I am now almost at Atholi. Atholi is one of my favourite villages which I have been wanting to return to for some time. I am hungry, hot and thirsty as I approach Atholi on the Kishtwar road. The men I meet seem sullen too and perhaps that is the effect of Ramadan. Children pass me on there way home from school shy but curious. Who is this old man traipsing along the road. Most of them have head scarves but not birkars.
The main road skirts Atholi and that is one of the things that attracted me to the village. A bypass road skirts the lower corn fields and runs under the eaves of the adjoining mountainside. Some small bridges cross mountain streams until the road climbs up to the village on a crest overlooking the main road and the river along which it runs close to.
I walk through the village and come to the town centre which like last time seems slightly abandoned and unkept. I walk towards the eastern end of the town near where I stayed in the forest guest house some years ago and find the same shop opened that I ate at before. The people here are very friendly and there is a mixture of eaters and non-eaters. Not necessarily I expect along religious lines but just along the individuals will which is the way it should be.
Refreshed both in food and company I then set off for Gulab Garth where the trail is supposed to start. Gulab Garth isn’t too far away and can be seen across the river much lower down than Atholi. It isn’t nearly as attractive as Atholi but is a very busy dusty trucking town supplying many of the villages in the surrounding valleys. There are also more road connections the main one being the extension to Killar and thence to Laddakh or Manali.
To get to Gulab Garth last time you took a lovely footpath down the ridge to the bridge in the cusp of the valley and thence swung to the left to a large flat and rocky plain where Gulab Garth was settled. Unfortunately not much was left off the old path down to the highway as the excavator was demolishing it in front of my eyes as I descended. Preserving charm is not a highlight in India’s progress. One of the reasons Gulab Garth is growing too is that it has a large buddhist population and probably Hindu. So it is a melting pot of religions.
As I walked into Gulab Garth my immediate need was to get some advice on how to get to this trail and just where did it start and for that matter how far how the road been built. There are lots of activity in Gulab Garth not only because it is a trucking rendevue and bus terminus b. I stopped at one of the first shops for a drink and check out the possibility of leaving my bag there whilst I looked around. But it soon turned out that I had found all I would need from a young police constable Sanjeev Singe who was going home for the weekend to be with his wife and family.
He offered to take me with him. In return I bought some chicken which we drove down to the other end of town to pick up. But I baulked at buying whisky as I felt this might not be the right thing to do. But maybe that cautiousness has infiltrated my thinking after being with Muslim families for so long. We set off in his small low hung car eventually dodging potholes along the way. the road didn’t seem to go very far before we reached the end and where blasting was going on. We found a spot to leave the car and were soon joined up with four young guys who were returning from a pilgrimage. They all had the surnames Kumar but they didn’t look to be related. Apparently they had been camping at another Pilgrimage site somewhere towards Killar and were in very good spirits for what had obviously been a successful adventure for them.
Satish Kumar offered to be my guide and porter at least to Machail and further if I wanted him to come. He was definitely very enthusiastic and I guess my response was a little more cautious as I have had young men offer to guide for me before and then not been up to the job required. However to answer the question now this did not happen with Satish and he proved to be a very able and happy man to be with.
Sanjeev’s wifes family live in Masu. Not really knowing where this was I headed off with him. It turned out that Masu was quite a long way up the valley and as I was still carrying my pack I was quickly wearying. At one stage I was about ready to say I would stay somewhere along the way and perhaps we could meet up tomorrow. Sanjeev somewhat reticent up to now however seemed to become more inspired to have me stay with him when I became hesitant.
As we approached Masu we took a side track to the family home which was closer to the river. Now it became obvious why Sanjeev was cautious with his invites. Not only was he dropping in with an unannounced guest but his wife’s family lived in a small farmhouse of probably only three rooms and a verandah. But Satesh who was now part of my team and myself were soon made comfortable on the covered verandah. Actually it was a nice place to stay as the evenings were pleasant although it did get rather cool being so close to the river.
It is always a treasured moment to be part of a family and this was no exception. Of course it is limiting when you cannot talk freely because of the language barriers. But it was nice to see Sanjeev’s wife affection for her husband and the kindnesses that all the family have for each other. Sanjeev is a tall and thinnish man and it is hard to imagine him as a tough policeman but his position makes him respected in his community.
The hardest part of staying with this family was the dog. Not a labrador but similar and with a distinct dislike for visitors. Not a problem when you are inside the house boundaries but somewhat difficult when you need to take a leak or worse. So with walking stick and rocks we establish a reasonable distance between the snarling dog and myself.
After dinner I was cold and tired and ready to conk out. Sleeping bag out and soon I was asleep. The funny thing is I woke up in the morning with the dog asleep at the end of my bed. He must have decided that I was alright sometime during the night or maybe that it was the most comfortable place to sleep. I woke up with the parents and Satish also on the verandah.
We didn’t stay long and by six am we were on the track to Machail. Another eventful day was about to unfold.
Satish was proving to be a very good guide. He explained things that I should be seeing as we walked. The mountains here are giants with U shaped valleys from long lost glaciers leaving giant insurmountable rocks on the sides. The forests are beautiful and Deodars and other deciduous trees soften the landscape in the valleys. But you were beginning to see that the trees would get less as we climbed. Beeches along the river banks and some lovely birds that I didn’t recognise. We had to cross the river several times but the suspension bridges were well made and could carry us as well as the horses quite safely.
In places the river narrowed and such was the flows from the melting snows that you could no longer make yourself heard in conversation. Farms appeared wherever the ground was able to be cultivated and small villages appeared along the way.
I hadn’t been aware of this before but Machail is also a Hindu Pilgrimage site.
‘ The ‘Machail Yatra’ is a comparatively newer Hindu pilgrimage in the state. It takes place in August and it starts from Bhadrwah’s Chenote temple. Pilgrims leave in long caravans and reach Kishtwar and then to remote Paddar.
From there, they leave on foot to Paddar where the temple of Mata Chandi is located at 11000 ft above sea level, not far away from the world famous sapphire mines. The entire Yatra is a 175-kms trek and usually is open for around three weeks. 27 days. This pilgrimage owes its existence to a Bhaderwah cop, Thakur Kulbir Singh aka Mata, who started it during his posting in Paddar.. ‘
However in July there didn’t seem to be many Pilgrims on the trail (although we did meet a few enthusiasts mainly younger guys when we go to Marchail) and many the facilities such as toilets and sleepovers whilst visible were closed. We pushed on until we came to this open ‘hotel’. A big range of biscuits in a curved glass display counter and of course sweet tea. How they managed to get this display counter up here is beyond me.
We walked all day climbing steadily with the scenery becoming more tantalising. We would wind our way up beside a noisy waterfall and then enter a tranquil lake.
Further on we would come upon ponies resting and grazing and then across a bridge a small village. Eventually we grew hungry and Satish suggested we stop at the next village for lunch. It sort of reminded me of a Greek village with old gentlemen lounging around in a tearoom/dhaba exchanging gossip I presume. Inside was a bit dark and dingy with just enough light coming from the cooking fire and the open area above the fire. But outside was beautiful and the hosts understanding my desire brought me a chair to sit on and relax in the sun. Just next to us seem to be the communal washing tap. People were taking turns washing their hair and of course laughing and enjoying the good weather as much as me. I should point out that the weather can be iffish in this mountain areas and when this happens you just have to wait for better weather.
Leaving the village you could see how self sufficiency rules these people’s lives. Several houses were being made and with the exception of tin roofs which are carried in all the materials were sourced locally. The logs were probably deodar and would be handsawn or hewn with an adze or axe and the stones cut down from boulders with wedges and blockbuster. The style of construction gives the building some earthquake resistance with staggered layers of woodbeams between sandwiches of rocks not unlike the English Tudar buildings.
Satish suggested we stop at Hamori which is where his family home is located. Maybe he noticed how tired I was becoming. This little village is located on a ridge above the river. His sister lives with her husband on some flat line next to the river. we stopped there first and I was shown an old rock carving of a Hindu deity.
Just below the farm is a large hanging lake with a rickety bridge to a beach on the other side. I expect that families would go there for picnics on sunny days.
Yes I was tired and needed some sleep. I think I was a little overwrought from lack of sleep and here as it turned out I wasn’t going to catch up. Their part of the house as far as I can make out was upstairs. The rooms were all dark with the kitchen at the back and I guess in winter isolatable from the front room where I ended up sleeping.I think maybe the stock were housed downstairs in the winter months which is actually often the greater part of the year. All the house in our group were bunched together with a sort of terrace in front where the kids could play or the elders carry out essential duties to their survival.
Their are few stock animals around at this time of the year as most of the available land is being farmed and thus had minimal protection from hungry animals. Every piece of flat land seems to be taken up with cropping. The crops being maize, vegetables such as cabbage, beans, barley and possibly wheat. Not much was ready yet and hence the diet was very simple.
Everyone seems to gather on the roof in front of their homes. The boys when i was here had pitched their tent at one end and were playing cricket at the other end. It is a difficult game to play as every time the ball was hit it had to be found and often as not it was down the valley somewhere. But no one seemed to mind how haphazardly the game was being played.
The tent was pitched in front of the house in which I was staying. I declined to join the boys as I felt like a bit of privacy. That as I indicated was not a good decision. Firstly in order to have a little light and fresh air in my room I had taken the wooden slats off the front opening to let the light in. This did work but it meant that many curious young and old eyes were watching my every movement. When night came something started to bite me and this conitinued until morning. Mysteriously they seem to stop when daylight approached. And then the dogs started barking. Yes it wasn’t a great night’s sleep but somehow when I had given up that I would actually fall asleep then I did and woke up to daylight.
We set off for Machail . It isn’t only about 3 kilometres on the main trail but as the main bridge is broken from recent flooding we make a detour. We leave Hamori by climbing up the ridge passed more houses and water mills for grinding their flours and soon we can hear music quite loudly. You don’t expect music in a valley where there is no electricity. But it is exciting to be welcomed to this village with music. I found out later that the temple has a sound system which started up every morning in the days I was there. Further down the valley there had been eery moments when we enter rocky valleys when I hear sounds like planes flying over head. The noise seems to be coming from nowhere and even though I notice it a lot Sadish who is wallking next to me doesn’t seem to be affected.
We cross a well made newish bridge and climb up to the other side of the valley where the trail splits with one trail going to a Buddhist village and the other way going to Marchail. Marchail looks to be a well laid out village on a little hill overlooking a nice valley which runs down to the river and bridge we had bypassed.
Yes I am tired and definitely need a good nights sleep. Satish has been a very good guide though but he has indicated that he will stop when we get to Marchail. So I will have to find a guide who knows the way. The climbing has taken its toll and I am in no rush to take on Umassi La yet as my feet need some more conditioning. I will take some time out in Marchail seeing the town and local villages before going on.
Well that finishes this part of my story about my trek over Umassi La. Look forward to the final ascent in my next post.