Confluence-Hunting in Uttaranchal, January 2005

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2007-11-30

In January 2005, inspired by confluence.org, Gaurav Rai and I decided to look for three degree confluences North of Delhi:

These are my recollections of this long-overdue trip to the mountains. Rai has written his own account of our travels.

2005-01-19

Wednesday morning at five o'clock, as the day begins...

Petrol pumps have a way of clustering together beside the highway in places where you either don't want to stop, or see them only when it's too late to stop. We finally found one outside Ghaziabad, having seen off a car that had bravely followed us, and our directions, all the way across town. A sleepy attendant filled our almost-empty tank while we rubbed some life into fingers stiff with the morning cold.

Our day was already well underway. We had started at a quarter to four, anxious to get a head start on highway traffic, and anticipating a long day ahead. Mapquest had told us that 29N 79E lay between villages named Tanda and Suar, not far from Rampur. If we could reach Moradabad early and find the confluence by noon, we thought we had a fair chance of getting to Almora before dark. We were right, but only by sheer accident.

We reached Moradabad at eight, sneaking through just moments before the day's first traffic jam. A few minutes later, still delighted with our luck, we turned off the main road towards Tanda. The road that Mapquest rendered as a confident black line turned out to have a surface of stone chips held together in places by mud. We spent the next hour and a half following a stately procession of bullock carts and bicycles, mentally revising our earlier plan of cruising up to the confluence and waving coolly to awe-struck natives.

Finding the confluence was something of an anti-climax.

We followed the GPS onto a narrow dirt road, drove past a small school and its surprised students, parked by the side of the road, and walked the remaining six hundred and twenty-three metres into a nearby field. No vicious guard dogs accosted us, nor was there any dense tree cover to confuse the GPS receiver (but we did have to step carefully in the fields to avoid the "fertiliser"). Almost before we knew it, we had "all zeroes" on the GPS, and were ready to leave. We even had marginal cell phone coverage the whole time!

We hadn't made it unnoticed, though. As we turned to leave the field, we saw three cautious-looking fellows waiting in our path. We had rehearsed our story in the car, however, so we launched into an explanation after disarming our visitors by asking them to pose for a photograph. Neither of us knew how to say "latitude" and "longitude" in Hindi, so we had to make do with some hand-waving about lines on a map meeting in the field. They understood us well enough to conclude that we were from the Survey of India.

We managed to convince them that nothing was going to be built in the field, and that we hadn't come to raid the shady liquor shop that we happened to park next to, and they were delighted when we told them their photographs would be "on the Internet". But they had a hard time believing that we weren't being paid for what we were doing, so we had to walk faster and deflect their questions as best we could. We hurried past the home of someone they pointed out as the owner of the field with just a mumbled hello (and I now regret that we didn't stop to explain again or take more photographs).

It took three hours to complete our escape. It looked easy on the map: a short drive to Suar and onward to Bilaspur: less than thirty kilometres. But the road didn't get better, and the traffic got worse. We crawled on slowly, drifting in and out of sleep, taking turns at the wheel. It was nearly one as Bilaspur reluctantly spat us out towards Haldwani, and we reached Kathgodam only at two in the afternoon.

By this time, we were ravenous, having exhausted our supplies many hours ago. But in the awkward hour between lunch and tea, we saw nothing that looked inviting in Kathgodam, nor for several kilometres afterwards on the Bhimtal road. Just when we were about to give up hope, however, we turned a corner and found not one, but three little dhabas in a row. (I wonder if their placement is mere coincidence, or cynically calculated to maximise relief-driven eating.) Paranthas and omelettes revived us enough to continue onwards to Almora via Bhowali, fortified by swigs of apple juice from newspaper-wrapped beer bottles.

We reached the KMVN guest house in Almora just before dark. After we fled from the ammoniacal stench near the free-standing cottages, the choice of rooms boiled down to whether we wanted a carpet or not; and one look at the carpet in question was all it took to make up our minds.

MapQuest was useless this far North, so all we knew about 30N 80E was that it was "somewhere North-East of Almora", close to a place called Shama. After hauling our luggage up from the car, we sat down to study the 1950s US Army map (downloaded from the UCB web site, but not online any more) we had printed out. The light was as poor as the print quality (and degree confluences are always on the edge of topo sheets!), but it did confirm the general approach, and we did find Shama on it after much searching.

Near the KMVN reception was the obligatory lighted wall map of Kumaon, an icon of interpretive cartography that paid mere lip service to scale and direction. I squinted at it for a while and noticed that the Pindari glacier was a squiggle just North of Shama and Song. The idea of going to the Pindari glacier unprepared gave us some pause, so we decided to stock up on supplies and ask Google about the route. We bought torches and food, then hopped from one cyber-café to the next, looking for a working Internet connection, then returned to eat dinner in our room.

You don't know the first thing about survival in the mountains until you have cleaned a KMVN bathroom late at night with your bare hands. We did it only because the thought of having to do it the next morning was much worse. Finally, after washing the most recent layer of scum from the bucket, the mug, the toilet, and the floor, we returned to bed and the small room heater whose remaining insulation was being slowly singed away. Protected (we hoped) by our sleeping bags (or, in Rai's case, a sleeping bag inside a Mylar sheet), we waited for the night to be over.

I went to sleep trying not to think about the source of some large brown blobs on the bedsheet.

2005-01-20

"Good morning, Rai." I prodded one of the many lumps in the bed, and was rewarded with a muffled complaint. "I've switched on the heater and put it next to the bed." "Thanks!" "Might I remind you that you're sleeping in an aluminium foil bag?"

Never has a cold winter morning seen Rai leap out of bed so quickly.

We hadn't overslept, but dawn was long past by the time we were ready to leave. (My enquiry about sunrise the night before was met with laughter: "Oh, the sun comes up around noon.") We staggered downstairs, laden with luggage to avoid another trip to the room, only to find a thin sheet of ice covering the car. Hardened by two Chicago winters, Rai suggested helpfully that I lick the frosty metal clean. I chose to go back to the room to coax one last bucket of tepid water from the barnacle-encrusted geyser instead.

And then we were off, heading North at a fine clip on a lovely, clear day... until I tried to switch to second gear, that is, because my gears were frozen solid, and it took half an hour of loitering in the sunshine to fix them.

The drive from Almora to Bageshwar is spectacular, whether you choose the ninety-kilometre Kausani route, or drive past Binsar (as we did, for lack of time). The road follows a river for some seventy-odd kilometres, threading its way lazily from one valley to the next. It made for a good introduction to hill driving for Rai, and to my surprise, I enjoyed the opportunity to relax and watch the sun slowly boil away the sea of fog in the valley below. On the way, we stopped for breakfast in Takula, a village whose main street was littered with peacefully sleeping dogs.

Our map-reading the previous evening had made it clear that we could do little more than follow the GPS and hope for the best. We were prepared to spend the night on the trail, if necessary, since we had no idea how far the motorable road would take us. We did, at least, have excellent directions to Shama, thanks to an elderly gentleman who was happy that we had stopped a few kilometres outside Bageshwar to offer him a ride into town (and who then went out of his way to show us where to get petrol).

Bageshwar is at the confluence of the Gomti and Sarayu rivers, one of many sacred pilgrimage destinations in the Himalayas; and, like most of those sacred pilgrimage destinations, it is a festering dump. We stopped only to buy a blanket and a couple of sheets, but that was our undoing, and we spent the next half hour stuck in traffic, forced to watch (and smell) the town going about its daily business. The only memory of Bageshwar I haven't suppressed is the rate at which we drove away.

At Kapkot, a dozen kilometres later, we misinterpreted our passenger's directions and turned onto an interesting-looking suspension bridge, instead of ignoring it and going on to Bharari. (Unlike most people I've asked in the hills, the old gentleman specified distances precisely, in kilometres, rather than saying "about an hour away" regardless of the actual distance involved. That alone should have convinced me that his directions were worth following to the letter.) We figured it out before very long, however, and on our way back, we gave three little kids a ride home from school, each one munching solemnly on our biscuits the whole way.

The road to Shama gets worse as you go further, but the milieu is awe-inspiring. The narrow road tiptoes apologetically through mountains swathed in wild green forests and watchful clouds. The occasional scars of a landslide distract the eye from the snow-clad peaks drawing slowly closer from the North, and the silence is broken only by the wind, when it can find its way down into the valley. We reached Shama just before sunset, and drove on towards Liti, a village on the other side of the hill that promised a better view to the North. We shouldn't have been surprised to find snow on an unsheltered North-facing hillside in midwinter, but when the road suddenly turned white in the fading twilight, we could only gape silently for a while.

We returned to Shama for dinner, to a little shop whose owner and I had exchanged a few words as we drove in, while we waited for a truck ahead of us to unload two huge lamp-posts. Even accounting for hunger and fatigue, that dinner was one of the finest I've had. The food was fresh and piping hot: mixed dal, palak sabzi (spinach), and scrambled eggs, along with an endless supply of chapatis. We lost count of how many helpings we had long before our host would concede that we might be less hungry than before. Like ticks bloated after a feast, it was a while before we could move again.

At one point on the road to Liti, the confluence was little over three kilometres from us, the closest we'd been all day. So we continued down that road after dinner to see where it led. The snow gave way rapidly to mud, and we eventually turned back at the outskirts of Liti village (but we didn't know that until the next morning, since it was dark by then). We didn't want to look for a place to stay in Shama, so we drove on and found a place by the road where the car and its occupants would be safe for the night.

It took a lot of ingenuity, tired as we were, to figure out how to set things up so that we could sleep in the diminutive Maruti Zen with, if not comfort, at least a minimum of permanent damage. We managed to cram our luggage into the boot, lined the rear window with a mylar sheet (to reflect oncoming headlights), and tortured the seats into accommodating us somehow. Then we went for a walk in the moonlight to recover, before contorting ourselves into the carefully-designed sleeping positions.

Somewhere in the valley below, two dogs barked at each other well into the night.

2005-01-21

I set my cell phone alarm to wake me every two hours, so that I could run the heater for a while. Even though we were sheltered from the wind, it was very cold (just above freezing, we guessed), and I didn't want to take any chances with ice formation. Fortunately, the temperature didn't drop any further (and I didn't have to pee on the windscreen to defrost it, as I had feared). We headed back to Liti before dawn, and watched the sunrise from the far side of the hill. The only signs of life in the village were shaggy black dogs that intimidated us just by ignoring our presence as they stalked by.

The road beyond Liti goes to Gogina (and Namik, en route to the Namik glacier). It starts off looking no less motorable than the roads before, but deteriorates rapidly into a dirt track. The GPS told us that we were circling around the confluence, and we went onwards for a while, hoping to find a better approach. But the detour seemed worthwhile even after it was clear that we were heading in the wrong direction, and we turned back only when we found that the track had been wiped out by a series of landslides a couple of kilometres further. The trail looped around a big hill, sheltered from the wind in some parts and evidently unprotected in others, where the snow had painted a stripe across the face of the hill.

The snow, by then a few days old, was thawing slowly on the hillside above us and running down to the track in little rivulets, dripping off the overhanging vegetation onto the trail. Here and there, last night's cold had frozen it again, leaving delicate icicles suspended from rocks and branches, or beads of ice frozen around spiderwebs. The sun was up by then, and it was becoming warmer as we returned to the car. A large wall of shale had been exposed by a rockfall, and we decided to relax for a while and look for fossils (we didn't find any, but it was fun, even when we tried to explain what we were looking for to a gang of workers who were on their way to repair the landslide damage).

We drove the short way back to Liti, and parked in the main street to consider our options. We had found no better approach to the confluence (still 2.8km away) than to climb the hill we were parked at the foot of. At some point, I drifted off into a nap, leaving Rai to go over our GPS tracks and the maps. When I woke up, it was past nine, and I found Rai chatting with some people who were drinking chai in the sun. They told us we could climb the hill easily enough, but were typically vague about the details of the route and distances involved. We left most of our stuff in the car, and started walking back to the entrance into the village, because that was where people advised us to start climbing.

The village was full of people by then, of course; and we stopped to say hello a number of times. One of the people we spoke to turned out to be the Pradhan of Liti village, Mr. D. S. Kohra. He was most impressed that I wasn't wearing any warm clothes (I was dressed as usual: in shorts and a T-shirt), and cheerfully told the small group of onlookers that I must be a Brahmachari (celibate) who had trained his body to withstand cold as a form of meditation and penance. (Yeah. And all I got was this lousy T-shirt.)

He was very helpful, however, and not only did he understand exactly what we wanted to do (though perhaps not why!), he was even familiar with topo maps, and he agreed with us that it was ridiculous that the "British" had better maps of the region than we ourselves could get. He offered to send someone from the village to guide us up the hill, but we politely declined.

We started climbing straight up the hill, which we estimated was some 2600m high (the map later confirmed this). The fields above the village soon gave way to a steeper, more wooded slope, and the trail which led us upwards veered left to a scree slope. The confluence was towards our right, anyway, so we left the path and headed upwards in that direction. We climbed slowly, inching ever closer to the confluence.

Suddenly, to our great surprise, we emerged into a huge, flat meadow. We hadn't seen it from the road below because the slope concealed it, and to our delight, it was covered with a thick layer of snow. Above us was a boulder-strewn slope that led to the crest of the hill, and it didn't look particularly easy to climb. But we were tired, so we rested for a while, admiring the view of the valley behind us, and the snow peaks to the North, and the hills all around whose thick, dark green tree cover was brushed with shining white snow.

Even though it was clear that we couldn't possibly be on the same hill as the confluence, we didn't want to give up just yet. We had climbed to an altitude of 2443m, so we started walking across and around the hill, without climbing any higher. This seemed a promising route, especially when we found a trail, and saw some footsteps in the snow. We followed the curve of the hill for several minutes, but we soon had to start climbing again to find a clear path, and our shoes could find little purchase on the icy slope. We looked around for alternate routes, but reluctantly decided that it was too dangerous to continue.

We tried retracing our steps and climbing diagonally upwards around the hill in the opposite direction, but soon found that the slope was much steeper there, and the snow had collected in deeper pockets because of the thicker undergrowth. We persevered for a time, but eventually gave up on the route and, still 2.37km from the confluence, headed back to the car.

We descended quickly, taking less than forty minutes to find our way back to the foot of the hill. On the way, we encountered a large troop of Langurs, who did not share our delight at the meeting, and bounded away, holding their babies close. The adults were large enough to make us uneasy, and they kept a watchful eye on us long after we passed them. On our way back into the village, we met an old man in his hut, making bundles of some reeds (which I meant to ask him about, but forgot to). He was happy to listen to our adventures, eyes sparkling with his own memories as he talked about routes that become accessible in summer, sharing our disappointment at having to turn back. (More than anything else on the trip, that short conversation made me glad that the mountain air seems to dispel my city-bred reluctance to talk to people.)

In the two or three hours that we'd been away, a diesel generator and a huge trailer with a drill had dragged themselves up the road to Liti, and were drilling for water by the main street as we walked to the car. (I noticed, as we hurried to the car past the noise and gouts of thick white dust, that the trailer was from faraway Narnaul in Haryana.) We drove away giving fervent thanks that we hadn't met that convoy coming up the narrow road. As we left Liti, the tiniest of snowflakes drifted gently down on the breeze to speckle the windscreen.

We stopped for lunch at Shama, and Trilok Singh Kurunga (our host for dinner the night before) produced another round of his excellent fare at short notice. While we were waiting for our lunch, a man asked me where we were going, and if we could give him and his friend a ride somewhere "away from this cold" (since the buses didn't have enough passengers to leave yet). My first thought was that we didn't have any room (the back was overflowing), but he looked so miserable in the sudden cold that we packed our stuff into the trunk and cleaned up the car a bit (toughened though I may be by celibacy and hardship, I was not entirely without compassion for my fellow mortals).

We had to wait a little while for lunch, so we went for a short walk, as we had done the night before. I noticed a community toilet beside the road, obviously long unused, but still bearing a poster of Rajiv Gandhi. I couldn't figure out whether it (and other posters we'd seen in obscure places like Kapkot) had been there since before Rajiv Gandhi was killed, or if they were a more recent attempt to gain political mileage. Nothing we saw suggested that Shama or Kapkot had been blessed by a recent visit from any politicians, at least (though the lamp posts and drill may have been evidence that someone knew they existed).

We left Shama at 1623, after another delightful meal and a mug of hot tea. Our passengers hadn't told us about the little black puppy they had picked up somewhere, and were planning to take back with them (I didn't mind, and it spent most of the trip curled up in our friend's lap). The drive back was a race against the dark, with very little in the way of conversation. We stopped once to let a convoy of 21 (yes, twenty-one) SUVs carry a wedding party past us, and twice to pick up logs that were lying across the road (I managed to drop the first one on my foot as I moved it away. Ouch), but we reached Kapkot in exactly one hour, and Bageshwar exactly one hour after that. Neither of us even considered spending the night there; we decided to carry on to Binsar. We weren't sure where it was, but we knew where it should be, and I guessed that we should look out for the turning when our odometer showed 340km (I can't remember what the reading was then, but it must have been about 280).

News of the bad weather and landslides had reached Delhi, as we found when we stopped to call home. Bageshwar is the last town with STD phones on the route (my cellphone didn't work there, thanks to BSNL's policy of not peering with private GSM operators), so we hadn't been in touch for nearly two days. I couldn't get through to my folks, so I asked Shruti to relay the message that we were unharmed, and were spending the night in Binsar. (I thought it unwise to mention that we were driving there after dark. If only I knew that there are no phones in Binsar either, I would have picked a better story. I had to mumble a bit to cover up that particular gaffe later. Sorry, Bil). That must have annoyed some minor deity, because it started raining heavily just after we left Bageshwar.

Hill driving requires intense concentration at the best of times, but that drive to Binsar was extraordinarily demanding. The hypnotic beat of heavy rain followed us the whole way, tempting us to relax; the road was wet and rocks had fallen on it in places, and the rain and our fogged-up windows made visibility a constant struggle. Rai had been struggling to stay awake all evening, and as the hours passed, he nodded off more and more frequently. I sang to myself for a while, before I remembered that the car had a stereo, and co-opted Simon & Garfunkel into keeping me alert. In retrospect, of course, it was a lovely drive. (We saw a couple of jackals once the rain had abated; and a Partridge tumbled desperately into the undergrowth when our headlights caught it on the road. A sleepy Rai considered that for a while. "Do they fry... er, fly well?" "Both".)

We reached Binsar at ten (the odometer having turned to 340 just moments before), only to find the road closed. Apparently the sanctuary is open to vehicles only until sundown. We considered sleeping in the car, but decided instead to seek better accommodation in Almora. But hill towns go to sleep early, and the hotels all seemed to be closed, or closing (including one named the Savoy!). We drove around until some late-night revellers directed us to the Hotel Shikhar (which we had been looking for the whole time), and it was nearly midnight when the sleepy guard showed us to a room.

We tried to watch a Kung-fu movie for a while, but it made even less sense than usual because we were both fast asleep.

2005-01-22

We put off waking up for as long as possible, then postponed getting out of bed with the help of the TV. We had decided the night before to drop our plans for the 29N 80E confluence near Landsdowne, and the change of pace was a welcome relief. As a result, we reached Binsar at three, with barely two hours of daylight remaining.

We began regretting our sloth almost as soon as we'd passed the barrier at the entrance to the sanctuary.

The narrow road into the sanctuary was no different, at first, from the others we'd seen, but it was deserted, and as we went further, it began to take on a wilder, more lush appearance. It was a cloudy day, and the diffuse light rendered the foliage in dark, rich colours. The wind had died, and it seemed as though the valley was holding its breath as we slowly crept higher.

A few kilometres later in the shadow of the hill, we entered a fairytale forest. A thick blanket of snow tossed over the hillside had washed all colour from the trees, swallowed every sound, and left the glittering, greyscale world into which we were intruding.

The road ahead was deep in snow. We stopped the car, perhaps because we didn't know how deep the snow was, but also because it seemed a terrible shame to leave tyre tracks in the untouched white surface. We got out, painfully conscious that our breathing and our footsteps were the only sounds we could hear. We stood still for a while, breathing in the air of utter, implacable calm, slowly becoming aware of little details: a fern leaf that had shed its minuscule snow cape, drops of water from a branch making little indentations in the snow below, a crackling film of ice on the surface of tiny puddles by the road, a filigree of frost on a cedar branch with its hundreds of needles.

Half an hour later, having walked barely a few hundred metres, we came into a large clearing, completely snowed over, with some buildings (an inspection hut on one side, and a temple on the other) and what looked like a stream that had frozen over. We had emerged from the shadow of the hill we were climbing, so the light was clearer, and the snow was a brilliant, glowing white.

We encountered the first signs of life when we followed the road and the snow past the clearing. A small group of Koklass Pheasants, as surprised as we were, scurried quickly off the road, leaving zipper-like tracks in the snow. We stood there silently, hoping they would return, or that we would see them further down the hill, but to no avail. We followed the road a little further, finding more tracks on the way, stumbling across frozen puddles, walking under arches formed by stalks bent by the weight of snow, some of which snapped back and showered us with powdery flakes as we brushed past them.

We were allowed in at the entrance only after promising to return before dark, but it took a great effort to turn back, and we only just made it in time. The drive back to Almora in the fading light was very quiet.

We ate a large dinner in the Shikhar restaurant, but it was no real consolation.

2005-01-23

When I woke up the next morning, it was snowing heavily.

I stood at the window for a long time, looking out at the snow. It was still early, and we were in no particular hurry. We would have to wait until the fog dispersed somewhat before we could leave, anyway. I let Rai sleep for a while longer, then dug him up and put a mug of hotel tea in his hand. We had a leisurely breakfast, then began hauling our stuff down to the car, which was once again frozen over.

A number of people in the parking lot of the Shikhar hotel enjoyed watching me clean snow off the car, dressed as I was. For some reason, they also assumed that I couldn't speak Hindi; and so I was thoroughly entertained by their comments throughout the operation. Speaking loudly in Hindi to a waiter who had come out for his tip brought a sudden hush, and gave us the perfect moment in which to make an exit.

On the way down, somewhere near Bhowali, the heavy snowfall made the road treacherous, and we saw the bus in front of us, its wheels locked, fishtailing and lurching sickeningly on a downhill section of the road. We couldn't decide whether to stay behind it and risk its sliding down on us while climbing or overtake it and risk being crushed from behind. We chose the latter, bemused that snow was proving a bigger challenge at this altitude than it had when we were higher up (yes, this is altitude snobbery). We had to wait in a long queue for a snow plough to finish its work just before Bhowali, and then had a clear road ahead of us.

I can't remember anything about the rest of the drive home. We must have stopped somewhere for lunch, probably also to refuel, but none of that registered. In my head, I was still following Koklass tracks in Binsar, or remembering the crunch of snow under my tyres, the view from above Liti, the food at Shama, and a hundred odd moments on the drive there. The highway, in comparison, just slid past monotonously for a while.

And then we were home.