Next day to Namche. We start early, before the sun has found us, and we begin our walk in the shadow of Kwangde’s sheer granite east face as it stands out against a clear blue sky. Just outside Phakding, we cross the first of the famous suspension bridges. Bouncing alarmingly some 100ft over the raging river, Sonam assures me that these lifelines come with a fifty-year guarantee from the engineers, and the engineers are men who are held in high esteem. Watching a big herd of dzopkyos (yak-cow hybrids) crossing the bridge, I can see why.
The track crosses and re-crosses the river quite a few times, as the river narrows into a gorge, through the villages of TocToc, Benkar and finally Chumoaa, where Sonam lives with his young wife Lakhpa, and tiny daughter Tenzing.
Refreshed by a powerful bowl of Sherpa broth courtesy the lovely Lakhpa we cross a small bridge over the Chumoaa Khola that comes down from the silvery heights of Thamserku- the tower of gold- and stop for lunch at the Monjo Yeti Mountain Home, just before the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park. Tuna sandwiches! In Monjo! I still couldn’t get used to the shock of such everyday luxuries.
Just outside the village is the entry post of the National Park where you register yourself, and then across another suspension bridge to the tiny village of Jorsale or Thumbug where an army post checks your papers. This is one of the many times on this trip that I thank my lucky stars that I’m from a SAARC country, as we’re casually waved through without any real check. Apart from the fact that it costs me only NPR100 a day to be in the national park, there seems to be great goodwill in the fact that me and Puneet are Indians. And I can see why as a few days later when I come across an incredibly high and ambitious water pipeline project financed by the Indian government. Add to that the fact that we are the only Indians in all of Solu Khumbu, and no wonder we get wide disbelieving grins everywhere, often mistaken for Nepalis. Despite the joys of Visa-less travel and our currency actually being stronger (if only 1.6 times so), rarely do Indians- apart from army climbing expeditions- venture here for their holidays. As a result, even Africans are considered less exotic than Indians in Khumbu, even if many generations of Sherpas have had close relations with Indians in havens like Darjeeling.
Out of Jorsale, after a pleasant walk beside the river as it passed through a heavily forested gorge, we come to the most famous suspension bridge of them all- the Larja Dobhan bridge. Hanging precariously from one rock face to another rock face almost a kilometre above the junction of the Dudh and Bhote Kosi rivers, it’s a scary, windy place, especially when the bridge starts bouncing under the hurried stride of nervous tourists rushing to get to the other side. Huge numbers of kathas (blessed scarves) and prayer flags flutter in the breeze, despite the fifty-year guarantee, as spiritual, just in case. From here the track climbs a steep and dusty 1600ft through pine forests to Namche.
As we climb over the deep gorge of the Bhote Kosi, Thamserku and Kusum Kankharu get bigger behind us, and in front, the three peaks of Kwangde. But the pride of place on this trail is reserved for the Big E, viewed through the pines on a little spur halfway up the climb. When we got there, a gaggle of British and Japanese pensioners were oohing and aahing at the sight of their lives while a no-nonsense Sherpani sold oranges at NPR 80 a piece. There was Everest, it’s black summit pyramid looking like glass in the harsh noonday sun, smoking behind the stupendous curtain of the Nuptse ridge, with Lhotse for company. It is quite a sight. Just below the crest I could see the Hillary Step, that famous rock outcrop which is the gateway to the summit ridge. In less than a month, it would be the site of major traffic jams as scores of would-be summiteers paid through their nose to be hauled up to the patch of snow and rock that was the highest point on earth. On May 23, 2010, 169 climbers reached the summit of Everest.
An hour and some later we’re up in Namche, the horsehoe-shaped metropolis of the Sherpas, in the loving arms of the Yeti Mountain Home. Along with us are a Dutch couple who’ve been haring around the region for a while and a French group on their way to Gokyo. We have our customary round of the reviving hot lemonade and coffee and cookies in a wood panelled lounge that is a joy for mountain lovers. Full of books on Nepal’s mountains and surrounded by old pictures of the region, one could spend hours here. But we had the sunset to catch. So we rush to our room, this time blessed with bay windows overlooking Namche the towering Kwangde Ri (Ri means peaks) beyond.
Another (hot) bath later, we head out to the view-point a short way above the lodge inside the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. And here I see the mountain I’ve been longing to see the most- the eerie Ama Dablam.
The classic South West view of the peak has to be one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing mountain profiles in the world, alongside Matterhorn in the Alps and Changabhang in the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Although much lower than the Everest-Lhotse group at the head of the valley, Ama Dablam’s (which means ‘mother’s blessed pendant’) proximity to the viewer make it appear larger than life. It appears bathed in the soft orange glow of sunset, its famed hanging glaciers looking much like the congealed flourishes of an oil painting.
Right above us hung the twin peaks of Thamserku, looking like a gigantic Viking helmet, and far to the north, yet so close it took my breath away, there was Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of the Earth.’
Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal and by extension the Khumbu region was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about this wonderful land enclosed by some of the highest peaks in the world came from the prolific Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving at Darjeeling in search for work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as climbers of real skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering. If you take a look at the significant early milestones of Himalayan mountaineering- the ascent of Kamet in 1933, the German attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1934, the ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the ascent of Annapurna in 1950 or the ascent of Everest itself in 1953- and you will find a bunch of renowned Sherpas at the heart of it all.
The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there’s ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that litter the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we leave the upper ridges and start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, with the young river flowing swiftly to our left.
Crossing a subsidiary stream coming down from a deep valley to the east, we passed under the soaring Kusum Kankharu towering some nine and a half thousand feet over us.
Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the rest of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead, and my much-abused sea level lungs gasp for breath at every little rise. Usually by the next day the situation improves. So I feel extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade and unending mugs of coffee and tea. Well, one could get used to this sort of thing.
The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which are a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle running hot water! I think the gratuitous bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets were beckoning, but we decide to go for a little acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that is! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.
An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brought us to Pemachoeling monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it.
A prayer meeting was in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberated through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducted the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Around the prayer hall lit up by lamps and surrounded by bright vivid murals of Bodhisattvas, local deities and row upon row of old manuscripts, monks chanted in rising and falling cadences, every now and then pausing to blow on the sandung and gyaling, or clash large hand cymbals, while a crumpled, ancient nun blew powerfully on a huge conch shell. The old couple from Rimijung who had requested the prayer were also present, sipping glasses of tea with their eyes fixed on the Buddha.
We wandered around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floated the temple-like spire of Tawecho. Later that evening as we sit around the wood fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains out how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is on the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. And since the trekking establishment of the region only promotes lodges, camping has actually become a more expensive option. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed, later that night, I shed a quiet tear.
I’ve made a bit of a habit of going for treks in the off-season. I never planned to do so, but that’s the way it seems to work every year. One of the advantages of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half the rates, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam, and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.
That’s an idle fantasy of course. In this day and age, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, as long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. You might suffer with slippery rocks on a high pass, or spend days waterlogged but you certainly won’t have to fight off the bears for a dinner of boiled bamboo shoots.
Even then, when I get an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’, and what’s more, ‘in season’, I jump at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? And that’s not all. Apart from Everest and its sister eight thousanders Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to the Sherpas, probably the most legendary mountain people in the world.
Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering in a forty-minute flight a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that almost all my co-passengers seem to be retired Europeans, makes me feel many worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. I don’t like flying, and I’d foolishly watched far too many YouTube videos of wobbly landings on the airstrip for my comfort. But once the die is cast and we are airborne, there is little to do but trust in the nous of the pilots and enjoy the ride. My friend Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we end up with the much coveted left hand seats. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.
Soon after taking off, the aircraft banks slightly to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into step. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins a rapid descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain, the Lukla airstrip. We have arrived at the Dudh Kosi valley.
A smooth landing and cries of “Bravo” from assorted passengers later, we are found in the melee of porters and baggage by our guide for the trip, Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, a young, affable man in his late twenties. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel groups, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.
Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of the Khumbu region. The sun hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, Numdur, a 22,000foot peak of the Rolwaling Himal was glistening in the sunshine. Further north, cloaked in cloud banners stood the southern face of Kwangde. Talk about arriving bang in the middle of the Himalaya. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in it’s normal North West to South East axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and it’s tributary rivers.
Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.
It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.
I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.
Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain
A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.
I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.
Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.
It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.
Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.
And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize—a brahma-kamal.
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.
The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.
That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.
I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.
To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.
At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.
The road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the sky.
Leaning, I stare into the west and utter a long sigh…
Swift rapids, wrestling cataracts descend in roaring spasms,
Pound cliffs, boil over rocks, and thunder through ten thousand chasms.
– Li Bai
I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor in Satyajit Ray’s Eko Shringo Abhijan (The Unicorn Expedition) to Oz and El Dorado; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. You would never find them on a map, at least not a real one; you’d have to endure many hardships; and you could never hope to reach there without a large amount of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, and places that could well have been Faerie. But then, last year, I went to Nanda Devi.
The goddess’s secret garden has held sway over me for what seems like forever. A few years ago I’d chanced upon an excellent book by the journalist Hugh Thomson called Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary. This led me to Eric Shipton’s classic Nanda Devi, an extraordinary book that has to be one of the most romantic mountain travel books ever. In 1934 Shipton along with his partner Bill Tilman and three of the best sherpas of the day spent the summer, monsoon and autumn wandering about central Garhwal, living off the land and accomplishing some unbelievable mountaineering feats, the biggest of which involved finding a way into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, an impenetrable mountain fastness that had repelled all earlier attempts by locals and mountaineers alike. I’d been dreaming ever since, and through a convenient coming together of luck and circumstance, I was finally going there, to pay my respects to a great mountain.
The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a cirque of high mountains in the centre of which sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere, in its 110 km length, is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high. At a single point in this chain, the Rishi Ganga cuts a frighteningly deep gorge through the mountain barrier and flows west to meet the larger trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga by crossing the 4252m Dharansi pass to the hanging valley of Dharansi and then down to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.
My friend Parth and I arrived at Lata on a sunny day in early September- the final day of the annual Nandashtami festivities. Originally a tribal nature cult, to outsiders Nanda is just a stand-in for Parvati, but to the Bhotias, just as to the rest of Garhwal and Kumaon, Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. In an old temple in Kumaon, Nanda’s image is that of a tribal woman. Many are her legends, too numerous to put down here, but the entire area is consecrated to her- the forests and the animals are her children, as are the Bhotias, who celebrate the end of the monsoon harvest season with nine days of songs and dancing, ending in the ritual sacrifice of rams in honour of the devi who inhabits the body of her priest to bless the day with her presence.
We caught the final day’s rituals before Nanda was carried back to her temple from an antechamber where she had been residing the past few days amidst great fanfare and rejoicing. It was one of the few truly animist rituals I’d ever seen. The stone Nanda temple dominated a courtyard, studded with bramha-kamals to mark the occasion. Women in Tibetan-looking long black robes and white cloth headgear danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then the spirit of Nanda’s deputy, the trickster god Latu, invaded the body of a designated medium. Latu lurched around the compound to frenetic drumming, tasting all the fruits of Nanda’s bounty- from sheep’s heads to barley. Then he flung the rest of the prasad into the delighted crowd, who took what they could. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize- a bramha-kamal.
Narendra of Mountain Shepherds, my guide, is a charming young man in his mid-twenties. We stayed at a modest home-stay that he runs for his father Dhan Singh, the former village sarpanch. Dhan Singh and his friend Raghubir Singh were much-feted guides in the hey-day of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. It was in Lata and the nearby village of Reni that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the felling of sacred deodhar groves by forestry contractors. Since the closure of the sanctuary in 1982 for environmental reasons, a generation of Lata men had lost out on a lucrative source of income, especially since the 1962 war had terminated their earlier trade with Tibet. Dhan Singh, who was a young man during the Chipko movement, organised the villagers of this area into an effective body of activists during the Jhapto Cheeno movement in the late Nineties in an effort to get back their land that was shut to them with the advent of the National Park and it’s subsequent notification as a World Heritage Site. Its success led to more elbow room for the Bhotias, and now a few trails were allowed to be kept open in the national park for small groups of trekkers with permits. Men from Lata and the enarby village of Suraithota acted as guides. We were to leave the next day, with Raghubir Singh and Narendra acting as our guides.
The big day- pass day- we awoke to a dark, chilly morning. Dawn was still a couple of hours away when I blearily opened my eyes and was informed by Oli’s disembodied voice that it was 4 am. The cave was a blur of movement as a little candle and many flash-lights threw dancing shadows on the low roof. At the risk of repeating a truism, I must say that getting up in the cold and going about your business is an easy thing to do when you don’t really have an option. So I felt around for a toilet roll, put on my slippers and started the tricky traverse to some suitably private boulder behind the cave. Just the first faint glimmers of the day all around. The sky was still overcast, though it was difficult to say how heavy the clouds were. I cold only hope that there would be no rain while we were crossing the pass later today.
Time was of the essence, and after quickly wrapping up our sacks, and swallowing the horrible nut-flecked gloop that passed for breakfast, we were off at the dot of six. I was glad to be free of the cramped environment of the cave, and walking again. I knew myself well enough to know that soon I’d be bringing up the rear, so I started out early in the wake of Gulab, who had already leaped his way up through the tangled maze of boulders, and was waiting for us to catch up with him. I looked down to see how the others were doing. Jagdish was making his way up the slope in his unhurried gait, thoughtfully puffing on a biri. KP was looking up at the ridge-line suspiciously while Devon wasn’t moving too well, thanks to an unwelcome bout of constipation. Oli was the very picture of economy, never hurrying, never stopping, slowly making her way up in measured steps.
My sack was heavy but it felt good to have it on my back, as it gave me a sense of solidity in this unstable world. We climbed out of the rock couloir that held the frozen Bhated and came out of the boulder maze just above Lahesh when the views opened up all around. It was almost getting to seven, and the sky above Indrahar was clear. The sun still hadn’t made its presence felt but behind me Kangra valley was bathed in light. Predictably enough, the others soon passed me by as I kept stopping to get my breath back and take pictures. The lower ridges of the Dhauladhar were slowly creeping into light, as the distant villages of Naddi and Kareri shone a vivid green in the slanting sunlight. Triund seemed impossibly remote, some 3,000 feet below, and I suppressed a smile to be looking down upon something that I’ve always looked up at from McLeodganj. With the mounting exertion, a part of me wanted to be down on that green alp, walking around aimlessly. But I was glad to be out on this fine day, and we were making progress.
Well, not all of us. Devon had become impossibly bogged down and had to take a toilet break. So for a change I wasn’t the last man panting. Not that it amounted to much, as I was frequently taking rests as I struggled to find a rhythm which I could keep up for at least ten minutes without tiring. Still, landscape has a way of inspiring, and even if I had the choice I wouldn’t have wanted to stop. A couple of hours into the climb, the angle of ascent had eased off a bit, but the boulder tangle was even more pronounced if anything. The sky above us was clear, and for the longest time the notch of Indrahar beckoned invitingly, before being lost to view due to fore-shortening. Oli had dutifully dropped back- as she says, its unthinkable for a tiring person to bring up the rear- while KP was above me, charging on with a will that moves mountains, the ends of his Tibetan wool cap flying in the breeze. He had hit upon a novel idea- force your way up past the obstacles in the vapour trail of Gulab, and then wait with him for us to catch up. It was a pretty ingenious ploy, as it ensured that he got the most rest. Me, I would huff and puff up to the waiting party some 10-15 minutes late only to see them set off before I’d even had the chance to down my sack. Oh well, I guess it was only fair.
We were fairly sure that the good weather wouldn’t last long, and naturally we were anxious to get over the pass and on our way down before the weather broke for the day. Even then, there was only so much we could do for our pace. Though I didn’t know it at the time, KP was feeling the altitude, and getting the beginnings of a raging headache. It says a lot about his grit and fortitude that he was still crashing ahead the way he was. Oli was patiently bringing up the rear behind me and Devon, smiling to herself.
Soon the angle steepened again as we started up a series of vertical rock stairs that the Gaddi shepherds had industriously created for easy access. This was looking even more like Lord of the Rings now. They distinctly reminded me of the exposed steps of Cirith Ungol leading up to Shelob’s Lair. Just as I had this thought, Devon stopped on a boulder, turned towards me and asked me if this didn’t remind me of the Lord of the Rings. I mouthed the words “Shelob’s Lair” at him, and he broke out in another of his 100-watt grins and started nodding his head vigorously. Oli, caught up in the traffic jam, asked us testily if we had to discuss this in such an unstable place. She was right, of course, and we resumed our upwards trudge, one moment climbing up a narrow gully and the next moment traversing a grassy shelf in the direction of a cairn that marked the beginning of another narrow stair-way. We were close to the top now and every now and then I would crane my neck up and see the massive petrified wave of the ridge looming over me, while wisps of clouds were being blown over the Mon by a pretty strong wind.
Oli was again enticing me with cream biscuits, so I figured she must be pretty worried. There was still nothing I could do about my pace, so I carried on the best I could. At least, the ascent would soon be over, and apart from the exertion I was fine. And no matter how difficult the descent from the pass into the Ravi valley, at least I wouldn’t be short of breath. I was just thankful that altitude wasn’t hampering my progress. I felt excited enough that soon I’d be bettering my altitude record, and finally see the promised land behind Indrahar Pass. Plenty of reasons, then, to keep going.
Then the weather turned. It didn’t start raining, but a thick mist descended upon us. The temperature dropped and a keen, cold wind started blowing. Stumbling up through this sudden dreamscape, we passed many false summits topped by gargoyle-shaped boulders, and each one was a blow to the morale. By now I could see nothing above me, and all around us was the monolithic mist. At least that meant that we were pretty close to the top. Another ten minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour, I had no clue about the time anymore. It was my job to go up, so go up I did, with Oli prodding me ever so gently.
Suddenly, indistinct shapes started looming up in front of me through the mist. Were those things…trishuls? Yes they were! A little shrine, and then no more dark rocks but empty space! We’d reached the pass at last. I could see Devon’s blue rucksack a little way ahead as he finally made the ridge-top. I wanted to holler but my voice had failed me for the time-being. Indrahar pass! I could weep.
The others had been waiting for a while- KP and Gulab a good 30 minutes- and were arrayed all over the steep ridge-top, grinning at us laggards. To my left the ridge climbed in a rock wall to Slab peak. To my right, the ridge extended like a massive wall to the Cairn and Mon peaks, a few hundred feet above me. The ridge itself was like being on the back of a massive stegosaurus skeleton, with a man behind every spike-like hump of the ridge. It was pretty exposed, though behind us, the mist hid what would have been spectacular views of Kangra. Ahead, the mist was breaking, and suddenly you could see for miles.
I had prepared for this sight for years now. Straight to the north rose the tall peaks of the Pir Panjal- the Tent and Barakanda peaks the most distinctive of them, in the direction of the Kalicho and Chobia passes into the Chandrabhaga valley in Lahaul. Although the range was decked with strips of clouds, you could still make them out. Due North-East arose the closer ramparts of the Manimahesh Range, but Kailash itself was hidden by long, rolling banner clouds. Below the pass, the ground fell away spectacularly into a boulder-filled glacial wasteland- this being the warmest and most moist time of the year, the ice is mostly stale and rotten- and one of the most amazingly wild cirque of mountains I’ve ever seen.
I sat and compared the scene with all the different reports I’ve read of Indrahar. The legendary Harish Kapadia writes of this part of the Dhauladhar, which he often used to visit for a quick weekend of climbing. Some five hundred feet below me was the hanging lip of this high plateau, sheltered from the wind blowing up the Kuarsi valley by some massive boulders. That could have been the site of the base camp that he mentions from which he undertook climbing trips up the various peaks. To my right, across the glacial waste, the northern face of Mon sloped up relatively gently, an easy climb on a fine day. Its southern aspect, which I’d seen so far, is truly terrifying, and as far as I know, not many climbers have had much joy from that direction. To my left, past the immediate hump of Slab peak, lay other peaks, with quaint British names like Two-Gun, Camel, Dromedary, Rifle-horn and Arthur’s Seat. In fact I could even see Arthur’s foot-stool, a prominent rock obelisk on the ridge leading up to Arthur’s Seat.
While the Gaddis have been using the passes of the Dhauladhar for at least seven hundred years now, it was only when the British established their cantonments in Dharamshala and nearby Dalhousie at the turn of the Twentieth Century, did vacationing soldier-alpinists start climbing in this region, and naming the amazing landscape they saw. It must’ve reminded them of the Dolomites or, more likely, the Alps (there’s even a Dhauladhar Matterhorn further to the east, north of Dadh near Palampur), and with the great British push for exploring and climbing the Himalayan range in full swing, many considered the Dhauladhar a perfect little pocket-sized version of the bigger mountains in which to train. The additional fact that the range was so easily accessible from the plains must have been a big factor too. One man in particular did a fair bit to popularise the region around Indrahar, a Col. J O M Robert. Writing in the third volume of the Himalayan Journal in 1937, he says,
“The Dhaula Dhar has, I feel sure, a big future before it in the history of Himalayan mountaineering; for here is an ideal and very accessible training ground. Although there are snow-climbs in plenty before the monsoon breaks scores of first class rock-clmbs, especially on the Dharamsala side.”
That sadly never came true, but what he said then, still holds true now. I really can’t think of a more ideal training ground not just for mountaineering, but also for getting a taste of travelling in the mountains in general. Here you have mini-glaciers, mini-peaks, and as we were to find out, a mini Valley of Flowers too, especially during the monsoon months.
Jagdish pointed out our camp for the day, about 2,000 feet below in the green valley of the Kuarsi nala, called Chhata Parao. A traditional pasturage, from this distance it looked like a gentle green meadow, made all the more alluring by the clear sunlight that shone on it.
The Kuarsi nala drains the northern face of the Dhauladhar and this particular cirque of mountains, with side-streams feeding it till it becomes a raging torrent further down and ultimately merges with the Ravi near the village of Choli. After finishing our smokes, and posing for some pictures for Oli, we started our descent. I would’ve liked to have loitered here for a while, but storm-clouds were forming in earnest behind us in Kangra, and we wanted to be home and dry in our camp, still some three hours away.
The descent was a tricky one, primarily because it was a first for me, and also for KP. Now the correct way to descend rock faces is to face outward and gingerly shuffle down. Often, its just a matter of holding your nerves. I had no intention to try. So I started down like I was descending a ladder, face-to-rock and searching for toe-holds. Then I realised that to do so would be to miss the ever-changing views. So I stopped, hitched my tiny camera bag like a holster and kept it ready for a quick draw. Then I slowly descended the boulder zone, as many of them were precariously loose, and there was no way I could tell which boulder would take my weight and which one wouldn’t. So I was soon reduced to descending on my ass. While this technique is not the most elegant, its definitely effective when you’re feeling unbalanced by a rucksack on your back.
The northern face of the Dhauladhar is softer in aspect than Kangra the side, and it resembles a proper mountainscape in that it doesn’t rise with the sudden upthrust of the Kangra face. Instead, it’s a gradual descent from pass to glacial moraine to grassland, to tree-line. The Kuarsi valley though is fairly wide one, and imposing. As we headed down past some glacial lakes and traversed under the other rocky peaks, the lay of the land finally became clear to me. After descending the 500 feet to the lip of the plateau, we traversed to the west until we were on the true left of the snow-fields that fed the principal streams of the Kuarsi nala, and then started descending gradually into the valley as it opened out. It was pretty much as I’d expected from Google Earth, but of course this was in glorious three-dimension that threatened as much as inspired.
Lagging behind, taking pictures, I would often be spooked by the sheer massiveness of everything, and would hurry to meet whoever was before me- mostly an exasperated Gulab who wanted nothing better than to tear on ahead but chose to wait for this clueless tourist. Often I’d come across these extensive rock gardens resplendent with yellow and blue alpine flowers- alas I don’t know their names- and I would feel like lingering, watching the clouds drift and change over this immense landscape, the like of which I’d never seen in my life. But then I’d catch sight of the last person a good way ahead, and I’d force myself out of my reverie and rush.
The granite slabs on the Chamba side of the Dhauladhar look like immense smooth rectangular tiles, slab after slab rising up to the pinnacles. To think that so much of this rock started life somewhere in the present location of the Bara Banghal range in the North-West overlooking the Kullu valley many eons ago! Thousands of years of glaciation and rains had worn them smooth. Down these now flowed down many little streams, gathering together and forming larger flows which would then tumble down to meet other streams coming down from other snowfields in the cirque. Although we were bang in the middle of monsoon, many of these higher reaches of the Kuarsi nala was still glaciated. Jagdish told me how when travelling over this area in early summer or late autumn, you could substantially save time by following the banks of the frozen Kuarsi, sometimes even walking on the river. This area must look completely different in summer or autumn. Robert had described rolling snowfields extending up to the peaks in 1937. Kapadia describes a similar landscape in his jaunts from the 70’s and 80’s. Due to a warming climate, the Dhauladhar is no longer snow-bound all the year around, and although this creates many serious disruptions, from falling rocks to water-scarcity, the one upside is that it allows you to see what it all looks like under the snow.
As we descended to grasslands, one of our big mistakes for the day started to make itself felt. We had not had a morsel to eat since that bit of gloop at dawn and the occasional biscuit and nuts. It was past two now, and as we trudged on through a steady low drizzle in the direction of the sunlit promised land below, we were all tiring. KP seemed the worse off, as he was suffering from a raging headache. My guess is that he ascended to the pass too quickly, plus he had just bettered his altitude record by some 4,000 feet. My only hope was that now that we were losing height and descending to moist pasturage, he would be ok in a while. By now, wet vegetation was at least ankle high, and we walked in a daze for what seemed like hours down undulating tracks through a tangle of high grass and carpets of flowers, skirting little runnels of water, slipping and falling occasionally, or negotiating our way around boulder heaps. Tendrils of low-hanging clouds would flow up from the Ravi valley and over us, touching us wetly and moving on.
At one point Oli slipped and fell in a perfect sitting position, supported by her rucksack. She refused to get up and kept sitting. So I sat down beside her and smoked a biri, both of us not saying anything. This place was just too much for our puny brains to deal with. Arguably she was dealing with it a lot better than me, but a monsoon trek was a first for her as well, and she was moved beyond words. She’d have liked to set camp right here (so would’ve I), and was getting a little irritated with our tiring, relentless descent.
Devon had got a second wind and was far ahead of KP, Oli and me, just behind Gulab and Jagdish. The two of them, mightily impressed with ‘Madamji‘, had figured that she was capable of guiding the two of us down and were on their way to figure out the track. Gualb hadn’t come this way too often, and though Jagdish had, it was a while since he passed this way in the rains, and even he hadn’t expected such lush growth this high up. This profusion of vegetation is, of course, non-existent in other months, allowing for a more rapid descent and easier track-finding.
Soon, another classic problem of a monsoon trek made its presence felt, the dreaded side-streams. We were low enough now for the small ribbons of water further up to have coalesced into raging torrents leaping spectacularly down the ravines and into the nala. The flow would’ve been easier to negotiate earlier in the day before the upper snows melted, but now that it was way into the afternoon, the flow of water was pretty serious. Plus it had rained heavily last night.
The first one we had to cross wasn’t too bad. The group’s favourite word, “chhalang” (jump) was much in evidence, as we took Gulab’s hand and jumped over the fast flowing channels under the base of the waterfall. The next one, a little later, was trickier. A sizable stream came crashing down the cliffs to our left to meet the Kuarsi. To tackle this one, we descended all the way down to the Kuarsi’s bank and made our way gingerly to the meeting point of the two streams (we were going down the true left bank of the nala) . This section of the Kuarsi was heavily glaciated, forming an immense unstable ice-bridge. These we obviously couldn’t use, and the left bank of the stream was too steep to climb. So Jagdish and Gulab devised a route across.
We climbed up to the crest of the ice, skirted it and got onto a large, smooth rock-face through which the stream carved its way down. There was no way up this sheer sheet of rock sans a narrow chimney. So we edged up to it in a line, and waited for the person in front to jam their hands and feet into the crack and propel themselves up. It required some effort and strength. If I lacked the latter, I was alarmed enough to try it. And, well, it was a lot of fun. I finally felt that we were earning our right to be in this trek, not just being mere passengers. After making the head of the rock-face, we traversed across the face of the thundering waterfall, jumping gingerly over rocks jutting out in the stream, until with one final lunge we’d gained the other bank. The effort cleared my head somewhat, and the others’ too, and everyone was soon grinning widely. But the day was seriously getting late, and we’d been on the march for well nigh ten hours now. Oli was getting a little impatient with Jagdish and Gulab. For the past hour, she’d been able to spot some pretty good campsites, and she’d been getting worried on our behalf, especially the lack of a proper lunch, but the two were adamant for making it to Chhata. I was too gone to care, but a cessation in walking and something warm to drink would’ve helped.
Now we made our second big mistake. Jagdish and Gulab had gone on ahead after pointing out the general direction of Chhata, Devon hard on their heels. KP was stumbling along, and I was only too happy with the slower pace, so me and Oli hung back and walked slowly, pretty confident that either Jagdish or Gulab would be back to guide us once they’d located camp. There was a clear gap in communication and that soon caused us a world of trouble.
We were on a wide alp, riven through with rocky defiles. Above us and slightly ahead, lovely pine forests signaled the beginning of the treeline. To our right, the land sloped down gradually before plunging down some two hundred feet into the crashing nala below. But the sunlit expanse that we’d been aiming for was lost in thick clouds swarming up from the Ravi valley. We were late enough to be about to be caught in an afternoon storm. The other three were hidden in the swirling mists further below, and soon we were cold, hungry, immensely tired and more than a little alarmed. A heavy mist was upon us and the air was rumbling with the sound of thunder. And then it started raining, by the proverbial bucket-loads. This turned the soft turf under our feet into a slippery mass, and made us even slower.
We soon came to a deep ravine. I was certain that I could see what looked like people on the other side and anyway, I argued that we had to cross the ravine and gain the next ridge to get a clearer idea of where to go. So we started down, and before I knew what was happening, I was tumbling into the waiting mass of man-high weeds and brambles. I tried to check my fall by desperately clutching at the plants, and though most gave way, some held, and I ceased to topple. It was hopeless, so we slithered our way down- or crawled through the undergrowth as KP said- to a small rock overhang that functioned as a sort of single-seater cave. Into this we creeped wet and dazed, and unhappily munched on a packet of Hide n Seek, while we discussed our predicament.
Oli was worried but she was sure that even if we had become lost, we should be able to find better shelter and wait the night out. It would be hard, but it could be done. I was sure that this ravine had to be crossed and suggested that we should either go higher up the slope or lower down to the river to try and find a way around it. I was pretty sure this could be done too. KP was being stoic, and indeed, though the two of us were pretty scared, we were probably more exhilarated than we’d ever been in our lives. Now that we were in this soup, I was convinced we could find our way out of it. I kept thinking of S T Coleridge, trapped inside a rocky defile in the Lake district with a heavy storm approaching, and how he had thought himself out of his predicament.
The rain had slackened a bit and the clouds had grown thinner, so we slipped and slithered our way up the wall of the ravine and up onto the alp again. KP was alternately shouting in the general direction of Chhata and giggling hysterically. Oli was fuming, and threatening to break all ties with Jagdish and Gulab once we were rescued and go on our own. I was about to head up the slope when I caught sight of a blue thing flapping on the other side of the ravine. It slowly materialised into a person, who seemed to be Jagdish, but we couldn’t be sure. We screamed at each other across the divide, to no avail, as we couldn’t hear him and he couldn’t hear us. He was gesturing us to cut through the ravine, while we were trying to tell him that we’ve tried and failed. We’d been carrying one ice-axe for this eventuality- to clear a way through the thickets- but it was with Jagdish, so there really was no way that we could find a way through that horribly slippery vegetative mess.
The person did turn out to be Jagdish, and he soon tired of trying to argue, and started across the ravine. We started descending down the track he wanted us to follow, and met him as he was coming up. Our faces must’ve worn that same stony look of anger and relief, so Jagdish didn’t argue or try to explain himself. For our part, we were just too relieved to see him. As he cut a way through the desperately tangled undergrowth, we crossed the ravine and up onto the next ridge, only to find that we had to descend down another ravine and then do a couple of sharp switchbacks before we arrived at the camp.
I call it a camp, and I’m sure it’s a great camp in other seasons, but I’ve never seen a spot so ill-suited for the time of year than this. A rock cave formed the kitchen and sleeping quarters of Jagdish, Gulab and Devon; and they’d been home and dry for a while now. Meanwhile our tent was pitched at an angle on some rocks in the middle of thick, high grass which made it impossible to spot from even fifty feet, let alone from the ridge-top that we had been aiming for. Being on the slope it also ensured that any rain water would flow right past us.
We could’ve been very angry, but we were just happy to be out of the rain. Gulab, sensing something amiss immediately got us a round of tea. That, and getting out of our wet clothes took the edge off a bit; and when warm food followed a little while later, I had recovered my peace of mind. We decided to have a conversation with the erring duo the next day, and left it at that. Meanwhile there were biris and other things to smoke, pictures to go over, things to be dried and much excited conversation to be had.
My last memory of that camp is a sight of the Kuarsi, just down the slope, completely glaciated, shimmering spectrally in the half-light and lowering mist. We had walked for 12 hours, and all things considered, I wouldn’t change a single detail.
There are two ways to drink nectar from a rhododendron flower. The first is to break open the lily-like buds and slurp it up. The other way is to gently pull out one of the buds, place the stalk on your lips and suck up the delicate drop of sweet liquid. It might not seem to be very different, but to the people of the Almora valley, it is as important as the correct way to hold a champagne flute. And why not? Even paradise has its rules.
I was told this by Govind Singh, a one-time forest ranger and now the caretaker of the forest Guest House in Binsar, a forest spread over 47 sq. km, which has been converted into a sanctuary under the aegis of the Corbett National Park. The cool breeze of the forest was a relief after a hot and dusty drive up through the Uttar Pradesh heartland. Less than 500 km from Delhi, the drive to Binsar is like a 10-hour geography lesson, as you rise from the Indo-Gangetic plain and up through the terai forests and the foothills of Kumaon till you reach the Almora valley in Uttarakhand, dominated by the shaggy bear-like mountain of Binsar.
Almora is a wonder. One of the greenest regions in the Kumaon Himalayas, its slopes are dotted with picture perfect little villages among the chir pine and rhododendron forests. Binsar used to be a summer retreat of the kings of the local Chand dynasty till the British annexed their kingdom. Many of their erstwhile properties are now charming little tourist bungalows within the sanctuary. I was staying in the Raj-era Forest Guest House, a huge bungalow within a cedar grove, built by the British in 1902. Home to leopards, mountain goats, martens and wild boars, as well as countless species of birds, Binsar has one of the richest ecologies in the Himalayas. But it’s not just the forest and its inhabitants that draw visitors. There’s also the little matter of the view.
At just over 7,500 feet, Binsar commands a panoramic view of the Great Himalayan Range, spanning the horizon from left to right like a surreal painting. There are massive ramparts of three-pronged Trishul, the peaks of the outer wall of the Nanda Devi biosphere reserve and then Nanda Deviitself, at 25,600 feet, looking like an outsized cathedral. From the watchtower of Binsar’s quaintly named “Zero Point”, you can see some 300 km of snow peaks, from the Chaukhamba and other peaks of the Garhwal on the left to the jagged Annapurna Range in Nepal to the right. Quite a sight, first thing in the morning.
Binsar’s old forest teems with legends. As I trekked to the ancient temple town of Bageshwar, some 20 km away, Govind told me of the old Shiva temple where an old woman hermit used to live. Every full moon, a leopard would come to her for a bowl of milk and would lick her toes in gratitude. Since she passed away, a spectral shroud of mystery hangs over the place. Then there’s the 108-year-old Sitaram baba, a Hanuman worshipper and mystic, who looks a youthful 60. Legend has it that even the bullets of Kashmiri militants couldn’t slow him down.
En route to Jageshwar, we walked along the high ridges of the Almora valley, through forests and terraced farms, pine groves and past small animistic temples. Govind taught me how to evade a charging wild boar and detect the hunting patterns of leopards. There are plenty of these magnificent animals in the region, though all we could find were some leopard tracks and the carcass of a deer that it had killed the previous night. Jageshwar itself is a temple town at the bottom of a deep, narrow gorge best-known for the 1,000-year-old stone temples built between 7th and 14th century A.D. And from the ridge-top, you can see the eternal snows of the mighty Himalayas, sometimes shrouded in clouds and sometimes gleaming in the sunshine.
It should be noted, though, that this is a fragile paradise. As climate change continues, the delicate ecological balance of the region is burdened by the drying up of perennial water sources and deforestation. At one point, Govind closed his eyes in holy dread and told me how, a few days earlier, the Himalayas had turned black due to a lack of adequate snowfall, for the first time in centuries.