It is not yet 6 a.m., but the over-bridge at New Delhi Railway Station is already chock-a-bloc with people. I make my way to the far platform and locate the board with the passenger lists. My torch comes in handy in the darkness and I am able to locate my coach and seat in the Dehradun Shatabdi train.
We are soon on our way and passing through the towns of Meerut and Muzzafarpur. Staring out of the large windows, I see golden fields of wheat with patches of sugarcane and occasional groves of mango. Innumerable brick kilns line the track, emitting black smoke drifting slowly west from their tall chimneys. I think of my journey ahead. From Dehradun, I plan to take the bus to Purola and thence to Sankri from which point the trek begins, through Taluka, Osla and then Har Ki Doon. I will be traversing close to 25 miles and ascending about 8,000 feet.
Getting to Purola
At Dehradun, I make my way to the bus stand just outside the railway station and confirm that the Purola bus will come in at 1:30 p.m. There is time enough for a dal-roti-sabji lunch at a nearby restaurant. Later, at the bus ticket counter I learn that tickets are available only inside the bus. The bus arrives and there is a crowd of people trying to get in. There are also a large number of people trying to get out. The conductor advises me to load my backpack on top of the bus. Looking unsuccessfully for help to get my bag on top of the bus, I lose my place in the queue to get in and all chance of getting a seat on the bus. And then I learn that a seat is essential and that to ensure a seat, passengers (or their proxies) board the bus at the workshop where it is parked before coming to the bus stand.
This is the last bus to Purola or anywhere nearby. So I am summarily stranded. I team up with another passenger, R.S. Rana, and we take a bus to Vikas Nagar with the idea of looking for shared taxis from there to Purola. In case nothing works out, Rana says he will put up at Vikas Nagar for the night—that place being much cheaper than Dehradun. I decide to take my chances with him.
At Vikas Nagar, we chance upon a bus to Purola and quickly board. The large 40 seater bus makes its way up along the Yamuna on a road that remains in a precarious condition after last year’s heavy rains. A couple of Gaddi (valley) shepherds disembark at a camp site crowded with buffaloes, goats and a few pack horses. They are in their traditional dress— skull caps and long kurta-pyjamas—and sport distinct beards and goatees. I figure that this is their seasonal summer migration with cattle from the plains to the pastures in the hills. We stop for dinner where my friend Rana gets his glass of the local brew after a hush-hush exchange with the waiter. I reach Purola just after 10 p.m. and make my way to the hotel previously arranged by Rana who had got off the bus at Barkot. On the short walk to the hotel, I get a call from Rana who is checking to see if I have found the hotel.
The main street of Purola has a busy look at 6.30 a.m. The sky is clear and the air crisp. I board the bus to Sankri. The bus carrying mainly daily commuters slowly makes its way up the valley of the Kamal river. The ever solicitous Rana calls to check that I have made the bus.
It is a remarkably wide and beautiful valley dotted with neat villages. The gentle slopes near the river—the Kamal—are covered with the green of wheat and jowar (sorghum). The steeper slopes are covered with pine trees and rhododendrons in full bloom. The tall peaks in the distance are blanketed with snow. My neighbor in the bus is a gentle and soft spoken pahadi(hill-dweller). The bus hugs the curving road at a gentle speed. The driver plays Garhwali music—melodious with slow beats—and I can imagine a slow rhythmic harvest dance to go with it. The comfortable ride, expansive scenery and lilting song lifts me into a joyous mood. I wonder if these simple pahadi songs will sound as good in metropolitan Delhi.
We stop at a small town, Mori, for breakfast and I have a huge aloo paratha served with dahi and achar. The paratha is shallow fried in mustard oil and tastes really good. A couple of Israeli backpackers climb in and I get absorbed in conversation with them.
We stop briefly at the Forest Department checkpost at Netwar to pay the Govind National Park entrance fees. A few miles before Sankri, a little short of 11 a.m., the bus grinds to a halt—the road is blocked by a huge dumper clearing a landslide. When the dumper finally gives way, the bus is unable to clear the stretch as its wheels cannot find enough purchase in the loose mud. We are dropped unceremoniously and the trek begins earlier than I anticipated.
Sankri to Taluka
I walk to Sankri and after a relaxed lunch, set out for Taluka—the jeeps are not running because the road has been blocked by landslides. My newly acquired Israeli friends—Arnon and David—decide to accompany me part of the way, just to limber up for their trek which begins the next day. On the way, I meet the caretakers of the Taluka and Har Ki Doon Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouses heading for Sankri. They assure me that there will be somebody to open up when I reach the guest house. I later learn that these men are heading to Sankri to collect their salaries which have arrived after a gap of six months!
Soon we are brought to a stop due to a fast flowing stream that has flooded the jeep track. I part with the Israelis here, remove my shoes and walk slowly through the icy water, testing each step carefully, fearful of taking a fall. The icy water and the sharp stones over which I walk really hurt. As it turns out, this is just the first of the tests I must undergo today. There are more streams requiring a similar treatment. Later in the afternoon, there is a thunderstorm with hail. The only possible shelter near the path—pine trees—turn out to be useless in shielding me from the hailstones. Wet and soaking inspite of a jacket, I reach Taluka just before dusk.
The guest house at Taluka is a dilapidated building. There is no electricity and no water in the bathrooms. I get a bed in the “deluxe” room which has little to recommend it. I have dinner at the Thakur dhaba at the end of the village along with a couple of Bihari workers who are temporarily in the village for a painting job. A Nepalese family runs the dhaba. Two women, who look like a mother-daughter pair are cooking and serving. I later find out that they are actually a grandmother-granddaughter pair. The Biharis joke with the attractive looking younger woman about the small helpings she serves.
The rain has started picking up and that means it will be snowing in Har Ki Doon. Perhaps my journey is slated to end sooner than expected.
An old man in uniform is also taking shelter in the dhaba from the rain. He turns out to be the chowkidar (guard) of the Forest Rest House (FRH) at Taluka. I find out that the FRH has two rooms with water, electricity and a wireless set. The guard is willing to let me have a room on my return journey provided there are no prior reservations. My haversack has begun to weigh heavily on me after the 8 miles I have walked today. I decide to take a porter for the rest of the trip and ask for one at the dhaba. Kamal Thakur, (whose mother cooks at the dhaba) volunteers for the job and we arrange that he will carry my bag for Rs. 300 ($5.47) per day and food.
The Upward Trek Begins
I set out at 7:30 a.m. with my guide and porter Kamal carrying my haversack which weighs about 10 kg (22 lbs). I carry a small knapsack weighing 2-3 kg (6 lbs) with water, some food, a jacket and rain gear. We set out along the left bank of the Har Ki Doon Gad, a stream which we will follow for the next two days right up to Har Ki Doon.
As we leave Taluka, Kamal points out a micro hydro-power station that supplies power to the village. The GMVN guest house remains without power for reasons other than a lack of supply to the area.
Some distance on, the trail bifurcates, the upper path leading to Dhatmir village while the lower path heads more directly towards Osla. In a while, we see Dhatmir village perched precariously high up on the hillside. The slopes are terraced with fields of wheat and mustard—adding dashes of brilliant yellow and green to the brown and grey of the mountainside. The fields extend to impossible slopes and dizzying heights. The trail moves along the stream, climbing up when the gorge becomes narrow and descending down to the level of the water when the geography allows.
We pass the village of Gangad, where the valley has widened to allow the mustard and wheat fields to descend to its floor.
Turning a blind corner at a height above the river , we spot the village of Osla perched on the sheer hill slope on the other side. From a distance, the village almost merges with the the hillside. No easy access is visible to the village.
Below the village, the hillside slopes steeply to the river, while above it is a sheer vertical cliff capped with snow.
I wonder why the villages in this area are located high up on fairly inaccessible slopes rather than near the river bank. Is it the fear of floods? Kamal opines that it could be because the village founders were trying to hide from the rulers in secure locations.
To Har Ki Doon
We reach Seema—located on the left bank of the Har Ki Doon Gad just across but at a lower height than Osla. After depositing my bags and changing, I settle down at the dhaba opposite the GMVN guest house to spend a long afternoon and evening in the amiable company of the dhaba owner, Jainder Singh, sitting on a raised platform beside his chullah.
Jainder is one of six brothers and two sisters. He tells me that his is a very old family of Osla. One sister is married and lives in the neighboring village. A brother works in Delhi. The other five siblings are younger and go to school. Jainder has studied till the 9th grade (the nearest high school is at Sankri) and now spreads his time between running the canteen at the GMVN guest house and helping with the farming of the 50 nalis (2.5 acres) of land his family possesses.
The evening passes pleasantly enough. A young group, also from Delhi are also heading the same way as me. They are poorly equipped, having no heavy woolens and walking in office footwear. But what they lack in equipment, they make up in spirit. They are determined to get to Har Ki Doon the next day despite the reports we hear from returning trekkers of the heavy snow in Har Ki Doon. After a simple meal which tastes delicious under the conditions, we retire early for tomorrow is going to be a testing day.
On a crisp and cloudless morning we set out from Seema for Har Ki Doon, a trek of 7.5 miles that includes a height gain of over 1,969 feet. After the experience of the last two days I have dumped my polythene jacket and picked up a local plastic poncho with Kamal’s help.
We take the bridge and cross over to the right bank of the Har Ki Doon Gad for the first time during this trip. Snow clad peaks can be seen in the far distance. The path rapidly gains height and branches into two—the left fork leading to the ancient Osla village. A young pahadi woman points me towards the right fork and then asks me for a toffee!
We walk past fields being readied for the next crop—phafra, a local grain whose flour is used to make roti. More women than men are seen working in the fields. At half past nine, we stop at a tea stall just at the beginning of a steep climb. The youth running it knows that it is the perfect spot for a mid-morning tea break for trekkers to Har Ki Doon.
As the path levels out of the climb, Kala Nag and the peaks of the Banderpoonch range become visible. Looking back, I can see the Har Ki Doon Gad meandering down seemingly towards the snow capped Kedarkantha peak. Following the river upstream one sees the Ruinsara Gad whose confluence with the Har Ki Doon Gad is not visible from the path we are on. We can see a wooden bridge over the Ruinsara Gad.
It is noon and we stop for our packed lunch near a pretty little waterfall. I fill up my water bottle from the mountain stream. Clouds are starting to gather and we have already had a few drops of rain—it is time to hurry. We enter a valley dominated by two peaks—Hata Peak and Har Ki Doon peak.
The valley floor is covered with snow in patches, the consequence of the wet weather that has prevailed over the past week. I spot the FRH building in the shadow of a huge rock. It has a fairy tale look. The GMVN guest house is further ahead at the head of the valley and the snow must be negotiated carefully to avoid losing step and rolling into the Har Ki Doon Gad. We reach the GMVN guest house exhausted a little after noon. We must have been plodding through snow for the past hour or so.
It starts snowing and turns bitterly cold. Pavani, the canteen contractor at Har Ki Doon has reached only a few minutes earlier and is busy trying to get a fire going to heat water. I look out to see a blanket of snow covering everything other than a few large rocks. For the rest of the evening, I am obsessed with trying to keep myself warm.
By the next morning, there is an amazing turnaround. I look out to see a clear blue sky and the Swargarohini peak (20,505 feet) standing above us. Legend has it that Yudhishtar, the eldest of the Pandavas, climbs the Swargarohini peak on his way to heaven.
I hear some raucous crows around and ask Pavani about birds here. He answers that but for the unseasonal snow, it would have been impossible to sleep this late in the morning because of the chatter of birds with as he puts it, their “108 boli.”
The clear weather has put me in a better frame of mind to appreciate the beauty of Har Ki Doon. A stream meanders down gently and along its sides is a green border of Fir trees. Looking closer at the grassy slopes, I can see brown grass giving way to green and numerous flowers, yellow dandelions, marsh marigolds and blue gentian making an appearance in anticipation of spring. But I cannot tarry here any longer, for I must reach Osla the nearest village while the weather holds.
The clear weather and the descending trail make the return trek from Har Ki Doon a relaxed affair. Nearing Osla, we see mostly women in colorful dresses, out hoeing the fields in preparation for planting the next crop.
The Village of Osla
Around noon, we reach the ancient village of Osla just as it starts drizzling. We head for the satellite phone center from where I make a call home paying Rs. 10 (about 18 c) for a two minute phone call. The charges are the same for any place in India.
We learn that the government has provided such phones in each (large?) village. Curious village children gather around us and pose for a photograph. The village is empty except for the little children and an occasional woman working inside. The older children and adults have gone grazing their cattle or have gone to their farms. There is no shop in the entire village and nowhere for us to get some tea.
Our next stop is the temple which occupies a prominent place in the village. The temple is empty for the idol has been taken for a festival to another village. The walls of the temple are made of alternate layers of stone and wood—a design that apparently allows the structure to withstand earthquakes. The roofs are made of slate. The wood of the pillars and the front door are intricately carved.
We descend from the main street to a lower level to see a house which people point out to be one of the older structures in Osla. All the houses are multi-storied. The lowest floors are used for keeping the cattle and sheep. The floor with the overhanging balcony is the family residence and above it, the lofts are used for storing wood. Families have separate housing for grain silos where they stock enough grain and other rations to last through the harsh winter. Osla has a school teaches up to class 8. For high school, rations and medicines, the villagers have to go up to Sankri.
The rain now comes down in a steady drizzle and it is time to make our way to the GMVN guest house in Seema across the river.
A Bird Watcher’s Paradise
The return journey from Seema to Taluka turns out to be the best walk I have had in this trip. It is a beautiful day and I have all the time in the world as I plan to get only as far as Sankri today. The walk is along the left bank of the Har Ki Doon Gad. We again pass the beautiful fields of green and yellow. It is early in the morning and the ideal time to see birds. The area is a veritable birdwatcher’s paradise.
I get beautiful shots of several Drongos sitting totally absorbed in their own company.
Juvenile Dippers squat on the rocks in the middle of the stream; every now and then, they dip into the water and return with their catch. Redstarts throng the banks. An elegant white capped Redstart flits and performs acrobatics in the air, showing off its brilliant plumage. A clear mountain stream invites me to brush my teeth—something I could not bring myself to do with the water of the GMVN guest house. A Lammergeir flies low over the river following it downstream leaving me mesmerized. A blue sky, warm sun, the beautiful river and birds of different hues to be discovered at each step. It is a perfect day.
Reaching Taluka, I find a jeep waiting to go back down to Sankri. I am now suddenly in a hurry to get back home. I sit in the Sankri jeep with a goat that has been stuffed into the leg space of the rear seat, keeping me close company. Thus ends my memorable trip.
Kannan Kasturi is a travel writer based in India.
More pictures available online.