Travelling in Uttarakhand: Sunderdhunga glacier trek

My travels in Uttarakhand began even before I was born, through the eyes and ears of my family who wandered in the Himalayas with their own questions. What these travels did for me was something more than what the imagination serves to contemplate.

Where on one hand all distances of the world were vanishing for our generation,  tales from these travels, on the contrary, gave me a perspective to dream again. Often before going to sleep I would request my father to tell me a story about his adventures. These stories served as metaphors for our existence in the hills. Life was hard but each of these stories helped to acknowledge the comforts one was getting at home.  I would often dream that one day I would experience such myths and create my own part..

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Unfortunately travelling is only seen as a means of escape and not of educating oneself. Between the bustle of books – exams and self-crafted frenzy the opportunity never raised itself in high-school. It was unfortunate now when I think about it but even good in a sense because when the chance did arise I was ready for a life changing experience. When I came back after completing my first year in college, things at home seemed pretty mundane.  My mother proposed that I could go for a trek with my sister and her friends.

At that moment every prospect of getting out of my house seemed nice but before I could contemplate my decision I was on the road with my sister and her three friends. The further we moved away from our home the more we started bonding and in a late evening we reached our destination of Lohar-khet.  We were headed towards Sunderdunga Glacier, which was some 40 miles away.

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The valley was filled with a grim evening light and the over-hanging rocks above the government rest house only made one of us scared as to what lay ahead. I tried to write a few sentences in my diary but was unsuccessful in gathering my thoughts together.

Light started to fade and soon we huddled together near an oil- lamp and ate our dinner. And to quench your query, yes, many places in Uttarakhand still don’t have any access to electricity.  It seems funny when you think about the history of the state which has wasted its resources in making cities like Delhi more efficient but has forgotten its own villages in the process.

Sleep slowly took over and the next day before the first light hit we were ready to go. As we passed through a small –jungle, plastic wrappers on the ground reminded one even without a sense of remorse that this was how we were living in this century. Not in harmony but in a counter –point with nature where no melodies seemed to meet. Our feet helped us progress but also reminded us how we had to acclimatise to our new surroundings.

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“Oh! Daddaa chaha mil jalo” my sister busted out in Kumaoni which translates to- “ oh! Brother can we get any tea.”

The shop consisted of one wood-fuelled stove and a few packets of biscuits. We were informed about the road which was constructed recently as tourists rarely came this way nowadays.

The tea was thousand times better than anything one would accept in such an arrangement. It was served in a steel cup which also warmed the hands while one was talking.

While we were leaving we asked the regular question what un-seasoned trekkers often ask the locals. “How far till the next stop” and we were given the usual reply as if our destination was round the corner.  Around mid-day we reached our next rest-stop which was in between a huge meadow. 

Some horses grazed in a distance, cows moved over the hills far away ringing the bells tied around their necks rhythmically –  giving a sense that one was after all inside a cathedral. Only the huge organ pipes were missing. The priestess of the meadow welcomed us inside her shop which consisted of three walls and a plastic sheet for the roof.

Talking to her made one realise the value of a smile. She was living alone so that her cows could graze. Her house was some ten kilometres away which in common language would amount to some 15 to 16 km.  Her sons were working in the city and her husband was dead and here I was travelling without a purpose or direction thinking about my problems without a thought of resolving them.

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Passing through a mixed forest of rhododendron and oak tress the mist slowly creeped in.  A bar of chocolate was passed around and we reached Dhakuri top. There we met a group of locals.

The men greeted us with a smile and asked us our whereabouts. Once they realised we were from the same region they sat down to give us all the information we needed and even gave us a little water. The leader of the group was an old man of 65 but didn’t look older than 40. He gave us the address of his house in Jatoli and told us we could stay there. Later when we reached Dhakuri we were told that this old man was Roop Singh, one of the most experienced mountaineers around.  He had climbed Nanda Devi twice, was unsuccessful in an attempt to climb Kanchenjunga and had participated in many other expeditions, This in itself explained the speed with which they were walking. The rest house in Dhakuri is one of the most magical places I have the fortune of experiencing. A lone rest house built during the colonial era sits in between a dense forest. Only one forest guard lives there and rent for one night does not exceed 200 bucks.

It was hard sleeping that night as excitement was peeking from all corners of the room.  We started telling each other stories and finally fell asleep to the fading light. In the morning we were greeted with clear blue skies floating over the Pinder valley.  None of us wanted to leave the place and thus started late around 6.  Today we were going to hire a guide because the way ahead looked a little tricky.  We were also informed about a recent death of a traveller who like us was travelling to the Sunderdunga glacier.

This made us a little more cautious; but in the end as long as we were together there wasn’t a problem. Around midday we reached the village of Khati.  The village serves as an entrance to both the Pinder and the Sunderdunga and Kafni valley.

Here we met the final member of our expedition Ishwar da (da in Kumaoni means older brother).  He was a bit shy to accompany us in the beginning and didn’t talk much. As we crossed the confluence of rivers, conversations with Ishwar da started flowing.

Suddenly it started to rain and we huddled around a bolder resettling our bags and  raincoats. At times it was difficult to walk but encouraging comments from Ishwar da kept our feet moving . The jungle surrounding us had a colour coding for its own self.  If one looked carefully one could see at least eight shades of green ranging from blackish green to a light monsoon green.

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By now I was exhausted but my team members kept pushing on.  While I was resting I caught sight of three little children crossing a frowning river through an unreliable wooden bridge. They were coming back from their school. The sight reminded me of the indomitable spirit people of hilly region represent. These kids could have been my siblings if my family hadn’t migrated to the cities two generations ago.

This thought was enough to encourage me to walk for a lifetime.  Slowly after being greeted by mild elevation evening sun-light and misty clouds, we were in Jatoli. We were stationed in Deepak Hotel which was owned by the Roop Singh family. Deepak was from the third generation and was of the same age as me. Before dinner other village members and another solo trekker who was also travelling to Sunderdunga were introduced to us. The night was passed around the kitchen fire listening to stories about ghosts and supernatural occurrences in the valley.

Next morning we could see ridges of mountains covered in snow from a distance. The village was lush green from all sides.  The dry fodder for animals which occupied the centre of fields, reminded one that like seasons everything in and around us was in a constant process of change.

Before the breakfast Deepak’s father  was introduced to us and we decided to walk together till our next stop. On our way we talked in our normal teenage context about our dreams, relationships, and future aspirations.

Through the misty fog Pwalidwar greeted us but soon shrouded itself from our view.  We had to cross a succession of streams through a low angling flight of stairs and a bridge solely made up of branches. The sight reminded me of Tolkien and middle earth, resembling the way for Mordor and that we were carrying the ring of power to its destruction. By the end of the journey I realised that the ring represented my ego and it was destroyed when its size was put into context with the surrounding’s.

After having our lunch we proceeded through a valley of stones to climb up to Kathalia which is around 3,400 m above sea level. Before reaching  Kathalia we had to cross some snow bridges, passing above the ice and running water. One is forced to think about the way nature woks: ice turns into water –water turns into vapours – vapours are carried to the mountain to be again converted into ice.  A cycle which in essence represents death and rebirth at the same time.

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We were now in the greater Himalayas and small glacial waterfalls fell from the sides pencilling their way through the landscape. Behind them one could see a massive ridge line connecting – Maktoli to Pawalidwar. Soon the night folded itself on the landscape and all we could hear was water running from all sides in the darkness.  Next morning we planned to go to Baluni top, opposite of Sunderdunga glacier.  This spot gives the viewers a view of the outer curtain of mountains surrounding Nanda Devi. One can get a glimpse of Mrigthuni and Baljuri from this top and about 7km away a small glacial pond serves as a locus for local legends.

We now had only one day left to travel and it was decided that we would try and go to the basecamp of Maktoli and Pawalidwar.  People around us were not sure about our decision since to reach the basecamp one has to walk through the river bed, which had slowly started melting. But Ishwar da like a leader told us not to worry and led the way. The weather was misty from all sides but slowly as we gained a little height it started to clear.

Huge ice-covered ramparts of the mountains represented the tenacity and the spirit of the people who lived there. Looking back we could only see clouds.  It felt like we were on a higher ground separated from our respective worlds for this moment in time immemorial.  In my mind I was swaying to the rhythm of chilli peppers placed high above the ground.

As we moved forward we could see herds and herds of sheep grazing together. The herders welcomed us. After conversing for a while we were asked if we would like to taste the milk of these sheep. Soon tea was brewing with fresh milk and conversations were flowing as if everyone was familiar with one another for a lifetime.  After finishing our tea we were invited inside the herder’s hut where we had our lunch together. Our poori’s were duly warmed in the fire and given to us with home-made pickle.  

Unfortunately our obligations in the world reminded us that we had to go back. Slowly we descended down to our camp. Only memories of that time now remain having spent three years ago.

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Himalayas are not only the abode of snow but also serves as a home for a range of people and their beliefs. While we travel for the sake of our own bliss, seldom it is realised that by respecting our surroundings we are actually respecting one’s own conscience. I often see people travelling in the hills and littering every place they come in contact with. Schools –hotels, roads cause more harm than ever intended.

Travellers have to be threatened in the name of gods and religion to travel responsibly. These places do not belong to the people living here but to everyone who has connected with these places from deep within.

“For what are mountains if not your own self, only but a heap of stones?”.-Walter Bonatti.

                                                                                                                                               

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