Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Pindari and Kaphni Glacier Trek: Part 3

Days 11 and 12: Khati
I decided to stay in Khati for a little while to help out Scott and Bonnie, and see what life is like there. Scott and Bonnie live in an abandoned building that they renovated to turn it into a tiny but cozy home. As I sat and drank coffee with them, a number of people dropped by with requests for the two. A few people came to report problems with the solar lighting systems Scott set up for them. One boy came to say that his mother was sick and asked that Scott come look at her. We sat for a while sipping our coffee and talking. "I bet we seem quite callous sitting around with that woman on her death bed right now," Bonnie said. She then went on to explain that the villagers try to stockpile medicines by pretending they have illnesses, or exaggerating real illnesses, so that they can have them for more serious issues later. The problem is that there isn't an understanding of the uses for things like antibiotics - they're taken as a cure for everything.

A water powered grain mill in Khati

Scott is pretty much the official village doctor. His medical training comes almost entirely from a book called Where There Is No Doctor, but the work he does in Khati seems to be a great success. Scott told me the story of the first time he gave someone stitches. It was a girl who had been out in the forest chopping wood and sliced her foot with an axe. When Scott arrived she was unconscious from loss of blood, and her family were standing around praying and waiting for her to die. Scott stitched her foot up, realized he'd done it wrong, and did it again - All without local anasthetic. Now he says he's pretty good at making the stitches, and even has xylocaine (easy to get fom the pharmacy a day's hike and jeep ride away) to numb the areas up. It's pretty amazing that the lack of regulation in India means he can do pretty much whatever a normal doctor can with medicines he can easily buy in a pharmacy. When I asked whether HIV/AIDS was an issue, Scott told me that as far as he could tell it's not yet. Recently, however, a husband who'd been down in the plains working died of unknown causes (they don't do autopsies) and his wife died within a few months also. Scott suspects this may have been HIV brought from contact with sex workers while the husband was working in the plains. He thinks government programs to employ men in their home villages have (unintentionally) helped stem the spread of HIV into the area because fewer men are leaving for the slums of the plains to find jobs.

In addition to being the doctor, Scott's main project at the moment has been installing 70 solar panels and LED lights in all the houses around Khati. Scott and Bonnie raised money in Australia, and are sourcing the lighting systems from an NGO in Mumbai who gives the systems to them at a highly subsidized (but still substantial) rate. They then subsidize it further with the money they raised to give a system free to every family in Khati, and a partially subsidized rate to the businesses in Khati. The small amount of money they've raised from business installations will go to hiring a local man to do repairs and maintenance on the systems when they return to Australia. They say they've got someone in mind - He's of the upper caste so he can enter everyone's kitchen in the village (Lower caste people cannot enter the upper caste peoples' kitchens). During the two days I was with Scott, we visited at least six houses to diagnose and repair problems.

Scott installs an LED light

At one point while walking down to a house in the lower part of Khati to work on some solar issues, Scott asked me to guess where the "other side of the tracks" was in the village. It was pretty easy to tell where the dividing line was between where each caste lived. Houses got much smaller and simpler, and the path changed from cobblestones to dirt. Scott told me only three people in this part of the village are employed (the rest work in the fields, I assume), so there is much less money. Khati was the place where caste was most visible to me in India. It's hard to see any evidence of it in most parts of India, though I had gotten some hints during conversations with Indians I met.

Bonnie spends most days teaching English and art to the local kids. Part of the building they live in they converted for use as a classroom. It's decorated with beautiful art projects by the children. Bonnie speaks quite passionately about the educational issues in the village. Most girls are not enrolled past grade eight. The teachers are absent a majority of the time, and when they do show up usually only teach half days. Kids whose parents decide to send them to better schools end up grades behind because of the poor quality of the school in Khati.

Scott and Bonnie are also very frustrated by the employment situation. Many of the upper caste men are employed in government jobs which means they are paid well, but almost never actually work. Both days I was there they were going on and on about how quite the village was because all the men were off on a "community work day," in which the government pays them to do local infrastructure projects. Most days appparently the men only sit around drinking chai, alcohol and playing cards. They are disgusted by the fact that the men sit around all day while the women work their asses off in the barley and wheat fields, and in the home. Recently when a woman was widowed, the local council gave her license to produce alcohol, and the availability has caused a noticable increase in domestic violence. Government subsidized "army alcohol" is also widely available.

While everything I have just described may have painted a dim picture, Khati seems to be an overall healthy and happy village. Scott and Bonnie have invested a huge part of their lives in the village, and seem to be making a very positive change. One symbol of this is that for the last six months they haven't eaten dinner at home, as every night a local family invites them to dinner. They're even booked up to a week in advance at times! I have immense respect for Scott and Bonnie, and the sacrifices they make to improve the lives of others.

Scott, Bonnie and Khati

Scott and Bonnie's blog can be found at:
Their project's site can be found at:

Day 13: Khati → Supi → Bharari → Bageshwar → Almora
I decide to hike out a different way then I came in. I climb and climb and climb to the pass above Khati, and drop down an obscene number of stairs to reach the village of Supi. The road begins here, but there are no jeeps. So I just start walking down the road. It's hot and dusty and I realize that I'll be walking through dozens of switchbacks. Like a miracle, a pickup truck comes down the road from my back. I flag them down, and hop in the bed of the truck. I ride in the back of the pickup truck, for part with a couple locals, to Bharari, a village about halfway to Bageshwar. There I hop in a share jeep and sit next to an Indian from Delhi, now living in Chicago, who can't stop complaining about how hard the trek was. He'd turned back barely two days in because he couldn't live without his cell phone. He was a nice guy though, and helped me find a jeep to Almora once we reached Bageshwar. This jeep driver insisted on waiting 45 minutes to cram one last person into the jeep. About 20 minutes into the ride we then had to wait half an hour as the magistrate reprimanded and fined him for carrying too many people. Sweet. It was a long day with about four hours of hiking and six hours of jeep travel, but not a terrible way to end the trek.

Locals along the road from Supi to Bharari

Supi Steps

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pindari and Kaphni Glacier Trek: Part 2

Day 5: Khatia → Dwali
Jan and I wake to a whole lot of snow accumulation on the ground! Determined to continue the trek, we set out down towards Khati. Jan wonders out loud whether we'll be able to see the trail. I assure him we will, having no idea whether this is true. His boots cost 20 bucks from a store in India and definitely aren't waterproof, so I lead the way breaking trail down towards Dwali. Walking through the shin deep snow on the trail feels good, but the thought of how wet my legs and feet will be is not inspiring. A few slips later, and some very careful walking on the icy switchbacks 100 meters above the river, we're back in Dwali. Jan heads down towards the warmer Khati. I stop for lunch with the group of Indian Navy families from Mumbai, who've returned from Phurkia without making it to Zero Point. Then I set out for Phurkia, hoping the storm won't stop me from seeing the Pindari Glacier. About 45 minutes in, the men who run the guest house in Phurkia are heading down the trail and turn me around. It's too snowy, and avalanches are running across the trail. Shit.

Good morning! Greeted by half a meter of snow and counting.

Everything is shades of grey now.

Waterfalls were everywhere when the snow started melting

Bridge closed for snow.

Forest trail

Day 6: Dwali → Phurkia → Dwali
Anand Singh of the guest house in Dwali assures me that I can make Zero Point (at the glacier) today. He packs me a lunch and I set off. The trail to Phurkia is slushy and muddy, but good because the Indian Navy crew broke through all the snow. I find Phurkia abandoned, and continue up, beginning to break trail through the snow. After I pass the remains of the second avalanche across the trail about two kilometers past Phurkia, I realize, "What the hell am I doing breaking trail through this solo." So, disappointed I head back down to Phurkia where I take a nap on the porch of an abandoned guest house. Just before I've made it all the way back to Dwali, I see Babaji heading up. He tells me he will be at Phurkia tonight, and Zero Point tomorrow.

The trail ahead.

Breaking trail

Babaji is a figure of local legend in the valley, a holy man who has been living at Zero Point just below the Pindari glacier for many years. Madhu is friends with him, and had arranged for me to stay at Zero Point with Babaji, so I plan to head up the next day.

Don't forget

Day 7: Dwali → Phurkia → Zero Point
Today I hike half the day up to Zero Point. I find Babaji and his assistant there, digging the place out, and collecting the water from the roof. The scene with the water pouring into a dozen different buckets is quite strange after hiking through silence all morning. Babaji welcomes me and I spend the rest of the day relaxing. He cooks really well. I eat curry with cauliflower, the first change from potato since starting the trek.


Babaji's place

Babaji's place in context

Day 8: Zero Point
I wake at five AM to the sky just beginning to get light, and the nearly full moon setting over the peaks. After a tea with Babaji, I head the last kilometer to Zero Point. It's a pretty epic scene. The trail just sort of drops off at a humongous drop into the Pindar river, and you look out across to the Pindari Glacier. You're surrounded by 6,000+ meter peaks! Babaji puts me to work carrying drinking water. The water source is a good 10 minute walk away, and carrying two 10 liter containers at 12,000 feet wears me out quick. Porters for the NOLS mountaineering course Madhu is working come a couple times dropping off gear for the course. A storm rolls in and I spend the afternoon napping. At one point I look out to see a family of wild goats playing around in the snow. In the evening, Babaji invites me to watch him perform his prayers. He prays to Nanda Devi (same name as the peak), the local name for the goddess Parvati. He also takes me into his cave, a sort of rock shelter that the house was built around, where he began praying 19 years ago.

Me at Zero Point

Sunrise view from Zero Point

The Pindari Glacier

Day 9: Zero Point
NOLS arrives today! Babaji keeps me busy with endless water runs. The excersize feels good, but intensely tiring. When the NOLS group arrives the area turns really busy. It's gone from two to twenty people in just a few minutes. Madhu and Dilip (the other Indian instructor) get down on their knees and touch Babaji's feet to show respect. He is their guru. The NOLS group has some interesting characters. Ben is from Chicago, and currently on a gap year before going to Harvard. He is very enthusiastic about the gap year thing and is super excited to hear about my year. His is really interesting too - When he returns from NOLS he is planning on biking fro the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. I also meet Seychelle, who graduated last year from Penn! The best part about Penn, she tells me, is that "wherever you are in the world, you will have a friend from Penn." It's awesome to catch up with Madhu, hear about his plans for the next few months, and tell him about my travels.

A hut in the valley near Zero Point

Storms move in around a peak.

Day 10: Zero Point → Khati
I wake up before sunrise today to pursue the trail that goes towards the pass above Zero Point. I follow the trail for a while, traversing across an enormous cliff face, before finding it too snowy to continue. I had hoped to climb high enough for a view of Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India. The view of the glacier and surrounding area is awesome though. I head back down and eat my last breakfast with Babaji.

Beginning of the Pindar river

For some reason I think this is day 11, and I told mom I'd be back in 9 or 10 days. Oops! So I'm in a hurry to get to a phone before she calls in... Whoever there is to call here. I remember there has just been a phone installed in Khati, 25 kilometers away, but it doesn't do international calls. I have to wait a long time for Madhu to finish with instruction, but I get the number of Rochi from the kayak trip in Kerala.

Sunrise under the peaks - It hurts to smile because of my sunburnt and frozen skin

By this time it's one in the afternoon. I hike the 16 miles to Khati in five and a half hours with a ten minute break in the middle. It's all downhill except for a huge climb just before Khati. Ouch! In Khati I find Scott and Bonnie and they help me get to the phone. Mother contacted. Disaster averted.

Nanda Kot - 6861m (22,510 ft)

To be continued...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pindari and Kaphni Glacier Trek: Part 1

Day 1: Almora → Bageshwar → Song → Loharket
I hop on a bus in Almora heading to Bageshwar. Lonely Planet say it will take two hours. Never trust the lonely planet. Never never never. It takes closer to five, partly because the bus stops midway for lunch. I arrive in Bageshwar and switch buses. We begin hurtling up a dirt road through a river valley, passing jeeps on a single lane dirt road with a 1000 foot drop into the river on our side. After a half hour stop in some random town (Indian buses get no awards for their efficiency), I get dropped off on the side of the road and told I'm in Song, the start of the trek. By this time it's about four o'clock and I head about half an hour up the hill to Loharket, the last village accessible by vehicles.

The road from Song to Loharket

Day 2: Loharket → Dhakuri → Khati
I have to climb up that hill today? Yeah, and you're only seeing half of it. This day weeds out the city slickers who aren't up for the trek. I climbed switchback after switchback gaining 4,000 feet in about five hours. When you finally reach the top, Dhakuri Khal, you realize two things. One: I'm going down from here?! And two: Woah, those peaks are huuuuuge. My legs cringed, but the part of me that lives for the pain of backpacking was ecstatic. There's a long way back up. I stop a little ways down the hill in Dhakuri, where most people stop for the night, and eat some Maggi Noodles (A local staple, the Indian version of Top Ramen). Then I head another couple thousand feet down to Khati, the only real village beyond the road. I spend the night in a guest house 2 km before Khati and enjoy the rest of the afternoon watching the storms move around the snowy peaks of the Sunderdunga and Pindari valleys. By the time it's dark, I'm delusional and can barely stand on my legs. I think it was dehydration and the rapid gain in altitude. From here forward I drink a lot of water.

A shepherd's hut at one of my first breaks.

Up and up and up and up. Loharket to Dhakuri Khal.

Ruins of a shepherd's hut

The first big peak view.

Bridge near Khati

I took this picture and thought I had some dirt on my face. I tried again but the dirt moved. And again. And again. Then I realized it's dust on my camera's sensor.

Sunset over the Sunderdunga Valley

Day 3: Khati → Dwali → Khatia
I Get up early, planning to head to Phurkia, the last village before the Pindari glacier. On the long trip up the river valley, I stop at a small shepherd's village to have a chai and some Maggi. While I'm waiting, an Indian guy arrives and gets a chai also. We leave together and he suggests that I go up to the Kaphni Glacier with him. He tells me there is a guest house on the way, but I don't realize he runs it. We stop again at Dwali, the confluence of the Pindari and Kaphni valleys, for lunch. There, three Germans walked into the hut. One I recognized from Hampi. Wooooah crazy small world we live in huh? Two were heading back down, but Jan, who I didn't know, wanted to go up to the Kaphni glacier. So Jan, Pradeep (the guest house guy) and I headed up the valley towards the glacier. The trail was quite steep, and we headed up to just below the snow line to the village of Khatia. Khatia consists of two buildings. Both are part of the guest house. Weird. There we ran into Scott and Bonnie who are Australians who've lived in Khati the majority of the year for the past six years. They were on a holiday from the village, as they do aid work there and it seems very very tiring.

Approaching Khati. That's wheat or barley on the lower left.

Khati from the road heading up.

Idyllic scene on the trail.

Creek and bridge

Day 4: Khatia → Kaphni Glacier → Khatia
Jan and I decided to wake up at five AM, just before it gets light, to get to the Kaphni glacier before the weather hit. After eating some Aloo Parathas, we headed up the couple hours to the glacier. The trail was quite good, and we only had to cross one significant patch of snow. Because of the lack of snow we were able to walk up onto the terminal moraine of the glacier. By 10 AM, as we were heading down, it had started to snow. We stopped in a meadow for a chai with Scott and Bonnie who were planning on spending the next few nights camping out. The rest of the day was spent relaxing at Khatia.

Where are the Hobbits?

At the Kaphni Glacier

Peaks and sky. Almost looks like it could be mirrored in a pond.

Himalaya Peaks

Me with peaks near Kaphni Glacier

To be continued...