So we’re heading up the ridge from Baghi to Hatu through wonderfully human-free forest, largely of kharshu oak, with some cedar and bamboo, and the Forest Department has done a great job of planting chestnut. Increasingly over the last couple of years we’ve seen more and more replanting going on, and forest clean ups – real action, as opposed to the endless armchair complaining that, to quote an old Norfolk acquaintance, “right do my head in, that do.”
After an hour or so we come to a very interesting and atmospheric field with a small tor-like flat rock with hieroglyphs and a grain-pounding hole (must be a good word for that?), and a while beyond that we come up to a meadow on a small peak and are met by a pack of territorial barking dogs, quite large. We steadily walk on, showing no fear nor aggression, and very soon they are wagging their tails and sniffing our bits and bobs, and pretending they are no longer interested. On the crest is a small one-room stone hut with a plastic sheet over the roof, and a classic archetypical tramp (like the chap who lived by the side of the road halfway up Telegraph Hill – ‘Smokey Joe’. He always had a fire going, even in the heat wave of ’76.) If Himachali Joe spruced himself up a bit he might do well in the late Ernest Hemingway category. How he survived there, with so many dogs to feed, might form the material for one of the short novels I am bound to write, one of these days. “A Life in the Day of a Himachali Hobo”.
There are a few gorgeous pups, which we offer to buy. Maybe next spring.
He tells us there’s a source of water “10 to 15 minutes” down the nullah. Night Two camp site, next time. Seriously can’t wait. Seriously looking forward to spending more and more time in the woods.
From Himachali Smokey Joe’s to Hatu was another hour or so. We had to divert around a 15 year old ‘eco-friendly resort’ that looked as though it was still being built, with rubbish thrown out beyond its barbed wire fence. My wife wrote a complaint email to the owner, who is evidently largely absent. The views from Hatu are amazing – a 200 kilometre strip of the Great Himalayas pans out around and way beyond you from the north west to the south east. It’s a tad touristy and 99.9% of its visitors clearly drive up from Shimla, and disgorge from their Maruti Suzukis for a half-hour photo selfie-opportunity before reimbarking into their mobile metal boxes. Have to say, after a couple of recent treks, I’m getting a bit holier than thou on the trekking front. Hiking v. driving is on a par with living v. watching fake actors spouting puerile drivel on a box in the corner of the room, which so many people are clearly addicted to.
Back in the 80s I was introduced (by Kate) to an old boy in Norfolk who had lived in the same room in a cottage, on his own, where he had been born (if I remember rightly). It was as dark and uncleaned as the Reoghati tea-house. Anyhow, he had never seen a TV but had heard about them, and one day Kate invited him round to her half of the cottage, sat him down and switched it on. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to waste their time looking at a box, and left after five minutes to get on with real life.
When I was a teenager in the 70s my mother used to organise jumble sales for charities – she was always a great one for charity events – charity balls in the Town Hall, meals on wheels delivering hot meals to old people living on their own. Up until a couple of years ago, pushing 90, she still worked in a charity shop. So, as a result of the regular jumble sales our house would get filled up with jumble, in the week before, and we would sift through it all and donate 2p for the good bits.
One of these was a quote from Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) written on a piece of old parchment, which I framed and hung on my bedroom wall, next to the poster of Brigitte Bardot.
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed
and in such desperate enterprises?
If a man does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.
Let him step to the music which he hears,
however measured or far away.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden & Civil Disobedience
Which struck a chord then and has always been there since. I am drawn towards the old man who lives in an isolated stone hut with his dogs; and the nomads, with their different drummers. I am likewise constantly, and daily, appalled by people who think they have a right to tell other people how to live their lives. And how not to live them. Worst of all are the pompous halfwits who not only believe in superstitious claptrap themselves but evidently think that everyone else should join them on their make-believe voyage of non-discovery into never-neverland.
After leaving Hatu, with its amazing views and banal selfie-takers, we thankfully headed back into the ‘jungle’ – a Hindi word, by the way, referring to forests of any type, from alpine to tropical – but in our case mostly kharshu, Brown Oak. We followed the ridge for a couple of hours, through a couple of meadows, the largest of which (Jaubagh) was unfortunately on a the tourist map to a certain limited extent, as some tourists had taken the trouble of getting there and leaving their beer bottles and other detritus, to enjoy the pristine natural environment and spoil it for everyone else for centuries if not millennia to come, in the usual mindlessly irresponsible and selfish way of a significant number of Indian tourists. The ridge path itself, however, seemed only to be used by the Gujjars, and hence the absence of rubbish. We came across two Gujjar camps, now abandoned for the winter, but indicating the presence of water and thereby being good spots for the third night camp.
We, however, still had to find our way to the home of a new friend, another couple of hours away, off-piste through the jungle, with the sun starting to dip towards the horizon, and his village not appearing on Google maps. I had only been there once before, last March 2017 with Mark. We had driven up in the jeep on a quest to find the route to Hatu, and pulled up to ask the way. Sunil was working by the side of the road, raised his head, smiled as we stopped, and somehow it seemed perfectly natural, despite the major language barrier, to follow him into his house for tea. One of those things that happen if both parties are open to it.
We finally made it and were welcomed by Sunil (like an old friend), his new wife and his parents, into the lovely traditional stone and wood house they shared. Terrific views, including our place below on the other side of the valley. We were treated like royalty, and I at least gained another couple of insights into cultural differences. Namely, talking goes on before dinner, not during. During dinner the honoured guests sit on the floor in the dining room, where there is a welcome traditional chullah (woodburning stove/cooker), with father. Mother is in the kitchen, son and daughter-in-law stand and observe, waiting to see if anything is needed.
Father, by the way, has an unusual conversational habit of repeating the last four words that his interlocutor utters, not as a question or even a confirmation – well, perhaps some kind of confirmation, suggesting that whatever you just said was perfectly natural and acceptable. He does this while simultaneously jerking his head away from the speaker, and rocking a little, like Mr Wobbly. One gets the feeling that no matter what one says, he would carry on:
“I met the Queen of Sheba the other day”
(… Sheba the other day)
“She had a monkey on her head”
(…monkey on her head)
“The monkey was playing an Irish harp”
(…playing an Irish harp)
“The Queen was on a bent trombone”
(…on a bent trombone)
Today was a nine hour hike, on the heels of the ten hours yesterday, and my legs and the rest of me were desperately in need of rest. Early the following morning, as I was lying in bed around seven, mother swished back the door curtains, crossed the room and opened the cupboard in the wall above my feet at the bottom of the bed, to fish out a pan. I believe if I hadn’t said “Good morning” she would have left the room again, with the pan, without a word. No cough, no knock, no nothing – it was as if I didn’t exist. When I relayed this to my wife, pointing out that I could have been standing in the middle of the room stark naked playing a bent trombone, she said no Indian would be doing that – fair point – it was a bit chilly. Another example of how the concept of ‘personal space’, if it exists at all, is as far as I can tell restricted to the bathroom and toilet. (And even then I remain a tad nervous.)
Speaking of which, traditional Himachali houses have a toilet block separate from the main house. The communal footpath from one house to the next often passes straight by the bathroom door, so don’t be surprised to greet a chap shaving as you make your way down the hill.
We left their sunny smiling house after breakfast and six hours later were back across the valley.
Greatly looking forward to the next time, with tents, and three nights rather than two.