My curiosity levels had been stoked after visiting the wonderful private museum of Mr. Pangti in Munsyari in the first week of May. There were a number of pictures of Milam village and Johar Valley, bifurcated before/after 1962. I was dumbfounded to hear stories of the rapid decline of one of the oldest and most important salt trade routes from India to Tibet, when the border was sealed.
The snows hadn’t melted yet and the army would throw open the trek route only by around 10-12 May. Mr. Pangti recommended that I do not walk solo, saying the trek had become treacherous ever since the Kedarnath disaster.
I try finding fellow trekkers in Munsyari but to no avail; there are only a handful of tourists in town. I leave to explore other parts of Kumaon and randomly meet a traveller – Bhishma in Almora. A week or so later he calls saying he is in Munsyari and that I can join him for the trek. A hasty retreat is made and I reach Munsyari in the evening.
The next morning we are dropped at Dhapa Village on a motorcycle. The thundering sound of Gori Ganga river welcomes us as we descend to cross our first bridge on the way to Lilam Village. A swarm of butterflies plays while we deftly manoeuvre the slush on the track. We make several errors in choosing the wrong path in our first 3 hours and have to backtrack until we are on the right track. The locals tell us that we are indeed among the first few people this year who are going to Milam village.
Munsyari, in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand is situated at 2200m above sea level and has glorious views of Panchachuli range. Milam, at 3400m is located deep into Johar Valley and is at a distance of 64 Kilometres from the nearest road head of Munsyari.
After passing Lilam village, we have lunch at a scenically perched dhaba. The weight of 15 odd kilos on the backpack already feels too much on the steep climb and Bhishma leaves some of his stuff there. Huge Himalayan eagles and vultures hover overhead, a fierce sun makes us sweat profusely in the tiring terrain. The Kedarnath disaster has dramatically altered the route. Earlier it was a walk along the Gori Ganga river, now we had to trek what was essentially a gruelling up and down path excruciating for the knees. The only other people we encounter are Nepali porters who are carrying unbelievable loads of the army personnel; paid as they are by the kilo.
The steep incline to Mainsingh top can break even the most seasoned trekker. As soon as we leave Lilam we go up, then up and some more up, the track just never stops going up. We keep plodding without a tree cover. Bhishma keeps me going with persistent encouragement. Every inch of my body asks me to stop. I have to take a breather every ten minutes, the good part being there are many waterfalls for us to quench our thirst.
There is a bell and a small shrine at Mainsingh top, although the relief of reaching there is short-lived. The weather has become ominous and it duly starts raining and becomes cold at around three in the afternoon. We wear our ponchos and reach the next dhaba at Rargarhi, the sharp descent proving difficult now that the terrain has become slippery with the steady drizzle.
We walk steadily and pass the lone dhaba at Syuni. The Gori Ganga is visible again and in roaring condition this time, her water levels fuelled by the melting glaciers. The excitement of reaching somewhere keeps us going. Our path passes through dense oak, walnut and rhododendron forests. The government has reserved the entire Johar valley for the Bhotias; nobody else is permitted to buy and sell land here.
The sight of the green ITBP camp at Bugdiyar makes us alive again. Papers are shown and phones left on charging, courtesy of the solar powered batteries with the army. There are only two dhabas and a non-functioning Tourist Reception Centre. We enquire about food at the first dhaba and are told that the common sleeping place was free if we bought dinner. The locals tell us to be careful of the bears that are roaming close-by. There we meet some families who are going to Milam and other villages in Johar Valley. It is an abrupt realisation that I am lucky to witness the annual migration of the locals.
The locals are surprised that we have completed the walk till Bugdiyar in one day, an astonishing 22 kms! I have a glass of locally made wheat based alcohol which provides much needed warmth. After a humble yet filling dinner, we sing songs with the locals and play with their kids and slip into our sleeping bags. Beneath us are bare bamboo sticks that cause me much pain in the night when my knees scrape past them.
My feet ache from the humongous effort of a day before. After a filling breakfast we set off, and reach the important religious shrine of Nahar Devi. The track clings to the side of the gorge walls, and at times is only about 50cm wide with massive drops into the freezing cold water below. The goddess is revered in these parts, especially after the 2013 floods. We pay our respects and march on, now having the porters for company. Our first ice crossing scares Bhishma, it is my turn to hold his hand.
Mapang goes by as we enter into lower Johar valley; a walk on a dry riverbed gets us to Rilkot. The current views make the hitherto bleak walk worthwhile. The ITBP personnel wave to us and ask if we need to make phone calls back home. We laze in the sunshine while having lunch at the bleak stone structure designated as a dhaba. Hoping that the Nanda Devi mountain will be visible from Martoli, we make a move, fully knowing that it is a long way away and the path difficult, coupled with the stormy weather. Colourful wildflowers are everywhere; a feast for the eyes in the treeless extravaganza.
The snowy peaks are beckoning to us and we are overjoyed, the dreamy landscapes finally have us in their throes. After a 200m ice crossing and some water crossings later, we arrive at the 3600m high village of Martoli, soaked in the rain. The visibility is poor and it appears to be snowing on the higher reaches of the mountains. Only one family in the entire village has come and they give us hot chai. I go to click some pictures and am pleasantly surprised when snowflakes gently fall on me. It has been a fabulous day with stupendous views and our destination, closer.
Martoli has a small lake and there are horses and sheep grazing. The village has fifty odd homes but only a few are currently in use by the migrating families, the rest are left to disintegrate. It has an eerie, abandoned feel. We enjoy the sound of silence. There is a Tourist Reception Centre but that is closed (as always). We have our first taste of the famed local jimbu masala, mixed with fried potatoes. It tastes delicious. The night somehow passes and we are up early at dawn with a gloriously shining sun to warm our bones.
There is a temple on a hillock near Martoli with picture perfect views of Nanda Devi. The small pond has reflections of the snow clad peaks and I hurriedly click some pictures. We contemplate staying in Martoli for another day, it seems like a timelessly beautiful village with lovely stone houses. I suggest we move ahead and check Martoli on our way back.
We cross a dangling bridge and arrive at the even more beautiful village of Burfu in less than an hour. A happy surprise dawns upon us to know that we might not have to walk the trail between Burfu and Milam; some sort of a road has been built and a GREF truck is supposed to come. We are delighted with this news. I go exploring the village while Bhishma sleeps on a bed of flowers.
Three families have come while the rest of the houses are unoccupied. It has the inexplicable feel of a ghost village. Some of the homes don’t have a roof and seem to have been abandoned for centuries. An old lady notices I am roaming around and invites me home for tea. I am delighted when tea comes and is of the ‘namkeen chai’ variety. The intricate wooden doors are fascinating. I shamelessly ask for endless cups of more tea. Burfu, in old times was a powerful village and the head of Johar valley had a sort of meeting place here. The locals show us round pillars made of stone in a place that served as an administrative office; my mind takes a walk into the past.
Various herbs known to have rich medicinal properties are grown in Johar Valley. These herbs command a price of as much as 600-700 Rupees a kilo. We are told that the GREF truck will leave from Burfu at 1:30 in the afternoon. It starts drizzling (again!) and I run toward Bhishma to keep our bags in a safe place. Another family invites us for lunch, we are humbled to eat delicious authentic Kumaoni food; bhatt ka dubka and palak ka kaapa – seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The sounds of a truck break the monotony and we rush to jump into the open air carrier. This might be the only trek of its kind where the end can be reached in a vehicle! A cluster of empty houses collectively known as Bilju village passes us by on the right.
So, without a guide or porters and thirteen ice-crossings, and innumerable hardships later we are dropped just before the ITBP camp in Milam to walk with our papers and register ourselves and make phone calls to our homes. The Tourist Reception Centre is in tatters while there are only two other homestay options in Milam.
It is roughly a village of 400 homes, only 10 of them are currently occupied; the other families haven’t yet reached. They come here in May and go back to their winter homes in Munsyari in October/November before the snows arrive. There is ample grass for the cows to graze upon and the cold is good for better quality of wool. Potatoes grown in Johar Valley are organic and command a high price in the markets.
Milam lies in a fertile valley on the banks of the Gori Ganga river which originates from the melting snows of Milam Glacier. There are Bhoj patra (Himalayan Birch) trees spread in Milam; which were used to write sanskrit scriptures and texts in ancient times. We are staying at a homestay with views of Milam Glacier right before us. I wander around the ITBP camp and duly get invited for a delicious hot lunch with the army.
The few homes that stand still have been ravaged by the bears who roam freely in the long winter season. Fierce snowfall has damaged many stone houses making them look as if no one has lived in them for years. The artistic windows and doors are a sight to behold. There are Buddhist inscriptions on some rocks near the village temple. A carving on a door of one abandoned and crumbling structure denotes that it was built in 1666.
The villagers show us a jail like structure and a place to hide in called ‘bada ghar’; chiefly used when the Gorkhas attacked. I am invited by an old hookah smoking lady for butter tea mixed with burnt rice who narrates her ordeal – a bear has eaten away all her rations. The whole house is left in tatters and the roof broken. She shows us three hundred year old bamboo baskets and coarse shawls that she makes herself. We sit on a goat hide to keep warm.
In the upper bugyals (grasslands) and high passes of the Johar valley, fortune seekers risk their lives to find ‘keeda jadi’. Immediately after the winter snows melt, they head in search of Yarsagumba (cordiceps sinensis), which is a fungus that grows within the larvae of moths. It eventually is headed to aphrodisiac makers in China for well over 20 Lakh rupees a kilo. The date for this year has been fixed, and 1st June will see the men scramble to climb impossible mountains and live in the snows for some weeks to try and become instant millionaires!
We watch the army playing a cricket match while an unruly goat enters the ground. Our weary limbs have had some rest and we start our walk back on a cold, cloudy day. The path which hardly had any walkers is now filled with families accompanied by herds of cattle, flocks of sheep, goats, horses and even dogs. The young and the old all walk rhythmically. There are shepherds who are moving in search of high altitude pastures. We have to scramble for cover when the goats and sheep, sometimes as many as a thousand in number in a flock rush on the slender path leaving us with no room to stand.
My moment of the trek arrives when I see a young schoolboy carrying his very old grandmother on his shoulders. An incredible feeling of unsurpassed love to do that for sixty-four kilometres. I scramble to capture the moment on camera. Grandma accepts the candies gleefully.
The fields have ample supply of water from the Gori Ganga basin, yet depleting numbers in the valley mean vast swathes of fertile land are left without cultivation; the number of families migrating has been decreasing year after year.
I distribute the leftover chocolates among the kids along the way, their moms tell us stories of how the present generation doesn’t want the trouble to go to this remote valley. There is no electricity after leaving Munsyari, only erratic solar powered lighting. Mobile networks don’t work at all. The weather is harsh and life, difficult.
An all weather road will eventually be built all the way to Milam; it already seems it will be too late to salvage life in Johar Valley.
Oh, and this entire trek was finished in less than two thousand rupees!!!