I awoke to the loud honk of the bus followed by a cackle of laughter as the motor-bike rider took fright and swerved off to the left on the narrow mountain road. Swedish made Volvo buses can be surprisingly silent, and apparently our driver was enjoying the thrill of sneaking up behind unwary bikers and catching them by surprise. Drowsy as I was, for the night in the bus had not made for good sleep, I looked around in the dim grey light to see that we had long left the scorched plains of North India behind and were driving up a steep valley along the course of a river. As the light grew stronger, I saw that the hillsides were covered in verdant green in stark contrast to the ochres and browns of the plains. In sunlight that was surprisingly bright for 7 am and air that was refreshingly cool for a May morning, we got off near the town of Aut, near Manáli, Himáchal Pradesh, India. Soon we were in a Toyota Innova, hurtling down what was little more than a dirt track to the village of Güshàini which was was the starting point of our trek in the Great Himalayan National Park.
Nestled high above the valleys of the Sainj and Tirthán rivers, both tributaries of the Beás, the Great Himalayan National Park is one of the youngest national parks in India. Created in 1999, it encompasses an entire spectrum of mountain habitats from deciduous and coniferous forests, to high mountain meadows and icy peaks covered with eternal snows. Just in June 2014, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in culmination of five years of efforts by the park’s founders and the management. This difficult mountain terrain is one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country. Only the lower reaches of the river valleys have permanent settlements – tiny villages, some no more than a collection of four or five huts surrounded by patches of terraced cultivation on the steep hill sides. Most of that which grows in these tiny fields is barely sufficient to feed the families of the owners. Save for these tiny settlements, the rest of the vast land is a wild place of forests, rock, snow and ice.
After an hour of swerving and groaning across impossibly narrow tracks that made for roads, we arrived at the hamlet of Müngla on the banks of the Tïrthán river. By now I had a new found awareness of the inclines that an Innova could be driven up (which could have grown into respect for the car, had I not seen heavily loaded buses of the State Road Transport also sputtering up the same incredible road). Müngla seemed to consist of about five dwellings, the largest of which was Mohan Thákür’s guest house, our ‘base camp’. It had about 6 rooms on the upper level opening out into a common verandah while the ground level consisted of a row of shops selling daily provisions. The upper rooms were reached by climbing a two foot wide staircase taking care not to step over Küpi, Mohan’s large, thick-set dog who was always found sleeping on the landing. Rooms were simple, sufficiently furnished, and, importantly, had attached bathrooms with running hot water. One of the rooms was converted to a kitchen, and the fresh hot food served with a smile more than made up for the kitschy décor or the low bathroom doorways (took me two hard knocks to get used to slouching my way into the bathroom). Our host, Mohan Thákür himself was a strapping young man in his twenties with a ruddy face and twinkling brown eyes with just a trace of the Mongoloid double eyelids. He was a trained mountaineer who would accompany trekkers as a guide, and was evidently used to dealing with tourists from all over the world in his guest house.
After settling in we met up with Stephan Marchal, one of the earliest members of the non-profit organisation, Friends of the Great Himalayan National Park, which has been working extensively to support the park’s conservation activities along with assistance for the local community. Stephan joined us over a lunch of chapátties, rájma, dál and cháwal in the sunny verandah of the guest-house. He was a tall wiry Belgian with a boyish air about him and could be easily mistaken for a tourist on a trek until you realised that he spoke fluent hindi, ate chapátties and rájma with his hands without the slightest difficulty, knew everyone in the village and could tell you the roads like the back of his hand. Trained in the social sciences, he was especially interested in rural development and first came to India to work with the Münda tribals in the jungles of Jhárkhand in Central India with development economist Jean Drèze. He probably liked the work, for he stayed on in India, found his life partner here and moved to Himáchal Pradesh. “It is my mission to empower local communities”, he said in his lilting French-accented English. “People here used to depend on the mountain meadows for medicinal plants to sell to dealers in Küllü, and on the forests for firewood. They would send their sheep and goats to the high pastures with local shepherds for summer grazing. Formation of the park has now rendered these places out of bounds to village folk, cutting off aspects of their traditional way of life and livelihood. We are trying to compensate them with access to alternative skills and occupations to keep up their livelihood.”
While many locals are not too happy about the changes, some like Mohan have started taking things in their stride. They have turned into trekking guides, cooks and porters for tourists who now visit the park in some numbers every spring and summer, and have thrown open their homes in the villages as home-stays and base-camps. They are trying to organise themselves into co-operatives, helped by people like Stephan. Stephan’s co-operative, to which Mohan also belongs, provides camping equipment like tents and sleeping bags, and guides, porters and cooks to go with trekkers during the tourist season.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sleeping off the effects of the rájma–cháwal and by evening were ready to go exploring round Müngla. In preparation for the trek the next day, we took a short hike to a nearby waterfall, with the guest house cook showing us the way. The trail led us through apple orchards, fields of golden wheat ripening in the summer sun and a little village along the banks of the Tirthán. After a half hour’s climb up a steep hillside through the brushwood, we had a view of the churning Tirthán making its way down the valley. The waterfall lay further on in a deep wooded ravine and by the time we reached it, the sun had dipped behind the hills, leaving only the upper slopes lit by the sun. Magnificent old trees with luxuriant foliage and thick undergrowth filled the ravine – a result of the perennial water supply – and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees as we approached closer. The water, fed by distant melting snow, was almost freezing cold, but wonderfully sweet.
We started back just as the last rays of the sun vanished from the hill tops and birds erupted in one last even-song. With the sunlight gone, the fields of wheat stood dark and silent, the drooping ears of grain silhouetted against a liquid blue sky. The air smelt of cow-dung and firewood smoke as we approached the village. Chinks of light glowed behind closed doors as evening deepened into dusk. A dull monotonic thud that could be heard from a few hundred yards away came from a woman pounding leaves with a stout stick in a stone depression. Her face was illuminated by the light from a nearby doorway and I could see that like most hill-women she wore a thick waist-length bodice and skirt made of coarse cloth. Her head was covered with a scarf tied tightly behind the neck. “This is for my cow”, she smiled looking at my enquiring expression, “so that she gives more milk”. The remark was greeted in assertion with a low moo by the cow in question from the darkness of the shed next door.
And so I walked on along leaving the rhythmic thud of the pounding to fade away. At the river’s edge the breeze brought the sweet scent of wild grass and apple blossoms. Though the river couldn’t be seen any more, it made its presence felt by its relentless gurgle. It would be the evening rush hour back in the cities now, with its diesel fumes, honking horns and crush of bodies. The city would prepare for another neurotic evening of hysterical soap operas and latest grating chartbusters on prime time tv for the lucky, and of the sterile office cubicle, take-away dinners and glaring screens of laptops for the unlucky. For a change, we had only a riverside walk, a hot dinner and a warm bed to look forward to.