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Adventure Travel

Apr 18, 2018

How Locals are Saving Delhi’s Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary

Delhi locals are overcoming fear-mongering and illegal mining operations by venturing outdoors, volunteering and ensuring that a hidden swimming hole in Delhi's backyard, the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, remains pristine and blue.

Though most of us will never act on it, I believe at some point we all have an impulse to go away. What happens when that impulse becomes an inner directive?

Upon looking at the geological makeup of the range on Google maps, the deserted wilderness struck us as something unbelievable.

Marc’s impulse to leave his country had landed him in India almost 14 years ago. Having been brought up in the Pacific Northwest, he spent most of his time outdoors. He loved scouting the unknown, and trying new things. He often speaks about his time spent exploring the backcountry in the state of Washington. Spending days around lakes while searching for life outside of our own species excited him the most. He’d often pick still water mollusks and bring them home.

Having resigned to a life in one of the most polluted cities in the world for the last seven years, Marc and I lamented the lack of outdoor activities. Most people living in Delhi seemed to be more interested in going to the mall rather than exploring the outdoors. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t in our culture and was new to people, it occurred to me that there was also a lack of education and appreciation.

We had spent most of the winter and spring going to Sanjay Van – a forested area within the Aravalli range. The boulders in Sanjay Van had widened our perspective on the scope of an outdoor scene in Delhi. But as soon as we felt the sweat from Delhi’s unforgiving heat, we felt the need for a body of water. The closest city we could have thought of was Rishikesh, however, the presiding thought of a 6-hour long drive made it less compelling.

Is the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary a Mirage? Too Good to be True?

On the contrary, and on one uncomfortably hot Saturday, Marc stumbled upon Asola Wildlife Sanctuary on his phone; a forested region scattered over the south of the city of Delhi, along the Haryana border – the Faridabad and Gurgaon districts. A ride just 40 minutes away from where we lived.

The search had also led us to sources across forums with fear mongering reviews where a moniker such as “Death Valley” was intermittently used to describe the sanctuary. While Marc appeared least concerned I couldn’t get over my preoccupation with Faridabad being one of the most crime-ridden cities around Delhi. Furthermore, whenever I spoke to others about it, I was repeatedly asked to err on the side of caution.

However, upon looking at the geological makeup of the range on Google Maps, the deserted wilderness struck us as something unbelievable.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

In a city with more than 17 million people, we were shocked to see how remote the sanctuary felt.

Come Saturday, Marc had already made up his mind whereas I was a bit apprehensive in the beginning and kept reminding him of the dangers of visiting such a place. It wasn’t until a 45-minute ride and then, walking for another 20 minutes on the deserted trail, that my perspective on the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary began to change. Although I was still a bit skeptical, the seemingly endless relief from having found a swimmable lake in Delhi had renewed not only his sense of appreciation for the capital but mine as well.

Signs of Wildlife All Around Us

Following our hike on the rutted track, we immediately registered the first sign of fauna around the region. Seven-inch-long hollowed quills made us cognizant of the presence of Asiatic porcupines in the region – an animal I thought existed only in North and South America. Peacocks and peahens were a common sight and so were blue bulls. What wasn’t common was the sudden appearance of a hyena that went off the trail as soon as it became wary of our presence.

Illegal Mining’s Lasting Impacts

In a city with more than 17 million people, we were shocked to see how remote the sanctuary felt. As I walked further out to a banyan tree, a gentle warm breeze swept over me and I began to follow up on my findings prior to entering the sanctuary. Once an illegal mining operation facility, Asola had been amongst the most coveted regions for construction businesses avariciously excavating red sand, stone, and other minerals.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the Government decided to put an embargo on the mining operations and declared it a wildlife sanctuary. Over time, the deep-pits around the sanctuary have filled up with water and have morphed into lakes with an ecosystem healthy enough to sustain life.

Upon reaching the blue lake, we were surprised to spot a clear body of water. The oasis appeared so blue in colour that I was mesmerized. Unfortunately, we found beer bottles and pollution strewn across the beach. Marc was visibly upset and immediately began cleaning.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: 21 Marine Sanctuaries That Are a Step in the Right Direction.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Launching Operation Clean Up

We started visiting every week. The blue lake, despite its deadly reputation, was popular amongst the local kids. Soon enough some of the kids spotted us cleaning the shore and decided to volunteer. It wasn’t long before we had a group to ourselves where we discussed ways in which we could clean the beach.

Within a short span of time, our objective was clear; before we left to put up with our own challenges, we had to clean the shore for at least 30 minutes. And thus, with each visit, our pile of garbage kept getting bigger and bigger and the local kids who we’d befriended became more sensible in their approach to the environment.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Why We Fear “Death Valley”

“This lake demands a sacrifice every year.”

On one hand we had the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary, home to one of the oldest mountain systems in the world, and on the other, we had the familiar bad habits of those littering the environment.

How much longer can it sustain itself without the intervention of those who understood its ecology? Who understood the importance of preserving an ecosystem that not only supports life in it, but around it. For far too long, its image had been smeared with irrational fears and superstitions.

Over time, we learned that the moniker, “Death Valley” was mostly related to drowning where amateur or non-swimmers from the local village had accidentally drowned. One time, Marc, along with some local friends had to rescue an adult who had jumped into the lake without giving it a thought.

Following his near-death experience, a conversation broke out and we overheard a person from the group saying, “this lake demands a sacrifice every year.” It was sad to register how deeply rooted our superstitions and irrational fears are and how much impact they have on our perception of our surroundings.

Photo © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Having said that, so long as we can attempt to think beyond ourselves and be a little more considerate of our surroundings, our appreciation of nature will grow. However, it demands a conscious effort. The Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary itself has, over time, transformed into a healthy ecosystem and set the tone.

Our obligation would be to expand upon it. While Marc remains committed to restoring the beach, more friends have joined the cleaning bandwagon. This paradise of ours that we have just set our foot in has sheer cliffs extending above the blue surface of the water. High rock faces are scattered all across the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary along with several diving spots. A more ideal setting for outdoor enthusiasts or adventurers couldn’t have existed in Delhi’s backyard.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: How the Plogging fad turned into the missing piece in one of my life’s missions.

Feature image © Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

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Expeditions

May 21, 2019

Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Peter Van Geit, wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, Founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, shares the field notes from his 1500 km alpine-style run across 40 high altitude passes the Himalaya.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

During the summer of 2018, I completed a three-month journey across 40 high altitude passes in Spiti, Pangi, Chamba, Kinnaur, Shimla and Kangra districts of Himachal, in the Himalaya. As always, I ran alpine style, which means self-navigated and with minimal gear through forests, alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, snow and wild streams. Although I did meet up with a few friends for portions of the journey, my mostly solo exploration took me to many lesser known passes only used by shepherds including Chobia, Chaini, Kugti, Pratap Jot, Thamsar, Kaliheni, Lar La, Padang La and Buran to name a few.

In the following collection of photos and captions, I jumped districts and valleys across the Pir Panjal, Dauladhar and Baspa ranges traversing through the picturesque valleys of Pangi, Saichu, Sural, Miyar, Hudan, Chandra, Tsarap, Zanskar, Lingthi, Lugnak, Lug, Barot, Ravi, Pin, Parbati, Baspa, Chenab, Buddhil Nai, Pabbar, Chamba and Spiti.

The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes.

Several weeks went into planning the route, analyzing maps including OSM (Open Street Maps), SOI (Survey of India), Google Earth, Olizane and various reference blogs. Credit goes to Sathya Narayanan who inspired me through his solo trekking explorations and wonderful blog before he went missing last August. Also thanks to my close friend Maniraj who identified many trails. Navigation (and photography) was done with my OnePlus 6 mobile and offline OpenTopoMaps. A total elevation gain of 200,000 meters with seven passes above 5,000 meters and 21 passes above 4,000 meters. Being an ultra runner and minimalist, carrying only 6kg luggage, most of the pass crossings were done in just one to two days after initial acclimatization, covering 30-40 km every day. The remaining time I traveled on HPRTC buses in between sections. The journey went across colorful alpine meadows, high altitude desert, vast glaciers, wild stream crossings, huge moraines, steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a few technical climbs and wilderness navigation near a few unused trails.

On many nights, I overnight camped in the tent I carried with me, but many times I stayed in shelters with shepherds and mountain tribes and in many welcoming homes at remote, hospitable villages. My food packing was kept basic with no cooking tools to reduce weight. No technical gear was carried except for a pair of hiking poles to assist in crossing streams, ice slopes, and landslides. The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes. I indulged in lip-smacking local cuisine, encountered hikers and wildlife in the remotest corners of the Himalaya, and listened to beautiful music on local instruments. More details on passes, route, preparation, photos, and videos of my journey can be found at ultrajourneys.org.

Saichu Valley Apline Meadow, Pangi

Traversing beautiful alpine meadows dotted with pink and yellow flowers in the remote Saichu Valley in Pangi beyond the last village of Tuan. These higher altitude meadows of Saichu are grazed by many herds of the shepherds who migrate each summer from Chamba valley through one of the many passes across the Pir Panjal range. Here on the way to explore an unknown jot (5,260 m) trying to cross over from Saichu to Miyar valley.

Shepherd descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m)

Descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m) with a shepherd guiding his 500 sheep into the beautiful cloud indulged Chamba valley below. Kugti is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range used by shepherds for their annual migration to graze the high altitude meadows. Here we are crossing over from Rapay village along the Chenab river in Lahaul to the picturesque Kugti village in Bharmour, Chamba. The Kugti pass requires traversing of moraines and landslide-prone slopes on either side of the pass.

High altitude meadows of the Miyar valley

Bright red alpine flowers in the high altitude meadows (4200m) of the Miyar valley while descending the Pratap Jot (5,100 m) pass onto the moraines of the Kang La glacier. Pratap Jot is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range separating the Miyar and Saichu valleys. Around 10 shepherds and their 3000+ sheep graze the beautiful meadows of Saichu valley every year crossing one of these passes. The 25km long Kang La glacier seen here connects Lahual/Pangi with Zanskar, Ladakh – walking across this vast moraines landscape of huge boulders and rocks on top of melting ice is quite challenging.

Best friends in the mountains

“The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.”

Your best friends in the mountains – the gaddi’s! Here preparing hot chai, fluffy roti and yummy aloo gravy for two starved (and half frozen) travelers after an icy crossing of the Rupin pass with heavy snowfall and hazel during mid-September 2018. The shepherds leave home at the start of summer in May and cross several high altitude passes to graze their large herds of 300 to 600 sheep and goats in the remotest corners of the Himalaya returning only six months later in Sep-Oct. Every few weeks they descend to the nearest village to resupply rice, atta and other food items. They use home woven blankets and clothing to stay warm in their temporary shelters in the alpine meadows between 3,000 to 4,000 meters altitude. The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.

Chobia pass glacier

A heavily crevassed glacier as seen from the top of the Chobia pass (4,966 m), shepherd gateway across the Pir Panjal range separating the valleys of Lahaul/Pangi and Chamba. As per shepherds, the Chobia pass is the second most treacherous pass (after Kalicho) to cross the Pir Panjal range leaving around 20 out of 500 sheep dead during the annual crossing of this pass. From the Pangi side at Arat village along the Chenab river, one has to traverse steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a vast section of moraines and negotiate deep crevasses in the glacier (following a trail of sheep poop) before ascending a final steep rock to reach the narrow pass. On the Chamba side on the way to Seri Kao village, all bridges were washed away during flash floods in August 2018 requiring scaling steep trail-less slopes on one side of the valley unable to cross the forceful stream currents.

Fresh glacial snow near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m)

Fresh snow on top of the glacier near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m) in September 2018. The pass was first crossed in 1884 by Sir Louis Dane in search for an alternate route to the Spiti valley. The pass connects the fertile and lush green Parbati valley on the Kullu side with the barren high altitude desert of Spiti near Mud village. At the Parbati valley side, one encounters many shepherds and hikers on the way to the Mantalai lake and one can indulge in the scenic hot springs of Keerghanga. On the Pin valley side, the eye gets treated by the mesmerizing color shades of the valley slopes of the Spiti rock desert.

Tso Mesik ghost town

“Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough?”

Tso Mesik, one of the many ghost towns one encounters along the remote Tsarap river valley while hiking from the Gata loops (Manali-Leh highway) in Lahaul towards Phuktal gompa in Zanskar, Ladakh. What appears to be once thriving settlements with beautifully constructed homes, surrounded by fertile farming fields have been abandoned for many years. Residents seem to have left in a hurry leaving everything behind. Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough, did a natural calamity (2014 floods) force them to leave, did the comforts of the city life tempt them to migrate or did their lifelines (water streams) dry up due to global warming and melting glaciers?

Ibex skull found on the Lar La pass (4,670 m)

An ibex skull on the Lar La pass (4,670 m) deep inside the Zanskarian mountains in Ladakh on the way from Phuktal to Zangla. The entire journey involves crossing two other passes including Rotang La (4,900 m) and Padang La (5,170 m). On the way one passes through Shade village, one of the most remote settlements in Zanskar, being two days away from the nearest road head. Between Lar La and Padang La, I encountered yak herders grazing remote alpine meadows in this barren desert, producing 100 liters of milk from as many domesticated yaks every day, also producing butter and cheese. The same is transported using donkeys, horses and yaks to Shade village to survive the six months of total isolation during winter. All animals are carefully kept in enclosures at night, safe from nocturnal attacks by the elusive snow leopard.

Beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m)

Dreaming beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m), the highest of the 40 passes crossed in this trans-Himalayan journey, the Phirtse La connects Tangze village in Zanskar with Sarchu in Lahaul. The starlit skies were captured on my OnePlus 6 phone with 30 seconds exposure trying hard not to freeze off my butt in that very cold night at 4,700 m. The pass connects the Southern most section of the Zanskar valley which is dotted with many beautiful small settlements like Testa, Kuru, Tangze, Kargyak, small fertile patches in the barren desert of Ladakh. On the other side, one descends into the beautiful Lingthi valley encountering shepherds and wild yaks on the way to Sarchu where it joins the Tsarap river.

Menthosa peak, 6,443 meters

Menthosa peak, at 6,443 m, the second highest peak in Lahaul and Spiti, as seen from an unknown pass (5,300 m) while crossing over the Pir Panjal range from Saichu to Miyar valley in Pangi. Menthosa is situated in the Urgos Nallah, a tributary of the exceptionally beautiful Miyar Nallah. Here climbing up steeply from the beautiful alpine meadows of the Saichu Nallah beyond the last settlement of Tuan across vast stretches of moraines towards Great Himalayan Range to enter Miyar valley.

Trapped in a fog whiteout

“I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail.”

One of the most intense experiences during my journey. While descending from the Chobia pass, the most dangerous in the 40 crossed, I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail used by shepherds. Further descent was impossible being blocked by steep rock faces on all sides. Having lost my tent the previous day in the beautiful Miyar valley, I spend that night wrapped up beneath a small tarpaulin sheet braving the cold rains, while trying not to slide down from the inclined slope. Next morning the sunrise cleared up the fog and I was treated to a stunning view of the green Chamba valley below. One hour later and 500 meters lower I was enjoying a hot cup of chai and alloo roti in the first shepherd shelter on my way out.

Award-winning documentary

Upon returning, I shared all of the footage from my journey that I took with my OnePlus 6 and shared it with my friend Neil D’Souza, who compiled it into a short film which won the Best Mountain Exploration Film Award at the IMF Mountain film festival.

For more information on Peter’s journeys, visit ultrajourneys.org.

Instagram: @petervangeit
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit

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