It was early April of 2009 when my elder Sister (Didi) called up from Thane, Mumbai and announced that after Rai’s (my elder niece) final examination they will spend the summer vacation with us here at Ghaziabad and also asked me to plan for a trip to Kumaon. I tend to avoid going to the hills during May-June because of three reasons:-
1) The presence of massive holiday crowd and the noise.
2) In the peak season availability of accommodation and transport become scarce.
3) Last and not the least, starting from the end of March, the jungle fire in the hills cause a mist and thus reduce the visibility and hence the probability of getting a clear view of snow ranges reduces.
But, it was a rare opportunity to spend a long vacation with my beloved nieces. Hence I applied for Sabbatical(3 weeks of vacation we get after completing five years in our organization) and started planning for the trip to Munsiyari and some other places in eastern Kumaon.
In summer it is next to impossible to procure a ticket of Ranikhet express which goes daily to Kathgodam from Old Delhi. I got reservation in Nizamuddin- Lucknow superfast special till Bareilly . This train leaves Nizamuddin at 11:45 pm and reaches Bareilly at 4 am next day. After talking to few travel operators in Nainitaal I fixed a deal with Naina Travels and booked a Travera while Sandeepdaa(my Brother in Law) booked rooms at Zara resort at Munsiyari.
We decided to follow the following route:
Bariely-Tanakpur- Shymlataal(Stay)- Mayawati- Khetikhan(Stay)- Pithoragarh-Jauljibi-Madkot- Munsiyari(Stay)- DidiHaat(Stay)- Jageshwer(Stay)- Nainital(Stay)-Delhi.
The party: Om(my son), Mithi(my younger niece), Rai(elder niece), Srabani(my wife), Didi and Sandeepdaa(brother in law- who generously sponsored two big boxes of Cadburys which we could not finish even after putting sincere effort throughout the journey).
Munsiyari is located at the north east corner of Uttarakhand in Pithoragarh district. The region around Munsiyari is also known as Johar- the home of the brave and enterprising Johari(or Shaukari) Bhotias. Bhotias are the residents of high lands of Himalayas and they were the pioneers of Indo-Tibetian border trade before China invaded Tibet. There are six major Bhotia communities (as per my knowledge) in Uttarakhand and they had a similar pattern of migratory life. Each of these communities had their “summer homes” near a specific pass of the Himalayas. Just before winter they used to migrate south and spend the season at the community shelters there. The men used to disperse into cities in the plains like Amritsar, Ambala, Haridwar, Bareilly, Kanpur, Moradabad, Delhi and even Kolkata/Darjeeling to buy merchandise like Cotton garments, Sugar, Jaggary, Flour, Rice, Tea and other goods in bulk. In the advent of summer they used to go back to the high land villages and prepare for their journey across Himalayas to Tibet.
Typically in the month of July when the passes were somewhat clear of snow, a representative from Tibet used to come to these villages and after getting a guarantee from the headman of the village, that there is no infectious disease in the cattle or human, used to issue permission to the Bhotias to enter Tibet. Merchandise was carried by Ponis, Goats, Yaks and Jhabbus(crossbreed of Indian cow and Yak). After crossing the hostile passes of the Himalays, Bhotias used to enter Tibet and sell their merchandise at the mandis (markets) of Taklakot, Darchen, Gartok and Tirthapuri, to name a few. Every Bhotia trader used have a “Mitra” i.e. business partner friend in Tibet and the entire trading was based on trust and transactions were based on exchange of merchandise. From Tibet, Bhotias used to bring to India Shilajit, Animal Skins, Chamor(a kind of fan, a fly-whisk made of yak’s tail used for fanning at religious places), Wool, Goats, Horses, Salt etc and sell those in Indian markets.
Following is a list of Bhotia communities in Uttarakhand I am aware of:-
1. Jad Bhotias: Summer home: villages near Harsheel. Used to cross Himalayas via Nelong Pass near Gangotri.
2. Marcha Bhotias: Summer Home at Mana/other Villages near Badrinath. Used to cross Himalayas via Mana pass.
3. Niti Bhotias: Summar home at villages near Niti or Hoti pass near Joshimath.
4. Johari Bhutias: Summar home at villages at Johar (Milam was the most important village and trading center). Used to cross Himalayas via three hostile passes in a single day: Jayanti, Unta Dhura and Kungri-Bingri.
5. Biyas/Choudas Bhotias: Summar village near Lipu Lekh pass(Garbiyang, Budhi) etc. Used to enter Tibet via Lipu lekh pass.
6. Darma Bhutia: Residents of Darma valley near Panchachulli glacier.
Explorers and pilgrims to Kailas-Manas Sarovar used to accompany the Bhotia caravans during their journey. Some rich Bhotia traders used to have primary schools and music parties (mirasis) travelling with the caravan. After China invaded Tibet, their occupation was gone and they joined various other professions. Chinese army entered Indian soil and looted some of the affluent summer villages like Milam which are now left deserted.
Well, let me come back to the story of our journey. Munsiyari is a small picturesque place at the altitude of 2000+ meters. In local language Munsiyari means “the place of snow”. One can get an enchanting view of the mighty Panchachuli peaks. The view of Gauriganga river and its gorge, the forested hills around, the constant chirping of birds and the peaceful nature is always enjoyable. Many explorations start from Munsiyari. It is becoming a hub of winter sports as well. Because of the distance from Delhi(around 650 km in my estimate) this place is yet to be “Nainitalized”-one will have little difficulty to come close to nature. March to June and September to November are the best time to visit Munsiyari. Apart from Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam tourist rest house, there are a dozen of private lodges here and few more are being constructed.
There are several routes to reach Munsiyari:-
a. Pithoragarh- Thal- Munsiyari.
b. Pithoragarh-Jauljibi- Munsiyari.
c. Almora – Seraghat- Berinag-Thal-Munsiyari.
If you enter Kumaon through Kathgodam, you are likely to take route c or d. If you enter Kumaon through Tanakpur, route a or b can be taken. As far as I know, the best road surface quality can be expected in route d.
In October 2006, Srabani and I reached Munsiyari through this route. We boarded in the Delhi-Munsiyari Uttaranchal Roadways bus at Anand Vihar ISBT and it took 27 Hours(yes- 27 hours) to reach Munsiyari. There was no traffic jam anywhere. Leaving Anand Vihar at 4 pm, it reached Almora at 3 am- no doubt an encouraging performance. The Sardarjee who was driving the bus was cracking jokes throughout the night and initially he was playing Bhangras and Guru Bani’s is his music system. The moment he left Haldwani at mid night, and started climbing the hills, he switched to Kumaoni songs. At Almora a new driver took over- he was calm and quite and self-contained- neither did he play those songs, nor did he crack jokes or drive at the fast pace like his predecessor did. He demonstrated a great affection towards Tea and Bidi and started taking half an hour breaks every now and then and got tremendous support from the rest of the folks in the bus. During this journey, we got an awe-inspiring view of Nanda Devi peak from a place near Bageshwer. We were positive and awake during the first half of the day but started getting restless afterward.
After Thal, it started raining profusely and as we crossed Girgaon, it was absolutely dark. I had travelled through this route once in 2004 and knew that on the right side there are scary and deep gorges and a little mistake of the driver would destroy the party. The bus kept moving at a “military medium” pace. Adding to our pain, two passengers, at least one of them was drunk, started fighting over a seat dispute the moment we left Thal. They would quarrel and then pause for some time(as a result of threat/pleading by other passengers) and then resume arguing again and again pause and this went on and on in a remarkably predictable cycle… I don’t know what they did as they left the bus at Munsiyari bus stand. Probably they left for their home in that chilly night hoping to meet again and reach a conclusion sometime during another journey. The bug dropped us in front of the Munsiyari Kumaon Mandal Tourist Rest House at 7 PM amidst rain, ice-cold wind and darkness. Fortunately, we got a room and after bath in hot water, a plate of hot spicy Khichry, king size Omletes and generous supply of achars (pickles) lifted our spirit in no time.
We got up very early next morning but, the Panchachuli was covered by dense cloud.
We could not see the snow peaks. Frustrated, I decided to march downwards to Pithoragarh through the reverse of route b. All buses and ‘shared’ jeeps travel via Thal and not through route b. The road through Jauljibi was Kachha and quite narrow, but the distance to Pithoragarh is much shorter via this route. I booked a Sumo. As we started descending from Munsiyari, we could see the vast expanse of Gouriganga valley. From Munsiyari, Gauriganga looks like a thin ribbon.
As we kept descending the furious river came closer and closer and at Madkot she was just beside us. This is one of the finest hill roads I have ever travelled and would recommend fellow Ghumakkar’s to give a try. Along the way I could see dozens of water falls and at one place the road passes underneath the waterfall. If the windows of the vehicle are not closed, the passengers would surely be drenched.
Human habitat was rare all the way. High in the towering mountains around I could spot some stray villages. At one place I spotted an old man crossing the wild Gouri Ganga in a vintage rope-way. Time seems to stand still here- in the truest sense of the term. While the waters of Gauri Ganga jumped into the arms of river Kali at Jaulajibi(This place used to be a major trading center of the Bhotias), we headed towards Pithoragarh and took shelter at the picturesque KMVN rest house. We could not see Panchachuli but this journey was simply unforgettable.
Now, let’s leave the high lands of Johar and take a steep descent and reach the dusty streets of Beriley.
17 May- 2009, 5 am: Nizamuddin-Lucknaw Superfast special have left us here. As it rushed towards Lucknow, we dragged our luggage outside the railway station and started looking for Ramesh and his Travera. Ramesh is with Naina Travels, Nainital and he came to Bariley from Nainital on 16th night. After crossing Baheri, Bhojipura and Kushinagar we saw the ever welcoming message in road signboard “Dev Bhumi Uttarakhand Par Aapka Swagat Hai(Welcome to Uttarakhand- the Abode Of Gods)”- we have again entered the state of Uttarakhand! Some slogans like “Jai Badri-Kedar” “Jai Uttarakhroad”followed and it excited all of us. After Kichha we were heading towards Tanakpur and decided to take a Tea break at Nanak Maata. Across Uttarakhand there are several important Sikh pilgrimages: NanakMata, Mitha Ritha Sahib(Champawat district), Hem Kund Sahib(Near Joshimath and Valley of Flowers) and Paonta Sahib(near Dehra dun). This is the first time I was entering a Gurdwara. The beautiful white structure, the lake behind, the cleanliness and the chanting of Guru Bani in the early morning and the calmness touched all of us deeply. After a heavy breakfast we moved on.
The places around Nanakmata such as Banbasa, Sitarganj and Kichha were covered by thick Terai forest. After independence, vast expanse of land was distributed among victims of partition from West Pakistan. This region now looks like ‘mini’ Punjab. Fighting with hostile nature, the new settlers have converted dense forest into fertile land and there is a touch of prosperity in the villages around. We started climbing the hills after leaving Tanakpur. Tanakpur is located on the banks of Kali(also called Sarda here) river adjacent to Nepal border.
Remember the story of Jim Corbett about the fight between an elephant and a pair of tigers? I had the opportunity to travel through this route in year 2003 when we went to Lohaghat. The road was under-developed that time and the forest seemed to be encroaching into the road at many places. This time, the road has been repaired and has encroached well into the forest. At last we reached Shyamlataal via Bastiagaon and Sukhidhang at around 11 am.
The original name of Shyamlataal was ‘Shyala’. The monks of Ramakrishina Mission Mayawati Ashram opened a meditation center here and changed the name of the place from Shayala(which sounds like a slang) to Shyamlataal(means green lake). The main attraction of Shyamlataal is a lake surrounded by small hills and green forest. It is a solitary place with no market or village nearby. Looking at the greeneries, listening to the chirping of birds and enjoying the view of the green cultivated lands in the valleys nearby one can easily loose oneself.
Encircling the lake on foot gave us a lot of pleasure. Ignoring the pathetic condition of the KMVN Tourist Rest House and absence of water supply and electricity we roamed around the place and started planning for next day’s journey.
Part 2- https://www.ghumakkar.com/2009/10/25/trip-to-munsiyari-part2/