Six hours of travelling from Rudraprayag to Joshimath; six hours of near-continuous travel in two jeeps and a bus. A little cramped and bumpy at times, but mostly far better than the travel in
Katabatic winds; the breeze changing direction as the sun leaves the summits. It’s cool, too; I suspect tonight will be chilly but I’m well equipped for the cold and the bed’s supplied with a duvet and blankets. I’ll stay here a while, I think. Have a good look around; take my time.
A huge explosion, a roar from the mountainside somewhere down the valley. Road works, I assume — from the bus I saw them laying out the green cable, connecting the drilled holes. The labour involved in building and maintaining these roads can hardly be imagined — for much of its length it’s cut from mountainsides that approach, and sometimes attain, the vertical.
The second jeep was less comfortable but still easily bearable. I ended up squashed in the middle of the back seat with my daypack on my knees — luxury compared to what I'd later endure. We drove through to Gopeshwar, gaining altitude; there everyone else disembarked and the driver and I returned to Chamoli. During the descent, I catch a glimpse of distant snow mountains, soft in the brilliant haze, but distinct nevertheless. Then I’m transferred to the bus for the last two hours, climbing, bumping over innumerable rough sections where the seal’s been destroyed by landslides, stopping to pick up or set down passengers, gradually working our way into even steeper, bigger country. It’s a desiccated land — parts of the mountainsides support thickets of a kind of cactus — but a species of pine softens the starkness; where those pines march along a ridgeline, in silhouette against the atmospheric perspective of a more distant ridge, the effect’s graphic and beautiful. I’m beginning to feel closer to what I might have been expecting or hoping for, although I’ve tried hard to expect and hope for nothing....
The little kids from the unit next door have gathered around again.
“Your writing is very good,” they say, looking at my scrawl, so I thank them.
“Your eyes are blue,” the little girl says, and I realise that in this characteristic too I differ from everyone here. I’m a novelty.
An ederly man appears from the unit next door — the kids’ unit — and introduces himself. He speaks reasonably good English and has been coming here since 1961. He’s over 65 and now spends nine months here and three months at his house in
In the hour before dawn, chanting, and the sound of drums. Dogs bark in the distance all night, but the mountains remain unmoved.
My 65-years-plus friend, Mr S, calls for me earlier than expected, not long after I’d at last enjoyed a hot bucket shower. The delight of being thoroughly clean, especially without dust-matted hair. Even if it’s only briefly — but at least here, high in the mountains, the dust’s relatively clean compared to
The French couple have been trekking elsewhere, and I’m impressed by their competence, their assured self-reliance. Of course, they have each other. Sometimes when the going gets rough or particularly dusty the woman puts her arm around his shoulders and leans against him, probably as much for the feeling of reassurance as physical support. It’s another thing, along with a kind of unassuming gentleness and their good English — a delight to be able to talk easily without having to concentrate — that endears them to me.
Evelyne talks a little more easily than Gerard, and only stumbles over words twice, once when she asks if my camera is “numeric”, which I quickly understand means “digital”, and the other when I ask what kinds of birds they’ve seen.
“Birds?” she says, not understanding the word.
I try enunciating it more clearly, with a slightly rolled “r”, but she still doesn’t comprehend. A word from my French lessons at school, decades ago, appears.
“Oiseaux,” I say.
They’ve seen some which I’m able to guess from their descriptions: magpie, some kind of parrot, not many others, although they mention an eagle, which might be an eagle or a vulture. Later, approaching Badrinath, I see a large distant raptor circling slowly around the far mountainside, gaining height. A lammergeier? But the guess is mostly hope, and in my room in the evening I check the guide and conclude it was probably a white-backed vulture, described by the guide as “a disgusting feeder”.
Mr S takes me walking up the valley beyond Badrinath, along a concreted pathway, past dry-stone walls, dusty post-harvest fields, small stone or tin huts with slate roofs. Flocks of choughs circle and land in the fields. They’re mostly red-billed, but in the town I saw the strikingly beautiful yellow-billed choughs. They’re not mentioned in the Collins guide. We cross the river on a footbridge with rickety wooden planks and a painted, paraphrased quotation from Macbeth on the far side. The incongruity’s enormous.
“For 65 years plus, you are strong at walking,” I say to Mr S.
He doesn’t reply, but smiles broadly.
A glimpse of big mountains, snow covered, at the head of the valley. Mr S explains that beyond those, about 40 km away, is the Chinese border.
“You go on to that bend up there,” Mr S says, pointing. “I will wait here.”
I stride off, feeling no effects from the altitude; in fact, I feel strong, alive, full of energy. A small, beautiful bird alights on a nearby rock, then flies to another. I remove my pack, fit the 300 mm lens, but it’s gone. A rock bunting, perhaps? Twice I see small, furry animals dart beneath rocks, but never get a clear view.
“Rats,” Mr S says, but if they are, they’ll be nothing like
We eat lunch — chapattis and biscuits — and walk back to Badrinath. The bend I walked to, Mr S says, is at 13,000 feet.
The closing ceremony doesn’t start until , well after dark, but we need to find a ride back to Joshimath soon or we won’t be able to get one and will have to stay overnight — an uncomfortable prospect, as all the shops, even the chai stalls, have closed and the bedding has been removed from the hotels for the winter. We hang out with a group of other hitchers and eventually I do the rounds, asking if it’s okay to photograph them. They all seem willing, even happy. The happy saddhu who’s been blessing the jeeps with a swastika on the bonnet, and a tikka for any occupant who wishes, is also happy for me to photograph him. He asks where I’m from and how long I’ve been in
The ride back down to town must be the least comfortable I’ve ever endured, folded up in the back of a jeep with four others and an assortment of huge, grubby pots. I can’t see out, and I’m crammed into a tiny space in a far corner, unable either to sit or stand, so I half crouch, half squat, and experiment with various positions to stop my feet going numb. I close my eyes and try to dream — astonishingly, I do. The journey takes 1½ hours according to Mr S; half an hour less than the ascent. It feels shorter, perhaps because of the intermittent dozing, but the state of my clothing, especially my pants, shows just how hard it was. My trousers are covered in dirt, smudges of soot, and the almost solid cooking oil from the pot lid I’ve been squashed and rubbed against. It’s said that on travels, there are great moments and memorable moments. This jeep journey has been memorable, but the day has been great.
In the far distance, indistinct in the bright mid morning sun and the haze of distance, a mountain, massive, and shining with snow. Only the summit and its leading ridges can be seen. I ask Mr S the name of the mountain.
“That,” he says, “is
Far below, near the bottom of the valley, a large raptor floats and glides, turning back and forth on slow wings. I reach for the binoculars and study the bird as it draws closer, but then slides away on the air, heading upvalley. I’m still not sure what it is, but then it turns, drives its wings down in one flexing stroke and begins to sail back down the valley at a higher level. Another down stroke, then it’s floating, gliding fast. It soars past about a hundred feet below, and there can be no doubt now — I watch the great golden head turning and dipping as it scans the slopes.
Here at Joshimath I’m beyond Jim Corbett’s primary range, although he undoubtedly visited here, and probably Badrinath and the other famous places too. But he mostly lived further down in the hill country, a region with little left of wildness except the underlying topography. Viewed from a distance, as a general landscape, the scale and steepness astonishes; viewed closer, in details, everything’s touched by humans. What appear to be precipices are being cut by hand for hay; goat paths traverse the mountainsides, and you’re never far from a collection of small shacks, a scree of rubbish fanning from the roadside, a village, billboards — and every so often, when you think you must be in country where the human population finally thins out, you reach a town like Joshimath, with its two bazaars, its buses and jeeps and stalls and guesthouses, with its shrines and temples, with its military post and its hydroelectric power project. How far do you have to go in the Indian Himalaya before you leave these things behind and enter country that still belongs only to animals, wild plants, snow and ice and rock, the wind, and time?
Photos (click them to enlarge them):
1. On the walk from Badrinath to Mana.
2. Joinery shop at Joshimath. These men were part of a team making windows.
3. Road works on the Badrinath road, just past Joshimath.
4. Mr S — "65 years plus".
5. Badrinath, the afternoon of the day it closed for winter.
6. The temple at Badrinath.
7. The view from the balcony of the Charak Guest House at Joshimath, a couple of days after the trip to Badrinath.
8, 10, 11. Some of the men trying to catch a jeep back to Joshimath from Badrinath. The man in photo 9 is one of the hoteliers at Badrinath; he took great delight in displaying his dental armoury.
9. The Happy Saddhu, in one of the rare moments he wasn't laughing.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor