A light drizzle started as our Traveller came to a halt at the side of a mountain. I groaned inwardly as I realised that we would be making the ascent to Bhangeli village in the rain. It took us close to an hour, with multiple rest stops in the middle, to cover the 1200 m distance over a steep but manageable stone paved path. All sixty odd members of our group took shelter in the primary school compound of the village. One by one we were introduced to the families that would be hosting us for the night (I stayed in the house of Mr. Anoop Singh Rana’s parents). After changing out of my wet clothes, and assessing the damage caused by not waterproofing myself and the backpack, I joined everyone, back in the school compound, for the dinner that had been prepared by the villagers. It was an organic, locally sourced, simple and yet simply delicious meal of rajma (red kidney beans), chapatis made of chaulai (amaranth seed) and mandua (finger millet), and mixed vegetables (beans, pumpkin, potatoes among others). I can’t remember the last time I had such a wholesome and satisfying meal outside of my own home. Soon we were briefed about the next day’s program and then retired for the night. As I lay in bed, under three layers of blankets, I thought how we were midway through the trip and the real work was yet to start.
Been There, Doon That? is Dehradun-based group that organises heritage walks around the city and neighbouring areas. In mid-September 2017 BTDT organised a two day trip to a remote village in Uttarkashi district, Uttarakhand. This trip was part of a workshop conducted for the villagers of Bhangeli, introducing them to the concepts of homestays and responsible, sustainable tourism. We were to be the guinea pig tourists who would stay in their homes and who would be taken on treks around the village under their supervision and expertise.
Bhangeli is situated at about 8000 feet in the Garhwal Himalayas and is the starting point for the trail to the Gidara bugyal*. The trail itself, from Bhangeli to Gidara, is 8 kms long and the plan was to walk about one km of it. The first day was spent in reaching Uttarkashi from Dehradun. We were put up in Shri Kailash Ashram in Ujeli and spent the evening by the banks of the river Bhagirathi. Meals were provided by the ashram mess and we ate a dish made from raw bananas for dinner, something I hadn’t eaten before.
The second day started with a heritage walk around the city of Uttarkashi. It was ekadashi (the eleventh day of the lunar phase) and a fast was being observed at the ashram. Breakfast, therefore, comprised of a dish of potatoes and peanuts, another first! Our first stop on the walk the Kandar Devta temple. Kandar devta is the protector deity of Uttarkashi and hence this temple is located at the head of the marketplace. Incidentally, the old name of Uttarkashi was Bada Haat (big market) because it lay on an important trading route to Tibet. After the Kandar devta and Parshuram temples, we came to the main temple of the city, the Kashi Vishvanath temple. This is the important link between the cities of Uttarkashi and Varanasi. Both temples are dedicated to Lord Shiva and it is believed that if ever Lord Shiva has to leave his abode in Varanasi, he has a place to stay in this temple in the other kashi, Uttarkashi. Our next stop was the Ekadashi temple, built by Rajput kings. We then made our way to Manikarnika ghat (another similarity with Varanasi) on the banks of the river Bhagirathi and ended the heritage walk with the customary group photo.
After leaving Uttarkashi we travelled up the mountains and reached Gangnani, the nearest town to Bhangeli. Gangnani lies on the route to Gangotri and is a popular tourist spot because of its thermal springs. Two concrete tanks have been constructed, for the separate use by men and women, which collect the hot water from the spring so that people may bathe in them. After lunch at one of the river facing restaurants, constructed on stilts so that they were level with the road, we got back into our 12-seater Traveller and drove to the access point for Bhangeli village. Day 2 of the trip had started with the morning arti in Uttarkashi and ended in the quiet night of Bhangeli.
After a comfortable night’s sleep, we woke up bright and early and assembled in the school compound. The house I was put up in was almost the last house on the slope and it would take more than five minutes to cover the twenty or so metres to the school because of the gradient. We were divided into groups of 10 and assigned a guide belonging to the village. Thus began an almost two hour ascent, winding through the village and along the mountain side. Our guide pointed out the village temples, native medicinal plants and trees (walnut, rhododendron, banj oak) and chaulai cultivation. We came across a tribe of langurs and faced some competition with donkeys while crossing a small stream. To cross another stream, we had to take off our footwear and walk across the chilling water. Water from this stream was used to run the gharaat, a traditional water-powered flour mill.
What can I say about the views that hasn’t already been said before?
It took us close to four hours to complete the circuit back to the village. We were then served a brunch comprising chaulai halwa (another first!) and a potato dish. Long after I have forgotten details about this trip, the one memory that will always come back to me is the wonderful food that I got to eat here. After our plates were cleared away and we had brought down our backpacks, came the sound of two drums beating. The village women interlinked hands and started dancing the traditional raso dance, joined by the menfolk in a line behind them. Some of us joined in the dance too, men and women, villagers and city-dwellers, dancing together as one big happy family.
Some stray thoughts:
- Garhwali cuisine gets a bad rep for being insipid and under-cooked in big cities so I’m glad I got the chance to sample the authentic version.
- This trip was a massive success from the culinary point of view: raw banana, chaulai roti, halwa, potatoes and peanuts!
- I was apprehensive that I would be contributing to the open-defecation menace for the time that I was in Bhangeli and was beyond relieved to find pour-flush toilets.
- We had come over-prepared with our own steel utensils, sleeping bags, mats and what not.
- There is no telecom reception but electricity is available in a limited manner.
- “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
* Bugyals are grasslands situated in the higher mountains. Villagers typically take their cattle and goats to these meadows in the summer and leave them there for 3-4 months for grazing while they return to their homes. Once autumn starts approaching, they again make the trek to the bugyals to bring the animals back to the lower elevations.