Odyssey to Bedni Bugyal – Part 1

Traipsing in Lord Curzon’s footsteps, we embarked for Bedni Bugyal knowing little of what to expect, and least expecting what was in store for us…

Editor’s Note: In April-May 2007, six of us made a trek to the Garhwal Himalaya. Sahastrarashmi, Sunita, Jennifer, Satish, Rajeev and Bijoy walked from Loharjung to Bedni Bugyal, then descended to Wan from where we walked to Kunol and then journeyed onward to Nandprayag. For many of us it was the most intimate encounter with the beauty and power, the fury and the sagacity of the elements in the Himalayan microclimate. Jennifer Nandi wrote a penetrating account of that journey shortly afterward and shared it with us. It has been salted away in our inboxes and archives for a long time. We thought it should come out for air. Serialised over the weeks to come, Jennifer’s account of the trek to Bedni Bugyal will appear on Saturdays. Make time for weekend reading. Here’s part 1:

A great wall of permanently snow-capped mountains rises beyond Bedni Bugyal

Part 1 – Loharjung

Walking down the platform at Old Delhi Railway Station and trying to keep a wary eye out for the coolie burdened with my baggage, I fail to see a gesticulating hand wallop me in the face. The man shields his mouth apologetically and I smile a weak smile and walk on. I can still see, but there’s something amiss. I’m not quite sure — until my specs fall off my face!

“Well, here’s a blind beginning to a Himalayan trek,” I think, while I pull out my prescription dark glasses. On the train, none of my newly met fellow trekkers asks, “What’s with the glares at night?”

It was going to be a very long night to Kathgodam — a reservation faux pas ensured we had one berth amongst the six of us! Sunita and I had age, gender and shamelessness on our side and so we sequester it for our sleeping space. The unearned penalty of sleeping on the floor and in linen bunkers falls to the four gentlemen! The station rears itself out and we are off. The lodestone of an adventurous attitude deeply planted within me shifts and I know that now there is no looking back.

Wheat fields en route to Loharjung

For the uninitiated, a trip into the Himalaya is merely to enumerate its thousand quirks or to act as a scribe. But the journey is always too full of diversions, digressions and distractions to merit such commonplace attention. Years of excursions into the Himalaya finely hones one’s spirit to search for yet another way of looking at the landscape. 

Where does the beauty of India reside? In the contrasts between its regions. And in the multiplicity of those regions. It was to such multiple contrasts of scenery that six of us — Sahastra, Satish, Bijoy, Rajeev, Sunita and I — endeavoured to climb part of the old pilgrimage route known as the Raj Jaat Yatra; the same route that King Yashdhawal’s ill-fated royal entourage with queen and nautch girls undertook over 600 years ago to the glacial shores of mysterious Roop Kund. Victor Banerjee’s award-winning film Roopkund and the Splendour of Garhwal was based on this story. A route known for its bad weather, thunder and lightning, of people perishing in cloudbursts…

Our trail would take us from Mundoli Village, across the Loharjung Pass to Didana, along the ridge of Ali Bugyal to Bedni Bugyal. On our return we would trek down to Wan and then on to Kunol, further downhill to Sitel from where we hoped to secure a vehicle to take us to Ghat and beyond to Nandprayag. We would have to make it in time to catch the train at Haridwar. 

But first, we must undertake a nine-hour gut-wrenching car journey through crowded Himalayan towns of diminished diversity. Here was a monoculture if ever there was one — brick-and-mortar constructions built intrusively, pushing the uniformity of cement into every corner of the land where there should be rock or stone. How easy it is to obscure the character of our land by simply showing a complete disregard for the past, an ignorance of context. Are we not aware that in the fragility of a high-energy environment such as that of the Himalaya, such constructions have the shelf life of a banana!
The trail to Didana

How many of us travelling in the mountains feel compelled to be aware of the monumental history contained in the rocks? The immutable character of our country is governed by its geology, and determined by the rocks. This is an exciting notion. It means that events that happened hundreds of millions of years ago still control the lie of the land and the plants that grow on it. Those events underpin the natural history of our land – the history of the plants, animals, insects, and birds. This is the hidden landscape. Knowing this can enrich one’s awareness of our extraordinary past.

The first half of our car journey takes us through the Shivaliks; foothills formed as detritus and sediment from the rising Himalaya were deposited in a skirt at the base of the growing chain. These sediments were themselves up thrust in the last major folding event as the Indian plate pushed and ground against the Eurasian continent. This narrow skirt of the Himalaya’s own waste is about 2,000 kilometers long, forming a continuous chain. 
A blooming rhododendron beside the paved road to Wan, from which we descended into a shepherd’s trail toward Didana

The now-degraded Shivaliks have an interesting ecological history. Prior to the Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845 and 1849, the hills were covered with thick acacia and pine forests. The lush tangle of undergrowth on the forest floor was home to a variety of pheasant species and deer. Crystal clear streams drained this region. Until recently, in the valley of the Ramganga in Corbett National Park it was still possible to observe species which were once fairly prevalent across the entire Shivalik belt. Thick grasslands clothed the valley floor and verdant Sal forests, the slopes. Goral could be found on the precipitous slopes, tigers in the jungles and the rivers were flush with Mahseer and the occasional Gharial.

Sadly, once the Sardars and Rajahs who owned the hunting land in the Shivaliks were evicted and the forests handed over to the villagers free of any regulatory mechanism, tree-cutting and overgrazing stripped the area. Heavy rains, poaching and a slew of ill-conceived forest policies did the rest. The loosely cemented alluvial soils of clay conglomerates were washed away. Now, under constant threat of erosion and floods, most of the Shivalik regions are a scene of dusty, rolling topography, knife-edged ridges, devoid of vegetative cover.

Northward, the Shivalik Range abuts against a 120 km wide massive mountainous tract, the Lesser Himalaya. Somewhere along the route we leave this seismic tremor and earthquake-prone foothills zone and gradually ascend the greatest concentration of mountains on earth. The topography alters. Persian Lilac and Sal give way to Horse-chestnut in full bloom. Scarlet blossoms adorn pomegranate trees and the apple has found its way here far from its ‘centre of diversity’ in the forests of Kazakhstan.
Leaving Loharjung. The meadow of Bedni Bugyal is tucked into the valley just shy of the farthest visible peak on the horizon
Late in the afternoon the car journey mounts its toll. Our empty stomachs churn and we swallow bile. We are all slightly nauseated but share aloo parathas and look for rainbows in the rain-cleared sky. If only we knew that that was going to be our last meal before we reach Didana, 24 hours later. In the GMVN room that we share in Loharjung, we rearrange luggage, pocket next morning’s ration of two energy bars each, and prepare for the trek. Sahastra, having located some super glue enroute, uses it and Bijoy’s digital dexterity to fix my spectacles for good! 

We hire four ponies to carry our baggage and a reed-thin man implores us to hire him as a guide. He is unwashed, unkempt with his meager belongings tied up in string, attached to his back. He reeks of a combination of beedi and bourbon, a local brew. Sahastra’s soft heart hires him in a jiffy. The Brainfever Bird calls all night long living up to its ill-gotten name.

Photographs: Sahastrarashmi and Beej
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