Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note#3. A great sunny start (Dar-Bongling-Urthing - 11Kms)

Hot water. Breakfast. And a halfway ride… Small joys that we will begin to appreciate even more as we went along the trip… We set out and Avinash Nepalchyal our guide was with us. He was a 2nd year BA  student and was helping out his uncle (Mr Lakshman) during his break from college. His father is in the AMC and he lives in Dharchula with his mother and brother; a very confident, mature modern young guy…and very proud of his roots. 
This is something I found across. Everyone was so happy and proud of their culture and roots and without being arrogant had great pride in telling us about it. Everywhere people were happy and prosperous. 

Halfway we sat on the roof of the Maxx and it was some experience to have the wind in your hair, your heart in your mouth as the vehicle lurched along narrow lanes with steep falls on one side. It was sunny, it was real and it felt free and happy. We stopped at Dar to start the trek. 

The walk was easy…lots of ups and downs in the trail…. Gauri spotted a yellow throated Marten along the way in a rhododendron forest. This time of May summer was in effect and most vegetation around was almost dry, and the sun was draining us a bit. At Bongling village we had our first break and their hospitality was so touching. We met a 76 year old veteran who takes tender for the meat supply to the local ITBP post. As we trekked further he caught up with me and started talking….he told me about his son in Chandigarh and his wife who passed away just a few days back. Along the way we saw many small shrines for the dead. He explained that these are benign spirits who guide the travellers and keep them safe from harm and bad spirits. I said a prayer to all… you can’t not believe in such haloed places.

The day grew sunnier and so did the discomfort. On a personal level this trek was an alarm bell for me. I need to stop thriving on overconfidence and get fit. My ankles were hurting terribly and I am ashamed to say that after the first two days I couldn’t carry my full backpack and had to make-do with a day pack. I’ll never live this down… I am sure my ankles hurt because of the excessive weight I have put on. So either I lose it or I lose opportunities to trek:(
We all tumbled into Urthing; some with more speed and grace.
Urthing is a beautiful flat campsite with a vertical shelf of mountain face on one side and the Dhauli Ganga flowing beside on the other. The arrangements were unbelievable. We had room size tents! There was a full kitchen and meals to die for! Food, tea, soup, sweets… hard to say this was campsite food! We all relaxed; some played cricket, some took a walk along the river, and some even took a dip!!!
Late in the evening as we gathered outside the kitchen hut, Sayee sang. I must explain Sayee to you. You can’t ignore him. He is a well know musician in Goa. Has a deep voice - a rich baritone, sings beautifully, is gregarious, generous and a great entertainer. He is also Dilip’s very close friend.
We all sang late into the night; us the cooks, the staff…it was a happy merry night. Made merrier with some local alcohol. Have to admit we broke all of Mr Lakshman’s rules everyday:)
We retired into our tents thinking the fun had ended. But late at night Haroon called out and we rushed out thinking it was some wild animal. In a rush to get their cameras Nidhi and Anu ran pell mell and bumped into each other. 

But it was worth it…a big round cheezy yellow moon had just peaked off the mountain head. First everyone got busy clicking and adjusting… then giving it all up just stood and stared at the moon and the mountain, the moonlit valley, the stillness in the air, the rushing of the Dhauli Ganga, the lone trail that disappeared somewhere ahead... and time stood still and everything was perfect.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note#2: A comedy of errors… Kathgodam to Dharchula

This year’s trek was decided much in advance. While some of us were rooting for Nanda Devi east base camp…our organizer sold us this trip. And every bit was worth it. The route is Delhi to Kathgodam station (by train or bus) and a day long journey via Pthoragarh to Dharchula. 

I was rushing to get to platform#13 in Old Delhi railway station to catch the Ranikhet express. I saw them before they saw me…and each step down the stairs to the platform only brought more familiar faces into focus. It was a happy reunion. I never felt I was meeting them after a year. It was like meeting old school friends. So there was Jyotsna, Nidhi, Babita, Haroon, Dilip, Amit, Rahul, Sarang from the last trek and Anuradha, Ashley, Gauri, Sayee, Deepak, Pareesh and Ankur who I met for the first time. Most knew each other from before except me. 

The fun started when the train rolled in and we were standing just below the stairs the ‘wrongest’ inappropriate place one can imagine…with our bulky backpacks. We created an instant lockjaw jam…no one could more forward of back… not to mention the crazy surge of human population; a meele of bawling children, plump aunties, sweaty men, buckets, suitcases, bags, all struggling to get into the train or get through us. I even had a man trying to get through between my backpack and my back only to realise they are connected.  Being short didn’t help as all we could see on both sides were more people and the best thing to do seemed was to get into the nearest 2nd class bogie. We pushed and got in…only to see that the rest of the platform ahead was completely empty. We created the jam by trying to get into the wrong bogie!!!

Finally got into our AC compartments and it felt like a 5 star lobby… That night I was declared Dr. Devi owing to my universal and versatile cure of ‘salubrious mountain air’ and ‘lots of laughter’…from fever to constipation. We got to know each other and Sayee saved me by getting us some bread pakoras in the night. And we woke to the sounds of people getting off at Kathgodam station. We took our time getting ready and Jyotsna noticed Ashley brushing his teeth for a looong time…he being a dentist made it sound funny:)
The road trip to Dharchula was made in 2 Mahindra Maxx…with full Kumar Shanu festival blaring in our ears. Our driver Karan needed the music to keep him pepped up. The music finally let up towards the 2nd half of the day and moved to mellow hum-able Kishore kumar and Lata aunty tunes. We stopped midway to see a leopard sanctuary that had three very healthy but bored leopards, they are fed 3 kg of buffalo meat everyday but nothing much to sustain their wild spirit.  We also stopped at many places for our breakfast and numerous teas, but the best was the stop for lunch. It was a quaint little dhaba named ‘Lohani’s about 70 kms before Pithoragarh. While half of us feasted on the mustard flavoured kheera raita and simple chana the rest went next door to have chicken and local fish. I was stung by the nettles or ‘bichu buti’…this plant is also boiled and eaten in the hills and many use it as a pain bam. Pithoragarh is a big cantonment of both the Army and the ITBP…and I was remembering all that my mom said about this place when my parents were there. 

The route was very scenic along the way and it only got better. But just then we received some bad news that someone in the Roopkund trek died by a strike of lightning. Sandeep our organiser had to rush back. All the beauty around went suddenly bleak. I could only feel pained by thinking about his family and what he must have been thinking. I really liked Nidhi’s perspective that fated or not, or his time had come or not, but what is certain is that we have limited time in this world and we have to live it to the fullest. 

Anyways come evening and we rolled into Dharchula. It was a busy town and after the long and lonesome winding hilly roads, all the bustle, lights and crowd was a surprise to our senses. And like Jyotsna said it reminds one of Joshimath. Dharchula is the border town with Nepal and has a connecting bridge that is open till 7 pm daily. We were received by Mr Lakshman who runs an adventure tour company. He introduced his team to us and briefed us on the trek. He was giving us standard briefing procedures but we were a tired lot with no Sandeep in sight and a change of plan at hand. It was a totally confusing confounding interesting evening. 

And what ensued is a comedy of errors. 

He said the wrong things. We asked the wrong questions.  He painted a bleak picture and gave us one plastic lunch box each in which we were supposed to carry boring lunches like pulav, upma and other tasteless food. He also warned us of the heavy snowfall along the glacier and that we might not be able to do the last stretch to Panchachuli base camp due to the weather. At that point he was of an emotional and reactionary nature and those who were of similar disposition immediately sparked with him resulting in some pricelessly funny conversation exchange. He told us to not mingle with the locals, that smoking and alcohol was forbidden in the trek and that women need to be extra careful on the trail. Some of us argued on all points while some of us wanted to know why the stretcher has to be in the front and not the back and many such questions that had him simply foxed! 

He had invited a 3 time Everest summiteer who is also a Padmashree awardee. He is an army ex-serviceman and during his career has skied down from most peaks of the Himalayas. He also is the only person to have spent 6 days at the final Everest camp without having to come down.

We finally retired for the night in hope of some good sleep. I was a bit apprehensive after the evening’s discussion wondering if with so many new factors it was going to be just an easy walk in the park. But as the night got darker old wisdom and earlier lessons learnt in the mountains came to me that going with the flow is the greatest adventure and that anywhere in the mountains is always beautiful and worth the while. The rest I don’t remember as I fell asleep.

Notes for Dharma valley - a summer trek to the Panchachuli base camp

Note # 1: Not all those who wander are lost… 

Many of us relate to this symbolically, it’s even part of my tattoo, but Tolkein’s famous quote from Lord of the rings really hold true for the people of Dharma Valley. They are the migratory Rang tribes also known as Bhotias (The six categories of Bhotia tribe are: Rang, Johari, Tolcha, Marcha and Jad)…they are Indo Tibeteans, of mixed ancestry, and are hardy cheerful people. They speak excellent Hindi, are educated; and even the remotest village boast of a doctor or engineer in each family thanks to the government reservations and facilities. I was happily surprised to see that albeit living in such remote and inaccessible terrain, they understand the value of an education, have taken advantage of it, and are prosperous. 

They are migratory because of the patterns of the weather. As a cold bitter winter sets in, it makes the Dharma valley inhospitable, so they leave their high altitude dwellings to come down to the town of Dharchula or other villages; and as the summer sun warms the valley and melts the snow, they trek back up to the village, cattle, luggage, provisions and babies in tow. These treks can take from 4 to 5 days one way. 

 It inspires me. To live this life of transition. I for one, try and live out of a suitcase as much as possible. All my things can be packed into a suitcase and a bag of books. In the last five years I have bought a guitar, a bookshelf, and a cupboard as a possession (the latter three in the last few months by my mom). It’s nice to live simple and sparse. Keeps the thoughts clear, helps see the many possible futures, and of course no baggage. Something also to do with our cavemen days I’m told, when physical objects could potentially block our view of predators. Or it’s something to do with my nomadic life living in different army cantonments, making new friends, adapting, shedding, adding, and an early understanding that everything is temporary. 

 Summer is also the time to plough fields, sow buckwheat and potatoes and tend to livestock… and to trade. Dharma valley is situated in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand and is inhabited by a population of 1000 spread over 12 small and remote villages inaccessible by road. Before the Indo China wars they were thriving on trans-Himalayan trade of legal goods like salts, raw material, wool, etc. and illegal trade of animal parts and other such. Post the war in 1962 the legal trade came to a stop rendering the otherwise prosperous villagers without much. But the illegal trade survives. The borders of Dharchula are very porous and a hop skip jump over the river will land you in Nepal. And further ahead there are passes into Tibet. The ITBP (Indo Tibet Border Police) is vigilant but more can be done for stopping trade in animal part and poaching. 

 Summer season is time to collect the ‘KEEDA’ or the caterpillar fungus. This creature thrives in the alpine slopes once the snow melts. It is a fungi spore that enters a caterpillar and devours it and turns the caterpillar into a fungus. There is high demand for it the Chinese medicine market and a kilo of this is prices at Rs. 4 Lakhs to Rs 5 Lakhs. this is how it looks...iv copied it from the internet to give you a more graphic morbid picture:)
So Keeda collection is big for all families. I am told that this fungus produces strong steroids and many hinted that the success of Chinese athletes in the past decade has something to do with this as this is one steroid that is not detected in human test samples. Well it’s alleged so; I haven’t done any investigations to prove it 

 This is a thin line….where my values and beliefs conflict with my empathy for human survival. I do empathize that 4 lakhs could mean a fortune to this people and ensures them smiles throughout the year…but yes I do feel this is wrong not only for its illegal, but when going Keeda collecting, they also hunt Himalayan bear for its Bile and other smaller animals to trade in the Chinese medicine market. So not all but maybe some of us who wander are kinda lost…