Saturday, January 10, 2004

Looking for the latest on Dan's India adventures? Check out his new weblog, India Rebound, at That's where I'll be posting through the spring of 2004. We arrive in India on January 14. Cheers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

We've been back in the states for two months on the nose, pretty much, and I'm thinking that the time might come for more blogging. We'll be going back to India for several months this winter, and in the meantime I'm hard at work here in Austin, Texas, trying to keep the cart rolling along.

Work has been going pretty well, with assignments for Texas Parks and Wildlife and AAA's Texas Journey magazine rounding out the paycheck. Waiting to hear back on pitches concerning dam-building and other India topics. Gotta come up with a name for this new blog -- and an angle.

Texas Life 101, perhaps. Keep checking back.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Delhi doesn't usually rate much in the way of wildlife, but if the zookeeper is a pal, then maybe it does. We've been here the past week, hiding out from the monsoon and dreadful humidity in the Sunder Nagar neighborhood of South Delhi. We've shopped a lot more than I like, and been to the National Gallery to see the Buddhist art and ancient sculpture; it's quite a swell place, even if the roof leaks. India rivals Greece and Egypt with regard to its ancient civilization, and the museum remains a great place to glimpse the past. The new miniature painting displays also come recommended for those passing through Delhi anytime soon.

Ah, but the critters at the zoo... Those who have been loyal (or even occasional) readers know by now that I've had something of a tiger fetish since landing on the Subcontinent. When C and I stopped by to Mr. Bonal, a member of the Darma tribe she has been study in the Himalaya, he suggested a tour of the zoo (pronounced "jew" to my amusement) where he is director.

"This is probably the only place in India where you can request to see a tiger," I joked. Bonal checked his watch at that crack, and paled slightly. It was 4:30, and the cats were being moved inside for the night. Well, that's tough luck, I thought.

Then after visiting the elephants in their pen, and checking out the flocks of ibis and cormorant in the bird sanctuary, we made a detour. Around to the back of the tiger enclosure, where we entered a room with the sour, ammonia smell of cat piss, and found ourselves face-to-face with four massive, panting tigers. The largest fellow snarled while laying on his side, and his queen licked a leg of lamb and eyed us warily.

That would have been a satisfactory end to things, but Bonal had one more trick up his sleeve. After seeing the big orange Bengals, we took a gander at the white tigers that the Delhi Zoo is perhaps most famous for. Ordinarily, I find zoos a bit depressing, but these cats looked healthy and fit, and not too much more miserable than the tiger I had spotted being chased by jeeps in Corbett. The white phase is a mutation, and like their orange brothers, this was essentially a family of cats -- with Mom and four daughters, an uncle and Papa Tiger enjoying the shade of their feeding pens.

The biggest tabby went to work on his dinner right in front of us, tearing at the lamb leg in just such a way to remind us anywhere else in the world, he'd be boss.

Tonite, with this image ingrained amongst all my memories of this India swing, we'll board a plane for the West. Sorry am I to leave these tigers behind; while I wonder what transformations I'll find when we get back to Texas.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The slippery retreat from the glacier left us with a hankering to get off the high ground. In fact, after 8 months of Indian travel, having bounced literally from coast-to-coast on the Subcontinent, the inclination to run back to Dharchula, back to Delhi and eventually all the way home to Texas took hold; it didn't hurt that my plane ticket was stamped with a July 21 departure date.

So, we hot-footed it back down the Darma Valley, retracing our path along the Dhauli Ganga, crossing glaciers and bridges every couple of miles, skipping across whitewater streams, and keeping our fingers crossed that the monsoon would stay away and the mountain deities would let us pass. There was no problem on either account, and as we crossed the third or fourth bridge and dropped the second tongue of snow behind us, we entered into a wild verdant nest of wallnut and oak, leaving behind the deodar pines at higher altitudes. Bodies on the path increased the lower we found ourselves, meeting with more goatherds, more workers, more housewives carrying wood for their cooking fires in the valley.

It took two days from Duntu/Duktu to reach Sela; a full 12 days after our first encounter with the rural Darma and my hypothermic fit. The little hotel was void of visitors, and the night looked to be quiet. A lone yellow dog sat on the steps of the dormitory, and scared the bejeezus out of me in the middle of the night when it appeared out of the darkness. From time to time, she would let out a howl or bark for a few minutes. Even with no sun, the weather proved to be warmer, and we slept soundly otherwise with the Dhauli rushing by outside our window.

The final day was a hard series of high, cliffside paths moving up and down above the valley floor, some thousand feet below. It was harrowing, hard walking, and the wind was blowing great clouds up and over our tracks, spraying us with the rains that had finally come to Darma. After four hours of hiking, we stopped for snacking alongside a small shrine, and then descended finally to the village of Dur, at the foot of Darma Valley, where a rocky jeep track provides a supply line to the outside world.

It was a typical re-entry scenario: We managed to obtain lunch from the general store (more Maggie noodles) and answered questions from the gathering of men with seemingly nothing better to do. A few showed the sort of wonderful generosity that seems to be departing the region bit by bit, while others were full drunk at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. When asked whether we should continue to the next village, some 3 miles downhill distant, the response was correspondingly contradictory.

On the one hand, we were assured a car would arrive. On the other, we were told that the best bet would be to keep on keeping on. After waiting some time, we decided on the latter course of action, which surprised our new fan club -- with good reason, since the big blue truck that had been resting idle since we'd sauntered up hours earlier was now ready to rumble in just the direction we were going. Along with about a dozen school boys headed back to civilization for the new semester, two dogs, a drunkard and our heavy loads, we climbed aboard.

And, here's the kicker: Waiting at our next stop was the daily bus from Sobla to Dharchula, scheduled to leave at 4. So inconceivable was it that the crew at Dur didn't know about this ride that I nearly ran back up the hill to give those guys a piece of my mind. I mean, it was one thing to misunderstand that we were feeling under the gun to get back to Dharchula, and therefore somehow neglect to explain that the GIANT blue truck would be leaving shortly if a shared jeep didn't arrive (we passed several likely headed all the way to Dur after the bus got underway) but to fail to note that the bus would be waiting if we wanted to hoof it, well... that's just the sort of thing that makes India so freaking aggravating. Had we known, we would have hiked out to the bus on our own steam, instead of waiting for the truck that nobody seemed inclined to advertise as a possibility when the jeeps were obviously in short supply and would have never made Sobla in time for the bus. Heavy sigh...

Less than a week later, we said our sad goodbyes to our friends in Dharchula, and rolled onward to Delhi. That's where I'm sitting now, sweltering in the monsoon humidity, with a couple of days to kill before my return to the West. I don't have high hopes for a smooth ride, but with Texas on the horizon, I've got my fingers crossed for a smooth landing.

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.

Saturday, July 05, 2003

We’re just back from two weeks trekking and researching in the Darma Valley… looking at about two weeks until we pack up and head stateside for the rest of the year. And while we appear to be closing this chapter up in fine style, it’s true that the week before we undertook this backcountry adventure, up to the remote Himalayas beyond Dharchula, a trip of some 50 miles or so roundtrip, the signs were not so promising. It took a few days after we embarked to acclimatize to the high country, and the rigors of travel on the edges of the habitable world.

Before we even hit the trail, though, there was the recurrent bowel trouble that struck first me, and then C upon our return from Assam via Delhi. I’ve managed to keep most of the details of our intestinal distress out of this journal to date, but let’s just say that the old joke about “vegetarian salad shooters” doesn’t quite cover the indignities we’ve suffered of late. Fortunately, we haven’t had any puking, but I’ll never look at squat toilets or tissue paper the same after our time in India; it took three days apiece to recover from the mysterious malady, with me going through a course of antibiotics intended to treat the self-diagnosed giardia bug that I seem to have carried for the past few months.

Finally, finally then, we snuck out of the house with our backpacks loaded to find a ride to the mouth of the Darma Valley. This trip had been in the planning stages pretty much since we arrived on the Subcontinent – the Darma people, an indigenous Himalayan people, and their language in particular, were the main reason that we located to this far corner of the map in the first place. We’d been promised that their migration season, which spans the summer, would be a productive time to make recordings of songs and stories, and to observe the rituals of the Darma in their native surroundings.

For my part, I was also looking forward to making a last foray – for the time being – into the vast Himalayan wilderness. But before we could set boot to trail, we faced the problem of finding a jeep headed the right way. Soon we were loaded aboard one of the nefarious shared taxis headed to the bottom-most town of the Darma Valley, however, we still didn’t appear headed anywhere too quick. First one boy and then another would join our party of passengers, only to dash off at the last minute. The driver assured us the whole time that we’d be headed to the mountains in 10 minutes or so – this went on for two hours!

Next, the driver disappeared. He returned thereafter with a box containing two live chickens; grains and rice were loaded along with our packs onto the roof; a local butcher passed along a bloody package of goat meat to be delivered along the way. Then, with the afternoon waning, and clouds gathering over Dharchula, the engine finally turned over, belching a cloud of diesel, and we were on our way. “No worries,” we were reassured, once again. “You reach Sela today no problem.”

No problem, I smiled, of course, this will be a snatch. The last town in what’s considered the “lower part” of Darma Valley, Sela was to provide our first night’s accommodation. An outpost at a height of some 8,000 feet, the village was less than a third of the way to our final destination, Sipu, a speck of a town at nearly twice that altitude. But first we had to tackle this 5 mile hike, which we guessed would take at least three hours; no worries. Hadn’t we been repeatedly assured us that the trekking would be easy and we’d be safe in the valley by nightfall?

Well, we were starting to get deep into the valley by nightfall, but our safety was a bit dubious. Christina lugged her 30-pound pack like a trooper over hill and yon, skirting the raging Dhauli Ganga – a river soon to be dammed for hydroelectric needs in the plains states – while keeping her eyes averted from the thousand-foot cliffs that dropped off to our right. Small temples dotted the trail at strategic overlooks. Springs were marked by small shrines, decorated by ribbons that reminded me of Native American trail markings I’d seen in Montana.

After a couple of hours of hard walking, we descended towards the river at long last. With the temperature dropping and light fading as the darkness swallowed the alpenglow we found ourselves battered and exhausted in a clearing. From the hearth of a small, recently abandoned inn, a wisp of smoke tailed skyward. By all measures, it was time to call it quits.

With no response to my cries, I rearranged the wood in the small stove, and within a couple of breaths had sparked a fire. I was eyeing the nearby fields for a place to pitch our tent, while C busied herself unearthing dinner from the debris in my 50-pound pack – add notebooks and recording equipment to your standard camping fare and the weight piles up quick – when around the bend came a chipper young Darma fellow. He looked upon our project dubiously, and then offered to lead us onto Sela; a half-hour away along straight trails, we were reassured.

Given my previous Himalayan adventures – even that afternoon’s reassurances – I should have known better than to believe our newfound guide.

But C wanted to make time. So we snuffed the fire, repacked and shouldered our bags, and followed this optimist into the twilight. Two dim stream crossings, a second glacier pouring down the hill, a black forest, and an hour later, we spotted the light of the Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol check post through the trees. The ITBP has had jurisdiction over much of this area – official ordained a tribal area, protected on behalf of the Darma – since the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962… more on this history later. For this last part of the journey, I had simply wanted to close my eyes. Our guide held Christina’s hand to stable her, while I stumbled, miserable and ready to quit.

As we reached the small Sela market, my t-shirt was drenched, and the only thing driving my legs was willpower. We'd been walking for nearly five hours! My lungs wondered where the oxygen might have gone. In the lamplight, I could see our fellow passengers from the jeep, smirking. (Those bastards, who had reassured me that we’d make it “no problem,” I thought.) I began to quake with cold and dehydration, my system shutting down as I bonked bigtime. Somebody pressed a much-needed cup of hot tea into my hand. Thank goodness there were rooms at the inn; Christina shifted our belongings to a small alcove above the kitchen, and I retired without dinner, crashing on the floor, wrapped in my sleeping bag, praying that this fever was just mild hypothermia and that the morning would bring better tidings.

So much for the penultimate chapter of this great adventure.

Monday, June 16, 2003

Where was I? Or rather, where have I been? Had a short week in Dharchula at the outset of June before taking off on short notice for Assam in the Northeast. That region may be the only place in India more remote than Kumaon. But because of its far remove on the opposite side of Nepal from where we are and distance from the mainland as well, the Northeast – which includes not just Assam but famed Darjeeling and little known Sikkim – remains a little more pristine than Uttaranchal.

Assam is home to many of the tea plantations in India, as well as the majority of the petroleum operations here. Like the spice region of Kerala we visited last winter, it’s lush and green and river filled, especially now when pre-monsoon storms push through once or twice a day, drenching the rolling landscape. As India goes, Assam is culturally unique however, with competing Buddhist and Muslim influences giving rise to a blended Hinduism that uniquely values the community-at-large and natural values, providing a verdant welcoming mat for visitors such as myself.

The reason for this latest trip was actually work related, as a major American magazine was interested in wildlife viewing opportunities in India. Because the parks in the plains are generally closed, thanks to steamy weather and the coming summer rains, the Northeast proved to be the ideal destination for a little research. So we pounded down to Delhi, caught a flight, and booked a room at the splendid Wild Grass Resort just outside of Kaziranga National Park.

Found on the banks of the massive Brahmaputra River, KNP is home to the majority of the world’s white one-horned rhinos, a species that like the Asian elephant is distinct from its African cousins (in this case, the black two-horned rhino). The population is booming after a 100 years of habitat protection, a move prompted by the Brits after the viceroy’s wife Lady Curzon visited the region in 1904 only to find that most of the rhinos had been wiped out. Since the 1960’s, the population has been up and down, and it’s topping out today at a remarkable 1,600 animals. The Lonely Planet guidebook claims that Marco Polo visited and thought the rhino was actually a unicorn, but either the famous explorer was a fraud or he was blind as a bat.

Generally speaking, I didn’t know much about the park when I set out for Kaziranga (much less when I pitched the story) and even before arrival I wondered if the reassurances that I would have “no problem” spotting wildlife were just another instance of Indian promises-yet-to-be broken. Given that it took a couple of days to get to the park that would have been a major, major pain in the arse. Fortunately, it turned out that animals were easy to spot, including not just rhino, wild elephant, dozens of bird species and YET ANOTHER Bengal tiger – my second of our time in India.

The tiger came out on the day after C’s 34th birthday, when we were taking our fourth and final ride through the park. We’d had a spectacular night before, being the only guests at the lodge, enjoying wine and music in the cool evening (as opposed to the 110-F degree heat that met us in Delhi), and even dining on a rare birthday cake the Wild Grass staff had procured from an unknown bakery somewhere up the road. The tiger was unexpected; in fact, though wildlife sightings had been assured, the big cats are virtually impossible to see this time of year with the grass and brush in the park ranging up to six feet almost everywhere you look.

Content with a few more rhinos and a couple of rare birds, our attention was focused on the immediate roadside, the jeep idling, when I noticed some movement at a distance of about 50 yards. Having seen boucoups deer in the near distance, as well as having paused already to let two rhino take the right of way during our visit to Kaziranga, my first thought was “Hmmm… I wonder which ungulate is breaking from the brush?” But the colors and the movement were all wrong. Then came my second thought, “Oh… My… God… Tiger!”

As the 8-plus-foot orange beast then proceeded to cut the distance between its lair and the jeep to about 25 yards, a third thought dawned on me: “I hope it’s not hungry.”

Christina was near tears with excitement, and our guide was fairly beaming at our good luck. I didn’t know whether we’d done something to somehow “deserve” this sighting, but it made for a dynamite conclusion to our already way memorable trip to Assam.

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Lest anybody think that I have become inured to the rigors of travel in India, let me just say that I don’t care what your “mind-state” might be, three days straight is too long to be on the road in this country.

I left Manali last week, and headed down the picturesque Kullu Valley framed by white-capped mountains in search of trout. I found my way to the Tertian River, a tributary of the main river the Beas, which had yielded no fish in the days before; the Tertian unfortunately would also prove stubborn with my quarry. Along the way to these fabled honey holes past the main valley, I also took a side detour to the small, strange town of Malana, where the children leap out of your way to avoid being touched. If you get the impression that I covered a lot of ground during the course of my return, you win a prize.

So, Malana: this is a place that I wanted to see vis-à-vis rumors of a strange language being spoken and a rather primitive culture still in place. The town is way up a hillside past Jari, a small outpost on the banks of the Parbati River, a stone’s throw from the hippy hangout of Kasol, where the Israelis and English ravers gather for their full-moon parties. I might have guessed from these reports that I was headed to the heart of Hash Country, but the fact is that I anticipated visiting a ritualistic little community in Malana, and not the cultivation capital that I found high in the hills.

Rather, the whole of the Parbati Valley, especially around Kasol, is geared to provide the party people with plenty of smoke, supplying hashish to most regions of India. It didn’t take long being in Malana to be offered a chillum, and then another, and yet one more. (I didn’t inhale, er, honest… cough-cough.)

Turns out that the folks in Malana really don’t like visitors much, and they only tolerate foreigners because of the income they represent. In fact, their mistrust, disdain or whatever it is remains so entrenched that the Malana hire people from the surrounding towns to work the few guesthouses they have in their small valley. There were about 200-300 wooden homes with slate roofs nestled in the little sub-alpine alcove, where the Malana live year round amidst thick-growing pines and small plots cleared to make way for potatoes and other crops. The language was tough to pick up, but sure didn’t sound like any of the Hindi or mountain dialects I have tripped across in the last 6 months. Somebody said that the Malanans might have been descended from Greeks who came alongside Alexander the Great way back when, but this seemed to be a conflation of facts from other parts of India.

After a day in Malana, snapping photos and visiting with a slightly nutty South African woman and her young daughter traveling along similar paths to my own, I felt the urge to keep on keeping on, The Malana River, I was told, didn’t have any fish, and despite the kind bud, my interest in Indian baking wasn’t strong enough to anchor me there.

So it was on down to the Tertian River to try for brown trout. When that didn’t work out, I hit the road again for my return trip to Dharchula. I did see some pictures of the lunkers available in the Himalaya, however, including wily browns imported by the locals and occasional escaped rainbows first introduced by the British and now farmed to supply some of the Manali restaurants. Needless to say, I will make a point of trying my luck fishing in India again, but even in the mountains now the summertime temps are melting the glaciers. Plenty of cold rushing water is pouring into the rivers, shoving the fish out of their regular hide-y holes; I lost about 10 flies – mostly nymphs and streamers – proving this point.

Coming back to Dharchula took an all-day bus ride, an overnight train adventure – I couldn’t seem to find the sleeper car, and ended up sharing benches with various Indian families through the night – a second all-day bus (during which I caught up on some much needed shut-eye) and finally a day of shared jeeps winding up and over the mad hills of Kumaon.

In a word, it was a brutal trip; I swear if and when we return to this part of the world, you’ll find me on a motorbike. The other option is just to torturous to contemplate.