When Guddu showed me his village Kalap from the jeep we were travelling in – looping up to the village Mothwad in the Har Ki Dun route, my heart skipped several beats. Stitched across the belly of one of the mountains of the Garhwali Himalayan range, Kalap stood aloof and the bridle pathway meandered vertically, as if a casual arrangement in a snake and ladder game board, looking like it could give the chills to even an accomplished mountain climber.
No vehicles travelled to Kalap and the only access is a four-hour trek through the route that is scattered with tiny boulders, carved into the mountain. I silently follow Guddu after slinging my overweight backpack but too many questions simmer in my mind. Prominent of them being; How broad is the route?’ Is it so narrow that I am in a danger of tipping and spooling down the mountain at a simple misstep? But it is too late to retreat from the plan anyway, so I edge on.
The first obstacle was to cross the Supin River. The bridge had been washed away in a flood and cloudburst about a decade ago causing the Dawla village on its banks to be abandoned by its inhabitants. Owing to the large scale erosion, Dawla’s banks are now unsuitable for construction of another bridge. Now, there stands a makeshift bridge made of a few planks and logs of wood across the river, alongside a zipliner for more daring souls. I gingerly walk across the bridge after climbing down a huge mound of boulders and loose sand over Guddu’s pep-talk: ‘don’t be scared, use your heels. You’ll be alright.’
Soon after, the ascend began, with it the assault to my body – dehydration, exhaustion from lifting the backpack that is pressing me down. I walked no more than a hundred feet before taking a break along the steep incline slowing down even Guddu’s progress. Add to it, I brushed the leaves of the stinging nettle – once with my forehead – and triggered a scratching marathon. Turns out, marijuana juice is an excellent remedy for nettle sting.
As we go up, the view broadens. What looked like an impossible incline opens up views of pine and deodar forests, other tiny villages on the opposite side, brightly colored single, standalone houses, terrace fields and bright yellow mustard fields. Supin’s roars subside and peaks like Kedarkantha and Bandarpoonch draw nearer. At every nook, the view shifts. Walnut and apple trees have withered out in the winter while apricots, peaches and cherry trees are in full bloom with their pale pinkish white flowers. A local, on his way up, joins in but couldn’t keep up with our impossibly slow pace and quickens his pace, disappearing into the mountains.
The breathtaking beauty of the mountains harbors harsh living conditions. The crushingly long winters ensure no crops survive and the short summer produces only few grains (amaranth, rajma and wheat). Vegetables are largely out of question owing to threat from wild boars and porcupines. Cattles survive but dairy supply is intermittent. The monsoonal downpour brings cloudbursts and landslides cutting the village from the rest of the civilization. Most of the supplies come from the plains but Kalap is largely self-sustainable with its produce and primitive machinery (like this hydro powered mill to grind grains) to process the grains. A mountain dweller’s staple diet mainly consists of grains and pulses and vegetables are only an occasional addition.
With barely about a hundred families, Kalap is a Garhwali Himalayan village with wooden houses, hardworking women and equally hardy men. The school is only partially open with teachers choosing to stay in the plains over battling the four-hour trek to their daily job. As a result, the school stays closed most of the time with many children being sent to the private schools in plain by parents who can afford private education.
All these natural impediments, however, do not seem to thwart the spirit of the mountain folks. They are unconditionally welcoming. “You should come in the winters when the entire mountain range is covered in snow. Not a speck of green will be visible,” Guddu tells me. His tone doesn’t harbor regret for the winter’s harshness. On the contrary, he seems to savor it.
When I hauled myself up to the village, it was already close to sunset. I was in a hurry to shower – partly to luxuriate in the success of the climb but Guddu warns me that the water is ice-cold. I persist and take the most painful, numbing shower of my life over giggly, watchful children. The shower threatens to anesthetize my cranium and other parts of the body. As I look up, the sun is fast disappearing behind the mountains casting its incandescent glow on the valley. The tiny villages far, far away light up for the night. Strangely, their winding access routes do not look breathlessly impossible to climb. These are signs that the hardy hills are made habitable by hardier humans.
How to get there:
Kalap is at a distance of about 250kms from Dehradun. An early morning bus leaves Dehradun that reaches the nearby bazaar town Netwar at around afternoon 4.00 p.m. Kalap is a further 5 – 6kms trek from Netwar. The only option available in terms of accommodation in Kalap is Homestays run by locals. Visit www.kalap.in for more details.
A version of this appeared in The New Indian Express and can be accessed here.