The closest I’ve come to tackling Mount Everest is hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas. I walk between remote villages, tramping up and down the sides of steep valleys, climbing endless steps that wouldn’t alter a mountaineer’s pulse but has me running out of puff. Unlike the stalwart villagers who do this while carrying baskets filled with rocks!
Summit bashing is something I obviously should attempted when young, fit and foolish enough to assume I could do anything.
But tired as I am by the end of each day, I treasure each moment of my mini-trek in Kumaon, a region of fertile valleys, steep mist-shrouded ridges and remote villages in the east of Uttaranchal, the north Indian state bordering China and Nepal.
Dawn in Almora, my starting point, reveals a breathtaking snow-capped panorama of the snow-tipped twin peaks of Nanda Devi, India’s highest mountain.
My hiking trail takes me through forests of grey oak, pine, cedar and rhododendron, across fertile valley floors and up and down taxing slopes. Village children on their way to school yell greetings, followed by squeals of laughter whenever I pause to catch my breath. Each day I enjoy a leisurely lunch break with stupendous views.
A small and solitary temple sitting amid an emerald-green patchwork of rice paddies provides one particularly treasured moment. I believe this little temple has sat here since the 8th Century.
Squeezing through its miniscule doorway, I squat before a 1000-year-old statue of Vishnu the Preserver with my hair brushing against a ceiling blackened by centuries of joss-stick smoke. Vishnu’s gaze is eternally impassive. Once my eyes adjust to the interior gloom I can detect the fine detail on ancient carvings propped against the walls.
In each village there are children peeking pensively from behind their mother’s skirts. Wiry old men squat contentedly, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, gazing at the surrounding peaks with a faraway look in their eyes. The villagers are genial and don’t mind my curiosity. Before long their children lose their shyness and are willing to smile for the camera.
My Kumaon hike is definitely a “soft” adventure. I spend five to six hours a day walking and spend each night in a village house, sleeping on a charpoy (string bed) with mattress and cotton sheets. Torches and mosquito coils are provided and hot water brought in buckets to a washroom.
On my third day I reach my highest point – 2300m – and then descend through deserted woods to the village of Jwalabanj. After sharing an evening meal of spinach pakoras, rice, chicken and lentils I stay up late listening to my wizened host Umed Singh entertain us all with lengthy anecdotes. The laughter is so infectious that I almost believe I understand his jokes.