Milam Glacier trek is a fascinating and compelling journey into the remote Johar valley, full of stories of abandoned ghost villages, fabulous terrain, and the views of the great Nanda Devi. It beckons every trekker into a journey through landscapes and time.
Note- The itinerary is at the end.
My interest levels had been fed subsequently by going to the magnificent private museum of Dr Sher Singh Pangtey in Munsyari in the second week of June. There were various pictures of Milam and Johar Valley, bifurcated previously, then after 1962. I was astounded to hear stories of the rapid decline of one of the oldest and most important salt trade routes from India to Tibet when the border was sealed.
After almost more than an hour long chat with Dr Pangtey, we got to know that the Valley of Johar was inhabited by the Shauka people from the prehistoric times. The Shauka people living in the Johar Valley are also known as Johari or Johari Shauka. They belong to the larger Uttarakhand Bhotiya community, an ethno-linguistic group, and one of the few of Uttarakhand tribes that show a rich cultural heritage and adhere to the caste system.(click here to read more about the people)
The famous Milam glacier trek through the Johar valley changed substantially after the Uttarakhand floods of June 2013, especially in the lower Goriganga valley – from the current Milam trail head at Chillamdhar, until Rairgari. Beyond Rairgari, the trail more or less corresponds to the earlier trail but has been rendered more difficult because of innumerable ascents and descents to skirt landslips and washouts-and to negotiate diversions because of flood damage.
Guides were available for the trek but going by Dr Pangtey’s words “Why can’t our youth carry their own rucksacks and do the trek without any guide like the Europeans?” motivated us, and we chose to not hire any guide or porter.
Our permit was made from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate’s office and off we went. We started late thus decided to stop at Lilam village before our steep ascent that would follow on the second day. In Lilam I met a young 10-year-old boy called Priyangshu who entertained me the whole evening with his stories. The people out here are extremely humble and the fact that they have little to no connection with the outside world actually makes them very special.
We made it a daily routine to wake up every day at 4 in the morning and start our trek at about 4:30 because in the Himalayas it’s always better to start early as the weather might get a bit nasty during the noon.
The steep incline to Mainsingh top can break even the most seasoned trekker. As soon as we left Lilam we went up, then up and further up. It seemed as if it did not have any end and the only song playing in my head was “Stairway to Heaven”. We kept plodding without a tree cover. Every inch of my body asked us to stop, but we kept going persistently. We had to catch up with our breath every ten minutes, the good part being there were many streams and waterfalls for us to quench our thirst.
As I sat down to just observe the streams, it seemed as if they were always communicating- whispering, exclaiming, arguing with a rock or twig confiding in a quiet vortex. Dozing in the mid summer or shouting in the rain. Like fire, they provide an ideal object of contemplation. Their constant activity enlightens the imagination, they don’t stare blankly back at us like pieces of paper on a desk. They distract our mind, just enough that the good ideas, the ones that we hate to ask ourselves directly can feel relieved of pressure and slip out, and we can make progress with ourselves.
As we got higher and closer to Mainsingh Top, peaks began to show. Once past a small shrine with prayer flags, we got a break in the gradient and there were patches of forest as well. There is a mystery about who Mainsingh was. Stories range from a person of Tibetan extraction to a holy man who sat in such single-pointed meditation that he perished up on these slopes after leeches sucked out his blood.
It was a steep descent from Mainsingh Top past an open shallow grassy valley and we went into a lovely and fairly dense forest of old oak, walnut and other canopy trees, all the way down to Bubbledhar, set in an opening in the forest.
The weight of 15 odd kilos on our backpack already felt too much and we regretted our decision to not leave some stuff home. Huge Himalayan eagles and vultures hovered overhead, the fierce sun made us sweat profusely in the tiring terrain. The Kedarnath disaster had dramatically altered the route. Earlier it was a walk along the Gori Ganga river, now we had to trek what was essentially a gruelling up and down path excruciating for the knees.
The first sight of the green ITBP camp at Bugdiyar installed new energy in us. We showed our permit papers and left the phones for charging- thanks to the solar powered batteries of the army. There were only two dhabas. We enquired about food at the first Dhaba and were told that the common sleeping place was free if we bought dinner. Apparently, this was the case with every Dhaba in Johar valley.
After a humble yet filling dinner, we chatted with the porters whom we met in Bugdiyar. Some told stories about their childhood, while some about their daily life and the problems they face. One also very enthusiastically discussed climate change. They were drunk.
The next morning, my feet ached due to the humongous effort of the day before but our mind was set straight and we knew that we had to continue. From the important religious shrine of Nahar Devi the track clings to the side of the gorge walls, and at times it was only about 50cm wide with massive drops into the freezing cold water below. It was terrifying indeed, but these are the moments when you carry a certain restlessness in your heart that makes you aware of your own existence and you realise what it feels to be actually alive.
At one point the path went right under one which provided us with a cold inadvertent shower. This stretch included innumerable climbs and descents up and down the valley wall above the right bank of the Goriganga. These can get quite steep and tiring. The ever rising and dipping path took us high above the lovely Gori only to bring us back to river’s edge to negotiate landslips and washouts. The grasslands looked lovely as the sun came out – but the wind was getting stronger as we entered the broad and open valley. This ascent near Laspa is particularly tricky and slippery over loose gravel. We soon passed a sign that said ‘Rilkot Three Km’, we were told to ignore it as the path was much longer and harder to calibrate now because of the additional ascents and descents.
Mapang went by as we entered lower Johar Valley and a walk on the dry river bed got us to Rilkot. The views out here definitely made the struggle worthwhile. There is no electricity after leaving Munsyari, only erratic solar powered lighting. Mobile networks don’t work at all. The weather is harsh and life, difficult yet simple.
The ITBP personnel at Rilkot was quite friendly and we spent some time talking to him. He interestingly remarked “We are forced to come here to serve our duty, thus suffer and want to go back to the plains. You guys suffer in the plains and choose to come here, aren’t we all united by sufferance?”. I was just unable to reply. We spent the rest of the day in Rilkot, lazing in the sunshine and had our meal at the bleak stone structure known as a Dhaba.
A happy surprise dawned upon us the next day as we got to know that we might not have to walk the trail between Burfu and Milam; some sort of a road was being built and a GREF truck was supposed to come. The truck ride was dusty as well as thrilling and we reached Milam just in time.
Milam is a beautiful place to do absolutely nothing. I laid on the ground and thought how preoccupied we are with ourselves in certain unhelpful ways. The clouds, however, know nothing of us. They float by, utterly unaware of our concerns. There is a constant drama above our heads. Collisions, fractions, swirls, separations. Human lives are no less active but it can be a moment of relief from our particular involvements to look up and be returned to a broader perspective from where the agitation of the here and now seem less significant.
Did you know?
In the upper bugyals and high passes of the Johar valley, hardy fortune seekers, risk their lives and health. Immediately after the winter snows melt, they head in search of Yarsagumba (Ophiocordyceps Sinensis). This is a fungus that grows within the larvae of moths and commands, well over 15 lacs of rupees a kilogramme in the markets of China. This is a new ‘business’ having opened up only since 2007. There is almost no local market for this. The common name is ‘keeda jadi’ or ‘keeda ghas’ given its caterpillar-like appearance. The men scramble to climb impossible mountains and live in the snows for weeks to try and become instant millionaires!
Most of the houses have been abandoned and only a few people come up here nowadays. While roaming around the village, an old man invited us over and we eagerly said yes. He gave us some chai and fried potatoes. This potato dish wasn’t any ordinary. It contained herbs that are only found at the height of 11,000ft-12,000ft. One of the herbs was Timur(Read more about it here). Timur acts as a natural mouth freshener and if you keep the seed in your mouth for a few minutes then it numbs your mouth and also gives you a warm feeling. His name was Kishan Singh Martolia(Yes, he belonged from the village Martoli).
He showed us his diary which was actually a feedback form of all the travellers from 1993 who had come here and stayed with him. He like most of the people in the mountains was extremely humble. By speaking with him, one realises that in the mountains, you don’t need much to be happy, you just need a little bit.
Journeys are never great or small, they just are. Explorers were not born heroes, they were just curious.
The Earth awaits you, answer it. The sun will light your path, follow it. Valleys will not stay quiet and even time will not stay still. Sometimes the first step is the final frontier, don’t turn around.
The mountains call us all, the only difference is what we say back.
Distance- 64km each side.
Day 1- Munsiyari to Chilamdhar via jeep ride – 45 minutes. Trek from Chilamdhar to Lilam.
Day 2- Lilam to Bugdiyar via Main Singh Top and Bubbledhar.
Day 3- Bugdiyar to Rilkot.
Day 4- Rilkot to Burphu. Burphu to Milam via GREF truck.
Day 5- Milam to Milam Glacier and back to Milam.
Day 6- Milam to Rilkot.
Day 7- Rilkot to Bubbledhar.
Day 8- Bubbledhar to Chilamdhar and back to Munsiyari via jeep ride.
- No need of taking a guide, you will find villagers on your way who will help you.
- Charge your phone and camera at the ITBP camps.
- No need of carrying a tent if you are not planning to camp, as you will get home-stays on your way.
- Do not trust the sign boards where the distance to the next village is written.