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.
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.
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.