Saturday, July 12, 2003

After five days in Baun village, we were rested and ready to hit the trail. Christina had amassed a pile of recordings, from housewives’ conversations to folk songs accompanied by harmonium and empty-gas-can rhythm section. We’d been more or less adopted as Darma citizens, “enjoyed” meals of goat parts I’ll never eat again (Raw bladder, anyone? Lung?), and each received our own honorary turban. Under sunny skies with full bellies, we continued up the valley.

It took two days to reach the last Darma settlement, Sipu, approaching 13,000 feet. The evergreens were replaced by Himalayan birch, a few shrubs clinging to the trailside, while our fellow Darma celebrants dropped out of view. We’d shifted from staying with locals to sleeping in our tent, and began cooking instant soup, noodles and tea on our handy MSR Internationale Stove rather than consume the meager supplies of upper valley residents. This probably wasn’t necessary. But C had assented to carrying my ancient North Face, and to keep the peace I agreed to use it; meanwhile, I was packing about 5 pounds of food. Short of chucking C’s files and electronic recording equipment off a cliff, the only way to lighten my load was to devour these provisions.

Sipu was a veritable ghost town compared to Baun, but a few families were tending fields. In the northern distance, we could see the peaks of Tibetan China. A cool wind blew through the afternoon. Only a dozen or so clans were making use of dwellings, so we had our choice of campsites. We pitched the tent in the decrepit, abandoned schoolyard, C made her research rounds, and I settled into reading the fat novel, “The Corrections,” I had unwisely decided to pack for the downtime I was once again facing.

Sipu was also the literal turning point for our Darma Valley exploration, but it was not the proverbial or even literal high point of our trip. The hard hiking had left me otherwise drained, and short of a snort of whiskey (dream on, sailor) I was content to huddle out of the breeze and get lost in literature for an afternoon.

Strange to be reading this thoroughly contemporary American novel –the author rejected overtures from Oprah’s book club – while trekking through Stone Age villages in the Himalaya, but by no means the oddest thing I have experienced during my travels. Like any gear, if you’re going to include a paperback in your kit, better try to use it to justify the extra weight. With nightfall the wind died down, and you could find us snug in our tent.

Two days later, found us in much less comfortable circumstances – skittering across an enormous glacier.

We’d begun our retreat back to Dharchula, stopping in the twinned towns of Dantu/Dagtu, which are just opposite Baun on the west side of the Dhauli River. These villages are the most visited in the whole Darma Valley because of their strategic location at the mouth of the gorge that leads to the East Face of the five peaks of Panchachuli, where a monstrous glacier hunches surrounded by 1,000-foot waterfalls. For commercial trekking adventures, in fact, Panchachuli Glacier is the object, while mountaineers must overcome this beast and its attendant avalanches if they are to summit the Panchachuli chain from Darma Valley.

(The other side of the range leads to Milam Glacier, where I was turned back by a much smaller glacier back in April – check out my article at "Tea Time in the Himalayas" at

Our simple objective was to take a gander at this natural wonder, and then double- back to the little hotel we’d located for a relaxed afternoon before hoofing it out of Darma. Instead, thanks to a little SNAFU involving an inaccurate description of the “easy-to-find” return trail and my own headstrong curiosity concerning the nature of this massive snowfield, our return trip was more arduous than we planned. Having climbed quickly to our lunching spot in sunshiny morning, with perfect views of the pearly peaks above, I convinced C that having made it to India and traveled this far, there was no reason to feel intimidated by this monster.

Boy, was I mistaken: With avalanches thundering in the upper reaches of these mountains, we made our way tentatively onto the glacier. I felt comfortable. After all, the boulders balanced on the ice had to be ten times our size, so there was no way we would fall through. And with perfect visibility and a gentle slope, the chances of accidentally disappearing into a crevasse appeared negligible. But I hadn’t gauged C’s reluctance, and as soon as we hit the glacier, she began to balk, just this side of petrified, thanks in part to reading too many articles about climbers’ deaths in publications such as my beloved Outside magazine.

So, there we were, with me trudging ahead, showing how “safe” things were, while my companion seized my hand tightly, all the while cursing me under her breath.

Not helping things was the fact that I had dreadfully misjudged the distance between where we had been securely eaten lunch and the opposite rim of the snow-filled bowl we were now discovering had much more width than a “football field or two,” as I had guessed. Things went from bad to worse as we finally closed on the far side of the glacier, and discovered that the apparent trail was simply a crest where soil had piled up from the avalanches that had left all those big boulders out there on the ice. We continued to chase game trails and red herring in an effort to land on solid ground – the alternative, crossing back across the glacier now made me shudder as well. But after two hours walking downhill, we were still in a jam. C had pretty much stopped talking to me altogether.

That we ever got off that glacier was a matter of sheer will power. We eventually were able to follow cow paths and goat tracks along the Yang Ti River draining from Panchachuli and her massive glacier. I was elated at having survived the trip, and felt good about the adventure overall, in truth, because by surviving I had shown that my judgment was at least somewhat sound. The old man who owned the inn where we had stowed our gear just shook his head when we turned up. Then he went and made us tea.

Two hours up and 6 hours down did not quite add up to taking it easy, but now we not only felt that we’d had enough of Darma Valley, we recognized that maybe the Darma had had enough of us.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Somewhere in the plains, the monsoon was turning dust to mud and throwing clouds in the path of the big red Indian sun. But so far our trek had seen little in the way of rain, only a few cool breezes circulating down from the glaciers and sweeping up the Darma Valley in the evening.

Thanks to the altitude gain, though, the temperature was dropping; at Baun we had reached the edge of the alpine zone. The rhododendrons and chestnut and walnut trees had given way to evergreens in the depths of the gorge and up on the ridgeline, while wildflowers, juniper and other low-lying shrub along the broad valley floor. So we were happy to find lodging and a warm welcome after our three-day journey.

Many of the people we met in Baun had not returned to the valley and their ancestral family plots in as much as two decades. The Delhi zookeeper was there to greet us, a major force amongst the civil-service types who were making this year a special reunion in the valley; ironically, he was also once-upon-a-time the director of Kaziranga National Park where we just been. The traditional stone houses chinked with mud and manure were generally much worse for wear – slate roofs trashed, foundations sagging into the hillside, wooden doors and window frames cracking. Still, it was remarkable to learn that some of these structures, annually buried under yards of snow, were 80, 90 or 100 years old. On the other hand, it was not uncommon to hear that their rightful owners had been gone from this place for 15, 18 or 20 years.

After a couple of days of village life, though, it was easy enough to see the reason for this hiatus, and in turn the threat modern India – indeed, the developed world writ large – poses to Darma traditions and language. For the vacationing government servants, the days and nights were filled with ceremonial offerings to local gods, home maintenance, the re-drawing of property lines, tending of fields and the catching-up of longtime friends and neighbors who had relocated outside this picturesque settlement. But those who continue to plant crops and herd sheep in Darma Valley work their buns off daily. Meanwhile, outside of a slightly faulty diesel generator donated by the better-to-do citizens, there was no electricity. No amount of money or success saved any one of us the daily hopscotch trip to the fecal splattered riverside, where C and I also routinely made our own shitty deposits.

All this made for a pretty interesting backcountry vacation, but who would want to contend with such a reality full time when shiny Western clothes, plastic toys, pizza and television were to be had just over the next hill? The more successful Darma, who have found middle-class success in Delhi, Lucknow and other cities, believe that a road up the valley and attendant power lines would offset the struggle of reaching and living in high mountain villages such as Baun. They argue such development might even help preserve local culture. They seem to have forgotten that what’s unique about Darma society likely is the result of this isolation, and might better be preserved by keeping development at an arm’s length.

My own leave-no-trace ethos and conservation impulses were sorely tested every time I had to take a dump or was engaged in the endless debate over whether the valley had tourism potential from a Western standpoint.

Certainly, the scenery rated high marks; across from Baun loomed the Panchachuli Range, five white-flanked peaks towering at heights of 21,000 feet or more. And while wildlife might have been spare, the wildflowers were just getting started. As C tried to learn the Darma names for all sorts of local flora, I set out with a pair of young helpers and collected more than a dozen bright plant species. Flowers sprouted at the edge of cultivated fields, between sheep pastures, and in the shade of massive stone boulders left behind by glaciers since the last Ice Age. Species included indigo forget-me-nots, pearly Queen Anne’s lace, lovely purple irises, orange whatever-they’re-called and a host of beauties I didn’t recognize whatsoever. Wait until August, we were told, then the hills really light up with color.

And despite the multitude of cultural crevasses – between East and West, Darma and mainstream Indian, rural and urban – Christina and I were treated in Baun and beyond to a rare level of hospitality.

Folks proffered food, drink, shelter and the like at every turn whether they knew who we were (the zookeeper had spread the word, and people knowing us from Dharchula wondered, indeed, where our local guide was) or not. The songs and dances, the community religious ceremonies and personal offerings to various mountain gods, likewise, were impressive in their range of celebration – from Scottish-type strongmen competition to the slaughtering of goat and sheep, which were then the source of food for the whole community; even though the women weren’t allowed inside the local temples. Needless to say, vegetarianism is not one of the Hindu values most Darma abide.

Still, after five days in Baun, I had privately concluded that any road this far up the valley would probably do more harm than good.

It may be my altogether green American mind, but I cannot help but think that the best bet for tourism development lays in the preservation of the greenery and wildlife, the relative remoteness of yet another proverbial Last Best Place. Sure, people would come if you were to construct a road, build a top-flight resort and install a gondola that will carry you no sweat to the foot of the glacier, but my conviction remains that this would also act as a drainage pipe for the few youth who might stand to benefit from the growing global interest in getting away from it all. In my final analysis, Baun felt special because the vibrant culture and lovely landscape that persists result from its relative seclusion and not despite it.

And with monsoon-like clouds competing with sunshine not just in my consciousness but also at the foot of the valley, we made ready for the second half or our Darma Valley trek.

Monday, July 07, 2003

The illness passed. Whether it was a state of mild hypothermia or simply the worst bonk I’ve faced in a decade of outdoor adventure, I’m still not sure. But after cowering on the floor for half the night, I finally had taken enough fluids to use the bathroom, and after an open-air piss, I lay down for a peaceful sleep until the sound of goats crying and mule trains woke me just after sunrise.

The weather looked good in the morning light – monsoon, it seemed, which had since pushed half-a-million Assamese out of their homes and started to cool searing Delhi, had yet to reach Darma Valley. A collection of Darma and other visitors to the valley crowded the rough cobbled rocky street outside our rustic “hotel,” where they fixed us a breakfast of instant noodles before packing us on our way.

We spent the day in the town of Sela on the hill overlooking the inn and the market. The village was exceedingly peaceful, and the day off much needed before gearing up for the main bulk of our trek. We visited with families, enjoying “chai” (sweet milk tea) around the open hearth of more than one kitchen. The mud-and-dung interior plastering was surprisingly clean and neat. At one house, we were treated to a lunch of rice, lentils AND dried goat. With a fire in a square in the middle of the kitchen floor and a small opening in the roof between the slate tiles to let the smoke out, it was hard to resist the gravity pulling me deeper into this exotic culture I had enjoyed from the fringes for so many months.

The following morning, again after a noodle breakfast (the very Ramen-like flavor of Maggie leaving a tangy aftertaste) in the Sela market, C and I made our move up the valley, tackling some half-dozen miles of up and down through deciduous forest of Himalayan walnut, oak and spent rhododendron trees alongside the fast-moving-yet-murky Dhauli River. White-capped redstarts flitted here and there, and whistling thrushes sang their peculiar three-note songs from rocky outcroppings. The trail was dotted with sign from pack trains and goat herds, leaving behind a fragrant mixture that led to an overabundance of flies. We saw nary a soul, while outside of the birds and lizards, wildlife remained surprisingly scarce.

We reached the central valley settlement of Baling as the sun was beginning to set over the snowy Himalayan ridgeline to the west, and were invited to attend the first of what would prove to be many Hindu-Darma ceremonies in the valley. A baby boy was swaddled in white sheets, ready for his introduction to the local gods, while incense burned, and drinks and sweets were passed around the circle. Small girls totted miniature temples made of flour that were to be broken apart and devoured at the hillside shrine on the edge of the village.

Initially happy to see us, the locals passed a good deal of local hootch around, and soon seemed to forget our presence. A fight broke out on the way to the temple; which we took as a warning sign that maybe things were getting a little intense, inflamed by alcohol. In a rare moment of true caution (encouraged by the fact that the anti-biotic I’d been taking might result in severe vomiting when mixed with booze) I passed on multiple offers to sample the ceremonial “beer” and “wine” that appeared to be in endless supply.

This turned out to be wiser than I knew, as the town tea stall stopped serving before we finished pitching our tent, and we climbed into our sleeping bags with a slight dinner of crackers, nuts and other trail food. Better to sleep on an empty stomach than to drink on one, my momma always said.

The drunkenness, and the lecherous interest it appeared to engender in some of erstwhile hosts was too much for C, so in the morning we left without saying proper goodbyes. We made our way – slowly, panting and sweating like dogs – to the village of Baun, about four miles away, where we looked forward to meeting up with some of our acquired contacts in the Darma community, including a cousin of our landlady and the director of the Delhi Zoo, who we’d met some months earlier. The trail carried us down a steep slope to the bridge over the Dhauli, and then it was a nearly thousand-foot climb over the course of the final mile before we actually reached the village.

But before I get too far, allow me to explain a little more about the Darma and the region we were visiting.

As you reach Baun, the Darma Valley enters a sub-alpine zone of about 10,000 feet (3,000-plus meters). The valley runs northwest along the southeasterly flowing Dhauli Ganga; due north is Tibet, although the valley veers before you come to the Chinese border, while the southbound Dhauli eventually plummets into the Kali River, which in turn runs through Dharchula and forms a second international boundary between India and Nepal.

The valley itself has been the core of Darma civic life for hundreds of years. These people have an uncertain history but are more closely related to Tibetans and Mongolians than to most Indians, who in the northern part of the country retain a connection to Middle Eastern and European tribes. This ethnic distinction is reflected in the fact that the Hindi language (Hinduism is the religion) has been classified as Indo-Aryan; meanwhile, the Darma speak an unwritten dialect that linguists believe is part of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages – for C’s research, this is important stuff.

Through the end of the 1950s when China invaded Tibet, the Darma were left to pursue their quasi-migratory life in peace. They farmed the valley, and acted as traders, moving wool, silk, salt and other materials between the plains of India and the mountains of Tibet. The English never really successfully colonized this neck of the woods, which was less valued strategically that the heart of the high Tibetan Plateau (as well as Afghanistan), which offered a buffer from the encroaching Chinese (and Russian) forces. As late as Independence in the mid-40s, the Indian government apparently remained unaware of this indigenous constituency within its borders.

Then in 1962, China pushed into the northeastern states of India, on the other side of Nepal from where we’ve been stationed these long months, and the Darma way of life more or less came to an end. India decided to close the border and augment its military presence in the northern Kumaon hills. In turn, the Darma became full Indian citizens, recognized as a distinct tribal group, and were granted partial control of the land in the Darma Valley. With their trade routes closed, however, they’ve become more and more assimilated into mainstream Indian society, losing not just some of their traditions but their language as well.

So, for those who have been waiting to get a handle on what exactly prompted this shift from Texas to quite literally the other side of the world, C’s Ph.D. project to help document this so-called “dying” language is the reason. I think that’s enough of a history lesson for today.

Feeling better (thank you very much) we were definitely ready for some more action from both a research and recreation standpoint.