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Strolling high above the valley floor, I heard the distinctive and faintly melancholic cry of an eagle. It was clear yet oddly tinny. My guide, Bhuppi Takuli, caught my puzzled look. “Mobile phone,” he chuckled, cradling it to his ear. Even in the far-flung Indian Himalaya, remoteness is being diluted. I took consolation from his ringtone being the call of a crested serpent eagle. “It’s my favourite bird,” he added. It became my favourite ringtone too, and one to which I grew accustomed over the following week.
I had come to walk in the upper reaches of the Saryu and Pindar valleys in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Bordered by Nepal to the east and Tibet to the north, Kumaon’s warm and fecund valleys cradle hundreds of villages where life’s rhythms endure largely unchanged. Yet what sets Saryu and Pindar apart is not merely proximity to great Himalayan peaks and glaciers but their embracing of a sustainable tourism model developed by an organisation called Village Ways.
Established in the nearby Binsar Sanctuary in 2006, Village Ways was the creation of a group of Indians and Britons connected with tourism and rural development, including Richard and Linda Hearn, founders of the tour operator Inntravel. The low-key, low-impact model they set up sees visitors walk between villages, guided by local residents and staying each night in village houses which have been adapted to become inns. Start-up funds were 40 per cent donation, 60 per cent loan, to be repaid once the tourists started to arrive. From the outset, the business has been owned by the local communities involved. Visitors enjoy a more immersive and rustic experience while their hosts gain much-needed income in a region offering little employment. It’s not luxurious but guests are heartily fed, well-informed and there’s always a hot shower.
It had been a long but exhilarating drive up from the plains. We tracked the Saryu Valley for hours as it weaved and narrowed, gradually drawing closer to Nanda Devi, India’s second-highest mountain. Finally, at the foot of a path that climbed steeply to the village of Supi, I left the car and was met by my guides, Takuli and Santosh Joshi. A porter grabbed my rucksack and off we went, arriving in Supi 15 minutes later.
Like many Kumaoni villages, it is built on a parcel of land surrounded by terraced fields. Elongated whitewashed houses, or berklays, are usually home to one extended family, with separate sections having their own outside stairs and doorways. Supi’s charming inn was a typical berklay, its small rooms functional yet tidy. Manager Durga Singh shook my hand warmly and soon re-emerged with a plate of pakoras to devour on the flagstone terrace. I gazed up at the chisel-like profile of Nanda Kot jutting above the encircling hills, watching it fade from deep amber to faint mauve and then disappear altogether as night closed in.
Dazzling morning sunshine quickly dissipated the sharp overnight chill. After an al fresco breakfast, I set off to explore the village. Chillis and grain lay drying in piles on flagstones. Women and babies warmed themselves in the sun. Children laughed at my size 11 boots. There was ample space and clean air, a kind of hardy wholesomeness about the place.
Heading off towards the next village on the itinerary, we passed watchful macaques that foraged for stray seeds in fields of winter wheat. The path contoured between terraces until we reached the foot of the so-called Thousand Steps. “I only ever counted 835,” admitted Joshi. Almost invisible until one reaches them, they were built to improve a short-cut which claws up a near-vertical hillside to reach the villages of Khal Jhuni and Jhuni.
The trail seemed to dangle over the valley. Himalayan griffons, the region’s largest birds, glided overhead. Having gained the ridge, the path levelled and curved into a side valley, heading through groves of oak and alder towards Khal Jhuni. We continued past the village’s junior school, its pupils well-dressed and scrubbed, and by lunchtime reached the next inn, at the hamlet of Gwara.
Our simple yet delicious meal – curried mustard leaves with tomatoes, potatoes and chapattis – had been prepared in Supi and we carried it in nesting tiffin tins. After a pot of strong tea, we set off again for an afternoon excursion farther up the Saryu valley.
Jhuni was a short walk away on a pencil-thin path that widened as we reached the village. It was neat and organised, and although there’s now hydroelectricity I noticed most households using small solar panels to recharge portable lanterns. One man stopped me to invite me to take tea with him on the way back. We continued climbing, the path weaving around forested ravines, past a sentinel-like shrine to Bhumiyal, the local “lord of the land”, according to Takuli.
We stopped at a point where the path dropped towards the valley below. Women were foraging for firewood, which they bundled with bamboo thongs and heaved on to their backs, adjusting the load, up to 30kg, with a headband. All the while they chatted freely to Takuli and Joshi while I gazed at the cliff across the valley and a series of cascades, now dry following the end of the monsoon.
On our return a shy young lad stopped me, saying: “Sir, Mr Khem waiting.” As promised Khem Singh had not only arranged tea but set up a chair and table in the middle of the village. “Did you see the ‘golden bridge’?” he asked. I was baffled. The “bridge”, he explained, was a gold-coloured band of rock across part of the cliff, that gleamed when sunlit water flowed across it. Local lore reckoned it divine – each May for one day, villagers headed there to feast and bathe away their sins.
Singh proudly told me he had four children. “In December and January, nights are long and cold, sometimes with much snow. Best stay in bed,” he added by way of explanation.
Good walking trips need variety and now, in addition to a recently opened high camp, there’s a new set of inns in the neighbouring Pindar Valley. Early next morning we headed up to the camp – Jhaikuni – through strands of spindly yew and oak past a cluster of shepherds’ stone huts.
In a meadow stood a pair of guest tents with porches and chairs. Nearby were a small service hut and two staff tents. A table was promptly laid for lunch and out came the tiffin tins. Dominating the skyline was a tantalising line of peaks from Maiktoli to Nanda Khat, Nanda Kot and the five-crested Pancholi. In their midst stood Nanda Devi, 7,816m high, the great mountain regarded locally as Uttarakhand’s patron goddess.
I spent two nights here and walked all day as bearded vultures and hawk eagles patrolled overhead. Thirty minutes away stands Dhajon Top, a ridge-end knoll with a dinky walled shrine bristling with tridents. It’s a ravishing spot – what feels like half of Uttarakhand’s crumpled hills unfold below and stretch to a hazy horizon. A day-hike leads up through the last hardy groves of rhododendron to Pakua Top and terrific views of the Pindari Glacier, its treeless meadows much favoured by shepherds in summer.
Plunging into the Pindar Valley, Takuli and Joshi suggested we walk via Khati village. For more than a century, the valley’s uppermost settlement has seen a steady trickle of hikers drawn to the famed Pindari Glacier. We descended steeply through beautiful groves of cedar whose felling is now strictly controlled by the forestry department. Within two hours we were gazing across Khati’s picturesque cluster of slate-roofed houses.
High above the river we continued down the valley on a part-cobbled bridle track alongside fields of wheat and amaranth, lentils and mustard. Occasionally I saw women collecting the very last autumnal leaves – bedding for goats and cows.
At Dhur we stayed in a solitary lodge on the edge of forest, before continuing to Karmi, the last village halt, which faces the lowlands rather than the peaks. As though to compensate, it seemed the prettiest of the four with meadows, orchards and terraced plots theatrically laddering the hillside.
Huddled around the inn’s dining room stove that evening, Joshi, a Kumaoni born and bred, mentioned that he had previously lived in Delhi. This guiding job enabled his homecoming, and in the villages where I’d stayed, others now found they need not leave for work. Village Ways’ marketing and reach, explained Joshi, were bringing sympathetic visitors who took not just Kumaon’s hills but its habits in their stride. I mulled over the previous week: my feet may have been shod in outsized boots, but their footprint was discreet.
Amar Grover was a guest of Inntravel (www.inntravel.co.uk), the only tour operator which sells holidays for Village Ways (www.villageways.com). The 10-night ‘Towards Snow-Capped Peaks’ itinerary costs from £1,860 per person, including transfers, most meals and flights from London