Look there,” Khim Singh grabs at my arm urgently, “a pine marten!” Frantically looking in the direction he’s pointing, I see it, actually a yellow-throated marten, staring at me with a seemingly startled expression on its face. In a flash, it’s gone, but it had lingered long enough for me to get a long, good look at it. To come face to face with a wild creature is to know that you’re in the wilderness. I won’t forget the marten’s eyes in a hurry, coal-black and huge, eyes from a different world. We’re at the bottom of a gorge formed by the Saryu, a major Himalayan river in the upper reaches of Kumaon in Uttarakhand. Surrounded by subtropical forests of chestnut and alders, these are the no man’s land between the commons of the villages of the Saryu Valley and local forests that fall under the purview of the forest department. Lines between the civilised and the wild are fluid here. I’m an urban tourist with only a partial grasp on the realities of a high Himalayan valley, and it’s fair to say that I’m under the spell of the Saryu Valley.

Puneet K. Paliwal
Saryu Valley, as seen from Supi village
Saryu Valley, as seen from Supi village

While exploring the valley, Puneet and I are accompanied by Khim Singh Danu, a professional guide from Jhuni village and Tara Singh Takuli, a coordinator from Village Ways (a responsible tourism company based in the Kumaon Hills, working at creating an additional source of livelihood to rural commu-nities) from Supi village. “Jhuni is the last village in the valley,” Khim Singh tells me when we first meet him at the Supi roadhead, “Beyond Jhuni it’s completely wild.” In a way, each of the three upper Saryu villages where Village Ways has set up guesthouses in partnership with the local communities, are on the edge of the wild. Beyond Jhuni lies a bare, perpendicular rocky ridge rising to over 13,000ft, and then the snow peaks of Nanda Kot and Changuch. Below Khaljhuni, a predominantly Bhotiya village located between Supi and Jhuni, are the thick forests of the Saryu gorge. Directly above Supi, the largest and most prosperous village of the upper Saryu Valley, are dense rhododendron and oak forests rising to emerald green bugyals on the narrow watershed ridge between the Saryu and Pindar valleys. We begin our visit at the Supi guesthouse, a traditional longhouse called a berklay that used to house three families once upon a time. It’s quite an ancient building, and you can see the wood-carved doors and windows that were once the hallmark of mountain architecture in the region. Previously, the livestock and kitchen would be on the ground floor of the building, while the residential rooms would be above it. Today, the ground floor houses a roomy kitchen, a sitting-cum-dining room and the guides’ and coordinators’ quarters. The large double rooms on the first floor are for guests, and can comfortably house up to six people. Although villages like Supi get electricity from the mains, more remote villages like Khaljhuni, where we stay one night before heading up to the ridge, and Jhuni get their electricity from a community-operated small hydel-power plant down by the river. But the valley is certainly changing. Where the roadhead used to be much further down the valley a few years ago, these days, an unsurfaced road reaches the village of Tarsal, just below Supi. Khim Singh hopes that one day it will reach Jhuni as well, though he isn’t entirely sure if that is a good idea. Climbing up the steep 1,000ft from the river bed to Jhuni village, I can see why villagers would think that a road would help, but I doubt if the forest would ever recover. However, that’s a worry for another day. We have a more interesting task at hand.

Pink blossoms cover the mountainside on the trail to Dhurr village
Pink blossoms cover the mountainside on the trail to Dhurr village

The Saryu is quite unique among major Himalayan rivers in that it doesn’t begin from a glacier. Unlike the Pindar system next door, the Saryu arises from a number of springs in the thickly-forested northern reaches of the valley. Although the main spring is called Sarmul (literally, the ‘mul’ or root of the Saryu), it gets a major early boost from the Sahastradhara (or Saudhara) Falls, a beautiful waterfall that descends from a high spring to the young river in multiple braids, literally a thousand falls. We were trekking to this fall, deep in the heart of the Saryu gorge. After crossing and re-crossing the stream on makeshift bridges made of flat, round rocks lashed to yew tree branches, Khim Singh brings us to a threshing mill that’s churned by the river. I love old rural technology like this, human ingenuity at its least invasive. Khim Singh suddenly turns and declares that we can’t follow the river to the falls, as the forest ahead is too tangled and there are no tracks. So we take a detour, and climb about a thousand feet out of the river to Jhuni village, and traverse the mountainside before descending to the gorge again. That’s a cool 4km and 2,000ft of ascent and descent added to the route. But it’s worth the hike, given the beauty of the place, and how important the mythos of the falls is to the people of the valley. Khim Singh and Tara Singh take turns in telling us the story. The villagers believe that the falls are sacred to the gods, or devtas, of the valley, and that they come here to frolic in the water. No one alive has ever been to the source of the falls, about a thousand or two perpendicular feet above the river. Some who tried were never seen again. We turn a bend on the mountain trail and the falls come into view. It’s pretty dramatic, falling in many braids, its silvery flow lit up by a stray ray of the sun, surrounded by thick forests. At its widest point, a thin yellow rock band extends across the waterfall. Khim Singh points to it, “That’s the golden bridge. On full-moon nights, the gods use it to cross from one side to another, when they come to bathe.” We get to the descent and literally slide down a steep track through a dense forest to the river. Here, the Saryu is new as the day it first burst forth, gurgling over roots and boulders with reckless abandon. 

Sahastradhara Falls
Sahastradhara Falls

The falls look grander up close, a long white spray disappearing up into the forest above. A small, old shrine, now whitewashed, stands under the falls. We take off our shoes and get to the sacred space. Taking my boots off feels good. I watch while Tara and Khim pay their respects at the shrine. Then they come and sit by me. “Absolutely nobody’s been up there?” I ask Khim. “Well, someone had,” he says. “Many generations ago, there was an ancestor of ours called Byal Barh. He was a special man, he had abilities. He was permitted to go there by the gods, so he climbed up to the source. There he saw a giant black rock with a hundred holes in it, like a sieve. The water fell on the rock and a hundred streams emerged. Byal Barh said it was a beautiful place. All the fruit you ever wanted, orchards of apples, bananas, pears and avocadoes. It’s still there. It’s paradise.” As I look at Khim Singh’s dreamy face, recounting the story, I’m reminded of the description of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost; it’s eerily similar.

On my way to the valley, I’d met Dinesh Pande, one of the co-founders of Village Ways, now the Community Relations Director. Something he told me then comes to mind. “Our main model is the formation of village tourism committees,” he said. “That’s what brought us success in Binsar, and that’s what we wanted to replicate in the valley. So we went to Supi, and the guesthouse wasn’t a problem. Then we found this fantastic campsite up on the ridge on Jaikuni bugyal with a great view of the mountains, and wanted to build a campsite there. The villagers of Supi got scared, saying the bugyal’s deity will strike dead whoever digs the ground there. So we had to demonstrate that wouldn’t happen,” he said with a chuckle. “We packed some lunch and headed up to the meadow with some spades. Someone joked we should eat all our food as it’s going to be our last meal. I thought we should save some, just in case we lived. So we went, dug, and stayed alive. That persuaded the villagers. 

Tented campsite at the Jaikuni bugyal
Tented campsite at the Jaikuni bugyal

Now there’s complete trust. Because we didn’t die!” he ended with another laugh. We stay at the tented camps at Jaikuni for a couple of nights. Up on top of the ridge, far away from the depth of the gorge, at an altitude of about 10,000ft, the air is crisp and the sunsets are gorgeous. All around us are oaks and hundreds and hundreds of flowering rhodo-dendrons, in hues ranging from deep red to white and pink and even purple, Puneet alleged. A little shrine was tucked away at one corner at the edge of the forest. Each of the many bugyals on the ridge has a small, mud-and-thatch shrine, to unnamed gods, defenders of the high places and sheep and shepherds and guardians of the weather. Our god is in a bit of a lousy mood. We don’t get clear views of the fantastic pano-rama we know is in front of us: the massive southern wall of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, stretching from Mrigthuni and Maikitoli to Nanda Khat, Nanda Kot and Changuch, even a tip of Nanda Devi.

Over the next two days, we walk up and down the ridge, Tara Singh’s “zara sambhalke” ringing in our ears, over giant crags and under massive rock overhangs, over thin ridges dropping off thousands of feet to the two gorges on either side, with rhododendrons and a hundred different birds for company. We hear the rapid pecking of wood-peckers, watch magpies dart and griffons soar in the air below us, monals scatter and barbets cry. Shepherds with huge flocks of sheep complain about the expense of grazing near the Pindari glacier for three months and tell stories about a high-altitude lake behind the high ridge that holds the Saryu valley, where Nanda Devi sometimes comes. On our last day, we descend some 2,500ft through dense oak and rhododendron forests past the main shrine of the upper Saryu valley, the Supi Chiltha, to the lovely village of Dhurr in the Pindar Valley. The next day, we would leave this magical faraway valley behind, and descend to the heat and dust of civilisation. Eating a fantastic dal and sabzi meal with soft stars outside, I feel thankful that Village Ways exists, and that they’re putting in all this effort to truly enrich the experience of discerning travellers. I raise a toast with Puneet that one day this becomes the new normal of travel.

Women in Jhuni village
Women in Jhuni village

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

Bageshwar is the place to stay for popular treks in the region. The KMVN Tourist Rest House (Tel: 05963-220034, Cell: 08650002546; Tariff: ₹600–900, dorm bed ₹150) here offers 19 rooms, 4 dorms and a restaurant. They help with the guides also. Hotel Annapoorna (Tel: 220109, 220500; Tariff: ₹200–700) is near the bus stand.

Village Ways

Formed in 2005, Village Ways (W villageways.com, W villagewayspartnership.com) seeks to promote responsible tourism initiatives in india and abroad through community participation and the formation of Village Tourism Enterprises. The company started work with six villages in the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, before branching out to the six sites in the Saryu and Pindar valleys in upper Kumaon. Apart from Kumaon, Village Ways also operates in Rajasthan, Kerala and Karnataka as well as in Ethiopia and western Nepal. The aim is to provide supplementary income through tourism to remote villages and help prevent outward migration in search of work. The company also operates a charitable trust that assists the villagers in generating other sources of income, like from traditional handicrafts, and also assist in social projects, including the marketing of products made in the villages.

FAST FACTS

When to go March–April and October– November

Tourist offices

KMVN Kausani, Tel: 05962-258006

KMVN Delhi, Tel: 011-23712246, 41519366, 23746433, 23746431, Fax: 23319835

GETTING THERE

Air Nearest airport: Pantnagar (200km/ 6–7hrs), linked to Delhi. Taxi to Bagesh­war approx 4,000 (return)

Rail Nearest railhead: Kathgodam Railway Station (165km/ 5–6hrs). Taxi to Bageshwar is about 3,500 (return)

Road From Delhi follow NH34 and NH7 and NH109 (after Karanprayag) to Bageshwar via Meerut, Roorkee, Rishikesh, Rudraprayag, and Gwaldam. From Bageshwar take SH37 to Kapkot heading towards Supi by district roads Bus Buses from Delhi’s ISBT Anand Vihar leave for Haldwani and Kathgo­dam every 30mins between 5.00am– 12.00pm and 4.30pm–12.00am