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Taj Mahal at dawn, India.

India 2001 - Diary

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Day One - Tuesday 9th October. Our flight from Frankfurt to Delhi was running about an hour late by the time we touched down in the Indian capital. Just hours before Angela and I left Swindon, the US had begun air strikes against Afghanistan following the September 11th atrocities, which had required that our aircraft took a long southerly detour to avoid Afghan airspace. However, the biggest contribution to the delay came when one of the passengers boarding at Frankfurt checked his baggage in, but failed to board the plane. With the heightened security alert at all airports, the authorities were being extra vigilant and the bag had had to be found and removed from the hold. So by the time we arrived at New Delhi, cleared immigration, reclaimed our luggage and changed some travellers cheques for Indian Rupees it was about 3 a.m. There was no sign of the taxi pick up from the Anoop Hotel that I had carefully arranged by e-mail from the UK, so we had no choice but to find one outside the terminal. We found a car without any problems, and were soon on our way into the city centre. Even at this time of night, when there was little traffic on the road, the air pollution was horrendous. I had asked our driver to take us to the Anoop, which is near the main bazaar in Paharganj (where most of the budget hotels are). Unfortunately, he failed to find it and pulled up outside one of the so- called ‘Tourist Information Offices’ which are basically run to ‘suggest’ alternative hotel accommodation and charge extortionate commission. It is very difficult to arrive in a foreign city after 10 hours of flying and deal with people who are trying to fleece you, but I tried to remain calm. I explained to our driver (Ricky) that I had been to India before and that I didn't trust the ‘Tourist Offices’. I then had to open the boot of the taxi and rummage through my pack to find my photocopied guide book notes of Delhi which contained a map of Paharganj showing the location of the Anoop. Fortunately, Ricky either recognised where we needed to go or recognised that I wasn't going to allow us to be ripped off (I'm not sure which) and took us to the hotel without any further hassles. Once we were at the Anoop, we found out that they had assumed that our airport pick up had been cancelled, but luckily they were still holding our room for us. The room was very dingy and the air-conditioning didn't work, but I was just pleased that we had arrived safely. Unfortunately Angela was none too impressed with my choice of hotel, but I pointed out that it did have the benefit of 24 hour check in/out and a 24 hour restaurant! We crashed out, exhausted after the long journey, but sleep was very difficult. Someone seemed to be moving furniture around all night, and in the early hours of the morning I was woken by a cow mooing and the beginnings of Delhi's ferocious rush hour traffic! I woke at about 11:30, and Angela stayed in the hotel while I set off to make the final arrangements for our quick dash up into the Himalayas. I made my way down the street, through the hectic bazaar, to New Delhi Railway Station. The touts were relentless, even trying to con me into thinking that the special (and 100% genuine) tourist railway reservation office on the 1st floor of the railway station had closed and moved across the road to the line of phony booking offices run by them! However, I had been warned about this when the Indian Railways agent in London had booked our tickets for us, and sure enough, I found the office exactly where it was supposed to be. Ten minutes later I had reconfirmed our first class sleeper berths on the Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam (in the foothills of the Himalayas), leaving that evening. My next stop was at a small shop near the hotel which was a kind of general store. It was here that I had the fuel bottle for my camping stove filled with Kerosene ready for the trek, which fortunately turned out to be very good quality. Later in the day Angela and I went for a short walk around the bazaar area in Paharganj. We saw stalls selling Pan (slightly addictive crushed betel nut wrapped in Pan leaves), a man squeezing the juice out of lengths of sugar cane, plus cows milling around eating the garbage. It was a shame that everywhere we went the hassle to buy things from touts was unending, but Angela enjoyed looking at the tiny shops and taking in the sights and sounds of India for the first time. In the evening we had a meal in the rooftop restaurant of the hotel and were eating quietly, minding our own business, when a lump of gecko poo landed on the table! It was lucky that Angela really liked the geckos that scurry around on the walls in India and so she wasn't too bothered. Paharganj, Delhi. At 21:30 we got a taxi from the Anoop which took us through the frenetic traffic to Old Delhi Railway Station. The amount of traffic in Delhi has tripled since 1990, and I am sure that the roads were far more congested and polluted than they were during my visit in 1996. Health experts have found that breathing the air in Delhi is equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes per day, and whilst you are waiting in traffic at busy intersections it is closer to 40 a day. There is so much sulphur dioxide in the air that you can feel it forming an acid solution on your eyeballs, making them sting and burn. Altogether, I was glad that we were leaving without delay. Once at the station, it took us a little while to find which of the sixteen huge platforms our train would be leaving from. While searching, we saw three very large rats feeding on the rubbish on the track. When we reached platform 3, we found that our train had already arrived and was being loaded. We located our coach and berths very easily, and settled on our bunks ready for the eight hour journey. The train pulled away spot on time, and began the slow crawl out through Delhi's sprawling suburbs. It was comfortable enough on my bunk, but I found it hard to sleep. It didn't help matters when I saw something dark scurry down the wall towards my bed. When I shone a torch on it I found out that it was a small cockroach. I wasn't too bothered (my main worry was that it might have been a spider) but Angela wasn't thrilled to discover that there were roaches around. It obviously hated the light and scuttled down the side of the bed, and then disappeared back into the darkness underneath the bunk.
Paharganj, Delhi, India.
Day Two - Wednesday 10th October. Just after midnight we stopped for a long while at the large town of Moradabad, and in the small hours I could make out that we were crossing several large rivers on very big iron bridges. I slept for a long time after that, but as the dawn broke and we neared Kathgodam I could see the hazy foothills of the Himalayas rising abruptly from the plain in front of us. About twenty minutes later we arrived at Kathgodam. We had expected to have to get a bus up to the famous hill station at Naini Tal and then another to the large hill station at Almora (our destination). However, as soon as we alighted on the platform we were offered a lift all the way to Almora in a private car. The man making the offer spoke very good English and initially this made me suspicious; mainly because we had just come from Delhi where you get used to being hassled by touts who often speak English to tourists. As it turned out, the offer was entirely genuine. Our driver introduced himself as Shivesh and explained that he was down in Kathgodam to meet his friend Sunil (an Indian Navy officer) and then would be going straight back to Almora. After we picked up Sunil and had a chance to talk to them both a bit more, we learnt about Shivesh’s very interesting background. He had been an Officer in the Indian Army and had been posted to the Siachen Glacier in the State of Jammu & Kashmir. The Siachen Glacier is the world's highest battlefield (22,000 ft above sea level), and is where Indian and Pakistani forces face each other across the ‘Line of Control’ which divides the disputed Kashmir region between the two countries. More troops are killed and injured there by altitude sickness and frostbite than by the occasional shelling from both sides. While on the glacier, Shivesh had a bad accident and damaged his back. He had been discharged from the Army on medical grounds and now was making a career for himself in the tourist industry. From the railway station, we drove past long lines of petrol tankers and crowds of school children in smart blue uniforms. Soon the road was winding up into the mountains, and we were enjoying the warm sunshine and beautiful green forest all around. Occasionally we saw small brown monkeys with red faces, as well as a couple of troops of the larger grey Langur monkeys. Sunil told us that when troops of the smaller monkeys run riot in the cities a man with a large Langur is paid to use his monkey to chase the others away. The Langur is large, powerful and has surprisingly big, sharp teeth. The hairpin bends and forested slopes eventually gave way to a long valley and the road ran alongside the river and jumbles of large boulders. After another steep climb up into the hills, we arrived in Almora at about nine a.m. The town is spread out on either side of The Mall, the main road that runs along a mountain ridge. Shivesh dropped us at the Savoy Hotel, which was reasonably clean and had rooms which opened onto a sunny veranda. From there we could enjoy great views across the town and the mountains beyond, although the view of the main Himalaya Range was obscured by haze. Shortly after our arrival we went for a walk down the Mall, and stopped at the Hotel Himsagar for lunch. We were both very tired after the long journey from Delhi, so we went back to the Savoy and slept until three thirty. The guidebook said that good views of the Himalayas could be seen from a bend in the road at one end of the town, which is known as Bright End Corner. The author claimed that the name was a corruption of ‘Brighton Corner’ but it seemed more likely that it got its name because the sun sets on this side of the town. It wasn't a long walk, but when I arrived the view was disappointing. A curtain of haze obscured any view of the high mountains, but I reasoned that it was just possible that it might clear at sunset when the temperature fell. I had an idea that better views might be possible if I climbed the lightly wooded hill behind the road, and there was even a stone path with steps leading up to the top. As it turned out, the view from the hill was the same, but while I was setting up my camera I heard a loud tapping noise coming from the tree above. I looked up to see a beautiful spotted woodpecker straight above me on the tree trunk. I watched it for several minutes as it hopped around the branches, probing for insects with its long beak. Almora, India. Heading back down to the road, I watched the sun set over the still hazy mountains and then went back to the hotel.
Almora, India.
Day 3 - Thursday 11th October. It was another early start in order that we were up in time to check out and catch the 07:30 bus to Song; the start of our trek. The manager of the hotel was very helpful and two of the members of staff carried our packs down to the bus stand for us and showed us which bus to board. The bus we were taking would go as far as the town of Bageshwar, and we would have to change there for Song. The traffic at the bus stand was unbelievably congested, and it seemed that every truck, bus and jeep in Almora set off from here at exactly the same time. The ensuing snarl up completely blocked the Mall and you would have been hard pressed to slide a credit card between the various vehicles. As the traffic eventually started to clear, we edged out through the town, with our driver calling out for passengers every few yards. By the time the sun had risen over the mountains and warmed the bus, we were well on our way. The road was a continuous series of hairpins which wound first through thick pine forest and then through small villages with picturesque terraced fields and bright green banana plants. By the side of the road we often saw hay stacks that had been tied to the trunks of trees. As we traversed the mountain road high above one village, I saw a flash of bright blue - a fairy blue bird had just flown past us. After about three hours, the road dropped down into the Bageshwar valley and followed a wide river of deliciously blue glacial melt water. Soon we were in the bustling town itself, and it was time for us to hoist our heavy packs off the bus and look for our connection. Fortunately, help was at hand in the form of a jeep-taxi with an offer to take us straight up to Song (at a faster pace than the bus) for Rs 400. We weren't going to argue with that, and were soon installed in the back of the jeep with our baggage, and heading up a side valley towards Song. The two hour drive was very pretty, with a lovely river below the road and lots of tiny villages. As we went, villagers hopped on and off the jeep at various stops and we passed several groups of women carrying bundles of grass on their heads. Higher up into the mountains the road became much more bumpy, but the scenery was even better, with tumbling waterfalls, tiny settlements and many different kinds of butterflies floating past. Song turned out to be much smaller than I expected; just a line of five or six small wooden shops. The trail started directly opposite these and went straight up a very steep slope. We hoisted our packs onto our backs and began the slow plod uphill. Although we were at about 4,000 ft it was still very hot. It was now that I appreciated just how heavy my enormous pack really was! The going was made more difficult because the trail forked many times and we had to ask locals coming down the hill to point us in the right direction, although as it turned out I think that all of the paths probably led to our first waypoint - the village of Loharket. By this stage Angela was already finding the going very difficult, and was asking that we stop for lunch. I suggested that we push on for another ten minutes or so because we had been quite late arriving in Song (it was already about 2 p.m.). When we eventually stopped a few minutes later Angela had a headache and was very tired. When I suggested that it would be a good idea to eat one of our oatmeal flapjacks she threw it down the mountain! After I had retrieved it we moved on. Angela, on the trail to Loharket, Pindari Glacier Trek. It wasn't much further up the hill to the lower end of the village where we rested at a teahouse. The owner was putting pressure on us to stay there for the night, but we had not yet made nearly enough progress and also it was our intention to camp and do the trek self-supported. It was difficult explaining all of this, and also slightly embarrassing. I had the uneasy feeling that we would have the same kind of awkward conversation at every guesthouse we passed. However, the guide book that I had had recommended doing this trek self- supported and so I guessed that many people must have done it this way before us.  After the guest house, the trail continued uphill past a lovely waterfall flowing alongside a meadow, surrounded by banana trees. We climbed on, through the village proper, where the local school children were sitting obediently in the yard of a tiny school. They all waved and shouted to us as we passed by. Above the village the jeep track was in the process of being extended further up the mountain, and a gang of three men were building up the road with boulders - a backbreaking effort in the heat. The level they needed to reach had been carefully pegged out with string, which was still several feet above their heads. From there it was an unremitting hard slog up the stone track, passing scattered chestnut trees, until we arrived at the Kumoan Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) Loharket Resthouse. Here we faced a dilemma, in that the path continued it's steep unrelenting climb up the mountain in front of us, with no sign of anywhere that we might be able to camp, or any streams for replenishing our water. We also did not have a great deal of time left before sunset. It was clear that we had little choice but to camp here, although I felt that our progress had been very disappointing, even allowing for our late start from Song. The Chowkidar (caretaker) came out to greet us and led us around the building to a grassy area on the other side where we were free to pitch our tent. From there we had a wonderful view down the mountain, and could see small houses perched on the arms of the hills in front of us. It had been hard work getting up to this point, but it was obvious that carrying a pack was too much for Angela, and she made it clear that she didn't feel she wanted to go any further on the trek. We discussed the idea of her staying in Loharket while I trekked up to the Pindari Glacier, but I was far from happy with this plan. I wasn't sure that it would be safe for her to wait there on her own for up to five days, and I also thought that she would be incredibly bored. However, a solution to our problem was at hand. When we had arrived, I had noticed a pack of six donkeys grazing quietly on the grass nearby, and so I asked the Chowkidar whether it would be possible to hire one (with a driver) to carry Angela's pack for her. It was possible, he said, and it would cost Rs 3000 to go up to the Glacier and back down to the Resthouse. I went back to the camp and told Angela what had been discussed. We both agreed that it was the best way forward, although I felt slightly disappointed at first because I realised that it meant the end of my plan to do the trek totally self supported. This feeling was compounded when the Chowkidar explained that my pack would also have to be carried by the donkey to balance the loads. However, I reasoned that this was the only way we would both be able to get up to the Glacier and have a chance of seeing the fantastic views that were waiting for us. Also, not having to carry my heavy pack would allow me to concentrate on photography. I went back to the caretakers hut and we shook on the price of Rs 3000; we would leave first thing in the morning.
Angela, on the trail to Loharket, Pindari Glacier Trek. The view from our camp at Loharket, Pindari Glacier Trek.
The view from our camp at Loharket.
Day 4 - Friday 12th October 2001. I was up just before sunrise and went through what would soon become the familiar procedure of purifying water, lighting the stove, boiling the water and then making up our coffee and porridge for breakfast. After we had eaten, we emptied and dismantled the tent and packed our bags. The caretaker then introduced us to our donkey driver, Soob Singh, and together they set about carefully arranging our rucksacks and sleeping rolls on our donkey (which was called Malti). Shortly before they finished, Angela and I set off up the trail to get a head start. When we looked back a few minutes later, we found that we actually had three donkeys. One to carry our bags, one for Angela to ride if she got tired (called Hema) and a third which carried Soob Singh's personal effects and the food pellets for all three animals. Loading the donkeys at Loharket. The man made path lead up through more chestnut forest. I startled a black pheasant like bird with a grey rump and sometimes saw small groups of quail sized birds that had white throats, and rufous plumage. Higher up, closer to the Dakhri Khal, there were large Rhododendrons interspersed with the chestnut trees. At one point I found a huge brown lizard basking on the rocks next to the path and it scurried away when I tapped its tail with my trekking pole. Further up, at the small Hindu temple at Taladhakri, we met Wasanti; a twenty three year old community worker. She was on her way over the Dakhri pass to the small village where she lives and works. A steep climb brought us all to a level grass area, where a flock of sheep and two shepherds hurried down the trail past us. It was a reminder that we were doing the trek reasonably late in the post-monsoon season, and shortly the winter snows would begin. The shepherds were bringing their flocks down from the valley before the weather changed. In a small meadow just below the pass we found a young man running a tea stall, and stopped there for a rest and some much needed chai. From the stall, it was only a short climb up to the crest of the pass, and the altimeter on my watch read 9,000ft. As I reached the top, I was eager to look out on the view beyond, because this was the first point at which (with good weather) we might be able to see the high peaks ahead - Trisul, Nanda Kot, Nanda Khat, Devtoli and Maiktoli. Unfortunately, luck was not with us. As I arrived I got a brief glimpse of a sharp peak to the right and the snow speckled flanks of another mountain, but by the time Angela arrived on the donkey the cloud had closed in and only the lower mountains were visible. The pass itself was heavily wooded with chestnut trees, which continued down the steep slope ahead. There was also a little Hindu shrine complete with orange prayer flags, so that travellers could give thanks and pray for a safe journey to come. On our way down through the chestnut trees we were amazed to come across a large troop of langur monkeys and a chital deer! I had seen film of these two very different animals living together on wildlife documentaries about India. The langurs drop fruit down from the trees for the deer, and in return the deer uses its acute senses to alert the monkeys to approaching danger. We were fortunate enough to witness this natural early warning system later in our journey when we visited Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Angela was really pleased to see the monkeys and said that it reminded her of her trip to Kenya. By the time we arrived at the huts at Dakhri, a little further down the slope, it was lunch time. It was possible to get a hot meal at the huts, so we ordered some dhal and chapatis. Unfortunately, as the food arrived I started to feel very unwell and thought that I would be sick. I ate as much of it as I could, but the dhal was difficult to manage because it was so spicy. Shortly after our arrival, we were joined by a group of Americans. They had been staying inside the guesthouse at Loharket where we camped last night. I had tried to strike up a conversation but they had more or less ignored me. Instead they had spent the whole evening inside their room singing hymns. They had decided to camp at Dakhri and soon set about putting up tents and arranging their equipment. Soob Singh obviously wanted to stop here as well, but I pointed out my concerns that Angela and I might run out of food before the trek was over if we did not push on to the village of Khati as planned. Besides, neither of us was keen on the idea of putting up with another evening of hymns. Having agreed to push on to Khati, we continued along the path, which lead through peaceful meadows and more forest. It wasn't long before we came to the little settlement of Waachum. This was where Wasanti lived, and she invited us to have a cup of tea at her house. As it turned out, she lived just to one side of the path in a well made house with a small garden. The garden was full of beautiful flowers, and we learnt that the seeds had been given to her by a German tourist. While I was enjoying the mass of colour, I noticed an amazing yellow and black marbled butterfly - I tried to photograph it but unfortunately it flew off before I had chance. The German tourist had also sent Wasanti a small poly-tunnel for cultivating her plants, and this had pride of place in the back garden. Beyond the flowers was a great view of the arm of the mountains that divides the Sunderdunga valley from the Pindari valley. I took some photographs of Angela, Wasanti and Tara (Wasanti’s brother) and then enjoyed the view and my cup of tea. The view from Wasanti’s garden at Waachum. We said goodbye to Wasanti and set off again along the trail. It led through some lovely water meadows and crossed several rivers before we began to see the carefully tended fields of Khati coming into view. Just before we came to the village we passed its small flour mill, which stood next to a fast and powerful river. Then we were rewarded with a fine view of the village up ahead, surrounded by fields full of cereal crops that had quite distinctive red brushlike flowers. By now we were tired, but didn't have far to go before we reached the KMVN guesthouse, which was just on the other side of the village in a large chestnut wood. Just visible through the trees and twilight was the sharp, icy peak of Nanda Kot standing like a sentinel at the head of the valley. It was our first view of one of the high peaks of the region. As the darkness began to close in, Angela and I collected water from a nearby stream, lit the stove, and cooked our supper. The tent was soon pitched, and we settled in for the night. I was pleased with the progress we had made that day. Angela was much happier riding the donkey, and the going had been easier than the very hectic first day of trekking. I was beginning to be quietly optimistic that she might enjoy the trek after all. Day 5 - Saturday 13th October 2001.
Loading the donkeys at Loharket, Pindari Glacier Trek. The view from Wasanti's garden, Pindari Glacier Trek. Arriving at Khati village, Pindari Glacier Trek.
Arriving at Khati village.
Nanda Kot from Khati, Pindari Glacier Trek.
Nanda Kot from Khati village.
Almost immediately after we set off from Khati, I had a near accident. I was plodding along behind the pack and food donkeys and not paying as much attention to the trail as I should have. Up ahead, the track seemed to stop suddenly, and I foolishly assumed that it must have been about to disappear sharply downhill. A few seconds before I got there, the donkeys in front of me swung wildly off the path to the right. By the time I realised what was happening, I was looking straight down a one hundred foot drop. The whole valley side had been washed away in a massive landslide, but you could not see the drop until you were right on top of it. I shouted a warning back to Angela and Soob Singh and we took a steep detour up the slope and around the crater. The morning’s walking took us further up the Pindari Valley proper. There were many tumbling waterfalls and thickets of bamboo. When I stopped to wait for Angela, Soob Singh and the donkeys to catch me up, clouds of butterflies appeared. This part of the Himalayan range seemed very different to the alpine pastures and moonscapes that I had seen in Pakistan. This was also the first time I had seen bamboo in the wild, and it reminded me that the Kumoan Himalaya lie close to the India-Nepal border. Further on, the path lead across a rocky slope above the Pindari River. I had stopped and allowed Angela and Soob Singh to go far ahead of me, so that I could take a photograph of them with the tip of Nanda Kot rising above. When I put my camera away and started walking to catch up with them, my progress was halted by an enormous flock of sheep being driven down from the upper valley. I didn't want to startle them and cause an accident, so I stayed still while they scampered past. Some came face to face with me and were unsure what to do. It would take a few seconds before they got the courage to leap across the rocks and get away. Eventually the flock thinned out and I hurried to catch up with Angela, passing the Shepherd on the way. Shortly after I made up the ground, we stopped for tea on a flat, rocky area next to the river. It was strewn with donkey manure and smelt heavily, but it did boast a small chai stall and we were grateful for the chance to have a rest. Just before we reached our lunch stop at Dwali, we came across an Indian climber riding on the back of a donkey. He looked pale and drawn and said nothing as he passed by. Soon afterwards, a large number of porters and several other members of the expedition came into view and stopped to talk to us. I found out that they had just climbed Nanda Kot (the high peak at the head of the Pindari valley). It had taken them fifty two hours to reach the summit from Camp Three. They told me that they now believed that they were the first to summit the mountain, because an Englishman who claimed to have been the first had reported that it took him nineteen hours to reach the top from the third camp. They were of the opinion that this couldn't be done and that his account was a work of fiction! They told me that the climber we had seen on the donkey had severely frost bitten feet and was unable to walk. I congratulated them on their hard won victory over the mountain and they moved off towards Khati. We reached Dwali and found that it consisted of just two small huts and a KMVN guesthouse. These were perched on a spur of land that jutted out above the confluence of the Kaphni River (that flows down from the Kaphni Glacier above) and the Pindari River. On the other side of the spur (i.e. slightly further up the Pindari Valley) was a water meadow shaded by large rhododendron trees. We had a basic meal of dhal, rice and chapatti and a short rest and then we set off again. The final leg of the day took us from Dwali to the high camp at Purkhiya. From Dwali, the trail led steeply upwards over the grassy flank of the valley side. The path twisted and turned continually round the valley side, high above the blue- gray waters of the Pindari River. The opposite side of the valley was much more precipitous and there were several dramatic waterfalls. Now that we were at quite a significant altitude (approximately 9,000 feet), vegetation was much more sparse and our surroundings were quite bleak. Angela had by now found that the donkeys had an alarming habit of walking right on the edge of the path, perilously close to the drop off, so this was quite a demanding section of the trek for her! We reached Purkhiya just before nightfall, and the setting up of camp was suddenly put on hold when the clouds parted to reveal the stunning snow covered face of Nanda Khat bathed in the last rays of the setting sun. Angela and I climbed to a point just above the huts at Purkhiya and I set up my camera to take some photographs of us standing with the mountain as a backdrop. As I was packing the camera away, I noticed movement in the corner of my eye. Looking over at a dry stone wall to my right I saw that there was a small hamster like creature nibbling on a leaf. When we tried to get closer it retreated inside its hole in the wall, re-emerging a few minutes later if we kept very still. This was not the only creature that we saw. As I was packing our stove and other bits and pieces away, ready for bed, a mouse ran past me. When the sun disappeared the temperature fell very dramatically. This was our highest camp of the whole trek, and my altimeter indicated that we were at 10,140 feet. We knew that it would be a cold night so we settled into the tent and tried to get some rest. In the middle of the night though, Angela woke me to say that she had a terrible headache and that her face felt swollen. I switched on my torch and had a look. It was difficult to be sure, but it did look like her face had become puffy and reddened. I was immediately very concerned about the possibility that Angela may have had altitude sickness. While it was true that 10,000 feet is not regarded as being very high and we had ascended extremely slowly, I knew that altitude sickness is known to occur mainly above 9,000 feet. Perhaps I was over-reacting because I had seen AMS (acute mountain sickness) very nearly kill one of my friends during a trek in Pakistan in 1994, but I was determined not to take any chances. I could see that Angela was terrified and suddenly I felt very guilty about asking her to come on a trek to the Himalayas. I also felt the weight of responsibility with the realisation that it would be down to me to make sure that she was OK. I reassured her that she would be fine and that she would certainly not be going any higher up the valley. Straight away I went up to the hose pipe above the huts and filled both of our water bottles with purified water. I sat up with Angela and made her drink as much of the water as possible, because I knew that the current medical thinking is that replacement of fluids is important in preventing AMS. I then considered our options very carefully. I decided that her symptoms were not severe enough to merit risking a night time descent to a lower camp. Even with head torches, it would be easy to slip and break an ankle or perhaps fall off the track altogether.  However, I told her that as soon as possible the next morning we would make our way down. Angela was then concerned that I wouldn't get to see the glacier and mountains now that we were so close to our objective. I was obviously disappointed as well, but there was no way that I was going to put the chance to see the mountains before her safety. We talked it over and came up with a plan that we both agreed was the best way forward. We decided that I would pack up all of my equipment and everything else apart from what Angela would need for that night and the morning. Just after sunrise, I would set off with the minimum of equipment and walk up the valley to the Pindari Glacier. The plan was that I would then come back down as soon as possible and as fast as possible. If Angela was feeling better by morning then she would wait for me to appear and we would go down together, but if she still felt bad she would ask Soob Singh to prepare the donkeys and they would go back down to Dwali as early as they could. In this way, I hoped to either be back at Purkhiya before Angela left, or failing this, to catch up with her and Soob Singh as they made their way down to Dwali. I was certain that if Angela's symptoms were caused by the onset of altitude sickness, then the considerable loss in height would relieve the illness. Having thought out the plan I began to feel more confident about our situation and I worked through the rest of the night checking on Angela, making her drink water mixed with Dioralytre re-hydration powder and packing up the equipment. As I worked the stars shone brightly overhead and my breath steamed in the cold and thin mountain air.
Day 6 - Sunday 14th October. I knew that I could achieve what we had planned during the night but it was going to be physically demanding, even without a heavy pack. At 04:30 I was out of the tent and packing away the last of the equipment to make things as easy for Angela as possible. At 06:00 (as soon as there was enough light to see by) I checked on Angela one last time and set off from Purkhiya (10,140 feet) with my camera, 2 spare films, a toilet roll, a 1.8 litre water bottle, my hat, trekking pole, fleece jumper, sunglasses and global positioning system. I walked as fast as I could up the valley and set a very good pace right from the start. Soon I found myself crossing a few shallow but fast flowing streams, where I had to be careful of my footing. It wasn't long before the first rays of the rising sun began to illuminate the face of Nanda Khat ahead, and I stopped briefly to take some photographs. I noticed that my altimeter was reading 11,000 feet and that the ground was still covered in frost. It would still be a while before the sun rose above the high peaks and warmed the land. The leaves and buds on the rhododendron bushes were also frozen. The rhododendrons seemed not to mind living at this height but there were definitely no more bamboo thickets to be seen. Nanda Khat at sunrise. The trail wound in hairpin turns above the Pindari River, and occasionally was crossed by side streams. It was while crossing one of these streams that I had a bad scare. I hadn't seen that the stream was covered in a thin layer of ice. As I stepped on to it, my feet slid out from under me and I only managed to stop myself falling off the cliff by digging the tip of my trekking pole into the ice and stopping the fall. It certainly got the adrenaline going! After that the going was easy, and I was able to enjoy the combination of the spectacular mountain scenery (with not a cloud in the sky), the sunrise and the total silence. It was a real revelation to be this high in the Himalayas but totally alone. Usually at this height I would be carrying a heavy pack plus there would be a trekking group and a small army of porters. However, always on my mind was the worry about Angela's illness and sadness that she had not been able to get to this altitude with me. She had done remarkably well for her first ever trek, especially in terms of getting used to setting up camp and using all the equipment. It was a great shame that she had endured all the discomfort and inevitable bouts of illness thus far but had not had the ‘payback’ of enjoying the magnificent scenery that was unfolding in front of me. The only consolation was that at least she had seen the beautiful face of Nanda Khat from the high camp at Purkhiya. As I continued under the azure blue sky, the valley opened out into the wide ‘U’ shape that is typical of the eroding action of past glacial activity. It was ideal terrain for walking, with a well trodden path over a grassy slope scattered with occasional boulders. I knew that I was getting close to the glacier when the grass gave way to the scree and boulders of the glacial moraine. I picked my way over this and crossed a river that was covered in a thick crust of ice which cracked noisily under my weight. At this point the head of the valley came completely into view and I could see the full panorama of high peaks. To my right was the pyramidal peak of Nanda Kot, to the left of this was Changuch, then the Pindari Glacier and finally Nanda Khat. I could see a plume of spindrift being blasted from the summit of Nanda Kot by the winds at high altitude. I kept walking, and the stone hut of the Sadhu (holy man) that lives near the glacier came into view. As I grew nearer I could make out a figure stooped over a fire. He was either the Sadhu himself or an assistant, and as I got closer he saw me and did a double-take. He obviously didn't expect to see anyone this far up the valley at this time of the morning. Changuch (left) and Nanda Kot, Pindari Glacier Trek. The path continued up the lateral moraine of the glacier, keeping about two thirds of the way up a steep slope. Suddenly and without warning, the path topped out onto the ridge formed by the moraine and I was horrified by what I saw. I was staring straight down what I would estimate to be a drop of at least two hundred feet. Basically I was standing on the lip of a great U shaped chasm that had been carved out by the glacier before it receded further up the valley. Worse still, I formed the distinct impression that the narrow path I was standing on could well have been overhanging the drop off. Trying to follow the ridge any further would have been suicide and it was not a good place to linger. This was as far as the trek went; my altimeter was reading 12,080 feet. I quickly took some photographs of the amazing view of Changuch and the glacier from this scary perch, marked the position on my GPS and then hurried down to try and catch up with Angela. I looked at my watch as I began the descent, and found that it was only 08:45 a.m. I had made very good time. Changuch from Zero Point. The Pindari Glacier from Zero Point. Nanda Khat in the early morning sunshine. I set off as fast as I could walk in safety, but managed to get lost momentarily in the maze of bumps and ridges all around. I regained the path as the sun began to warm the valley floor and for the first time I was able to take off my fleece jumper. As I got further down the valley, I turned to see that already the clouds were beginning to form in the sky and move in to obscure the fantastic views I had enjoyed. It was then that the real irony of the situation struck me. If Angela had come up to the glacier on the donkey, neither of us would have seen anything. By the time we had got Soob Singh to get the donkeys together and set off, the clouds would already have been gathering. As I walked, I was hoping that Angela had felt well enough to wait for me at Purkhiya. However, just above the huts where we had anxiously camped I met the American group. I asked them if they had seen Angela and Soob Singh and they told me that they had passed them heading down to Dwali about an hour ago. I then set a blistering pace to try and catch them up, ignoring my burning feet and only stopping occasionally to drink some water. Exhausted, I reached Dwali at 11:50. As I entered the camp Soob Singh and the inhabitants of the huts who were drinking tea with him leapt to their feet. It was clear that they were quite impressed at how far and how fast I had managed to walk. I found that Angela had felt well enough to pitch the tent and we made our way down to the icy water of the Kaphni River for a paddle. It was great to be able to immerse my burning feet in the extremely cold glacial water. After our dip I found I was very tired from the lack of sleep, worry from the night before and my hectic morning walk, so I had a sleep in the tent. Unfortunately, the heat of the sun building up inside the tent made me feel ill, so I spent most of the afternoon sitting in the shade of a rhododendron tree in the water meadow. Late in the afternoon Angela felt unwell again with a very bad headache. I was still worried about the prospect of AMS but felt more confident now that we had descended by about two thousand feet. As evening approached Angela was feeling very unwell so we decided to get a room in the guesthouse rather than her having to endure another cold night in the tent. She could only manage a mug of soup for supper but both our spirits were lifted when we realised that there was a very cheeky mouse in the room with us. It wasn't at all scared of humans and was running between my legs as I was packing away the stove and food! The guesthouse room was dirty and very dark, but at least it was warmer than the tent. I went outside to find Soob Singh and asked him to take us all the way back to Dakhri the next day, so that I could get Angela down as soon as possible.
Nanda Khat at sunrise, Pindari Glacier Trek. Changuch and Nanda Kot, Pindari Glacier Trek. Changuch from Zero Point, Pindari Glacier Trek. The Pindari Glacier, Kumoan Himalaya, India. Nanda Khat, Pindari Glacier Trek, India.
Day 7 - Monday 15th October. The trek down from Dwali to Dakhri was fairly uneventful. Angela was riding her donkey once again and pleased to be losing altitude and heading back to civilisation. It was a lovely hot day and there was another opportunity to enjoy all of the scenery that we had seen on the way up. I spotted a very interesting little bird by the Pindari River. It seemed to be a kind of dipper, but whereas the European one is brown with a white chest, this was jet black with a bright red rump. Nanda Kot at the head of the valley. Once again we stopped at the chai stall where the enormous quantity of donkey dung was. By now we had realised that with all of the dhal and rice we had eaten on the trek, there was a copious amount of food left in my rucksack. There were plenty of oatmeal flapjacks, so we gave some to the little son of the chai seller. At Khati we stopped in the village itself for lunch and waited while some dhal, rice and roti was cooked for us. Tethered nearby was an extremely mangy sheep, that had an enormous tick hanging from its eyebrow! Khati village. By the afternoon we were passing through Wachuum once again, with its beautiful flowers. We stopped for chai at the little stall near Wasanti’s house, but unfortunately we didn't see Wasanti again. From there, a steep walk up through the chestnut woods brought us back to the meadows at Dakhri and our camp for the evening. As we drew near to Dakhri the sky was relatively clear and we had our first good view of the Kaphni Glacier. I was glad to be able to point it out to Angela, because she had never seen a glacier before and this partly made up for her not getting to the top of the valley. We could also see the peaks that had been clouded over when we reached this point before. However, as much as I tried to match my map of the area to the view, I could see no sign of Nanda Devi East - the eastern peak of Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in the region. The trek descriptions that I had read said it could be seen from here on a clear day, but I think that they were mistaken. It was very cold in the tent that night, with the added discomfort of condensation dripping from the inside of the roof.
Nanda Kot at the head of the valley. Khati village, Pindari Glacier Trek, India. Nanda Kot from Dhakri, Pindari Glacier Trek.
Nanda Kot from Dhakri camp.
Day 8 - Tuesday 16th October. Another early start, but this time Soob Singh was reluctant to get going. While we were waiting for him and the donkeys to get organised I saw a group of very interesting black and white birds with very long tail feathers. I watched them flitting between the chestnut trees but it was difficult to get up close to them. When I got back to the UK I identified them from the book Birds of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka as Red-Billed Blue Magpies. Apparently they are quite common around the hill resorts of the Himalayas and occupy a range extending from Kashmir to Nepal. Our last day of trekking began with the steep climb up to the Dakhri Khal, where this time we had a clear and unimpeded view of the peaks. Once again I was pleased that Angela had been able to see them this time. On the way down the other side we stopped again at the chai stall, and shortly after that I saw a green woodpecker. After that the trek down to the KMVN guesthouse at Loharket was uneventful, but a shock was in store for Angela and I once we reached it. When the caretaker appeared he totally went back on the agreed price of 3000 rupees for the hire of the donkeys and demanded 10,000. This was completely unacceptable for us, not just because it was several times the going rate, we had taken fewer days to complete the trek and we hadn't taken the donkeys up to the glacier but also because it would have left us nearly penniless in the middle of the Himalayas. When I said that we would pay an extra 2000 rupees because Angela had ridden the donkey (this was more than fair) Soob Singh tried to whip the animals down the valley with our packs tied to them! I grabbed the donkey and luckily was able to untie the knots holding our gear quite easily. We paid the money and then started to walk down to Song with our packs (as had always been the plan). Maiktoli (left) and Panwali Dwar from Dakhri Khal. Unfortunately, things were due to get much worse for us before they got better. When we stopped for a rest and a drink in Loharket, Soob Singh (who was also walking down to Song) must have slipped in front of us. He reached Song just before us and then, despicably, told anyone who cared to listen that we hadn't paid him at all! The first that Angela and I knew about this was when we were sitting in the back of a jeep-taxi that was to take us to Bageshwar and a mob surrounded us. It was an extremely frightening situation for us because they spoke hardly any English so it was not easy trying to explain what had really happened. Amazingly though we had a miraculous escape. The jeep driver who had brought us to Song happened to be a few feet away and recognised us. He spoke a smattering of English and I quickly explained to him that we had in fact paid 5,000 rupees rather than the 3,000 originally agreed. He translated this for the mob and the mood instantly changed. Smiles appeared on the faces of the crowd and apologies were muttered. With that, we breathed an enormous sigh of relief and our jeep got underway. I could see Soob Singh slinking away up the road and I knew that if I could have got away with it, I would have jumped out and given him a good thumping. He had endangered us with a pack of lies, but we were just relieved to be out of the situation. The jeep took us back down the pretty and tranquil road to Bageshwar where we were due to catch the bus back to Almora. In the end there was no sign of the bus, so we caught another jeep back. The driver of the jeep was not scared of driving at ridiculous speeds and as a result our journey back was much faster than would have been possible on the bus. As we neared Almora we were lucky enough to get a clear evening view of the main Himalaya range in the far distance. Shortly after this, we were dropped off in Almora and made our way back to the Savoy Hotel. It was nice to be back in familiar surroundings and we even had our old room again. We cleaned ourselves up and went for a big dinner
Maiktoli and Panwali Dwar from Dakhri Khal.