So we made it to the spring below Chambi Peak by three in the afternoon, having set off from the farm at 7.15, and now we had to walk along the road for 2.5 hours to reach Baghi Rest House (BRH) for the night. Next time we do this route we will take tents and camp at the Chambi spring. We were here a month or so ago when the Gujjars (transhumant pastoralists) were still here – their summer pastures – so if we come between April and September we’ll be able to get buffalo milk and wood-smoked paneer (cottage cheese) for breakfast. Something to look forward to. The Gujjars, in my experience, are a fine and admirable people.
At 5.30 we finally entered Baghi, an unremarkable village, the population of which is doing its darndest to make it as ugly as possible in the form of buildings thrown up of reinforced concrete and the usual litter thrown in every direction. The view down the Chugowtni valley more than makes up for this human despoilment, thankfully.
Baghi’s claim to fame is that it is on the very ancient Hindustan-Tibet road, an offshoot of the so-called Silk Roads, linking two of the oldest civilisations on Earth – the Indus and China – and therefore is mentioned in many travellers’ texts, including that of our artist, who passed through in May, 1815. He camped near Baghi (Bajee) and “looked down pleasantly enough on the sweet valley of the Chugount nullah that runs to the river Girree.”
Baghi Rest House – the temple beyond
The sun was about to set as we encountered the chokidar in Baghi High Street, looking remarkably like one of those children’s book games whereby one folds over sections of the body so the Queen’s head has a torso of a knight in armour and the legs of a frogman. The chokidar’s bottom half was concealed in blue tracksuit pants and trainers, like Linford Christie; his torso by a thick beige Himalayan tweed jacket, heavily patched, like Fagin; and his head by a woollen hat over which was the grey hood of a 1970s schoolgirl’s anorak, tied under his bristly chin. The thick John Denver glasses and a fine pair of false dentures, north and south, contributed to the memorable impact. Unfortunately the “Don’t worry – no need to book” assurance now seamlessly segued into “Sorry – someone else has booked”. But there was a room available round the back. By this point I hadn’t the strength, physical or otherwise, to cross the road to check out the recently thrown up “Raj Villa Homestay” – two rooms over a shop – the alternative – so we decided to go with the historical interest of the BRH.
This may or may not have been a good decision but at least we are now fully and intimately familiar with the quality of the accommodation facilities available at the BRH, which I will never willingly enjoy ever again, unless paid. Quite a lot.
As it turned out, we had to pay him – 340 rupees (£3.40) – once he learned that we were local. Had we not been, it would have been 500. Three adjectives spring to mind: filthy, cold, and filthy. We tried to arrange the filthy bedding so that the most filthy parts were furthest from our mouths. I can’t remember if we ate anything, although a memory of enjoying the relative warmth of a dhaba now returns – slanting roadward like the deck of a ship run aground.
At one point fairly early on, while I was lying collapsed on the bed, the chokidar enters in order to check we are all OK and performs a gesture which may be specific to the hills or perhaps is India-wide: he turns the palms of his hands up in front of him as if pushing an enormous balloon, smiles, and turns his head to one side with a slightly quizzical look. As far as I can tell this implies “I hope everything is OK, and if it’s not then God may intervene.”
The ‘bathroom’ was an archetypical model of everything one would avoid in one’s own bathroom. The corrugated iron roof, no ceiling, didn’t quite meet the top of the wall, leaving large gaps for pigeons, bats, snakes etc to enter, freely. In fact the overall feel was that of a well-used pigeon loft / garage. Exposed wires, paint slopped about, filth, naturally – the bath bucket was a 20 litre receptacle whose first incarnation had been to hold grease, for engines. It may have been purely psychological, but the essence of engine grease lingered in the ether.
I slept extremely well until sometime around three when the All India Boilermakers Annual Convention kicked off in its traditional way by banging every pot and pan available, having drunk a skinful each of local liquor. Why they choose to hold this event in the temple at Baghi about 50 yards from our bedroom in the middle of the night remains a mystery.
Remarkably good aloo pronta were available for breakfast across the road in the ‘Elegant’ café, so good that we had a couple wrapped for brunch. Plus more tea for the thermos. A grey dreadlocked, saffron skirted old sadhu/boilermaker enthusiast appears in the café with a bucket of halva (flour, sugar and ghee) and a thick pad of newspaper cut into six inch squares, one of which he places in front of every customer (one of whom started reading his section) except us and onto which he dollops a ladle of halva, reminding me of the good old days, pre-EU, when fish and chips were so wrapped on a Saturday afternoon, soggy with salt and vinegar and good old-fashioned printer’s ink. Something to look forward to, post-Brexit.
And off we went – our first destination being the peak of Hatu, at 3400 metres, now a popular temple tourist spot with truly remarkable almost 360 views of the Great Himalayas. 500 metres down the road, a car stops, in the middle of the road, thus blocking traffic in both directions.
“Where are you from?” the driver asks, directly.
I’m never very good at inane social chit-chat with complete strangers, or even people I know quite well, and least so early in the morning, with the prospect of a glorious hike just round the next bend.
“England.” say I.
“My daughter is in London. Newcastle.” he says, clearly expecting a positive response.
I stare back at him. He waits for me to say something along the lines of probing further into the non-likelihood of his daughter and I having some family connection, which is apparently the Indian way. Holding back on the temptation of saying “So what? I don’t know you from Adam. Newcastle is 500 miles from London – I have never been there nor know anyone who has. And by the way, I am going on a trek specifically to avoid people like you…” eventually, I think I just said “Good.”
Disappointed, he turns to my wife and thoroughly grills her in Hindi on our family circumstances in a great deal of personal detail, cars building up on either side, honking, to which he remains oblivious, and even makes a point of slowly writing down our names in his notebook. In pencil. I admire the view down the valley until the point where we are allowed to drag ourselves away from our interrogator, and soon find the track up the ridge towards Hatu. Mercifully, after a short while there are no further signs of human presence; in contrast, we soon stumble onto my first pile of bear crap, just as Uncle had described: a large dollop of fruity poo, not quite steaming but nice and fresh, like a summer pudding crossed with Christmas pudding crossed with bear crap. He’d obviously had a good night hoovering up windfalls around Baghi and was now somewhere ahead of us sleeping it off. My throat clearing increased in frequency and rose a decibel or two, especially as it wasn’t long before we came across his footprints. Bear prints are like human’s with five toes at the top and a pad behind – the fore paw has a short pad, while the hind paw is much more like yours or mine. Leopards and dogs have four toes arranged more equally around a central pad.
Half-way up the ridge we came into a grassy meadow which had an ancient feel, and on a flat-topped rock, like a small tor, was another grain-pounding hole and several hieroglyphs. To me they looked seriously old and I’d love to know more.