Dodi Tal Trek, 2010

To celebrate our 25 years of marriage, Julian and i decided we would return to the Himalayas where we began our journey. On our way to meet my grandparents in Punjab in August 1984, to ask for their blessing of our marriage, I had suddenly got nervous and suggested we take a holiday in Kashmir. After a few days in Lake Dal, we took to the mountains with our local guides and spent seven days, walking in the meadows of the Himalayas and cherished the memories. The return was planned with support from Prem Thadhani, writer who has lived in Mussoorie for over 30 years.

After much discussion, we agreed on the Dodi Tal Trek, five days of walking and two days for travel. This was followed by five days in the quite Jim’s Jungle Retreat, Corbett Tiger Reserve in Naintal. This is brief diary of our extraordinary journey, the beauty of the landscapes and the people we met along the way. I hope these pictures and words will inspire others to see and feel India through the soles of their feet. Dodi Tal is situated at an altitude of 3010 meters, north of Uttarkashi, a crystal clear water lake, surrounded by dense forest of oak, pine, and deodar trees. In the relentless monsoon rains, we walked up and down over 60 KM and climbed 13,000. Sadly due to the heavy rains, we were not able to always see the snowy peak of the Himalayas all around us but the walk was incredibly beautiful and i will let the pictures tell the story. We travelled overnight on the Nizamuddin Dehradun AC Express from Delhi, arriving 5.30 am and raining cats and dogs. The transition from the AC First Class is smooth and within a few seconds we are in the car and whisked out of the crowded station in pouring monsoon. Dehradun is still a sleep and we drive through traffic free city and arrive at Prem’s new temporary home. We are greeted by Mast Ram, who has worked for Prem for over 20 years. They are like a married couple. This was written in August 2010 and never posted. Preparing for return to the Himalayas for this summer, where we have now bought a small cottage, I thought it would be good to share this with others who are considering a walking holiday! Parminder Vir June 2012 Our trek was organised by Neelambar Badoni, who runs the Trek Himalaya Tours (www.trekhimalaya.com), Mussoorie, India. You can also reach him on neelubadoni@gmail.com. Neelambar got his training at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering NIM, Uttarakshi and is passionate about eco tourism. We meet the night before to go through our equipment and I take the opportunity to ask him questions about Uttarakhand State, since it was granted an independent status by the central government in 2000. I asked Neelambar if he was the Minister for Tourism what he would do. – Education for Employment and Training is high priority. There are jobs in the service sector for plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, hospitality but lack of trained people. We need good vocational training programmes. – Teaching the Hill people to value traditional forms of building houses using wood and thatched roofs. They all want a “puka” house made from cement and bricks. You can’t blame them I thought, watching the relentless monsoon. As a child I was born in such a small house in Punjab and I remember in the rainy season, it was constantly leaking with rats living in the thatched roof. With the first money our father sent from abroad, my mother changed the roof to a concrete one and for the next few years we had no rain.

I remember watching as the thatched roof was dismantled and out came all the shawls, clothes we had lost to the mice and birds building their homes in the roof! – We have to try and keep people in the villages, he said. The young people are leaving for work in the cities and nobody wants to live in the hills because there are no basic facilities such as schools, doctors, hospitals. – Government Guest Houses – they have built these along all the major trek routes but the maintenance is poor. Again, training is needed to manage these facilities. – Infrastructure is under huge pressure. The Yatra Tourism takes its toll on the roads as does the monsoon. – The Government needs to separate Pilgrim and Tourism. Pilgrim routes are banned in Mussoorie and Dehradun. The cheap and basic structures set up for the Pilgrims cannot work for the tourists. Day 1 of our trek, we drive from Dehradun to Mussoorie to meet with our guide and driver for the trek to Dodi Tal Lake. We stop off to see SUDHIR THAPIYAL, journalist and writer, Garhwali who has lived most of his life in Mussoorie. I have heard so much about him from Prem and I am really curious to meet him. We are greeted by small man, with warm smile and handshake. He lives in a house build during the British times by the Raja who used this as his summer residence. He inherited the house from his Father and the land below with the stunning view of the valley. Dehradun, he tells us has been home to great Indian artists including the famous Ruskin Bond, Stephen Alter and Bill Atkins. They hold Mussoorie International Writers Festival, with support from a US foundation, in October, 5 days of readings, discussions and visiting writers. Our guide and driver are both local Garhwali people, speak fantastic English and are extremely knowledgeable about the area, it history, politics and culture. I take the opportunity of the seven hour journey up and down the mountains to ask questions and the region as we head for Uttarkashi. Along the way we stop at the Himalayan Weavers on the side of the mountain overlooking the valley with breath taking views. The Himalayan Weavers is owned by an English lady who married a local Muslim. She sources her wool from the hills, and employs locals to weave and dye the shawls which are sold in UK and locally. Another stop to look at house built by an English architect. The structure is strange, cave like but in line with local climate and terrain. He has died and his family live in England. The Teri Dam, oldest and biggest in India. This is the home of the modern Chipko movement started in the early 1970s in the Garhwal Himalayas. The landmark event in this struggle took place on March 26, 1974, when a group of female peasants in Reni village, Hemwalghati, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, acted to prevent the cutting of trees and reclaim their traditional forest rights that were threatened by the contractor system of the state Forest Department, and inspired hundreds of such grassroot level actions, throughout the region.

The Chipko movement went on to become a rallying point for many future environmentalists, environmental protests and movements the world over. In Uttarakshi, we are greeted by Deepender Panwar who runs the family Monal Guest House – www.monaluttarkashi.com. Deepender Panwar is young, full of energy and proud of his small, clean guest house offering good home cooked food and great service. He is passionate about promoting eco-tourism in Uttarakshi and has developed many services which include hikes, walks, treks and mountain biking for the outdoor enthusiasts, for those who want to meditate by the river there is angling, and for those who are not much into outdoor activities, there are several programs that can be explored including yoga, Indian Cookery classes, traditional mud work, talks and discussions on Indian Philosophy and Spirituality by local experts. Guests are also invited to contribute to the programme to teach in local schools and give talks on their areas of expertise. A great way to enjoy a holiday while giving something back. Before supper, Deepender Panwar walks us into the town to see the temples and the market. We arrive just at the start of the evening Arti, presided over by his friends Father who is the local priest and successful business man – only in India can you combine commerce and spirituality.

Deepender is well known in the local community and we stop every five minutes to greet his young friends and talk about their hopes and aspiration for the area. This is the rainy season and we are only guests and the service is fantastic. Our supper consisted of fresh vegetables, dal, rice, rotis, chicken curry and salad and tastes delicious. More conversations about the area, politics, challenges of running a small eco friendly enterprise and the ongoing battle with State government to invest more in tourism. He tells us about the history of the area and its links with Britain. He tells about Frederick ‘Pathari’ Wilson, a young British officer who deserted during the First Afghan War (1839-42) and went to ground in the remote valleys and hills of Tehri-Garhwal. He introduced commercial timbering to the Himalayas and became India’s first timber magnate. He changed the face of the region forever and became a Himalayan legend. The Raja of Harsil by Robert Hutchison is a thrilling account of his extraordinary life. For enquires, reservations and any other queries please contact – Mr. Deepender Panwar, Monal Tourist Home, Kot Bungalow, Uttarkashi. Email : monaluttarkashi@gmail.com Day 2, following restful night, breakfast on porridge, banana, Indian omelette and toast we are ready to begin walking. Deepinder drive us to get permits to enter Dodi Tal Lake, to meet our mules in Sangam Chatti and drive the empty car back. With our guide and driver, we are now joined by another three men and three mules. The car would normally drive into Sangam Chatti but it’s too dangerous for the cars to go across. There is a landslide and rocks are falling from high up the mountain. Locals watch and make a dash to the other side. The three men carry the equipment and we dash across when the stones falling of the cliff stop for a moment. The travel from Mussoorie to Uttarakshi was full of landslides with devastating effects. You have to respect the mountains. With the rains they have been weakened but also by man’s activity. 25% of the landslides are natural, says Kuldip and 75% are manmade through road widening, deforestation at the top. Road widening is the biggest cause of landslides as holes are blown into the mountain and not followed up with immediate construction. On the other side we are met with four mules and three men, hired for the trek. They load the tents, cooking pots and pans, food, our bags while Julian and I watch and recall a similar scene 25 years ago in Kashmir when we had come to India together for the first time. We are the only trekkers, as it’s the end of the Indian summer season and nobody travels through the monsoon.

The Indian summer holidays begin from 15th May to end of June. The Indian tourists industry is 90% Indian and just 10% foreign. Last year that dropped to 5% due to recession. Just like the film industry, Indian tourists industry is locally dominated. This is reflected in the quality of facilities which is fine for the locals but not for the international travellers. The mules are ready and they begin to walk in the direction of travel, one behind the other as if they know the route and routine. We follow behind with Kuldip our guide while Balbir our driver walks with the mule owner. They will take different route, short cuts and always arrive ahead to set up camp. We walk 7 KM for nearly three hours from Sangam Chetti to Agora, a small hill side village. On route, terraced farming, small plots on which the villagers grow all they can eat – potatoes, rice, kidney beans, buck wheat. Monsoon is relentless and water is pouring out of the hills, long white ribbons as if they are falling straight from heaven. There is a tunnel being built in the hillside for hydroelectric power. In Agora there is electricity and running water but no cars, no bikes, no roads. The only way to go up and down is by walking and mules for carrying loads. Women seem to work 247. They tend to the animals, the children and family, clean the house, cut grass and carry the load up and down the hills on their backs, walking bent forward. They all look so strong, straight backs, not an ounce of fat; there are no weight problems here. Girls as young as 10 years old accompany their mothers and older sisters with cutlass in their hands to help cut fodder for the animals. In the thick green hillside, the vibrant colours of the clothes the women wear shout their presences. Men also work, tilling the land, planting, taking care of the mules, taking the animals up to the meadows in the high ground and bringing them back when the rains subside and before the snows begin. Rajesh, one of the mule owners has also started a small guest house, for independent trekkers to stay one or two nights. It’s in the village and run by the family for additional income. The two rooms are clean with fantastic view of the hillsides and valleys. The village has numbers systems for the rent of the mules so every mule owner gets a chance to earn extra cash from such tours.

This is the Himalaya Network beginning with Neelambar, owner of the Trek Himalaya Tours. His guides lead us to the approved guest houses, private and government owned along the trek routes. The guides employ local mule’s owners as guides and cooks. When the terrain gets too rough, than they will arrange for porters to carry the luggage. The local trek guide gathers information about the road ahead, going up and coming down, the state of the roads, the river flow and sends message with them for those in the village of the treks arrival so things can be prepared. In the absences of the mobile connection in the hillside, it’s the most effective network. The mule owner and the Rajesh live in Agora. They have large extended families that they support. It is not poverty of hunger but poverty of opportunity. There is a ceiling on development. Oxen to plough the land, mules to carry the loads, harvest the potatoes, prepare the ground for planting. But the younger generation will not stay on the land. With little education, they will seek employment in the small towns and the cities. They have access to television and can see how another India is living and they too want to be part of this Incredible India. No one seems to value the natural surroundings, the hillside farms, why should they? I ask the mule owner what keeps him awake at night? He said money to pay for his children’s school fees; money to replace the mules as they get old and tired and money to buy food for his family when they run out of the food they have grown. Money to pay the bills – electricity, water. If they are not paid they are cut off and you have to pay to get them reconnected. Out of the 100 families in the village, only 20 have water taps. Others go to the public water pump to collect water. Only 2 out of 100 families can send their children for higher education. His father and grandfather all lived in the village, worked the land, growing potatoes, kidney beans and rice to feed the family. The village has no doctor and the local school for up to 8 year olds only.

There is an inter college for up to 12 year olds in another village. For higher education, you have to go to Uttarkashi but only those who can afford it – 2 out of a 100 will go for further education. They have lived in the area for over 300 years but progress has passed them by. Day 3, after 22 KM walk, dodging xxx we finally arrive at Dodi Tal Lake, considered the birthplace of Lord Ganesh. Our tent was pitched overlooking the lake and we camped here for two nights. One of the joys of trekking is you don’t have to carry your own gear, cook food or pitch your tent. Every morning we were woken with hot tea, followed by delicious hot porridge, Indian style omelettes, lunch consisted of roti rolls and vegetarian dinner with piping hot rotis. I don’t think I have ever eaten so well on a camping holiday! Despite the non-stop rain, it was wonderful to camp in Dodi Tal Lake, mysterious, alluring, and simply beautiful! The serene, tranquil surroundings, gurgling streams, crystal clear water, and the dense alpine forests would make for an ideal retreat with good weather. There is a temple which is devoted to Lord Ganesh. The legend has it that Ganesh selected this place as his abode and the story goes that this is the place where Ganesh was born. The Ganesh Temple is managed by a local priest who we had seen along our path from Sangam Chatti walking with such ease. We had arrived for the Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi, a beautiful festival celebrating the bond between brothers and sisters. We were the only two trekkers staying at the Lake and the Priest was keen to do a puja for us! Julian is still wearing is Raksha Bandhan after three months! Day 4 Julian and I decided to hike to the top of Darwa Pass, 13,000 feet, to see the beautiful views of the Garhwal Himalayas.

The walk up to the Darwa Pass was the toughest; the path is steep and difficult with many river crossings, not helped by the heavy rain and high water levels in the streams pouring out of the mountains and steep rocks. I have never felt to so wet and cold! While we made it to the top, sadly we could not see the views as the rains covered the mountains. We stood on the exposed meadow, eating our lunch under a large black umbrella and contemplated the return journey back down the steep path and thought why we didn’t just stay in our tent at the Lake. I would love to do the same trek again but not in the rainy season. Day 5 was spent in the tent recovering, reading, eating food and trying to sleep which was proving to be very difficult, the side effects of high altitude and clean air, our guides advised. Day 6 Julian and i decided that we would walk the full 22 KM back to Sangam Chatti to spend the night back in Monal Guest House! We set of in the rain at 8am and arrived in Sangam Chatti by 4pm, stopping for tea and lunch in the dhabas. Freedom from the known is how I can summarise my seven days experience. I felt so small, insignificant against the mountains. A powerful journey, of deep transformation, an opportunity to reflect on the past 25 years and look forward to another. So much has been achieved and so much still to do and experience in life. I look forward to many more adventurous holidays in the region. Parminder