We arrived in New Delhi on September 27th 2004 at approximately 1 am night after a comfortable direct flight from Vienna. Looking for a Guest house in Delhi at night is an adventure by itself, but we finally found the nice Sunny Guest House – a small but clean place with friendly and trustworthy staff.
The first thing you need to learn in Delhi is to discern and avoid the various frauds and scams. The most popular trick at that time was to fool you into some fake "Governmental Tourist Info Office" and talk you into an overpriced Kashmir houseboat trip.
On the evening of September 28th we boarded the night train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Traveling by train in India can be quite comfortable. Especially night trains are a pleasant way to cover long distances. We arrived in Kathgodam at 6:15 am from where we continued with a minibus via Nainital to Almora. Almora is a picturesque and peaceful little town. We spent the night in a nice place called Kornak Hotel.
The next day started as early as 4:30 am. The Bus ride to Munsyari (approx. 200 km distance) is exhausting and takes more than 10 hours. The road is narrow and winds along steep cliffs up to 2700 m before descending into the Munsyari valley. But compared to the bus ride last year in Nepal the road was in good condition (paved until Munsyari), the driver did a decent job and we felt perfectly save during the trip.
Munsyari is surprisingly large for its remote location at the end of the road. As we could not expect any facilities beyond Munsyari we needed to be totally self-contained for this trek. Accordingly our backpacks were quite heavy carrying warm clothes, our tent and sleeping bags, a stove, fuel and provisions for at least twelve days. The trail led down the Munsyari valley in a steady descent through the small village of Darkot until we met with the Gori Ganga river. The next days we would follow Gori Ganga through its gorge up to its origin – the glacier of Milam.
The first day trekking from Munsyari to Lilam is not too difficult and we reached the houses of Lilam just in time before a thunderstorm set in.
After Lilam the trail enters the deep and spectacular Gori Ganga Gorge. The waters of the Gori Ganga echo and thunder through an incredible series of rapids. The narrow trail is cut into the steep walls of the gorge and is often congested as shepherds lead their huge flocks of sheep or goats down from their summer grazing pastures near Milam.
The weather was not so nice that day, the sky was overcast and it kept raining from time to time. After about five hours walking we were already quite tired when we reached a small tea stall (dhaba) at a place called Railgari. There were some flat areas to pitch our tent, but everything was swampy and soaked from the rain, and we decided to walk on. The trail now continued steep uphill and it took us almost three more exhausting hours until we reached Bodgwar (2500m). Bodgwar consists of nothing more than some shanty huts and an ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) checkpoint.
The Police officers at the checkpoint where we had to register, were not used to westerners trekking on their own without guide and porters. We needed a lot of persuasiveness to convince them to let us continue our trek. As we didn't want to give the police another chance to change their minds, we decided not to stay in Bodgwar overnight but walked on. Right before darkness we found a small spot on the river bank, just big enough to pitch our tent.
It kept raining the following day. The last day had been tedious and Barbara had caught a cold so we went for an easy day, and only hiked until Mapang, where we found a nice spot to camp.
Still raining the next day. It was the fourth day with bad weather. We continued to Railkot. Railkot village is nothing more than another ITBP camp and some ruins on a ridge above the river. Here the valley opens and according to our guide book the first high mountain peaks should come into view. Well, not in this weather.
In the afternoon we reached Martoli village (3430m). Martoli lies high above the Gori Ganga on a grassy plateau. In its heyday, the village would have supported several hundred people and included a school and shops. At this time there was a thriving trade with Tibet – this ended in 1962 when the border was closed following the war between India and China. Nowadays Martoli, like so many other villages in the upper Johar Valley, is practically deserted, its stone houses falling into total disrepair. Only a handful of villagers travel up the valley from Munsyari to spend the summer in Martoli.
When we woke up next morning the weather had finally cleared up: totally blue skies with breathtaking views of Nanda Devi (7816m), Trisuli I (7074m), Kuchela (6294m) and Martoli Peak (4586m).
Under perfectly clear skies we continued to the next village. It is called Burphu (3350m) and and is by far the most active village in this part of the Johar Valley. We met a lot of friendly people in Burphu, got invited to tea and cookies. Like everywhere in India, people love to get photographed: a man invited me into is house to portray him and his family including his newborn son.
We left Burphu and continued north. Opposite the settlement of Pachhu there are magnificent views of the unmistakable profile of Nanda Devi.
After some more pleasant hours walking Trisuli I (7074m) and Milam came into view. Milam (3450m) is the last major settlement before Tibet. (A one-day trek up the Goenka Valley reaches the base of the Unta Dhura pass, a further day's trekking, after a series of pass crossings a trader or shepherd could be in Tibet.)
Milam was also home of a number of the renowned Pundit explorers. In the 1860s the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India office came up with the idea of training Indians who lived close to the Tibetan border to undertake the survey work in Tibet on their behalf. Villagers of the Johar Valley were primed in the use of the sextant and the compass and taught to measure altitude by recording the temperature of boiling water. To calculate distance they were drilled to take exact steps and after every 100 steps to drop a bead in a modified Buddhist prayer wheel. Disguised as horse traders or pilgrims they surveyed and explored Tibet for years completing journeys of several thousand kilometers.
In Milam we stayed at "Deepu Guest House", the house of a nice elderly couple, who allowed us to pitch our tent in their garden and prepared a delicious dinner for us.
In the early morning we hiked towards Milam Glacier. After about 3km we reached a vantage point (3500m) with spectacular views of Trisuli I. We tried to climb over the terminal moraine to get a better look at Milam Glacier and followed a small trail marked with rock cairns. Whenever we climbed one ridge of rocky debris there was another one blocking the view. We were so anxious to get a good view of the glacier, that we didn't realize that we were already walking right on top of it. When hours later the sun grew stronger and everything started sort of moving, we noticed our mistake and made sure to return to solid ground as quick as possible.
On our way back to Munsyari we camped on a meadow opposite the village Pachhu with exceptional views of Nanda Devi. Especially the sunrise on Nanda Devi the next morning was an amazing experience.
For the next four days, on our way back to Munsyari, we were accompanied by many villager families, who were also on their way down the valley, before the first snows of the winter would set in.
In the morning of Monday the 11th October at 4:30 am we boarded the bus to Haldwani and continued by night train to Delhi, where we arrived almost exactly 24 hours later.
Our next trip took us to Rajasthan. Another 22 hours train ride and we arrived in the "Golden City" of Jaisalmer. We stayed in the highly recommendable Artist Hotel, led by the Austrian Helmut Pachler, whom we had met before in Delhi. Helmut had started the Artist Hotel only some years ago to support the local colony of musicians and storytellers.
With Helmut's help we organized a camel driver and three camels and the next morning we rode off into the Thar desert. The first day we made good progress, trotting camels can develop quite some speed. Only Barbara's camel, which was an old veteran from the Pakistani army, started to lame and we had to relieve its load and share the remaining two camels.
During the days we kept riding, only around noon when the sun got unbearable we rested in the shadows of some trees. The nights we spent sleeping in soft sand dunes under starlit skies.
The last remaining days of our trip we slowly returned from Jaisalmer back to Delhi, visiting Jodhpur, the "Blue City" and the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Jodhpur was probably the most attractive town we visited during our 4 weeks trip. Especially Jodhpur's old town and market and the impressive Meherangarh Fort are definitely worth a visit.
However, the most impressive building we visited was the famous Taj Mahal in Agra. It was built by Shah Jahan as mausoleum for his favorite wife from 1632 to 1653. But besides being a romantic gift to his wife, the Taj Mahal is more of a symbol of the moguls megalomania and conceitedness.