Pindari: The Glacier Beyond
For the better part of three years I had watched the snowcapped peaks from afar: glistening as the first rays of sunlight touched them, remote and majestic with wisps of clouds playing hide-and-seek later in the morning; hidden from view by a myriad clouds as the day progresed; golden in the dying sunlight; silver-streaked by moonlight.
The moods of the seasons played different tunes: in winter they stood totally covered by snow, untouched; in the spring they whispered promises of times to come, in the summer they hid from the view of curious onlookers; in the monsoons they 'were speckled with every hue of the rainbow; and in the autumn - they prepared to remain aloof.
Then, one day they beckoned to come closer, and we were on our way to Pindari glacier. Bageshwar is a day's drive, and easily accessible by road from Kathgodam or Tanakpur, the railheads. From here we drove 35 kms to Song, where we parked our car, hired a porter for the 100 km trek to Pindari and back, and walked 3 kms up to Loharkhet, where we halted for the night. at the foothills.
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Early next morning we set out on the tedious 11 km climb to Dhakuri, at 2680 metres. We walked through vast open spaces, rolling hills, alternating with shadowy woods, till we reached Dhakuri, at the edge of the oakfilled forest. The weather had turned stormy as it often does in the afternoon.
The sky was dark with ominous clouds, the sounds of the howling winds tore through the trees and finding no accommodation our weary limbs turned towards Khati, 8 kms away. As the rain and the hail pelted, we sheltered under giant coniferous trees, and as the storm abated we, walked through the forest, serenaded by cicadas on to gentle undulating hills and terraced slopes. Bone-weary we reached Khati, the last village en route, as the sun sped below the horizon and a cold quiet dusk gathered around us. We spent the night at the PWD inspection house, after eating our first meal of the day, ravenously hungry and quite exhausted.
From Khati one can view the peaks, at once remote and approachable. Legend has it that the villagers of Khati are the direct descendants of those who had shelered the Pandavas, during their Vanvasa. These poeple are known for their warmth, simplicity and hospitality indeed a trademark of the Kumaon and Garhwal hills not yet corupted by the rank commercialisation tourism invariably brings in its wake.
As the sun rose, we started walking through dense forests, within hearing of the Pindar Ganga. We tread through narrow paths, over damp leaves that squelched beneath our feet, we walked through shaded forests with the sunlight peeping in. We manoeuvred our way across the occasional teacherous landslide, and rickety log placed to cross a torrential stream, to the drone of thousands of insects, till we reached Dwali, 14 kms away. Resting, we watched the rain pour non-stop, till sun-set, when a rainbow heralded the end of the day, and as the sun and the rain made truce, we watched a glorious sun-set, and the dying light reflected on the peaks.
Returning to Phurkia with the moon lighting our way, it was bitterly cold, and most of the night was spent in acute awareness of the cold. Icy winds blew from the snow covered vastness, the melting ice added to the bone-chilling effect and yet we spent hours sitting on a bare rock, watching the moon and stars light up the glimmering snow, watching the shadows of the night, and listening to the tumbling water falls and the gushing river. Frozen cold, we were still reluctant to retire for the night for we might never come that way again.
One day spent in isolation and solitude, had made us more reflective, with a tangible sense of equanimity, and we paused to think of the people we had met in the past few days, ants touching antennae, as they scurry along.
There were the two medical students from Delhi, armed with medicines to supply the entire population en route. They had remedies for a paralytic stroke, emphysema, angina, et al, but they were half frozen to death in the solitary sweater each wore.
We met four hardy bankers from Calcutta, racing with staff in hand from hill-top to hill-top, behind their guide, as they trekked to Pindari, Kafni and Sunderdhunga glaciers, all in one breath.
Then came the eccentric middle -aged man, improvised ruck-sack on back, in a handmade what-you-may-call-it, with a walking stick which doubled as the mainstay of the self-designed tent. Every time he goes on a trek he carries only those items he has made himself, and whenever he can take off from an organised and routine life and job, be literally takes a walk.
A young commercial artist with a trekking association badge pinned on his jacket, was on his first solo trek. He was a mine of information on treks and trekking routes--the sign-posts of the unbeaten track. He made it sound a little like flying - you have to graduate to solo-trekking. We were obviously on the short path.
A flashy sadhu in silken garb and fancy wind-cheater, a onetime contractor in his more wordly days spoke of politics, Ayodhya, the power-game, and how the police cannot trace the sadhu who vanishes in the high passes. And there was the Himalayan sage, walking barebodied in the snow, once a familiar, well-loved and revered sadhu of these hills, now very rarely seen. He walked carrying nothing, not even his name, and he left behind nothing, not even his footprints, and in passing he gave me a koan I know will take a lifetime to fathom.
Long ago I had recognised and reconciled myself to the fact that a trek is rarely like other journeys, where the destination itself is the purpose of the trip. On treks I have invariably found that the destination is just another step along the way - no more picturesque nor glorious than the way itself. Indeed, by the time I have reached the vantage point, I have long forgotten the goal, perhaps, even accepted there isn't one - and the destination itself leaves me untouched and unmoved, with neither a sense of achievement nor of anticlimax, no joy at having reached nor sorrow that I have to return--it just comes and goes along the way as part of the journey of life. When I return to civilisation, however, I speak of and record the trek to Pindari, as though it was a particular destination I sought and travelled to, as if it were Pindari I was going to, Pindari I reached and Pindari I returned from.
Photo Credit: Rajiv Butalia
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.