UNDISCOVERED INDIAN HIMALAYABy Valerie Parkinson
Tucked away in a remote corner, where India meets Tibet in a jagged crown of Himalayan peaks, lies the district of Kumoan in the state ofUttarakhand. This interesting part of the Indian Himalaya provides some of the best trekking anyone could wish for. Home to Nanda Devi and Nanda Devi East, and the two kilometre knife edge ridge that connects them, it was once the playground of the British Raj who trekked, climbed and mapped these mountains. Now, you can trek for weeks and hardly see another soul.
Last September I took a group of trekkers to this very area. For two weeks, wehad the trails and the campsites to ourselves – a complete contrast to the busier paths in Nepal. There we were, trekking in an area where Shipton and Tilman trekked and made mountaineering history – Tilman’s ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936 was the highest summit until Annapurna was conquered in 1950 – and yet we had it all to ourselves.
Our long journey started in the humidity and rush of Delhi, where our 16 trekkers boarded a northbound train. We followed the railway until it ran out, and disembarked at the end of the line in Kathgodam. From here the journey onwards was by road, driving through hill station towns as the roads became narrower and increasingly spectacular as we got closer to the Indian Himalaya. The view of the PanchChuli peaks certainly wets the appetite for trekking.
In the small town of Munsiyari we met our local team: assistant leader Rajeev, local guide Druv, and cooks Johnny and Pan Bahadur for whom cooking a chocolate cake for 16 hungry trekkers on a couple of small stoves at high altitude poses no problem whatsoever. Three local assistants and eight pony men with their pack animals completed our team, and it was under a brilliantly clear sunrise that we set off on foot for the Johar Valley.
Flooding a few years back has wiped out the old trail that followed the river, so for the first couple of days we climbed high above the river across the Nain Singh Pass to Bodgwar. Not for the faint-hearted, the trail ascended on stone steps high above the river. Our only company was lammergeyers and Himalayan griffin vultures soaring on the thermals overhead in a spectacular display. Some poor animal had not been so careful in its footing and the birds were feasting. At over 2,600m, the pass is named after Nain Singh, one of the famous pundits or ‘spy explorers’ employed by the British to explore and map the Himalaya. Nain Singh mapped the trade route through Nepal to Tibet. Disguised as monks, these pundits used prayer beads to measure distances and kept written logs in prayer wheels.
From Bodgwar our path followed the roaring Gori (white) Ganga River up the valley to Railkot. The narrow valley with its huge cliffs soared above us as we trekked on well-made stone paths. Shepherds with huge flocks of sheep and goats passed us on their way down the valley to warmer climes for winter. From Railkot we turned the corner and the valley opened out to give us glimpses of the bigger peaks ahead. The walking became easier as we met a rough track built by the Indian army and headed to Milam, the last village in the valley and the last village before India becomes Tibet.