Vibrant life in the Valleys - a guest blog

Posted in Guest experiences on Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Guests Jen, Roger and John share their experience of walking in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and the Saryu Valley, in March 2017


Travellers come in all shapes and sizes but the sight of three people, clearly in their later retirement years, with large rucksacks on their backs can still raise a few eyebrows. Our arrival at Delhi Station in the early dawn does present certain challenges even to the better prepared traveller, but undaunted by the chaotic flurry of help offered by the eager posse of red turbaned porters surrounding our taxi, and with much skillful bargaining and some determination on our part to stick to tipping guidelines, our seats on the early morning Shatabdi Express to Kathgodam were achieved to mutual satisfaction all round.

It was a fascinating journey through dilapidated and disturbing urban development and mixed countryside. Nourished by breakfast, entertained by a daily paper – The Times of India – cheerfully looked after by smiling coach attendants, and with a visit to the toilet facilities while they still smelled of mothballs, we punctually drew into Kathgodam terminus. Loosely translated Kathgodam means a ‘wood store’ and this was where early forestry teams brought their timber for rail transport out. The Village Ways team are excellent at detail and our driver awaited to transport us up to the Khali Estate to start our trekking adventure in the Binsar and Saryu Valleys of Uttarakhand.

Binsar Valley

Meeting our two guides after a good night’s rest in a delightful garden bungalow was a mixture of excitement, anticipation and a certain apprehension all rolled into one. Apprehension only caused by a slight anxiety that we had taken on a trek which would be more of a test than we had assessed. We need not have worried. Our guides on the first day of walking clearly were looking at our abilities and the walks never took us beyond our comfort zones.

Day one, Khali Estate to Kathdhara took us through pine forests with ridges and extended views over emerging hills and a wide valley vista, and a picnic lunch carried in our own tiffin boxes was a welcome break in a delightful day. The Myna House, so comfortably prepared by members of the Village Committee for us, was in a beautiful position and the evening meal, cooked on an open fire by a committee member, was memorable for the delicious dried and roasted cannabis seed in mint and lemon sauce which accompanied it – a local delicacy which, we were assured, held no dangers. Hot water bottles and a cosy bed gave us a quiet night, the only barking dogs were in the valley and not in our dreams!

Our second day’s walk to Gonap was not long, wending its way along forest trails. We had ample time to spend watching birds with our very skilled guides, also being directed to admire the leopard ‘poo’ and the scratchings of a porcupine. We are told there are many leopards in the area but their   preference is local dogs and goats so we felt somewhat easier in our minds! Apart from birdsong the walk today has been a blissfully silent one but as we approach our next village voices of the residents ring out across the fields. Barbet House is another typical valley building, managing on solar power at present though electricity is being brought here. In spite of only ten families in Gonap there is a village school, destroyed by the monsoon last year but already rebuilt, with four children and a devoted teacher. A massive storm this evening brought thunder and lightning with torrential rain and hail clattering on the tin roof. This was greatly enjoyed, sitting as we were by the bokhari -a wood burner stove – and as we went to bed with our solar lamps and hot water bottles we could think of no better place to be.

A delicious omelette for breakfast, eaten while sitting on the terrace in the sunshine, with a ‘sea cloud’ below us masking the valley and giving an ethereal look to the misty hills, made it hard to leave such beauty but our main bags had already been taken by three village women – it seems by tradition in Binsar Valley the women are the porters and main labourers here – so we reluctantly said our farewells and set off for day three.

The walk took us up above the village so we had no chance to see again the new born kids we admired on our walk round the village yesterday, nor the enthusiastic cricketers we had briefly joined on a rock hard dusty field. We will never know whether they took to heart our ‘professional’ warning that they would be penalised for ‘throwing’ rather than ‘bowling’ should they ever reach a more exalted team! On this gorgeous sunny morning we were stopped in our tracks as we rounded one ridge to see in the most majestic splendour the view of Nanda Devi, Trisulli and Paanch Tulli, Himalayan views just asking to be admired and viewed and absorbed for long moments. Birds were also a feature of this gentle trail through the countryside, wending our way in and out of the folds of the hills, the tempting glimpses of our next village visible then hidden as we made our way along small tracks used over decades by the locals. Parts of the path red with fallen rhododendron petals or made crunchy with pine needles and the startling glimpse of a cerise rhododendron in full flower,  caught by a shaft of sunlight, was utterly magical. The small village of Satri is on a ridgetop, bathed in the afternoon sunshine and Pipet House glows with its white walls and vivid blue windows. This is the farthest village from our start point, remote and secluded and with superb views of the Himals. The evening the stars were utterly superb and our early rising to see dawn over the Himalayan ranges did not disappoint.

Today, our fourth, we had a longer walk, with an uphill climb from Satri for around three hours, but along well-graded paths. We found porcupine quills, saw where wild boar had rooted in the undergrowth and viewed with clinical interest a recent deposit by a leopard which contained goat hair! Lunch from our tiffin boxes restored us for the now steep and unrelenting downward path to Risal, our next stop. This village is larger than Satri, surrounded by mixed forests of oak and pine, but even here only eight houses are occupied. Nevertheless the government considers this a viable village and is bringing in electricity, the pylons already in place and labourers from Nepal employed in the awkward task of moving the cabling to the appropriate position – logistically tough when there are no roads just paths through the trees. Bulbul House is another traditional building and comfort and cleanliness continue to be a much appreciated part of our trek, along with the most delicious meals. In this remote place a meal of mashed pumpkin cooked with lemon, rice with caraway seed, mixed bean daal and chapatti remains five star rated among many others.

Unseasonal snowfalls have led to us changing our plans for the next part of our trek in the Saryu Valley so we are staying here another night and have had an interesting walk to the nearest ‘town’ of Kholachhina where we had a masala tea at a wayside stall and obtained razorblades, toothpaste, lip salve and oranges at the same eclectically equipped ’emporium’! Returning by a different path we enjoyed watching women supervising a flock of goats - while they chattered and laughed as they watched us watching them. A troop of black-faced langur monkeys held our attention as they swarmed over the outcrops and an afternoon showering and snoozing brought to an end another great day.

With reluctant steps we left Bulbul House and the team who had looked after us so well, but another day beckoned with fresh sights and experiences. Our path took past their village homes before we rounded a ridge and began climbing upwards, the track sometimes well marked, occasionally difficult to see. Our guides of course know the route well and were confident in their directions so we felt in safe hands. Coming across cows, goats and monkeys’ and meeting women who had been out early to collect wood or grasses I felt again the privilege of sharing this way of life – which in spite of recognising all its hard and deprived times still induces in me a yearning to reduce the over privileged ways of my own. Despite a steep ascent at one point, enough to require three rest points stipulated by our thoughtful guides, we were suddenly out above a new vista, and to our amazement a school set in the middle of nowhere. The sound of the children singing their national anthem as we drew near was a moment to savour. Seven children make up the intake and another dedicated school master walked the hills daily to teach them. They had mats to sit on under a shady balcony and the ubiquitous blackboard hung nearby. As we walked on after an enthusiastic greeting the reason for the position of the school became clearer. Set on a ridge between two valleys children from all sides therefore could make their way up (or down) each day and thus no village became a focal point for their education.

A shorter climb from here took us finally to Dalar, our last village in the Binsar Valley and where we will spend two nights. Our main packs had already delivered by porters who had to return to Risal by nightfall, a walk which had taken us three to four hours!  Minivet House in Dalar sits right beside the home of one of our guides so we enjoyed a most hospitable welcome from his family. The views from the terraces are extensive again and through rhododendron trees and mixed forest we can still just catch a glimpse of Trisulli, gleaming in sunshine. I love the smell of the approaching villages, a hint of wood smoke, a whiff of dung, the occasional crow from a rooster and the sudden calls of welcome from the house owners perched above or below the track as they spy our group on the path. Although many villagers have mobiles now the voices calling across the hillsides remains for me an iconic sound of this rural life.

A certain sadness surrounds us as we come to the end of this part of the trek. We have become so fond of our two guides and feel a real sense of loss as we prepare to leave in the morning. We judge we have seen over forty different varieties of birds along the trails, plus a pine martin and a barking deer, all due to our superb guides and good binoculars. We have also met and shared in so many special moments with villagers who have made us so welcome. Our evening wander round each village has brought home to us the difficulties of remote farming and we are full of praise for the Village Ways initiative, supported by the whole village communities, to bring income to their area through making a house available and giving hospitality to small groups of trekkers. Visiting the school made us realise we must brush up on our knowledge of songs and games to play with children of mixed ages before we come again -  the hokey-cokey was a poor response to their beautifully prepared poems.

Binsar Valley, Santosh and Prakash, Village Committees and locals – thank you for an unforgettable week. Now onward to Saryu!

 Saryu Valley, India

Saryu Valley

The road journey from Dalar to Supi in the Saryu Valley can best be described as memorable! The hair-pin bends are ceaseless for nearly five hours, the traffic often testing and the final section from Bageshwar to Supi not only nail biting but for those with an over developed imagination somewhat stressful too. Our driver however was well able to cope with all that the route threw at him if not the subdued gasps of horror from his back seat passenger!

Supi however was worth every eye watering moment and meeting our new guides at the end of the road, literally, was both blissful and reassuring!  The walk up to Van Kotila house through terraces of waving barley and wheat was a welcome relief to our shaken bones and the view of the traditional blue and white Berkley houses of the Saryu Valley took our breath away. Our rooms are again simple and well equipped, even with en-suite bathrooms, so no more going outside for showers and toilets. A village walk this evening with our new guides made us eager to start the next part of our trek and with hot water bottles under our arms we went thankfully to bed.

Today marks a big change in topography with much more open views and well-tended terraces. The sunshine reveals the gleaming outline of Nandakot with the inner hills still covered by the snow falls which have stopped our walk up to the high camp. Our walk to Jhuni will take in the much talked about 1,000 steps but after yesterday I feel I can face pretty much any new challenge! A beautiful walk to begin with beguiled me into a false sense of bravery and the utter fascination of the small villages we went through, their buffalo, cows and goats tethered in their courtyards held me entranced. The 1,000 steps are slowly revealed, a narrow pathway of steps hard to spot on the sheer cliff face –only the sight of the women with our rucksacks, mere pinpricks and only just discernible half way up gave a hint of the climb ahead of us. Committed as I am to achieving this, and quelling all fears of heights, I remind myself to only look up for the next step and not to look down – or even around in spite of this spectacular place – and after one and a half hours I triumphantly reach the top! Definitely time for a peppermint reward, a space to recover and to look ahead to the village of Khal Jhuni tucked into the bowl of hillside. Moving on we went through Khal Jhuni, knowing we would be returning the next day, watched by the women and mobbed by children but escaping and enjoying the final part of the walk, uphill but no longer so exposed. Pokwa House, just outside Jhuni had the familiar welcome team and a hot drink was soon before us. The bokhari was lit in the cosy dining room and the unusual taste of nettles as our vegetables tonight was another ‘first’ in our gourmet experiences.

thousand steps, Saryu Valley

This is the highest we will go to with our revised schedule, and at 2,320m in the crisp morning air we feel ready for anything. Today we visit the old part of Jhuni, well known by our guide who has his family home here. He is welcomed everywhere and we are invited to join the ‘baby naming ceremony’ for an eleven day old boy. This is a whole village occasion with a feast being prepared in a courtyard and where we were welcomed with freshly cooked pouris, friendship ‘tikkas’ and many smiles. This ancient town has a maze of streets and many Berkley-style village houses are still occupied by extended families. Children, goats, buffalo and women young and old chatting on doorsteps tell of a timeless tradition and again that sense of order in a chaotic world grabs at my heart. This afternoon we begin to retrace our steps to Khal Jhuni, the start of our return to Supi and the completion of our trek.

Khal Jhuni is another ancient village with slate pathways and vibrant life, Sarmul House situated right on the street gives us a wonderful view of local activities, the craftsman weaving his baskets, the dish-washing tasks at the village tap and the goats returning from their days grazing. The children of the village have sat in a line on a wall, watching us watching them, but dusk finally calls them to their homes and we go inside for our meal.

No need for an alarm clock here, the barking of the dogs and the jingle of the mule trains being more than adequate and considerably pleasanter. With much regret we start on our walk back to Supi, somewhat relieved to hear the 1,000 steps down are too much of a hazard for us and the mule track considered more suitable if somewhat tamer! It means a calmer walk via gentle meadows and forest trails but a delightful walk nevertheless, occasionally making way for the mules and muleteers, and descending slowly to the Saryu River. A tea shop here had very good masala tea but the samosas packed a punch!

It was strange to suddenly hear car horns again after so much solitude and of course it heralded our return to one of the three hamlets (and the road head) which form part of the Supi village. A somewhat strenuous walk up from the road in the afternoon sunshine, through the barley and wheat terraces, took us back to our final two nights in Van Kotila House. Our last day here was very special - we enjoyed a walk through the village, took tea with one family, chatted on the terrace with another, visited a lively pre-school and viewed with astonishment the somewhat incongruous post box hanging on a wall. In our twelve days trekking we have not met another westerner on the paths but tonight four others, all walking with Village Way, are at Supi with us, our paths crossing for the first time. The dining room echoed this evening to shared experiences and an overwhelming appreciation for the amazing time we were all enjoying.

Today however brings a return to Khali Estate, back to roads and traffic and noise and a final night in a garden bungalow, then farewell to Uttarakhand. Thank you Village Ways for your vision to support and encourage dwindling village communities, thank you Khim and Chandan, the Village Committees and the communities in Saryu for all you have so unstintingly given us. Memories to cherish always.


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