It was the fall of 2016. While the temperatures in the Valley were moderate, after sundown, the wind picked up and howled through the trees, making them shiver and shed their autumn foliage. We were bundled up in our winter jackets and scarves, and in search of whiskey to burn our throats and warm our innards. Up in the Himalayan mountains, it is a question of survival; it doesn’t really matter whether you ordinarily drink or not.
It had been a rough hike; with the sun beating down on our backs and sweat soaking through the layers, it was hot enough to experience a stroke. We occasionally sat and cooled off, but this part of the Valley had scant greenery, and sometimes there was not a single tree for miles. We were walking through a landscape of endless mountain ranges of brown and grey, a deserted trail beside a frothing white river and a clear, blue sky; despite the hard terrain, it was achingly, breathtakingly beautiful.
The population of the entire Valley was in four digit numbers, and the locals played host to weary travelers with undisguised delight. Food, water and shelter – your basic needs got taken care of with hardly a dent in your pocket, and beyond that, there was not much you needed, for travelers in the Valley never care for luxuries, rather, they are on the run from it.
After the day’s hike, we had chosen a small hostel on the outskirts of the village; it was cheap, promised decent food and had 5 rooms for rent. We were a strange group – me and my boyfriend, a girl with glasses who wrote poems and skipped stones, two musician guys from Mumbai who had been roaming these parts of the mountain for more than a month now, an American super-athlete couple and a young German girl and her Indian boyfriend who had been volunteering for the past year at a blind kids’ school in rural India. Incidentally, it so happened that that night would be the last time all of us met together in the same place, for the next day, we would all be going different ways.
Our search for a warm beverage proved more than fruitful, for the two Mumbaites not only had a bottle of scotch saved for some such occasion, but also produced some good quality hash, a souvenir of their travels. And so that night, a group of strangers gathered in one of the rooms, lit some candles, poured themselves some scotch, lit a joint, and sat in a circle to swap stories.
I turn my face away, away from the stench and the suffocating heat, the hawkers and the little beggar child performing to the drum’s beat. I drown out the low complaining voices and block out the train compartment to my senses. I glue my head to the window to watch the shadows in the water below that keep changing as the sun dips low. I watch the corn and rice fields whistling merrily in the wind, and the stretches of land left bare by summers that forced the rivers to rescind. At each bend I watch the train till it is replaced once more with plain terrain. We jump up with unabashed delight as we see on the rail tracks a peacock taking flight.
The growing dark stares back as the wheels run steady on these age-old tracks. The train whisks us through villages and across states but it’s a two day journey even at this rate. I feel the miles grow longer and I know the nights will get much colder. I count the passing days as time takes me further and farther away.
Journey to base camp (8,250 ft)
Even two days of second class non-AC travel eventually takes it’s toll. The sweltering Delhi heat had us sweating to glory as we dragged the heavy rucksacks and luggage from one station to another, and running wistfully past McDonald’s, only to reach Kathgodam, to find that all the non-vegetarian restaurants had closed their kitchen for those of us dying for some chicken. And then we persuaded a kindred chef to open his kitchen just for us 10 hungry friends, and within 20 minutes he had prepared chicken curry, Rotis, Rice and, believe it or not, 3 plates of steaming hot, delicious Chicken Momos, served with a smile. I can’t remember food ever having satisfied me more.
Next day took us to base camp at Lohajung after we had braved 240 kilometres of continuous, winding road up into the mountains, where, by some miracle I didn’t throw up.
As the three days of non-luxurious travel neared an end we called up home as our phones weren’t expected to get network for the next 6 days. We were walking, not exactly ‘into the wild’, but certainly away from civilization.
Day 1: We had 8 kilometres of moderately steep climb to reach Didina. Not a very difficult climb but tough, being the first day of the hike.
Day 2 was a steep 12 kilometres climb to Bedni Bugyal (11,500 ft). Bugyal means meadow and here we came upon beautiful pastures of lush, never ending green. This day was my solitary walk and one of the most memorable days of the hike.
Keep on climbing and never look back down or the mountain will seem to have grown. Ignore your aching shoulders and the blistering feet and follow the steady rhythm of your heart beat. I had found my own pace, this was no race but there was resolution etched on my face.
I was one with nature, my feet seemed to step of their own accord; one range to the other, nothing but a walk with my camera.
After the pleasant walk through Ali Bugyal, the climb to Bedni Bugyal starts.
Finally, relief as the campsite comes into view.
It was a lovely campsite, one that will make me nostalgic for years to come.When the fog slowly lifted the campsite provided us our first glimpse at the snow-covered peaks of the Trishul mountain ranges. It was another unforgettable moment as we all waited for the clouds to disperse and the snow ranges to show us their spectacular beauty.
The next two nights we spent at Pathar Nachauni. The climb for Day 3 was moderate, around 3 hours climb each day. The campsite itself was at 13,000 ft and was freezing cold, with fierce winds that changed direction at will. Our first tent at the campsite had a broken chain, and it flapped about in the wind like a raft tossed around in the storm at sea. And then luck came to the rescue with a red and blue tent for us three girlfriends. We set it up right next to the guys’ tents, and every movement or sound made in the night could be heard in the next tent, which had us rocking with gales of laughter at random hours in the night.
There was a Maggi stall at the camp, and with our increasing loss of appetite for the potato meals provided at camp, it was a lifesaver. That camp had special moments: the difficulties of open air toilets (which means no constructed toilets) and the hilarious tales it provided, the winds dragging the cold up and down our spines, those hours spent on the far out rocks listening to music, watching the snow eagles and the clouds that seemed to pass right through us, and dinners made all the more special with one person feeding 10 others so that not everyone’s hands would freeze.
Day 4 we went to Baghubasa (14,000 ft) which has a shrine (temple) of Kalu Vinayak. After snow slides in a small patch of rough snow, we headed down and encountered hail and a soft snow fall. We literally ran down the 8 kilometres back to Pathar Nachauni in the rain, to avoid getting our gloves and thermals wet. No use. I eventually ended up stuffing wet gloves and scarves in my bag because they simply wouldn’t dry out there.
Day 5 we climbed back down to Bedni. A bunch of us had contributed to get lamb for dinner. What we hadn’t expected was that the poor thing would be kept tied right in front of us, bleating its way into our hearts till some of us quite lost the appetite to eat it. I didn’t, though I was adamant not to watch it get butchered. However, when dinner was served we forgot about the incident and ate heartily, for it was tender and really well-cooked.
It was then that we realized just how accustomed we’d grown to Pahadi (mountain) life and immune to the trifles of city life. A couple of huge dragon-flies whose species had exasperated us right since base camp, landed into our plate of lamb and we almost didn’t see them in the dim torch light. But what experience might have sent us screaming had it been in the comfort of home, here my friend simply picked it up from the plate, threw it away and resumed eating.
Sleeping bags were a different issue altogether. Sharing a tent with someone with different sleeping habits is difficult enough, but it gets worse in such cold conditions where sleep hovers around and near you for a long while but never quite settles on you till it’s almost daylight. And then it’s a scramble for getting ready on time, brushing your teeth in the ice-cold water, forcing down that breakfast and tea and hoping you don’t get potty problems during your hike. Up in the mountains, we had a daily ritual where everyone could, and would, unabashedly discuss their shitty-doings of the day. Did they poop, was a dog staring while they did it, did they run out of toilet paper? It was as casual a chat as talking about breakfast.
Day 6 was the climb down to base camp, through a village called Wan. It was a scenic descent through forests of tall trees. We had made friends with a local guide, who invited us into his home for a cup of special garhwal tea. We were so humbled by their hospitality and simple ways of life.
From Wan we traveled 12 kilometres back to Lohajung by Jeep. I found myself squished in the back of a jeep between two guys from my hike and 7-8 other locals, who strongly smelled of booze and maybe weed and something else that smelled bad. The driver was rash and I thanked my stars when that half hour journey ended, and I once again knew what fresh air felt like.
Back to base camp, and then to Kathgodam, meant back to the wordly pleasures of sleeping in a bed, eating cooked food other than potatoes, and above all, having a bath after a whole week. Oh, and pooping on a real toilet. It all really makes you think about the things important to you. We had a day free in Nainital, which was a day spent sightseeing, hogging and shopping.
We also had some free time in Delhi, so we wisely spent it roaming the capital. We tasted some amazingly yummy parathas in Paratha-galli, and then me and my friend dispersed from the group in search of the famous Sunday book market. It was time very well spent, as we picked up some rare second-hand books at Rs. 30 per book. Better than a bargain!
All in all, it was a wonderful hike, and we got to explore two cities as well! I’m already missing the nomadic spirit of the month…