From Delhi we took a night train up north to the state of Uttrakhand’s capital, Dehradun. The 270 km journey took us the entire night. The sleeper train was an interesting experience with a flurry of passengers trying to ram their bags safely underneath their beds. The platform at Delhi’s train station was packed with passengers awaiting their respective trains. There was literally no place to stand let alone sit. We awoke the next morning in chilly Dehradun.
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From Dehradun several hundred kilometer journey awaited us to the Himalayas or the Himalayan foothills. As we began to traverse the tightly wound roads that curved around the mountain peaks, it baffled me that these mountains were referred to as hills. At the peak of our journey we reached locations with altitudes surpassing 4000 ft above sea level. I suppose when your base of comparison is Everest and K2 these are just merely foothills.
At times I felt queasy looking out of the car window to realize if the driver veered mere centimeters to the one side we would go flying off the edge of the cliff. The further upwards we traversed the chillier it got and from a distance the distinctive snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas came to view. Along the way we passed many hill towns and villages and I am still awestruck by how these homes are constructed in such environments. From a distance once could see small hamlets literally clutching the side of the mountains, at it appeared as if houses are piled on top of each other. occasionally we would pass the odd valley or flat region amongst the mountains. Given the harsh environment, people residing here have had to become extremely resourceful over the centuries. Many have very deep ties to their ancestral homes and would never think of relocating to the “plains”. These valleys were extremely well-organized to maximize benefits and turn the odd patch of land into profitable enterprise from various cash crops.
Among the many communities that we encountered the most interesting was probably the Jaunsari tribe. Traditionally this community practiced polyandry (1 wife, many husbands). The woman usually married all brothers in one family. When I inquired as to why that was, I was told so that the family wealth will not be split up. Today very few villages of this tribe practice this custom.
In general the “hills” people put us to shame with their hospitality. Their kindness is indescribable. A flood of strangers we were to them but they welcomed us with open arms. Despite the language barriers and the use of sign language, I felt very comfortable in their presence. Without a doubt all the communities we visited along our week-long stay in the region were far more hospitable than any we had met to date. I came to find out that the “hills” people are generally fearful and mistrustful of the “plains” people living in the rest of India. Despite the tribal differences in various foothills communities, there seemed to be a thread of commonality between them.
Another remarkable stop along the journey in this region was the chance to visit the great Lakshman temple. This state in particular is home to some of the holiest sites in the Hindu religion. Millions of pilgrims trek to these remote parts and even further into Tibet on an annual basis. At the Lakshmani temple where at the end of the journey, pilgrims shave their heads and bathe in the Ganga River. It was inspiring to see a sight of such intense devotion.
Overall we covered hundreds of kilometers around narrow, landslide prone roads and shared experiences with some of the warmest people I have come across. In every community somehow I was dragged into some form of dance. I followed the moves of the crowd and carried on as best I can. We travelled to the borders of the Tibetan border, which was also quiet the experience. This by far was the most rewarding aspect of the trip. Memories that will forever be etched in my mind of continuously smiling faces; outbursts of laughter at our mutual use of sign language to communicate and happiness about this shared experience.