The man in the turban raised the shotgun and squinted down the muzzle directly at us. Over his shoulder a Himalayan tableau of boulders, mountains and sky shimmered. We froze. It all looked horribly familiar from those staged group photographs we had seen on the front pages for months.
"Wait there," he motioned, and scuttled off into a turf-roofed hut. Within seconds he was out. "Now," he said, "you can take my picture. I've had a proper shave."
We were 10,000ft up in the Daula Dhar mountains that cradle the Dalai Lama's exile home of Dharamsala, not far south of the Kashmir valleys where four Western hostages have been hidden by mujahedin guerrillas for the past six months.
Since the kidnapping, the idea of walking in parts of the Indian Himalaya has changed from being a mild adventure to a serious risk, and Westerners have opted for Nepal or stayed away. The "cool, green heights" of Kashmir, some of the most beautiful walking country in the world, are now entirely off limits, except to the foolhardy. But here, just across the state border in Himachal Pradesh, it was possible to experience that same landscape - lush valleys, glinting rivers, icing-sugar mountains - without danger. Or at least with only those self-induced dangers that make the Himalayas such a challenge.
Our plan was to follow the migratory path of the nomadic Gaddi shepherds who for centuries have taken their small flocks of goats and sheep up from the Kangra valley and over the high passes in search of good grazing. Travelling light with their tents, a bag of rice, chapatti flour and the obligatory hookah, the Gaddi are on the move for six months of the year through a lonely landscape extending hundreds of miles to India's northern borders. Self-sufficient from the meat, milk and wool of their flocks, they require little, except protection from evil spirits, which is amply provided by the goddess Durga, whose little shrines light their way across the mountains.
For the eight of us, a map would have been a more suitable protection as we trooped out of the old British hill station of McLeod Ganj into the pine and rhododendron forest that led to the mountains. Unfortunately (or fortunately) none exists for this scarcely visited region, with its shifting trails. We relied on the intuition of our guide, Mark Butterworth, the son of an English family who Stayed On - his knowledge of the Gaddi trails the product of a dream-like boyhood, following the shepherds across the hillsides, listening to their tales of adventure and the supernatural.
Our path over boulders, up riverbeds and across slithery hillsides meant that we and our porters carried as little as possible - sacks of rice, porridge and lentils, a crate of eggs, the tents, and a single concession to Eric Newby-style eccentricity - a folding table, chairs and tablecloth.
The days passed blissfully, climbing through an ancient landscape, swimming in glacial pools and slowly hoisting ourselves up towards the clouds. At 14,000ft, we struck the Minkiani Pass, fulcrum of the Gaddi odyssey, with a simultaneous view of the simmering plains of Kangra below and the unclimbed, snow-capped peaks on the horizon towards Tibet. But the mood of the porters had become less celestial. The word was that the path ahead had been washed away.
It was one thing to herd a flock of goats along a pathless ridge dropping sheer into a gushing glacier below. But could it be done for a group of clod-booted Westerners without climbing tackle? We needed more than Durga to help us.
The seven-hour climb down the valley and up and round the next ridge felt like circumnavigating an iceberg using just your fingernails. Every ankle twist or missed grip seemed to offer a slide into mossy oblivion below. Two lammergeiers (Himalayan vultures) cruised above us, unconvincingly pretending to mind their own business.
Then suddenly it was there - what we had travelled thousands of miles to see. A biblical scene of hundreds of sheep and goats, some only a few hours old, herded by their shepherds in a forest glade. Presiding on a dais under a goatskin canopy, the oldest shepherd puffed his hookah like Kubla Khan. Any dangers were forgotten.
When to go
Mark Butterworth leads a spring and autumn expedition each year following the trail of the Gaddi shepherds in the Himachal Pradesh. The next departures are on 3 April 1996 and 9 October 1996. Further details from Himalayan Kingdoms, 20 The Mall, Clifton, Bristol BS8 4DR (0117 923 7163).
How to get there
Michael Williams's journey to McLeod Ganj started with a flight to Delhi from London (see previous page for information on costs). He stayed in Delhi at the Imperial Hotel, Janpath (00 91 11 332 5332 - rooms about pounds 80 per night), a slightly faded art deco pile whose cool walled gardens are an antidote to Delhi hassle. The 12-hour journey on the overnight Jammu Mail to Pathankot in the Punjab is an experience in itself. The first class, air-conditioned sleepers are austere but comfortable - a bit like British Railways c1953. McLeod Ganj is a two-and-a-half hour taxi ride from Pathankot.
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