The perennially snow-topped Nanda Devi – the Bliss-giving Goddess – was, for a while, the highest mountain in the world. It has since been demoted to number twenty-three. Even within India it is now only the second highest.
It took a while to accurately survey the great heights of the Himalayas.
Nanda Devi, meanwhile, is still an impressive sight – when the clouds lift to reveal it. In fact it consists of two peaks connected by a sloping ridge, with the main peak being noticeably higher than the other. This makes it easy to identify at a distance. And at a distance is how it is usually seen. Even its skirts are not easily reached, and we did not attempt to do so. Our trek into the hills had a more modest objective – to visit the village of Sorag. We did not even glimpse Nanda Devi on the way. We were too close with too many slopes, ridges and peaks intervening.
This was a work trip. I was the guest of the Kassar Trust, an Indian NGO (a Non-Governmental Organisation, involved in development work), and I was there to see their work in the Almora District of Uttar Pradesh. My host and guide was Ashit Mitra – commonly known as Bulu – who had come to the hills, together with Tim Reece, a British geologist, some years before.
This was not my first visit, but this time I had been persuaded to make the time to visit their work in Sorag. This meant a one and a half day trek from the nearest road, two days there, and another full day to get back again (quicker coming down than going up), not to mention the time taken to travel from Delhi and back. This all added up to a substantial amount of time to devote to one partner NGO when I had many others to visit as well. On the other hand, it also meant, at last, an opportunity to get beyond the desolate monotony of the Chir Pines which cover the hills like a plague in the more inhabited parts lower down and to reach the temperate broadleaf forest which is still to be found higher up.
And there to do some birdwatching.
Of course, in the circumstances, my birdwatching had to done en route and on the side, so to speak. Meanwhile, the route and its vistas were as much to be attended to as the birds, especially in terms of where to put your feet on the trickier slopes.
There were to be other hazards too. As we drove up the twisting road beyond the village of Kapkot we came upon Tim hobbling down, aided by a walking stick and a lad carrying his rucksack. He had suffered a leech bite while up in Sorag and the wound had turned septic. It had taken him three days to make the journey down. Nonetheless, being made of stern, or possibly just stubborn stuff he declined our offer of a lift back to where he’d left his jeep and limped on down the road. We were to meet the leeches ourselves, but forewarned, we saw them off before any damage was done.
The month was August, at the end of the South-West monsoon. The sky had returned to its customary blue with the occasional passing cloud. But we were in the hills, where anything could happen.
We parked the jeep beside a tea shop just beyond Kapkot, at Garcon, roughly 3,500 feet above sea-level. The road took a sharp bend to the right. We headed off up the track straight ahead and alongside the Karmi River, which flowed furiously down its narrow gorge. This was still mostly pine country, and the first part of the path was frequently covered with recently fallen scree from the slopes above where there was little or no undergrowth to hold the thin soil and broken rocks.
Below the path, alongside the river, there were Blue Whistling Thrushes, perched on a boulder briefly before dashing to the next. They are a heavy, dark bird – quite as big as a feral pigeon. It wasn’t until I paused to take a look through my binoculars that I could see that they were indeed a deep blue, with speckled upper body and head, and a distinct line of white dots across the shoulder – for which reason they are also known as the Spangled Thrush.
On the path we soon met the first of many trains of pack mules, carrying plastic cans of kerosene and other supplies to the hill villages, or returning apparently empty. The rocky track was littered with cast mule shoes. The mules were small – donkey sized – and the only means of transport beyond the road – although the military had been known to deliver some items, such as electricity transformers, by helicopter. However, for us, even a mule would have been cheating. We kept walking, and carried our own back-packs.
A little further along the track we came upon a large, silver-grey Langur monkey sat in the middle of the path. It watched us as we approached with dark eyes set in a black face surrounded by a ruff of bright silver fur. Langurs are large but lithe, long limbed and long tailed, and immensely powerful. They climb trees, cliff faces and buildings with an effortless grace. I have seen them leap twenty feet from a tree to the ground and then bounce twenty feet back up again into the next tree without a pause. They are found all over the sub-continent and are everywhere identified with the monkey God Hanuman, renowned for his great strength, his loyalty to the God-hero Rama, and for not always being too bright. This individual, however, was bright enough to know that he’d best get out of the way and it turned and sprung easily up the slope above and into a low bush. From there it made its displeasure at our arrival clear with bared teeth as we stopped to look. I returned the expression, and it bound away upwards.
It was mid-day by now, which meant we suffered the hottest part of the day still in the humid confines of the valley. We took frequent rest stops, although the path was not steep. Numerous streams ran down in greater or lesser gullies and under the path in crudely built culverts or, occasionally, a concrete bridge. There was shade here where the damp enabled broadleaf trees and shrubs to flourish. Further on the air became a little cooler and the sky more clouded, but I still sweated when the sun shone.
Black Bulbuls were frequent, crested, noisy and always busy, brilliant red legs and bills set against sooty plumage – like a half-sized Chough. There were also White-cheeked or Himalayan Bulbuls, crested again, black-headed, with bright white cheek patches, a grey-brown body and a yellow behind.
By about two-thirty in the afternoon, having just passed through the village of Saron, we came to a point where the path took a sharp turn to the left. The river was joined by another also from the left, but this was apparently the continuation of the Karmi, rather than the river running down from directly ahead, and indeed the path and the leftward river were to lead us to the village of Karmi. More importantly, we had at last reached the point where the broadleaf forest began to properly appear, first only on the slopes while pines still topped the ridges, but gradually, as we climbed, higher too – until at last the pines were gone.
The forest was thick in the gullies – oaks, alders, thickets of bamboo, the ground well covered with herbaceous plants, shrubs, ferns and mosses. On the slopes and spurs the cover was thinner, the spread of the oaks constrained by cutting for firewood, the ground grazed by livestock, and some gentler slopes terraced for cultivation.
We stopped for lunch at a tea shop at the small village of Bhordar at three. At this point we were at about 5,500 feet. We had therefore climbed some 2,000 feet since leaving the jeep. The elderly gentleman who ran the tea shop was apparently convinced that Bulu must be Japanese because he worked so hard. For the moment, however, Bulu seemed as happy as the rest of us to rest a while and refuel on bread and cheese-spread and home-made apple jam.
We marched on, climbing gradually, with only the odd cloud to shade us, until we finally reached Karmi, a thousand feet higher, at 5.30, an hour or so before sunset. This was to be our night halt. The main village is a straggle of houses and small shops, some traditionally built of stone under tiled roofs, but many more recently constructed of steel-reinforced concrete in the contemporary fashion. The Karmi River runs through the settlement and is crossed a by a great slab of concrete, wide enough to allow lorries to pass in both directions at once, except that there were no lorries, and no possibility of lorries, only pedestrians and mules.
I stood on the bridge next morning and watched the first of many Plumbeous Redstarts. They were common along every river and stream from there on. This was a male, dull slatey-blue but with a bright chestnut tail, flitting rock to rock above the rush of the river, fluttering erratically after invisible prey in typical flycatcher fashion. The female is a dull blue-brown, but with a white tail, ended with a brown triangle – more a white-start than a red (start deriving from an Old English word for tail). Later I more than once saw the females – but never the males – fanning their tails open and closed as they perched. Redstarts used to be Thrushes, but they are now classified among the Old World Flycatchers.
We set off again at seven the next morning for the Vinayak Pass. The mention of a pass conveyed to me, in my ignorance, the idea of a convenient gap in the hills, a relatively low point through which we might more or less stroll.
Not a bit of it. It was a steep climb of some two and a half thousand feet to reach the crest at 9,000 feet or so. We reached there by ten. It was a shallow gap, hardly wider than the path, in the ridge which ran away on either side, and narrow too over the crest. No sooner were we up than we were on our way down again – or we would have been had we not stopped to take in the view.
We could see the distant peaks of Trishul and Mangtoli, and possibly parts of Nanda Kot. These mountains, together with others, almost encircle the central goddess, Nanda Devi, forming a long impenetrable wall of rock, glaciers and snow around her. Trishul, which has three peaks, is named after the trident of the God Siva, the Destroyer of Worlds.
Not a bad choice for a guard.
These peaks are nearly all, give or take, around 23,000 feet high (Nanda Devi is 25,656 feet). The reason for such high peaks, as for those of Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga and so on, is of course that, geologically speaking, the Himalayas are still young. They are being pushed upwards by tectonic forces even as they are being eroded down by rain and ice – and even the footfalls of man and mule I suppose. This explains the landscape too – steep slopes, sharp ridges, scree of all sizes, deep cut gorges and thundering waters.
It was somewhere along the stretch to the pass that we met the leeches. We were crossing a broad and level meadow thick with grasses, wild flowers, bamboo stands and the occasional tree. We had to stop every so often to pick the half inch long predators off our ankles before they had a chance to properly tuck in. What a life – for the leeches. What a time they must have to wait before their next meal – a deer, a mule, a human – happens to pass by.
From Karmi red and mauve rhododendrons began to add their paint-box colours to the green of the forest. Where they grew on a series of receding ridges the effect was quite Japanese. There were low growing cotoneasters too, as well as bamboos and oaks. The forest was thicker and the houses fewer and there was therefore less cultivation. All along the climb there were black- headed, orange-bodied and grey winged songbirds, which could have been large flycatchers or could have been a member of the bulbul family. They wore short crests and called loudly with multi- note whistles. In fact, when I had an opportunity to consult my book, they were Rufous (or Black-headed) Sibia, a member of the Babbler family.
There were flycatchers too – petite and irresistible Grey-headed Flycatchers with their large head, round eyes and short bill.
Except that they are no longer proper flycatchers. Now they are Fairy Flycatchers, related to titmice and chickadees . . .
Once over the pass and descending, the houses were fewer still. Nonetheless, it is a fact that you cannot go anywhere in India, outside of a Wildlife Reserve – and not always even then – without finding someone living there. It’s a big country, but its population is also substantial. There were pasture patches where the forest had been cleared for grazing, and terraces adjacent to the houses for growing vegetables and pulses. But mostly there were forest trees festooned with green ferns and grey mosses, especially in the gullies. Water trickled or gushed down the slopes everywhere.
We reached the Pindar river, about three thousand feet below the pass, by one o’clock, and ate lunch. We were then sufficiently fortified to make the crossing of the river on a crude lashed-together log and railless bridge which even the local mules tend to refuse. The river raged below, but not as much as it does at the beginning of summer apparently, when the snows on the Pindar Glacier above are melting and the level of the river rises close to that of the bridge. In winter, on the other hand, when its sources are frozen, it is merely a stream.
We were now on the last stretch of our yo-yo hike to Sorag. All that remained was a further 1500 feet to climb, including, just below the village, a sheer cliff. Fortunately a track had been half constructed and half cut into the face of the cliff so that as long as you kept close to the cliff-face, and looked ahead at all times, it was quite safe. Previously there had been a steeper and narrower ‘staircase’ built against the cliff, and earlier still there was a bell to ring and folks above would then haul you up on a rope.
I don’t think my travel insurance would have covered that.
As we climbed from the river I spotted a pair of large raptors high above the valley. I knew at once that they were Lammergeyers . Their long, wedge-shaped tails, their black masks and their generally vulturine appearance were unmistakable. Not that I’d ever seen one before – but the television is (can be) a wonderful thing. I watched as they wheeled around one another on effortless, outstretched wings, until they disappeared around a ridge.
We also disturbed a mixed party of male and female Scarlet Minivets, causing a glorious explosion of red and yellow and black. We came on parties of Minivets a number of times over the next two days, but these were always of females only – grey, black and yellow. Where had the males gone ? They breed from April to July – do they then forming single sex groups ? Or were they parties of immature birds and do the males start off more yellow than scarlet ? I have explored these possibilities in my bird books and on the internet, but it remains a mystery . . .
Sorag, like the other hill villages, is made up of a loose, central cluster and a wide scatter of houses set among cultivated terraces on the slopes of the hills. The traditional houses are built with dry stone walls and roofed with stone slabs. Small doorways are framed in finely carved wood and lead into a dark interior. A steep wooden stair rises to an upper room. Animals live below – a few cattle, sheep, goats – and the people cook, eat and sleep above on a wooden floor smeared over regularly with cow dung. The roof timbers were black and shiny with the oily smoke from the cooking fire. Newer houses had concrete block walls and plain door frames. The old tradition of carving had become too expensive to maintain.
The traditional occupation of the hills is keeping sheep for wool. In the summer months the sheep are taken up to the high pastures to graze; in the winter they are penned and housed in low stone huts overlooking the village. Their shepherds live with them throughout the year. This mode of shepherding is officially known as vertical transhumance. It sounds like a lonely life – but with wonderful views.
We climbed up to the huts and, although there were low clouds in the valley and others on the higher ridges, we had fine views back down to Sorag, until it began to drizzle and then to rain. We met a troop of Rhesus Macaques, the commonest monkey in most of India, pink-bottomed, short tailed and undistinguished brown. They lined up along a slab of rock and watched us pass.
From the huts, the hills continue to rise towards the guardian peaks and glaciers surrounding Nanda Devi. We climbed from the village to a ridge above the river valley. The climb was steep enough, through broken forest and meadows recently cut for fodder, but when we reached the sloping ridge the drop beyond was sheer. Blocks of shattered rocks lying at some 30 degrees formed the edge of the ridge and from there the rock-face descended precipitously to the Pindar river roaring far below. Yet even on this horrid slope – as an earlier generation of Englishmen might have put it – I noticed a thin pathway leading downward, and evidence of fodder- cutting . . .
There were red-berried cotoneaster bushes, blue-berried berberis, red geraniums, spikes of purple and white Chinese Spiranthes standing in for foxgloves, purple ‘lilies’ – Roscoea purpurea – a member of the ginger family, and lilac crocuses, among the grasses.
How did I know what they all were ? Bulu was kind enough to identify them for me.
However, when it came to the birds he left it to me and my field guide.
He must already have been quite familiar with the Blue Magpies. They come in two varieties – Red-billed and Yellow-billed. Those we saw around Sorag were yellow-billed, black-headed (except for a splash of white on the nape of the neck), white beneath and a glorious blue above. But their finest feature is their tail. Like other magpies, the tail is long – but the Blue Magpie’s is longer still. Two central feathers – blue tipped with white – stream out behind almost as long again as the body and the rest of the tail. The under-tail feathers, meanwhile, are tipped with black giving a chequer-board effect from beneath and along the outer edges of the tail from above.
Himalayan Greenfinches passed overhead in modest, twittering flocks – or, possibly, ‘charms’ – and settled on dry seed-heads to re-fuel. They might reasonably have been named the Himalayan Goldfinch, not because they resemble a European Goldfinch, but because they are mostly a golden yellow, especially on the underside, though patterned with black and grey above.
There was another, larger and heavy-billed finch about, also bright yellow and black, but with splashes of white on the wing. These were Spot-winged Grosbeaks – which put me in mind of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak which is common in Eastern North America, and then of the Hawfinch, which, though not so very common in the UK, I have seen in a small party de-seeding winter pine-cones. The Grosbeaks are clearly a well distributed family.
As already mentioned, our return journey was shorter than our ascent. We left Sorag at half past seven, crossed the Pindar a little under an hour later and then made the long climb to the pass, with rain setting in half way to the top. We made an umbrellared descent to the coffee shop at Karmi by eleven thirty. After lunch and a visit to the workshop-homes of some local blanket and carpet weavers, we left in continuing rain. No doubt it was the rainfall which helped to dislodge a slurry of mud and a substantial slab of rock which hurtled across the path a few yards behind us. The single langur we had met coming up was waiting for us as we came down, but on the opposite slope so that this time he did not need to be disturbed. He watched us pass with a cool indifference , comfortably lodged in a chir pine. We reached our jeep at Garcon by six.