Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek

13th Sep 2019
Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev


The Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign is organized by Healing Himalayas Foundation, roughly on a monthly basis; except winters. Healing Himalayas Foundation (HHF) is an NGO that organizes cleanup drives across Himachal with the help of locals (administration and civilians) and volunteers to remove recyclable trash that is littered or dumped in the mountains and to transport it to Manali and Shimla plastic waste treatment plants.

HHF was founded by Pradeep Sangwan in 2014, but the organization gained popularity as an NGO and regular influx of volunteers only for a year or so, especially after the Indian actor Dia Mirza volunteered in one of HHF’s Himalayas clean up campaigns.

You can read more about Pradeep and HHF on the internet, as many national media outlets have covered his inspiring and interesting life story. [Update Dec. 2020: Pradeep has also been featured in PM’s Mann ki Baat’s edition of Dec. 27, 2020]

For the campaign, all of us volunteers were asked to pay INR 2000, primarily for the stay and food over the couple of days.


HHF Coordinators

Sandeep - Lead HHF coordinator for the campaign, who also manages the Moonlight Homestay in Kalga village.

Madhushudhan - HHF coordinator, who helps Sandeep manage Moonlight Homestay and HHF campaigns. He is from Tamilnadu and he dropped out of college to come live in the Himalayas.

Jaydeep - Part-time HHF coordinator and a freelance cinematographer, who helps HHF in capturing beautiful moments from the campaigns and sharing the story with the world. You can check his work on instagram: @jaymishra_05


Sanchit - From Delhi, who had recently left his IT job to start a freelance business.

Rishab - Sanchit’s younger brother, who had just completed college.

Abhay - From Delhi, a supply-chain professional in a semi-government organization.

Ankit - From Gurgaon, who had recently left his HR job in search of something else. [Update Sept 2020: Fulfilling his dream he is now a soft skill trainer and life coach and is employed with SBI Youth for India initiative in Meghalaya.]

Surabhi - From Bangalore, works at an IT company in Bangalore.

Deep (myself)- From Chandigarh, works at an IT company in Chandigarh.

Earlier there were 3 more volunteers (all from Delhi), whose plan to join the campaign got cancelled at the last moment.

Day 0 - September 13, 2018 (Chandigarh to Kalga, via Bhuntar)

The trek was scheduled to start early Saturday morning (September 14), so all the volunteers were advised to reach Kalga village (Via Bhuntar and Barshaini), the starting point of the Kheerganga trek, by Friday evening.

Abhay, Ankit, Rishab and Sanchit, were all coming from Delhi (all separately though) and had started from there on Thursday night/early Friday morning, so were able to reach at time on Friday.

Surbhi was coming from Bangalore and her flight was scheduled to arrive at the Chandigarh Airport at 10 AM. She and I had coordinated earlier to pair up for the bus ride from Chandigarh and we were able to catch a bus from Sector 43 to Bhuntar by 11 AM.

Our Punjab Roadways bus took about 10 hours to reach Bhuntar, so we ended up reaching Bhuntar a couple of hours later than expected - at around 9 PM. But thankfully, Surbhi was a good company, so the 10-hour bus ride didn’t feel that bothersome.

After the formal introduction, as we got to know each other a bit more, it turned out that we had similar tastes in music and movies (as far as the mainstream stuff is concerned). We also had a handful of books and traveled destinations in common, so there was enough to talk about along the way. But she had traveled way more than me. I mean, she is the kind of traveler to whom you ask “if you have been to this place?”, and her answer won’t be in “yes” or “no”, but the number of times she has been to that place.

Since both of us had traveled the route several times before, we didn't bother to take any pictures of the route. Time to time, we just looked outside to enjoy the view. And unfortunately, this would remain the case for the most part of the trip, so apologies for not adorning this travelogue with beautiful pictures.


Anyways, on reaching Bhuntar, after some hassle and wandering in the dark of the night, we were able to find a cab to Barshaini for INR 1800, which was a decent deal, given the late hours. From Bhuntar to Barshaini, it was supposed to be a 2-hour long drive, but our driver covered it in just 1 hour 15 minutes.

Just before we had started from Bhuntar, the driver (who was from Bhuntar) got a call from his wife, who had the dinner ready for him at the moment and was waiting for him at home. Maybe that’s what pushed him to cover the supposedly 4-hour long drive in just 2.5 hours. Or maybe even less.

Anyway, despite his driving fast, the drive was nice. It was a full moon night and luckily the sky was relatively clear. Whatever patches of clouds were there, were only enhancing the beauty of the night sky by glowing in the blue hue of the moonlight. And because of the moonlight, we were also able to capture glimpses of the Parvati River flowing along the road.

The driver also had some mainstream Bollywood and Punjabi music on, which I am not really into, but Surbhi seemed to enjoy. As for me, for a good part of the bus ride till Bhuntar, I was listening to the song, “Mogwai - Ghost Nets” on repeat, which by now had imprinted on my brain and was still playing in my head. Its sound seemed to blend well with the slow motion of clouds across the moon and felt apt for the scenery I was mesmerizing at the moment.


At around 10:30 PM, the driver dropped us off at the gate that leads the path over the Parbati-2 HEM Dam across the river. From the dam, it was supposedly a 5-10 minutes trial up to the Kalga village, which we had quite some difficulty in finding, especially because of the dark.

Madhushudhan had sent me very detailed instructions about the trial. But his first instruction was to take a right from the bridge across the dam and on the right was a dead end - a 40-meter drop into the river, actually. The actual right was hidden behind a slight left across a huge rock, so we were stuck there for about 10-15 minutes before finding the trail. All this while, a local and rather hunky street dog was also accompanying us, giving Surbhi a bit of fright.


The hike up to the trial roughly took 10 minutes. Amidst the labyrinth of the mountain trials, we first ran into a couple of wrong cafes and home-stays, before finally finding our way to the Moonlight Home-stay.

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek 1/1 by Deep Vam Dev
Moonlight Home-stay during the night these days (2020) - Photo courtesy @lifeatmoonlight

We met Sandeep in what seemed to be the main dining and chilling cabin of the homestay. After a few minutes of formal introduction, we had our dinner served. During the dinner, we talked about HHF and the nitty gritties of the Kheerganga campaign. We also found out that during the day, Pradeep got a last minute call from a school in Ludhiana and had to rush there to receive an award the following day, so won’t be part of the campaign. In his absence, Sandeep will see to things.

Sandeep is from Kullu, and during the conversation, when he got to know that Surbhi is also from Himachal (Solan), and shares a similar upbringing - both of them launched into a conversation about Himachal and travel destinations they had in common - which were quite a few. Since I hadn’t been to most of the places they were discussing, I was only half-listening to them. Rest of my attention was on saving the food from going to waste, since our servings were rather large.

After dinner, Sandeep accommodated me in the dorm where other male volunteers were staying - Ankit and Abhay. Surbhi was given a separate room as she was the only female candidate of the group. When I walked into my room, both Ankit and Abhay seemed half-asleep, so we couldn’t have our formal introduction during the evening. So I just picked up a quilt, found an empty space among the mattresses on the floor, and laid down in an effort to take some rest and restore some energy before the trek.

Day 1 - September 14, 2018 (Kalga to Kheerganga)

Despite a tired body after a day-long journey, I hardly slept during the night. I remember not being able to sleep till 1 o’clock and then waking up before 4 AM. And those 2-3 hours of sleep weren’t particularly peaceful. Abhay and Ankit still seemed sound asleep throughout the night.

My phone didn’t have much battery and the charging plug wasn’t easy to find, so I just laid awake in my quilt, thinking about random life stuff and the trek ahead - half in hopes, half in apprehension.

By the time dawn broke, I had a bad headache due to my sleeplessness - which had become a usual morning routine for me for the past couple of years. Anyways, since any hopes of getting any more sleep was pointless, I finally got up before sunrise and went outside at around 6 AM.

The moment I stepped out in the fresh mountain air, my headache seemed to subside a little; if not promptly, then at least quickly enough. Plus, the sight of trees loaded with apples - green, red and everything in between - released some more endorphin in my nerves. I actually traversed through them last night, but didn’t notice due to the dark. After a few minutes, sunrays also began to glow a few peaks in the west. So, I just sat there alone on a slightly damn wooden-log-cum-bench in the homestay’s lawn kind of space for about half an hour, admiring the beauty around, as different elements of nature worked together to heal my ailing head.

Photo courtesy: Surabhi

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

By 7 AM, Sanchit and Rishab were also up and had come out of their room. After a quick introduction, we wondered to each other about Sandeep’s whereabouts, since by now the trek was supposed to have begun. After a while, one by one, Abhay, Ankit, and Surbhi also joined us, along with Madhushudhan, Jaydeep, and a couple of homestay’s staff members.

As we indulged ourselves in the idle talk, it was clear that we were not going to start anytime soon, so all of us just relaxed under a cozy sun - chatting about random stuff and playing with homestay’s pet dogs.

By 8 AM, Sandeep had also come around and soon after we had our breakfast - parathas and boiled eggs - a good part of which we dished out to the homestay’s greedy and coaxing pets.

At around 9 AM, we gathered to finally commence our Kheerganga cleaning campaign. Sandeep and Madhushudhan handed out a pair of gloves and a couple of sacks to each of us for the trash (so, a total of 18 sacks for the campaign), and asked us to carry a change of clothes for the much anticipated hot spring bath at the end of the trek and other bare necessities.

I was carrying a little too big backpack, so I loaded my stuff in Surbhi’s, which was now a little heavy for the trek, so we decided to take turns carrying it along the way.

As we began to walk, the apple orchards gradually gave way to a dense pine forest. At that point, Sandeep told us that there won’t be any mobile network ahead, so if anyone had to call home/family, they do it now. While telling us this, he especially stressed upon the fact that “it would be nice to be without the network for a couple of days.

Kalga from the trail

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

We had barely entered the pine forest through the trail, when we heard sounds of a few men shouting and a few moments later a man came running towards us, with torn clothes and some blood on his face. For a few seconds, the sight gave us a bit of scare. But the incident was soon settled for us when Sandeep, who was in the front, recognized the man as being a local. When Sandeep asked the guy what happened, he said some people, who have a tea/snack stall along the trail, beat him over some business conflict.

Once the guy had passed us, Sandeep just lamented - that’s what happens in Parvati valley (where unlike other Himalayan sites, crime is a bit more frequent). Soon after, we all forgot about the incident and continued on our way. Later, when we passed the tea/snack stall in question, we found that the guy had actually tried to burn down the stall due to some personal conflict.

Anyways, once inside the forest, we started picking up trash littered along the way. Across the initial stretch, trash wasn’t littered densely anywhere, so it didn’t seem much at first - just a plastic bottle here and biscuit wrappers there, and so on.

For the moment, it felt like we were carrying more than enough sacks, but within a few minutes, the first trash sack was filled. And by midway, 4 sacks were filled (as we also came across a couple of trash dumping spots), after which Sandeep asked us not to pick trash littered along the way anymore since we were going to need the rest of the sacks for the trash at Kheerganga camps dumping site.

Needless to say, the entire cleanup drive was a learning experience as a whole, but the first couple of hours instilled in us some basic understanding about the job. Such as:

- Picking up candy wrappers with gloves on is a real pain.

- Wrappers thrown a while ago are usually filled with dirt/wet soil, so you have to clean them before putting them into a sack. Otherwise, you would end up with a rather heavy burden.

- Trash thrown on the way looks worse but is easier to pick rather than trash thrown on the side of the vegetation slopes.

- Plastic bottles, the most common type of trash, occupy the most amount of volume as well, so it is important to first crush them. But these bottles are also often filled with dirt/water, so you may also have to empty them clean between picking and dumping.

- Tetra packs - well, that's pure evil! It has got plastic, paper, and aluminium all in it - so, really difficult to categorize when you are segregating trash.

- Soft Drink cans, small metal containers, alcohol glass bottles - these items give you a real hard time because a) they are heavy and b) their sharp edges can hurt you.

- Sticks (natural-wooden or trekking sticks) can come real handy when you are picking up something down the hill where hands don’t reach, or when you have to pull someone up who has managed to climb down a bit further to clean some extra trash.

- And lastly, in the vegetated part of Himalayas, beware of the Stinging Nettle (locally known as Bichhoo Booti), as even a slight touch of it leaves sharp stinging sensation for hours (we all fell prey to it within the first couple of hours of the campaign).

Recently (before the cleanup drive), I came across a WEF video about China’s strict actions towards trash segregation in which if residents don’t segregate their trash, the municipality trucks will stop picking it. The video was continuously flashing in my mind as we picked up the trash. Although I segregate trash at home and stay vocal about it in my social circle (online and offline), dealing with its segregation first hand at a later stage I realized (we all did) how crucial it is to segregate trash at the source. It may be a little difficult to make it a practice at the source, but later it becomes a painstakingly difficult task.

A quick video of our cleanup campaign

Another nice thing that came into my notice within the first hour of trash-picking was that most trekkers are actually mindful of not littering. On seeing us picking the trash, many stopped by to help us - whether it was picking up just one packet/bottle on their way, staying with us for a few minutes and helping us pick a few items, or simply just appreciating the efforts.

Like many fellow trekkers who stopped by to our aid, I had always wanted to do something about the littered trash, which seems like a constantly expanding spot of ugliness in otherwise beautiful nature, but hadn’t been able to figure out what I could do as a single person. By building a platform like Healing Himalayas, not only has Pradeep helped mindful trekkers to help nature but has also shown what a single person, with perseverance, can do.

On the way up, we made quite a few short stops to catch our breath, as picking up trash along with trekking uphill burned calories twice as fast as just trekking uphill. Besides, some of us were not shy, especially Madhushudh, to go a little extra way down or up to pick up trash. And quite often this little extra required quite a bit of extra effort, which was not always safe.

Surabhi climbing down a dried stream to pick trash

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Taking a breather

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Midway, and just after noon, we made a longer stop for lunch at a thatched-roof food outlet called the Icys. Given the refreshing natural surroundings, it was clear why Sandeep had chosen Icys for lunch (and not any other food outlet across the trail), or rather, why the Icys was built there in the first place.

For the most part, the Kheerganga trail is through a dense pine forest, but Icys’ surrounding is rather open. Just before you reach it, there is a cascade of water streams, controlled through stair steps built with stones, bound together with steel wires. Over the stream, there is a little wooden log bridge along the trail, but I remember a few of us just crossed through the stream as the water wasn’t deep enough, and also because it was fun.

Across the trail from the Icys, there is a huge boulder, which you can sit upon and have a good view of the mountains across the Parvati River.

Surabhi sitting on the huge rock, with rest of the group standing/sitting a bit below

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

There is also a path to climb down the mountain to a certain point from where you can have a look of Parvati River from some height and the loud sound of its flow, once you are in its line of sight. All this we would explore during our way back; as at that moment, we were just too eager to have a rest and lunch.

Ankit and I at the edge of the path below, from where we could see the river

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

A table was set for the 9 of us under the extended outside dining area of Icys. For lunch, I think we had rajma, chawal, and chapatis, but I don’t clearly remember as by now I had begun to have a really bad headache (a mix of migraine and hypertension kind of headaches I was suffering from during that period), which unfortunately would last throughout the day.

Lunch at Icys

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Because of the headache, I couldn’t indulge myself in the lunch table discussion. And on top of my inconvenience, Madhushudhan lit a joint from which everyone took their turn to take a puff or two, except for a couple of us. All that smoke and lack of air didn’t really help my ailing head, so I just desperately waited for that congregation for Lord Shiva to get wrapped up soon.

After a few minutes, we resumed the trek, and once in motion, I began to feel a bit relieved and also resumed talking a little bit. Only a little bit.

For some reasons, the trail beyond Icys seemed more scenic. There seemed to be more water streams, trails more arduous and beautiful, and better intermittent breather sites. Maybe it was because we were gaining height, maybe it was because now our focus wasn’t on picking up littered trash along the way, or maybe it just was.

Further up the way came the prime highlight of the Kheerganga trail - a 30 to 40 feet high waterfall, whose stream runs through huge boulders stuck between a narrow gorge. There is also a 20 feet tall wooden log/tree trunk stuck amidst those boulders, giving keen observers a fairly good idea on how the structure of the waterfall came about over a period of time.

Surabhi and I enjoying the sprinkles

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

There are a couple of tea stalls adjoining the waterfall. Naturally, we took a breather there. Some of us took our seats on smaller boulders scattered along the stream from the waterfall. Others sat on the tea-stalls’ chairs and benches. And a few also had tea.

After a 10-15 minutes tea break, during which I mostly admired the waterfall, we resumed forward - first, by crossing a 20 feet long and 5-6 feet high wooden log bridge over the stream, and then hiking up a muddy and steep trial for another 100 feet, which for the first time gave us the feeling that we were actually trekking.

Madhusudhan crossing the wooden bridge

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Once we were temporarily freed from our duty, we all began to indulge in other activities - chatting with other group members, photography, spotting streams to refill our steel water bottles or just splash our face with the refreshing mountain water, and if nothing else, then simply admiring the beauty surrounding us.

From the trail

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Among other things, I noticed that Rishab, who was wearing sneakers, was having trouble with his footing, especially when the path offered some difficulty, like walking over a log, traversing through a muddy and steep patch, or making a jump. On top of it, he didn’t seem to have much experience trekking. From what I remember, he stumbled more often than the rest of us, but I really admired how comfortably receptive he was of his troubles, and how coolly he continued on.

As the trek seemed to become a little monotonous for the organizing group (since trekking up and down the Kheerganga was roughly a fortnightly affair for them), Sandeep and Madhu suddenly had the idea to do a race when they saw the path parting in two trails, which would merge again after a few hundreds feet.

One trail was a little up the slope and another down, but both were equally challenging. I don’t remember who made it first at the other end, because of a minor (negligible actually) incident that happened in between.

The contender who was running the trail above, his hard-pressed footing displaced a fist-sized rock at the edge of the trail, which closely missed Jay who was walking through the trail below. A falling rock and loud sound of running in otherwise a silent forest gave Jay and others a few seconds of worry, which was soon over when Sandeep and Madhu both came into the sight.

Jay played down the incident recalling a moment when near a waterfall he had escaped a much larger falling rock by a few inches. All this talk about falling rocks was another small reminder that we should always be watchful and respectful when amidst the nature.

Speaking of being respectful to nature, these days when you trek somewhere, there are always people carrying their Bluetooth speakers and no matter how serene and peaceful the surrounding, they always seem to be in the party mood.

Sandeep was pretty vocal towards the people playing Bluetooth speakers, telling them how they were disrupting the forest’s peaceful environment and how it affects animals and birds living there. Some obliged, some did not.

Personally, I have always loathed the speaker players during my travels. It doesn’t matter whether you are at a camping site or on a trail, you are in the lap of nature either way. And you should learn to respect it. By no means, mountains are a party place. The idea of people becoming DJs or party animals within the serenity of nature is simply incomprehensible to me.

Anyways, before we reached the Kheerganga campsite, we crossed another beautiful site. A huge array of tiny cascades over shoe box-sized rocks - around 15 feet in width, and at least 4 to 5 times the length of the slope. We took a small breather there, took some pictures, and then crossed the stream, one by one.

Sandeep crossing the stream

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev


Just before 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, we reached the Kheerganga campsite. The last few hundred feet hike was really arduous for multiple reasons. The slope was suddenly very steep, we were almost spent after a 5-6 hours hike, and the noise coming from the campsite as we approached it.

Like any other trek, you expect the destination point to be a site to behold and remember. But unfortunately, such wasn’t the case with us. It was more of a site to forget. There are dozens and dozens of camps scattered all around the Kheerganga hot spring. And several hundred people across the campsite. And most seemed to be the party-animal kind by the looks of them.

After another 100-feet of steep climb through Kheerganga campsite stairs, we reached our camps. Our camps were organized by a local elderly couple whom Sandeep had befriended during his numerous visits to Kheerganga. After a couple of minutes of formal exchange between Sandeep and uncle-aunt (camp’s organizers), we sat down on the plastic chairs arranged in the open area within uncle-aunt’s camp.

Entry point of our camps - Jay chatting with Camp's aunt (photo from later in the evening)

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

For the most part of the hike, we were in the shadows of the mountain. Now sitting outside the camps, the sun was directly upon us. And within a few minutes, the dehydration kicked in. On top of that, once we had stopped moving, my headache had returned in its full force. Sitting there, I had such a brain fade that I couldn’t bring myself to tell others that I want to lie down inside one of the camp rooms/dormitory, instead I just sat there on a chair in the corner for about half an hour, while others discussed politics, and waited for the tea to be served.

After another painful (for me) snack break, during which others might have assumed me a bit anti-social, we began our primary task of the trip - cleaning up Kheerganga’s dump site. We took the remaining sacks, and traversed through the campsite to reach the dumpsite, which was barely a stone’s throw away from the holy hot spring.

Mostly, it was dry waste, but of all sorts. Glass alcohol bottles, metal cans of food, soft-drink and beer cans, plastic wrappers, tetra packs, and undergarments! Kheerganga, being a hot spring, suffers from a good pile of clothes leftovers (undergarments mostly) on a daily basis, mindlessly left by tourists, masquerading as Lord Shiva’s devotee; thanks to very lenient guidelines from the administration for littering the campsite.

Picking trash at the dumpsite

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Cleaning up the dumpsite made picking trash along the trail look like a kid’s play. It might be dry waste categorically, but being a mountain trek’s dumpsite where it rains frequently and that too near a hot spring, it was quite wet physically.

The extended part of the campsite, as seen from the dumpsite

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

We spent a little over half an hour cleaning the dumpsite before we ran out of our remaining sacks, and honestly, energy too. Just looking at the dumpsite was already a mentally and emotionally exhausting experience, and on top of that, when we began the cleaning, we had to remove wet dirt from every bit of trash, and had to be very-very careful of the sharp edges of broken glass bottles and metal food cans, as our rubber gloves were just another thin skin over our hands.

Busy at the dumpsite - Ankit, Abhay and Surabhi in the 2nd and 3rd frames

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Like the trail, while we were cleaning the dumpsite, many passersby appreciated our deed, but unlike the trail, none offered to come and help. I wouldn’t blame them, as the dumpsite was indeed a loathsome territory.

A bit close up view of the trash

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

After we were done with our last bit of trash-picking, we had a group photo along with all the full sacks, but of course with a bit better background than the dumpsite. Even after filling more than a dozen sacks, the dumpsite felt pretty much untouched. On this, Sandeep commented that this time around the trash is more because the gap between two Kheerganga drives was more than 15 days.

After doing our small bit of picking trash from Kheerganga dumpsite

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

After cleaning up all the trash, as we desperately needed a bath, finally, it was time for the hot spring bath! Although completely exhausted, we quickly climbed down the stairs to put down the trash sacks at our camps, picked our towels and a change of clothes and rushed back up to the hot spring.

We first stood below the outlet of the hot spring to clean ourselves before entering the holy spring. The outlet gave us a fair idea how hot the water was. At the first touch, it left almost a burning sensation, but gradually our bodies adapted.

As I mentioned before, the place was crowded, so we had to wait for our turn before entering the cemented hot spring (there was no queue, you just decide on your own accord when the hot spring is a little less crowded for you to enter).

From what I can recall, Ankit and I were the last ones to enter the hot spring. Submerged up to shoulder, we sat at one side of the hot spring and talked about our lives, and life. About himself. Ankit told me that he left his job recently in Gurgaon to do/find something he would really love to do, and his rough plans to travel further for some time. After Kheerganga, he was planning to spend a month in Spiti to manage a cafe with an NGO Ecosphere (which he did) and then decide what to do next.

We further discussed random life things for about half an hour, when the hot spring water started to dehydrate us and made us feel a bit dizzy. So, we decided it was better to step out then.

Kheerganga hot spring

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

For girls, there is a separate hot spring, covered with walls. Seeing all the crowd, Surabhi was initially reluctant to bathe in the hot spring, but later decided to go for it. And once she went in, she enjoyed it so much that she didn’t return to the point where we all started to worry about her and wonder in apprehension "where did the girl go?"

From what I remember, after returning to the camp, Sandeep had to go back to the hot spring to bring her back (and to make sure if she is okay). After joining the group, she repeatedly said that I will go back to take another bath in the morning.

Surabhi enjoying a hanging chair after coming from hot spring, before joining back the group

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

The hot spring was definitely an experience which made all the exhaustion we went through worthwhile. A year ago (Sept. 2018), I traveled to Iceland for two weeks, and in the country, hot springs are a rather frequent sight. But amid the rush of covering long distances and main travel spots, I couldn’t experience any of the hot springs (usually isolated or at least sparsely crowded). If I ever get a chance to travel there again, I will try to make sure that I taste at least a couple.

Stairs coming down from the hot spring to the camps

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Once everyone was back at the camps, Sandeep took us to a restaurant for some snacks before the meal was served at our camps, which was roughly 50 steps up the hill. All of us sat around a long table set in the open area and one by one went through the menu to make a choice, though I scarcely remember what we ordered. Initially, I was thinking of not ordering anything, but on Surabhi's insistence, I took ginger-lemon tea, because I had started to catch a bit of cold as after the sunset, temperature had started to fall rather quickly. The tea was pretty good and felt effective. And for that reason, the next day on our way down, I would continue to ask her the name of the tea during every snack break at any food point/tea stall.

A bit away from our table, there were two hanging chairs installed at one end of the open area. After making their orders, I believe Ankit and Abhay went to enjoy the hanging chairs and stayed there for the most part, while the rest of us continued to chat.

The sky was partly cloudy and like the previous night, an almost full moon was helping create a beautiful mesmerizing scenery with a midnight-blue hue in the background and silhouettes of the nearby mountains and trees in the foreground. The campsite with all the lights, noise, and hub-bub had quite a different contrast than the peaceful night sky.

Sandeep must have noticed some of us staring at the sky as he mentioned that on a clear night, the Milky way is visible from the campsite.

After returning to our camps, we had dinner after a short while and then went into the dormitory reserved for our group, which was a long thatched roof hut covered with waterproof sheets and with mats laid all across the floor. We swiftly took our places and selected blankets from the stack at one corner of the room.

At the middle of the room there was a fire pot with a chimney pipe attached to it, which led the smoke outside through the roof. Sandeep started the fire, and we all took turns to take in some warmth next to the firepot.

After a while, when the room began to feel warm, we all just laid down at our selected spots. Ankit and Abhay chose the corner most spots and both were fast asleep after a while, while the rest of us were still talking. I was lying next to Sandeep who was chatting with Jay, and I heard them discussing Sigur Ros. Wow! That came as a surprise so I promptly changed my position and jumped right into the conversation. After talking about music, travel, and movie-making for some time, Sandeep, Jay and I too laid down still in an effort to get some sleep.

The night was again a restless one. So like the previous morning, I stepped out of our dormitory well before the sunrise for good. In the open area of the camps, Abhay and Ankit were already sitting on plastic chairs. As I went ahead to join them, they cautioned me to wipe a chair first which was quite wet with the due. That reminded me of the clothes, which we hanged outside to *dry* after the hot spring bath. During the night, our clothes had turned stiff with the chill. But the sky seemed clear enough for a warm sun ahead to turn those icicles into clothes again.

Abhay, Ankit, and I sat there for some time in the refreshing cold talking to each other, but for the most part admiring the surroundings. The campsite was quiet for a change in the stillness of the morning, and for the first time it felt like Kheerganga too is a serene site.

After some time, the sun rays began to appear from above the mountains in the east, but unlike the previous morning, there was no immediate peak in the west that would glow golden in the sunlight. But we still enjoyed the changing angle of sun rays in the foggy morning coming through the trees above the mountain in the east.

Morning at Kheerganga

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

After sitting there for some more time, Ankit said he would like to have his morning cup of tea. But it was still a bit early for our camps’ uncle-aunt to give out morning snacks to their guests. So Ankit and I decided to wander a bit of the campsite to search for any camp/tea stall providing tea during early morning.

We found one shop open a few steps above our camps. Like the restaurant, the shop had two hanging chairs installed at its edge looking over the valley ahead. Ankit and I took our seats and asked someone from the shop to bring tea and how much it was. When the guy from the shop told us that the tea was 40 bucks and using the hanging chairs would cost us another 50, we just told him not to bring anything and snuck out swiftly before he could be on our tail for the 50 bucks that he thought we owed him.

As that happened, Ankit decided to wait for uncle-aunt to provide the tea and to explore the surroundings in the meantime; especially because the sunlit sloppy meadows in the west seemed quite appealing in contrast to the campsite, which was still in the shadows of the mountain in the east.

Hiking towards the forest

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

We walked towards the meadow through the intricate paths within the campsite and then hiked till the edge of the forest. Before we left, the hustle-bustle of the campsite had begun, so it was again a peaceful experience to sit on random rocks in the meadow in the morning sun’s warmth. Taking advantage of our serene surroundings, Ankit and I took some pictures of each other. And Ankit took quite good pictures.

Admiring the view of the rising sun - with the extended part of the campsite visible

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

At the edge of the hill, we spotted a couple of individual tents and a couple of guys sitting nearby. We were under the impression that as per government guidelines, you have to take permission to set a tent in the area. As we asked them, they told us that the rule was probably for the campsite premises and besides they camped late during the night and were not in line of sight from the campsite. Ankit and I promptly thought that if ever we were to visit Kheerganga again, we would camp like that only.

On returning to the camps, we found everyone up and sitting on chairs in the open area. We told the rest of the group about our hike and showed them the photographs we took. As we were chatting, I found out that none of them had a good sleep either during the night, but everyone just remained lying thinking that others must be sleeping.

The tea was served soon after, much to Ankit’s relief. And after a while we had breakfast. I don’t exactly remember what we had, but it was probably parathas.

After breakfast we just kept sitting on the chairs to spend some lazy minutes in the morning sun. During this whole time, Surabhi kept on insisting that we should go to the hot spring one more time. We all wanted to. But a bit of exhaustion, a bit of soothing sunlight, and a bit of worry about the lack of another change of clothes (since our clothes from yesterday’s evening still had not dried) kept us from obliging. And soon after, sadly, it was too late for the bath.

We left our camps at around 10 AM, each of us with a pair of trash sacks. The way down was relatively easier, but for me only for some part. About half an hour of trekking downhill I had a muscle strain in my left knee and it hurt the muscle which we use while walking downhill or climbing down the stairs. When I walked on the flat surface or climbed up, there was no problem, but climbing down really pinched. But somehow I managed to climb down the entire trek without keeping the rest of the group waiting.

Trekking down with our sacks

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

One of the good things that happened on the way back was that people didn’t only appreciate our efforts, but also took our sacks to deliver them at the location Sandeep described to them - near Matt’s bakery, a french traveler who has settled down at the edge of Kalga village and has opened a bakery. Throughout the way, Sandeep continued to laud about Matt’s hut/bakery shop and all the good stuff he prepared there.

On reaching the waterfall, we took a rather long breather. Some of us sat near the waterfall and just stared at its cascade and took some photographs. A few of us had tea and snacks. And after about half an hour's rest, we continued on.

On the way down, Jay and I also continued our discussion on different musicians, music-groups, and video-making. Turned out we had quite a musician and hobbies in common. As we talked, I found out that he too had joined one of the art event organized by Platform for Artists (a Pune-based startup). In May 2018, I too had attended one of their 3-day long art festival in Jagatsukh, Manali. During the conversation, I found out that Jay and I also have a bunch of common friends (through the art festivals we attended).

At Icy’s, where we had lunch on our way up, we had to take another long break, but this time not just for the rest. About 30 meters down the hill from the cafe, there was some trash littered at the side of the trail. Madhushudhan had a few extra empty sacks in his backpack and since some of our trash sacks were carried by our fellow trekkers, we decided to clean that spot too.

Like the Kheerganga dumpsite, the trash here was also messy. Mostly glass bottles and metal cans engulfed in dirt. We spent another half an hour cleaning the area before we literally ran out of sacks. But unlike the Kheerganga dumpsite, this site looked fairly clean after our cleanup efforts.

Picking trash near Icys

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

We did not have lunch at the Icy’s on the way down as Sandeep wanted all of us to eat at Matt’s bakery. So we just eagerly continued and reached the much-celebrated bakery at around 3 PM. The bakery’s setting was pretty nice. A loosely fenced and not-so-maintained garden, with boulders and long grass and random trees, and a stone path at the center that led to the bakery shop.

Left side of the bakery shop had a floor sitting with a long low bench for a large group, and the right side had a couple of benches and a couple of stools for idle sitting, where a few foreigners were smoking hookah and listening to music. There was a wooden wall as a partition but with a large glass window.

Naturally, we took the left side and sat on cushioned seats on the floor. There was a hang drum at one corner of the sitting area, which Sandeep promptly picked when we entered the bakery and started playing it to show off his skills with the instrument until we ordered food and it arrived.

Matt also had a pet, a puppy (name I don’t remember), who started to play around us as we took our seats. Soon Sandeep ordered a few things from which we would divide and eat (I think pakoras, sandwiches and a cake as dessert) and we all ordered our respective beverages. I ordered my newly discovered cold reliever - the ginger-lemon tea.

All of us had a good time at Matt's, we talked, we laughed, played with his pet, and tried hands on the hang drum, and a few from the group also had a few puffs from his hookah in the other section of the bakery. After chilling there for an hour or so, we picked our sacks from outside Matt’s garden and resumed the last patch of our trek towards Kalga. Some of us had three sacks now because of the extra sacks we packed near the Icy’s. Madhusudhan was one among them, being an experienced HHF coordinator, he hung his sacks at both the edges of a stick he was carrying and carried it on the shoulder, while the rest just carried the sacks the hard way - but holding sack’s neck in out fists.

Once apple orchards came into sight, we knew that our journey would now come to an end soon. On the sight of beautiful hanging apples, for a few minutes we forgot our exhaustion and reached the Kalga a little high spirited.

By the time we reached Moonlight cafe, it was already a bit late for some of us because we booked bus tickets for the evening from Kasol, which was like 1 hour away from Barshaini. So after a quick photo of the entire group, we started packing our bags. Surabhi and I also stuffed a couple of kilo apples from the nearby trees. When we were plucking the apples, Sandeep suggested not to take all the apples from a single tree, otherwise, the locals might raise a concern. We followed his advice and as a result we had different colors of apples in our stores, which was a cool thing.

Campaign, done and dusted - group at Moonlight home stay with the collected trash

Photo of Kheerganga Cleanup Campaign - An Effort to Save What Is Left of the Holy Trek by Deep Vam Dev

Soon after, all of us volunteers (save Ankit, who's next stop was Spiti) took our leave from Sandeep, Jay, Madhusudhan, and the Moonlight homestay staff and traversed through Kalga’s apple orchard and then climbed down to Barshaini to take a cab to Kasol.

We had to walk a little to the town to find a vacant cab and then get a good deal from one. The ride till Kasol was a good one, as we all kind of had a sense of achievement after two days of hard work and a somewhat tough trek. Singing to the radio and chatting with each other, we reached Kasol in about an hour and half. We also had to take a short intermediate stop, because of road-blockage, but it was not too long. We spent the stoppage time by playing a rock throwing challenge across the width of Parvati river, which I won.

There was still an hour or so before we had to board our bus to Delhi (via Chandigarh) when we reached Kasol. All of us were still hungry even after having the snacks at Matt’s, so we spent a few minutes searching for a good place to eat. Although the main street was packed with eating hubs, we had to stroll a little before we could find a place to our liking's.

We ordered different sorts of snacks and took a bite or two from each other’s order to taste everything. Since the restaurant was on the main road from where the bus would go through, we decided to continue to chill at the restaurant until the bus showed up.

Like any other city or town, the roads of Kasol get a bit busy during the evening peak hours. So, naturally our bus got delayed by well over half an hour. After some wait, we finally decided to get up from the restaurant and wait on the road. And by the time the bus arrived, it was already dark.

We boarded the bus and chose among the remaining seats and the bus started to crawl slowly amid the busy street of Kasol. After a few minutes, as we moved out of the town, the bus picked up some pace. Since it was already dark, enjoying the view was not an option, so we just talked. I was sitting next to Abhay, who does poetry, and I believe he found in me a good listener as he recited several of his works and then explained each of the lines.

As our bus reached Bhuntar and took the left turn to be on the Manali-Chandigarh highway, it was stopped by a few people from the local bus union. Reason being, the bus operator (I guess Ram Lal Transport), was illegally sneaking an extra bus from the Kullu district while he had permission for only one bus a day. The bus operator’s first bus had already departed from Kullu district early in the evening, our was the second one (Kasol is in Kullu district).

There was quite a hubbub, the police were also there, but they had little say in the matter of union. Our driver initially didn’t oblige to the demand from the union guys for a fine, and later the union guys were too pissed to listen to any kind of settlement. The entire matter went on for at least a couple of hours and slowly started to become a nightmare for all of us passengers.

Some of us passengers tried talking to the couple of young cops present there, who told us that the matter was out of their hands and they had called their senior, which felt like a false assurance, especially given the late hours.

After about two hours, the matter was settled in a half-cooked fashion. Our driver was held by the union guys and one of the conductors (there were two conductors) was assigned the job of driving. Our new driver was a young Sikh lad, who was rude as a person and a bit reckless as a driver. Many of the passengers repeatedly complained to him about his rash driving.

Fortunately, we all made it safely out of the mountains and for the rest of the way. But we all learned a lesson from the incident that one should always try to go for government transportation or at least for an established private operator.

As the dawn began to break, we arrived at Chandigarh. Since it was an illegal transportation, the bus took a route from around the city to avoid any further stoppage from the authorities and dropped us (Surabhi and me) off at Zirakpur, while the rest of the group stayed on for their destination - Delhi.

Surabhi had a flight to Bangalore sometime during the morning, so soon after getting off at Zirakpur, we parted ways. And I believe the rest of the group also reached timely, safe and sound after two days of good hard work and three days on constant move.


Such were the after effects of the campaign that for a few days wherever I saw littered trash, I felt like picking it up; or wherever I saw a dumpsite, I made a note of it to complain to the local authorities or plan to clean it somehow. That new sense of urgency towards cleaning the litter, that's what getting inspired feels like, I guess.

It wouldn't be an overstatement to call what Pradeep has started a revolution. Inspiring and bringing so many people together, people who want to help but don't know how and where to begin. All we needed a push, a platform, and thanks to Pradeep and his selfless struggles over the years, now we have one.

Today, many Bollywood celebrities are also associated with HHF, to name a couple - Dia Mirza and Randeep Hooda. And with time, through word-of-mouth references and TV/internet features, HHF is expanding at a good pace. With increasing flux of volunteers and increasing awareness among the locals, HHF now covers many more sites. Though mostly Himachal, HHF now organizes regular drives in Rishikesh and nearby areas, and frequent drives in Aravali range, south to Delhi.

After the Kheerganga drive, I joined a couple of more day-long cleanup drives in Shimla and nearby area before the pandemic brought a halt to HHF drives. During these drives, I came to know how much aware the locals are and have become through the means of these cleanup drives.

I hope the awareness about the littering, and the network of cleanup enthusiasts continue to grow, spread awareness about traveling responsibly and in a few years we achieve a clean land of which the locals of the rural areas of the mountains fondly talk about that how clean it was a few decades ago.