Har Ki Dun Trek - Day 01

CONTINUED FROM: Mussoorie To Sankri

Day 01: 14-April-2023

Route: Taluka (2109m / 6919ft) to Cheludgad (2575m / 8448 ft)

Distance: 13km (6H)

Fighting fear, prejudice and illusions

The lodge I was staying at had a dog by the name Shera. Shera is so old that he pants at every step that he takes. But like every other dog, he too loves to be cuddled. I love animals, especially dogs. But, Pravesh's dog bite incident had scared me a bit. However, I slowly approached Shera and patted him gently on his back. Once I realised that he liked it, I did not hesitate to give him a hug. 

Mountain dogs are huge. They look like wolves. Shera though seemed to be a Golden Retriever. When I woke up and decided to take a walk, I saw Shera sitting on a rock next to the lodge. I signalled him to join and he slowly walked towards me. When I went to the temple, he followed me, one step at a time, panting at every step. He is adorable.  

By 7:30AM, the three of us were ready for the trek. For breakfast, we had Poha and Upma. Both tasted terribly bad. Finally, some bread and peanut butter came to our rescue. We left our extra luggage in the store room and left the lodge at around 8:15 AM.

First, we had to take a jeep ride from Sankri to Taluka (10KM). This road is currently being paved. Along the way, Vijay kept talking non-stop. The old Hindi songs from the 90s, playing on the vehicle's stereo, took him back to his childhood days in Nepal. He was reminded of how they used to rent video player and video cassettes of Bollywood films during vacation. I could very well relate to that era. 

By the time we reached Taluka it was 8:45AM. There are about 2 to 3 shops at Taluka village centre. We did not spend a lot of time there and began our trek by 9AM. 

Har Ki Dun 

Highest Altitude: 3645m/ 11960ft

Location: Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, Uttarkashi District

State/Country: Uttarakhand / India

Base Village: Sankri (1920m / 6300ft)

Total Distance: 54km

Number of Days: 5 Days

Difficulty Level: Moderate 

We had a lot of walking to do on this day- 13km. On our way, we met a group of trekkers from Thailand who were returning from Har Ki Dun. Some of them were delighted to greet us with a "Namaste". Vijay told us that they were charged Rs 42000 per person for this customised trek. There were around 20 people in that group. That is a huge amount, even for a customised trek. The only difference is that they provide a list of dishes that they would like to eat on each day. Which isn’t a difficult thing to arrange for. On the other hand, this trek cost us only Rs 9000. 

I also met Prakash, my guide from Kedarkantha trek. I was happy that he recognised me. I had initially planned to call him as his brother runs a trekking group. But as I wasn’t sure if he took smaller groups, I chose to go with a fixed trek planned by Himalaya Hikers. Prakash told me that they are okay to take even one trekker. With fewer people, they would opt to stay in the villages along the way, instead of camping. 

Some villagers have set up shops along the trail. They sell tea, coffee, Maggie, packed juice and chips.  In one of the shops, we tried Buransh juice. The juice is made of Rhododendron flowers. The flowers were in full bloom at this time of the year. But unlike in Sikkim which has various colours, this region had only red coloured Rhododendron. 

The shop owner had built a cage for himself and put up a board that read - “No Entry”. When I asked him what made him do that, he told me that the trekkers would enter the shop to sit. He found it difficult to manage the crowd. So, he chose to build a separation between his space and the customers. Makes sense! We had our packed lunch there - Chapati and potato sabji. 

We had three more people walking along with us on this trail. These three men were from Saharanpur. They were carrying huge sacks on their back. These sacks contained clothes for the villagers, especially for the women. They told me that they were planning to stay in Gangad village that night and then go to other remote villages in the valley. It might take them anywhere from 2 days to a week to empty these clothes and head back to Sankri. It surprises me to see what hardship people under go to earn some money. 

They store their items in Sankri and then walk to these villages. The three men had not eaten anything until they reached Gangad village. They stopped at a shop in Gangad where they said the tea was fairly cheaper; the price there was comparable with that at Sankri. They had some tea and biscuits. One of them was a young boy and doing this trip for the first time. The other two men, who were relatively older, blamed their delay on him. The boy nervously smiled at me and repeated - "This is my first time here." It was clear that he was tired and the weight of the sack had fatigued him. 

Vijay told me that like how China copies products of the world and fabricates them, Sarahanpur was India's hub for duplicate products. "Everything is made here. There are small factories of all kinds." He said. "All duplicate, low-quality products." He added. The three men probably did not like that last part. I felt that it was insensitive of Vijay to speak so demeaningly of their town. We can label something as original and others as counterfeit. But, in the end, it is all about perception.  The poor and the needy, do not see it as cheap quality, duplicate products. It is their only access to the latest designs. When we put ourselves in the shoes of a different person, all these definitions we have given to things changes and we realise that even things that we think are concrete, are only an abstract, and subject to interpretations. 

The men planned to relax at Gangad village and wait for the women to return from the fields to begin the sale. They would spend the night at a homestay owned by the shop owner. But it wasn’t time for us to stop though. We had more walking to do, so we continued. 

At Gangad, young men were busy playing cards under the raised deck of their houses. We passed through an apple plantation and made our away out of the village. Cheludgad campsite is not very far from Gangad. 

As I approached our campsite, I saw a few young men playing cricket and speaking in Tulu language. I am always happy to hear the language from my hometown.  I found out that they were all photographers from Mangalore. In fact, one of them lived very close to my house and knew my parents. There were about 15 young men and their trek was organised by some group in Mysore. 

The young man who spoke to me while trying to locate my house in my hometown, asked me - “Are you a Shettigar?”. That referred to a particular caste from South Canara. I reluctantly told the caste my family belonged to because, I have rejected such identities long back. This reminded me of how strong the caste system is in Mangalore, just like it is in other parts of the country. I have seen it when I was growing up there, and I continue to see it even today. Somethings take a very long time to change. Though we have moved away from caste-based occupation and restricted access to education, we still maintain caste prejudice when it comes to our religious practices. Therefore, it evident that as long as people centre their lives around Gods, temples and religion, caste system will not disappear completely. 

These young men were staying at a homestay that was located on top of a small hill near our campsite. I allowed them to continue with their game of cricket and walked towards our campsite. 

At Cheludgad campsite, we were served lime juice as welcome drink. Himalayan Hikers had bought this piece of land from a villager. The campsite was facing the Supin river. Himalayan Hikers were running back-to-back batches during this month. So, they had installed fixed tents in the two campsites on this trail. There were about 10 tents here; each meant for 2 people but it could easily accommodate three. But on this day, they all belonged to the three of us. We picked a separate tent for each one of us. 

What I did not like about the campsite though is that there was an electric power transmission line passing right above the tents. As a mechanical engineer, my mind is conditioned to perform a Design Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (DFMEA) in situations such as this. I began to predict all possible accidents that could occur during a landslide or an earthquake. The presence of these transmission lines made the situation worse in case of such catastrophe. 

There is a reason why I was thinking this way. After the devastating earthquake in Turkey earlier this year, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh has been under high alert. In February, the Chief scientist of seismology at the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) warned that a high magnitude earthquake is imminent in the Himalayan region along the border of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Ever since I had read that in the newspaper, I had been closely tracking the news from the region. There have been several minor earthquakes in the state since February. This thought constantly lingered at the back of my mind. We were trekking in Zone 5 of earthquake zones in India - the one with highest risk. 

I had asked Vijay about this and he had told me that the Government had cancelled treks for some time in February when this warning was issued. His family panicked and requested him not to go on treks. But he said something important - “I think it is safer here, out in the open.” I think I completely agree with him now. However, it took me another day to realise this fully. When I did realise it finally, my fear completely disappeared.

I went down to the river and made a quick sketch. My friends, Divyesh and Ganesh joined me there. Vijay wanted to accompany us too and stand guard. He was scared that we might do something stupid and drown ourselves in this river, that was surprisingly, flowing rather ferociously even during this time of the year. 

When it began to drizzle, we headed back to our tents. The three of us sat in the dining area and discussed life in general. We played a few games of UNO until we got bored. Pakoda and tea were served at 4PM and the soup arrived at 6PM. 

Radhe, our cook, is a young man in his early 20s. He is one of the nicest persons I have met. He has recently finished his Bachelors degree in Arts. He has taken a break from studies and is planning to finish his mountaineering training. Mountaineering is what he wants to do. But, his family suggests that he finishes his MA. “Let us see where life takes me.” He replied, when I asked what he, wanted to do. 

Radhe is also a good cook. He had prepared soya bean-potato sabjidal, roti and rice for dinner. For dessert, we had gulab Jamoon. Radhe had a helper boy named Hrithik who is much younger. With his height and his long face, he resembled the famous Bollywood actor by the same name. I wondered if he was born in the early 2000s because, it was then that Hritik Roshan was launched and became an overnight sensation in the country. Many children born around that time, I believe were named after him. 

The weather at Cheludgad was pleasant. Continuous sound of the flowing river filled up the air. The cold was bearable. The woollen shawl I had bought in Mussoorie came handy. As it was just the three of us, we had our dinner in the kitchen. At around 8PM, I went to bed. 

I often wake up a few times in the night to relieve myself. But surprisingly, I woke up only once that night. For some reason, I am still scared of that absolute darkness and haunting silence in the mountains at night. When I step out of my tent in the middle of night, I imagine wild animals staring at me, ready to charge. Stories of all the demons and ghosts come back to me. Does that happen to you too? We dump so much of junk in our heads since childhood that the rest of our life is spent fighting the illusions that the mind has created. 

But I am glad that I finally stepped out at around 2:45AM, and witnessed a beautiful display of stars up in the sky. It was a sight, I shall never get to see in the cities. 

CONTINUED HERE: Har Ki Dun Trek - Day 02