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India 1996

Wildflowers of Western Himalaya

July 1996 - Trip Report by Hugh Daubeny

Photos by Kelly Sekhon

(Hugh and his hiking friends always wanted to go hiking in the Himalaya so they called themselves "Himalayan Hopefuls". After this trip they became "Himalayan Have Beens" - Kelly)

It took an inordinate amount of time to accomplish anything after returning from a month’s stay in northern India.  The excuse the first few days was jet lag after approximately 30 hours of travel, following a month of sleep deprivation.  The real truth was that everything seemed quite anti-climatic and rather dull.  It was difficult to consider the obligations and routines on the home front.  In retrospect, the month’s events seem absolutely incredible.

We began it all with a 17 hour flight from Vancouver to Singapore; this included a middle-of-the-night two hour stopover in Seoul, South Korea.  The Singapore highlights were the orchids in the Botanic Garden and a lunch of Singapore Slings (each at $17 American) and peanuts in the Long Bar at Raffles.  Fiona and I were not allowed into the lobby – she was carrying a backpack and I was in shorts.  Marian carried a large purse over her shoulder but basically was no differently attired than Fiona in a skirt and blouse.  All of us were casually dressed for the heat and humidity!  In fact, I probably looked neater than some of the men.  Singapore, itself, seemed pristine and could be any large, hot American city but, no doubt, a lot safer and probably cleaner.

It was another five hour flight to New Delhi.  Here culture shock hit and hit hard.  We arrived late in the evening at the international airport.  Chaos was immediately apparent.  The first reaction was what am I doing here, followed by this cannot be so. After meeting up with our leaders, a naturalist, Kelly Sekhon, and tour organiser, Jaideep Mukerji, both of whom were raised in India and now live in Vancouver, we were bussed to a 4-star hotel; which had a pervasive toilet smell throughout.  Next day we visited temples, mosques and tombs amidst beggars of all ages and entertainers of every description.  I was intrigued with the snake charmers.  Marian and Therese rode a camel at the World War 1 Memorial, the India Gate where the statue of George V was unceremoniously removed after partitioning.  The day in New and Old Delhi ended up as a blur of bright colours, bustle, deafening noise and overwhelming smells.  People there drive like absolute maniacs and the lead emission levels are reputed to be amongst the highest of any city in the world.

The next day we travelled to Shimla via train to Kalka, at the base of the foothills at the southern edge of the western Himalayas, and then into the mountains by bus.  This was our introduction to the single lane roads that were to be our fate, over the next weeks, whenever we were not actually trekking.  Roads cling precipitously for hundreds of meters above gorges containing turbulent brown water roaring to the plains.  Rock and mud slides are common and any sort of paving often non-existent.  Sometimes the bus slid and slithered.  Trucks, overloaded buses, often with passengers clinging to roofs, and jeeps meet on hairpin bends.  Someone has to give in these situations.  Survival is dependent on the expertise of the driver and, in this regard, we were fortunate indeed.  Driving these roads is not for the faint-hearted.

Shimla, at an altitude of approximately 2,500 metres, is where we began the acclimatization process.   Remnants of the Raj remain there.  We visited Kipling’s Scandal Point, Christchurch and the British Cotton School, which now caters to boys from wealthy North Indian families, and the Viceregal Lodge.  At the last named, there are many reminders of the Mountbattens since much of portioning negotiation took place there in 1947.  I could not resist telling my fellow trekkers that my Father had actually gone to school (Britannia Royal Navy College, Dartmouth) with Louis Mountbatten, just prior to World War I. The markets and bazaars of Shimla were colourful and chaotic, a preview of what was to come.

Next it was a two day bus drive over the Hindustan Tibet “Highway” to the Kinnaur region near the Tibet border.  Enroute we had one night in a hotel in Sarahan.  The first camp was at the 3,000 metre level near a village named Kafnoo; so far we have been unable to locate it on any available map but it is just north of Wangtu.  For nearly 50 years this region was off limits to the prying eyes of westerners.  The indigenous people were as fascinated with us as we were with them. The women were especially colourful though there were many fewer saris that we had seen at lower elevations.  The Tibetan influence is strong. The women wear much nose and ear jewellery and colourful woollen garments, some of which are knitted as they trek the steep trails carrying wool in baskets on their backs.

Unfortunately, part of Kafnoo burnt during the night.  We awoke to drums beating, burst of gunfire and dogs barking.  No one had any idea what was happening since low-lying clouds obscured all but the nearest tent.  It was all a bit surreal; one wondered if there had been sort of insurrection.  None of this affected our plans for the next day when we had a strenuous eight hour trek to Upper Muling at approximately 4,000 metres.  We had ponies and local porters for the duffel and dunnage bags, tents, cooking equipment and food.  An expert team of cooks and helpers accompanied us.  We were responsible for our own day packs and water.

We had 3 days in Upper Muling in a flower-filled, through somewhat over-grazed meadow.  It was a particular thrill to find Mecanopsis, the elusive pale blue Himalayan poppy, flowering in the shadow of the north face of large boulders.  We also saw species of many other genera; some of these had not been reported by a British Alpine Society group in 1994.  Discrepancies, though, are probably due to a simple matter of timing.  Nomadic Gaddis shepherd roamed throughout with herds of sheet and goats and the cattle were ubiquitous.  The trek back down to Kafnoo, where we had another night of camp, was especially good for “botanizing”.

We spent a night in a filthy hotel in Rampur where we placed our sleeping bags over dirty sheets, before tackling the next trek which was over the Bashleo Pass (approximately 4,000 metres).  This trek was even more strenuous than the first.  We camped in three different locations.  Fortunately, ideal weather made it slightly easier.  Again the flowers were spectacular, although at times ignored.  Some of us were more concerned with placing one foot ahead of the other on the trail and not over a steep embankment.

The second night the campsite, in a verdant meadow in a deep valley surrounded by high peaks, was next to a small school. Pat and Fiona visited the school, talked to the teachers and came away amazed at th

e lack of equipment and supplies that are taken for granted in schools in the western world.  We decided, more or less on the spot, to help this school.  Pat was in a particularly good position to organize this as she teaches in a school in a prosperous area of Vancouver.  She considered it a good project for her students to write to the students and to contribute to the school’s welfare.  Our first contributions of basic supplies were purchased and subsequently mailed from Manali, the hill town that was the eventual destination on this part of the trip.

The final day of this trek was long, arduous and awe-inspiring.  We finally went over the pass and down steep trails to the village of Bathod, where the advance group had set up camp.   They welcomed us with cups of tea, never more appreciated.  Quite unexpectedly, the rains came to Bathod in the early morning hours. Later, we learnt that these rains were part of the weather system that killed many Hindu pilgrims in Kashmir, further north.  We, of course, had no way to access weather forecasts.  Tents flooded, more or less in sequence, ours being among the last.  Evacuating in the predawn light, we were a sodden, sad lot when we walked over a bridge to the bus which had come there by a circuitous route.

Next was a steamy and perilous day-long bus trip, with many road obstacles, to the dry Highland Hotel in Manali.  Once our soggy gear was into the rooms, dryness was relative.  Eventually we did dry out and found that Manali was great fun.  It was full of trekkers, left-over hippies and Indian and Tibetan bazaars. 

We occupied ourselves with short treks, mostly in the rain, shopping, eating and drinking various products purchased from the “English Wine and Spirit Shops”.  Everywhere we were approached by people of all ages selling “high grade” saffron.  Some were selling Ganja (Cannabis) which grows in profusion along the roadsides and, as well, under cultivation for hemp fibre production.  I seemed to attract those selling Ganja.  Maybe it was the unkempt beard and the hair obviously in need of a trim.

The third trek, to the Hampta Valley, was aborted after five hours of torrential rains that made the steep slopes absolutely impossible. For me, the slithering and sliding down was a nightmare, as my weak ankle twisted in a fall.  We eventually returned to the hotel in Manali for another three days.  Fortunately, my ankle returned to normal.  A British group, most of who were from the London area or from Wales, were even more bedraggled than we were.  They had been looking at Gompas, Buddhist Monasteries in the Spiti Valley, which is north of the Kinnaur region, when their campsite flooded and their bus could not get over the one remaining bridge.  They had trekked out and some were definitely not trekking types.

The cancellation of the third trek meant more time in the Kullu Valley.  Here there are many old orchards and a colourful history of British settlers in the 19th century and amixture of Indian and Tibetan cultures.   John Banon introduced the original strain of the Delicious apple into the valley in the late 19th century Delicious replaced the old, highly flavoured English varieties, such as Cox’s Orange Pippin, Russet and Newton.  The Indians prefer a highly colored apple and were, and still are, not much concerned with flavour.  However, the juice from the Delicious apple is good.  Banon’s descendants still live in the Kullu Valley.  In Manali there is a prominent memorial to one of his sons who came to British Columbia.  He was subsequently killed in France during the World War I as a member of a B.C. regiment.

We were a jolly group, even under trying circumstances. Therefore, it was rather sad on August 28th when we wentseparate ways.  Marian and nine others, including Jaideep went on to Ladakh and I and six others, including Kelly, went south to New Delhi.  From there we went to Agra and the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary.  The traditional sites at Agra and Jaipur were impressive and the Taj Mahal overwhelming.  It is disturbing though, that there is not a greater degree of security there.  There appeared to be no one about to prevent semi-precious stones from being gouged out of the marble.  The Sanctuary, which is on the migratory bird path from eastern Siberia, is a World Heritage site.  We rode about in rickshaws and saw a vast array of birds including the world’s largest, the Sarus crane and flocks of painted storks.

The temperatures in the “Golden Triangle” (Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi) were 40 C or higher and the relative humidity about 95%.  However, the hotels in Agra and Jaipur were air conditioned and had a wonderful blend of Indian atmosphere and North American cleanliness and efficiency.

Looking back, I can hardly believe that we and others of the “Himalaya Hopefuls” actually trekked in the Himalayas.  We endured fire (Kafnoo), flood (Bathod), pestilence (the tents were invaded by bugs not readily identifiable) bur never famine.  If anything, we were overfed; the cooks prepared an amazing variety of delicious meals, often under less than ideal circumstances.  Food back home seems, at times, rather bland.  Most of us want desperately to return to India, especially to do more trekking.  I, for one, would probably forego the tourist bits in the “Golden Triangle” (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur).  I have been there and done it and that is that!

 August 5, 1996