I turned 65 on the 6th of August and I could not have been at a more beautiful spot -in the upper Himalayas, with all nature’s bounty to feast on! But to put things in sequence……
The last thing we did in Dharchula, before we hit our beds, was to settle the issue of ponies and porters. I had been briefed before i left that it was advisable to take both as the terrain was not of the kind which one can walk carrying your own ruck sack. And at my age (words of my advisors, and they were wise) the pony was also recommended. So we paid up for both (Rs 8000 for the porter and Rs 10,000 or so for the pony) and were assured that these would be provided from the registered porters/ponies. The local KMVN person was very persuasive in arguing about how only those with valid registrations should be hired and warned of possible dire consequences of private arrangements. He gave us a tale of how part of the money would go to some sort of welfare association for the families of these boys! This is one of the weakest links in the yatra … shall go into it later. Only 6-7 of the younger men and 3 girls did not hire either porter or pony, a couple of people only had a pony,and everyone else had a porter and 20 (me amongst them, and I was to be grateful that I did) or so also hired a pony as well.
The next morning, we set off after breakfast and as we emerged from the hotel, were swamped by the young men who were to be our porters.
We had our little bits of paper withe name of the assigned porter and tried to find the person to match the name. We set off in 6-7 jeeps towards Narayan Ashram (60Km), driving along the banks of the Kali River and past the Chirkila Dam on the Kali. All the 40 odd porters were huddled into 2 jeeps and followed us. As we neared our destination we were told that there was a landslide near the Ashram and hence we would have to start the trek from an earlier spot on the road.
All the ponies were clustered along the roadside and once again there was a fair bit of chaos, trying to locate the pony assigned to you!! Also, some ponies did not turn, the alternative options did not have the valid pass et… Ravi had a tough time trying to get everyone who had paid up a pony before we could start off. It was a short walk to Sirkha (8Km) by our later standards, but a stiff climb which would give a glimpse of what was to come. At the top of the climb was a tea stall, where at 11 AM, the young lady was serving tea and alcohol with equal dexerity!! It took 3 hrs to do the 8Km – and it was raining most of the way. At Sirkha, the accomadation was basic dorms (me + Deepti, Kirti, Dahlia, Kamleash, Meenu, Indu, Hitesh, Nayana, Krishna and Neelben) with fairly clean outdoor loos. The electricity is from the genset and is a luxury allowed or an hour at night and an hour in the early morning. This was a routine we would get used to – a functioning torch is an essential life line! (I ran out of the battery on the return leg, and was grateful that I had followed the list in detail and had carried an extra one!)
The next day (the 4th of August) I covered the 16 Km from Sirkha to Gala in about 6hrs. After a short descent we had to do this stiff uphill, (approx 3 Km) for which I resorted to the horse, Shera. Its not easy to ride either, trying to hold on in the difficult patches!
Govind, the pony porter, was fond of his drink and had already his shots before we started! These ponies are amazingly sure footed and do a marvellous job. Then we walked down the 7-8 KM gentle downhill, through the light drizzle and the clouds to reach the village of Sincola.
From Sincola, Gala was another 4-5 Km of trudging through the rain and climbing over a slippery, recent landslide. This is a genuine hazard on this route, especially during the rainy season. Gala was a better established KVMN camp, although we were again 14 people in the dorm – but it was chilly and the crowding kept us war. The bed linen was not really too clean – so the sheets we were carrying came in handy (2 sheets are on the list) Although you got there by lunchtime, you are so tired that you only want to lie down and sleep.
The day at Gala carries some unhappy memories, as Geeta from Bangalore (to the left of me, in the picture in an earlier blog) had collapsed en route and reached Gala with a lot of difficulty. Sameer and Dahlia had to support her and they took hours to reach, keeping everyone worried till they limped into camp!! After a medical examination by the KVMN doctor, the unpleasant decision had to be taken to send her back. The fact that the LO is given a satellite phone and so is always in contact with the Ministry is really helpful. He used this phone to get her to talk to her children – she was most reluctant to return, but her children prevailed upon her. During this part of the yatra (Dharchula to Gunji) the KVMN doctor accompanies each group.
At the time she collapsed, she was walking with the porter ( as it is not possible to use the pony on the downhills) and the pony had gone ahead. So, he was not available when needed, a common problem that was faced with the pony porters. Fortunately, someone gave her their pony to make the way to Gala.
On day 6, we had an early start as we were to cover the 18 Km to Budhi, the toughest and most challenging part of the whole journey. This is the stretch that you are warned about repeatedly and where a yatri fell and was lost in the Kali a few years ago. The first 2-3 Km was a steep climb (thank God for the Pony) and then walk down the famous 4400 steps to the Kali River at a small settlement, Lakhanpur!! No one is aware of these having ever been actually counted, an a step can vary in height from 6″ to 2′ – but, it is difficult because of the unevenness. A wrong step, and you end up with a twisted ankle. My friend Purnanta fell twice and was literally carried down by 2 ITBP jawans. This is where you value the porters, mine was Dharmesh, a fine young BA 2nd year student. He was young, but strong andhad a strong hand of support to give all along the way. He was alert, always by my side and would extend his support (which was often) as soon as I felt the need. More about the porters later….
After pooris and all sabzi at Lakanpur, we did the long walk along the River Kali. There are no pictures except this one….
We had been specifically told not to take out our cameras – the path is only a few feet wide and this river is on one side of you. Sometimes you are along it, sometimes you are a few hundred feet above it – but it always there on the right side of the path. There is pony traffic and people moving in both directions, as this is the only connection between the valleys beyond and Dharchula, the nearest town. Every item of supply has to be carried and people have to move for every necessity including medical aid. Every time ponies have to cross you or overtake you, you move to the mountain side of the path and efface yourself – one wrong move and you are in the River (like the yatri who had fallen in – in fact, while taking a picture).
The River is roaring through at 300Km/h (or so we were told) and the noise is so high, that you cannot hear your own voice. It was raining almost through out the day – under the raincoat I was sweating. It was slippery in parts, and you walked right under the waterfalls, there being no other option – that meant that in spite of water proof shoes (which had cost a bomb!!) the water entered from above and you were squishing along for the rest of the day. This was when I missed the carabins, which was one of the few suggested items i had not acquired! (This is a kind of over shoe worn with formal military uniforms). We also passed this amazing waterfall, far taller and wider than the many we had already passed!
Along the way, just a couple of kilometers before Malpa, where we were to have lunch, my left knee started an irritating pain! It became excruciating as we proceeded and I limped into Malpa on painkillers (medicines are alway in the backpack – and Dharmesh always carried it). There someone gave me a crepe bandage and Dharmesh located Govind. After lunch, I had to use Shera for the rest of the way, a rather frightening experience as we were still on the path along the Kali and my life was in his hands!! Between the 3 of them, Dharmesh, Govind and Shera, they never let me feel insecure and saw me safely to camp.
Malpa, this is the site of the disastrous landslide in 1998, when 180 people including Protima Bedi were killed. Fortunately, there has been no such incidence since – but it gives a sense of the kind of terrain there. THere is small stone marking the site – the locals dont need such reminders as it is fresh in their minds. More locals dies than yatris, in fact, all the porters, ponies plus others.
I reached the camp around 3 PM – having started at 5 am. The trend is for each one to walk at their own pace – couples, friends tend to (or have to) walk together, which can sometimes be irritating for one or the other! Others develop their own rhythm and so most of the time you have only the porters for company. That day Purnata (having fallen on the stepsm she fell off the horse as well) reached an hour after me, and Kokilaben reached after 9PM. She did not use a pony and she is all of 68 yrs or so!! Every one waits anxiously till the last person is in camp. The KVMN has a guide with each batch, and it is his duty to accompany the last yatri – and so Joshiji our guide was with Kokilaben when she came in.
And then it was the 6th of August, and we had this wonderful walk from Budhi to Gunji – what a wonderful birthday treat it was. All the new friends greeted me before we set off …