oil and firewood is aplenty in the kitchen. As soon as the first round of pakoras is ready, the rain comes pouring down and we enjoy it even more! It gets super cold as the rain continues and what was till now a normal day feels like an adventure now!
The breeze seeps in through our flimsy jackets and we implore Mahi to make super strong masala chai for us! The iris flowers look even more prettier when they are bathed in the rain and the smell of petrichor is alluring. Mahi is in full flow and keeps frying another round of pakoras. A few villagers have also gathered and sit playing cards! We also offer them a round of pakoras.
The kitchen is in darkness as electricity has gone and it is becoming difficult to see properly in the candlelight and mobile torches at about 630 pm. A few locals also gather there (Nishant is Mahi’s friend and is the main Forest guy in the area). The pakoras are especially yummy and we gorge on them! Tea preparations are in full swing with ginger, and freshly picked mint leaves. We have tea in darkness and have one last round of pakoras with tea at around 7 pm.
Sit and play card games and dumb charades in the room, it is great fun! Electricity comes at around 9 pm and we are so full that there is no chance of eating dinner. Nishant comes and sits with us, offers us juice etc. Mahi and his friends sit for an alcohol session. We decide to skip dinner and sleep as the day has been very tiring.
After all, we have come straight from the Volvo from Delhi and have directly trekked to Lapah village.
Sleep comes easily and the beds feel very cosy since we are very tired. It has got quite cold after the rain and a chilly breeze blows in Lapah in the night. We are thankful that there are big blankets provided that keep us warm.
We wake up early morning at about 7 am and decide to leave after a quick breakfast. The caretaker’s wife brings us tea and aloo paranthas and we eat them in bright sunshine. Today our plan is to hike up to Sara Lake and Shumga Top and possibly camp somewhere in between. We end up leaving from Lapah at around 9 am after paying the required amount to the caretaker through Mahi. The Forest Rest House in Lapah is an excellent choice to stay. We thank Nishant bhai too before leaving. He is a very kind gentleman for such a young age.
Immediately after we leave Lapah, there is a nonstop steep ascent that goes through the green and yellow fields. The sun is very bright and we start sweating while huffing and puffing on the climb. As we get to a higher altitude, the houses of Lapah look like colourful cardboards. After about an hour, we reach a plain flat land with 8-9 houses spread in different areas. If memory serves me right, it was just an extension of Lapah village. It might have been a different area for the same village but people of a different caste living; like many other villages in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
There is full sunshine in these parts, and the yellow wheat crop looks golden in colour here and seems to be ready for harvesting. We are sweating and tired already, with the long ascent through the open fields.
The homes on this ridge have a grand view as a number of snow peaks are visible from here. A few kids can be seen playing and loitering around. We sit in the shade under one of the unused structures and relax.
There is a solitary shop in the village and we buy candies, biscuits, tea leaves and other essentials. The hike to Sara Lake is about 2 hours from here and we decide to leave. There is a small temple on the ridge too but we have already picked our backpacks and just continue on the path. We have already refilled our water bottles.
Mahi stays back saying he has to meet someone in the village and some of us go ahead while I come with Italy. The trails past the village are numerous and confusing. We ascend through booming deodhar trees and Himalayan iris flowers. After 10 odd minutes we come to a gorgeous green meadow with fenced marijuana fields. There is a serene breeze blowing and it appears as if some of us have lost our way in the jungle!
So, me and Italy decide to wait and lie down and relax in the meadow where there is a dog playing and an old man is smoking a beedi. Seeing the marijuana field reminds me of of an Italian traveller mentioning about Lapah and telling me that the village is well known for its high quality stuff!
A few other locals come and sit with us, they are grazing their cows. After a while, Italy and me leave our bags there and go around trying to find other members of our trekking gang. Our friends come in some time, we start walking again and come across 2-3 huge houses in the meadows. We think it would make for an excellent place to camp and the locals confirm that it is indeed open for camping groups.
There is another steep ascent through the jungle and the aroma of the dense forest is magical. We take numerous breaks for photography and to catch our breath on the zigzag trails. After climbing a fair bit of distance, it is time for a snack break and we are carrying almonds from Uzbekistan.
We reach the Gaddi shepherds camping ground at around 1 pm. The Gaddi shepherds are camping in a meadow that is located just above Sara Lake and has a grand view of snowy peaks. The shepherds have let their sheep and goats out to graze and are playing cards in the shade under a tree. It is nice and breezy here and we leave our bags in the sun and sit for a while in the shade.
In no time 2 furry dogs of the Gaddis come and start playing with us. We walk to the lake that is only 5 minutes away from the camping spot. The Gaddi shepherds inform us that the water source is a fair distance away from here and can take an hour! We are glad that our bottles are full and skip and jump to reach Sara Lake. The lake is set in a shallow bowl and is surrounded by trees. The water itself appears dirty and the locals are aware that it is not fit for drinking as there are many insects in it.
Mahi has got paranthas packed with pickle from Lapah village to be our lunch for today. We eat the paranthas sitting on a tree trunk in the shade with a view of Sara Lake. We are super hungry and lunch tastes heavenly in the setting. After polishing off the paranthas, Mahi and Italy pose for an eternity trying to get the perfect instagram/facebook picture. It is only 2 pm but we are already feeling very sleepy.
We find the perfect spot for our tents that also has a view of the snowy peaks. Mahi tells us to pitch the tents while he and Italy go in search of water. The sky clears up even more and the snowy peaks become more prominent. Sheep come and graze near our bags. The shepherds have also gone to fill water and two of them have dozed off. We also sit in the meadow and gaze at the snow peaks and while away time. Our tummies are full and content and it is fun to look at the cloud play in the sky.
We sleep under the trees and doze off on the mats. It is fun to read some book that I’m carrying in this spectacular setting. It is nearing evening and we are already thinking about our masala chai! Mahi comes and tells us that the water source is really far away! Italy divulges the information that there is a hillock near the water source on which the mobile network comes and we are all aware of Mahi’s fascination with mobile network and bangdis!
It is at around 5 pm when we decide to give up our laziness and decide to roam around. There is a small flat meadow on a left turn before Sara Lake surrounded by a forest and with open views of the sky. It is a gorgeous scene with pretty colours in the sky and conical pine trees. Some of us take turns stepping on a protruding stone and getting ourselves clicked.
We come back to the shepherds area after that and sit near their kitchen tent. They are like local Gaddis and take the goats and sheep for grazing for a fee. One of the young chaps is making chapatis on firewood and it smells divine. He tells us about the rates etc that these guys charge for grazing sheep and goats for the season and also how they take turns doing the work and dividing the work.
At about 530 pm, the clouds change character and seem like becoming darker. All of us collect stones, some firewood and Mahi lights a fire to make tea and a early dinner. The dinner menu is masala pulao. We take turns for helping in making the tea and the views are great with surreal skies. The tea turns out to be delicious. The snowy peaks look pink and orange in the evening light. We get back to our campsite just before dark.
Dinner is yummy and the pulao has been very nicely made by Mahi. We also drink the wine that we had carried, while looking at the stars and marvelling at the night skies. These are surreal scenes and we sing songs and chit chat. We go inside our tents and are thankful that the sleeping bags are of good quality. It is quite cold in the night and warm inside our tents.
We wake up nice and relaxed early next morning and the sun is shining brightly. We find our spots in the jungle for the morning duties. For breakfast we have tea and biscuits and we leave for Shumga Top at 815 am. Our target for the day is to trek to Shumga and then reach Shangarh village before the end of the day.
The trail to Shumga top starts from just beside Sara Lake and is through a dense jungle. We leave our backpacks at the campsite itself and just carry our daypacks to Shumga as the path to Shangarh is from close to Sara Lake only.
It is a well defined trail and after an hour of walking in the forest, we come to an open ridge. There is a small patch of green with wildflowers of various colours growing. We pick up a bunch of yellow, purple, white wildflowers and in the background of the blue skies click a memorable photograph.
We continue ascending to Shumga top and after the ridge area is crossed many snowy peaks are visible. We reach a lush green meadow after crossing a small forest and spot a few locals digging something. Upon closer inspection, they tell us that they are digging for wild garlic that grows beneath the ground. It is used as a herb and is apparently sold at 30,000 Rupees per kilo. We sit for a while and enjoy the expansive views from the meadow. Some of us start the climb to Shumga Top, it is around 400 metres hike from where we are.
It is stark sunshine but still feels nice and cold when a breeze blows.
We start walking back to Sara Lake at around 1030 am and since it is a descent, we make it in no time. We thank the shepherd gang, take our backpacks and start walking on the trail to Shangarh. Our path is a level walk today and we make it to Barshangarh at around 130 pm. It is a easy walk and since we are all looking forward to proper relaxation at a homestay in Shangarh, perhaps our pace is faster!
We drink plenty of water at the waterfall in Barshangarh. It is a beautiful spot and even though the sun is shining brightly and it is very hot and humid here, we wash our faces in the water and continue walking on the road now. Mahi has called a camper to take us to the homestay in Shangarh.
We sit in a nice meadow surrounded with Himalayan iris flowers and are happy to make full use of the internet connectivity. It is around 230 pm now and the last bit of walking on the road in the stark sunshine feels tiring. Camper guy comes after another 1 hour.
We are super hungry and exhausted. We have had nothing to eat after our meagre breakfast and wonder if we should have continued walking to the homestay! When the camper finally comes, we haul our bags in the carrier and some of us sit and others stand in the open. As hot as the proceedings are, it suddenly starts raining and there are hailstones and crazy scenes!
We stay at the homestay of Singh Sahab’s son, Vikram Singh’s homestay. Vikram Singh’s son Varun is a friend of Mahi and we are delighted to stay here away from the crowds of Shangarh.
We finally reach the homestay at around 5 pm and the ones in the open have born the brunt of the rainfall and are drenched. We rush indoors to dry ourselves. The camper guy takes advantage of the situation and takes 800 Rupees. Later, Mahi asks me and takes 300 Rs. back from him! We are still very hungry and the first guests at the homestay. The rooms are nice and huge and very comfortable. The bathroom is not attached and is located in a separate area.
We are in the midst of an apple orchard and the setting is immaculate. Since it is a very odd time for lunch/dinner, Mahi has already gone off with the camper guy and brings back freshly made chowmein for us! He has forgotten to bring spoons but we are so hungry that we continue eating with our hands! It is a hilarious scene as the Frenchman with us also eats the super spicy chowmein with his hands!
Excellent coffee is served to us and Vikram Ji is very kind to prepare another round of coffee when we ask for it! The homestay family have been apprised of our plans for dinner. There is a geyser in the bathroom and we are all very keen on having a bath after 2 days. We take turns so that everyone gets hot water.
The weather is perfect and the views are superb, especially when we see it from the first floor balcony. The aroma of deodhar wood in the room is enchanting. The snow peaks are visible when the weather clears and night falls after that. There is a furry family dog at the homestay, Shyna.
The dinner is served at about 8 pm and is very yummy! It is served in casseroles and is very nicely made. We are so hungry that we finish everything! We sit in the balcony and enjoy the comforts of this beautiful homestay.
Next day, we leave for Mahi’s home!