Our Trek Leader Anuja Gupta has travelled the Himalayas far and wide. Her trek to Pin Parvati Pass with shepherds, sheep and mules was ultimately one that shaped her future. Here is her story as told to Aswati.
For me, the mountains have never been about grandeur. They have always been about the people: how they interact with the environment, how they live in harsh conditions. Perhaps it is the journalist in me that looks for stories of resilience in such environments.
The story of how I came to do the Pin Parvati Pass trek with shepherds is a long one. Perhaps I will tell you if you are on a trek with me. However, what I got out of traveling with shepherds and living with them shape a strong part of how I am in the mountains today. That is the story I want to tell.
This was in September 2014, much before I joined Indiahikes as a Trek Leader. I had just completed the Hampta Pass trek with Indiahikes. After that I did the Beas Kund trek on my own. After the trek, I landed up in Tosh. There, I lived with a mule man’s family for two weeks.
During these two weeks, I learnt that it was the time of the year where shepherds from Spiti go back to their desert valley after their flocks have had their fill in the lush greenery of Parvati Valley. The pastures of the Spiti deserts would now have better, nutritious food, while on the Parvati side, monsoon would ravage the valley with infections and diseases.
As soon as I heard this bit of information, I knew I had to go. The mule man’s family helped me arrange for tents as I prepared to meet the shepherds.
The shepherds were, of course, wary. They had over 600 sheep, goats, and mules with them. They also had their ferocious dogs. And here I was, a single woman with a tent, asking to be taken along.
They warned me, “There is no set time to our journey. If the weather is bad, we will be in one place for quite a while”.
I didn’t hesitate.
Although they were bewildered, they let me be. And here I began my journey with them over to Pin Parvati Pass.
The responsibilities of a ‘vagabond’
We began our trek through Parvati Valley, where the Parvati river roars. I had never been scared of a river on a trek, but Parvati’s violence gets to you. The trails ahead of Tunda Bhuj especially, hang precariously over the river’s tumult. Thankfully, the flock takes the route higher up, around the mountain, avoiding the dangerous overhang. I followed the flock.
As the day ended, and stars began twinkling over the cliff faces, I pitched tents with the shepherds. We all made hot rotis to eat. Trekking together, and then eating together breaks the ice as nothing else.
In the course of my conversation with them, I found out these humble shepherds had quit their government jobs. One of them had taken up voluntary retirement to do farming and to tend to cattle. Between farming and harvesting, they would set out with their sheep and horses to pastures. They told me this is what they had wanted to do ultimately at the fag end of their lives. They had made enough money to send their children to best universities of Punjab and Delhi. Now they were back on their own lands.
I had thoughtlessly said, “What happens to your wives when you set out with your sheep to graze? Do they tend to the farmlands and manage all the household responsibilities? Aren’t you all just vagabonds in the mountains?”
“Managing sheep, goats and mules is not easy — even when we enjoy doing it. They are our animals. We are responsible for their lives. What they eat, their health, making sure they are well-fed (even if we are not) is a big responsibility,” they told me.
These animals are also an asset to the family. When crops fail back home because of adverse weather conditions (as they often do), they earn by selling their animals.
I was mistaken thinking that being a shepherd was akin to wandering in the mountains — they pay for grazing rights on lands they take their animals to. Sometimes, with quite steep prices for just three months of grazing rights.
Being one of the team
Taking care of such an overwhelming number of animals is a task, of course. Especially over a route as treacherously washed out as Pin Parvati.
I was very particular about being an equal member in sharing their workload. I did not want to be a guest. A “guest” learns nothing about his hosts except the nature of their hospitality.
I helped milk the goats (which I learnt on-the-job), I helped them cover the older animals with boris (sacks) on cold nights. The nights would often end with them inspecting their animals for injury or sickness. After that, they took the little ones with them to the warmth of the tent. On one such night, I noticed how we all smelled strongly of sheep. While it wasn’t a comforting smell, I knew it meant that I was one of them now.
In our usually frugal dinner time near the vibrant meadows of Odi Thach, I had asked, “How do you work together? If you fight, is there a way you resolve differences?”
They seemed bewildered by my question. With a lot of thought, one of them said, “We don’t know how many days we have to be together, we don’t know how long this journey will go on. Sometimes we have to stay back if the weather is bad. If we have to quarrel and part ways, we are on our own with a big flock. None of us can afford that on these mountains. We have to help each other. Our goal, however, is the same. That’s why, we make sure we resolve our differences.”
Their problems are innumerous – they are not always welcome on the lands their animals graze. They are part of the delicate balance of conservation: if their animals over-graze, it is a problem for wild herbivorous animals. Without the wild herbivorous animals, the already endangered snow leopards are in trouble. With all of this and scarce resources, these mountain people try to manage the onslaught of climate change. With so many stakes, I knew everyone needed each other up on the mountain. Perhaps, the idea of having a shared goal is much more strongly imbibed in harsh conditions like these.
Companionship up in the mountains
Their work of managing their animals is shared by their shepherd dogs. The shepherd dogs protect the flock from predator attacks. I noticed the dogs ate as frugally as we did, and only came to the shepherds for company. By nature, they were independent companions. I was curious about this attitude towards man’s best friend. It was so unlike what we see in the cities.
“We don’t pamper them,” they told me. “They are where they belong, and this is their most natural state of being. They don’t need to be cuddled. They want companionship, and a little food. Much like us.”
The shepherd dogs would always be ahead, and sometimes higher up, out of sight.
As we moved ahead of Mantalai, where the angry Parvati river calms down and fans out quietly in marshes, I noticed another thing. There was a curious fatalism up in the mountains.
While there was camaraderie and fierce loyalty the animals and shepherds had for each other, there was stoic pragmatism as well.
In our camp ahead of Mantalai, one of our sheep died of pneumonia. The shepherds mourned their loss over the night. The next morning, meat was cooked.
How I realised I belong in the mountains
We set out for the Pass with this behind us on an extremely cold morning. I followed their whistles right up to the Pass. The Pass has snowfields, hard ice and many, many crevasses. With no microspikes on me, I kept slipping on the ice. My shepherd friends told me to take the help of a mule by holding its tail. They pointed out, “That is a gentle one. He wouldn’t mind if you hold on to his tail. The one next to him may kick you, so be careful about that.”
And just like that, I trekked to Pin Parvati Pass holding onto a mule’s tail.
As the flock went ahead, I stayed at the Pass for a moment. Smooth brown ridges of Spiti opened up before me. An expanse of barren land lay before me. Such a vivid contrast to the hard green colours and life of Parvati valley. There I was, standing on top of one of the most difficult treks in Himalayas, with mules, sheep, goats and shepherds. For 15 days, I had lived their hard life – eating with them, going hungry with them, trekking with them and tending to flocks with them. I lived as minimally as they did — and I realised I didn’t need much in my life to feel content.
Being on top of this Pass is no big feat for them. They do this every year with their flock. However, I allowed myself the feeling of being a trekker for once. I let the thrill wash over me. I now knew that I had it in me to walk the Himalayas with just a backpack. I knew I could survive the mountains and live to tell their stories. The rush of indomitable confidence this knowledge gave me still stays with me. I knew where I wanted to be.
These 15 days had given me much to mull over and become who I am as a Trek Leader today.
Living in the mountains is hard work, compounded by unfriendly terrain and scarce resources. It is only if you are willing to work hard, live utterly minimally and with empathy, that you gain the respect of mountain people you work with. I lived with just a backpack and a tent. What I seemed to need for happiness was very, very basic. And only when I was utterly responsible for myself, could I be responsible and take part in taking care of the flock.
Right when I knew I needed very little, I became clear eyed.
Now, as a Trek Leader, I live the same life: full of learning and minimalist living. I do have days where everything seems like the climb to the Pin Parvati Pass: slippery, unending, difficult and treacherous. On those days, I remember the view at the end of the uphill climb. I keep going. I don’t need to look back anymore.