Sunday, 12 October 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 5

Evening at Maráhni

See here for the Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3  and Part 4 of this series

At the edge of the tree line
The Maráhni meadow lies above the tree line. Soon after we left Kündri the continuous oak forest started breaking up into green sunlit patches of open ground strewn with boulders. For a while we wove in and out of this patchwork of sunlight and the shadows of the forest, until finally we crossed the tree-line onto slopes covered with rolling grassland. Dense patches of rhododendron shrubs flanked the grassland. This was pink rhododendron, the state flower of Himachal Pradesh. Another variety, the red rhododendron, grows much taller but at lower altitudes. I had seen some of these in the forests around Rangthar that morning. Both species have the characteristic waxy green leaves and thick foliage which provides perfect cover for wildlife.

We crossed numerous streams flowing across our path here, indicating that further up there was still some melting snow which had retreated only recently from the soft ground we were walking on. The grass was tender and fresh. It was the first flush of new growth that the herds of sheep hadn’t reached yet. 

The air got noticeably chillier as we scaled up higher and the day dipped lower. Finally, cresting a wide mound, we saw an uninhabited stone hut in the middle of a vast rolling meadow that sloped upwards. Now that the forest was below us, we had an unimpeded view of lofty mountain peaks to the north, east and south, while to the west rose the gentle slope of the ‘Maráhni top’, the peak of the mountain that we had been climbing since we left Pekhri yesterday. We had at last reached our destination, the alpine meadow of Maráhni at 3700m. 

We had only an hour and a half of sunlight left, so leaving the guides to pitch the tents I set out alone up the slope to see if I could reach the top. I was told that on the far side the Maráhni top fell away in a steep and dangerous cliff, so I needed to be careful if I made it to the top. Promising our guides to get back before dark, I started walking up. On the side I was climbing, the grass slopes were so gentle that there was no need to follow any particular path and I walked straight up the face of the mountain.  After about an hour I looked back to see the stone hut and the camp tents dwarfed into mere specks against the towering snow-covered mountains around. It was here that I saw one of the sources of the many streams that had flowed across our path after Kündri. Lying like a enormous grey serpent in a gully were the remnants of the winter snow, its surface flecked with grey sediment. A trickle of a water flowed out from the snout. It was joined by a more trickles some way down, and together they formed a little stream that gurgled its way down the slope I had come up. As I stood there in silence listening to my pulse pounding in my head, I realised that for the first time during the trek, and perhaps, also the first time ever, I was utterly and completely alone. This is not the same as being alone at home or alone on a street. Here I was, more than a day’s trek away from the nearest human settlement, and now out of reach of the only other human beings in the area, alone under an open sky, on vast grassland amid towering mountains. If I got into trouble here, there was no one who could’ve known even if I had screamed my lungs out for help. But then ethereal beauty of the panorama that surrounded me had rendered me speechless anyway.

Camp site at Maráhni 
The mountains around me had been set on fire by the evening. The last rays of the sun had gilded everything they touched in hues of deep gold and orange. The slope I sat on lay in blue shadow, while the peaks arrayed in front looked as if a dam of golden light had burst across them. The very air vibrated with the silent energy of the sun’s rays. Every blade of grass, every wildflower, every stone sat still watching the great spectacle being played out on a scale so vast that it was overwhelming. The blush on the snows deepened with every passing minute. The snowy mountainsides glowed orange and then red. Like a splash of wine seeping through a white table cloth, the radiant colour suffused through the peaks, concentrating at their tips like an intense glowing ember. 

And then in a few short minutes, the show was over. The mountains turned an ashen grey, the colour drained from their cheeks. Darkness crept swiftly up the valleys and covered the forests and the grasslands in dusky blue hues. Only the sky, a great luminous dome covering the world, still held the fast escaping light. It was too late to carry on climbing now and I turned back. The Maráhni top would have to wait until morning. 

The last of the sunlight
That evening alone on the mountainside at sunset is among my happiest memories. I might as well have been a blade of grass or a piece of rock on the mountain, because for about an hour, for all practical purposes, I had disappeared from the world.  

When I got back to camp, darkness was closing in fast. I was treated once again to a steaming cup of tea and some pakorá(potato fritters). This was soon followed by a dinner of curried black-eyed beans, steamed rice and kheer (rice-pudding). The abandoned stone hut had provided the team with a sheltered place to cook today which explained the extra-special meal and dessert. But the variety of foods that we were treated to every day of the trek was solely due to the capacity of these hardy folk to carry incredibly heavy loads over this difficult terrain. They had carried all the rice, the flour, the lentils, the sugar, the tea, the ghee and the vegetables to this 3700m high meadow on their backs to ensure we ate well on our trek. 

The temperatures were frigid at this altitude. The cold cut one right to the bone. When we emerged from our dinner in the stone hut, a bright half-moon had risen and the snows that glowed like embers a couple of hours ago now shone pale ghostly silver.  The mountains looked paler and more far away, but every crevasse and ridge was as clearly visible as during the day. Just that the world was now in monochrome.

That night, a campfire was built near the campsite. As we sat round, the flames warmed our  hands and faces, even though our backs were still freezing cold. “Tonight at the highest point of our trek, we shall all sing and dance”, declared the guides. And so, the empty food containers were converted to drums. Songs rang out lustily to Bholánáth or Shiva, the God of Gods, the ascetic with the ash-smeared body and the matted locks, who lives in the Himalayas. There were others too, like the ones about Künjüwáthe mountain lad with whom a local village girl had fallen in love. Künjüwá was now hunted by her clan for the crime and men in the village waited with their guns loaded. The girl pined for him and wept  everyday at the river while doing the washing, for a button was the only thing she had left to remind her of him.

The songs rang out late into the night until the flames died down.There is something quite comforting about sitting around a camp fire under a sky of stars, surrounded by snow peaks glowing in the moonlight. Certainly not your everyday end to the day. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 4

Through the Golden Forest

See here for the Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3  and Part 5 of this series.

When sunset lights are burning low,
While tents are pitched and camp-fires glow,
Steals o’er us, ere the stars appear,
The furtive sense of Jungle Fear,
For when the dusk is falling fast
Still, as throughout the ages past,
The stealthy beasts of prey arise
And prowl around with hungry eyes
Laurence Hope

As the last traces of light drained out of the sky, and stars began to twinkle, the world around us disappeared in a dense sea of darkness. The eye that had roamed over valleys and mountains earlier in the day could no longer see beyond a few feet or so. After dinner, as the battery powered lamp was switched off and the last embers of the cooking fire died out, I was, perhaps for the first time in my life, plunged into complete and utter darkness. There would be a moon, but it wouldn’t rise up behind the snowy range to the east for at least a few hours. There wasn’t much else to be done, but go to bed. Our tent was at the very edge of the meadow, with a steep drop into a forested valley a few yards away. Snuggling against the cold in the thick sleeping bags, I lay on the ground in my tent listening to the muffled sounds of conversation and laughter from the guides’ tent about 30 yards away. I could hear their footsteps in the grass outside as they walked past our tent into the jungle below to relieve themselves before bed. Soon all sounds faded away. There was no wind buzzing through the trees anymore, and a dead silence filled the world around me. 

My mind played back the events of the day. Of all the things that Hüküm Singh had said, the one that stuck was the reason he wanted the binoculars-to watch out for marauding bears and leopards. It dawned on me that we were in an extremely favourable position for a close encounter with a beast of prey - because of our proximity to Hüküm Singh and his sheep. Carnivores will quite naturally be drawn to herds of livestock, and in the silence of the wilderness, the ruckus created by a hundred bleating sheep and goats carries far and wide. It was entirely possible that a hungry leopard who had stalked the flock the whole day was now lying in wait under cover of darkness for the fires to die out and the men to retire to bed. To make matters worse, just as I was pondering over this possibility, Hüküm Singh’s dogs started barking furiously into the night. It may have been just a wild cat or a marten, or it may have been a leopard. But after that, in those few minutes of semi-consciousness before sleep takes over, every rustle in the grass became the stealthy footstep of a stalking leopard or the sniff of a hungry bear. Even as I was reasoning to myself that the sheep were actually a measure of protection - a leopard would rather carry off a sheep than break into tents -  exhaustion got the better of me, and I drifted off into a deep dreamless sleep.

The next morning I stepped out of my tent into the blinding morning sunshine. Even at 7 am the sun was already too bright to be enjoyed - dawn breaks in the mountains as early as 5 am. Leopards and bears seemed as remote a possibility now as they had seemed likely in the dark. The sheep were nowhere to be seen, they had already gone off to graze. We too soon broke camp and headed off uphill towards the crest of the mountain.

Forests of Kharsü*
The way led over rough stones and broken ground, but we on much higher ground today, walking through the dappled shade of towering trees. As a result the air was much cooler, and the climb much more enjoyable. The trees were Himalayan Brown Oaks, locally known as ‘Kharsü’. They grew tall and straight, with branches sprouting only a good way up the trunks. But what was most interesting was that it was autumn in these oak forests even though it was summer elsewhere in the mountains. The small shiny leaves were a rich copper and gold. They carpeted the ground as we went further up, and at times we were walking through a dense deep tunnel of red, copper and gold surrounding us on both sides, with patches of a brilliant blue sky showing through foliage above. Occasionally, when the trees parted, we could make out the same snow-peaks across the valley that we had seen earlier, only that they were now much closer, almost at eye level, as we continued to ascend.

At one point we came across a pile of firewood, and saw that each one of our guides threw in a small twig or stick as he passed, with a deep reverent bow. It was the ‘funeral pyre’ of a man who had died up here many years ago. He was a shepherd, and somehow had been caught up here in the bitter cold. He had died alone, and later, when the body was found, it had been cremated at the very spot where the pile of sticks lay. “The mountains do not claim a life without reason. In all these years, he is the only one that we know of, who died up here, far away from the villages”, said one of our guides. ”We throw in a stick on the pile every time we pass, to show our respects.”

At many points during our climb we came across small stones or rock outcrops that had pieces of red and gold cloth tied round them. These were small shrines of the local deities, the ‘Jögnis’. Each Jögni looks over her patch of forest or meadow, each one who passes must pay his respects and say a short prayer. Besides the Jögnis, there were other more significant deities scattered all around the mountains. These were the guardians of all that lay across the hills and valleys, especially the forests, the meadows and the creatures who lived there. These Gods were immensely powerful, and were not to be crossed at any cost. Our guides told us the story of a government official who had tried to move the temple of one of the Gods when the park was being formed. “When he had come here to discuss possible alternate locations with the locals he was bitten near the eye by a wasp whose bite is very toxic and to which there is no antidote. The eye swelled out for days, and it was only the God’s clemency that spared him from being blinded in the eye. After that, he never here came and no one talked of moving the temple again.”

“So the Gods did not want the park to be formed?” I asked. “No no, They did. The park could have never been formed against Their wishes. The Gods are the protectors of the forests. They say that the forests are for our use, but each one may only take what he needs. Of late, people have been taking too much. Killing too many animals, taking too many rare plants. It has affected our environment as well. For instance snowfall has reduced, and you wouldn't believe how drastically. Down in Pekhri, there are houses built on raised platforms, using thick strong logs of timber. Our elders say these may look like overkill now, but there was a time when there would be so much snow that smaller houses would've been buried under. Those that didn't would've collapsed under the weight of the snow. These are just stories for us now, we’ve never seen it snow more than a foot or so in our lifetimes” Ghyanshyámji, one of our guides told me. “That is why the Gods allowed the park to be established. They realised that people had become too greedy.”

Ridge covered with forest*
As lunch time approached, we were walking along the knife-edge of a narrow ridge covered with oak forest. The guides kept a sharp look out for a stream to stop by. They carried no water- for this was one precious resource that we almost entirely depended on the mountain for. Summer was well advanced now, and the initial rush of melt water cascading down through the forests had subsided. At a couple of places where our guides thought we would find a stream, there was none. After a few disappointments, we came finally across a tiny trickle, a dark wet stain across the carpet of brown leaves. Tiny pools of water glinted in the sun through the leaf-litter. Following the wet trace up the slope, our guides soon found a spot where they located a tiny flow seeping down between stones jutting out of the earth. Using leaves from a nearby bush, they made a funnel and were finally able to direct the trickle clear off the stones and into our water bottles. Ironically, these were plastic water bottles bought in Delhi, labelled ‘Himalayan Mineral Water’. It was probably the only time that the name was true to their contents.

Through the golden forest*
We continued on our walk through the woods, and soon I could feel the day cooling down into late afternoon. The call of the Himalayan Cuckoo came floating over the rustle of the breeze in the trees. Unlike its cousin the Koel whose glorious undulating cry fills the summer mornings and evenings in the plains, the cuckoo’s call is quite unobtrusive and easy to miss. It is a short sweet “cuck-koo” uttered at long intervals, perhaps also giving the species its name. As we trudged along, our guides told us stories of the other treks that they had undertaken across the mountains. There was the 70 year old American, who had made a marathon 15 day trek up the Párvati valley, with energy and endurance that belied his age. There were the documentary film makers who had come up to Maráhni and stayed for weeks, going into the dense oak and pine forests to film wildlife. Ghanshyámji told us how big the park was, and how beautiful the “thách”s that lay further up were. Tháchs are high alpine meadows, at times surrounded by dense forest, at times lying above the tree line like Maráhni. These were where the shepherds go with their livestock, for the grazing is very nutritious in summer. Each thách would traditionally be used by a family of shepherds, with grazing rights passed down from father to son. (This was one of the problems created by the park, by robbing some of the shepherds of access to their ‘family thách’).

“Further up there are towering peaks where the snow never melts. And high up among the peaks there are lakes of magical crystal blue waters. They are incredibly vast. You can never fathom how so much water came to be so high up in the mountains. It is as if there are hidden oceans in the mountains….”, Ghanshyámji said as he described his impressions of the glacial lakes high up in the Himalayas. “And beyond the lakes, there is Tibet.”

As we talked and walked on, we suddenly burst out of the forest. The land fell away steeply into a bowl-shaped depression enclosed by steep rocky slopes on three sides and open on the fourth. The sun was behind us, and up ahead across the valley stood a magnificent snow covered mountain shining in the late afternoon sunlight, flanked by more such peaks on either side. Thick oak forests beyond the meadow, much like the one we had walked through framed it in a golden brown frame. Looking down into the depression from the edge that we were perched on was like looking down a Roman amphitheatre. A few bullocks, the size of mice, grazed on the grassy meadow, and shepherds, the size of ants sat at one end. Shadows of the steep walls had already started creeping up the grass clearing. This was the meadow, the thách, of Kündri. It meant that Maráhni was now within striking distance.

The meadow of Kündri

* My acknowledgments to one of my fellow trekkers who clicked these photographs

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 3

Küshál Singh and Hüküm Singh

See here for the Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 4 and Part 5 of this series

'I take my sheep to mountains "over there"'
The peace of the late afternoon soon gave way to the bustle of setting up camp, as the rest of our group reached the meadow. Amid the gasps of delight at the view and the sighs of relief as the weary trekkers sat down at last, two of our guides quietly unpacked a huge plastic drum and slipped away down the forested valley behind the mud bank to get water from the closest stream.  Others started setting up the tents and while two went off in search of firewood further up the hill. Our tent was of the modern folding type looking rather like a curvaceous pyramid when set up. It could be zipped up against the wind and the warm sleeping bags inside looked very reassuring, considering that there was already a nip in the evening air. In contrast, the tent for the guides consisted of a tarpaulin sheet thrown over a rope stretched between two vertical wooden stakes driven into the ground. It was under this sheet that they would cook for us, and sleep at night. At best the sheet would provide some protection from rain or hail, but certainly not the wind and the cold. Once again, my sense of achievement at sleeping on an open mountainside in a tent was quickly given a reality check by the flapping tarpaulin sheet. Soon the provisions were unpacked and a kerosene stove got going in the guides’ tent, while water was set to boil on a wood fire to one side.

Enjoying the evening: Lālu the dogthe lamb, Küshál, Hüküm Singh and a friend
As the sun dipped lower the golden colour of the light deepened, and shadows of the deodars streaked across the grass. Sitting across a rock at the edge of the meadow overlooking the Tïrthán I saw a man smoking a chillum. A lamb frisked about near him. As I thought of how similar it looked to the fat little creature I had photographed earlier that afternoon, another figure appeared over the edge of the rock, confirming my suspicions. It was Küshál with his dog, standing over the rock taking in a view of the sunlit valley below. The rich evening light was too good to resist a photo opportunity, and I strode off towards them with my camera to try my luck. The man introduced himself as Hüküm Singh. “And this”, he said pointing to the boy, “is my nephew Küshál Singh, and his dog Lālu. We've camped just further down the hillside”. I said Küshál and I were already acquainted, and asked if the lamb had a name too. At that Küshál, for the first time since I had met him, broke into a big smile. For some reason he had found the idea of a lamb having a name extremely funny .

Hüküm Singh poses for the camera with an uncooperative Lālu
Hüküm Singh was a great big old man with grubby hands and dirty fingernails, and a sunburnt face furrowed with deep lines like the hills and ridges around us. He turned out to be as talkative as Küshál was taciturn. As soon as he found out that I was one of the trekkers camping at the meadow tonight he threw a barrage of questions at me, as direct and blunt as only village folk in India can ask. Where was I from? So I lived in the city, did I? How much did I earn there? How much did my camera cost? How did I find out about this place? Where was I put up here? How much was I paying them?

He told me he was a shepherd, and had been one all his life, taking sheep every summer to the mountains pastures ‘over there’ (at this he pointed across the clear evening air to the shining peaks on the other side of the valley). Sadly he could no longer go there because of the park boundaries. But he still went as far as he could and stayed there all through the summer. Most of the animals belonged to the villagers from the valley, and he earned a few hundred rupees per season for every sheep or goat he took care of. He also had a small flock of his own among the 200 or so animals that he said were grazing downhill.  But it was hard living and he was thinking of giving up the shepherding business. He wanted to start something that would attract the city tourists instead. (Hearing what I was being charged for the trek seemed only to corroborate his plans) This was his land, he said emphatically, with a sweeping gesture across the meadow, and he meant to do something with it that would bring more money than grazing sheep. Perhaps he would get ferris-wheels and carousels and organise a fun-fair in the mountains. He would play the latest film songs and get the best lighting system from the city to illuminate the fair. He would leave no stone unturned to make city folk feel right at home here. I listened to his plans with increasing disbelief.

Küshál Singh
Finest ram in the flock
There may have been some truth about the land being his, for we were still outside the borders of the park, and the rights to various grazing pastures in these mountains have always been held by different shepherd families over generations. This alarmed me all the more about the man’s grand plans.  I decided there was no harm in telling him exactly what I felt. “Why do you think a fun-fair would bring in tourists”, I asked. “Yeh sab tō sheher mein bhí miltá hai.(You get all that in the city too)” On the contrary, I said, we city-dwellers come here to get away from it. All the while I was trying to stamp out of my mind a horrible vision of neon lights and carousels wheeling away to the lusty beats of a bollywood chart-buster on this lovely meadow. He seemed to ponder over that, especially since it came from a city-dweller. I pressed my advantage and went on. Why in the world would we bust ourselves climbing up this hill to ride a ferris wheel and listen to Bollywood numbers? We took the trouble to come this far come here to experience the mountains just as they were now. If there were a fun-fair here I would never bother and neither would any of the other trekkers. Instead I suggested he was better off working with the trekking co-operative, knowing the mountains as well as he did. He was silent for a while and presently admitted that I did have a point, though I don’t know whether the point was taken.  

Soon he turned his attention back to my camera, which I had been using to click pictures of the valley now partly in shadow, the forests and the peaks now glowing golden, all the while that he was talking to me. He was delighted when I showed him some on the camera’s preview screen, and then looked in wonder at my lens. “Does this allow you to see things that are very far?” he asked. When I nodded in assent, he probed further “Is it better than a binocular?” When I said no, a binocular was better (marvelling to myself that the man knew about binoculars and saw the similarity between them and my lens), he asked how much a binocular would cost in the city. I said I had absolutely no idea, but asked him what he wanted binoculars for. “So that I can keep a better eye on my flock, and keep a look out for bears and leopards. My eyes used to be better than any binoculars, but I’m getting old now. When you come back here the next time, get me a pair of binoculars”, he said.  I told him what he really needed was a pair of spectacles, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. “Áap tō dürbeen hee lekar áō jee! (Just get me a pair of binoculars!)”. Clearly, binoculars had taken the man’s fancy in a way that spectacles could not.

Oblivious to the glowing mountain evening around them
By this time I was aware of the approach of an indistinct but incessant sound growing louder by the minute. Soon I realised that it was the bleating of hundreds of sheep and goats coming up the hill. At first a few tentative animals came up over the mud-bank against the sun, all with their heads down, nibbling the grass in the meadow. Gradually more and more spilled across the bank into the meadow advancing a couple of steps every few minutes, eating their way through the grass. All the time, mothers were calling to their young and the young calling to their mothers and others were calling to no one in particular. For some time the peace of the meadow was replaced by the collective din of their bleating. (Goats seemed to have a higher register than the sheep). Küshál and Lālu the dog disappeared, probably to help bring up the rear of the flock. Küshál’s lamb had also gone looking for its mother, but having failed to locate her it came back and decided to follow me around in Küshál’s absence. I wandered through the flock for a while, my long shadow falling over the white, black, tan, dun, and grey figures with their mouths to the grass, totally oblivious to the glowing mountain evening around them. Then Küshál turned up again holding a magnificent billy goat with a shaggy white coat by its long twisted horns. It was the finest animal in his flock, and clearly the boy was very proud of it. He seemed to have at last overcome his camera-shyness and posed for the camera with great glee straddling the goat. The lamb also had its chance to be photographed with its now smiling owner for a wonderful portrait.

The sun was now very low over the western hills, and the wild flowers in the meadow shone like jewels in its last rays. As it dipped below the horizon, a chill descended on the hills and valleys like a curtain coming down. Our guides had come looking for us through the silver twilight with steaming cups of sweet milky tea. The snow peaks were flushed with deep orange and pink hues while dusk settled on the valleys casting them into dark gloom. The huge indigo dome of the sky seemed close enough to touch, yet floated feather-light above the landscape, just out of reach. We set off back towards the tents for dinner and some warm clothing, bidding adieu to Küshál Singh and Hüküm Singh, although I didn’t know that I was to meet Hüküm Singh once again on my way back. “Don’t forget the binoculars”, Hüküm Singh called out after me through the semi-darkness. “I won’t”, I said.

Jewels in the grass

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 2

Climb to Rangthar

See here for the Part 1,  Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this series

The next day we drove down from Müngla to Güshàini to meet up with Stephan once again, at his office, a little rented room on the ground level of a small two storey building. He had a small team of interns working away hard on their laptops. They were tracking payments, updating photographs on the co-operative’s website and Facebook page and preparing marketing material. Many came from the best business schools in India, while some came from other countries. They were invaluable help for the fledgling co-operative finding its roots. I could not help feeling a little envious-it was a great internship experience to have, for a good cause and amid very picturesque environs.

A quick briefing on our 4 day-3 night trek and we were off, driving up an unpaved road with excruciating hairpin bends every thirty yards or so. The road ended at the village of Pékhri, the highest motorable village in the area. It was here at the dead end of the road that we met our group of porters and guides waiting in the shade of a tree. They were a team of sure-footed young men from Pékhri who knew the terrain and had the skills for survival in the mountains. The sizes of the loads on their backs (which included a tin of oil, a pressure cooker, a huge aluminium trunk-case with supplies and a stove among other things) quickly demolished any sense of smugness I might have felt at my 9 kg backpack. To each of us they handed a small packet, our lunch, to be had on the way. Our aim today was to reach the camping ground at Rangthar, the half-way point of the ascent to our ultimate destination, the high mountain meadow of Maráhni.

The Tirthán Valley
And so at mid-day we started up a narrow path hugging the almost vertical mountain side in a single file. The steep slopes were covered with short grass, but entirely devoid of any shade. The sun was blindingly bright and burning hot and the dry mountain air was dehydrating. Our progress along the dusty path was laboriously slow. Keeping my eyes fixed on my tiny shadow at my feet (for the glare was too bright and the slopes too bare to look up) I trudged along. One of the guides who was carrying that heavy aluminium trunk was walking right behind. After we got talking he told me that he had run a fever a couple of days ago was feeling rather weak. He still had a nasty cough. Yet I was sure the man was  walking slower than his usual pace only to keep me company and was probably feeling  stronger than what I felt by a margin. After about an hour of progress in this fashion we rounded a shoulder of the hill, and the snow-capped peaks above the Tïrthán valley suddenly came into view shining painfully bright against a blazing blue sky. Here on, the climb seemed easier, now that we could see what we were climbing for. Yet, by the time we reached the tiny terraced fields near the village of Lákcha enroute, I was soaked in sweat, gasping for breath and giddy, with legs that felt like jelly.

Lákcha was the highest permanent settlement that we would encounter during this trek. It was not connected by any roads (save for the cattle-track we’d just come up). To live here meant doing the hard climb we had just done almost every day, hardly an enviable prospect. The village was situated on a small ledge of land on a narrow ridge the sides of which we had just scaled. Other than the fact that no two houses in the village were at the same level thanks to the uneven ground, it was like any other Indian village. It smelt of cow-dung and straw, and had narrow winding paths that passed between houses. Round every corner, snot-nosed kids peered at us curiously from behind their equally curious mothers. We refilled our water bottles at the communal water-tank (fed by a stream), and had our lunch of paranthas and a banana by a shed with a view of the valley, the river and the snows above.

The rest of the climb that day was equally tough, up steep inclines and rocky dusty paths. But now these upper slopes were covered with bushes that provided some shade. The late afternoon sun was also not nearly as intense, and though my body ached and my lungs almost burst with exertion, the gradually cooling day provided some relief.

Snowy wall of peaks beyond the Tirthán valley
It was on this leg of the climb that I met Küshál Singh. As I clambered up a steep mud-bank, I saw sheep grazing on the hill-side. A few minutes further on, there appeared the figure of a tall slightly built boy of about 12 or 13 watching over the sheep in the shade of a bush. A dog and a lamb kept him company. He looked up as he heard my laboured footsteps coming up the path, a mixture of curiosity and apprehension on his face. He had the same finely chiselled features that most of the hill-folk were graced with, and like the many of them, his eyes betrayed a trace of mongoloid ancestry from Tibet. With as much cheerfulness as I could muster under the circumstances, I shouted a greeting and asked him if the sheep were his. He nodded without a word. Pointing to my camera I asked him if I could take a photograph of him and his lamb. Once again, there was no response except that he picked up his lamb and stood up. Half-afraid he would scoot as soon as I raised the camera to my eye, I clicked a tentative photo, and found him still standing his ground (perhaps out of curiosity for the SLR lens or perhaps because he thought he was too big a boy to run away). Taking that as a yes I clicked a couple more. Not surprisingly, he was too self-conscious to smile for the camera. Finally as I turned to leave, he seemed to decide that it was ok to talk to me after all, for when I asked him his name he said in a small but resolute voice, “Küshál”.

First glimpse of Rangthar
Little knowing that I was to meet him again I left Küshál and his sheep behind and struggled onward through the thick bushes, for I knew this was the last leg of the climb before Rangthar. After another half hour of tough going (and four hours since we started climbing), the path opened out into a magnificent open meadow bathed in the late afternoon sun. The fresh green grass was carpeted with yellow and white wildflowers and the land undulated gently like the swells of the sea under a breeze. The meadow was bordered by a steep mud embankment crowned by a stand of deodars on my left, beyond which the hill fell away into a heavily wooded valley. On the right the meadow sloped gently up before falling away suddenly into the deep Tïrthán valley beyond which rose glittering snow covered peaks. Behind me lay the path up from Lákcha through dense brushwood. The tiny slate-tiled rooftops of the houses were just visible below from where we had come while lower still on the right was the thin ribbon of the river. And up ahead rose the crest of the hill clothed in stands of oaks and deodars beyond which lay our destination, Maráhni.

Relief washed over me as I realised we had reached Rangthar at last. I sat down in the shade of the mud bank to catch my breath. In front of me a wall of mighty snow-clad peaks pierced the blue sky, receding far into the distance where cloud and mountain could no longer be distinguished. But for a few minutes, not even this vista could rouse my aching body from its desperately needed rest. I closed my eyes as the wind sighed through the deodars and calls of ravens circling in the valley floated on the silence.

Late afternoon at Rangthar

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 1


See here for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this series

A small hamlet in the lower Tirthán valley
I awoke to the loud honk of the bus followed by a cackle of laughter as the motor-bike rider took fright and swerved off to the left on the narrow mountain road. Swedish made Volvo buses can be surprisingly silent, and apparently our driver was enjoying the thrill of sneaking up behind unwary bikers and catching them by surprise. Drowsy as I was, for the night in the bus had not made for good sleep, I looked around in the dim grey light to see that we had long left the scorched plains of North India behind and were driving up a steep valley along the course of a river. As the light grew stronger, I saw that the hillsides were covered in verdant green in stark contrast to the ochres and browns of the plains. In sunlight that was surprisingly bright for 7 am and air that was refreshingly cool for a May morning, we got off near the town of Aut, near Manáli, Himáchal Pradesh, India. Soon we were in a Toyota Innova, hurtling down what was little more than a dirt track to the village of Güshàini which was was the starting point of our trek in the Great Himalayan National Park.

Nestled high above the valleys of the Sainj and Tirthán rivers, both tributaries of the Beás, the Great Himalayan National Park is one of the youngest national parks in India. Created in 1999, it encompasses an entire spectrum of mountain habitats from deciduous and coniferous forests, to high mountain meadows and icy peaks covered with eternal snows. Just in June 2014, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in culmination of five years of efforts by the park’s founders and the management. This difficult mountain terrain is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country. Only the lower reaches of the river valleys have permanent settlements - tiny villages, some no more than a collection of four or five huts surrounded by patches of terraced cultivation on the steep hill sides. Most of that which grows in these tiny fields is barely sufficient to feed the families of the owners. Save for these tiny settlements, the rest of the vast land is a wild place of forests, rock, snow and ice.

After an hour of swerving and groaning across impossibly narrow tracks that made for roads, we arrived at the hamlet of Müngla on the banks of the Tïrthán river. By now I had a new found awareness of the inclines that an Innova could be driven up (which could have grown into respect for the car, had I not seen heavily loaded buses of the State Road Transport also sputtering up the same incredible road). Müngla seemed to consist of about five dwellings, the largest of which was  Mohan Thákür's guest house, our ‘base camp’. It had about 6 rooms on the upper level opening out into a common verandah while the ground level consisted of a row of shops selling daily provisions. The upper rooms were reached by climbing a two foot wide staircase taking care not to step over Küpi, Mohan’s large, thick-set dog who was always found sleeping on the landing. Rooms were simple, sufficiently furnished, and, importantly, had attached bathrooms with running hot water. One of the rooms was converted to a kitchen, and the fresh hot food served with a smile more than made up for the kitschy décor or the low bathroom doorways (took me two hard knocks to get used to slouching my way into the bathroom). Our host, Mohan Thákür himself was a strapping young man in his twenties with a ruddy face and twinkling brown eyes with just a trace of the Mongoloid double eyelids. He was a trained mountaineer who would accompany trekkers as a guide, and was evidently used to dealing with tourists from all over the world in his guest house. 

Near Müngla
After settling in we met up with Stephan Marchal, one of the earliest members of the non-profit organisation, Friends of the Great Himalayan National Park, which has been working extensively to support the park’s conservation activities along with assistance for the local community. Stephan joined us over a lunch of chapátties, rájma, dál and cháwal in the sunny verandah of the guest-house. He was a tall wiry Belgian with a boyish air about him and could be easily mistaken for a tourist on a trek until you realised that he spoke fluent hindi, ate chapátties and rájma with his hands without the slightest difficulty, knew everyone in the village and could tell you the roads like the back of his hand.  Trained in the social sciences, he was especially interested in rural development and first came to India to work with the Münda tribals in the jungles of Jhárkhand in Central India with development economist Jean Drèze. He probably liked the work, for he stayed on in India, found his life partner here and moved to Himáchal Pradesh. “It is my mission to empower local communities”, he said in his lilting French-accented English. “People here used to depend on the mountain meadows for medicinal plants to sell to dealers in Küllü, and on the forests for firewood. They would send their sheep and goats to the high pastures with local shepherds for summer grazing. Formation of the park has now rendered these places out of bounds to village folk, cutting off aspects of their traditional way of life and livelihood. We are trying to compensate them with access to alternative skills and occupations to keep up their livelihood.”

While many locals are not too happy about the changes, some like Mohan have started taking things in their stride. They have turned into trekking guides, cooks and porters for tourists who now visit the park in some numbers every spring and summer, and have thrown open their homes in the villages as home-stays and base-camps. They are trying to organise themselves into co-operatives, helped by people like Stephan. Stephan’s co-operative, to which Mohan also belongs, provides camping equipment like tents and sleeping bags, and guides, porters and cooks to go with trekkers during the tourist season.

The valley of the Tirthán
We spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping off the effects of the rájma-cháwal and by evening were ready to go exploring round Müngla. In preparation for the trek the next day, we took a short hike to a nearby waterfall, with the guest house cook showing us the way. The trail led us through apple orchards, fields of golden wheat ripening in the summer sun and a little village along the banks of the Tirthán. After a half hour’s climb up a steep hillside through the brushwood, we had a view of the churning Tirthán making its way down the valley. The waterfall lay further on in a deep wooded ravine and by the time we reached it, the sun had dipped behind the hills, leaving only the upper slopes lit by the sun. Magnificent old trees with luxuriant foliage and thick undergrowth filled the ravine - a result of the perennial water supply - and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees as we approached closer. The water, fed by distant melting snow, was almost freezing cold, but wonderfully sweet.

We started back just as the last rays of the sun vanished from the hill tops and birds erupted in one last even-song. With the sunlight gone, the fields of wheat stood dark and silent, the drooping ears of grain silhouetted against a liquid blue sky. The air smelt of cow-dung and firewood smoke as we approached the village. Chinks of light glowed behind closed doors as evening deepened into dusk. A dull monotonic thud that could be heard from a few hundred yards away came from a woman pounding leaves with a stout stick in a stone depression. Her face was illuminated by the light from a nearby doorway and I could see that like most hill-women she wore a thick waist-length bodice and skirt made of coarse cloth. Her head was covered with a scarf tied tightly behind the neck. “This is for my cow”, she smiled looking at my enquiring expression, “so that she gives more milk”. The remark was greeted in assertion with a low moo by the cow in question from the darkness of the shed next door. 

Golden wheat
And so I walked on along leaving the rhythmic thud of the pounding to fade away. At the river’s edge the breeze brought the sweet scent of wild grass and apple blossoms. Though the river couldn’t be seen any more, it made its presence felt by its relentless gurgle. It would be the evening rush hour back in the cities now, with its diesel fumes, honking horns and crush of bodies. The city would prepare for another neurotic evening of hysterical soap operas and latest grating chartbusters on prime time tv for the lucky, and of the sterile office cubicle, take-away dinners and glaring screens of laptops for the unlucky. For a change, we had only a riverside walk, a hot dinner and a warm bed to look forward to.