09 December 2006

The idea of mountains

I've parked up for a day or two while I recover from the inevitable illness; I'll spare you the details. So, this post is going up sooner than I'd intended — it's as good a way as any of resting.

Sunday 19 November 2006
They’re dynamiting down in the valley again. A sudden boom, the
reverberating echo, then a second or two later the sound of a tremendous fall of rock. What orogenesis and erosion create, we humans seem compelled to modify.

Driving to Badrinath three days ago, we looked down to the river, the flow of water substantially subordinate to the size of its bed. Much of the flow, apparently, has been diverted for the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric power project. It’s a familiar story, and I’m reminded strongly of the Whanganui River in New Zealand’s North Island. Both rivers beheaded to provide power. Where does it end? When will the demand for more power cease? When these rivers have all been maimed, will the windmills and solar plants move in? What will limit their spread? I imagine the ridgeline of
Elephant Peak lined with churning mills instead of old pines, the Himalayan sun shining not from a turbulent river pouring over washed-clean boulders but from an array of focused mirrors.

I write these words by candlelight because the electrical supply has failed again. As I waited for
the agonizingly slow internet connection this afternoon I felt my impatience and frustration as a physical sensation, like anxiety, and had to remind myself to relax; that if I couldn’t achieve as much as I wanted in that half hour, what was the real loss? Perhaps this is a too-common mistake: to think the solution to an unmet need is to supply the demand rather than remove the want.


Monday 20 November 2006
What makes a life better? What enables a life to be lived with a better sense of accomplishment — “satisfaction” has too much smugness to be a satisfactory word — or delight in the living of that life? Ask anyone here in Joshimath or the nearby villages and the answer’s almost certain to be pragmatic: more reliable electricity, be
tter roads, a safer, more effective supply of clean water. Perhaps more appliances and labour-saving devices, although there seems to be no shortage of small shops selling TVs, DVD players, radios and so on. Perhaps a functional internet? I’m guessing.

Others might take a longer view — better education and easier access to it; some form of minimum wage or other social welfare.
What all these sorts of answers have in common is that they assume life will consequently be easier, that there will be less hardship. Does that make life better? Perhaps, if “better” means, as I’ve implied, a greater sense of achievement, these things do not make life better. I think this was one of Nietzsche’s main arguments — that adversity enables us to improve: “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger”. But there are different kinds of hardship, and I wonder whether there’s much sense of achievement from simply managing to survive another day. My guess is that the feeling is one of relief rather than accomplishment; moreover, I suspect the relationship between adversity and improvement is not only non-linear, it’s not even monotonic; in plain language, beyond a certain level, hardship wears you down and weakens you.

I wondered about these things as I lay awake this morning. I wondered because the way life’s lived in the little of India I’ve seen so far seems so hard. Borderline, in fact, for many people. I wondered what would make it better; what, if anything, I could do — or anyone could do. But I also realized that the ramifications of well-intentioned actions can be unexpected and undesirable, especially when based on little knowledge and even less understanding. And, also, that one person’s good intention is another person’s meddling.


Wednesday 22 November 2006
When I step outside into the dawn, the world has changed. I’ve become accustomed to the brilliant, cloudless Himalayan sky, sun touching the summits, but this morning dark cloud and misty rain hang about the peaks and drift into ravines; the whole sky’s heavily overcast. It should seem oppressive and ominous but it’s magnificent, a vision from the mind of William Blake. Crows wheel and caw in the cold air; behind them, nothing but s
pace and height and then mountains swirling with mist, precipices edged with old pines, deep ravines disappearing into the gloom. Do you get used to these things; how long, if ever, does it take before you stop seeing these things — before they stop you in your tracks? How much conscious attention does it take to continue noticing and appreciating them? Surely this depends on the person, on who you are — if your attention focuses on cutting another load of hay, or drying the laundry, or trying to stay warm, you might notice birds flying in drizzle but fail to appreciate the immanence in the slow, strong grace of crows circling against that vast landscape. On the other hand, perhaps I don’t truly appreciate the difficulty of weather like this — Mr S tells me it’s 4°C and the barometer’s falling — for those cutting hay, doing laundry, or facing a hard, bitter winter. I do have some inkling, though, as I write with slow, cold, mittened hands, sip hot water with biscuits, and huddle in a blanket in an unheated room, trying to keep warm.


Thursday 23 November 2006
At Mirag, kids play cricket in a small courtyard and laugh after I’ve passed by. An elderly woman gives us tea in bone china cups, with bi
scuits, and like so many people I’ve met here, responds warmly to my “namaste”, my hands pressed together in front of my chest. It’s the same with the elderly man we meet as we leave — his eyes sparkle as he beams at me, leaning on his stick. And Mirag’s gardens are neat and fertile; cauliflowers carefully weeded, a plot of marigolds, things indicating knowledge and attention — and a great deal of hard work. A simple life, but hard — or a hard life, but simple? Given the choice, which would you choose: hardship or ease, simplicity or complexity?


Saturday 25 November 2006
A common road sign here says, "Life is journey Complete it." At Nandprayag I look down from the bus window to the ghats at the confluence — the prayag — where a small cluster of people watches a massive fire among the boulders by the water's edge.
Nearby, on a raised structure, another figure, shrouded in black, waits for the fire. These lives have been completed, or, according to the prevalent belief system here, are undergoing transformation.

If I were to be reborn as an animal, I think I'd like to be reincarnated as a bird. Closer to Joshimath, what I
think are white-backed vultures soar high around the precipitous bluffs; I have to lean closer to the window and look up to see the birds circling. One flies close to the mountainside, its shadow distinct, following close beneath and slightly behind the bird in the strong morning sun. We're like the shadows of birds, trapped on the ground, but even more constrained — to go where that bird's shadow traversed so easily would require enormous skill, artificial aids like ropes and climbing protection, and the mental ability to deal with terrifying exposure. My years of climbing have accustomed me to some degree of exposure, but even so I feel a few rushes of adrenaline when I look down and see not road but a sheer drop to the gorge far below. I tell myself the driver does this everyday; the wheels aren't as close to the edge as they seem; and I remind myself to think like a bird — to soar out over the abyss and enjoy the freedom, the ability to cross in minutes by wing what would take us half a day on foot, and probably using hands much of the time.


Down in the river at Karanprayag, men have been breaking rocks by hand, pounding boulders with sledgehammers. Another man sits on a huge mound of fractured pieces, breaking them down with a hammer into smaller fragments. This happens everywhere I've been in India. At the end of each day, what sense of accomplishment might you feel from such a job, knowing it will be the same tomorrow and perhaps for the rest of your life; that there will always be more need for broken rock and there will always be more rock to break? Is it enough to say, "This is what I do," the way others say, "I write," or, "I photograph," knowing there will always be more to write, always more to photograph?

If your life is a journey, where is the breaking of rock taking you, and what will you look back on when you're about to complete it?


Sunday 26 November 2006
Mid morning, the early winter sun lighting the valley of the Ata Gad, a swift, powerful river flowing to its confluence
with the Alaknanda at Karanprayag. Steep, high mountainsides drop to the river; they're sparsely forested with conifers, and, amazingly, here and there I see villages perched near the ridgetops. How do you live in such a landscape? A visit to the valley bottom must be a major undertaking. This is country for wild animals: birds like the lammergeier I see patrolling near the ridgetop; once again its shadow follows as if unwilling to separate from the bird.

I look down from the summit to the river, wondering about the fish living there. The mahseer has a reputation for being a fierce fighter when hooked, and this seems appropriate for this fierce river. The mahseer, the river, the landscape — the word "uncompromising" springs to mind.

And the people? I don't know them well enough — I hardly know them at all — yet from what I've seen, there must be a toughness there, a will to survive.
In Karanprayag I saw two porters carrying a lounge suite; one carried two stacked, upholstered armchairs, the other an enormous sofa, and they walked along the road with these immense loads on their backs, with no aids other than a tump line around the forehead. I've seen others carrying staggering loads of bricks or broken stone, two bags of cement, enormous sacks of potatoes or onions — there seems to be nothing they can't carry. Yet they're only small, these porters; if I stood face to face with one, he'd look directly at my chest, possibly not even that high. The women, too: small like the men, and like the men they carry enormous loads. Up ahead, two haystacks move slowly along the road with a slight side to side, rocking motion; as we draw closer, I see the legs beneath the stacks, a slow plodding; the women bent over under their loads. Day after day they do this; they've carried these loads for centuries, perhaps millennia. Again, the question — what have you accomplished at the end of your days?

Perhaps, if they knew me and knew my life, they might ask me the same question. If I had an answer for them, it would probably mention the creation of something new, and something that shares a life. What I'm doing now, I trust, will be part of that accomplishment.


At Baijnath an old man wanders back and forth beside the bus, an air of nervousness about him. Anxiety. He wears a pale, roughly knitted woollen jersey,
grubby about the hem and cuffs, dun coloured loose trousers, old sneakers, a pale grey, well worn pundit's cap. Back and forth, carrying a woven plastic sack one third full of something heavy over his shoulder. He's slightly taller and noticeably thinner than most, so his clothes hang on him. Finally he sits on some steps leading to a small, second story house, but he's only there for a few minutes before an old woman comes down the steps, wanting to get past. She shoos him away and he gets quickly to his feet and goes and sits in front of a stall. He puts his hands to his cheeks, rubs his palms over his face, hides behind them. He is a man stripped of all self-assurance, as if this is an alien environment. He looks about, this way and that, unwilling to let his gaze settle — perhaps because, if he did, he would be noticed.


Kumaon's lower than Garhwal, the landscape more hilly than mountainous, the forest denser and more extensive. Presumably because of the gentler topography, the terraced areas are larger and more abundant; another consequence is that it's possible to see much further — as the bus gains height, the views open up: huge vistas over valleys and hills. Then, behind the furthermost, forested hills, the summits of the Himalaya, white with brilliant snow. At first, just one or two peaks, then a few more, and connecting ridges, then, as we move deeper into Kumaon, a great expanse of the Indian Himalaya comes into view. In Garhwal, at Joshimath, Badrinath, and Auli, although much closer to the big peaks, I only on a few occasions felt as if I truly saw the Himalaya; ironically, although I'm so much further away here in Kumaon among the gentler hills, forests, and cultivated lands, I see the Himalaya better. But, in the evening at Kausani, I scan the distant peaks through binoculars, look at the rock, snow, and ice slopes of Trishul, and realise how far I am from being part of that environment — that here I am among my own kind, but also, that I am not.


Monday 27 November 2006
Now, in the middle of a bright overcast day, those distant mountains appear, at a cursory glance, dull and flat; most would find them uninspiring.
snow leopard, Naini Tal zooBut look closer, particularly if you have binoculars; let your eyes wander the slopes and ridges and summits, some of which disappear into misty cloud. It's easy to believe there's no one there, that the whole range is silent except for the sounds of things not human — wind, water, rockfall, birds; that it's the home of the tahr and the snow leopard, the lammergeier and flocks of choughs, their red legs and yellow bills bright and new in the old light. It's easy to believe there, among those mountains, you might understand things that can't be articulated; that language would fail to flesh out the bones of Orphic knowledge; that there you might find not the answers, but the right questions.

You might go further in, always a little further. Beyond that last blue mountain. What do you seek? Do you even know — and does it matter?

A faded blue flag fluttering in the breeze, a red plastic chair by a grey plastic table on a dull concrete patio. Beyond, past the smoky hills below, past the densely packed towns and villages and the ubiquitous scattered houses, beyond the smouldering rubbish fires and human lives — the veiled Himalaya, and the idea of mountains.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Indian Himalaya from Kausani.
2. One of Mr S's friends.
3. Not sure of the identification of this, but it's the most common conifer high on the slopes above Tapovan.
4. At Rishikesh. Not all who look like this are genuine.
5. Also at Rishikesh. This spider would have been about the size of my open hand. All are genuine.
6. The lower part of Trishul (7120 metres) at sunrise from Kausani.
7. Porter at Naini Tal.
8. Kausani evening.
9. Female snow leopard at Naini Tal zoo. Note: this photo is of a CAPTIVE ANIMAL. I was the only person around; when she noticed me, she stalked and charged me, then played hide and seek. I would far rather have had this privilege in the wild, but it's unlikely I'd be telling you about it now.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

07 December 2006

Engineer Baba

Another in the series; again, these are selections from my notes (mostly as written, i.e. unedited) and the photos have been prepared from small JPGs on horrible monitors. I hope they look okay.

Saturday 18 November 2006

As we leave the forest the track levels, dips, and rises again towards
the village of Urgam, set high on this mountainside among terraced fields. We meet more people and are often greeted with exclamations of recognition and delight. Mr S and Dr M — the teacher and the doctor — are well known and clearly appreciated here. Mr S has been coming here since 1961; he lived here for 2–3 years and set up the school. He left, he says, because he couldn’t stand the ignorance — I think he means the clinging to superstitions — and he tells me that in remote villages difficult to access, 95% of the work is done by the women, while the men mostly sit around “drinking, playing cards, or taking narcotics.” But today, everyone, men included seems to be out in the fields, working.

We stop and are welcomed at a house where a family’s threshing amaranth, the man driving two slow cattle beasts around in circles over the strewn stalks. We’re shown inside, through a tiny door, into a pastel green room with massive, thick, stone walls and a small window. Two beds, posters on the walls. Shiva. We’re given tea by the daughter; it has a pleasant tang, a kind of sharpness and I guess it’s sweetened with honey.

More tea soon after — this is to become a pattern — where Mr S is greeted with what can only be described as joy. He introduces me to an ancient-looking, tiny man who takes my hand between his and gives me a wonderful, beaming, gap-toothed smile. His face isn’t wrinkled — it’s deeply creased, and he looks to be at least in his 80s. Mr S later tells me he’s 65, the same age as him.


Beyond Urgam we stop to visit the temple at Kolpeshwar. As usual, I’m reluctant to intrude, but with Mr S’s encouragement — insistence, in fact — I visit the shrine. A small, dark cave, lit by flame and with a beautiful incense from a small array of smouldering sticks. The centre, the focus, is a stone about the size of a human head. The power here is astonishing — there’s something, some kind of energy or force, something that feels ageless, profound. For the first time in India, I have some inkling of the significance of some, at least, of these holy places.

The saddhu distributes photo albums for us to inspect. One of the main subjects is a yogi who lived upriver for eight or nine years, and for 30 years kept his right arm raised above his head. Several photos show how his fingernails, uncut for that period, grew down across his palm and coiled around his wrist. I can’t help thinking, “Why?” and am reminded of Peter Matthiessen’s mention of the sage who reputedly wept when he heard of the man who had spent 30 years learning to walk on water when the ferryman could have taken him across the river for a small coin.


We walk back across the river on a footbridge. From there, the remains of a stone-paved road, now strewn with fallen leaves, follows the river through the autumn forest. This is virgin forest says Mr S, who used to walk here often when he lived at Urgam. He tells me some of the animals that lived here; animals he’s seen on his walks: deer, hogs, bear. Leopards. When we return through the lower forest below Urgam in the late evening he explains it’s important in the mornings and evenings always to walk with at least one other person because of the bears. They don’t usually attack people, but it is not unknown.

I look around at the forest, denser here than lower down, the trees taller, the understorey more vigorous. It’s easy to believe we’re getting beyond the range of daily human activity, that we might indeed see a large shape leap or crash away deeper into the forest — but we’re walking on the remains of a road. “Virgin” is a labile word, its context in India substantially different from that in New Zealand.


But, despite the sense of leaving other humans behind, we come to a rough footbridge — branches laid side by side on parallel poles which span the stream; one or two flat rocks added; a rickety but effective structure — and on the far bank, four buffalo browse. The human world returns, and with it a trace of melancholy.

Nevertheless, we’ve arrived. A short way on we follow a track up a bank and through a heavy, badly leaning but functional gate in a dry stone wall overgrown with tall weeds and small shrubs. Inside: a small hut, plastered the colour of clay, the doorway and eaves blackened by smoke; in front of the hut, an area paved with flat stones and partly covered with blankets; next to it a tap trickling clear water into a bright steel pot, the water overflowing onto the stone slab beneath. A small vegetable garden, with dark soil, bright green cabbage seedlings and no weeds; nearby, a small forest of spindly, wild hemp, with only a few leaves left.

Sitting on the blankets in front of the hut, a small man with a dense, mostly white, unkempt beard, his hair curled in a topknot, a dun-coloured blanket wrapped around him, smiles at us. This is the monk we have come to visit: Maharj Raman Giri.


After the introductions we sit on the blankets and talk — or, they talk and I listen. I don’t know if they’re speaking Hindi or Garwhali; probably the latter. The monk — Mr S’s term; I’d say saddhu but only because he looks like one — speaks softly, and the creases around his eyes suggest that behind his smoke-stained beard he’s smiling most of the time. Some people have what’s usually described as a “presence”, an air of something significant, out of the ordinary — even the sceptical, I suspect, voice their scepticism because they’re aware of this presence and feel compelled to question it out of their own insecurity. I might be wrong. This man, however, has that presence, a kind of attentive serenity with a quiet, unaffected humour. How can I tell this? Perhaps from the laughter during the conversation, and the way he laughs, but I really don’t know how I know — I just know.

In fact, he speaks very good English, better than anyone I’ve met so far in
India other than Gerard and Evelyne or the few native English speakers I’ve spoken with. I feel no need to deconstruct my speech — to think what I wish to say, take it apart and rebuild it in simple sentences. When we move inside and sit cross-legged on either side of the hut I ask him about the animals; about what kinds live here. He doesn’t see many, because he doesn’t often walk far, but confirms Mr S’s list; however, he doesn’t mention leopards. But, “Bears,” he says, “this is bear country.” His eyes sparkle. How long has he lived here? Six or seven years, but he visited here for another six or seven before that. Over that period, what changes has he noticed in the numbers of animals? He shrugs slightly.

“The same types of animals, but fewer of them.”

Outside, voices, some kind of activity. Villagers have arrived to cut hay along the river banks. Each year they come more often, and go further up the river, and what’s wild, I think, moves further back. Eventually there will be nowhere left to which to retreat. I think of the monk as well as the deer, the bears, and the leopard, which might already be gone.


After chai, Maharj prepares food, rinsing a few handfuls of mixed dahl and placing it in his small brass pot with water. The pot sits on a battered, blackened, trivet over a small fire fed by gradually moving long, dry branches further into the coals. A small flame, and a little smoke curls up and flows out the door. The hut has no chimney. He cooks cabbage with herbs and chillies — a kind of cabbage curry — and an enormous pot of rice, while the two friends who have accompanied Dr M, Mr S, and me prepare radish and select dangerous chillies as accompaniments. I talk a little more with Maharj, known to the local people as “Engineer Baba” because he has a first class Masters degree in mechanical engineering. He asks me about New Zealand, about its economy, and what my work is. I explain I was a scientist, doing research in entomology and ecology, but now I write and photograph. This is true, but to what extent? I can think of no better way to answer this difficult question, and besides, now it is what I do.

The food ready, Maharj dishes it onto steel plates for us. Vast amounts of rice, a good ladleful of dahl and a couple of ladles of the cabbage curry. Mr S protests at the amount and is humoured — I also protest but Maharj just grins at me, says, “By the time you’re halfway down that hill, you’ll need it,” and keeps ladling. It’s good — very good — and I eat it all. And it gets me down the hill.

Dr M has seconds, but as Maharj dishes it, the doctor says something which I assume means, “Hey, hey, that’s enough!” But Maharj just smiles, mutters, and adds another large spatula scoop of rice.
Laughing, I say, “That’s what my mother used to do. We’d say, ‘No more,’ so she’d give us two more spoonfuls.”

Maharj leans back, laughing.


When I’ve finished I put down my plate and say, “That was very good, thankyou.” He gestures at us and points out that we brought all the food with us.
“Well, it was very well cooked.”
He says nothing, but smiles and nods towards the fire.


Dr M’s keen for a group photo, so I take two when they line up outside the hut. As usual, the second’s better. This is usually true — the first photo’s formal, everyone, or the individual, looking serious, then they relax and you’re more likely to get the smiles. I say goodbye to Engineer Baba and thank him, genuinely.

“You’re always welcome here,” he says. “Come whenever you like. Stay a few days.”

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. The man at Urgam, said by Mr S to be 65.
2. Threshing amaranth at Urgam.
3. This small temple at Urgam, I was told, dates back several thousand years.
4. Amaranth thresher.
5. Part of lunch.
6. A typical house in the area.
7. Engineer Baba, Maharj Raman Giri. (Pronounced "Maharaj").

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

02 December 2006


With some good luck and help from new friends at Joshimath, I've managed to get a few photos prepared. They're taken from small JPG files, so the quality isn't the greatest and Shrine on the way to ManaI haven't been able to do much processing; moreover, what I have managed has mostly been on terrible monitors, so I have to trust the colours and contrast are reasonable (not a good assumption). Still, they should give you some idea of what I've been up to. As for the text... well, it might be 5% of what I've written. I'm at Naini Tal now, in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya, getting ready to head back in there. There will be one or two more posts, but I can't say when.

Noho ora mai ra, my friends.

Wednesday 15 November 2006
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 Mongolia; for the most part, the roads are far better. Joinery at JoshimathI settle in at a comfortable guest house with a large balcony shared with just three other rooms and, most important of all, a marvellous, airy view across the valley to the surrounding peaks. They’re devoid of snow; like most of the region, the impression is of aridity, but behind them, rising above, a glimpse of higher peaks, and snow. I’m among mountains again, and it feels like solace.

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 Roadworksthese 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, Mr Sbigger 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 Calcutta (he uses that pronunciation rather than “Kolkata”). He explains that tomorrow is the last day the temple at Badrinath will be open; he and some friends are going there tomorrow to view the closing ceremony. They’ll hire a car or catch a bus, and I’m welcome to join them. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.

Thursday 16 November 2006
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 Delhi’s polluted grime. Fortunately I’m not far from being ready when Mr S calls, and within minutes we’re wandering the upper bazaar, looking for transport to Badrinath. It’s easy. We collect a French couple about my age, weatherbeaten and likeable, with good English, and several locals — the jeep simply drives up and down the bazaar as one man leans out the window, calling, “Badrinath! Badrinath!”

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.
“Ah, birds!”

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.

At the village of Mana, we’re at 12,500 feet.
“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. Tibet. From tomorrow, everyone will be gone from here; the area will be closed for winter. Left to the birds, the small animals, the wind.

“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
Delhi rats.

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 7 p.m., 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 India, and as I’m about to leave, he presents me with a handful of small sweets and a tikka on my forehead. This feels like the real thing, given in the true spirit.

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.

Friday 17 November 2006
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
Nanda Devi.”

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.

A lammergeier.

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