It was the winter of 2004 in Chitkul, a remote village in east Himachal.

It was my first back-packing trip. It was my first no-plans trip. It was my first trip in the mountains. I was travelling with Jasvipul on a 15 day trip through 10 different places in north India. I jumped at the chance because this was my last year in college and never again would I have a chance of doing such a low-cost, unplanned, freak trip again.

This particular hike was in Chitkul. I was accompanied by my buddy Jasvipul and his bro Sarvnipun. We had arrived there after travelling through Chandigarh - Shimla - Reckong Peo. Chitkul was literally the end of road. About 4km from Chitkul lay a small military outpost called Nagasti, accessible only by foot and air. And beyond that lay the Indo-China border. The hike was a flat and narrow stretch, about 3 ft wide, along the Baspa river on mountaineous slope. I think it was Sarvnipun who kindled the adventurous spark in us ... we wanted to do this hike! We would start the hike around 3pm and get back before dusk as it would get dark and very cold after that. Wow! We were all set for it.

Sarvnipun, Jasvipul and I started to hike out of Chitkul. Chitkul itself is a beautiful and mesmerising village. Log cottages, buddhist temples with intricrate wood work, local women doing their daily chores, kids with red cheeks, men at work on a carrom board - we didn't realise when and where we got lost. Very soon Sarvnipun and I were searching for Jasvipul. The two of us thought he must have already headed out of Chitkul for Nagasti. We too hit the trail and covered some distance - about a kilometer maybe. We asked some locals approaching from the other side if they saw a hiker go towards Nagasti. 'Nopes' was the answer at which stage we got a bit worried.

Sarvnipun wanted to go back to the village and look for his bro. But what a pity it would be to come this far and not see Nagasti. He suggested that I should continue the hike and go see Nagasti. The idea sounded reasonable to me. I was younger then (okay, atleast younger than I am right now when I write this piece) and the hunger for adventure was high. We agreed. So armed with some warm clothing and gloves, a Nikon D70, some water and a few chocolate bars in the backpack, I started off on the trail once again while Sarvnipun headed back to Chitkul. But these weren't the most important things I was carrying with me then. What would come to my rescue later were Sarvnipun's parting words.

The walk was lovely. How can I describe it? I am no poet. On my right lay the aqua-green Baspa river valley. On my left lay the reddish dusty mountains. And right ahead I could see the snow-capped mountains in Himalayan range. The scene was like Robert Frost's country reminding me of The Road Not Taken and Mending Wall. Anyways, I kept walking and reached the military post at Nagasti. At the entrance was a helipad (I guess the supplies had to come in somehow) and beyond lay a square fenced region the size of a few football fields. When I walked into the gates, the soldiers around were a bit surprised (to see a stranger?). I was told that one should get a written permit to visit Nagasti. Anyways, I was here now and they were warm enough to welcome me in. They took me around the place, showed me living rooms, mess area and play fields.

A couple of soldiers showed me the inside of their room. A small 8x8 area with 2 cots, a kitchen table in a corner and a bukhari (diesel powered heating system) in the center, the room was pretty spartan. Apparently the food in mess was just about okay, and a lot of soldiers cooked something different for themselves in their rooms (one of the soldiers was peeling peas when I was in his room). I now forget the soldier's name ... I remember he was from Karnataka. He was posted in Nagasti for 9 months, at another place for 2 months and had a month off in an year. To stay in such a remote place for 9 months - I think it is pretty hard core.

Before I could brood on their lives, I was told I should start back for Chitkul. Light and temperature would drop very fast in this month of the year. So after talking a couple of pictures I started back on what would be the longest walk of my life so far. Light and temperature dipped very fast indeed. The sky was getting violet and I was feeling the cold in my palms. I kept walking. But the distance never seemed to end. I reached out for some water and chocolate bars in the bag. The bars were frozen hard and took effort to bite and eat. And the energy gained was not enough to cover what seemed an endless distance. Nevertheless, I kept walking. I am not suggesting it was a very difficult hike. But trust me, I had to put in a lot of effort for each step I took. I was new to hiking, new to hiking in mountains, new to hiking in high altitude mountains, new to low temperatures - enough reasons to blunder. Low light and the steep Baspa valley didn't simplify the hike. In such situations, a thousand thoughts flash through your mind. The only reason I kept walking? Just before I left for Nagasti, Sarvnipun had said: As long as the village lights are in your view, never stop walking.

After what seemed an age, I remember finally reaching the village gate. I remember the Chawla brothers picking me up at the gate. I vaguely remember seeing the statues of deities Yin and Yang at the gate. What happened after that until I woke up in a warm bed with a hot dinner inside a wooden cabin is a blur. I remember Jasvipul telling me that I was regaining the color of my face.

I was very happy. Happy to be back with the pack. And to this day, I remember it as the longest walk in my life.


Written: Aug 2007