How I wound up in a glacial valley which my guide, Narendar, called Harkidun on May 14, 2013 is sufficiently ridden with misadventure that I’m not quite sure where to start. Starting from Dheradun, the state capital to which I flew after a business trip in Hyderabad, there’s missed e-mail, missed bus, all day cab ride which ends with water rushing across the road which the driver won’t cross, getting picked up by a bus I was told didn’t exist, a nice local who helped me find a guide but to whom I had to explain that I didn’t want a porter or cook, a night in a half-finished hostel on a cliff, and a jeep ride blocked by a rockslide. That was just to get to the trailhead. Also, I didn’t have a map. As my boss’s boss later pointed out, an Indian co-worker who’d moved back to the India office and was therefore the best prepared the likely success of my trip, was visibly concerned.
The actual trek turned out to be on a foot path down a steeply walled valley used by locals to get to their villages once the road ended. In a few places we passed teams of men and sometimes women rebuilding washed out bridges. At night, Narendar would help pitch my tarp, much to the amusement of the nearby residents with whom he kept up a rapid banter. I assume if I’d known the local idiom for gringo, I’d have heard it a lot. While I had brought dry food expecting a typical backpacking trip where you carry everything yourself, we wound up eating at little canteens, each of which had it’s own charms. The first was run by a one-eyed fellow who kept our chai cups full and visited by a Nepali forester who was so interested in my one dollar bills that after trading one for 50 rupees (the same rate I’d gotten at the airport) we repeated the trade. The next day, we ran across a canteen set up by a forester who cooked Maggi (Indian Ramen) for passerbys, in this case a group of middle school aged boys from Mumbai chaperoned by some fathers. While the most common questions I got were nation of origin, age, and martial status (nope, this Kansas anymore), I chatted with some of the dads about the open source course management system they were building. Even in rural India, one knowns a fellow techie when one sees one. I also danced to Gangnam style with one of Narendar’s friends. Globalization has a sense of humor.
We passed a village which looked like Rohan from Lord of the Rings, I doled out some aspirin to a guy with a headache, and after climbing several sets of rocky steps which left me huffing and puffing like the out of shape American I was (though not as out of shape as the guys from Mumbai), Narendar spoke the magical words, “Welcome you to Harkidun”. Despite there being a forester hut, the latrine options were still wilderness style which surprised me given the place’s apparent popularity. After pitching tarp snuggly under a large boulder, the forester made us dinner, and Narendar took me down to a glacial runoff stream where we enjoyed the colors as the sun peacefully set.
The next morning we visited a nearby pond which required crossing some snowfields. Schadenfreude would perhaps be the most applicable term for watching my usually indefatigable, sure footed guide slip on the banked snow in his Converse AllStars while I stepped solidly in my hiking boots. On our way back we passed the school outing from the day before en route to the pond. Without Narendar’s dexterity or my boot tread, they had formed a pitiable, if determined, series of human chains as the attempted to make their way between uncovered rocks where sure footing could be found. Later that day, we helped a team trying to move a large rock with iron pry bars to from the base of a new bridge. In the US, I’m merely average height but found myself larger than any of the laboring residents. While they probably would have moved the stone themselves, helping them get over a particularly tough spot gave me the enjoyable feeling of being a small Sampson.
I ended the tip by giving Narendar the sunglasses he’d borrowed to help with the snow-blindness acquired during our trip to the pond. I tipped well too which was almost unfortunate given that I made it back to the US with only 40 rupees (80 cents) in my pocket having used a credit card at every opportunity. I am particularly thankful to a friendly and well educated fellow I met on the trail named Guru (Indian by birth but had majored in English and worked in marketing in an international firm and I liked him instantly just because I could understand what he was saying) who changed my remaining dollars when I began running out of rupees.
I was pretty clearly not ready for the trip and so now that I’m back home safe and sound with a few year’s distance I can laugh. From a few online searches, the Indian trekking industry seems to have exploded since I was there. I hope the local entrepreneurs in Sankri trying to improve their tourism industry got a fat piece of it. Without them looking after me, I’d probably have wound up out of money, 10hrs from an ATM, outside of regular mobile phone service, in a foreign country where my attempts to communicate usually just reminded me that the world is a big place.