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The Pathless Woods

The Pathless Woods

WWF-India’s Sonali Nandrajog revels in the splendour of the mountains as she hikes to the Thinni meadow in the breathtaking Great Himalayan National Park.

As the author traversed the thick pine forests along the mountain paths, the trees suddenly gave way to present Shangarh, a sprawling emerald green meadow at a very high altitude in the Himalaya. Photo: Siddharth Edake.

How much further is it?” I asked for the twentieth time, looking up from the ground, hoping to finally see the thick trees on this mountain open up into the destination we were attempting to reach. “Just another five minutes”, came the prompt and well rehearsed response of our local guide Pappu bhaiya, his tone giving away the truth that he was only saying what I wanted to hear. I smiled at his innocent attempt to keep me going, and reminded myself yet again that the joy is in the journey, not the destination! We were climbing our way up to the Thinni meadow, on top of a giant mountain in the buffer of the Great Himalayan National Park in Himachal Pradesh.

For years, my wildlife biologist husband Siddharth and I had heard our nature loving friends sing praises of this park. About the relatively untouched beauty of the Himalayan mountains in the region, and the postcard perfect pine forests rolling relentlessly from peak to peak, under an all-time clear blue sky. Now that we were finally here, the park was much more than our friends had promised!

We arrived at the onset of winter, in early October 2014, for the Dussehra holidays. The weather presented perfect trekking conditions with a mild sun that showered us in warm sunlight, and a cool breeze that helped keep our stamina alive. The Great Himalayan National Park is best explored on foot, and therefore our trip was filled with short treks to experience the forested mountains. Our first warm up trek had been a four km. uphill journey from the local town Neuli to the Shangarh maidan (meadow), which served as our base camp for this three-day holiday. Shangarh came to us as quite a surprise. As we traversed the thick pine forests along the mountain paths, the trees suddenly gave way to present Shangarh, a sprawling emerald green meadow at a very high altitude in the Himalaya. We later came to learn that such alpine meadows are a common characteristic of the Himalaya in Himachal, and are considered sacred by the local villagers. Having spent a relaxing day in Shangarh just soaking in raw nature, we were now set for a much harder and higher trek to Thinni, in the hope of spotting some of the park’s endangered and endemic wildlife, and of course, taking in the scenic beauty that enveloped us.

The author observed this Kashmir rock agama for 20 minutes, as it put up a spectacular show of hunting down its morning meal of a cicada. Photo: Siddharth Edake.

We started off at 7 a.m., in full gear, well protected against the warm but strong sun and the chilly wind by light jackets. Our rucksacks weighed heavy on our backs, stuffed with a typical morning breakfast of Maggi and a lunch of alu paranthas and achaar, packed by the lady managing our modest home stay. The previous day, we had knocked on the door of every home in the Shangarh village, in search of any local boy who could guide us along the route to Thinni. Almost the entire village was enjoying the festive season in Kullu, bringing in Dussehra in true Himachal style by carrying down the idols of their local Devis and Devtas (deities) for the big celebration.  While this ensured we spent three blissful days away from any human company, it also posed the serious issue of no guidance on our trekking routes. We finally hit jackpot at the village’s only grocery store, when we overheard a local boy contemplating a trek to Thinni to pay respect to the local Devta who resides there. This is where we befriended Pappu bhaiya, and piggy backed on his devotional visit to the highest mountaintop around Shangarh.

This trek was a 12 km. round trip, and the duration varies according to your fitness levels. Though the mountain terrain is merciless, the locals cover the trip in four hours. We trudged the entire journey in eight! Despite the 70 degrees continuous elevation, which did not look downhill or flatten even for 100 metres, this was turning out to be one worthwhile trek! The foliage on the mountain floor was thick with ferns, moss, grass, and dried pine needles, the route entirely undefined by any path, unlike the characteristic pugdundees one is used to in the hills. The canopy of the tall pine and coniferous trees dissected the rays of the sun as they fell to the floor, while the roots of the trees peaked slightly out of the ground, serving as natural steps to climb the otherwise slippery incline.

The Rufous Sibia is found in the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent, ranging across India, Nepal and Bhutan. Photo: Siddharth Edake.

We may have been panting and climbing the mountain on all fours, but we were generously compensated by the wildlife sightings along the route. We were only half way up to the Thinni meadow, and had already spotted 30 different species of birds, including the Great and Blue-throated barbet, Kalij Pheasant, Rufous-bellied Woodpecker, the critically endangered Himalayan Griffon, Spotted and Little Forktail, White Browed Scimitar Babbler, and Whiskered Yuhina. While the birds streaked the sky with their colours as they flew from tree to tree, the ground revealed its own wonders. At three different locations along the route, we spotted the Kashmir rock agama, a species of lizard found only in the Himalaya. We watched one guy for 20 minutes, as it put up a spectacular show of hunting down its morning meal of a cicada, while the other two took no notice of us, as they remained flattened and motionless against a rock, basking in the sunlight. Just when we were feeling quite satisfied with all our sightings, the highlight of our trip revealed itself, slithering up the mountain slope, through the thick foliage, towards a crevice under a rock. Our path was crossed by a Himalayan pit viper, a highly venomous mountain snake found in the Himalayan foothills. That didn’t worry us too much as its rarely known to bite humans, if left alone and undisturbed.

So much to enjoy through the journey, but the destination and its mysteries were yet to be discovered. Pappu was, of course, not right about the time left. It took us another hour from that five minutes declaration to finally reach Thinni meadow. Breathless and in pain, we laboriously climbed the last stretch. And then, unexpectedly, the thick pine forests, once again, suddenly exposed a vast expanse of velvet green stretching ahead of us all the way to the mountaintop. We stood at the confluence of the forest and meadow, looking down the mountain we had just climbed, and taking in the mesmerising view of snow peaked mountains all around us. The wind gushed around at high speed, making loud whooping sounds, yet giving us that sense of peace and comfort that we all come to such spots in search of.

The Himalayan pit viper, a highly venomous mountain snake found in the Himalayan foothills, is rarely known to bite humans, if left alone and undisturbed. Photo: Siddharth Edake.

Our local friends had prophesied we would return half way from the trek. Boy, were we glad we pushed our limbs to the limits! At what felt like the rooftop of the world for now, we settled down for our well-earned meal. And then, the showstopper arrived to call it a wrap. For a fraction of a second, we noticed the silhouette of a flying squirrel soar across the evening sky, leaving our jaws hanging in surprise, as this sighting was a first for both of us!

Read More: Climbing Mount Kanamo

Spiti – In the Land Of The Grey Ghost

Author: Sonali Nandrajog, Web Special.

 
 
 

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