Papa and I had trekked in the Panchachulli mountains and spent several days in the tiny village of Datun breathing cold, fresh, late autumn air and taking photographs of the famous five peaks at sunrise and under the moon.
The trek had been rated medium in difficulty level by avid trekkers, but we had to face some sections made almost un-crossable (mark the almost– we crossed them with some help from the local people, who seemed to have magical goat-like feet) by landslides that disrupted the metal roads as well as our trek routes.
Getting to the base of our route, Papa hurt his knees while slowly crossing a twenty foot gouged out section of the mountain road on an extremely narrow path, consisting of shifting earth and falling boulders.
We made it and after the night’s rest he said he was Okay to go.
The trek was absolutely fantastic! It was our third trek in the Himalayas and we were already planning to come back next year. Papa was walking slightly slower than usual but he made good use of his fancy trekking sticks. ;])
On our way back from the peaks, we hurried our descent. To enjoy the trek we had taken seven leisurely days to get up there but now almost ran down the mountains in three. We wanted meat and fast! (You try living for ten days on rice and varieties of boiled grass. [Though the surprisingly good cooking almost made up for it.] )
Another reason for our hurry was that we had visited the place very close to winter when they all deserted their mountain homes to come down to the nearest town- a ridiculously tiny city called Dharchula.
Reaching Dar- the trekking base, although it really had been the last stop for trucks and Jeeps to bring rations for the mountain dwellers before the landslide- we decided to rest close to the valley for two days.
When we left that little haven surrounded by high, green mountains, we got a ride from a Jeep almost 3kms away to Darchula.
On our way back to the railway station from where we would be catching our train we stopped again in the large town of Pithoragarh. We finally had some chicken!
Having rested his legs enough, Papa said he was ready to brave the cramped spaces of a hired car again. So, early next morning we got into an Alto (really popular up in the mountains- great mileage apparently) and sat back comfortably knowing we’ll be in Almora just after lunch time (for us, that is about 3pm). We had all of the next day to explore Almora (once called the White Town and very pretty) and then catch our train at 9.55 that night.
4 kms on our way the rain obscured my vision from the back seat. I remembered that it was Papa’s birthday. The driver stopped the car and looked out of the window.
‘Some cars have stopped. It is nothing, miss.’
I smiled at the foggy valley that stretched to my right and at the back of Papa’s head. I was wondering what I should buy for him.
We got going again. The rain fell faster.
We stopped after another 3 kms.
‘What now?’ my father asked.
‘I…, let me check.’ The man got his poncho out and went off to chat with his pals on the road.
Papa got tired of waiting, so he went off too with my umbrella. I sat tapping my fingers on my knee for the next twenty minutes.
‘A landslide,’ Papa finally came back to tell me. ‘I’m not sure where and I’m not sure if it is before or behind us.’
I wasn’t seriously worried. Wierd things happened. I was sure it would get sorted out.
For the next several hours we crawled slowly forward (shouting at and manoeuvring around large vehicles blocking our way) and made it another whole km before we finally had to admit defeat, get out of the car and walk some distance around the bend to see what the hell was up.
I could see the black asphalt road snaking down the valley and several parts of that road had broken and fallen as a whole on to the roads below. Damn.
Cars, Jeeps, buses and trucks were parked by the side of the road as far as I could see. Travellers got out and walked about the road, talking and complaining and waiting for something to happen.
We did make it down the road some more distance before we were brought to a definite halt by the side of a tea shop.
The tea shop was a small bamboo construction that was completely open to the elements and was already packed full of stranded truck drivers and wide eyed mountain vacationers.
We drank several cups of tea for the next few hours and then had a very bland and sparse lunch. The poor shop keeper had never seen so much business but he was fast running out of provisions to feed us.
It was 4 pm then. So much for reaching Almora.
Our major concern then was to figure out where we would spend the night. We had been assured by some mountain ranger-type people that the Pithoragarh PWD had been alerted and they were sending bulldozers to clear the roads for us.
We cheered and then settled down to the long wait.
We could see glinting yellow machines working on the roads far below us but it was taking them too long to get up here.
A bulldozer finally arrived at almost 6 in the evening, but then the driver jumped out of the cabin and told us it was getting too dark to work and that he’ll come back in the morning.
We protested and pleaded, but the workers had the air of mountain men who had seen situations like this one before and knew well that a night’s wait never killed anybody.
So they went off on foot and we remained in the tea shop, occasionally being joined by others walking down the mountain road.
Later that evening a group of college football players descended on the now morose and quiet shop, where we all sat contemplating our fates or dirty shoes, and began livening up the place with a lot of laughing and a heated debate on whether they should keep walking now to reach their destination by midnight or if it would be too dangerous. They had a match the next morning.
I secretly hoped they would stay because several of them were very cute, but sadly they decided to go on. Dammit.
We, Papa and I, spent the night in our sleeping bags on top of the tea shop furniture. Dad took a narrow bench and I took a short table. The wind blew cold and fast through the night and I was very grateful for my wonderful and warm sleeping bag. It didn’t stop the wooden table from poking me, though, nor my legs hanging ungainly over the edge. If I peeked out of the mouth of my bag then I could see the moonlit sky, the quiet buses full of snoring people on the road and the black valley below.
A strange man whom I hadn’t noticed had fallen asleep on a bench aligned under my feet. He woke in the middle of the quiet night, felt my bag covered legs hanging over his nose, jerked up, shrieked and fell off his bench.
Poor guy. I turned over (with difficulty) and went back to sleep.
The next morning around 8 am, Papa and I finally decided that if we were to catch the train that night we had to start walking down road and hope we could find the lower roads cleared by now.
That was a strange and (for Papa) damaging journey. When we had set off we thought we would have to walk for maybe two kilometres or three. We walked for six before we reached a spot where another Alto driver told us he would take us to Almora. That was the beginning.
Before we reached that stop we had to cross several precarious and muddy (it had rained some time in the night too) sloping areas that were once straight metal roads. My feet sunk into one of those quick sand-like places and the added weight of my trekking boots and heavy backpack made it impossible for me to pull myself out.
Panicking, because Papa had been clever enough to remove his heavy footwear before attempting to go across and was too far away now to help me, I looked frantically about until I could spot a line of trucks in the distance. I shouted for some time before they heard me and came and hauled me out. They moved lightly over the soft, deep mud barefoot. Papa sighed in relief when I got out covered in mud and barefoot myself.
With nowhere to wash my shoes I walked without them for sometime. Finally spotting another tea shop we both washed our feet and my shoes.
We hadn’t had dinner the night before (no provisions, remember?) and no breakfast. This shop had run out of food too so went on our way.
When we found the Alto it was past noon. The driver advised us to eat something from another shop some way down, which Papa did, but I figured that if we were going to reach Almora by 5 or 6pm, I would rather wait for good food than eat the sloppy dal and dry bread they were serving in the shop.
The driver took another hour to get going for goodness knows what reason- he didn’t seem to think he was answerable to us. But by the time we left we had acquired three more passengers who were also on their way to Almora (so now we knew the reason).
Alas the Alto guy couldn’t make it too far down the road. After merely fifteen kilometres we reached the next spot of destroyed road where two bulldozers were diligently clearing the boulders and debris from our path. The heap of earth was too huge for them to work swiftly over and we heard a ghastly tale of how a truck had been standing there when the boulders and mass of shifting soil had fallen from above and swept it off the road to the valley deep below.
We saw the ruins of the blue truck far down the slope.
Luckily the driver had been out attending to nature’s call.
Another incident we heard about was from the survivors of yet another Alto which had a large chunk of earth fall on it and get inside it, almost drowning the passengers (remember superman rotating earth anti-clockwise to save Lois Lane from that fate?). Surprisingly, they did get out in time and then when the land slide stopped, pushed the car down to the river several miles below and started washing out the earth and mud. The real miracle I think was that there was not a scratch on the new car- I saw it myself!
It was almost two in the afternoon. Papa and I were both ridiculously tired, the sun was too bright and hot and we didn’t have much water left. Oh and recall that I had refused to eat lunch when I still had the chance. Idiot.
We walked again and climbed over many heaps of earth and broken narrow roads with sharp falls on both sides. We had companions now. A loose group of people moving in the same direction. There were six of us.
I told you that Papa had hurt his knee at the beginning of the trek. His arthritis made things much worse, making both his knees stiff with pain while his new trekking shoes (Ah, now, there Papa made a mistake- he didn’t break them before this trek) ate at the back of his heels and coloured his ankles an angry red.
The sun heated our hat covered heads and made the weights on our shoulders ten times worse. For about a mile or two we had a porter to carry our stuff but after that we were left to lug the stuff by ourselves.
For me no walk had been longer or more torturous. The dried mud in my shoes scraped and cut my feet till I took them off and borrowed one of our strange companion’s slippers (he sure was fast in them) and gave him my trekking shoes (which were too small for him but he wore them anyway) temporarily.
Later when we reached the village he was walking towards I pulled out my kitos (whose straps I feared) and gave him back his slippers. I think he liked me- he was young and the entire time he walked with us he kept pace with me (crawled like a snail) and laughed at my fragile self (I was hungry and tired, dammit!) and pointed out lovely things like yellow mountain snakes crossing the road and bear infested forests.
In that village my Papa finally had access to people who knew the railway station we were headed towards (which was a good 50 kms away from Almora and Almora was still a 100 kms away) and said that they could send them a message to cancel our reservations.
It was almost 3.30 then, what was the point of trying to catch a train that was 150 kms away and leaving in six and a half hours? It took almost that much time to reach the station from the village and we still had blocked roads ahead!
The head of the village who was sitting on the steps of a shop on the street side then gave us the cell phone number of a man an hour’s walk away who could let us hire his SUV. Hopefully there would be no more uncleared roads after the village where he lived.
With pessimistic hearts (we had already traversed thirteen kilometres on hopes like this) we started walking.
An hour and a half later, we reached the village and found a very basic, but tough looking Sumo Vectra waiting for us.
This driver also took his time to come down from his house some way up in the mountains.
At 5.20pm we finally set only to rush back because one of the now ten people travelling in the car had left his charger in a roadside mechanic’s shop.
I nearly screamed in my frustration then.
We had four and a half hours to catch the train back home. If we missed it, not only would Papa’s money be wasted but more importantly we would have to do the three day journey back home in a seater carriage on a far less comfortable train.
We had stopped hoping and thinking about the train now.
Both Papa and I sat silent beside the driver who concentrated on the fast darkening, oft bending mountain road.
Here I have to say that this guy was the best driver the fates could have sent us!
His speed never fell below 40 kmph and I spent the entire journey desperately trying not to vomit from aching hunger and tiredness. The car’s snaking motion continuously threw me against the driver or my father till at last I lay my head on Papa’s knee and grabbed hold of his calf to keep myself from slipping or jerking away.
At 9.15pm we passed through a lit up Almora.
We had no time to stop and for a few minutes I looked longingly at the rows of restaurant and grocery shops before closing my eyes again.
At 9.50pm we reached the Kathgodam railway station.
Suddenly energised, I tottered out of the Sumo and pulled off our backpacks from the rooftop luggage carrier. Papa thanked the driver, paid him and we tripped and stumbled into the station, hauling our bags behind us.
I think it was the most beautiful thing in the whole world when we stepped through the doors and saw the Doon Express standing on the first platform of the station right in front of us.
We had chicken and rice that night.
- Panchachuli Base Camp (trekstripstrails.wordpress.com)