The reDiscovery Project: From Sarmoli to Kasauni, Uttarakhand's charm lies in its sights, people's kindness

Editor’s note: You may have heard the saying ‘the journey is the destination’, but some travellers actually put that philosophy into practice. Presenting, #FTravellers — on-the-road (or air/sea) dispatches from travel enthusiasts on long journeys.

The travellers we're now featuring are Ambika Vishwanath and Hoshner Reporter of The reDiscovery Project. Ambika and Hoshner are doing an in-depth journey through Uttarakhand, and will be sharing their travel journals on Firstpost.

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Dispatch 5

Text by Ambika Vishwanath | Photos by Hoshner Reporter

The road to Munsiari seemed like it was taking us to the end of the world.

After the last town of Thal, the road ahead was along the clear, green waters of the Ramganga river for close to an hour before it steadily ascended into the mountains. It was a sharp, dizzying climb, and after a point, I couldn’t look down anymore, despite Hoshner’s repeated prompts. The couple of times I did dare to peek out the window filled me with equal parts of awe and dread at the impossibly high mountains and sheer drop down below, though the driver was careful and knew the roads well. And then suddenly we turned a corner and were at the top of the ridge with Munsiari a few kilometres below and the arresting snow-capped Himalayas in the distance. After the heat of Thal, the cool air of Munsiari was a relief, and as we drove past the main bazaar, not unlike others in similar towns that dot the slopes of Uttarakhand, we were excited to finally be living in a real Himalayan village — the first of our journey so far.

"Meet me at the Deodar tree," is what our host told us, which we relayed to the driver with some hesitation — surely there was more than one Deodar tree in Sarmoli! But our driver nodded nonchalantly and after a few minutes of driving up the unpaved road, we found ourselves deposited under a beautiful, towering old Deodar, the branches of which extended to seemingly engulf the entire road!

Villagers gather around the Deodhar tree, the center of all activity in Sarmoli

Villagers gather around the Deodar tree, the center of all activity in Sarmoli

There we met the indefatigable Kamla Pandey, who during our week-long stay at her house was ever busy, organising festivals, working at the local women’s collective and self-help group, running a 10k with other villagers and yet always had the time for chai and a chat with us, smiling and curious. Our initial three-day stay quickly doubled as we strolled around the village, played with kids and shared endless cups of tea with its warm and hospitable residents.

Kamla Pandey and our homestay family in Sarmoli. We stayed in the cute first floor room

Kamla Pandey and our homestay family in Sarmoli. We stayed in the cute first floor room

A local NGO Himalayan Ark, founded by Mallika Virdi, a self-confessed mountain lover who ditched the city for the pristine environs of Sarmoli over two decades ago, runs among other things a homestay programme in pretty Sarmoli to offer a means of livelihood to the villagers that have little other income opportunities. Employment is increasingly an issue in Uttarakhand — a refrain we heard repeatedly — and such initiatives offer economic prospects beyond agriculture, which is largely sustenance-based. The programme places you with one of the 25-odd families and you live in a room in their home, eat wholesome local food, and generally partake in village life.

Mid-May and the village is abuzz with activity; there is a 20 kilometre run to Khaliya Top, the highest point in the area and a popular trek which offers stunning views of the Panchachuli range, a butterfly and bird festival, and a number of other activities over the week. The Khaliya run was the day after we arrived, a seemingly impossible task where the runner gains around 12,000 feet in altitude, the fastest completing the run in a ridiculous 3 hours. We were happy to sit with the village elders at the first water station and offer the brave runners water and encouragement. We were still debating walking the trek up, let alone run!

Kappu, Kamla's son, holds the record for the fastest time in the Khalia run, which he has won for two years in a row

Kappu, Kamla's son, holds the record for the fastest time in the Khalia run, which he has won for two years in a row

Sunday Sarmoli conversations

Sunday Sarmoli conversations

Every night, Kamla fed us locally grown produce and grains and we stuffed ourselves with Gahad dal (horse gram lentils), local greens, more bhang chutney and oodles of homemade ghee. Though we had every intention of making the trek up to Khaliya, we never did, instead walking to other random parts of the village and around, making friends with the kids and understanding better the work of the women’s collective and local panchayat. Adverse issues like domestic violence, alcohol-related problems, lack of awareness of a potential water scarcity and others are slowly being tackled by the panchayat and women’s group. Mallika, who is also the sarpanch of the forest village panchayat, informed that the main water source, the Mesar kund, is drying up and that they are now building a new lake to collect and supply water. The flatland up at the top of the ridge where the old and new lake meet is a beautiful space, quiet and serene, lush with thick foliage all around and a short, easy hike up from the village.

Pachachuli II, the highest of the Pachachuli peaks, bathed in the golden light of sunset

Pachachuli II, the highest of the Pachachuli peaks, bathed in the golden light of sunset

After the first few days of clear weather following a spate of rain where we were treated to a glorious sunset over Panchachuli, the air turned thick and hazy. Summer had reached the upper Himalayas. We went down to Munsiari to visit the Tribal Heritage Museum, the only comprehensive documentation of the Bhotiya tribes that once inhabited this region, who were traders involved in Indo-Tibetan trade. After the 1962 war, trade ceased, leaving them without work and a livelihood. Set up by the late Sher Singh Pangtey who travelled extensively across Milam and surrounding glaciers collecting utensils, old doors, brass hookahs, maps and photographs, the museum is a treasure trove of culture and a must-visit.

The beautiful Yellow Billed Blue Magpie is commonly seen around Munsiari

The beautiful Yellow Billed Blue Magpie is commonly seen around Munsiari

Our week in the village passed by quickly and soon it was time to leave. Having made new memories in Sarmoli, we made our way to Kausani, to revisit old ones, in many ways the place where it all began. On a holiday many years ago, Kausani was where, after a rum-filled night of random conversation, we first glimpsed the magnificent Nanda Devi in the early hours, a spectacle that planted the seed of wanderlust and the reDiscovery Project. Almost a decade has passed, and we were excited to go back, reaching the town in the mid-afternoon after a terrible eight hours on the road in unexpectedly hot climes, mostly cramped in the backseat of a Sumo. We arrived smack into a traffic jam (yes, you read that right), it was hot and the air thick due to seasonal forest fires and we were hungry and tired, only to realise everything was either full or unaffordable. After an hour of searching, we finally found a room in a depressing hotel that had clearly seen better days. The Kausani we remembered seemed to have moved on to something else and we struggled to reconcile our memories with what we saw, arguing about being there, the tiredness, the heat and the whole scene making us both irritable.

A traditional wood and stone home in Sarmoli

A traditional wood and stone home in Sarmoli

But then as it happens often in the mountains, things changed quickly. Evening slowly descended, we found a better room for the next day, fed our bellies and the sky turned shades of orange, blue and magenta. We never did find what we were looking for in Kausani; the quiet ‘Switzerland of India’ that Mahatma Gandhi described still had the views, but none of the charm. Perhaps it was best that we left with our memories of a more pleasant past to sustain us and after a couple of days we moved westward, past Gwaldham and onto the Garhwal region. It is times like these that we sometimes question the travel we undertake, the sustainability of long-term movement on a somewhat small budget. But these moments are usually far and few between, make for some good stories (in hindsight), and are more than balanced out by amazing moments that stay with us far longer.

Stay tuned for our adventures through the Garhwal!

Read more from this series here.

Writer Ambika Vishwanath and photographer Hoshner Reporter are the team behind The reDiscovery Project. Follow their journey here.


Updated Date: Jun 26, 2018 17:52 PM

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