Take the high road in the Himalayas
Stephen McClarence gets a glimpse of rural life on a walk through the wilds of northern India
Friday 19 October 2012
In a previous life, Pujan Rai was called Brian and worked in an Indian call centre. "If I was a minute late for work, I was marked as absent," he said. "But it taught me about timekeeping." After a year of cold-calling Britain and America, he decided he'd had enough of pretending to be Brian, his customer-friendly nom de phone, so he handed in his notice, became Pujan again, and found a very different job. He now leads walking tours around India's little-explored Kumaon Hills, 150 miles north-east of Delhi, near the borders of Nepal and Tibet. Which is why – on a crisp, sunny morning – he came to be chatting to me as we drove up corkscrew roads to the starting point of a four-day walking tour.
On the right, the Himalayas stretched across the horizon, glistening with snow. Two huge birds were circling the trees above us. What were they, I wondered. Pujan glanced up. "Golden eagles," he said casually. He became more animated about the occasional serenely soaring Himalayan griffon (a vulture with a 10ft wingspan). And he wasn't averse to great Himalayan barbets and red-billed blue magpies.
Kumaon, in Uttarakhand state, is remote from the booming consumer culture of Global India, with its shopping malls, fast-food outlets and metro trivia. It's a distillation of the rural life still led by 90 per cent of Indians, a world in which the air is breathtakingly fresh and birdsong and cow bells can be the only sounds disturbing that rarest thing in urban India: silence. It's also largely untouched by tourism.
I had arrived on the overnight Ranikhet Express from Delhi to Kathgodam, stopping at long, dark stations where fog swirled around families huddled in blankets, waiting for their connections. There, I'd climbed into a waiting car and we'd driven for three hours ever upwards, past orange and lemon trees, apple orchards and groves of cherry blossom and scarlet rhododendron.
"No Race, No Rally," urged the anti-speeding signs at the roadside. "Enjoy the Beauty of the Valley." It was a landscape of high, forested hills, where village huts and conical haystacks clustered on steep terraced slopes of wheat and vegetables. Stretches of road had been gouged away by monsoon rains, revealing vertiginous drops.
After seven or eight golden eagles, we stopped near the hill station of Almora. This is the base for Shakti Himalaya. The firm uses local guides and porters to organise walking holidays in Kumaon, in Ladakh to the north and in Sikkim, out on an eastern limb beyond Darjeeling.
The walks are tailored to individual guests. At altitudes between 4,000ft and 7,000ft, three or four hours on ancient donkey tracks, edging down one hillside and up another, can seem quite enough. Yet, despite the occasional steep slope, this is walking rather than strenuous trekking. And, unlike many Himalayan adventures, your luggage is driven ahead between the trio of Shakti guest houses.
The idea is that you get the chance properly to appreciate your surroundings. You learn about the fabric of life here – the local agriculture and how the plants and trees have medicinal uses. By the end of your stay, you have a much better sense of what happens in the countryside that comprises the majority of India.
You also get welcome touches of luxury. At the top of one hill, Pujan and I came across a surprising scene. Porters had erected a picnic table and chairs and, with hardly a road or house in sight, had managed to prepare a hot picnic lunch of aubergine and parmesan bake. Shakti lunches tend to be Western, dinners Indian, and wine and beer are included. As we ate, two small children herding goats looked understandably bemused.
We walked on, past men farming with wooden ploughs and oxen and boys playing cricket with a 500ft drop as the boundary. We browsed our way around a wayside Hindu temple and Pujan pointed out the cacti growing on rooftops – generally in battered petrol cans– intended to ward off evil spirits. It struck me that whereas I had often glimpsed this rural India from speeding cars and trains, here I was experiencing it.
After passing through sweet-sharp-smelling pine forests and past women carrying the day's mustard crop home in baskets on their heads, we reached the first of our guest houses: a cluster of renovated wooden cottages, where family members traditionally sleep on the first floor. Cattle stabled below would provide a sort of environmentally friendly central heating. The houses, with their ornately carved doorposts, were unfussily furnished, though not spartan. The walls were whitewashed, with comfortable beds, flush toilets and showers.
We had cocktails (cocktails!) around a bonfire and talked walking. After a superb vegetarian dinner, ending with Monsoon Malabar coffee, I glanced up. The sky had more stars than I'd ever seen; even familiar constellations were hard to distinguish.
The next day we stopped off at a village school. Its walls were covered in alphabet charts and aphorisms: "Moral Stories – Slow and Steady Wins the Race". When we reached the second house on our walk, Pujan talked about his passion for Manchester United (despite his Chelsea hat) and suddenly broke off: "Chestnut-bellied rock thrush on that branch."
There is little chance of this part of India finding itself part of mainstream tourism. It would be hard for busloads of people to make inroads here: the following morning took us to a high ridge walk with a sweeping 100-mile panorama of the Himalayas, centring on Nanda Devi, India's second-highest mountain, just 50 miles away.
The third house we stayed in was spruce and new. From its balcony, the view receded into ever-fainter silhouettes of interlocking valleys. It was 90 minutes' walk from the nearest shop. "That's quite near for them," said Pujan. It is rented from Tulsi Devi Metha and her family, who carried on their self-sufficient farming life around us.
I stuck my head into the byre and encountered a cow's backside as Tulsi milked into a pail. With Pujan translating, she said she'd seen her first Westerners only 10 years ago. Now she takes us all in her stride.
Late in the evening, two birds called insistently to each other across the valley. Otherwise, the darkness was perfectly still and silent. It certainly beats working in a call centre. Ask Brian.
Stephen McClarence travelled with Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) which offers return fares between Heathrow and Delhi from £625. Alternatives include British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) and Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.com).
The writer travelled with Shakti Himalaya (020-3151 5177; shaktihimalaya.com). A three-night "Kumaon Village Experience" is offered from October to April. Prices start at US$1,307 (£817) pp and include accommodation in village houses, meals and drinks, a guide, porters and local transport, including transfers to and from Kathgodam. Flights extra. First-class rail returns between Delhi and Kathgodam can be booked through Shakti (about £40).
India Tourist Board: 020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org
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