As you follow the little-explored trekking trails that go up the Garhwal Himalayas, discover a world that exists in a simpler time
Words: KRUTTIKA NADIG
Photographs: VINOBHA NATHAN
It’s 6am in the village of Kalap. I surface from under my razai and thump down a narrow wooden staircase to the community tap. Ice-cold water leaves my face tingling and eyes wide open. The fog is lifting from the mountains, revealing stone roofs draped in pumpkin vines and farmers bent over their baskets in fabulously pink fields.
It’s the season of amaranth, or chaulai, the vibrant pink food crop that leaves travellers to this pinnacle of the earth with heavy bellies and lighter hearts. And I’ve escaped from urban cacophony into a spectacle of soaring peaks, silent forests and old-fashioned villages in a corner of the Garhwal Himalayas so obscure, that it doesn’t figure on any of the popular trekking trails.
Kalap is quite the curiosity. Local lore says two old men from Rajasthan came up here – its altitude is 7,800ft – and founded a settlement about 300 years ago. Eighty per cent of its residents are of Rajput stock, and speak their own dialect of Garhwali. Perhaps they were fleeing a Mughal incursion or perhaps they were just intrepid shepherds seeking greener pastures. I’m here not to speculate about the hazy past, but to strap on my backpack and plunge into the raw present.
A present where neighbours gather and banter around cooking fires inside traditional wooden homes, and gritty shepherds wander the high peaks with thousand-strong flocks for half the year; where the streams are cleaner and prettier than five-star bathtubs and “love marriages” are not only accepted but are a cultural norm. It’s the beginning of a week-long Nomad Trail through the mountains with a makeshift trekking pole, a couple of mules and a chatty crew for company.
THE TERRACES OF GARHWAL
“So, did you persuade her to run away with you?”
“Nah, she lured me!”
Guddu is my host for two nights out of seven, and it doesn’t take long to slip into easy familiarity with him and his mates. We’ve spent the day putting 11km of pine forest and terraced rice farms behind us as we climbed up to Kalap from Netwar, where the motorable road ends. A gang of frisky children attached itself to me as I wove through their village, past walnut trees and flowering bushes towards Guddu’s ancestral home, made from handsome logs of deodar, like every other house here.
There’s livestock spilling into each yard. A merry mix of cows, horses, sheep and goats, but a conspicuous absence of chickens, because the collective memory of a Rajput past has kept the village vegetarian (except on rare occasions when groups of men succumb to an even older instinct and go hunting in the woods). The sheep and goats are raised for sale in the town markets. A healthy specimen can fetch Rs 15,000, a princely sum in these mountains where water is plentiful and the soil obliging.
But it’s not easy to keep animals plump and pacified. In fact, it’s one of the most gruelling exercises you can imagine. The Himalayas have many natural riches, but grazing grass is in short supply. And so, for six months a year from May to November, groups of shepherds from Kalap and nearby villages travel from one far-flung bugyal (grassland) to another with their combined flocks and rations, from the Tons River valley to the sacred Baraad Sar Lake at 14,500ft, traipsing through tangled forests and sleeping in skyscraping meadows.
I don’t realise what a feat this is till we start following in their footsteps. Everyone here trots up and down the mountain slopes without breaking a sweat. Encouraged by our Tamilian trek organiser Anand, who’s become a naturalised pahadi over his years of involvement with the Kalap community, photog Vinobha and I put our best feet forward and manage to keep up with our merry band of men. It helps that the weather’s as cool as a cloud, and also that our meals here are seriously carb-heavy: chickpeas, kidney beans and rice reign over our diets for a week and are burned off by our bodies for five to six hours every day.
Our hosts introduce us to local flavours too, like home-grown pumpkins cooked along with their leaves and energy-packed rotis made of ragi and chaulai. The fields of grain run all the way up to Karba, a fertile band of land used for farming by the people of Kalap. In winter these fields transform: the rosy amaranth disappears and snow settles on the green wheat crop.
Such pretty thoughts fill my head as I settle down with some Earl Grey on a cosy goat’s- hair rug in our host’s balcony in Karba. Today’s views have been phenomenal. Swargarohini (a snow-clad mountain standing tall at 20,512ft in the Bandarpunch Range) welcomed us from across the horizon as we rounded the bend into Karba, and now the mist is making magic in the valley and seducing us to remain outdoors. Vinobha and I decide to make our beds for the night right here.
A gentle sunray wakes me, and I shuffle indoors in search of breakfast. When I emerge an hour later, the courtyard below the balcony is besieged by enormous darting lizards. Horror of horrors! My shrieks bring Anand running, and he says something about harmless Himalayan monitors that sun themselves on stone surfaces in open terrain, but I’m wild-eyed and beyond reason. Guddu suggests that a couple of the creatures could have snuck into my blanket at night for warmth. The men’s laughter follows me as I sprint up the hill and into the safety of the forest.