They say you’re either a dog person or a cat person. Me, I’m a cat person. Dogs bark, and drool, and smell, and I’m a bit scared of them, truth be told. I like cats – ideally big ones with orange and black stripes or spots. In India, I was very much in the minority.
It was a line in the visitors’ book in a small guesthouse that brought it home. After a day of tracing undulating paths among the Himalayan foothills of India’s north-western Uttarakhand province, I was relaxing on a terrace with a steaming cup of milky chai – my twelfth that day, at least – leafing through the pages.
“Excellent food – our compliments to the cook!” wrote one guest. And on the following page: “The ginger ‘bed tea’ in the mornings is a real treat." Then: “Sorry to hear about the neighbour, who lost his dog to a leopard last night.” No wonder cats aren’t so popular in these parts.
The rays of the late afternoon sun were still warming the terrace flagstones as I gazed around at the village of Kathdhara. My guesthouse was bordered with well-tended flowerbeds, ablaze with orange marigolds, sweet william, dangling purple amaranthus and red dahlia. The near-8,000m peak of Nanda Devi sat hazy on the horizon beyond the baby-pink blossoms of prunus trees lending that November day the spring airs of May.
Long, low, whitewashed houses overlooked verdant terraces spilling down the steep hillside, lumpy with haystacks and patched with vegetable plots. Piney woodsmoke scented the still air. The scene couldn’t have been any more bucolic if the chatter of villagers laughing in the fields was punctuated by the thwack of leather ball on willow cricket bat.
But that visitors’ book commiseration was a poignant reminder that life in rural India isn’t so gentle for those who live it day in, day out. Kathdhara is a relatively spruce settlement of some 30 families (here, population is numbered in families, not individuals or even houses), but it’s merely an island in a sea – albeit a smallish one – of wild forest: Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary.
To us short-term visitors, the creation of the sanctuary – 47 sq km of mixed forest tucked into a corner formed by the Nepal and Tibet borders – seems like a laudable conservation effort. For the villagers, though, the benefits are questionable. It’s their crops grubbed up by porcupine, boar and barking deer, their dogs and livestock at risk from leopards against which they can no longer effectively defend. And with reduced rights in the forest, their opportunities to tap resin, collect firewood and forage for animal fodder are also curtailed.
The launch of the Village Ways community tourism scheme in 2006 aimed to redress the balance. By guiding visitors along forest trails between guesthouses in five of Binsar’s villages, the project brings income – job opportunities for guides, porters, cooks; fair payment for food and services – and optimism. These villages had been atrophying as young people, disillusioned with subsistence farming, migrated to towns in search of work; now, hope of long-term opportunities is enticing them back home.
For visitors it’s a simple sell: charming walks, an insight into traditional rural life, and a total absence of hassle. Yes, you read right: it’s a 100% guaranteed hassle-free zone. No begging, no staring, no tipping, no horn please, no guilt – especially no guilt; this must be the most relaxing experience on the subcontinent. The biggest problem you’re likely to face is a tea overdose – barely an hour goes by without an offer of yet another cup from a smiling villager.
I sipped my spicy chai as a group of children yelled and flapped their hands to drive away a flock of green parakeets that’d been raiding the hemp pile for seeds. Tea and cannabis – two flavours that had already become inextricably linked in my mind with Binsar. Perhaps I should explain...
We’d set out from Khali Estate – a charming guesthouse, also Village Ways’ operations base – the previous morning, our ears ringing with the blessings of the Shaivite priest who’d daubed our foreheads with sugar bindis. A gentle hike along paths springy with pine needles brought us to Dalar, the first village on our route. Here our guide, Sher Singh – a gently spoken Kumaoni man with a wily, vulpine grin offset by enormous brown eyes – introduced us to the priest’s wife; as she plucked lemons for our tea from the grove behind the house, my eyes fixed on the mountain of cannabis dominating the courtyard.
Is that... well, is that what I think it is? I asked Sher Singh.
“Ah, the marijuana?” he chuckled. “It’s not for smoking – that would be illegal. No, we use it as a spice, in cooking. It’s very... warming.”
Note to self: avoid flights that transit Dubai in the foreseeable future.
I drank in the surroundings along with my lemony black tea as our smiling hostess’s two grandsons cajoled my girlfriend into playing cricket with a plastic ball that had stopped being round many months before. The steps leading up to the front door were decorated with footprint patterns in terracotta and white paint, while tinsel and pictures of deities adorned the walls, reminders of the recent festival of Diwali. Bees buzzed lazily in and out of the hive built into the house’s wall – a common feature in the villages: honey on tap, 24/7.
This encounter set the pattern for our wanderings over the following three days. After a restful night in a cosy guesthouse room and a hearty breakfast of chilli-tinged eggs and roti (flat bread), we’d set out on our day’s gentle hike to the next village, past waterfalls and rust-red wild turmeric. We’d retrieve tiffin tins from our packs for lunch, Sher Singh seasoning our munching with nuggets of insight about the forest, identifying tits, warblers, tree-creepers, bulbuls and flycatchers. Into contented silences came the clatter of a woodpecker foraging for grubs above the humming of cicadas.
Thanks to the transparency of the Village Ways system and the welcome it engendered, the character – and the characters – of each settlement quickly made themselves known. In Risal, nestled into the crook of a hidden valley, pumpkins dried on roof ridges, chillies glowed in colanders and two-day-old kids bleated under upturned baskets.
We met Shanti, ears heavy with chunky jewellery and bestower of the planet’s most contagious smile, who welcomed us warmly to her village, as did men driving buffalo ploughs and sowing barley in fields lined with cucumber vines, lemon, apple and apricot groves. Resting – with ginger chai, this time – we watched a hungry-looking kestrel eyeing scarlet minivets perched nearby.
Our next night’s stop, Kathdhara, had its neat gardens, its small folk museum and its dogs with leopard-proof spiked collars. At Gonap we encountered cheeky black-faced langur monkeys, a wealth of birdlife and an infectiously languid atmosphere. The slow pace of life – “We don’t rush here,” said Sher Singh, showing me his empty wrist, “so we don’t need watches” – is deceptive; women rise before dawn to prepare breakfast for the family before heading out to the fields. Unlike an English village there’s no focal point, no village green or pub; instead mutual trust and support comprise the social glue holding the settlements together.
Tiny Satri, our last stop in Binsar, was abuzz with youthful energy. Crouched on the shoulder of a ridge at the forest’s edge, the guesthouse overlooks rustic houses and narrow pathways akin to a Pyrenean village (aside from the banana plants), all pine-scented woodsmoke, cud-chewing cows and hayracks. Over dinner we mulled the laudable – though largely incidental – green credentials of the trip; as my girlfriend observed of our spinach and cauliflower curry: “It’s not so much food miles as food centimetres here – everything on my plate was picked just steps from the kitchen.”
We’d been warned of the musical bent of the village’s youngsters; it transpired, however, that the after-dinner show was, well, us. We mopped up the last of our dhal with fresh chapatis as a makeshift band of young people (and a couple of slightly sheepish-looking elders) giggled into the dining room, clutching tablas, whistles and a tambourine. After a couple of recitals of local folk tunes, the band’s ringleader – teenager Kiran – employed the universal language of point-and-laugh to convince us it was our turn. But what to try?
Self-conscious renditions of the ‘Hokey Kokey’, ‘Ten Green Bottles’, even ‘Doe a Deer’ followed – all left our rather demanding audience cold. Then we hit the jackpot: using a stretched scarf as a pole, we demonstrated the principle of the limbo. The rafters shook, the floor quaked, our egos shattered and an audience of concerned villagers breathed a hearty sigh of relief when we gasped for mercy and took to our beds, leaving the guesthouse intact, if still quivering gently.
I woke at dawn the next morning – our last in Binsar – to watch the rising sun gild the peaks to our north: Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Trisul and the five ‘chimneys’ of Panchchuli, so near I could almost taste their snow cladding. Sher Singh joined me, yawning, and directed my gaze to the Pindari Glacier, glistening in the direction of our destination that day: the Saryu Valley, 30km further into the mountains.
“There is a local saying: ‘If you walk for one mile, the water will taste different; walk for three, and the language will be different’. Here, the language is mine but it is hard for me to understand.” Sher Singh was observing just one of the distinctions between the Binsar hamlets and Supi, home to a new Village Ways guesthouse, the first in the Saryu Valley. The high peaks are closer, plant species vary – we sat among figs and pears, which blossom weeks later than in Binsar – and the proximity of Nepal and Tibet is evident in the villagers’ features.
“Even though we are all hill people, in Supi, life is not the same,” explained Sher Singh. “It’s even further removed from what you’re used to. Here there is no TV, no electricity, no road, no news – but the people love their way of life,” he asserted.
That much was clear already. We had spent a day wandering among the terraces and the 50 or so houses, admiring elaborately carved door and window frames. We chatted to women – clad in traditional Supi black – sweeping their courtyards and old men gathered in their customary tree-shaded spot for the evening gossip.
Sobhan Singh, owner of one of the village’s finest berkleys (traditional houses), introduced himself as we sat (drinking tea, naturally) outside the guesthouse, all the while spinning from a fist-sized clump of wool. Mesmerised, I asked if I could try; as elsewhere, I didn’t have to ask twice to get stuck in. People were always willing to allow us to mess things up.
Tease, pull, twist... “The wool from two sheep will make one jumper.” Flick spindle, draw yarn... “It takes about ten days to shear the sheep, spin the yarn and knit one sweater.” Snap thread, create a tangled clump, mutter hopelessly...
Red-faced I handed back the wool, and Sobhan Singh laughed kindly at my apology; I hope he managed to salvage the wreckage of his yarn, else someone in Supi is sporting the lumpiest jumper on the subcontinent.
As the afternoon waned, movement at the edge of the trees had me rubbing my eyes: a train of huge, furry mushrooms appeared, lumbering down the path alongside the guesthouse. “No, you haven’t eaten too much marijuana chutney,” grinned Sher Singh. “At this time of day the women return from the forest carrying bundles of rhododendron leaves to spread on the fields.” Which was a relief. Ever since watching The Triffids, I’ve been spooked by walking vegetation.
At first light we were following that path ourselves, ascending from the village on the climb up towards the lookout at Supi Chilta. Being that much higher up in the Himalayan foothills, the opportunities for more demanding hiking around Supi are many and varied, from testing day walks to treks towards the three glaciers of Pindari, Kafni and Sundardunga.
We’d certainly picked the day for it. The first few hundred metres were unremittingly steep, and by 7am we’d worked off the morning chill, emerging from dense rhododendron forest into a sun-soaked glade; mulched-up dirt alongside the path betrayed where wild boar had been grubbing for roots.
Through a gap in the trees we caught glimpses of Nanda Kot and the glaciers glistening to the north. A frantic whirring in the long grass announced the departure of a couple of startled monal, rare Himalayan pheasant – tasty, said Sher Singh ruefully, but thankfully now protected.
Another two hours brought us to the second of three temples along the ridge. We removed our shoes and gingerly padded across the chill flagstones, Sher Singh ringing the bell above the stone gateway as a tribute to the goddess Nanda Devi.
At well over 3,000m we were breathlessly high; a carpet of cloud rolled away to the south, and buzzards and eagles soared, specks hundreds of metres below us. The silence was enhanced by the faint tinkle of hundreds of bells lining the courtyard and the fluttering of flags embroidered with elephants, flowers, om symbols and, ironically, leopards.
Those flags reminded me of the paradoxes of conservation – but also reaffirmed the optimism growing in these tiny villages. As writer Arthur Pinero observed: “Where there’s tea, there’s hope.” In the small communities of Kumaon working with Village Ways, till now so close to losing their futures, I found both tea and hope in abundance.
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