Escape to the Himalayas Part 1

We arrived at our hotel the ‘Colonels Retreat’ a lovely colonial residence for the day before being taken to the overnight train from New Delhi train station to Kathgodam in Uttarakhand. We had a two hour wait in one of the busiest stations in the world. The train station was heaving with people, we decided we didn’t need a porter and set off with strict instructions not to talk to people who asked where we were going and to show them our tickets. We headed off in our little group of four to try and find the right platform. So many people, some sleeping on the platforms with their small bundles tied with string and small children by their sides, families off home, groups of teenagers and the desperately poor looking harassed and hungry. It was a scene of both delight and despair. There were children collecting plastic bottles in big sacks diving under trains and hunting through the rubbish, they all looked trashed and wide eyed. Trains full of people staring out of the carriages waiting for their trains to leave, it was a scene I will never forget.

The train arrived and we found our sleeper cabin for 4 and made up the beds. It was 10 o’clock by this time and we jumped into bed. The bunks are quite short so Chris and David had their feet dangling over the ends. It was 2nd class so it wasn’t a private room it was just a curtain. None of us slept terribly well and going for a pee at 3 in the morning I couldn’t find our bunks so there were a lot of ‘whoops sorry’ before I found David’s feet stuck out. Eventually we made it to 5am when the train stopped.

It was freezing cold and we hurriedly put on our coats. Our driver was waiting and we started the 4 hour journey to the Khali Estate in Binsar. Khali estate was originally lived in by an Englishman who was the commissioner of Amora district in the 1870’s and since 1988 it has been a wildlife sanctuary reserve. The house was built in a lovely colonial style. We were given very cute round cottages in the grounds with a view of the Himalayan range and a hot water bottle in your bed. The food and the people are lovely. We are all excited.

Binsar wildlife sanctuary is at an altitude varying from 1500 to 2500m where you can see Nanda Devi (India’s highest mountain at 7816m), Trisul and Panchachuli mountains. It is the only wildlife sanctuary where walking is permitted on the 62km of designated paths. Many luminaries from Indians history have walked here.

We spoke to a representative of the company Village Ways who have organised the tour and they explained our itinerary for the next 16 days. They also explained how they gave interest free loans to the villagers to build the guesthouses and employed local guides for the walks, thereby trying to stop the exodus of people to the cities for work. As people came on the tours they repaid the loans. They are all kept to a good standard with western bathrooms, quality bedding and one person from every village attended cooking and hygiene courses. You are not allowed to tip the people in the villages as Village Ways want them to feel like owners of the guesthouses and not servants which of course they are. It was this aspect that really drew me to this company, it’s admirable.

We started the walk at 9 after breakfast. We met our two guides Santosh and Khim who are from local villages and both work for Village Ways. It was an easy start and they are both fantastic guides, they know all about the local plants, animals and birds and they are extremely knowledgeable. We passed women digging clay which they use for the floors in the houses.

They mix it with cow dung to bind it and have to water it every 2 weeks to keep the dust down. They carry 35 kilos on their heads and they are only skinny little things. It was a big social group of women who laughed like drains when we tried to pick up the bags. David got down a hole and started digging they were very impressed and all giggled. Women carry huge weights of feed for the cattle and bedding on their heads it’s very impressive.

It was a 4 hour walk with a stop for lunch from our tiffin boxes. The last part of the walk uphill was excruciatingly hard. We stopped in Dalar village and found our very comfortable accommodation. It was very basic but lovely thick duvets and blankets and later a hot water bottle. Bliss. The food was excellent. Cauliflower curry, daal, rice and paratha followed by a semolina sweet. We also met Santosh’s extended family and were shown around their home and their garden.

Chris played makeshift badminton with his nephew and a good time was had by all. They were very welcoming and charming.

We were brought chai at 7, breakfast of porridge, omelet and chipati and we were ready to walk at 9. It is very cold at night and first thing in the morning, down to freezing. Once you start walking it soon warms up. We walked down to a larger village in 2 hours and had tea and then walked along the river. So far we have seen 50 different varieties of birds. The guides especially Santosh are amazing they have such skill first hearing, spotting then naming the birds. They carry a bird book so show you in the book and with binoculars. We walked 8 kilometres and arrived in Risal and again a lovely warm welcome and shown to our beautifully presented simple rooms. All the guesthouses have 3 twin bed rooms and a dining room for 6 with a wood burning stove and some easy chairs. Very adequate.

Dinner was pumpkin and lemon curry, daal, chipati and rice pudding. Lovely. There was a terrific storm with booming thunder rippling through the mountains like a deep low growl which you could feel in your chest. Hail stones covered the floor and it looked good for a clear view of the mountains.

The following day was going to be a longer tougher day. 700m straight up to the highest viewpoint in Binsar at 2420m. It was very tough but worth it for the fantastic views of the mountains.

We ate our lunch and recovered from the arduous walk just staring at the grandeur of the mighty Himalayas.

The terrain is different as you go higher. It changes from pine forest to Oak and rhodedendron forest on paths that used to be used by British soldiers on horseback in the late 1870’s to check on the villages.

The villages were more highly populated then. We arrived at our guesthouse, all downhill fortunately, tired and happy we had managed a really tough 15k walk. We had cauliflower curry, daal and paratha with semolina pudding for dessert.

We had a lie in until 7.30 when chai arrived, breakfast at 8.30. Breakfast was a big omelette, daal and chipati. Rice pudding and bananas. Walking was optional and I wanted to read my book, do my blog and try and let my bad chest recover after having a heavy cold. Everyone else went for a walk.

Lunch is rice with peas, spinach, chipati and fruit. It is spectacular with the Himalayan Range in plain view. Awesome. A nice easy day. We walked around the small village and met all the families. It is a very basic existence, cows, oxen and goats live downstairs and everyone else upstairs.

The walls and floors are earth and the rooms have very little furniture, most people sleep on the floor. Like in all homes the kitchen is the cosiest room with a wood fire in the corner for cooking and heat. They grow their own vegetables, garlic and onions and everything is organic. They interestingly had beehives in the walls. They made a small hole in the outside wall, made a larger hole on the inside and plastered it closed. When the queen bees made it their home, after a summer they took the plaster out on the inside and subdued the bees with smoke. They then removed the honey. Clever.

There are lots of young animals; dogs and baby goats to cuddle on the way round the villages

There are leopards in the forest, we saw leopard poo and scratching and one of our guides had lost 2 dogs to leopards which is very common. There are also porcupines, mountain goats, barking deer and other animals for the leopards to prey on.

We had a wake up at 7 with chai, breakfast at 8 and off at 9. I have discovered chipati and jam for breakfast with my omelette, the daal is wearing really thin.The porters overtook us down the steep rocky paths on a gentle trot, carrying a bag each, they are so strong.

They must think we are a right bunch of softies. It is an easier walk, 9km mostly downhill to a lovely guesthouse in a village called Satri which has 5 people and no electric. It is always a warm welcome with chai and big smiles. With fantastic views of the snow capped mountain range, we all sat and put our feet up. At 3 we get more tea and potato and onion pakoras, lovely.

The final day in Binsar is just a short 20 minute walk down to the road and from there in a 4×4 to the next higher valley up closer to the mountains, it’s a four hour drive. We will be sad to leave our guides Khim and Santosh they have been exemplary in their local knowledge and have been extremely fun company. Onwards and upwards literally. The adventure continues..

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