The autumn of 2018 found me and my long time friend John trekking to Kala Pathar near Everest Base Camp and on to Gokyo Lake. This destination had been on my bucket list since the early 1970s. While the mountains of Nepal never fail to amaze me, the experience of hundreds of trekkers stomping up and down the trails and jostling for space on the swaying suspension bridges over the Dudh Kosi, the ubiquitous WiFi, the dust that the masses of yaks and humans churned up constantly and the feeling that we were not really far from the everyday world just beyond the hills in the towns and cities of this planet – it was depressing. And the fact that we signed up with a commercial trekking company which looked after all the arrangements right from receiving me at the airport in Kathmandu to having a porter carry our loads did not do much for my self confidence. I asked myself if I had lost the ability to trek on my own after over 40 years of carrying a heavy backpack on all my treks and climbing expeditions. Crowds and amenities are not the reasons I have gravitated towards the mountains during my lifetime. I have always sought them out as sanctuaries of isolation and withdrawal from the mostly meaningless hubbub of civilization. I needed an antidote.
As my vacation for 2019 approached, I made plans to revisit Kishtwar after a gap of 30 years. The plan was scuttled as the political situation there started to heat up in the month of May with the imposition of Article 370. Casting around for an alternative, the Gidara Bugyal trek in Garhwal began to show some promise. Even after nearly two decades since commercial trekking began to take off in India, this little corner of the hills seemed less traveled than say the more well known treks like Gangotri/Tapovan.
It is an indication of how out of touch I was with the present ground realities of trekking in Uttarakhand when I expressed surprise followed by astonishment when Chandan Singh Bisht from Uttarkashi informed me and John that we would need a trekking permit, a permit to enter a protected area, we would have to pay a camping fee for every night that we camped during our trek, and we would be obliged to take a guide with us. To top it all we also needed a medical certificate of fitness since we were both well over 60 years old! Whatever happened to The Freedom of the Hills, I asked myself.
Like everything else in this world, it all boiled down to how much money we could spare to find this freedom of the hills – in our case, the total spend amounted to Rs.15,940 for the seven days’ round trip from Uttarkashi to Uttarkashi. Rs.2700 out of this amount accounted for taxi charges to and from Bhangeli (the road head), Rs.250 for a few essential items like milk powder and sugar, Rs.670 for food items like rice, dal, onions, potatoes, a few spices for the three of us; The balance amount took care of the salary for our guide Dilip Sharma at Rs.1500 per day and the various permits we needed.
I landed in New Delhi on the 16th of September after a fairly comfortable flight from Vancouver on China Southern Airlines. As I sat jet lagged in the taxi headed for my brother’s home in Gurgaon South City II the highly urbanized landscape of tall buildings flashing neon signs of the world’s largest multi national corporations assaulted my senses.
I breathed a sigh of relief two days later as John and I plonked down in our seats in the air conditioned comfort of the Shatabdi Express headed for Dehra Dun. That same evening we were the guests of my old friend Krishnan Kutty and his wife Lalitha at their lovely home in Landour, up in the hills near Mussoorie.
The afternoon of the 19th September found us in the town of Uttarkashi where once again it was reunion time with Pyar Singh who had taken the trouble of coming down from his village of Salang near Bhatwari, and in the bargain fracturing his foot. He was all smiles in spite of his leg being in a cast. We had climbed together in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh in 1995 and it was great to see him.
We sat in Chandan Singh Bisht’s tiny office and went through the details of the trek arrangements over tiny helpings of chai served in small glass tumblers, brought in from the tea vendor on the street by Dilip Sharma who was to be our guide for the trek. With a last name which was so generic and Indian, I was surprised to learn that Dilip hailed from Nepal! He seemed a little taken aback himself when Chandan told him that we would not be taking any porters, that John and I had packed all the food and fuel the two of us would need in our own backpacks, and that all he had to do was shop for some groceries for himself. He was not expected to carry any loads for us. His job was to be just a guide and not double as porter!
Chandan handed us copies of our permits and said we were ready to go the next day. John and I were quite hungry by this time, and the kitchen of our guest house provided us with a delicious meal : rice, dal, chapati, vegetable curry and a few pieces of fried fish. Thus sated, I retired to our room upstairs for a late afternoon nap, still recovering from my jet lag!
The next morning John and I began our day by having chai from the man selling tea from his small shop. A stray dog passed by and John succumbed to his pleading eyes by sharing the biscuits that we were munching with the tea. A quick walk along the Bhagirathi river and breakfast of aloo paratha was followed by a shave in a barber shop.
We hired a jeep in the afternoon which dropped us off below the village of Bhangeli where we were to spend the first night. A short steep ascent up a well trodden path brought us to the village and we quickly found a home stay arrangement. Our host, Vinod Chauhan, was a friendly soul who quickly won our hearts. He was one of six brothers and very soon we were sipping tea and biscuits with some of them. After the heat of Delhi and Uttarkashi, we were grateful for the cool temperatures that descended on us as dusk fell. Dinner consisted of rotis and aloo subji and we were ready for bed.
We woke up the next morning to the sound of tinkling bells which graced the necks of the cattle as they were led out to pasture. Shafts of sunlight pierced the smoke curling up lazily through the slate roofs of the houses and the sounds of children crying and giggling and shrieking pierced the air. It was a comforting retreat from the industrialized world we were trying to escape from. The familiar ringtone of a cellphone ruined the ambience as a villager mounted the stone steps up to his house with a mobile phone stuck to his ear.
After breakfast we were paid a visit by Pratap Rana from the Forest Department and he diligently issued a receipt for the Rs.660/- that we paid him as charges for our proposed camping in the area we were now to enter. Another round of chai and many group photos later, John, Dilip and I hoisted our rucksacks on to our shoulders and began to climb up steeply through the village via a series of paths flagged with stones. I felt energetic and strong, my 18 year old 80 liter backpack sat comfortably on my shoulders and I began to develop the steady rythm of walking that is the key to trekking with a heavy load. Our packs weighed around 25 kg each and we had to be careful not to bust our ageing knees!
After walking up a regular trail for a couple of hours, Dilip decided to take a short cut. And as I have learnt through bitter experience all shortcuts are not created equal! We were soon plunging through shrubs and bushes as we contoured the hillside , disturbing a large troop of langurs. I immediately began to track them with my camera and finally managed to get a shot of a magnificent male. His mouth showed signs of a possible injury, perhaps acquired in the battle for a female or to become the troop leader!
The walk through the forest was always enchanting – we came across interesting birds and butterflies and little rivulets. Finally we crested a ridge after passing through the remains of a Gujjar encampment and crossed over to the other side. Small clearings began to appear in the forest and soon thereafter Dilip decided that we should camp. It was an agreeable place with a water source close by and with a great view across the valley where the peak of Srikant dominated the horizon.
We woke up leisurely the next morning and after my mandatory mugs of steaming hot chai I went in search of a suitable place to empty my bowels. One of the great advantages of hiking as a small group in a lightly traversed area is the fact that one can find a suitable spot which is private and adheres to all the safeguards regarding not contaminating nearby streams, rivulets or other sources of water – where human waste, just like the waste from the denizens of the wilderness, can be processed by Mother Nature in her own way and time without detrimental effects.
The day’s walk after a breakfast of oats led us up gradually contouring the hillside until we finally rounded a bend and could look down into a small valley watered by a stream. The vegetation was lush, the air was fragrant with the smell of wild flowers. At this ideal moment Dilip decided to take what he called a “short cut” down into the valley. This turned out to be a rather unwise choice on his part. We slithered awkwardly down a narrow gully choked with stones and rubble and slick with mud and moisture. For John, who does not see too well, this was totally undesirable. I went down first, sliding and trying to keep my balance with the full weight of my backpack trying to knock me down. When I was about ten feet from rejoining the original track which had contoured round a bulge and was now below me, I slipped and shot through some bushes and landed in an ignominious heap, lucky not to have knocked my head on a rock or broken a limb or two. I carefully managed to get back on to my feet and waited on the trail. When John and Dilip joined me a few minutes later, I made it a point to explain to Dilip that as a guide he should not be putting his clients through a potentially dangerous situation. What if either John and I were seriously injured? We had no back up. He would have had to leave us alone for a day to get help from Bhangeli and that delay might cost us dear. Dilip nodded his head sheepishly in agreement.
Soon we were down near the stream that we had spotted from above and all that remained was to cross the log bridge to the other side and climb up to an open meadow where we were to camp for the night. It was a magical place – the mist, the drifting clouds and the birdsong enhanced the ambience to a heightened appreciation of just how lucky we were to experience this as a small private group of three.
Day three of the trek started off quite well as we ascended the meadow slowly with the sun shining brightly and warming our backs. During a brief break we spotted a large group of people emerging on to the open space near the big boulder which had acted as our kitchen shelter the night before. A little while later the vanguard of the group caught up with us : they were the staff who were herding a group from Indiahikes up to Gidara Bugyal. One of their recalcitrant mules suddenly jettisoned his load and bolted up the trail with the muleteers in hot pursuit! An hour later we lazed on an open slope soaking in the sun and waited for the trekkers to catch up with us. They were quite surprised to see two senior citizens (John and I are both in our mid sixties!) out on their own with only a guide and carrying all their baggage.
We soon passed the little hollow in the slope where the Indiahikes team were pitching tents for the night and began to ascend steadily till we crested the ridge above. Then began a long traverse partly in oncoming mist. Rhododendron bushes carpeted the slopes and hillsides as we once again plunged downwards to a stream that flowed from the upper reaches of Gidara Bugyal. It was late in the afternoon and we were glad to stop for the night on a little shelf above the stream which we would have to cross in the morning to gain access to the extensive meadows beyond.
The 24th of September dawned clear and cold, frost coated the grass around our tents and along the edges of the stream there were frozen filigrees of ice. But the sun came out and it promised to be a brilliant day. We were elated that at long last we would be walking on the bugiyal that we had come so far to see. We crossed the stream a little way below our camp and were soon climbing the slope on the other side. We were in the sun and wildflowers occasionally brightened the hillside. We were feeling fit and full of vigor and stopped often to admire the views and take photos. Gidara was truly an amazing expanse of seemingly endless meadows that stretched as far as the eye could see.
We had been going for a few hours now and enjoying every bit of it. We queried Dilip regarding our next camp and he said that we would have to traverse the bugyal completely, then descend to another side. So we kept on trudging. Clouds began to build up and very soon we were enveloped in grey. The trail to descend was a mixture of scree, stones and mud. We finally emerged from this challenge to be confronted by a spectacular path contouring the hillsides. Far below was the jungle and a stream. We crested another pass and continued to descend. By now the sun had set and we continued on with our headlamps, looking for a source of water near which to camp. The streams and rivulets and water channels that Dilip had used in the past were now dry because his earlier trips had been before the end of the rainy season. We were now almost at the end of September and the monsoon, even though it had been extended this year, had retreated from up here. We were now exhausted and hungry and running out of water. We had been on the move for almost 14 hours and I decided that we should camp at the first spot that we could find, regardless of whether we had a water source or not. I had a few sips of water in my bottle and so did John and we had some dried fruits and nuts which would have to serve as dinner. Going to bed hungry was a better alternative than jeopardizing our safety in the dark – our fatigue would lead us to make errors of judgement that we could not afford.
I anticipated some difficulty in going to sleep, but we were so exhausted that we soon fell into a grateful slumber.
For me the greatest deprivation the next morning was the absence of chai! I am addicted to the brew and have been for most of my life. I find it almost impossible to function without the soothing comfort of the precious liquid. I consoled myself with the thought that as soon as we found a source of water we would stop and brew up. However, as I peeked out of the tent, the sight that I beheld filled my soul, if not my belly!
In this happy state of mind we packed up our worldly possessions and prepared to walk. Dilip was already raring to go, the lack of water and food had not affected him outwardly one bit.
We soon began to descend rapidly and reached a broad saddle from where we could see a well marked trail below us leading in the direction of the well known Dayara Bugyal. More than the trail, I was interested in the small body of water below us and in my mind I could already see us stopping by and making chai. But it was not to be. Dilip steered us away from it, promising us that there was much better quality water from a spring down in the next valley. The bleating of a lost lamb echoed my feeling of sadness. The little animal had obviously been separated from its mother and we tried to nudge it towards a distant flock of sheep that appeared like maggots on another slope across to our left. Then we finally began the steep descent into the valley where there seemed to be an incipient stream. However the stream bed was dry. We stopped in a clearing and Dilip went ahead further to finally locate a side channel where a thin trickle of water was flowing. He came back with full water bottles – ah, deliverance at last! I wasted no time in firing up the stove and very soon we were gloating over our brief ordeal with a mug of steaming tea. More delight was to follow as Dilip chopped onions and boiled potatoes to mix with our khichri. Two dogs suddenly came bounding down the hillside wagging their tails – perhaps their mandate was to guard the sheep we had seen but they seemed as if they had tired of the company of their charges and wanted some human interaction. The shepherds to whom they belonged were nowhere in sight. The dogs seemed happy to just be cuddled and petted and then they made themselves comfortable while we ate our meal, not once indicating that they wanted to participate in our lunch.
After lunch the trail went from open meadows into the forest and a couple of hours later after another bout of bushwhacking (Dilip seemed to have a penchant for this as he had subjected us to it even on the very first day of the trek!) we finally emerged onto a little clearing among the trees. This was to be our last night camping before dropping down to Bharsu the next day. The evening was not entirely clear, the mist hung around for a long time. Dilip coaxed a fire out of the damp logs that he foraged from the undergrowth, the smoke swirled up into the forest canopy and even the birds fell silent. John and I chatted for a long time after dinner, well into the wee hours. The companionship of a shared tent in the wilderness is something to savor. Our cellphones had not been used for six days except to take the occasional photo and I reveled in this throwback to the past when trekking really meant going off the grid for days, sometimes weeks and months at a time. It gave one’s soul time to heal, it gave one’s mind time and space to appreciate one’s surroundings and the unfettered privilege to immerse oneself in the beautiful world around us.
The last day’s walk on 26th Sept was the home run. In a very short time we were out of the woods and in more open country, the trees were more spaced out, there were more traces of human activity, we passed the remains of a Gujjar encampment and began to feel the warmth of a lower altitude. In about two hours’ time we rounded a bend and the village of Bharsu came into view a few kilometers below us. Bharsu was the roadhead where we could get transportation back to Uttarkashi. It also served as the jumping off point for the extremely popular trek to Dayara Bugyal.
As we walked along the stone flagged pathways of upper Bharsu, we passed an open courtyard where a woman was sorting and drying out potatoes to be packed and shipped out to the markets.
An old woman passed us carrying a heavy load of grass with a tumpline and both John and I respectfully stepped aside. We had shouldered our backpacks for the dubious “pleasure” of trekking in the hills but here was the real hero of the story, carrying her load on a daily basis out of necessity.
Here are some videos I made of the trek :