The story of two women who decided to travel across the Himalayas, from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh

In the travelogue ‘Zanskar to Ziro’, Sohini Sen traces their 10,000-km journey spanning over 10 years.

It is 5.00 am and dark inside our air-conditioned compartment of the New Delhi-Dehradun Nanda Devi Express. A darkness heavy with the rhythmic jangle of the wheels muffled by the glass windowpanes and the clear, discordant snores that rise from varying mounds of flesh on unvarying berths. It is difficult to distinguish the bass from the soprano: all mounds are uniformly covered in white, crumpled bed sheets.

There is a third sound. Distinct, familiar. It is my mobile phone ringing.

“Calling from Chakrata,” begins the male voice on the phone. It is Chauhan Chetan Singh, one of the owners of the accommodation we have booked. “There has been a minor landslide between here and Dehradun,” Chetan says. “The car we sent to pick you up is stuck at the spot. It may take a while for the road to clear. I am trying to get another car to receive you at the station. It has already crossed the landslide zone, and will get you till Vikasnagar. Please get off there and wait for your car.”

“Who is the driver?” I ask, “How do we find him at Dehradun?”

“Name’s Niki. I have messaged his number to you. Dehradun has a very small platform, you will find him easily. Please don’t worry,” says Chetan.

The day has not begun well. The train wheezes into Dehradun station at 7.15 am, almost two hours behind schedule. It is a relief to find Niki.

Even after we have loaded our luggage and are ready to go, Niki does not start the engine.

“Is there a problem?” I ask him.

There is one, and it is at the moment trudging out of the station: a crotchety old lady lugging a massive suitcase. She has booked Niki’s car. We are the hitchhikers.

Her displeasure at this invasion of her privacy and her car is as subtle as the Great Wall of China. I shift to the front seat, next to Niki. Sumita retreats to the far corner of the backseat even as the lady dumps the suitcase near her knees. To establish her rightful claim to the car, she keeps us waiting and stomps off to have her morning cuppa.

After a couple of hours, Niki drops us at Vikasnagar. Post Sumita’s tentative attempts at armistice in that while, the old lady has recovered her mood enough to smile and wave us goodbye. Good riddance, more like.

Our car has not arrived yet. I call up Chetan. “Your driver Dinesh will be with you in 10 minutes,” he says. “Relax, have a cup of tea.”

We act on the suggestion, and before the last sip, Dinesh arrives with three things: a white Scorpio, a wave, and a sunny smile. We are off to Chakrata.

Nestled between the Yamuna and the Tons (Tamas) rivers, Chakrata, at 6,949 feet, is a quaint cantonment area established in 1866 by Colonel Hume, 55th Regiment, British Indian Army. Roughly a 100-km away from Dehradun, it is still an Indian Army base and a restricted area for foreigners.

The snow-laden Gangotri-Yamunotri ranges make a grand appearance as we drive past Chakrata’s lone cinema hall. It is run by the Army and civilians are allowed in only for Sunday shows, says Dinesh. Photographing the hall and its surroundings is prohibited.

We seem to have arrived early in the tourist season, like the gurash, blood-red rhododendrons swaying on the branches in profuse clumps. It is the state flower of Uttarakhand.

Image credit: Sohini Sen
Image credit: Sohini Sen

At the head of the rough, bouldered ramp leading up to the porch of Hotel Himalayan Paradise, a tall, lean gentleman signals with his arms like an aircraft marshal on a runway, and our car zooms up to the hotel grounds.

Dinesh introduces us to Chetan, for it is none other. He is an ex-colonel of the Indian Army, Dinesh would tell us later, unsure about the “ex” bit: apparently Chetan still gets calls from the Army and may go away for a stretch.

Chetan introduces us to Bruno, a large four-pawed veteran settled in the centre of the hotel porch. The early afternoon sunlight ripples through his golden flanks. Age sits heavy on his shoulders and has dimmed his liquid brown eyes. He responds with one bass “woof”, and a mild thump of his tail.

Kalu or Kallan introduces himself with a sudden sharp lunge at my knees and rounds of staccato barks. At three months, he is a black-and-brown powerhouse of German shepherd energy and – we soon discover – almost always covered in transferable dust. That is natural. Kalu is an explorer with a special focus on ornithology. He and I connect that instant. Sumita believes in friendships that grow slowly. A belief strengthened by the discovery that our new friend has not yet learned to keep his milk teeth out of our trouser edges.

Weather holds the next morning. That is good news. Today, we go into the beautiful forest of Deoban. The name is a derivative of Dev-van: where the gods live. There is a forest rest house inside, and a walk uphill leads to Vyas Shikhar, the peak where Vyas is said to have written the Mahabharata.

The old man at the check post before the forest says we do not require a permit. That is bad news. “Your car won’t go far enough for a permit,” the man explains. “Many trees have fallen along the route. About 60 of them.”

Driving on nevertheless, we pass an Army training centre. Boulders with “Guerrilla Country” and “Spiders’ Colony” painted on them proclaim that this is a restricted zone. Soon, the car comes to a halt near the fallen trunk of a huge deodar tree. We get off and start walking past it. Dinesh stays back in the car. He has a cold.

Image credit: Sohini Sen
Image credit: Sohini Sen

This is a different world. All there is is the swishing of wind amid the chir pines, deodars and firs. And bird call. They come in all colours and sizes, scarlet, medium; orange, extra small; yellow and green, large.

In and around Chakrata, we would see at least 25 bird species.

Deep into the forest, where the sunlight does not penetrate, waterfalls are still frozen. Patches of snow on the ground are strewn with fragrant cones and acorn. In the horizon seen fleetingly through the treeline on the edge of the road, the ranges are a light blue, mist-covered mass, their glaciers but a memory.

I capture a long-tailed scarlet minivet in flight, and a parrot gyrating on a branch in an obvious attempt to draw attention. More and more trees block our path. We need to sit astride the wide trunks of some to cross over and continue walking.

A very short while after, in the just-dried slush on the track, we find four paw prints clustered in an almost linear row. Each paw print seems to have three toes. I quickly photograph the marks. Sixth sense says we might be watched.

“Get close and stay very close to me,” I tell Sumita.


Sumita needs a rock-solid reason for any sudden change. I remember a time I had bruised her arm trying to drag her away from the path of a fast-moving snake: she had not seen the snake.

Sixth sense precludes reasoning. I bring in a dramatic whisper.

“Don’t ask questions now. And keep your voice low.”

We hasten our pace a little. We have not found the forest rest house yet. Even if we had reached the end of the road, there would still be a 5-km trek uphill to Vyas Shikhar. But it was too early in the season to try that, the slope would be snow covered. Best to turn back.

When we return to the hotel at the end of this fulfilling day, Kallan gives us a boisterous reception. He then proceeds to diligently eat the red mud layering our boots.

Later that evening, I show the photograph of the three-toed footprints to Dinesh and Chetan. They exchange knowing glances.

“Baghira?” Chetan asks Dinesh, speaking in Jaunsari. Dinesh nods.



Chetan nods an affirmation.

He confirms that they were the pugmarks of a leopard poised for a leap. And yes, the leopard might have still been around.

Shayed woh kahin upar baithey aapko dekh raha tha [perhaps it was sitting above you somewhere watching you],’ Chetan says.

Excerpted with permission from Zanskar to Ziro: No Stilettos in the Himalayas, Sohini Sen, Niyogi Books.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.