I’ll be turning fifty five in two months’ time and this trek to the Pindari Glacier at the base of the Nanda Devi and NandaKhot mountains in the Himalayan ranges, is a birthday present that I’ve given to myself in advance. I must tell you that in spite of the arduousness of the tightly packed five-day schedule organized by the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam, the one overwhelming emotion that echoed along with each and every heartbeat of mine was gratitude. I was alive, I was breathing in huge gulps of unadultered mountain air, my senses were being flooded with beauty from all sides, I was feeling wonderfully at harmony and at peace. What more can I ask for?
Just may be that the programme could’ve been arranged over a period of 8 or ten days instead of five. Apart from being utterly exhausted by the end of each day, the need to get to the next camp before dark and before the weather turned inclemental, deprived us of the leisure with which we could’ve enjoyed the breathtaking vistas that spread itself before our eyes.
We started from a place called Saung, some distance away from Bageshwar in Almora District.. Bageshwar is accessible by road from Kathgodam which is the nearest Railhead. We trekked after dark for 3 kms up to Loharkhet. There was a round moon shedding its soft silvery light on the path and on the trees around. The walk helped us acclimatize ourselves for what was coming in the days ahead.
Loharkhet (1708 metres) to Dhakuri (2608metres), the next point along the route is a steep climb of 11 kms. We should’ve been allowed to stop there for the day. We had started at around 7:20 in the morning and it was around 4.15 in the evening when the stragglers amongst us reached there. The youngsters of course had reached around four hours earlier. For some in the group, it was more than enough and they decided to stay back and proceed further at their own pace or just stay put till we completed the trek and came back there.
From Dhakuri to the village Khati (2210 metres) is another stint of 8kms, downhill most of the way thankfully . But then by dusk it began to rain and we were still about 3 kms away. Everybody was tired , even the younger ones. The baby in our group was just twelve years old.(I was the seniormost but one). Fatigue took over us completely . I was literally dragged along by the guide for the last half a kilometer . It was then that I realized with all of my conviction , the strength of a human hand stretched out to help another, for it was not my determination that kept me going then.
Khati is a quaint little village nestling in a valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Cute little houses with slate tiled roofs, golden brown fields rich with harvest, a few small private rest houses, a PCO booth et all. But we saw none of this as we plodded along in the dark, wet and heavy with our rucksacks on our backs. It was only on the return trip that we took in all the details of that beautiful village, which by the economic standards of those parts was almost thriving.
From Khati to Dwali(2575 metres), the next morning , was a beautiful stretch through forests, the climb not so tiring and the weather quite pleasant. There were times when those along with me, were either way ahead or some distance behind and those were the spells I enjoyed best. Imagine walking slowly along through the trees, their trunks and branches gnarled with age and covered thickly with layers of moss, wet with the moisture of the rains of the previous evening. I could hear no other sound except that of my heavy breathing and the palpitations of my heart and my footfalls as I tread over the brown leaves that now lay strewn all over. The sunrays filtering through the spaces in between the branches created a lovely dappled design . The river which ran all along the path was at first a distant murmur , but it would soon gather in width and speed and then it was a gushing body of white foamy water over big rounded boulders. Birds were few but the sudden trilling sound of an occasional one that revebrated in the depths of the forests, would immediately add an additional thrill to my already satiated senses.
There were many waterfalls on the way, flowing down from the summits of the distant mountains, like a still white chalky line , to join the river below. We would come across gurgling streams every now and them, some of them wide enough to need small bridges across them, made of wooden planks , while others were like little children running across the paths in gay abandon. We quenched our thirst and washed our faces with the refreshingly cool water.
In the kitchen at Dwali, where we sat having lunch , Vijaya and I chatted with Kharak Singh, who was positioned near the fireplace on a low stool, stoking the fire with logs. He was an employee of the Public Works Department. The entire mountain track up to the Pindari glacier, laid with stones to prevent the mud being washed away and the path becoming slushy and slippery, as also the bridges , were all maintained by workers like him. But Kharak Singh was quite cheesed off . He had been working for the past thirty two years , but had still not been given the status of a permanent employee. He was on a daily wage of Rs.200 /per day.
We would have loved it if we had been allowed to stay on at Dwali for the rest of the day. But the schedule had us trotting along again, immediately after lunch, this time to Phurkia which is at an altitude of 3260 metres. It was a climb again. I had left behind some of my stuff at Dwali to lighten the weight of my rucksack, but that was mot of much help. I would be panting after walking short distances and I had to stop often to catch my breath.
On the way to Phurkia, which was 7kms away, we met young Munna, who was hurrying along to catch up with his friends at Pindari. Munna had just completed High school and was enjoying the holidays going here and there in the mountains. A few days earlier, he had been trekking in another part of the mountainous terrain when a small avalanche had brought along some loose stones, one of which had hit him on the head. He had to go all the way down to Haldwani to get himself treated. So what happens when there is a medical emergency, I asked. Well, the patient would have to be lifted on to a chair, with its legs tied to horizontal poles, and then carried all the way to the nearest point where there there was a motorable road, by a group of around ten or so, who would take turns at lending their shoulders.
Munna had aspirations , but there were no job opportunities for those like him if he stayed put in the village. He was looking forward to going to Bageshwar to take up some part time employment there and perhaps also pursue a college education. But for those who were willing to be engaged in manual labour something or the other turned up. The NREGS also provided the villagers with some employment now and then, he said.
Not many children in the villages high up in the mountains, went to school. For one thing they had to go long distances up and down the slopes to Khati where the school was located and for another , even if they did make an attempt there was no guarantee that the teacher would be present.
The extension of the road up to a point midway between Dhakuri and Khati, was itself a recent one . This has been a great relief to those living in the villages at higher altitudes. Earlier , quite often, the porters who brought provisions in bags tied on to the backs of donkeys, would suffer losses when the animals slipped or swerved , throwing off the bags down the steep slopes. Now at least part of the transportation distance was covered by a motor vehicle and that was a big help. In winter, the villages in the higher reaches would be completely sealed off by snow and they necessarily had to stock provisions to feed themselves through the cold months, when they spent their entire time inside their dwellings.
The trekking route from Phurkia to Pindari was the most beautiful by far. Early morning, just out of our beds, with steel tumblers of hot tea in our hands, we stepped out to have our first glimpses of the snow peaks of Nandakhot and Sundardungha. The white snow took on different hues as the sun rose higher and higher. As we started on our trek , we were thankful for the clear weather. The skies were an unbelievable blue with the white peaks silhouetted against it, the dark brown of the lower ranges investing an effective contrast which made the whole panorama strikingly beautiful.
We crossed small glaciers on the way. The distance up to zero point was only 7kms and it was a lovely walk. Flocks of sheep scampered expertly down the inclines. Dogs guarding them barked loudly. A little way off , down in a meadow we saw a small shepherd’s hut. The whole scene was so idyllic or so it seemed to us.
We met the shepherd himself a little way further. Himmat Singh would be spending six months up here in these altitudes, where there were plenty of grassy meadows. The only company he would have was the occasional trekker or another shepherd like him who came that way with his flock. He tended to around 500 sheep, he said, which belonged to different people in the villages of Khati, Dwali and others. They paid him Rs. 200/ for looking after each sheep. But he would get it only when the beasts were handed over safely to the owners at the end of six months. If there was a casualty, he had to pay for the loss. He also had to pay for the bags of salt which had to be fed to the sheep and that cost him around Rs. 35000/ in all. The porters which brought up rations also demanded a lot, which did not leave him much to save for his family , who lived in the village down the mountain. So, was he able to recognize each of those sheep, I was curious. One had to, he smilingly replied.
At the top of a slightly steep climb, just before the small stretch of snow which extended up to the Zero point, from where the Pindari glacier extended upwards, we came across the Ashram of Swami Dharmanand. He gave us steaming hot tea and puris that he had prepared in the morning. The Swami hailed from a village in Andhra somewhere near the Orissa border. He was only sixteen or so when he left home . He had spent two years at Gomukh, but had found the place too crowded. And then he had heard of Pindari from another Swami who went by the name of Pilot Baba and had proceeded to set up base here. He’s been here for the past twenty three years. In those early years, the permanent snow cover started at the lower ranges itself. With each passing year, it had been receding , said the Baba and now the white stays permanent only at much higher altitudes.
The Baba stays put here for most of the year. In the month of February when the snowfall is at its peak , he goes down to Khati, returning a month or two later. He makes another trip down in the months of July and August when the rains become incessant. For the rest of the year he is all by himself , quite at home with the mountains and the meadows for company. Had he gone to school at all? He didn’t remember. In any case he didn’t believe that one could learn only by going to a school. He had learnt a lot about different healing practices and medicines , including ayurveda , all on his own.. Did he ever think of his people back at home? This is home and everybody is family, he said. It was amazing to see how comfortable he was with his way of life. He had a very pleasant smile and a calm expression. He charged nothing for the tea and snacks. But of course those wanting to make a contribution could drop something in the donation box. Without actually preaching anything, this young Swami (He must be just above forty) makes a point about our eternal search for peace and happiness, I felt. We , with our worldly dispositions seem to be forever chasing it outside ourselves in temporal things. He seems to have found it by just staying put in one place.
I just felt like sitting there and didn’t cross the snow stretch to the actual zero point from where the Glacier started. Vijaya who did, said she was sorely disappointed to see the bare patches where the glacier had melted. Here were the effects of global warming to be witnessed first hand.
We returned a while later to Phurkia and then proceeded back to Khati in the afternoon. We could’ve skipped the rest of the return trek along the same route had we been able to get a vehicle at that midpoint between Khati and Dhakuri. But a landslide had blocked the road ahead and that option was therefore ruled out. So we ended up traversing again through the forested area , in darkness and rain. It would’ve been really scary, had we not stuck together in groups.
And then the last day of trekking from very early in the morning from Dhakuri to Loharkhet , which we completed a little before mid-day. After lunch we hopped on to a vehicle which took us all the way to Kathgodam, from where we boarded the train back to Delhi.
We were a group of forty to start with. But the hectic schedule had taken its toll and only a little more than half that number actually completed the entire length of the trek. Those who stayed behind at the different camp sites had, however enjoyed little walks and watched the mountains and the clouds and the sun throwing up different compositions of colour and form with each passing moment.
Back here in the plains, the recent gale and rain has brought down the temperatures. The difference would’ve been starkly uncomfortable otherwise. I’ve been sleeping in spells and repeatedly looking up at the photos I clicked on the way when awake. My camera is a basic digital one (Kodak Easyshare -4 mega pixels). So the pictures are not anything like it looks for real. But then if it gives you some idea of the beauty of the Himalayan ranges, I’m more than happy. Hope you pack your rucksack too, one of these days and get going. It’s worth the aching ankles and the blisters on your toes and the whole week going by without a bath and the discomfort of the pressure building up in your bowels at odd hours and the longing for the sight of that tiny teastall on an elevation and the disappointment when you reach there and find it closed. It’s worth it. Just try it