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

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