Travelling in Uttarakhand: Milam Glacier Trek

Often while travelling, worn down by fatigue we ask ourselves “Why am I doing this?”. Why does one need to step outside one’s comfort zone and push for an experience that provides one with little material benefit.

The answer I guess lies in the question itself. With my trip to Milam I realised something more:  experiences only grow richer when shared with others.

In this trek I was sharing my emotions, experiences with a friend and through our journey we not only stumbled on a greater conclusion about the philosophy of life but also realised how uncertainty sometimes brings out the best in us.

Most of our experiences today are served to us, through a variety of mediums and therefore fill us with a longing to discover the meaning behind them.

With the onset of summers in Delhi it being difficult for one to appreciate the weather and one’s surroundings, my roommate and I decided to go for a trek .Done with our graduation, it seemed like an ideal way to start our vacations.

In my last trek a fellow traveller had mentioned  Milam. According to him it was a difficult trek which one has to undertake with extreme precaution. Yet this thought made the scenario all the more appealing.

We left Nainital in the morning of 7th June 2015. Milam was once one of the largest villages in Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. It is situated near the Indian-Tibetan border. Once famous for its trade with Tibet, the village is now a ghost town with a population that one can count in finger-tips.

Milam Glacier originates from Himalayan peaks Hardeaol (Temple of the gods) and Trishuli (Not to be confused with Trishul ), Mangraon, Deo Damla, Sakram and on the other side stands Nanda Devi East separated by dark alpine big- walls.

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MILAM
© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

Munshayri lies in the Pithoragarh district, and the town comprises seven small villages whose residents are the Shauka Bhotiyas- an ethnic group of Uttarakhand.

A defining characteristic of the Bhotiya tribe is the practice of transhumance between their summer and winter villages. As one enters Munshayri, the sombre fatigue of the winding turns is broken with a majestic panorama. The five summits of Panchachuli in the middle of one’s vision try to calm the mind. As one’s eyes start to wander they follow patches of lush green forests to both sides. To the extreme left one can see various summits of Johar valley winding deep within themselves.

 

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Panchchuli from Munshiyari
© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

Throughout our journey, the locals were concerned about the results of the local football matches and as we approached the main market area we could hear the hooting and cheering.  Kids and elders alike were busy buying refreshments for the second half. We were trying to find the house of a local legend Dr. Sher Singh Pangtey. Mr Pangtey is a historian who has written on various topics and has also established a museum in his house where he curates objects from his community’s ancestral past. While I reckoned that everyone in the town knew his address; I had to remind myself I was in the hills again where identity isn’t tied down to one’s mere existence but serves as a bimodal unit for the whole community.

We stopped on the way to see the sun’s last rays sinking on the slopes of Panchachuli, before proceeding to Dr. Pangtey’s home. In the morning we were told that we had to apply for a permit, only then would we be allowed to proceed.

Though the process sounds a bit complex, it can be avoided if one has hired a local guide who is familiar with the procedure. It was around two and finally we were allowed to begin our journey, and having been excited we loaded our gear on a taxi.

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Last Light
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For the next half- hour the only prominent feature in the landscape was the landslides which were being cleared.  One is forced to think in such situations about the way humans are interacting with their surroundings. This valley in its past used to be an example of the close harmony which exists between humans and their surroundings. Now being confined to compulsory environmental texts these topics make even less sense than they used to in our physical reality.

After a while the car stopped and we were informed that from here-onwards we had to walk to our next stop Lilam. We followed a trail in between dense bamboo bushes and soon after an elevation led us to yet another road that was being constructed to Milam.

The road is not motorable yet. It appeared the authorities wanted it to be a two lane construction.

Landslides had wrecked the area below the road; circular areas in the stone walls marked the areas where dynamites would later be placed to blast the impenetrable walls. Workers were working and living in road side sheds. I was sure the contractor of the project had a new car and a brand new hotel; the authorities behind the project would have built at least two houses in the state capital meanwhile the workers were looking for twigs of wood to make their evening tea. We were informed that the remains of an oak tree which stood right in-front of us was the last point where telephone signals could reach. After bidding last-goodbyes we put on our adventure caps and proceeded.

Between thoughts of my past and the picture of my present, I saw my partner take a plunge into a recession which marked the road’s end. Moving ahead I could see some faint-footsteps marking the way. Deducing the situation it seemed like the old way had suffered a lot and this recession marked the beginning of the way forward.

We were walking on crumpling mud, on one side we were clutching roots, twigs anything that appeared to hold our weight. On the other-side was nothing but a sharp drop of at least 600 meters which ended on the riverbed.

One wrong step and only our permit application in the SDM office would serve as a proof of our identity. We slowly walked balancing the load on our shoulders and the camera’s on our necks. Within minutes we knew we were on the wrong path, as the way led us further into an un-inhabited patch of land from where we could see Lilam. But the way to the village had disappeared from our view.

We were lost; we took off our bags and started wandering in the surrounding area to find a way. The village was diagonally opposite to us so the obvious way appeared to be upwards. We started to climb and after a series of twists and turns reached Lilam.

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LILAM
© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

The village is located on a slope and the only houses which provide one with shelter are located higher up. Eventually we reached a small shop where an old lady told us we could stay. On inquiring about the tariff she told us that she only charges for the food; the rest of the comforts came free.

It was a little difficult to take in because at such places people are expected to charge for every resource they have themselves paid for, but we discovered that in reality people help each other once the altitude starts increasing. One can only pay back in kind. Panchachuli along with civilisation had retreated from our view. As we were having our tea we were joined by a family who were going back to Munshayri after finishing their work in their village.

I informed them that my mother’s ancestral house lies in the Pithoragarh district and this kindled our relationship. As we were having our dinner the eldest member of this family insisted that we dine with them. My head was still concerned with appearances and by the look of It they didn’t have much to offer; but the family didn’t stop filling our plates with hot puris.

After having our dinner we realised that these strangers were giving us a majority of their share. When asked why, we were given a simple answer – because they felt like it.

In the morning we woke-up to realise that the family had left. We never got a chance to introduce ourselves formally.

 

© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

Our next stop was Bogudiar, the hardest section of our journey. From Lilam one has to take ‘Nain Sing Marg’ which was worked out by Pandit Nain Singh the famous spy explorer from Milam.  Nain Singh is said “to have contributed a large amount of important knowledge to the map of Asia than any other living man!”. Being a Pahari he chose the direttissima route up the mountain and now after 300 years we followed his lead.

The way goes above a high mountain and then follows a steep decline. We were accompanied by ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) troops, some Nepali workers who were ferrying loads to Milam for the ITBP camp and a couple who along with their cows were migrating to their summer village. We quickly became friends with the Nepali workers and it was decided amongst us that we would walk with them to Milam.

Gori Ganga is a tributary to the river Kali which marks the border separating India and Nepal to the east. Like various other compulsions of modern society. borders cease to work according to their proposed definition while walking along them. Gurkhas ruled Uttarakhand for a decade or so in the past and therefore cultures from both states have amalgamated historically. We walked slowly along the way and were often helped by our Nepali friends who often waited when we were left behind.

Today when nationality is supposed to be carried like a symbol to prove one’s identity, one is forced to think what real difference does it make in reality when in the end everyone is ultimately proven to be human with similar problems.

After crossing a bridge that marks the confluence of Gori Ganga and one of its tributary, we walked through jagged mountains deeper into the Johar Valley. We reached Bogudiar completely haggard and soon collapsed in our sleeping bags only to be woken for our dinner by our host Sundar Singh.

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En route Bogudiar
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Next morning after having our tea as we proceeded to Rilkot, our surroundings grew wilder. Someone had spotted a bear on the riverbed and we were told to be careful as just above our camp a snow bridge released cold water into the river. Snow formed uneven lines in the mountain tops above and clouds ushering rain threatened to release at any moment. Through a small patch of apple trees we closed in on our next obstacle- snow bridges.

These accumulations of snow are supposed to be safe to walk on but one never knows for sure. Lined with deep crevasses and an active river underneath one has to walk with calculated steps to avoid any problem.

 

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En route Rilkot
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© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

Around mid-day warm sun-shine greeted us and above us we could see huge virgin big walls which would tempt any climber who walks by. Milam was still 28 km away and we could see small shrines dedicated to the goddess Nanda Devi marked the path. Our voices began to fade against the roaring sound of the river which was now flowing beside us.

We were carrying a copy of The Nanda Devi Affair with us, a must read for anyone trekking in Uttarakhand. Following Mr. Aitken’s advice we unleashed the romantic within our hearts and in our case it amounted to us through walking very slowly. Around 4 P.M the sky unloaded and we had to resort to seek shelter in a series of overhanging rocks.  We were drenched to our bones and our spirits had started to fade. Just then the weather cleared and we were greeted by snow-capped mountains once again. Golden sun-set filled the skies and we were in Rilkot.

We were now one stop away from our destination the village of Milam. Rilkot only has four houses out of which one provides travellers with accommodation. The day when we arrived,  the villagers had decided to butcher a goat. I tried to pursue the owners to sell me some meat and ultimately it was decided that for a price of one-fifty a plate I could get my share. Again we were fortunate to accompany two ITBP officers; one of them told us he had saved Harbajan Singh the famous Indian cricketer in the Kedernath tragedy a few years ago.

The weather was the best we obtained so far. We walked along with our Nepali friends, while snowy summits and meadows  crashed around us from high above the sky.

Every few kilometres the landscape metamorphosed into scenes of exuberant brilliance. We reached Burfu which marks the final division in the valley. One way leads to Nanda Devi basecamp and the other to Milam glacier.

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BURFU
© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

 

 

 

© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS
MILAM
© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

MILAM

© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS
© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS© MANISH BHARDWAJ & NOMADIC CLOUDS

 

As owing to the shortage of time we could only visit one, we decided to proceed towards Milam.
We were offered a ride by our companions from the ITBP and soon we arrived at Milam. After our lunch we decided to visit Milam glacier. As we approached the glacier I was trying hard to look in front but it was then that it hit me – this place was not outside me but had been residing deep within. It was what i wanted to see more then what i was actually seeing.

These sights were not only images but were symbols which clearly answered everything.

From our evolution to our destruction all the chapters are written in the walls of these mountains. Trying to explain my deep seated emotion through a language or to frame them today seems like an impossible task.

Asking for material comforts seemed like an awful way to introduce myself, so i said a short prayer and returned to the road which was leading ahead.

Icy winds covered the mountain and the show was over. Suddenly the realisation struck that we were miles away from our homes footloose in the Himalayas.

Photographs – Manish Bhardwaj

Write-up – Aditya Bikram

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