Sauk ki Dhank – picnic breakfast. The true left is on the left.
Our farm, if I may say ‘our’ – in the very loosest of senses – is roughly half-way up a valley at about 2000 metres, on the ‘true left’. The true left and right of a valley refer (by trekkers, fishermen, pedants and the like) to the side of the valley as you are looking downstream. So, as you are looking up the valley we are on the right. I hope that’s made it clear.
We decided to circumambulate the top half of our valley by first climbing up to the ridge, going round the top anticlockwise and ending up opposite us on the other side of the valley, a mere three kilometres away as the crow flies (ATCF).
The river that flows down our valley is called the Chugownti, and it joins the Giri at Gumma. From Gumma at the bottom to Baghi at the pass at the top is roughly 15 kms (ATCF).
We had decided to spend the night at the Government Rest House at Baghi (11 kms ATCF) and set off bright and early at 7.15 a.m., (zero hour), with a packed breakfast and a flask of tea.
We had previously stayed at a couple of Government Rest Houses, which fall under different government departments, and which as far as I can make out so far were mostly built during the British period around about 100 years ago. The Forest Department Rest House at Bampta, for example, we were told by the local Range Officer (a man with many statistics) was built in 1919. He also told us, very forcibly, that the India Forest Department was “the oldest government department in the world!” and that the valley below Bampta was full of glacier ice 1000 years ago. Another informative Bampta resident told us that the stone carvings around the spring were made by the Pandavas. The five Pandava brothers are a mythohistorical bunch of siblings who managed in circa 3200 BCE to build hundreds of temples and other structures throughout India in the space of 13 years. Whenever we ask anyone about an old building the answer is almost invariably that it was either built by the British or the Pandavas. (Don’t mention the Muslims, or other interlopers).
The Bampta Rest House was charming, reasonably well maintained and on the edge of a forest, and the chokidar very friendly and served up some very decent nosh. The Rest House in Shai fell under the PWD, the Public Works Department (mostly roads), and was similarly well maintained, relatively speaking. So our expectations of the Baghi Rest House were, if not high, then optimistic, especially as we had previously passed by to check with the equally friendly chokidar whether we could book a room or two at some point. “No, no!” he said, “No need. Just turn up. Don’t worry!”
The chokidar is a kind of factotum caretaker-guard (always) / cook (occasionally) / cleaner (rarely). The Shai PWD Rest House chokidar, by the way, bore an uncanny resemblance to Captain Haddock – gleaming eyes, thick black beard, and an admirably passionate involvement with things. No doubt, I felt, he would come out with the Hindi equivalent of “Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!” when the situation called for it, and probably smoked a pipe in private.
At 7.20 (5 minutes) we turned up the hill through our village of Rukhla, greeting the sole early riser, apparently bemused by our rucksacks and walking sticks. The sky was cloudless blue and the sun was creeping steadily along and up the other side of the valley. Still a bit of a nip in the air on our shady side. At the temple (10 minutes) we took a left and headed through orchards, now denuded, all apples ‘plucked’ and sent off to market, up to our sister village of Keeth (35 minutes). From Keeth one can see Baghi at the top of the valley, and beyond the pass the snow-capped peaks of Kullu, rising majestically to 6000 metres plus. To the right is Neraghati – our nearest minor peak, and our next destination.
From Keeth we ascended to the Kali temple on the edge of the forest. A few months ago a small group of us made the mistake of going through the gate to more closely admire the small temple, which prompted a father and son combo from the house next door to come jogging angrily over: “No women!” shouted the son; “No anybody!” shouted the even more ‘conservative’ father. Who knows what might come to pass in another ten generations or so? Somewhat ironic that a temple dedicated to a powerful goddess doesn’t allow women anywhere near it. Unless they’re going to clean it, perhaps. There’s always an exception to the rule.
We continued up to the “00”, as it appears on my maps, which is an old bridlepath, certainly used by the British, as it links the Forest Rest Houses which they built, but as far as I can ascertain goes back a good way before the ‘Company’ men set foot in these parts, although probably not as far back as the Pandava fraternity – but who knows? It seems to link the two parts of the erstwhile Princely State of Kotkhai (at the bottom of the valley) and Kotgarh (at the top). There’s another erstwhile Princely State (Khaneti) in the middle, and yet another on the other side of the valley (Kumarsein). These princely states lost their individual independence with the more general Independence of India in 1947, but the ‘royal families’ live on, somewhat diminished. Ironically they had more independence under the British – who used them as glorified tax collectors. Quid pro quo.
Whenever I walk along the 00, I sense all these ghosts, mostly young men far from their homes, hoping for adventure and better things – including the Gurkhas, who colonised this area for a decade or two around the turn of the 19th century. Some of their descendants are still here, now treated as dispensable ‘labour’ – how the pendulum swings.
At the point where the Keeth ridge path meets the 00 (“Five Ways”) there is a large flat rock with a circular hole 20 cms across and the same deep, carved somehow into it. I have come across several of these in the forest, usually at significant points, and have been told that they were made long ago for pounding grain.
We then walked along the 00, in the footsteps of the many ghosts, as far as the Hanging Rock (1hr 35 mins), known locally as Sauk ki Dhank: ‘Second Wife’s Cliff’. Here you are at the base of a fairly sheer rockface down from Neraghati (which someone one day will no doubt climb for the very first time), whence a spring spouts forth in perpetuity. These days it’s surrounded by litter as it’s on the pilgrimage route – every now and then an effigy of the local deity is carried along this path en route to an event where he speaks through his oracle to his people (Yes, they are all male). So far, it seems, he has never said “Why do you throw all your rubbish all over the place? How about clubbing together and introducing an efficient community waste disposal system?”
In the words of the late great Buddy Holly, That’ll be the day. Great song.
Sauk ki Dhank, according to local legend, is the spot where two wives of the same chap stopped to admire the view, and the younger (or perhaps the elder) – anyhow, one decided to kill the other by shoving her over the edge, but the faller grabbed the shover and they both plummeted to their doom. Half a loaf is better than none. There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.
I am reminded of the time I was teaching some chaps in Qatar, 20 or 30 married blokes, over a 12 week period, three or four times a day. After a short while we got a trifle bored with English for the Petrochemical Industry, Piper Alfa etc., tragic as it was, and moved on to other things, among which was the conviction that these bigamists (some had four wives) that God/Allah had so arranged things so that there were plenty of spare women for the men to enjoy. I dared to venture that the reality was that while something like 52% of live births were female, by the time you got to the twenties the male/female ratio was pretty much 50:50 (as young men tend to take more dangerous risks – especially in fast cars in Qatar). No, no, they said, there are many more girls born than boys. OK, I said, drawing up a simple Male/Female chart on the chalkboard – let’s go round the class and see. Mohammed, how many children do you have? Five girls, three boys. And you, Mohammed? Four boys, two girls. And so it went on. The result? 52% girls.
Oh no, they said: This is not right.
The brighter students always seemed to be from the second or third wife, who very often turned out to be an Indian or Pakistani Muslim. (The first wife was usually a first cousin – keeping the family wealth within the family – like the European Royal Family, up until Meghan Markle, although I believe even she is distantly related to the blue bloodline, back to Edward III. Mind you, the entire current population of Britain is most probably related one way or another to King Ted). One such offspring gave me some earnest advice – always keep your wives apart, in separate houses. Once they get together, you don’t stand a chance. Divide and rule. United they stand.
Muslims in India are likewise permitted up to four wives, while for non-Muslims bigamy is a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison. Nonetheless, it remains fairly widespread apparently. We met a 99 year old man the other day who had had five wives simultaneously, for example. When we displayed our surprise, his son said there was another chap in the village in his 50s with three wives.
From Neraghati – Karapathar to the left, Kuppar/Giri Ganga centre distance. Churdhar is off to the right.
Anyhow, from Sauk ki Dhank we made our way up to Neraghati on the ridge (2.5 hrs) and were rewarded with a view across to Churdhaar Peak 20 miles away to the south. Then we followed the ridge to Reoghati (3.5 hrs) and stopped at the tea house there to refill our flask. I was relieved to take off my backpack and was about to collapse on a plastic chair when a bomb went off. At least it sounded like a bomb, or a rifle shot five yards away. A pile of rubbish was being burned, in which there must have been an aerosol canister. The truck driver observing my every move from his cab was evidently most amused by my instinctive reaction to duck and cover my head.
The interior of the tea house is extremely dark, due both to the absence of light and the presence of filth. No surface has been cleaned since it was built in the late 40s, by the look of it. Best not to inspect too closely, especially the filthy saucepan in which the tea is boiled. Forget china teapots, the general way of making tea in India (for the uninitiated) is to measure out the exact amount of water you need in cupfuls, add the tea, sugar and masala (often ginger or cardamom), boil it for a couple of minutes, add milk and reboil it, then pour it into the cups, piping hot – too hot to even pick up, let alone drink, especially as the cups are most often steel ‘glasses’. (If you want a ‘glass’ made of glass, you have to specify shisha ka glass – ‘glass glass’). The freshly filled steel glass is only capable of being picked up with the fingertips around the rim, from where the hot tea is sucked in short noisy slurpy sips, somewhat reminiscent of Japanese noodle slurping.
Chaal temple, above and beyond a willow tree, some windfall apples (much appreciated by bears) and my wife, still genki, as they say in Japan.
From Reoghati we could see our next destination above us – Chaal Temple (3000 metres). So far the predominant tree species we have been walking through has been Deodar Cedar (cedrus deodara), along with Blue Pine (pinus wallachiana) – known locally as kail – and some evergreen White Oak (quercus leucotrichophora) – known locally as ban.
From Reoghati to Chaal we climb quite steeply and the trees change to predominantly Brown Oak (quercus semicarpifolia) – known locally as kharshu, and West Himalayan Spruce (picea smithiana) – known locally as rai, with some rhododendron (bras). There is a third oak – Green Oak (quercus floribunda) – known locally as moru: the colours refer to the undersides of the leaves.
We reach Chaal Temple at 12.15, after five hours, and have some picnic lunch and tea, and are very pleased to see the snow-capped peaks stretching far away. My wife has an App which identifies peaks, their altitude and distance from us. The furthest visible peak to the north west was Hanuman Tibba (5,982 metres), 136 kms away, while to the east we could make out Banderpunch (6,316 m), 98 kms away in Uttarakhand. (We will be trekking near Banderpunch next August, by the way).
Banderpunch (‘Monkey’s Tail’) from Chaal – 98 kms away, mostly obscured by cloud.
At Chaal we were finally up on the high ridge that we were to follow around the top of the valley for the next two days, or so we thought – in reality we had a fair bit more climbing to do, including the next couple of hours through Brown Oak forest to the next peak – Chambi. This forest is, so we have been told, full of Black Asian bears, who have a reputation for being aggressive, even lethal. Someone was killed last year at the top of the valley when he had the misfortune of coming across a mother and her cubs on his last early morning walk. So we were a tad nervous. We took the precaution of hanging small cow bells to our backpacks, so as not to surprise them – the idea being that if they heard us coming they would move off. Happily, the strategy seemed to work, as we saw not a hint of an ursine man-eater. I like to think that my frequent voluble throat-clearing helped.
So far we had been along tracks that were at least occasionally used by others, but this stretch from Chaal to Chambi was clearly left well alone by our fellow humans – no litter, no footprints, not even a clear path. Wonderful, and here and there breath-taking views when the trees cleared.
Chambi Peak in shade, Kullu peaks beyond, Baghi at the pass.
Surprisingly, as we approached Chambi, we met a woman and her teenage daughter crossing over from one side of the ridge to the other. As usually happens on these rare occasions, once they discovered our destination, they directed us to the nearest road, from where we might get a lift. The idea of trekking for pleasure has yet to catch on, especially in these rural areas.
We emerged from the forest (‘Jangal Tharu’) and following the woman’s directions came down to a spring just above the road, gushing forth copious mountain spring water – a good spot to camp, had we had a tent and provisions. Next time. We had now been walking for more than seven hours, it was 3 o’clock, and our bed for the night was another two and a half hours away.
End of Part One