Milam and the Upper Johar Valley : Photo Story

The famous Milam glacier trek through the Johar valley changed substantially after the Uttarakhand floods of June 2013, especially in the lower Goriganga valley – from the current Milam trail head at Chillamdhar, until Rairgari. Beyond Rairgari the trail more or less corresponds to the earlier trail, but has been rendered more difficult because of innumerable ascents and descents to skirt landslips and washouts, and to negotiate diversions because of flood damage

Despite the ravages of the floods, and the inevitability that the valley will eventually be connected by a road, it is a fascinating and compelling journey into a remote valley full of stories of flourishing Indo-Tibetan trade that ended ‘cold’ after the 1962 conflict between China and India. Abandoned ghost villages, fabulous terrain, views of the great Nanda Devi and the Milam glacier beckon the trekker into a journey through landscapes and time.

The following photo account is of a trek which Vijay did with two trek partners between October 4 (exit Munsiyari) and Oct 14 (return to Munisyari) without porters, guides or mules.

Day 1: Chillamdhar to Pungdeo – An easy warm up day

 

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This bridge across the Quiri (Kwirry) Gar, the first stream crossing, is just 20 minutes down a forested slope from the trail head at Chillamdhar which is a 45 minute ride from Munsiari. Share jeeps get you to Chillamdhar for about Rs. 50 a head via Darkot and Dhapa bend.

 

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A bovine jawbone lies on the first ascent up from Quirry (Kwiri) Gar just below Sain Polu village and as you hit the half constructed vehicle-grade ‘road’ en-route Lilam.

 

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This is Jasmeen at the Pungdeo rest stop run by Mohan Sumtiyal and Manisha. Bhotia dogs are wonderful, but this one is not pure Bhotia. Pungdeo is a clutch of habitations just above Lilam village and is a short three hour walk away from trail head but is a good place to stop before the steep ascent that will follow on Day 2.

 

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The Hansling peaks loom mysteriously ahead as you look north from Pungdeo. This cluster of peaks look very different as you work your way around them at different angles. Much later on our trail they receive a fresh powdering.

 

 

 

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Mohan Sumtiyal and Manisha’s home in Pungdeo (Upper Lilam) is our rest stop for Day 1, after close to three and a half hours of walking. Easy warm up day for trekking.

 

Day 2: Pungdeo to Bubbledhar over Mainsingh Top

 

 

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The trail begins with a steady ascent along a slope above Pungdeo and the right bank of the Goriganga. This is the gentle part. It later becomes a 40 degree ascent via (thankfully) a series of switchbacks created out of hewn and closely packed stone making rough steps. We have started today at 6:15 am.

 

 

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Looking back at the Goriganga flowing south, on the opposite hill slopes you can see Patho (foreground, left) and Buin villages that we are now leaving behind. The sun begins to come up now and we will walk the steepest part of the trail in the full blast of the sun. Luckily ambient temperature is comfortably cool.

 

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We cross flocks of 450-500 sheep migrating down to the plains for the winter from Milam. They are wary as they hurry past, and we press against the mountain slope to let livestock and mule trains go by lest in a panic that our presence creates, we are pushed into the valley.

 

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The open, grassy terrain makes for a warm ascent, although ambient temperature is perhaps only in the mid teens centigrade at this point. Patches of forest provide pleasant interlude. The Gori becomes a thread now, far below us. This is a view back down southwards into the valley we are going to exit in a few hours over Mainsingh Top.

 

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A crested serpent eagle rides a thermal by us, yet high above the valley, mocking the heights. But we have to be respectful as the hardest stretch is yet to come. In October 2014, we pass three streams and use these to hydrate ourselves abundantly and replenish water supplies.

 

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Intense switchbacks now carry us via a short distance to the top now – but progress is slow given the incline. As we get higher and closer to Mainsingh Top, peaks behind Hansling begins to show. Once past a small shrine with prayer flags, we get a break in the gradient and there are patches of forest as well. And this is Mainsingh Top that we make at 10:45 am. There is mystery about who Mainsingh was. Stories range from a person of Tibetan extraction to a holy man who sat in such single pointed meditation that he perished up on these slopes after leeches sucked out his blood.

It is a steep descent from Mainsingh Top past an open shallow grassy valley and past a first rest-stop shack, at 11:00am. Then into a lovely and fairly dense forest of old oak, walnut and other canopy trees, all the way down to our rest stop at Bubbledhar, set in an opening in the forest. It is popular with migrating families and mule trains. We end our day early just a little past noon and have plenty of time to rest, chat and explore our surroundings.

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We stay here, our second night at this rest stop run by Govind Singh and his father in Bubbledhar. It will be a full house with migrating families and mule train men tonight. Rest stops like these make the entire Milam trail quite convenient to do without the need to carry tents and food. Many rest stops shut for the winter starting in late October so it is best to collect updates from the mule men and frequent travelers.

 

Day 3: Bubbledhar – Bodugyar – Nahardevi – Lovely walk in a deep river valley

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We start today at 7:30am after a breakfast at the lower rest stop, run by Prahlad. We enter this deep valley where the path drops through a dense stretch of forest over a series of switchbacks to Rairgari. After reaching waters edge we will enter a narrow valley follow its left wall for hours until Bogudyar and then beyond until Nahardevi and on to Rilkot over very different terrain.

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This is the new steel bridge at Rairgari that puts us across a side stream of the Gori. Landslides and the floods of 2013 have remapped the valley floor here and the pre-June-2013 lower valley trail join us at this point. From here on, our trail fairly closely (although not exactly) follows the earlier trail. Although we are at the Gori’s edge now the trail will climb high above the valley slope and oscillate back down to river’s edge several times to negotiate and wind around landslips and trail washouts.

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The river gorges are lovely. This is a low water rainfall and water year making it possible wander down almost to waters edge at various points when the trail descends close enough.

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We reach the Bogudyar ITBP post (2450 meter) at 11 am, four hours after leaving Bubbledhar. This is the first sign-in point for us and identification is needed. They do ask for where we got ‘permission’ to enter the valley and we provide them a copy of a letter dated 2012 and signed by the District Officer Munsiari pleading with ITBP to allow Indian citizens to make trips to Milam glacier without needing a formal Inner Line Permit. This seems to work.

A view of the Bogudyar ITBP post. ITBP personnels are friendly, offer us tea and are most happy to chat with visitors. We move on after a leisurely lunch at Sundar Singh’s rest stop and press on toward Nahardevi.

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A huge boulder fell 15 years ago has to be crossed over just past ITBP Bogudyar. This one destroyed a military camp at its base, we were told.

We stop at Laxman Singh’s rest stop in a rocky opening for the day, at 3pm. Looking north from Nahardevi, in the fading light of day three, we glimpse the valley we will have to walk into tomorrow en route Rilkot.

Day 4: Nahardevi to Rilkot – Cliffs, waterfalls and up into windy grasslands

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The shrine of Nahardevi, whose power was evident to everyone in June 2013, is set back against the high cliff on the edge of the wide flood plain as you head north of Laxman Singh’s rest stop. We pay our respects at 7 am and set out.

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The path is cut into the cliff here for a long stretch. In the early morning this is a cold walk at the foot of high cliffs.

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There are cascades above us, and to either side as we progress, as well as the Gori rushing below. At one point the path goes right under one which provides us a cold if inadvertent shower. Today’s stretch will include innumerable climbs and descents up and down the valley wall above the right bank of the Goriganga. These can get quite steep and tiring.

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It is all grassland, now, as we move out of the narrow gorges – multi hued and lovely. The wind kicks up, close to noon.

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The ever rising and dipping path takes us high above the lovely Gori only to bring us back to river’s edge to negotiate landslips and washouts. The grasslands are lovely as the sun comes out – but the wind is getting stronger as we get into the afternoon and enter the broad an open valley. This ascent near Laspa is particularly tricky and slippery over loose gravel. We pass an abandoned structure which we are told was once a rest stop and a sign that says ‘Rilkot three km’ that we are told to ignore as the path is much longer and harder to calibrate now because of the additional ascents and descents. Small waterfalls like this give us opportunity to catch up with Nepali porters carrying impossible weights up to the ITBP posts and with mule trains taking a break. The valley looking back to the south. Across on the other side of this valley is what we think is a Bhoj (Himalayan Birch) forest above where the village of Mapanga once stood. As we finally approach Rilkot, we leave the valley wall and walk into a vast boulder field against a very strong head wind. It has been a tiring day today. We get to Rilkot (3200m) at 1:30 pm and it has taken us six and a half hours from Nahardevi. Rilkot is home to ITBP post-2 on our trail and we sign in here and spend the night with Ayath Singh at the rest stop he runs.

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It’s not an early evening for us in Rilkot because we get drawn into the magical presence of Dhamu a highly popular Johar valley folk singer from Milam who is passing through. Ayath Singh’s rest stop turns into a ‘juke joint’ this evening as we take in the ‘Rilkot Blues’.

Day 5: Rilkot to Martoli – Bewitched by Martoli we slow down and linger

We leave Rilkot at 7:15am on a bright day and make our way up along the valley’s edge then up a steep incline to the ‘road’ being constructed by the General Reserve Engineering Force (GREF, pronounced ‘grief’ in these parts) that will eventually connect Rilkot to Burphu and Milam. Atop a grassy outcrop, high above the Gori are the ruins of abandoned Old Rilkot.

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This is a good spot today to bask for a bit, as the sun is out. Down in the valley behind us are the ruins of Khilanch village at the mouth of a stream joining the Gori. We join the partly constructed GREF ‘road’ which is an easy walk as it maintains a ‘vehicle’ gradient and soon we hit a trail going up slope to our left which is the path to Martoli, while the road continues on towards Burphu. We go up towards Martoli through lovely grasslands and the bugs and butterflies are out today, to take in the sun.

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Martoli is exquisitely located on a high plateau at a little over 3400 meter. It is a relatively easy two to two and a half hour walk from Rilkot and we are sufficiently bewitched by its beauty and stop here for the day. There is quite a bit to do – explore the atmospheric village of old Martoli, climb a short distance to the nearby Nanda Devi temple and the Lamgada Bhoj forest neaby. This is a view looking west towards Nanda Devi, hidden by clouds. The only rest stop operating is run by Raju and is this pretty cottage where we stay for the night. It is easier to go up to Martoli from Rilkot on the way to Milam if you wish to to avoid a steep climb up from Burphu on the way back.

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Martoli is on a grassland plateau and high above the Gori. An old historic pond lies dry this year because of low rain and a mule grazes on its edges. Attempts to bring in rain water run off from the slopes to replenish it have had limited success especially in this dry year.

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The Nanda Devi temple a short walk up the slope towards the beautiful Lamgada Bhoj Forest, festooned with flags and bells offers a wonderful viewpoint of the great mountain and patron Goddess of Uttarakhand. But we have to wait to see if the weather clears.

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Wildflowers are everywhere. High above the plateau of Martoli and in the upper bugyals and high passes of the Johar valley, hardy fortune seekers, risk their lives and health. Immediately after the winter snows melt, they head in search of Yarsagumba (cordiceps sinensis).  This is a fungus that grows within the larvae of moths and commands, well over 15 lacs of rupees a kilogram in the markets of Nepal. It eventually is headed to aphrodisiac makers in China. This is a new ‘business’ having opened up only since 2007. There is almost no local market for this, we learn and the common name is ‘keeda jhadi’ or ‘keeda ghas’ given its caterpillar like appearance.

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Old Martoli must have well over 50 houses, almost all abandoned after the end of the Indo-Tibet trade. There are only a few being maintained by migrating families. When we visit there is no one around and just the silence to take in.

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We have been taken in by the beauty of this plateau and the prospect of glimpsing Nanda Devi and are putting ourselves behind schedule lingering here. But this seems to us like the right thing to do. The afternoon we are there it rains in Martoli and in an hour or so the skies clear and there is fresh powder on the hills just behind us.

Day 6: Martoli to Milam – Astounding Milam village and the Upper Johar valley

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Our prayers and patience are rewarded early the next morning as we scramble up to the Nanda Devi shrine to see the moon set over the great mountains. Nanda Devi is on the extreme right.

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The sun comes up behind us and lights up the peak. And then the entire range is ablaze. It is a breathtaking moment for us.

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Looking north towards Milam, Trishuli (7074 meter) is clearly visible this morning, a backdrop to Old Martoli.

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It’s a lovely morning as we take the steep path down the valley slope to the south bank of the Lawan Gar which meets the Gori just a little ahead of where we cross it over a wooden bridge. This picture looks back at the Gori valley from on our descent from Martoli. Across and well above the opposite bank of the Gori, is Tola, deserted for the winter by the time we passed this way. You can go from Tola, over the high Birjganga pass (4666 meter) to Ralam. The wooden bridge across the Lawan Gar is where the GREF ‘road’ from Rilkot, that we left earlier, joins the path we have taken down from Martoli.

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The foot bridge across the Gori at Burphu is the first time we cross over from her right bank to her left bank. If you continue along without crossing the bridge here, you can reach the villages of Mapa, Ganaghar and Pacchu, in that order, while heading northwards towards Milam. There is a trail to Nanda Devi base camp from Ganaghar, from where we are told, you can conceivably do a round trip within a day.

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At Burphu by 9:45 am, two and a half hours after we leave Martoli. We are greeted by the incongruous sight of an ITBP truck (as well an earth mover and a JCB stuck in the river below) that carries supplies and personnel along the GREF ‘road’ linking Burphu to Milam. If you happen to time it right you can hitch a ride with them over this 9 KM stretch. This machinery is all air dropped at Milam. After crossing the Bilju gar, you arrive at Milam (3420 meter) where the ITBP camp is the only one in the entire Johar valley equipped to operate through the winter. The ones at Bogudyar, Rilkot and further north in Dung will all close. Milam is set in a vast grassy plain and only one rest stop, run by Bhuvan and Navin Pangti is open when we arrive.

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It is beautiful out here with wild rose, juniper and other shrubs.

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Old Milam village, located a hundred or so feet above the Gori’s vast flood plain is the stuff of stories and reverie. Now completely mute, you can only imagine what this vast network of houses and traders must have been like in its day. We walk around and explore the sights of this astonishing ghost village. The poplars have been planted here in recent years by an NGO called Himal Prakriti based in Munsiari.

Day 7: Milam glacier and return to Burphu – The Source

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The walk from Milam village to the glacier is delightful. We leave our packs in Milam as this can be done as a day trip and leave a little after 6am. The valley is vast, broad, painted in shrubbery and the views of Hardeol (7151 meter) and Trishuli (7074 meter) are picture book material.The trail is well marked for much of its 8 kilometers and is mostly even or gently graded but disappears over the last couple of kilometers before the glacier. We navigate with the help of the small piles of stones placed as markers (and add some as we go). This is first sight of the Milam glacial moraine from about six km north of old Milam village with Hardeol and Trisuli its grand sentinels.

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The glacier is a vast mass of ice, soil and rubble and the glacial moraine fills the valley before you. We are not much higher than about 3600 meter here. While it is possible, but not recommended especially as the sun comes up and triggers the melting, to clamber higher up on the mud walls of the glacier, you only see more and more of the vast undulating, moraine stretching north in the direction of the spectacular Hardeol and Trishuli ranges. Crevices, sink holes and slips can occur at any time especially as the sun begins to warm up the mass. It is about 9 am when we reach the glacier itself. As the sun rises you can hear the melting ice and sliding rubble as it creates deep green, algae rich pools below it – from which the Gori arises. You can see the lateral and terminal moraine of the glacier here. As your eyes and senses accustom to the geologic spectacle going on here, you are drawn into the quiet, powerful drama unfolding before you and the birth of a river. We hear that the glacier used to start ‘just past’ the old Milam village (perhaps two to three kms on, in the late 1800s). Today, it is eight kms beyond. Recent studies suggest a tremendous 1.33 km recession has occurred between just 1954 and 2006 which translates to an astounding 25 meter each year.

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Its an astonishingly colorful medley up here.

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The path back from witnessing the birth of the river throws up some picture book material with juniper, wild rose, other shrubs and berries.

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The views looking back are even grander and hard to get your eyes off. We make it back to our Milam rest stop by just after noon, pick up our packs, head over to ITBP to collect our identity cards and sign out.

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It’s now a long walk back to Burphu over the vehicle-grade road but very strong head winds blowing across the vast valley in the afternoon make the walk a challenging and a little dreary. We reach Burphu at 4 pm. It has been a 10 hour walking day.

Day 8: Burphu to Nahardevi – Long haul back in excellent weather – but on stronger legs

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We leave the wonderful and warm hospitality of Gokarn Singh Jangpangi and Leela at 7:15 am for the long haul back to Nahardevi. The weather has held up for us and we are back across on the Gori’s right bank from Burphu. We reach Rilkot in three hours and are soon back on the cliff-and-waterfall walk towards Nahardevi in a couple of hours. This is not an easy stretch as we recall and the number of path ascents and descents are adding up as we approach Nahardevi. The last two dips in this direction are to negotiate a large landslip and then a high water cascade. Laxman Singh is all alone and almost seems to be waiting for us by the time we get to Nahardevi at 5 pm after another long 10 hour walking day. There is no one here tonight, unlike the day we were going up to Milam, when it was full house. His mischievous and demanding ram butts and hooves us into sharing food with him.

Day 9: Nahardevi to Bubbledhar – Rock art in the river valley – how long will this remain?

We know today will be easier than the last two days – fewer hours of walking and easier terrain. We leave at 7:15 am and stop at Bogudyar for breakfast in two hours. We are back among-st the bamboos and river gorges now.

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We stop and enjoy the rock art as the sun traverses the narrow space above us between the eastern and western cliff tops.

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At Raigari we are out of the gorges, take a break and then heave ourselves back into the steep forested stretch, over several switchbacks to emerge at this sunny opening on the plateau at Bubbledhar. It is  little past 1 pm and we decide to stop here to enjoy the weather and take it easy. This is the rest stop run by Prahlad and we are back on track now to be in Munisari in an easy two days.

Day 10 – Bubbledhar to Pungdeo

We start from lower Bubbledhar (Prahlad’s rest stop) at 6:30 am and into the canopy forests and reach upper Bubbledhar (the third rest stop) for a quick breakfast by 8 am. It is only about 30 minutes to Mainsingh Top from here now and as we crest, it, in excellent weather, we are grateful for our good fortune. We bid good bye to the grand vista of the central Johar valley, which leave now and will not see again as we commence our descent. The woods below Mainsingh Top are lovely to walk into. All the timber that was used to build the grand houses in Rilkot, Martoli, Burphu, Milam and other trading villages in Upper Johar came from these forests and was carried on human backs. Soon we are glimpsing the terraced fields of Patho and Bui(n) again on the opposite slope of the valley and the Goriganga threads its way, far below us. Mule trains are still making their way up to Milam to stock up ITBP for the winter before the snows close in. Once we have descended below the steepest switchbacks, over rough steps of packed/hewn stone, we are back on a trail descending through grassland and forest patches making the walk quite pleasant and giving us the best of both sun and shade. Nepali porters carry impossible weights back and forth to Milam under arrangements with ‘transport’ contractors to ITBP. Mules are restricted to 50 kg but the hardy Nepalis will carry up to well over 80 kg, paid as they are per kilo. We are amazed and humbled by the sheer human endurance on display but are put off by the absence of any protective regulations. Indian Mountaineering Foundation regulations mandate not more than 25 kg per porter at these altitudes. We are now almost in Pungdeo and can see the village of Patho across the valley again.

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Lilam village, given its proximity to the road at Chillamdhar, is the furthest village we encounter into the Johar valley where we see younger women and children. The upper villages seem inhabited in the warmer months by mainly older folk who retain deep emotional, spiritual and cultural ties to the Upper Johar valley or by men on ITBP, GREF and other duties. Lilam is a very pretty village of perhaps 10 houses. Given its low altitude down in the valley (1850 meter) the vegetable varieties are amazing in small patches around the houses.

Day 11 – Pungdeo to Chillamdhar

This hardy gent was part of a trio of elders from remote Mapa (on the right bank of the Gori across the valley between Burphu and Milam) who were, reluctantly, migrating to the lower Gori valley for the winter. His wife tells us several times that they only like it up in the higher reaches of Johar.

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We begin our last, slow walk back out of Johar at 7:15am and accompany the family from Mapa as the three hardy elders, their cattle and household assisted by two young men, who have been carrying a pair of new born calves in their arms over the uneven stretches all the way. The last crossing back across the Kwirry Gar is done in silence, filled with thoughts about the past and the future of Johar even as we have delighted in the present. By 10 am we are back at the jeeps at Chillamdhar.

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The grand Panchachulhi peaks make their appearance in Muniyari just before we leave for the plains. We have been lucky as the weather closed in and the snowline descended 300 meter within hours of our exiting Johar.

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Vijay Kundaji

Vijay Kundaji

Vijay lives in Bangalore, does consulting work for a living, co-manages a small organic farm and enjoys back roads travel, the hills, reading, cycling and good conversation.

6 thoughts on “Milam and the Upper Johar Valley : Photo Story

  1. Thanks for a wonderful description of your trek into a little known part of the Himalayas. Makes me want to pack my bags and go there. Perhaps next year:-).

  2. It is a very beautiful and informative write-up. Could this trek can be taken up by a eight years old kid? My son has successfully completed Sandakphu trek. I found this trek will be another tea house trek. Please suggest.

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