It was 1 in the afternoon, as I grabbed myself somewhere in the middle of Darma valley, riding under the rocky cliffs that mark the road till Nangling. The terrain looked quite walkable but the comfort of a motorcar was far more appealing, even if you’re to sitting on the roof. The peaks of Panchachuli glacier were still, at least, two days away from me. But I could already feel its presence. The sun was unusually bright. This was definitely higher up. At about 13,000 feet above sea level, the jeep wound up quite a bit.
After a couple hours of ride, we hit a rickety local shop for some food. I was ready to order another vegetarian meal – for I was in Uttarakhand, and well aware of its vegetarian culture – when all of a sudden, my eyes caught hold of a sheep who was already butchered. A man was busy taking off her coat. Few people surrounding him on the scene.
The lady serving at the shop asked if I fancy some mutton and rice. This was turning out to be different than what I had imagined. Though the mountains were still much jagged and breathtaking, as they always were, in the higher altitudes, in Uttarakhand – the people here, and their culture, was slightly different. They were a little kinder too. Uttarakhand had never fascinated me for its hospitality.
After little less than a five hours ride, from Dharchula, I reached the town of Nangling. I was helped in setting up my camp, before being invited by a family for dinner. More meat was served, only some of which was cooked. The next few days followed a similar cuisine, and a few more invitations, as I journeyed towards Panchachuli and came back.
The entire Darma valley, by far, turned out to be my personal favorite in Uttarakhand. I liked its setting. Small towns were periodically placed, every few kilometres. The valley was continuously green, and occasionally colourful. The many waterfalls that came my way, were also no less appealing. But the construction of motorable road is changing it quickly. Some locals have already lost their job. Porters are forced to sell their horses and drill the rocks. In an year or two, the road will connect most of the villages in the valley – making Panchachuli Base Camp an easy deal for tourists.
According to mythology, it was at Darma valley that the Pandavas cooked their last meal on the five peaks of Panch Chuli before leaving for heaven. `Panch Chuli’ literally does mean `five pointed oven’. I was told it follows an order. Starting from left to right, the five peaks represent Bhima, Nakul, Sehdev, and Arjuna. On the far right is Yudhishtira – who is leading the group, as he always did.
Though it did not feel anything spiritually encouraging, when I looked at Panchachuli peaks, the fact that the surrounding mountains looked all dark and dead, was quite extraordinary. It marked an unusual landscape.
The next two nights caught me camping in the town of Dhuktu – from where Panchachuli peaks were less than an hour’s walk. The nearest house, located about 10 feet from my campsite, was following some cultural routine of butchering a sheep and offering it to local deities. The meat will then be eaten by the invited family members and guests. I turned out to be one among guests.
The first round of dishes included raw mutton (not sure if I’d call it mutton or just a dead sheep). It was astonishingly hot and unusually salty. As everyone was finished with what was being served on their plates, local wine followed. Some rice; vegetables; and a familiar, properly cooked meat were also ready to be consumed soon after.
Later, as the night turned darker, I was also provided a pillow and a duvet to use in my tent. For the locals did not believe that my sleeping bag can be comfortable in this weather. A sleeping bag on top of a duvet, however, turned out to be a perfect combination to endure such cold weather. In less than 48 hours of my stay, I’d almost become a part of little Dhuktu. Locals knew my name, for I knew much about their kind nature.
After 48 hours of a happy, unfamiliar life in Dhuktu, it was time to return to Nangling. The walk back seemed much comfortable. Despite much refusal, Badri Dutt, a local porter had put my luggage on one of his ponies. He kept repeating he won’t charge me for this. A little less than 3 hours, and I was already in Nangling, waiting for the next taxi to depart for the town of DarchuLa – from where it all started. Uttarakhand had never fascinated me for its hospitality, I recalled again. This part of Devbhoomi was surely a little different.