Because It's There
As we began stirring on our last morning in Chaukori we received notice that our plans in Munsiari were to change slightly. Weather forecasts were calling for thunderstorms and precipitation on the scheduled days of our trek so we would be heading out a day earlier. This meant we would need to pack up and leave the HIC ahead of our original schedule. No problem, time is a relative concept in India. Our bags were loaded onto two jeep style vehicles. We took many pictures with our new friends, shared hugs and even shed some tears. We took consolation in the idea that we will try to stop for lunch at HIC on our way back through town after our time in Munsiari.
Chaukori is located in the lower Himalayas while Munsiari is at the precipice of the first range of the upper Himalayas. This means to get from one to the other you have to go up and over mountains on winding and twisting roads. Similar to our drive to Chaukori but these roads were more narrow, mostly dirt and gravel, continuous switchbacks and all together at a higher elevation. Breathtaking vistas greeted us with each turn as we looked straight down into the valleys below and were treated to shots of the high peaks. We stopped for a quick visit at a small village school, shared some pencils we had brought along with the children and had some chai at a roadside shop.
There was no wasting time once we reached the home of Theo and Malika. It is a short hike in from the road to their home situated on a hill side looking over the village of Munsiari. We dropped our bags on their porch and proceeded to a field next to the house where we introduced ourselves and met the women providing our homestays. We were given a traditional welcome with dye and rice applied to our foreheads and sharing of a coconut and sugar mix. The women than sang a beautiful and stirring song that echoed around us. We were matched up and then the women left for the village to prepare for our arrival later in the evening. After a quick check of our trekking gear we engaged in some group building exercises. We identified the kinds of experiences and activities in and out of our comfort zones, attempted to solve a couple of low ropes challenges, and through discussion, agreed upon three values held in high regard by our group: cooperation, respect and effort. With the sunset looming we gathered our things and were led to our individual homestays. We spent the evening sharing dinner with our hosts, meeting their families and pets and packing our things for a trek to begin the next morning.
Directly behind Malika and Theo's home is a trail that leads to Khalia Top. This 12,400ft peak represents the first layer of higher mountains leading to the high peaks of the Himalaya Range. We gathered at 7:30am to do one last check of our gear, gathered our snowshoes and sleeping pads and began the trek to our campsite for the night. While it is feasible to reach the summit in one day, it is advisable to camp at 10,000ft so as to give us flat landers a chance to adjust to the elevation. Even at our starting point at about 8,000ft we quickly felt short of breath as we ascended steep inclines.
Along the way through the forest Theo shared insight into the natural history of the area. The Himalaya and North America have numerous plants and animals from the same genus. With birch, oak, maple and chestnut trees surrounding us, we were able to recognize them. While similar, they are different species having evolved and adapted over millions of years since the time that our continents were linked by a land bridge across the Bering Strait. We reached a ridge with a stone wall running along its spine. The wall represented the border between two villages. The side we came up is a maintained forest with tall grasses and numerous different trees and shrubs. On the other side we found sheep grazing along the steep slopes tended to by transient shepherds. Two different uses having two very different effects on the land and biodiversity in the area.
We continued to ascend through rhododendron forests complete with red and pink flowers majestic in their spring bloom. Our species of rhododendron in the US are bushes and shrubs while in the Himalaya they are full trees. As we climbed higher in elevation they begin to grow more horizontal than vertical so as to hold the weight of the heavy snows of winter. We finally reached our campsite, a meadow nestled 1000ft below the ridge leading to the summit. On one side we looked straight up at Khalia Top while from the other sides we looked into various peaks rising ever higher into the sky. Clouds continued to build through the evening and we settled into our tents after a delicious meal.
We woke to a new coating of white covering our tents and campsite. At first light the cloud bank hung threateningly above us as it slowly crept lower and lower blocking any view of the landscape above and below us. We took a quick breakfast and prepared for an attempt at the summit. Unfortunately, three of our group had fallen ill with stomach ailments and stayed in their tents to recuperate while the rest of us headed out on the trail. We were in and out of precipitation as we made our climb. Even here, approaching 11,000ft, we continued to hike past trees and shrubs. The tree line of the White Mountains hovers around 3,500ft as high winds brought about by the confluence of weather patterns coming down from Canada and up from the Gulf of Mexico have made it nearly impossible for any living thing over six inches tall to survive. The Himalaya are at a latitude closer to south Texas and while the elevation dictate winter like conditions, it is a more temperate zone and vegetation has adapted to survive at far higher elevations than we find at home.
We broke through the tree line at 11,500 ft and were greeted by winds and fog as we were literally in the clouds. We trudged along the ridge and made our way to the final ascent to the summit. Just as we approached a grassy, snow swept slope the clouds broke and we were treated to a view of the high peaks so close you could almost reach out and touch them. We continued up using grassy tufts as foot holds until we were just feet from our destination. Theo encouraged a final sprint and everyone made their best efforts to be the first to the summit. We had just enough time for some pictures and handstands before the clouds engulfed us again.
Being in a shroud probably made it easier for the descent as we could not see the valleys in a sheer line below us. As we made our way back to the forest we were given a couple more shots of the incredible views before the clouds worked their way in for the long haul, bringing with them heavy snow. We reached our camp in time for lunch and then packed for the trip back to Munsiari. The snow continued to fall as temperatures hovered several degrees below freezing. We anticipated that we would be greeted with rain as we descended, but just as we crossed the snow line the clouds broke and the sun shone on us the rest of the way.
It Takes a Village
Very fatigued and sore we all returned to our homestays for much needed nourishment and rest. Malika granted us a sleep-in and we agreed to meet at ten the next morning. We spent Sunday morning in Malika and Theo's 'classroom' where we addressed questions and expectations of staying in the village. Malika also shared how the names of our hosts tell the story of their heritage and socio-political roles, delving briefly into the history and make-up of the region. After lunch we visited the shop of the Women's Collective and viewed the numerous crafts and goods they have created to help support their families and village. We then gathered with all of the families involved with the homestays to share some food, music, dance and games to create a better appreciation for each of our cultures. Smiles and humor transcend language and cultural differences as we reached a general understanding that we are all human with the same wants, needs, and desires.
Munsiari is a beautiful village with breathtaking views of the largest mountains in the world. It is made up of a proud people happy to share their homes and experiences with us. The village and its people face the same challenges as anywhere else and we are trying not to disrupt their routines and lives too much. Their hospitality is such that they wish only for us to be happy and content, but cautiously, as we get to know each other, we learn more about their traditions and practices and a get a true sense of life in this remote mountain village.