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Saturday, September 9, 2017

Walking With the Himalayan Goats - Visudi Tal Trek

Day Zero
Let’s Go Exploring | Enter Bona Ji | A Warning for Bangaloreans | Dampening the Spirits

Let’s Go Exploring
The monsoon rains were generous this year leaving me holed up at Cafe Buransh for weeks. There were few guests during the rainy season and the consequent inaction pushed me to work out a plan for a solo trip to the Valley of Flowers before I headed home to Kerala. On one of those moist misty afternoons, when the rains subsided, I walked down to Sari village to run some errands. Sipping tea at Mamaji's place, I watched the locals while away their time playing cards. After a flush, one of them looked up and asked me if I would like to join them on a three-day trek to Visudi Tal.

“You kidding me, right? Visudi Tal? In three days? At this time of the year...?” I asked.

A bit of background about this lake would be in order. Visudi Tal had been on our radars for over two years. Except for a dubious-looking route map at the center of the village, there was very little information available online or elsewhere about this high-altitude lake located way above our noses in Sari Village. Some villagers do visit the lake but few trekkers have been there. The path is supposed to be magical, vertical, and treacherous. Once, in the recent past, we’d asked around for a support team to go there, but people flatly declined saying that the path might be nonexistent. Just great! 


I had written it off as on of those village myths that people keep propagating, but here the offer was, dangling in front of me. The trek route from Sari was impossible in July because of an overflowing river, but the route they were suggesting was from another village 15 kilometers away (a path that was much easier, they claimed).  We were to walk slowly with a small herd of goats (yes, I’ll explain), that would take their sweet time stopping to nibble at every blade of grass on the way, and comfortably reach their high camp by evening. They said the goats moved real slow – a very appealing proposition. It took me less than a minute to analyze my physical condition, cancel the plan for Valley of Flowers and tell them I am in. In two days, we were to set off.

Between April and September every year, the villagers send their herds of sheep, goats, cows, and buffaloes to the meadows near the lake. The flocks get all the nourishment they need from the pristine grasslands. The shepherds who take care of them get a small fee. As for the villagers, it’s a great relief from the daily chore of collecting fodder for the animals. Some sort of a win-win-win. It so turned out that a goat-herder who had come down from the highlands was going up with his supplies for the months ahead. We were to join his party! There were five of us – Lakhpath, Vinod, Raghubeer, Suraj – all from Sari village, and myself.

Enter Bona Ji
The story starts at around six in the evening by the side of the road from Buruva village, a few kilometers ahead of Ukhimath town. A few hundred feet below the road, two meandering rivers merged and flowed ahead. Other than two shops and a signboard that announced the name of the village, there was nothing suggesting habitation. 

The village itself was set at a respectable distance above the road. Thirty minutes of uphill walk through a damp concrete path led us to Buruva and our host’s house, but not before we passed the village school, lush green terrace fields, and a few cattle sheds. They say it’s lucky to see a cow take a dump. If it were true, I should have been the luckiest men alive that evening.


We sat at the edge of the stone-paved courtyard in front of the house sipping tea. Farms of vegetables, maize, and even plantain extended ahead of us in steps till they went out of view. The village of Raun Lekh stood at eye level on the hill opposite to us. Virender Singh Dhirwan, a chirpy fellow aged 55, was our host. Everyone called him Bona ji. His house was a simple structure, more like a row of four or five rooms with separate doors (potentially time-consuming design for a burglar).

Bona Ji was at work from the moment I saw him – stuffing small jute packs with supplies. The packs were similar in shape to the ones you would place on a donkey’s back –two sacks that fall to either side.  I picked up one and reckoned it weighed around 15 kilos. These were rations to be placed on the backs of sturdy goats with long horns (Langotas, as they are called around here). He filled nine packs that evening.

A Warning for Bangaloreans
While sewing the packs shut with a thick L-shaped needle, he looked at me and said “aap se nahin ho paayega, Sir. Raasta lamba hain aur ek dum khadi chadaayi hain.” You would not be able to do it. The path is long and steep.

I wasn’t amused. How on earth could he make such a claim? We just met an hour ago!

Then he explained. Like me, there was another guy from Bangalore, a temporary teacher in the village school, who had once gone to Visudi Tal with him. The men had to carry the poor soul on their shoulders for the last mile and then had to drag him down the hill on the way back.  Based on that huge sample size, people from the plains just cannot do it.

The others in our group rubbished his explanation and offered me some solace with their confidence. Whatever be the logic, your lead man telling you that you cannot get the job done always leaves behind an uneasy feeling. 

Dampening the Spirits
We had hardly sat down for a round of drinks when Bona’s phone rang. His mom had fallen ill. She was living in a nearby village named Mansoona, along with Bona’s first wife (yes, quite the player). After some heated discussions and frantic calls, he arranged for a vehicle and dispatched his 17-year old son and his second wife to take care of his mother. 

Jokes of the wry kind followed. About the eventuality of the old woman breathing her last that night– and Bona still leaving for the mountains in the morning to take care of his herd, while Suraj (from our group) sat in as the substitute-son for her funeral rituals. And when Suraj’s parents pass away in the future, Bona will don the son-hat to repay the debt. (It was a “hillarious” take on the sanda system-the pahadi term for barter, usually applied to land parcels.)

Two hours later, just before we called it a night, the message arrived that the old woman was alright. The voices weren't coherent by then, but I could gather that her blood pressure was back to normal. Someone quipped that it must have been Bona ji’s first wife’s ploy to get him in bed for a night.

Day 1
The Goat-Train | The Trouble with Teething | Thou shall not Pass | There is No Spoon | Team Lead | A Lost Cow| Visudi ki Chadai and German ki Ladai | Tingri ka Top and Sine Waves | The Missing cargo and the Promise of Camp | Misery Digs Company | A Slew of Curses

The Goat-Train
Bona ji's elder daughter, all of eleven years, made us tea at around six in the morning, strapped a big plastic can on her back and set off into the village to collect milk from the houses and deliver it to the dairy.

For us, it was time to load the goats. There were twenty of them going up with us, and the strongest nine were chosen to carry the packs. The animals were quite perceptive; they know it when a load is coming on to them. They tried to back off, but our men were more determined. There was much goat-anguish on display - pushing, shoving, and head-butting - but the supplies were finally loaded. 


Quite a sight it was, similar to a mule train...evenly balanced loads hanging on either side held in place by a cloth tied around their necks that goes all the way beneath their tails. By the time we started our march on that gloomy grey morning, it was seven, an hour past our scheduled departure time, and just about time for Bona ji's daughter to leave for school.

Thirty minutes of the ascent that followed was through the village. Most people whom we met on the way seemed to be related in some away to someone from our crew and we had to politely refuse many an offer for tea and breakfast.  The wet concrete path soon gave way to stone slabs by the time we cleared the village and reached the other side of the hill. Houses of villages with charming names such as Gwaad and Mansoona dotted the slopes on the opposite side rising above the waters of an overflowing mountain rivulet.
We took our first break as one of the packs had fallen off a goat and required reloading.

The Trouble with Teething

The walk continued through the stone path with pine trees on either side. Plain ground was very rare and each step meant a small gain in height. 

I realized my folly in saying yes to this trek with "this" group soon enough. You just cannot keep pace with the locals and their steady walking rhythm. Thankfully, someone ahead shouted that another pack was missing. It had fallen off the edge on to what seemed to me to be a cliff. Bona ji went down very sure-footedly to get it back while I stopped, thanked the clumsy goat, and tried to get my breath back. He came back up soon enough and we resumed our trudge. A bunch of pretty pahadi ladies on their regular grass-cutting mission joined us and walked ahead.

Raghubeer who walked with me at my pace, was a relief. While refilling our bottles from a gushing water source a little further up, we saw our group and the ladies perched on a rocky platform way above. It took another fifteen minutes to get there. I dropped my bag and foraged for some groundnuts that I had stashed away the previous evening. Plain rotis that we had with us were unappealing but my oesophagus needed to do something. As I gasped, ate, and gulped water, one of the ladies asked...aap bahut thakleef mein chal rahe ho? You seem to be walking with great difficulty?

I said, “Haan. Bangalore se hoon na, is liye.” (Yes, coz I am from Bangalore.) Everyone in my group (except Bona ji) burst out laughing. Jokes aside, I was seriously thinking of Bona ji’s warning the previous night. We had hardly walked for an hour and a half, and I was ready to shut down.

Thou shall not Pass
The ladies set off in a different direction while we moved up through thicker vegetation and diverse forest cover for thirty minutes or so till we reached an open grassy ground. Our team was plonked on the grass and the goats were standing a little higher up minding their own business. It was time for a Haddock like swig, Bona announced. I declined, like most members of the group. Bona and I think it was Suraj, who gulped down a bit.


The drink eased things a bit, and Bona started singing pahadi songs, swaying to the beat inside his head. He also quickened his pace. I focused on counting my steps trying to maintain a flow that I could manage making the occasional small talk with Raghu. After five minutes, we heard loud calls from above. The herd was missing!!! 


After taking the previous break, while we moved up, the herd had moved in a different direction, and no one had noticed thanks to the song and dance ritual. A shepherd without his herd wouldn’t be a pretty sight so they were asking Raghu to find them. He went in search while I walked up and joined the people who had gone ahead. It took Raghu some time to round up the culprits and he came marching up with the wayward herd.

"Stand in their way sir ji, there are two packs to be tied" someone shouted at me. 
Stand in their way? Okaaay! Sure.

I stood in their way. And the herd stopped. It was like magic. I thrust my walking pole into the ground like some sort of staff. And the goats did not pass.

There is no Spoon
After a bit more of uphill grind, we reached a channi (shepherd hut, usually made of stones) where we were greeted by two men, a granny, a few buffaloes, goats, dogs, and a few marijuana plants. Flies of all sorts buzzed around the stone construction overflowing with bovine dung on its perimeter. It was 9.45 and the sky was still overcast. We should have breakfast here, declared Bona ji, as the alternative was a few hours away. 

I walked around the place dodging cows and buffaloes, especially their thick tongues, unpredictable hind legs, and dung-laden tails.

Vinod prepared noodles and tea in about fifteen minutes. I crept into the not-so-tall hut for my share and was rewarded with a serving of steaming hot noodles. We weren't carrying spoons or forks, so I started picking up the noodle strands one by one with my fingers, slurped them in, and then licked my semi-burnt fingers...this was surely going to take a long time.

Then the men brought out rotis of the previous night’s vintage and warmed them in the fire. I took half a roti to scoop up the noodles, and pleasantly discovered that the roti works well as a spoon. The combo tasted delicious. Three and a half rotis, a few green chillies, two more servings of noodles, and a cup of tea later I crept out of their dwelling ready to face the world.

I asked the fellow there how much more we had to walk that day and he pointed to a tall hilltop in the distance named Tingri Top, a major milestone for the day. Lakhpat guesstimated that it would be about 2.5 kilometers away. I looked at it, asked "that one? no problem" and started walking. Some confusion reigned when we set off, as the two herds got mixed. Only for a while...such occurrences are not showstoppers around here. Every shepherd knows each animal in his herd, personally.


The trek progressed uneventfully and smoothly and we crossed one hill after another with few breaks in between. The cloud cover would never let up nor would the mist stop hugging us. Two hours must have passed when we reached a ridge with meadows on one side and trees on the other. 



At the top of it, we decided to take a break. The goats stood precariously on the edge chewing grass, while we brought out biscuits and light grubs.

Team Lead
They were taking their time with this break and I started getting restless. It’s like this, I need my breaks, but for a few minutes or so. But I need them frequently. And the fellows here looked like they were about to snore. 

I asked them if I should move on just to get some distance under my belt. Why not, Bona ji said, "just take the herd along with you."
What? Err...and how exactly am I supposed to accomplish that monumental feat, I asked.

And he said “It’s easy. Just walk ahead and they would follow”. Such a simple hypotheses should not be tough to test, so I walked ahead of the goats. Slowly but surely, one by one, the goats started getting up. Loud exhortations from behind followed, (I contributed with my eeey...oooy...chaallll calls) and soon enough, the herd was walking behind me.

Or rather, I was leading them. It’s been a while since I’d led a team. Every once in a while, I would turn around to click a picture, and they would stop too...frozen...looking at me enquiringly, wondering what I was up to. (Stand in their way sir ji, stand in their way. Yes, of course.) 

There was no clear route but it was not hard to find. Sometimes the paths would diverge in the woods, but you just had to take the one more traveled. A few people or cattle had walked the path that day, and that had left tell-tale markings on the moist soil and the rotten leaf carpet. Broadly speaking, the only way was up. I kept walking and soon I lost sight of my humans and the echoes of their raucous banter.

The Fellow who Lost his Cow
About fifteen minutes later, I spotted two people walking down towards us – an old man and a young girl – a father-daughter combo, by the looks of it. As soon as he came within earshot, he started off a monologue in Garwhali, one that suggested some distress. I wondered what was wrong.

By the time he came near, I told him (in Hindi) to stop, relax, and that I am not who he thinks I am. He was surprised, but I told him our team is behind me and I am from Kerala (I was not sure if the Bangalore joke would have traveled this far). His daughter bowed and said pranaam.

He had taken three cows up for grazing that day...to be left in the company of Bona ji. One of them just quit. She would not get up, he wailed. "What could we do, we left her in the forest and came down." The other two that could walk, he left them at Tingri. I told him that I was a temp and could not help him with his issues and moved on. Soon enough, a signal came from below asking me to stop. Apparently, it was time for lunch. And that, was the end of my beast mode.

Visudi ki Chadai and German ki Ladai
At around one, under the shelter of a tree, people started their lunch (this was the third food break since morning). This one was Bona's decree. The belief is that one should not pass that specific point without eating. Personally, I thought he was just making up these Calvinesque rules as he went. 

The goats lazed in the back ground. The mist kept moving up till it caressed us and went past. Raghubeer yelped and plucked a leach or two from between his toes. I stood up, scanning the ground weary of leaches.
“I didn’t know there were leaches around,” I said.
“There aren’t.” Someone said. “At least, not as much as we get in the village.”
“Btw, these are red leaches, not the dark bastards we get back home,” someone added.
"And what is special about the red ones," I asked.
“A bit poisonous, that’s all.”
“Wonderful!”
There was one on the tip of my shoes and I squashed it against a rock overgrown with moss.

Anyway, what followed was a 60 degree hike through the forests that seemed to go on forever. My breaks grew in frequency as one false top gave to another. We met the abandoned cow on this stretch. It was standing up, but was in no shape to walk according to Bona's expert opinion. 

Further up, on a fallen tree trunk, sat our team, smoking their beedis. "Sir, Visudi ki Chadai aur German ki Ladai mashhoor hain," quipped Lakhpat. (The climb to Visudi and the valour of Germans are equally famous.) 

From there, we were able to spot the location of Deoria Tal way below on a hill top in the distance. We could make out the Forest Rest House near the lake - a spot in the horizon, and a zoomed picture that Raghu clicked even showed us a grainy view of the lake. 

Water sources are scarce, which is one of the problems with this route. Bona ji refilled our bottles from a place locally known as Buransh ka paani, and we were good to go. 

On our left, Raghu pointed out the snaking trek path to Madmahewshar, a place I'd been to a few years ago. 

Tingri ka Top and Sine Waves
An hour later, after a lot of false tops, we finally topped out at Tingri, a place filled with yellow, blue, and red flowers on a green carpet, a run-down channi, and a lonely buransh (rhododendron) tree. We rested there for a while. 


What now, was the question foremost on my mind. Suraj took me to the edge of the top and showed me the route ahead. There was some bit of downhill walk and then an even more vertical uphill walk. He pointed to a green clearing up above that devoid of trees... what looked to me like two to three hours away. The time was 2.30.

Baap re, I said. (Good grief!)
Halki chadai hain, he said. (It's just a small gradient)
Halki nahin hain, I insisted. (It's not small.)
Nahin, par maanke chalo ki halki hain, he said. (No, but let's just assume it's small.)
Arre....aise kaise maanoon? I asked. (How can we assume just like that?)

I took a breather for the route to sink in, and then asked him...my voice pregnant with hope...
"Is that it for the day then, Suraj?"  
His response took the wind out of my frail lungs.
"No, from there, there is another 3-4 kilometers. But that's level ground."

And then he pointed to a ridge and a few hill tops much higher up, his fingers tracing a wavy line over the topology as he spoke.
"Level ground?" I glared at him.
"Yes, and just beyond that tall hill on the extreme left is Bona ji's camp!"
Eff me, in my head I said. 

The Missing cargo and the Promise of Camp
We started our downhill walk through the grass and the flower carpet. Another run down hut stood there on our left flank. 

The two cows left to Bona ji's care stood there grazing. Raghu took responsibility for them and made sure they walked with us. It should be a good thing because I could take longer breaks, or so I thought initially. However, unlike goats, this species does not stop if you are in the way. Couple of times I had to clamber up and down just to get out of their way. 

Once we reached an open ground, Bona ji asked all of us to stop and wait. A goat-pack was missing and he went downhill to search for it. It was 4.30 in the evening. The way the clouds were playing, a rain looked imminent. 



It might be better if we stop at Talla for the night, Vinod said.  We will stop for tea, if nothing else. Talla camp was about thirty minutes away, the only "habitation" between us and Bona Ji's camp. We could even stay there, what's the point in walking in the dark, someone suggestedThe conversation sounded like massage to my legs. 

Bona ji came back disheartened after fifteen minutes. He could not find the goat-pack. 
"What was in it?" I asked. 
"No idea. We will only know when we check the other packs once we reach the camp." He sounded low. I hoped it was a relatively non-essential item. 

Mutton Maala
The last of the trees were soon behind us. We were now walking on the meadows that kept going up. In the distance, on top of the tallest hill, Raghu could make out two figures. They are waving at us, he said. I put on my glasses, and yes, there were two specks that seemed to be moving. That should be Bona's camp, he said. Thank God we are not going up there tonight, I thought. That thought was soon put to rest.
  
The meadows were now dotted with rocks in places. The mist cover hung thick around us. It lifted for a bit and I realized that I had mistook a huge herd of buffaloes for rocks. 
This must be Talla camp, I guessed. The bark of an angry guard dog confirmed it. We sat for a while to take rest. Should we go into their camp for tea, I asked Suraj. No, we are not stopping here, he replied. The plans had changed.  

"Bona ji wants to treat us royally, and he cannot give us that feel in this place. Remember mutton maala?" (maala = garland) Suraj knew I was hardcore non-vegetarian.
I said I remember mutton maala, trying to work up the appetite in my head. I had been reading Asterix pdfs for the last few days and a grand party at the end of an adventure was quite an orgasmic thought, so to speak. 

Around here, every once in a while a sheep or a goat is bound to fall off a rock or get injured in some manner. It's usually just the shepherd and the dogs minding the flock, so meat is always plentiful. The meat that remains is chopped into pieces and made into a garland and hung over the hearth. There it stays, as a constant source of nourishment. 


But, can't we have tea at least? I pleaded.
No, he replied, Bona ji says these are not good people. They even ask money for tea. 

I did not argue with that.

Misery Digs Company

It was 5.30. We had finally reached a 2-feet walking track which Suraj referred to as the Highway to Visudi Tal. 
Three or four switchbacks and we will be home, he said. This was the proper trail from Sari village, the one we could not take due to the monsoon-swollen river. In Raghu's opinion, we would have reached the lake by this time had we taken the Sari route. And that path is more beautiful, he added. I wondered what could be more beautiful than what was around us. 

The mist was not letting up and darkness was starting to creep in. I could hardly make out Raghu walking just a few feet in front of me. Progress had crawled to a few steps at a time. Our water supplies had run out and the thirst was killing. We came across a muddy pool and I very nearly approved the idea in my mind. 

After an eternity in the meadows, we reached a ridge and the proper path gave way to a slippery rocky track. Once in a while, we would stop to listen...to voices of our folks from above. Sometimes I just imagined that I was hearing them. A little further ahead, on the ground, was a filled-up water bottle and an umbrella, left by our people who went ahead. They had not forgotten us. Thank God for great mercies! The rocky path grew worse and every move was a pain. My going rate was a breather after twenty steps.

Suraj had mentioned that we would reach the camp after three or four switchbacks. I had counted five of them already when the rain started. The voices from above faded away and was replaced by howling winds and patter. This was all that was left, I remember telling Raghu. I took out the umbrella while he struggled into his raincoat that just kept flapping around in the wind. 

My umbrella was even more pathetic. The rains in the bugyals come down at an angle of 45 degrees. You have to hold it at that exact angle just to prevent the icy rain from hitting your head. Everything else was getting wet. The rain helped focus my worry to where it was needed - on the path and not on thoughts of getting to the camp. Weariness was no longer the issue - that was replaced by an acute concentration about where and how to place your next step. Strangely enough, the pace quickened, even at the cost of near-slippages on unsteady rocks that my foot found support on.

At some point, both of us stopped and sat on top of a huge rock, tired us hell. There was nothing to see in the darkness and rain. We yelled out names at the top of our voices but there was no response.

Little else left to do, we grimly continued our onward march. The hopelessness continued for about thirty minutes till we heard a call from above and looked up to see a flicker of light. Someone was calling out for us...finally. I came close to running at this stage and in about ten minutes, we met Mahaveer! (Bona ji had entrusted two village boys to take care of the camp in his absence. He was one of them.)  

How much further, we asked him. He pointed the torch upwards and said, just till that top. I turned to Raghu and said, lo, g**nd maarne ke liye ek aur top! (Another top just to screw us.) 

He went ahead and Mahaveer walked with me with the torch. Thankfully, that top was the final one. From there, we could hear the barking of dogs. The rest of the path was downhill over grass and and a hint of slippery slush. The rain had reduced to a trickle.
Somewhere at the bottom of the hill, I noticed a fire burning, a surreal flicker in the mountain mist.

The fire came closer and the enclosure within which it was burning became clearer. A small space built mostly out of tarpaulin, quite unlike the stone huts that I thought all shepherds around here lived in. This was no campfire, this was fire from a kitchen. I sincerely hoped it was a kitchen tent, stood outside it, and asked what was happening. 


A Slew of Curses
"Crawl in, this is our home for the night, it's warm inside!" came the reply.
I crawled in and was welcomed by happy faces and fumes from the fire. Coughing, I crept into a corner. Copious amounts of advice followed as to how I should lay closer to the floor to minimize the impact of fumes. 

Ulta choolha hain Sir, is liye dhuva andar aa reha hain. Aap zameen pein letiye, azar kam ho jaayega. Kya karoon...Shivji ka shaap hain.” (The stove is facing the wrong side, that’s why there’s way too much smoke inside. Try lying down on the floor, that way the smoke would not affect you much. What can we do, it’s Lord Shiva’s curse.) 

Why would Shiva curse you? I asked. It's a long story, Bona ji said, and I decided we can talk about it later. I checked the phone, it was 8.45. More than thirteen and a half hours on the road.

I prostrated on the floor and after a while, my eyes did get adjusted to the fumes. 

Above the fire was a metal pot in which rice was getting cooked and above it, tied to a small bamboo fixture were garlands of dried meat. Le Mutton Maala! The meat was passed around but I did not take a liking to it. Not like the dried buffalo meat I was hoping for.

Crouched in a corner, Lakhpat rued the fact that we did not bring tents. Bona had insisted before the trip that there was no need for them. And here we were...there simply wasn't enough room. Hardly 6 feet by 12 feet. 8 men (including the two guys from the village) had to sleep there. I hoped against the laws of physics that there would be enough space.

The time came for dinner. They had cooked rice and it smelled nice. But, surprise! We were not to eat rice inside the enclosure. I asked why. Apparently, rice is jhoota and you cannot have it inside the den. Wheat is ok, meat is ok, alcohol is ok, but not rice.

Wait, are you suggesting that we should go outside to eat dinner?
Yes!
Oh, just brilliant! 

Whoever had the bright idea of making rice on a night like this. The rains were alive when we crawled out. I started to gobble down the food just outside the entrance and was warned not to. You had to go behind the den and eat. Slipping and slithering, we went behind the "tent" and had dinner in the rain.

That task over, we figured out how to sleep. Every man got his volume of space, not an inch more. Any slight movement meant brushing against another. The ground was not exactly level, I observed, but did not bother to ask why..must be a curse. All of this is never my idea of sleeping, but I was tired as only dead can be. In my native tongue, they say..veenidam Vishnu lokam (wherever you are is heaven...something like that). I remembered that and darted swiftly to a sleep marred very frequently by an elbow or a knee. 

Day 2
On Goats and Mountains |  Play School Sonpur, The Final Top | Visudi Tal | The Promise of Intoxication | The Longest Cut | On Dogs and Goats | Books of Accounts | Shiva's Curses

On Goats and Mountains
The bleats started early at about five in the morning. They came in pairs...a kiddy bleat followed by an adult bleat. The kiddy bleat appeared to be coming from real close quarters, and I wondered how could that be. At five thirty, I crawled out, deciding I needed fresh air and limb movement more than sleep. 

The sight that greeted me was a green hillside dotted with flowers, goats, and sheep. 
I took a few pictures and turned around to see the Chaukhamba ranges towering in front of me. The cloud cover was annoying but it still was a good start for the day.


If the weather cleared during the day, we would get reflections of these peaks in the waters of Visudi. That should make all the troubles of yesterday seem worthwhile. 

Play-school 
It was a morning with plenty of action. Bona ji was moving his base to another location. The first task was shifting the stocks from the current camp to the other one located on the top of an adjacent hill.  A few of us helped in ferrying loads to the new camp. The supplies we got yesterday too were shifted on top of....you guessed it...goats.

A few goats and sheep milled around the far end of our camp. That's when it struck me that there were kids and lambs inside, well protected from the elements. Which also explained the bleats from close quarters. Beneath the tarpaulin cover was a small square section made of stone slabs. Bona ji lifted a slab that served as a door and the kids came rushing outside- little ten or fifteen-day old somethings, either black or white. 

Like play-school kids meeting their parents, the kids went for their mothers...and milk. A few kids stood outside and bleated, and soon enough, their mothers emerged from the herd and came to take care of them. One or two were quite unfortunate with no takers. 
That required a bit of force feeding with surrogate goats getting kicked by their keepers to feed the little ones.
We did the stipulation rituals too...taking pictures with the little ones. I picked up a blackie and tried a few poses. While keeping it down, I noticed it had used my hand as a toilet. A yellow, goeey, gluey mixture....quite unlike the pellets that I thought all goats were born with. Rinsing off the sticky mixture took a while.

People were busy doing different things. Lakhpath sat around complaining about the pain in his legs. He was worried he had a near heart seizure during the night. Bona ji took a bath in freezing water out in the open. He was the priest for a pooja (prayer ceremony) to be held near the lake. Suraj waded into the herd to hunt for the perfect sheep that was to accompany us on our journey today. He chose a sturdy black male.

Sonpur, The Final Top
My shoes were still wet from sitting out in the rain at night. I noticed that Bona ji was walking barefoot while the others were using sandals. I figured, much like a greenhorn trekker, that walking on the meadows cannot be that bad and chose someone's pair of flip-flops that was lying around. As I was about to take my small backpack, Bona asked me to keep it down. Chadhai hain, aur koi zaroororat bhi nahin hain. (There's a bit of elevation today and you wouldn't be needing it anyway.) I did not argue with him even though I did not relish the idea of carrying a water bottle in my hand.

Chaukhamba and all the other mountains on the horizon were completely hidden by the by the time we started walking up, at around eight. The lake was less than two kilometres away. 

First, over the meadows and flowers to the top of the hill that we came down the previous night. It was the five of us just like yesterday, plus the solitary sheep chosen with a purpose...a miniature version of the Nanda Devi Jat yatra. My flip-flops started getting stuck in the slushy ground and I asked Bona if I could walk barefoot like him. He scoffed at the idea and warned about the rocky path that lay ahead. He turned out to be partly right. Once we reached the top, we saw a series of cairns, leading up to another top in the distance. These were cairns built with some serious effort, some of them magnificently tall. 


On our right, we were looking down at a different face of Tungnath and Chandrashila peak. I wished I had an altimeter with me, but if my eyes were not lying, we were definitely on much higher terrain. All around us, the clouds played their own brand of magic. 




Bona and a few decided to take a short-cut that went down, while Raghu and I continued on the track to the top. It took us about thirty minutes. They call it Sonpur, or in other words, the Land of Gold. Legend has it that someone found the Indian version of the Philosopher's stone here, only to lose it thanks to greed. 

Visudi Tal
From Sonpur Top, stretched a tiny path that went down along a ridge, barely wide enough for a person to walk. Somewhere along that path, we came across a three-foot tall stone wall. Who would be crazy to build something like this here, I asked Raghu. It so turned out that it was not craziness, but a way to ensure that the herds do not mix....sort of marking territory between shepherds on the lake-side and the not-so-lake-side. 

A little further down, I heard Raghu yell...Jai Visudiiiii!
He had the first sighting. I walked next to him, and laid my eyes on a lake surrounded by meadows and flowers on all sides.  It wasn't big, and I did not fall in love with it instantly. Just a relief that a "Banglorean" made it this far without being carried on someone's shoulders.

We could now see our friends who had taken the short-cut. The lake took another thirty minutes of downhill walk. The path was strewn with lose rocks and pebbles and my flip-flops made the walk tougher than what it should have been. This is like Valley of Flowers, I thought as we approached the lake. The reflection of the flowers in the lake, the mist surrounding it, more than made up for the Himalayan ranges missing in action because of the clouds. It was 9.30.


This is how the lake looks during October/November, but that will have to wait a while, I guess. (Pic: Raghubeer)


The Promise of Intoxication
The prayer ceremony was underway at the tiny Bhairava temple near the lake. I sat on a rock and smoked a beedi, before being asked to go over and pray. 

Vinod gave me a Brahm Kamal kept by the shepherds who had abandoned their camp right near the lake that very same day. Brahm Kamal is the state flower of Uttarakhand. The wild smell of the flower was so intoxicating that I took drag after drag before someone warned me to stop. It can get on your nerves. 

I had received warnings like this before I started the trek. Mohan Baba at the Sari Temple had warned that one should not venture on an empty stomach to Visudi because of the flaura of that area. Nasha chad jaatha hain...phoolon ke khushbu se, he had said. (The aroma of the flowers can get you high.) I was on an empty stomach that morning and took a lot of deep breaths. No such luck. When I came back from the trek and told him my experience, he laughed and said. "It happens to some, it does not to others." Aap ko lagne ka chance waise hi kam tha. (The chances of you getting high were anyway thin....)

A few kilometers ahead lay the place where Brahm Kamals bloom. Vinod wanted to walk to that point, but the others vetoed it. 

Sacrifice
Bona ji splattered some wet rice on the sheep and started his chants. The belief is that the animal is not to be sacrificed till it shivers off the rice from its body. I know of instances where people have waited ten or twenty minutes for that to happen. This day was different. The goat shivered and let the rice off its body in an instant. For a split-second, I noticed a change come over Bona - he had become something else, proud and fierce.

The goat was led away from the temple to the meadows. The hack was not the best but was clean enough. They carried away the body to the abandoned camp and lit a fire.  

I walked back to Visudi. The water from the lake is considered therapeutic. We had even talked about taking a bath in it, but today people seemed too pre-occupied with cleaning up the goat. The area is also home to jadi boottis (medicinal herbs) of myriad types. There are those who come here to collect them and sell in the black market. 

After two hours, it was time to say good bye to the reflection of the flowers, the occasional fleeting mist racing across the water, and the missing Chaukhamba. 

The Longest Cut
We were to take a short-cut through the meadows in order to skip the climb on the way back. This turned out to be one of the stupidest decisions ever made in this region. There was no path, I repeat - no path, and the rains had made matters worse. 

We were walking through a grass carpet that was tall enough to hide the ground. I could not even see where my foot went. If I was lucky, I would land on slush and my flip-flops would get stuck, and if unlucky, I'll find slippery rock and I would find myself sitting on the ground.  I had the water bottle in one hand and the walking stick in the other, effectively making desperate balancing a tough act. I landed on my butt thrice. I need to check it out one of these days.

Everyone except Bona seemed clumsy on this route. People kept falling at random intervals. When my fall-frequency increased, I removed my flip-flops and dropped it along with the water bottle into an open backpack that Suraj was carrying, bringing some semblance of normalcy into my gait. You need a free hand or two around here to keep yourself steady....to hold on to grass or plants or rock or whatever it is that you can grab to prevent a fall. 

Walking on empty feet hurt. My steps frequently found thorny plants, sharp stones, or rocks placed at odd angles. We should have just taken the original route, I kept telling Raghu. (This one was chosen to avoid the climb back up to Sonpur.)  

Long story short, we reached the camp after three hours exhausted, hungry, and wet from a drizzle. A rice-dal combo was ready and I took a few spoonfuls (outside the camp and behind it), just enough to kill the hunger pangs.

On Dogs and Goats

Cooking was going on inside the camp, so I preferred to sit outside in the rain with a leaky umbrella for cover, watching Suraj and Mahaveer apportion the meat pieces. There was too much of it, so we were to take some back home. Care is taken to ensure that every portion has a fair share of the different parts. The Bhotia guard dogs who would otherwise be asleep during the day hung around near the butchers of the town jumping at the occasional pieces thrown their way.

I asked Bona if the dogs would not get accustomed to the taste of meat, thereby creating a conflict of interest in their original task of guarding the flock. He roared with laughter and looked at me as though I had asked the dumbest question on earth. Apparently, the answer was no. These dogs also get a share of the meat of newborns (kaatke daal dete hain, doodh nahin piya toh) if the kid refuses to drink milk, he said. These are also the same dogs that carry newborns to the camp, he added, if they were given birth away from it.
Dogs that know their place!

Vinod brought out a decent meal using the choicest mutton parts. Once that was done, I decided to sit on a rock and while my time away, while the others went inside the enclosure for a siesta. 

There was very little action as the flock was on a faraway hill. The dogs lay there dozing. A lamb bleated from its room behind our camp. From the distance, I heard a bleat, almost in response, a process that continued till a black goat appeared as a spot in the distance. The goat was running towards us, and in no time it reached the periphery of the camp. A guard dog that lay there sleeping lifted its head. The goat stopped, and I could have sworn it stood there almost pretending to just hang around there in front of the dog. The dog kept its head down and within seconds, the goat made its move and reached the enclosure where the kids were kept. The door was sealed. Nothing happened, just a series of bleats in close-up, but it was a study in love.

Books of Accounts
Evening came just like the drinks and rain. Hour after hour of songs and trash talk! Bona bought out his books of accounts and showed us how he keeps track of his herd and their owners. He had 648 goats at the moment and a dozen or so buffalo pairs. I almost toyed with the idea of entering into his books: Sajish - 6 black sheep and 2 white goats...something like that.

For six months, he charges around 150-200 per goat and 1,500-2,000 per pair of cows or buffaloes. A few animals perish in the heights due to weather or some other reasons. They become maalas, and a few are born. 

Back in the village, I had heard of two cows that fought on top of a cliff and fell to their death. The owner kept lamenting...donon ek number ke harami the...both were bastards of the first order. 

The shepherd’s word is the truth when they do the accounts at the end of six months. The account goes something like this. 
Payment = Rs. 200 x Closing Balance* 
*Closing Balance = Opening Balance - Deaths + Births.

Separate payments are made to the rightful owner for special situations...like for the one that we picked up in the morning. 

Shiva’s curses
After the display of his books, Bona looked at me asked "You did not give any dakshina (donation) during the pooja. It was very wrong of you. Sidhnath (Shiva) will be angry." I was a bit taken aback. Lakpath tried to defuse the situation saying city folks are not used to local customs. But, Bona stuck to his guns..."No, even one Rupee was sufficient, but you did not even give me that." 

And then it occurred to me. After the pooja, I had seen all of them give dakshina, and I too had checked my pockets, but I had no money on me. It was in the.....backpack....that Bona had specifically asked me not to carry that morning. 

Saare paise mere bag mein the. Lekin, aapne hi mana kiya tha, Bona ji. Shaayad wohi Sidhnath ki icha thi. (You insisted that I do not take the bag. All my money was in it. Maybe it was the Lord's will.) He seemed extremely pleased with that and started recounting the tales of Shiva's encounters with shepherds.

The story goes that Shiva was romancing Parvati in these parts when a bunch of shepherds crossed their path. The shepherds mocked them, specifically because Shiva, with his weird looks, was walking around with a pretty lady. You do not mess with Shiva without getting cursed, and they received a few that day. 

One was the odd nature of their dwellings. They will never be on level ground. In fact they build their camps on slightly uneven terrain to fulfil the curse. 

Another was the “ulta choola” (the stove at the entrance) which ensured that their camp will always be full of fumes. 

The third was perhaps the most tragic...”your supplies will always be short out here no matter how much you bring.” I remembered the goatpack that we lost on our way up, yesterday. More than 10% of essential supplies gone in a moment of carelessness from a goat. Btw, the lost pack contained Manwa, a food grain (used to make rotis, but over here it primarily served as food for the dogs). 

Day 3

Good Byes | The Lost Cow-Reloaded

Good Byes 

The sleep was better because we had more space, thanks to the stuff that was shifted out the previous morning. The Chaukhmba mountains were out in full glory. There was just a low valley and a few hills separating me from the gigantic ranges....so close that I could lick it. The cloud cover today seemed more like an immaculately planned draping over a Himalayan landscape.

Now was the time for the real move. In less than an hour the camp was stripped of all its belongings. The tarpaulin cover was lifted revealing a neat skeletal framework. 

The time had come for us to leave. The two temp helper boys were also coming down with us. For the next three months, Bona ji will be all alone with 648 goats/sheep (give or take a few), a few cows, and his six Bhotia dogs. We gave him most of the match boxes we had as token parting gifts (lighters don't work at this altitude)

He sat there on the ground eating thick rotis that we had made for breakfast. He did not even stand up when we said good bye. All his chirpiness had vanished and he focused on the food in front of him, not even looking up. I noticed that he was trying to suppress a sob and the few tears that were threatening to break the barrier and flow freely. No wonder the women loved him. I wanted to give him a hug. May be tell him something like....we are all alone, Bona ji. 

Instead, I turned around and started my walk up.

The Lost Cow-Reloaded
 
It was mostly a fast-paced downhill story with nothing much to write home about. We passed the scary looking ridge (which we had climbed up in darkness and rain), the shepherds and dogs at Talla, till we reached Tingri Top where we took a 30-minute break. 

In the woods below Tingri, we met the stranded cow again. She had survived two nights in the woods. And she could walk now! 
Vinod took it upon himself to shoo the cow back to the village, lest it die here in the wilderness. Thus the cow led us for the next hour or so. While taking a small rest break, I noticed blood on the grass. The poor thing was bleeding - from where - I do not know. By around 2.30, we met the shepherds from Day 1. Our cow stopped walking at this point. Vinod tried a bit of shouting and pushing, but it was of no use. We had to leave her to her own devices.

We asked permission from the shepherds to use their kitchen and resumed our walk. As usual, I was the last one in the group. After about twenty minutes I heard some noise behind me. Surprise, surprise, it was the cow and her will to live. Soon she overtook me and continued on the track. That was the happiest moment of my trek.

A long rest at the shepherd's channi followed. We made some soup, the first major "food" that day. After another hour of walk, the villages started sprouting in the hills ahead. The cow had run ahead of us, but she was struggling. Blood stains dotted the path. 

She stopped at a place where a fallen tree trunk blocked the four-feet path. It was big enough to ensure that she could not jump over it. From a distance I watched as she made all attempts to cross over...surveying the log...pushing it with her head...looking around to see if there was an easy way. And she found it. She walked up from the path, walked the entire length of the log, crossed over, and ran. These mountain cows!
 
We followed her and reached the village. Some schools kids got us some water on request. By the time we reached the road (after a refreshments break at a house in the village), it was five thirty. That evening, when we celebrated our return, the words "cheers" had been replaced with "Jai Bona ji".

Oh, and btw, Bona is a moniker for a person who is naturally linked to the forests...as in, one who lives in the forests or one who was born there. Though infrequent now, some deliveries used to happen in the forests. They are named Bona. Our Bona ji was born in the forest and lives there...Jai Bona ji! Jai Visudi!

All said, guess I did not miss the Valley of Flowers much.



A caricature done by my friend and artist, Sreejith, pretty much sums up this trek.