Munsiyari – The final destination

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Kumaon Itinerary

At the threshold of inner Himalayas, looking down on the Gori river gorge with deep valleys branching up into the high mountains, touching Tibet – the roof of the earth – in the north, and bordering Nepal in the east lies Munsiyari at an altitude of around 2290 meters.

Gori Ganga on the way to Munsyari

Gori Ganga on the way to Munsyari


The three main rivers of Munsiyari tehsil are River Gori, River Namik and River Ralam. These rivers flow in the valleys named after them and draw water from the high mountain ranges that encircle and characterize the area of these three valleys. The Gori Ganga valley is also known as the Johar valley. It is the central and major valley with extensive glacial headwaters. Ralam valley is an eastern tributary of the Gori Ganga valley while Namik valley lies to the south-west with lesser glacial origins.

Munsiyari is gateway to the Johar region and baseway for trekking to Milam, Namik and Ralam glaciers. Johar valley can be further sub-divided into three regions – Malla Johar, Talla Johar and Goriphat.

Malla Johar refers to the upper section of the Johar valley. It has wide grassland slopes and terraces. These beautiful high altitude meadows, the extensive pasture land, found at heights of over approximately 2700 meters are known as Bugyals. These flat lands with rising and falling slopes are mostly carpeted in a patchwork of green and floral pattern. Some of these Bugyals are green lawn of different hues, fringed with clusters of dense conifers and some of them are covered with different kind of flowers that bloom throughout the year. Generally, the snow-capped mountains stand-in bold reliefs against the skyline of these Bugyals but sometimes Bugyals are so high that they even dwarf the mountains.

Talla Johar refers to the lower Johar that includes Munsiyari, Madkot and Seragaht. The steeper forested slopes of Talla Johar are separated from the wide grassland slopes and terraces of Malla Johar by a deep 35 Km narrow gorge created by the River Gori.

Goriphat is at the confluence of the two rivers named after the two extreme incarnations of Maa Parvati, the River Gori and the River Kaali. Kaali Ganga or the River Sharda flows from the Nepal border. Interestingly, at several places this river determines and demarcate the international boundaries between India and Nepal.

The idols of Maa Gauri at Pune's Raja Deenanath Kelkar Museum

The idols of Maa Gauri at Pune’s Raja Deenanath Kelkar Museum

Munsiyari is the name given to some twenty thirty villages on the bank of river Gori. Before tourism spread its wings and reached the farthest region of Kumaon these villages were exclusively inhabited by Bhotias.

The term Bhotia comes from the native Tibetan word for Tibet, “Bo”, and refers to the people living in the Bhot or Bod region of Himalayas that includes Tibet and the northern most part of Uttranchal. They have Mongoloid features and are believed to be the descendents of Kinnaurs and Rajkirats who lived in this region since the Vedic period. They are well-known for their industriousness, spirit of adventure and courage to face hardships.

A Bhotia Elder returning from Malla-Johar

A Bhotia Elder returning from Malla-Johar

Only thirty percent of Bhotia had agriculture as their original occupation. The rest seventy percent are of Shauka tribe who used to do business with Tibet till 1962. Bhotias were once the most prosperous community of this region as they had an exclusive control over the trade link between India and Tibet. At that time with the arrival of spring the whole population of Johar valley used to migrate to their summer settlements of twelve high villages of Malla Johar. The trade activity required frequent travels through the trail connecting Kumaon to the Western Tibet, which passed through the fragile terrain of the Kumaon hills, round the year and consequently Bhotias had a semi-nomadic pattern of life.

Each Bhotia trader had a special correspondent in Tibet with whom the trade transaction used to take place. Over the years that correspondence turned into strong bonds of friendship. Those links were so strong that it was impossible to break Bhotia monopoly in that trade.

The higher reaches of these valleys remain wholly covered with snow for nearly six months in a year. The severity of winter combined with heavy snow fall makes it impossible to live there and hence during these months, Bhotias move southwards to their winter homes in warmer places. Munsyari was their winter retreat.

The fortune of Bhotias changed drastically with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 and the subsequent Indo-China war in 1962. The Indo-Tibetan border was sealed and the Trans-Himalayan trade came to a grinding halt. As that trade was the sole source of income for majority of the Bhotias, it created extremely harsh conditions for them. Government of India realized their misfortune and granted them the status of Scheduled tribes.

Though the trade with Tibet had been brought to an end long ago, still there are some villages where the whole population migrates to Malla Johar in summers. For most of them the major source of livelihood is wool-based cottage industry, but with strong government initiative some of them have also adopted agriculture and horticulture as their prime occupation.

The above description was for information, and the coordinate hungry readers.

Resuming the story of our journey to Kumaon region, where I left readers in my previous travelogue, let’s continue. We were enjoying our stay at Birthi so much that we kept on delaying the onward journey. After all, Munsiyari, our destination, was just 32-kms away.

Around Birthi many hay bales were visible in the shape of scare crow. Several such bundles gave an impression of a modern sculptor depicting people gathering and marching forward for a common cause. Hay bales are not straw but grass and legumes cut, collected, dried and stored for use as animal fodder during harsh weather conditions. In hills, during winters it is difficult to find grazing pastures and at that time these hay bales provide the required nutrition to the domestic grazing animals.

People Marching forward :-)

People Marching forward 🙂

The grass in hay bales must be dried properly since wet grass rot on storage and creates potential for toxins to form in the feed. This shape helps in keeping grass dry from inside even during rains. It’s not done for aesthetics or fun.

A Hay Bale

A Hay Bale

Those bundles reminded me of my dream landscape, the vast European grasslands dotted with cylindrical hay bales.

Cylindrical Hay-Bales in Tuscany, Italy - Courtesy Fabio Carlucci

Cylindrical Hay-Bales in Tuscany, Italy – Pix courtesy Fabio Carlucci

Soon after Birthi, we were driving on a long stretch of a serpentine road, in circumlocution mode. But we were enjoying it!

The vehicles on that road were dwarfed not only by the immense mountains in their backdrop, looking like impregnable castle walls, but also by the tall Deodar trees standing upright like alert sentinels. As compared to the journey till Birthi, these bends were sharper, trees were taller and the whole landscape was greener, quieter and more un-spoilt.

The Alert Sentinels

The Alert Sentinels

It must be a remarkable accomplishment to build such roads on these insurmountable mountains. It reminded me of my friend Gyurmee’s (owner of Bliss resort, Biksthang in Sikkim) sad comment that he made while looking at a similar engineering feat in Sikkim, “People travelling on these roads seldom realizes the extreme sacrifices many workers had made to achieve their smooth drive.” He was looking at the road where several workers had lost their life during its construction. I wish there had been no such mis-happening in Birthi. Anyway, I salute these ‘civil soldiers’ to provide us such a smooth drive.

Serpentine Roads, moving towards Munsyari

Serpentine Roads

En-route we stopped at twenty-seven hundred meters high Kalamuni top where there was no habitation except a temple. Tanmay was sleeping on my shoulder so it was not possible for me to visit the temple. No complains 🙂 as it is an extremely satisfying feeling when kids put their head against your shoulder and falls asleep. A gesture that says I recognize this cozy bed and I trust that I am in protective arms. As a parent you understand the strenuous journey the little delicate ones are taking with you and so you like to make minimal movements lest their sleep should be disturbed. It is true that,
फिर चाहे वक़्त उन्हे कुछ भी बना दे
लोरियों तक सब हैं शहज़ादे|

Tanmay, fresh after a quick nap

Tanmay, fresh after a quick nap

After the visit to the temple everyone returned except the driver of our vehicle. The other driver cautioned us that he saw him enjoying Cannabis (Ganza) with the sadhu inside. We almost forced the driver to return and to start again. He had his own version as an excuse. He told that the sadhu inside was showing him the pictures of late Babaji with tigers and was telling him that earlier wild cats regularly used to visit the temple. The temple surroundings had such a calming effect on them that they never made any kill around it. Even herbivores were aware of the miraculous effect and roamed freely around them.

After Kalamuni top there was a deep-green forested valley. A baaz was hovering and gliding effortlessly. We stopped to look at that awesome flight with our binoculars and suddenly our attention was drawn to deer like animals running away, but they vanished in the blink of an eye.

There were no villages on this route as this region is sparsely populated. We occasionally met flocks of sheep and tribes of goats. At a point we met a herd of cow drinking water from a waterhole. Two cow herders were preparing food for themselves and it looked nothing less than a picnic. At least from our stand point :-). I wonder if it remains a picnic even when it is a daily routine. Should be.

A tribe of Goats

A tribe of Goats

A herd of cows

A herd of cows

Males cooking their own food! I would like to share an interesting observation. In most of the hotels cooks are always male. It is an irrefutable proof that men cook better than the fairer sex. It is then another story that they are of lazy-adjustable kinds who can eat anything with a perfect glow of satisfaction on their faces. I once shared this eternal truth with my wife. She curtly replied, “Perhaps that’s why it is fine to dine out once or twice, but after only a few outings you (read males) start missing home cooked food.” I dared not to tell her that these kinds are not only lazy but are misers as well.

The picnic

The picnic

We reached Munsiyari in around two hours. It was a small town and probably even that is a result of tourism. We had two rooms booked in Zara resort. One room, possibly the best room of the hotel, cost Rs 2500 and the other room, the standard one, cost us Rs 1200. We were allotted two adjacent rooms separated by a false wall. The rooms had wonderful acoustics; any word spoken or even whispered in one room was clearly audible in the other. It’s not only Wiki-leaks vying for a transparent world; Zara Resort is making its own contributions in a small way 🙂

Zara is a simple budget hotel in peaceful surroundings, facing a village house with a small potato farm. It was carpeted but the worn-out shabby carpet made it look cheap and unkempt. In general, I have noticed that in the absence of proper care and maintenance carpeted mid-range hotels look awful within a few years.

Our room in Zara Resort, Munsyari

Our room in Zara Resort, Munsyari

In the standard room, in the toilet, water was dripping from the roof in addition to the faucet. We brought it to the manager’s notice and requested him to allot the adjacent room. He rudely denied the possibility.

Zara is located at a height overlooking the whole town. The area around it was green and beautiful birds can be spotted in the mornings and evenings. There was a mountain trail leading to a Bugyal just behind the hotel. As we started to trek two village dogs decided to join us. We walked carefully, maintaining a safe distance from them. They were of quite quiet types as otherwise we might have abandoned trekking right at the beginning itself.

It was a pleasant trek amidst the green surroundings. The sky was overcast and the weather was windy. The enthusiasm of the wind in encouraging us to walk was palpable. But, Mr. Sun was tired. It was a long exhausting day for him and he had already waited long enough for us to trek. By the time we started trekking, he wanted to retire for the day. We realized Sun’s point (even before having reached a desirable ‘sunset-point’) and reluctantly had to give in to him. That small lovely walk was our first outing of Munsiyari but even that filled us with great enthusiasm. On return, the dogs smelled us, found nothing offensive nor attractive and allowed us a slip to Zara.

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