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NainitalJust getting to the Kuari Pass is quite a journey in itself. It's well worth relaxing and acclimatising for a few days at one of the pretty, colourful and bustling "Hill Station" towns such as Nainital or Mussoorie that nestle in the foothills of the Himalayas a couple of hundred miles North of New Delhi but still around sixty miles from the Great Himalaya peaks.

In Nainital you can climb a long path leading to a point called "Snow View" at the top of one of the surrounding hills.  From here you can cast your gaze over the numerous forested ridges of the Garhwal footlhills and see the majestic peaks "floating" above like clouds in the sky.  In the picture below from left to right you can see Nanda Ghunti (6,309m. / 20,699ft.), the triple peaks of Trisul (Shiva's Trident, 7,120m. / 23,360ft.), one of the ridge walls of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and, I think, Nanda Devi itself, India's highest mountain (7,817m. / 25,645ft.).
Snow View, Nainital 

Public Carrier Truck Assuming you haven't got your own motor transport, from there you could travel North by bus or perhaps even hitch a ride in one of these trucks!  I wouldn't recommend watching the Himalayas season of "IRT Deadliest Roads" beforehand though!  The somewhat fatalistic Indian driving style does take some getting used to and certainly quickens the pulse.  The probably bald, slashed tyres, broken leaf spring suspension and largely wooden construction of your conveyance are unlikely to inspire confidence.  Just believe!

LandslideAs you drive up into the mountains on ever narrowing and crumbling roads and having seemingly miraculously avoided multiple head-on collisions it's not unusual to be held up by the occasional landslide.  As the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collide, so the Himalayas continue to evolve and grow by a few centimetres every year. As they rise up, the ever-present tug of gravity inevitably pulls them down.  Just keep your fingers crossed that you're not passing by underneath one of these rock slides at the time as the tumbling boulders will quite easily sweep a passing vehicle off the mountainside into the valley below... and it's a long way down!

Beasts of burdenEventually you will reach the end of the road and will not be able to travel further by bus or truck so you will need to gird your loins and prepare to continue northwards on foot.  Unless you're travelling light "alpine" style you'll need the assistance of some sturdy beasts of burden and stout-hearted porters.

WanThe Garhwal Himalaya is peppered with small hamlets in which people farm tiny plots of terraced land.  Space is at a premium so hay / animal fodder is sometimes stored in the air on poles rather than in a traditional western "haystack" form on the ground. Sometimes there is no separate barn or enclosure for livestock which, instead, occupy the ground floor of the buildings whilst the living accommodation is situated above.  Bio central heating no less!

GarhwaliThe Garhwali people are amongst the toughest and most hardworking, fiercely proud and dignified people I've ever met.  And yet at the same time they display a gentleness and friendly, welcoming charm towards strangers.  They don't seem to be remotely annoyed or irritated by having a bunch of "snap happy" tourists blundering through their land.  On the contrary, whilst walking through the foothills cries of "namaste" echo all around and, when entering a village, the people often come out to greet you as you pass by. Whenever there was a religious festival or celebration going on we were actively encouraged to take part.  I have very fond memories of these people and I miss them.


Roopkund - Skeleton LakeOnwards and upwards!  As you climb higher, arable land, forest and ultimately civilisation are left far behind.  Now you're out on your own.  Depending on the route you've taken an excursion to Roopkund (the "Skeleton Lake") is certainly worth a day's detour.

Beneath the imposing shadows of towering Trisul and Nanda Ghunti, this small, frozen lake may look quite innocuous at first glance but it hides a sinister secret.  It is littered with human remains!  Re-discovered in the early 1940's by an intrepid Indian Forest Ranger, the first scientific expeditions with the aim of solving this mystery took place in the 1950's.  Who were these people and where had they come from?  When and how did they die?  Several theories emerged including ritual suicide; that the bodies were placed there deliberately after a plague or epidemic had struck down local villagers; that the bodies were those of traders or pilgrims who had lost their way in the mountains during bad weather; that they were the remains of ancient warriors from an invading army that had been beaten back into the high passes of the mountains where they had starved.  Nevertheless, it would be another sixty years before the riddle would at last be unravelled by an international team of researchers led by Professor William Sax from Heidelberg University in Germany and including scientists from Garwhal University, Deccan College and Hyderabad Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in India and Oxford University in England.

Trisul Snow PlumeIt's often said that there's a lot of truth in old wives' tales and this certainly proved to be the case here.  Ancient traditions and local folklore had suggested that early travellers to the region had offended the Goddess Nanda Devi and that thunder, lightning and giant hail stones had been rained down upon them as punishment.  Following extensive analysis of samples gathered from the lake, the scientists were able to deduce that the bodies dated from around 800AD and that they had all died together as the result of a single, catastrophic event.  They were a group of pilgrims travelling with their wives and children, led by a team of local guides.  They had been caught in a violent storm with hail stones the size of cricket balls striking with enough force to break bones and crack skulls.  Such storms are notorious in the region!  Over time the bodies had been washed down the mountain where they had ultimately gathered in the lake bed and thence lain for centuries.

TracksWhen I first saw these tracks on the North side of the Kuari Pass I rather fancied they might be those of the elusive Snow Leopard.  But now I think not.  They're too small and the animal's gait seems wrong to me.  The "paired paws" look more like those of a hare or rabbit perhaps.  Would any Garhwal fauna experts care to suggest what this animal might be?  And I do mean the animal tracks at the top of the picture, not the Bigfoot/Yeti print at the bottom.  I know what animal left that track; it was me!

Taking a breakAnd so, over the Kuari Pass and a well-earned rest before starting the long yet leisurely trek down towards Tapoban, the Tibetan border and civilisation.

Camp SiteOne last camp with terrific views of Dunagiri.

Weather in mountainous regions is notoriously unpredictable and can change at a moment's notice.  It can be bright sunshine one minute and then, as if from nowhere, you can be enveloped in heavy rain, snow or hail.  During my trip over the Kuari Pass we recorded temperatures in late October that approached +30° Celsius during the day  but plunged to -15° Celsius overnight!  Bearing that in mind, the widget below nevertheless provides a good overview of weather conditions in the Garhwal Himalaya region:

Post Script:
Just a few days before I was due to publish this little web site my attention was drawn to the frankly awe-inspiring "gigapixel" mountain panorama photography on David Breashears' GlacierWorks web site.  These fantastic images make my Kuari Pass photo look rather mediocre in comparison but, hey, he's obviously got a much better camera and access to far more sophisticated technology than I had! :)  Anyway, if you liked my Kuari Pass panorama I urge you to take a look at the GlacierWorks site and prepare to be amazed.

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© J. R. Haythorne 2012