Thursday, June 08, 2006

Amazing Himalayas | Amazing Holiday

Hi Friends
I'm just back from a very refreshing trip deep into the Himalayas. This was a 15 day outing with 7 days of heavy trekking thrown in. Trekking through the mountain ranges in the North western part of Uttaranchal (Garhwal region) is an experience where you discover yourself. You are in totally disconnected territory with no electricity, no connectivity, no motors - just basic living where you walk, eat, sleep. The note below describes our journey briefly (I went with a friend Sunil Khanna, who shares my passion for the outdoors) and we had a ball.

1. Reaching base camp:
This was a journey through the city jungles via planes, trains and buses. We went for this trip with a group called Yuvashakti, who are Pune based and organize treks and outings. We were a group of 36 participants (which I thought were too many), with a mixture of young, middle aged and old people. Most of the participants chose to come by the train from Pune to Delhi (we chose to fly to save a business day). After an overnight halt at Delhi, we proceeded to Dehradun by train. Temperatures touching 45 deg Celsius caused us to sweat buckets. In the 6 hour train journey, I drank 3 liters of water. In Dehradun, while most of the participants stayed in the hotel accommodation arranged by the organizers, we chose to stay with our friends in their beautiful picturesque home overlooking the valley. Next day morning we set out in a bus to Sankri covering a distance of about 280 kms mostly traveling along the mountain ranges of Uttarkashi district and along the Yamuna river. This was a back breaking journey through broken roads, gravelly roads and sometimes no road (due to frequent land slides) (This part of the Himalayas is landslide country). This 12 hour journey gave us an opportunity to get to know each other and amidst a lot of singing and chatting we proceeded towards Sankri, the last motorable point along the route.

At Sankri we stopped at the GMVN (Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam) (Government managed guest houses with basic amenities like beds, toilets and a canteen). We were greeted with news that our booked dormitories were allotted to some other guests and there was no solution coming forth from the staff in charge. The participants patiently waited while the group leader tried to sort out the issue. After about an hour we saw a stalemate situation and then some of us tried to intervene and after 3 hours finally managed to get a dormitory for the ladies and quarters of the GMVN employees for the men. Was uncomfortable to say the least. Sankri was cold and on the instructions of our group leader, tried to acclimatize by delaying wearing our woolens.

A note about the organizers: Previously Yuvashakti would book these GMVN guest houses for a fixed period and have a resident camp leader who would oversee the arrangements and handle the traffic of the batches of participants. However, this year onwards they decided to outsourcing the entire arrangements to a local group of people run by a leader named Nautiyal. I guess they paid him per participant and expected him to handle all logistics of staying, guidance and food from base camp to base camp. This incident however showed how such an arrangement can go sour in the absence of local supervision and having reached so far there is no way but to go along. These local people were out to make a quick buck and were using every possible trick to cut corners like providing cramped accommodation (reduced billing at GMVN), skimping on food preparations, etc. This was the same story along the entire route. But I guess for the participants it was a failure on the part of Yuvashakti.

2. First look at Bliss: Day 2 started early and we had to pack our haversack with minimum but all that is necessary for each of us to survive 7 days before we return to base camp. It was recommended to keep the bag below 10 kgs to avoid strain. My bag was around 8 kgs. Arrangements were made for some participants to load their bags on Khacchars (horses) who would walk with us. Most people however chose to carry their own bag. We had breakfast and set out for Taluka. This was a level walk of about 12 Kms through dense pine forests and over rivers and waterfalls. Was simply amazing. (I have a lot of pictures taken and will be putting them up for you guys to see). We stopped drinking our bottled water and started drinking from the streams. Natural mineral spring water. Crystal clear and ice cold. It was my first encounter with the splendor & beauty of the might Himalayas. After a leisurely walk we reached Taluka in about 4 1/2 hours. Its a small village with a small cricket ground and a few natives. I observed that the problem with the villages after Sankri was the lack of medical facilities. The nearest doctor is in Sankri (only approachable by foot), and for advanced medical facilities, they have to go to Dehradun (almost 300 kms and a 6 vehicle change). We had a native come over and ask if we have a doctor in our group. His wife was suffering from chronic stomach ache...Unfortunately there was no doctor in our group. Taluka and Sankri are at around 1900 meters above sea level.

3. Today was tough...with a 17 km walk with 2 very steep climbs and the air thinning slightly as we are now ascending to a height of about 2600 meters. The best part of the Himalayas is the different view and experience as you walk deeper. Each part as breathtaking as the previous. Of course lack of full commercialisation and difficulty of access has helped to keep the place clean and pollution free. Lets hope it stays that way. We walked to next base camp with 2 stops along the way for snack and lunch (we carried packed lunch). The other option is to buy food from the way side stalls setup by villagers where they serve Maggi noodles (yes the ones available in the city), eggs, roti (fresh whole wheat bread), tea etc. The walk took us almost 8 hours + the 2 hours of rest. Was gruelling and I think the longest part of the trek. We reached our base camp in a village called Seema en route via Dartmer, Basanti Nagar and Gangahut. Osla is another village on the map close to Seema but at an elevation above Seema. Osla is a much bigger village with about 50 homes. One of the amazing observations was how each home has a solar panel to capture energy into batteries and they use that to light up small lamps at night (or some of them had tape recorders). Another observation was that each family had a store house separate from their home that was snow proof, rain proof, all weather proof to store grain to last them through difficult times. These store houses are made of solid wood and have innovative locks with keys as large as my arm. The grain is kept open and not in gunny bags. Their homes consist of 2 stories, the lower one for keeping their animals (goats and cattle) and the upper one where they stay. Homes are also made of solid wood (no dearth of good wood in the Himalayas).

4. Reaching Har ki dun (Shiv ka maidan - The play ground of Lord Shiva) was the toughest part of the trek. Was a 14 km walk but the ascend of 1000 meters did the damage. The last 2-3 kms were covered stopping every 10-15 steps and then catching your breath. It took a long time to acclimatize to the thin air at 3500 meters (for first timers at this altitude). Some people even developed High altitude sickness (feverish, nausea and hallucinations). None the less it was the most beautiful spot I have ever seen. Picture perfect rivers, meadows, lots of varieties of flowers and completely untouched. This is the last point along our trek. From here we were very close to the Jamundar glacier (could see it) and the other snow capped peaks. The snow line had unfortunately receded by about 11 kms and our local guide decided against going upto there. During our last two days of walk we encountered sudden showers (In the Himalayas it can rain anytime and for any duration) with hail storms. After an overnight stay where most people couldn't sleep due to the extreme cold (around -1 deg Celsius) and the thin air...we walked to a nearby glacier and kind of relaxed on that day.

The rest of the days were going back to base camp along the same route. I strongly recommend this as a holiday for all my friends out there. The local arrangements can be done by local guides who charge about Rs. 700-900 a day for walking with you, putting you up in tents, arranging for food, et all. Be prepared to rough it out though. Definitely I will be going back for more...