Monday, May 05, 2014

Himalayan Highs - Part 1

Ayaan and I joined a group of like-minded kids and parents on a 7-day trek and adventure in the Himalayas. This is my attempt to preserve the memories. For readability purposes, I plan to write it in three parts. This is Part 1. 

Getting Ready and Getting There
A couple months ago, I received a forward from a friend about an upcoming beginner’s trek in the Himalayas, designed for 8-12 year olds. I was immediately interested because this sort of thing is exactly Ayaan’s scene. And I was sold when I found out that the person organising it was someone I already know - Shyam, an experienced trekker and the man behind Jiva Organics, my chief source of organic goodies in Hyderabad. Jai could not get time off in April and Tarana was too young to come along, so I signed up Ayaan and myself.

Over the next few weeks, we used the 5-km track around KBR park to train up for the trek. Any niggling doubts I might have had about Ayaan’s readiness were quickly dispelled. Though it meant waking up at the crack of dawn (almost an hour before the usual weekday wake-up-for-school drama), he was quick to leap out of bed and get dressed. Before I could so much as say the words ‘Let’s go’ he was ready with his container of birdseed and his backpack with a water bottle and his handy reference guides (Birds of the Indian Subcontinent and Snakes of India), because he wanted get used to carrying their weight. Once there, he was able to do the walks effortlessly and thoroughly enjoyed climbing the rocks and checking out the local flora and fauna. He even found a discarded snake skin on one of the walks that I had to tolerate in my car for a few days till the car cleaner mercifully threw it out.

The KBR park walks weren’t our only prep walks. We also went on two rock walks with the Society to Save The Rocks. These are organised on the third Sunday of every month and we went for the Durgam Cheruvu walk in March and the Gachibowli University Campus walk in April. Again, Ayaan had a fabulous time on both walks and managed to keep up with the adults easily. I think I needed these so-called 'prep' walks more than he did!

The other bit of groundwork that need to be done was the shopping for gear and clothes. This was much more up my alley than mucking about amongst rocks. We went to the mega sports store, Decathlon. We bought a ridiculous amount of stuff - backpacks, sleeping bags, shoes, quick-dry pants and tees, jackets, rainwear, and torches - in the end, the shopping cost us more than the trek! We will have to go for more treks just to justify the expense...

Most of the gang left Hyderabad the day before we did, travelling to Delhi by train. We took the flight to Delhi and were to join them on the train from Delhi to Kathgodam. In a nail-biting finish, our train tickets showed as wait-listed right up to the time when we took off from Hyderabad in the morning. This would have meant taking an alternate train, reaching Kathgodam the night before the others and spending the night at the local Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) guest house with just Ayaan for company, something that seemed somewhat unsafe and scary. Thankfully, our tickets got confirmed while we were airborne and my phone beeped with the good news upon landing. Phew!

We had half a day to spare in Delhi and we went around to meet my paternal grandmother, aunts and uncles before making our way over to the Old Delhi Railway Station to board the Ranikhet Express. To make up for the wait-list drama, we found that our seats were right next to some of our trek buddies. We went to sleep pretty much as the train pulled out of the station and woke up at 5 a.m. to find ourselves in Kathgodam.

Day One: Kathgodam - Binsar - Gaunap

The bathroom facilities at the station were predictably awful so we headed over to the KMVN rest house to freshen up. Then we piled into a couple of SUVs and headed up the mountain. We stopped for breakfast at Mohan’s Restaurant near Kainchi Dham. The kids were delighted to find that Maggi was on the menu, while the rest of us enjoyed hot aloo paranthas. But the highlight of the breakfast was a delicious spicy shikanji (lemonade).

After breakfast, we drove up to the Binsar sanctuary and halted near the KMVN tourist rest house at the top. At over 2400 metres, this was the highest point in the Himalayas that we touched in the course of the trek. (FYI, we were in the Kumaon region in Uttarakhand and this part of the mighty region is referred to as the Lesser Himalayas)

We had a quick snack and got an introduction to the upcoming trek and the ground rules. Then we handed over our backpacks to be carried down on ponies, keeping only a light backpack with trek necessities like water, snacks, cameras and first aid (and in Ayaan’s case, his birdwatching book and binoculars). And then, we started walking. Our first trek was a relatively steep 3-km downhill walk down from the Binsar rest house to a village called Gaunap. From a viewpoint much later in the trek, I was able to click this picture, which gives some idea of the distance and incline of the trek we undertook that day:

Ayaan did the trek with ease, walking right up in front throughout the way. I had a single point agenda, on that day and throughout the trek, to have eyes on him on any given point. This meant having to keep up with him, which was easier said than done. I managed to twist my ankle in the process. It hurt terribly for about 5 minutes but I walked through the pain and it seemed to be alright. However, in the evening, the pain came back with a vengeance and I could hardly bear to put weight on the foot. I applied a balm and propped my foot up when I went to bed, and it was much better the next day. It continued to be tender for the rest of the trip but I was able to walk with only the occasional twinge - quite a relief!

Gaunap is a tiny hamlet. The primary school for the village (meant for kids aged 5 and below) has just two kids. The older kids have to attend school in Dhaulchina, a 2-hour trek one way. While there, we met Asha who had recently completed her schooling and she was so casual about the fact that she had to make this daily journey just to get an education. And here I am, stressing about the fact that my children might have to spend half an hour in the bus to school! I think all the kids on the trek got some idea of how easy they have it. Of course, expecting this to have any long-term impact on schoolday morning whining would be asking for too much! They also got a taste of life in a place without electricity, mobile connectivity, or roads.

Our digs at Gaunap were at a rustic homestay called Idyllic Haven. We got there just in time for a simple, filling and delicious meal, home-cooked over a wood stove by the resident cook and caretaker, Harish. The most interesting thing on the menu was an unusual chutney made with bhaang (cannabis) seeds - apparently it is the leaves that can get you high, while the seeds are harmless. The trek and the mountain air ensured a ravenous appetite and the kids ate without any complaint. After lunch, we just hung out and relaxed, recovering from the drive and the trek. The adults chatted and played some Dumb Charades. Some of the kids (the girls) got out their art supplies and scrapbooks. Our youngest group member, a 3.5-year old boy, got busy with his favourite activity - collecting pebbles. Ayaan asked me if he could explore and I set up a 15-minute rule for him to check in with me. It worked pretty well - he was happy to do his own thing and as long as I could see him or hear him every once in a while, I didn’t worry. At some point, he realised that there was going to be a bonfire and got busy with collecting all the twigs he could find.

Any description of our homestay would be incomplete without a mention of the two gorgeous Himalayan Shepherd mix dogs on the premises - Johnny and Ginger - and most of the kids spent a lot of time petting them and I have to say they bore it with a lot of good humour and patience. One of the girls drew this picture of our time in Gaunap - the boy is supposed to be Ayaan!

Night comes early to Gaunap, especially since the village is not on the electricity grid. As soon as it got dark and cold, we huddled around the bonfire and the kids entertained us by singing. The clear night sky was also a wondrous sight to behold - it had been a while since we had seen that many stars! After another hearty meal, it was time to turn in. There were a few rooms available, but Ayaan was very keen to sleep in the tents so that is what we did. We were in a 4-person tent and learnt first-hand the meaning of ‘packed like sardines’. But once we got used to it, it made for cozy sleeping quarters and it was a beautiful experience waking up to the sunrise and birdsong. I clicked this photograph minutes after stepping out of our tent:

Day Two: Gaunap and Around

After a 5.30 wake-up call and some much-needed tea, we set out on a bird-watching walk. We were led by Sundar, the owner of Idyllic Haven and a trained guide. He is very knowledgeable about the birds in the region and we got to see and identify many interesting specimens. For Ayaan, the thrill was in whipping out his bird book and finding the said bird in there. Some of the birds we spotted that morning included some Oriental Turtle Doves, a Russet Sparrow, a Red-billed Blue Magpie, a Grey Bushchat and a few swallows and drongos. We hiked up to a small temple and viewpoint nearby, and got our first proper panoramic view of the Nanda Devi range.

After breakfast back at the homestay, we went for another small walk that took us to a patch of woods where the children could play. They were organised into teams for a treasure hunt and had to collect a variety of items like pine cones, simple and compound leaves, twigs, feathers, seeds and different kinds of grasses. All this was too structured for Ayaan and he went off to explore the surroundings. He enjoyed scaling a huge fallen tree and then, to his delight, discovered a tiny stream nearby. This gave him the opportunity to try out two things he had been wanting to test. The first were his convertible pants from Decathlon, which were quickly unzipped for a fuss-free wading experience. He also filled our purifier bottle directly from the stream, thus putting the filter to good use.

After lunch, the kitchen staff boiled water by the kettle for those of us who wanted to bathe. Since the bathrooms were small and without much light, I decided to skip giving Ayaan a bath but I opted to have one. It is amazing how good even a quick bath can make one feel after a couple of days of going without!

The remaining daylight hours were spent sitting about, chatting and reading. Ayaan went back to his favourite evening activity - collecting wood for the bonfire - and even got a couple of the other kids interested in helping. This was before he noticed that one of the ladies of the house was collecting fodder for the cattle. He quickly joined her and so did most of the other kids.

Ayaan was rather disappointed to discover that we had not thought to carry marshmallows when he discovered that there were to be daily bonfires. His next idea was to roast potatoes, but we did not have aluminium foil on hand either. He finally hit upon a solution - he generously offered his sweets around till the metal tin they came in was empty. Then he filled the box with nuts and Krackjack biscuits and put them under the burning logs for a few minutes. And voila! We were all served some roasted biscuits and nuts. I have to say they tasted pretty good. Here’s what the tin looked like after three rounds in the fire over the course of the trek. I have kept it as a souvenir…

Day Two ended much in the same away as Day 1. With a bonfire, some singing and a rustic but yummy dinner before we retired to our respective rooms and tents.

This post is getting lengthy so I am going to stop for now. Watch this space for Part 2.


  1. Loved the post! A loving pat in the back for you and Ayaan! You guys rock!

  2. Christabel11:19 pm

    What a fantastic post. Ayaan's got such a sophisticated approach to learning for his age. Very hopeful for him and so proud of him :-)

    1. Sophisticated? Why do you say that?

    2. Christabel8:46 pm

      The way he uses his books to make linkages with what he encounters. And the way he interacts with his environment in such a hands on way. Very few people, let alone kids his age, have that approach.

  3. Awesome Ro. Looks like Ayaan had a lot of fun and learnt so much too. Very imaginative with the metal roasted nuts and biscuits :) how did Tarana take to bring left behind? I can only imagine the fuss Aditi would throw up!

    1. Tarana was okay. She quite enjoyed ruling over grandmother's house :-)

  4. Awesome experience reading,what it would have been in real must be ........
    Rohini you really need an award for the best mother in the world.

    1. Hardly! But thanks anyway :-)

  5. Bookmarked and filed away as something I want to do when my daughter is old enough for this . What a rocking time the two of you must have had, especially Ayaan ! He is so lucky to have a parent who is willing to go that extra mile to give him all these wonderful experiences , which I am sure he will cherish for a long long time.

    So did they really allow younger children since you mentioned a 3.5 year old in the group ?

    1. It was pretty informal and up to the parents really so there were a couple of younger kids. They needed to be carried over some of the stretches but were otherwise able to manage.

  6. Ah so that's the story behind the box. I did wonder. Waiting eagerly for the rest of the story!

  7. Anonymous1:45 pm

    loved, loved this post of yours. So intrepid of you to take off on this adventure with Mr. Explorer:-) It brought back lovely memories of trekking the Sar pass and the Chandrakhani pass when I was 10 and 12 respectively. Loved how resourceful, generous and thoughtful Ayaan has become. I have been exposed to his growing up thru your blog ever since you began writing and look how wonderful this baby turned out. Gives me so much pleasure.


    1. Awwww, thanks. Nice to hear that from someone who has been reading from the start. Your childhood treks sounds awesome - am going to look those places up!

  8. Simply superb. What an adventure Rohini - You and he will remember this for a lifetime. I am sure he feels you and he are a superman now!

    Nice write up too.

    Also thanks for the link to Save the rocks - the girls wanted to do a rock climbing trek once I told them that the rocks are Hyderabadi shaan. Will check them out.

    1. Highly recommend the Save The Rocks walks. We thoroughly enjoyed the ones we went on.

  9. HI Rohini.. wonderful blog. i love the clarity of your writing and your attention to detail. Remembering the small - small things on the preparation and the journey means even people who were not there with you are able to share the experience.

    Waiting for my girls to grow up a bit more so i can take them on something similar.

  10. Hi Rohini,

    Hope you are doing well :) Just wanted to share details about a campaign by Johnson's Baby called 'Share the Language of Love'. Since its based on a noble cause and you write on various aspects of parenting, thought that this may be of interest to you...

    Writing to you here, since I couldn't find your email id. Would be great if you can share your email id, so that I can write to you with more information about the campaign. Look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Swati Sharma
    The PRactice

  11. Great job, Rohini! Wish you could join me on all my Himalayan sojourns - there'd be someone who can take great pictures and document the treks wonderfully! I can only brag about them, not blog ;-).

    Await parts 2 and 3.

    Loved reading some of your other posts too. Not sure if there are any papas who follow your blog but I'm signing up....

    1. Thanks and welcome to my blog :-) I did have some papas following me in the days when I blogged regularly.

      Your other Himalayan sojourns? I probably won't live to tell the tale!

  12. I have been wondering about going on holidays with my son that are not to typical touristy places and involve a lot of nature. But was somehow held back due to the fear of the unknown that comes with such adventures. Your post has definitely made me stronger to try it out

  13. Anonymous1:47 pm

    Hi Rohini,
    Can I ask you the name of the group ? Is there any information regarding the organizers?