Friday, 17 February 2017

Retracing the Path of Nomadic Shepherds in Kalap.

The gorgeous sunset at Beejay Top. 
It was sometime in 2014 that I stumbled upon the Kalap website. It said, ‘Untouched Garhwal’. Before browsing further through the website, I instantly made up my mind that I would visit this untouched beautiful place sometime. But something or the other came up and I couldn’t until June 2016. You may call in serendipity, but Anand Sankar, the man behind Kalap, had posted on one of the Facebook groups asking if there were any women trekkers and bloggers who would be interested in joining the Nomad’s trail. Incidentally, that was the very trail that had caught my attention on the website. I’m not sure if he heard, but I almost screamed ‘yes’ in my reply to him. Flights and buses booked, in a week’s time, I found myself in Dehradun which was the meeting point for your journey.
Anand, a tall man, with a straight face and gamcha wound around his neck picked me from where I was staying. I would discover later that behind the straight face is a super witty and funny bone that would have us all cracking up with laughter at almost everything he uttered! I found myself with 4 other girls and a gentleman from the Army. We drove for around 9 hours and 200 kms and reached Sankhri, a small town and base for many treks, from where we would start the trek to Kalap, the village.
We stopped by this pine forest on the way to Sankhri.
In Sankhri, we had our dinner and breakfast at this amazing home stay of Balbir Rawat. His wife Kalma whipped up some sumptuous local delicacies out of local fern, rajma (kidney beans) and rotis (flat bread). Everything was extremely flavorful. We also saw him make plum juice. They also make and sell jams and pickles. Sadly, I did not buy since I didn’t want to carry excess baggage on the trek. They are also on Airbnb, if anyone is interested.
Balbir Rawat making fresh plum juice. 

The Himalayan home-stay is on airbnb

Delicious food made with fresh produce. 
Now, the trail we were doing was a The Nomad’s trail, which meant we would be following the path of the nomadic shepherds who along with their flock of sheep move from one pasture to another. Only that the path from one pasture to another passes through untouched forests, gurgling streams with the sweetest water, quaint villages frozen in time, alpine pastures carpeted with flowers and the most gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.
The rickety bridge over the roaring river. 

We stopped at this house to rest in the afternoon, in Dhawla. 
While commercial trekking places frequented by trekkers and tourists have well marked paths which offer beautiful views, what struck me from the very beginning of this trek was that the sanctity of Nature and the trekking route had been maintained. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Kalap had been socially isolated till as recent as 2013 and few people know about its existence. I had written an article for The Better India about the initiatives Anand has introduced in Kalap, which you may read on this link. The people of Kalap also consider themselves as the descendants of the Kauravas from the Hindu epic Mahabharata.
We climbed well above to see the same river snaking across the mountain. 
The views were splendid throughout, including crossing a roaring river on a rickety bridge. Come Monsoon, and the bridge gets washed away only to be built again in winter. Around noon time, we reached Dhawla, at 4500 feet above sea level, which is where the Kalap story began. 
First view of Kalap. 


Around two decades ago, a lady along with her three children left the drudgery of the city and arrived in Kalap to be closer to Nature and lead a different way of life. She and her children built the house on their own, set up solar power and got educated by Nature herself. Call it providence that Anand bumped into one of the children, Naren (now an adult) in 2008, who took Anand to Kalap. Anand fell in love with the place and the people and realising how isolated the community was and sensing a potential, decided to build a model of responsible tourism around it. The house has been empty since the lady and her children moved back to the city in 2002, after living there for 15 years, after the collapse of the only bridge across the river that gave them access to a road on the other side.  It was nice to visit the house and hear the story.


Hearty meal for dinner. 

People busy ploughing the fields. 

We rested for a while to escape the scorching sun and started the trek again. By evening as we approached Kalap, at 7800 feet above sea level, little children from the village who had spotted us from a distance, gathered to welcome us. As soon as the entered the village, a de ja vu feeling set on me. That’s because I had visited the Kalap website so many times and admired those wooden houses, and now, I was seeing them for real. The total area of the Kalap gram panchayat is 14 kms from end to end and the population is around 500. 


Rajmohan's wife in the kitchen. 

Rajmohan's grand father who is 103 years old and fit enough to do his own work and walk long distances. 
I’ve visited many villages and have been disappointed to see old structures being torn down to make ‘modern’ homes, completely stripped of traditional architecture which lends a unique beauty. Traditionally, homes in rural India always have earthy colours, because they are made of natural materials. And this is what has been retained in Kalap. All the houses are made of wood, there is no littering and it is really like being transported back in time.

Trekking through the forest. 

The Karba settlement from a distance. 
We were put up in the house of Rajmohan Singh, one of the three permanent staff of Kalap Eco-tourism. The  house was abuzz with activity as curious kids flitted in and out, women scurried about, cooking and making arrangements for us, a teacher with Kalap Trust, Ashwini, busy with her lesson plans while we sat for a while, resting our limbs and agog to explore the beauty of the place.
After a much need high carb dinner of rice, rajma and rotis, we retired for the day. 


The sun streaming through emerald greens. 

Gurgling streams quenched our thirst all along the way. 
Next morning was the time to explore the village. Come sunrise, and people were busy ploughing the fields, women carrying hay or wood on their heads, children running around, cows being led to graze elsewhere, the younger lambs and calves looking irresistibly cute and chewing away continuously at grass, and the clouds shifting shapes in the porcelain blue skies. Unlike most other villages, there are no chicken, roosters and hens running around. The entire village has adopted vegetarianism and follow the teachings of Radha Saomi. It is still one of the few villages where the barter system exists successfully and the village is self-sufficient.



At Bangla bugyal. 

Eating bhel-puri after trekking in such picturesque surroundings was a great idea. 
After breakfast we set off for our next stop, Bangla Bugyal (bugyals are meadows) at the height of 9,500 feet above sea level. We crossed another settlement of the Kalap village called Karba, at 8,500 feet above sea level. The views, needless to say, were splendid. We crossed many streams, each stream offering water which tasted a bit different, owing to the minerals and stones and rocks, that it flowed over. I savoured every drop of water from every stream, knowing that it may be the freshest possible water that I’ll ever get, untouched by humans, purified by the natural elements and which may have been partaken of by wild animals :-)


The full moon at Bangla bugyal. 


Dew drops on my tent. 
We crossed pastures, saw shepherds with their flock of sheep, met fluffy mountain dogs, listened to the winds whistling through tall pine and oak trees. Finally we reached the sprawling Bangla Bugyal and set up our tents. Morning was invariably splendid, as in any camping site. The sun teasing the clouds, birds chirping away, as I sipped hot tea and observed dew drops settled over our tents and leaves.



Chole and rice for breakfast. 


Breakfast done, our trek this day, took us through some unmarked trails, unlike the previous days where there was some semblance of a trail. But Anand, knowing the area like the back of his hand, guided us, as we made some steep ascents, puffing and panting and hoping that we don’t slip over and fall! This was a bit challenging as it rained hard, (and boy, the heavens open up when it rains in the mountains), the temperature plummeted, as we staggered, trembling and stiff with the cold, to Beejay Top, the highest point in Kalap at 12,500 feet above sea level. The staff struggled against the strong wind to erect a tent to shelter us from the rain and gust, as we sat huddled in a circle.

A meadow we crossed was strewn with wild walnuts. The fragrance was aromatic, similar to spices used in pulav or biryani. 

Cobra lilies. 

Catching my breath! 

Small sized strawberry like berries dotted the forest floor. 


After what seemed like an eternity, when the rains and wind retreated, what unveiled itself in the sky, left all of us speechless. The setting sun lit up the clouds till they looked like giant floating lanterns, silhouetting the mountains to produce a sight that landscape artists would dream about.  And that wasn’t all. There came three shepherds with their flock of sheep and goats adding more texture to the experience. As I went on my knees to take pictures of the flock, some looked right into my camera, as if posing. I even held a black lamb which was a cuddly big ball of wool and didn’t want to let it go!
We felt adequately compensated for the strenuous trek with all this beauty. After a hearty meal of khichdi with dollops of ghee, and admiring the night sky as much as my still shivering body could permit, I retired for the night.




A shepherd paused to pose. 

The best sunset in my life till date. 
The following day, I will remember for a long time to come. We camped on the meadow the whole day, and I spent the whole day lazying around on a carpet of flowers, with butterflies and bees prancing and humming around me, sipping tea, reading a book and napping, only to wake up for food and to the sound of buffaloes and sheep chewing grass nearby. A Gujjar (nomadic shepherd) had stopped by with his herd of buffaloes. While the buffaloes stared at me lying flat on the grass, wondering if I was a new variety of grass, I chatted up with the Gujjar. Since it’s a remote area, leopards and bears still thrive around. He told me that once he had fought off a leopard trying to attack his sheep. He sustained severe injuries and had to be hospitalized for a month. He showed me the marks, the leopard had left with its teeth, adding that his right hand nerves haven’t fully recovered from the attack.


Flocks of sheep on the other hill top. 

A distant shot. 

Such a blissful day it was on the meadow! Photo by Anand Sankar.

I wore floral toe-rings :-) 

The lunch was heavenly. I think anything would pass off as heavenly in such surroundings. 
He asked me if I had some painkillers. Anand later mentioned that the shepherds are addicted to painkillers. They are all the time exposed to the natural elements and that does take toll on the body. The trail which we had found to be challenging and which we did for recreation, they do for a livelihood, regardless of the seasons or their health. You know that mountain sheep and goats easily walk on precarious looking edges looking for grass, oblivious that a human (their shepherd) has to follow suit on the same perilous path. I saw shepherds, walking and standing on such steep paths and edges, that the very sight of that freaked me out. But that is a way of life for them. Anand pointed out that the Nomad’s trail has been walked upon by only the shepherds, their flock and few humans who have done the trail. It felt mighty good hearing that.


The Gujjar with his buffaloes.

The bite mark of a leopard on his hand. 
The staff preparing our meals. 

The staff was sturdy to lug such heavy tree logs. 

Anand Sankar, in traditional Garhwali coat. 
Anand had earlier whetted my appetite by mentioning that sometimes the Gujjars make fresh cottage cheese in their tents which they sometimes sell. Anand and his team have used this earlier for cooking in the camps. The very thought of eating paneer made from the milk of buffaloes fed on alpine pastures, flowers and stream water, was enough for me to follow up umpteen number of times on the same. Anand dispatched two of his staff in search of the paneer, but sadly that day it wasn’t available! 


Morning in Beejay Top just before sunrise. 


The staff and members of the trek. 
Another interesting insight was how the trails are formed. The sheep and goats urinate as they are walk in a file, and they generally follow the same trail by smell, and urinate again on that path. When the urea in the soil crosses a particular limit, it becomes too toxic for the grass or plants to grow, and hence a trail is created.


Hello there! 

Hey you! 

This ball of wool was the smallest in this shepherd's flock. Photo by Anand Sankar.


Look how this shepherd is standing precariously on a rock. 

Another stream.
Anyways, it was one of the most magical days at Beejay Top and the next day we climbed down at stayed at Karba where we snacked on freshly plucked apricots, enjoyed the views of the terraced fields and interacted with Rajmohan’s very friendly frail looking Mother who showed us her heavily tattooed arms and legs. After staying the night there, next day, we came back to Kalap to learn more about the initiatives of the Kalap Trust set up by Anand. Taking a hot shower felt like luxury after 5 days of no shower. I discovered to my horror that I was severely sun-burnt and looked scary in the mirror, thanks to the nap under the sun in Beejay Top. But sun burnt skin peels off, new skin grows and I would give anything to go back to Beejay Top and relive the same experience!

Freshly plucked apricots. 

Rajmohan's mother. 

Beautiful tattoos on her legs. 

Children of Kalap. 

Traditional food item made with Amaranth flour and served with ghee in the centre. 

A class in progress.
We went around the village, admiring some of the more intricately carved facades of houses, and watching the very lively teacher, Ashwini, teaching the kids in a very fun and interactive way.
The day ended with a traditional meal made of Amaranth dough and loads of ghee, served with apricot and mint chutney. A little girl whom I had become friends with, gave me some walnuts as parting gift. What a sweet gesture and touching end to a great stay and experience.

Beautiful carvings on houses. 
 



Good to know:
  • The Nomad’s Trail is a moderately difficult trek. Go if you have some prior trekking experience.
  • They have other easier trails too, for families. Check their website or contact Anand.
  • Carry thermal wear and adequate woolens even in summer, because in the higher altitude, it gets very cold. I had not carried thermal wear, because I thought it would be warm in June, but it was extremely cold.
  • For women who have their periods during the trek, carry sufficient garbage bags and newspaper and dispose the waste back in Dehradun, unless you have some bio-degradable options. There is no option of disposing or burning sanitary waste in Kalap. Check with Anand about this.





Savour each moment in the forests. Finally I realized my dream of travelling to ‘Untouched Garhwal’.
I had a good mind to kidnap this superlatively cute grey lamb.

Back home after a beautiful 9 days.
Visit www.kalap.in for more details on the responsible tourism projects.
Visit www.kalaptrust.org for the initiatives in Kalap.


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