I have been trekking the Uttarakhand and Himachal Himalayas for several years now. These are unique and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes. No matter how many times I have returned to explore these majestic snow mountains, interspersed with rich verdant valleys and quaint villages tucked away in impossibly remote nooks and corners, each journey has been a memorable and deeply uplifting experience. Watching the sun rise at Nanda Devi or tracing the wisps of clouds gathering around the Trishuli peak, makes one’s spirits soar. And then a sense of humility, awed by the majesty of these towering peaks cloaked in eternal snows.
A friend and I traveled to the Uttarakhand Himalayas in mid-April. Our journey took us from Dehradun to Rudraprayag, then on to Jhaltola near Berinag and then finally to Binsar. On the way back, we spent a day at Corbett National Park.
This was an area I was visiting after nearly 20 years. The change was striking. We were surprised by how good the roads had become thanks to the Char Dham project. The improved connectivity has led to a virtual mushrooming of guest houses, hotels and lodges. Even remote places now boast of 24-hour electricity. Almora is now a sprawling town spreading from one hillside to the next. Kausani, too, is now a major town, crowded with guest houses and restaurants serving an impressive array of international cuisine, momos and noodles being the most popular. We stayed at simple but comfortable homestays and did day hikes through dense forests. At this time of the year, the forests were ablaze with bright red rhododendron blossoms and many of the trails led to small and unpretentious mountain villages or ancient shrines and temples.
Our first day’s journey took us from Rishikesh to Rudraprayag, where we stayed at a quaint lodge on the banks of the Alaknanda river, one of the two main tributaries of the Ganga, the other being the Bhagirathi. The highway has mostly been upgraded into four lanes but there are stretches where it is being broadened into six lanes. The speed and comfort of our travel must be set off against the immense scarring of this still shifting and sensitive mountain terrain. Entire hillsides were being gouged out with huge earth-moving machines. As in other parts of the Himalayan zone, these highways cutting through some of the most fragile ecology on Earth, will experience frequent landslides and avalanches, interrupting traffic and requiring expensive repairs. I have already witnessed this on the existing highway to Gangotri. There are stretches where entire hillsides have slid into the river during heavy rains, causing flooding and heavy erosion of river banks.
Something even more ominous came into view as we headed towards Rudraprayag and beyond. There is a massive railway project under construction all the way from Rishikesh to Karnaprayag, along the banks of the Alaknanda.
It involves laying a 125 km-long single-track railway line, which will traverse through 17 tunnels and cross 35 bridges. It will cost Rs 16,200 crore. The official site claims that this is a project of “strategic importance” and that “it will improve connectivity to the Char Dham shrines of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath in the Garhwal region of the Himalayas.”
In Rudraprayag, we could hear the sound of machines working through the night. During the day, further on our journey, we saw the massive tunneling machines at work, threading through the mountains. The Char Dham is already connected by highways. Do we really need a railway line as well? The damage being inflicted on some of the vulnerable landscapes in our country is of a scale that is most severe. We have had several disasters thanks to deliberate and indiscriminate destruction of a pristine environment in the name of development. We are now using religion and defence as justification for this relentless spoliation of our environment. The massive increase in human traffic that is likely to follow will turn these pristine stretches into congested settlements with haphazard construction, devoid of proper infrastructure and without arrangements for waste management. The river Alaknanda, already being exploited for hydro power both on its main channel and on its several tributaries, will likely be delivered a death-blow by these ill-conceived projects.
It was a relief to spend a couple of nights at the Jhaltola Estate, not far from Berinag on the road to Almora. This is located in the middle of a 1,000-acre pristine forest, difficult to access but, perhaps, untouched for that very reason. The forest covers two villages and the surrounding area given as granted to Nain Singh Rawat, one of the well-known “Pandits” who carried out extensive surveys of Tibet in the 19th century as employees of the Survey of India, posing as ordinary pilgrims. Nain Singh walked on foot through the length and breadth of Tibet and was the first to report on the altitude of Tibet’s capital Lhasa. The lodge inside this dense forest is on land leased from Nain Singh’s family and is currently run by a conservation-conscious couple. But we were disappointed that the snow mountains were not visible as they were covered in a perpetual haze because of forest fires in the hills all along the Himalayan foothills. These are attributed to unusually high temperatures and deliberate burning of vegetation to create more farmland or grazing for animals. It was the same story higher up in Binsar, from where one usually gets a panoramic view of the Panchachuli, Trishuli and the Nanda Devi. At some places, one could even see smoke rising in the far mountains. A brief vision of the Trishuli early one morning at Binsar was the only compensation for our long journey.
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In spite of such disappointments, our walks through the forests at Jhaltola and Binsar were a delight. Being able to come back to comfortable lodgings after a long and tiring hike, have hot showers on demand and be served freshly cooked and wholesome food, these made the journey worthwhile. But I confess that never before have I felt as anxious and apprehensive of the future as on this trip. The snows on the Himalayas may not be eternal after all.
(Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and an avid trekker in the Himalayas)