When Guddu showed me his village Kalap from the jeep, on the Har Ki Dun route, it seemed like a distant Shangri La. In the belly of the Garhwali Himalayan range, Kalap stood aloof, the bridle pathway to it meandering vertically, like a casual arrangement on a snake and ladder game board.
No vehicles travel to Kalap. The only access is a four-hour trek through a route that is scattered with tiny boulders. I silently follow Guddu after slinging my overweight backpack. I wonder how broad the route is. Is it so narrow that I am in a danger of tipping and slithering down the mountain with a simple misstep? But it is too late to retreat.
The first obstacle to cross is the Supin River. The bridge had been washed away in a flood and cloudburst about a decade ago, causing the Dawla village on its banks to be abandoned by its inhabitants. Owing to large-scale erosion, Dawla’s banks are now unsuitable for the construction of another bridge. Now, there stands a makeshift bridge made of a few planks and logs spanning the river. A zipliner challenges more daring souls. I gingerly walk across the bridge after climbing down a huge mound of boulders and stepping carefully over the loose sand, accompanied by Guddu’s pep-talk, “Don’t be scared, use your heels. You’ll be alright.”
Soon after, the ascent began, my body begins to protest. I feel the exhaustion from lifting the backpack, which is now weighing me down. I walked for barely a hundred feet before taking a break. The steep incline slowed down even the experienced Guddu’s progress. Adding to my discomfort, the stinging nettle triggers a scratching marathon. Turns out, marijuana juice is an excellent remedy for nettle stings.
As we climb, the view broadens. What looked like an impossible incline opens up views of pine and deodar forests; other tiny villages on the opposite side are made up of brightly coloured standalone houses, terraced fields and bright yellow mustard fields. Supin’s roar subside and peaks. At every rurn, the view shifts. Walnut and apple trees have withered in the winter, while apricots, peaches and cherry trees are in full bloom. A local villager, on his way up to Kalap, joins us, but impatient with our impossibly slow pace he quickens his pace, disappearing swiftly beyong a curve of the hilly road.
The breathtaking beauty of the mountains harbours harsh living conditions. The crushingly long winters ensure no crops survive and the short summers produce meagre harvests of amaranthus, rajma and wheat. Growing vegetables in not an option: too many wild boars and porcupines ruin the beds. Cattle survive on these inhospitable slopes, but the supply of milk is unpredictable. The monsoon brings cloudbursts and landslides, cutting the village off from the rest of civilisation. Most of the supplies come from the plains, but in spite of the disadvantages, Kalap is largely self-sustainable with primitive machinery like a hydro-powered mill to grind and process the grain. A mountain dweller’s staple diet is mainly grain and pulses; vegetables are an occasional addition.
Populated by barely about a hundred families, Kalap is a Garhwali Himalayan village of wooden houses, hardworking women and hardy men. The school there stays only partially open because the teachers prefer staying in the plains over battling the four-hour trek up. Many of the children of Kalap go down to schools in the plains, sent only by parents who can afford private education.
All these natural impediments, however, do not seem to thwart the spirit of the mountain folk of Kalap. They are unconditionally welcoming. “Come in the winter when the entire mountain range is covered with snow. Not a speck of green will be visible then,” Guddu tells me. His tone doesn’t harbour any regret for winter’s harshness. On the contrary, he seems to savour it.
When I finish my haul up to the village, it is already close to sunset. I am in a hurry to take a shower, mainly to luxuriate in the success of the climb, but Guddu warns me that the water is ice-cold. I persist and take one of the most painful, numbing showers of my life watched by giggling children. The shower threatens to anaesthetise my cranium and other parts of the body. As I look up, the sun is fast disappearing behind the mountains casting its incandescent glow over the valley. The tiny villages far, far away light up for the night. Strangely, their winding access routes do not look breathlessly impossible to climb any more. These are signs that the hardy hills are made habitable by hardier humans.