(Text below written by Usha Alexander in May 06. For more pictures click here.)
Dodi Tal, considered the birthplace of Lord Ganesh, is a lake in Garhwal, western Uttaranchal. We hiked 44 km in 3 days, going up and down from about 5,000 ft to 11,000 ft, where we camped near the lake. Unfortunately, it was drizzly or overcast the whole time, so we couldn't view the snowy peaks all around. Still, the walk was incredibly beautiful, through the luminously green, high mountain woodlands of the early rainy-season, the cliffs punctuated by streams of clear water gushing from the rocks, with breathtaking drops falling away on one side of the path.
We had asked for two people to accompany us: a guide/cook and a porter, but when they turned up on the first morning, there were five of them! It seemed like overkill for only the two of us, but they all had large packs stuffed with provisions for our trip and we figured we couldn't turn any of them away, denying them their day's wages [Rs 225/$5]. So, we hiked up with an entourage of five men—a bit silly, but we had fun; and, as it turned out, their knowledge and assistance was invaluable to us lowlanders. The cook made hot breakfast and dinner each day; lunch was cobbled together in sporadic and makeshift chai stalls; one night they cooked a local wild veggie that tasted like asparagus.
They were all friendly, kind men, aged 15 to 55, all refugees/illegal workers who had crossed the border from Nepal years ago. All but the kid were incredibly competent guides with years of experience leading trekkers through the perilous high Himalayas for their livelihood (the kid was on summer vacation, working for the summer with his dad so he could earn some money to finish his education in Nepal; a sharp kid from a dirt poor family, he dreams of being a doctor; this was his first time trekking). The men told us all kinds of chilling stories of glacier crossings with tourists, of deaths they had witnessed, of people trapped in crevasses, frozen in icy waters. eesh! And they themselves can rarely afford anything but the shoddiest of equipment, footwear, and woolens, risking their lives much more than the tourists. Fortunately, we weren't crossing any glaciers. Instead, we walked through tiny little mountain villages; lower down, they grow wheat; higher up, they are shepherds, living in very basic wooden and piled-stone houses.
We met Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mt. Everest (1984) and something of an Indian cultural icon; she just happened to be staying at the same campground as us that day, leading a group of young men on a trek arranged annually by the TATA Adventure Foundation, where she works (she said she was happy with her job and her employer, who had created a whole new department for her to lead). She seemed like a very sweet and gentle woman, also a native Garhwali who grew up in a village not far from here.
The people of Garhwal are an interesting ethnic blend. They speak Garhwali, closely related to Hindi (Nepali is a dialect of Garhwali); their religion is Hinduism. In appearance, they cover the map, ranging from light-skinned, brown haired (I even saw a couple of redheads), with European features (Eastern Europeans, in particular) to light-skinned, brown-haired, with more Tibetan/ East Asian features, to "red" skinned, to brown-skinned, and black haired, with or without varying degrees of the epicanthic fold. And all these different looks, that in the US might pass for different "races," were intermixed as the same people, in the same communities. We saw a demonstration of traditional Garhwali folk dance and I was surprised to see that it was nearly identical to Eastern European folk dance, and distinctly different from folk dance styles from other parts of India. It made me wonder about the population migrations and mixtures across the region in the centuries past. But so far, I haven't found anything informative on the subject.
(See more pictures from this trek. Read more by Usha Alexander: City of Joy ?)