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.