[from early may, starting in dharamsala...]
i enjoyed my guide-less travel around gangotri, so why not try it again? one reason might be the repeated warnings from would be guides that doing so would be "impossible". ignoring them, i set off from dharamsala guideless, porterless and yakless.
i was at the mercy of strangers to point me in the right direction. there were no maps and no signs. sorting through the confusion, i made it to the friendly village of noddi where amused and confused locals forced me to take their pictures.
the day's goal, kareri village, was still another 14km away.
things got a bit more complicated once i left any semblance of civilization. taking someone's advice to "follow the only trail", i apparently still managed to pick the wrong "only trail". seeing no one for 2 hours, i finally bushwhacked my way to a secluded mountainside hut, even though the deliverence theme song kept playing in my head. fortunately india is a bit safer than backwoods america as the friendly family offered me lunch rather than love. but they apparently had no idea where kareri was, as far as i could tell (they spoke no english). not a good sign.
i decided i'd better turn back. after an unproductive 5 hours, i ended up spending the night in back in noddi. i dismissed the would-be guide who came to my room offering his overpriced services, instead getting crappy directions from the owner of the guest house. of course he did not tell me they were crappy.
trails in the mountains are a mess. wide trails often go nowhere, while narrow trails might well be the correct ones. this, i suspect, is due to herds of sheep and goats heading to the same dining spots time and again. backtracking made progress slow.
i finally found a tiny town and a tea stall, where a kid (17-ish) from kareri offered his guide services for 100 rupees a day--a steal. i swallowed my pride and took him up on it. after an extremely steep climb we reached kareri, a fairly large village (maybe 100 families?) considering there are no roads to it. we rested on the front porch of his house, while his family abused their mules and "processed" stalks of wheat that they must've grown somewhere nearby. no one in the family was especially friendly, though other villagers were.
i wanted a bath, so we headed to a deep spot in a river bisecting an idyllic meadow, where i was promptly ambushed by 9 naked little indians. they lept in the water, unconcerned about the rocks along the shallow bottom. they formed a wagon train of sorts around me, splashing and occasionally invading my deep position in the river. none of them could swim, but they could dog paddle out to the deep part where i was and splash or poke me while giggling wildly. i tried to set aside the disconcerting aspect of being poked by naked indian boys. the frivolity lasted for about 20 minutes.
we returned home just in time for an epic thunderstorm. the grape sized hail pounded the house's tin roof while near constant lighting strikes lit up the sky. this was all too much for a terrified goat, who found shelter in my room. the woman of the house promptly gave it a beating, shooing it back out into the storm. the terrified beast would have none of it though, instead ducking into the now undefended kitchen. so much for any hope (however misplaced) of a semi-sanitary dinner. more beatings and cartoonish chases from room to room ensued.
the fierce weather subsided and the boy cooked me an uninteresting but mercifully edible dinner. afterwards i would sleep in his unimaginably grungy and now goaty bed. (i can honestly say i have never seen a more loathesome pillowcase.) thankfully, the boy would not be joining me, but would be sleeping upstairs with the family.
the next day we set off for kareri lake, about 13km away. the boy carried nothing but a transistor radio coughing out distorted top-40 hindi pop. hindi-pop is better than most asian pop, but it's still mostly crap, and distorted by a shitty transistor radio and questionable reception, it was utter agony. i thought about asking him to shut it off, but trying to explain that a person might prefer the peaceful sounds of nature to distorted hindi-pop would surely only cause confusion. instead i decided i would follow far enough back that i wouldn't hear too much of it, which seemed to suit him fine, and this avoided the whole pointless broken chatter that i have had to suffer through with previous guides. i was forced to accept the fact that we wouldn't be surprising any himalayan tigers or bears with this racket announcing our presense.
we walked along a picturesque riverbed, occasionaly running into shepherds and their flocks.
we would come across occasional "lakes" of sheep and goat poo. it seems the woolly beasts like to dump in a single area and then lie in it, as it is soft and warm. so they tell me. unfortunately we would sometimes have to cross these "lakes".
we finally reached kareri lake. while much better than a shit lake, as water lakes go it was fairly unimpressive, though the mountaintop setting was nice. maybe i've been spoiled by previous treks.
the lakeside trekkers huts had been decapitated by the previous night's storm. all that remained were rock walls--the tin roofs and wooden beams had been thrown a good distance. i realized that had i not ended up lost the day before, there was a good possibility that i would have been in those huts at the moment of their scalping.
i left behind my now napping guide to investigate a flock of sheep/goats consuming a nearby field, while a mangy mountain dog eyed me suspiciously.
i sat down at a viewpoint and was approached by a flirtatious goat. most of the goats and sheep are shy, but not this one. goats of course look like weird little demons, plus they'll eat anything, so it's disconcerting when one approaches and touches her nose to yours.
the shepherd approached and sat nearby (but not too close), looking at me with an expression i couldn't quite decipher. perhaps it was curiousity, or concern, or even mistrust? i wasn't sure what the hell he was doing, or what i was supposed to do next. to break the ice, i asked if i could take his photo. this helped.
meanwhile the dog approached the goat. she transformed from tease to tryant, lowering her head for maximum horn damage before delievering a monster head butt to the canine, who fell to the ground and stayed there, undamaged but submissive. the flirty goat returned to the shepherds side, where she would remain as we all walked back to the lake. clearly this beast had a special status apart from all the other goats/sheep that remained in the herd/flock. then it hit me! this goat was the shepherd's "special friend"! when she flirted with me, the jealous shepherd came over to make sure nothing untoward happened between us. that such a relationship would blossom between goat and lonely mountain man suddenly seemed no surprise. it was no doubt the natural order of things up here, where men live without the comfort of women. how close had i come to having my throat cut in a moment of jealous rage?!
i ran out of water. my guide (who had been occasionally drinking MY water) had earlier told me there would be a shepherds camp where i could refill with boiled water, but this never materialized. already feeling thirsty and hot, the boy took me on a "shortcut" up a precaiously steep mountianside, adding to my crankiness. but it was worth it. inexplicably, this tree covered mountian was at its top a beautiful green grass meadow punctuated by large boulders, and with views on all sides.
a harrowing descent brought us back to the house and its millions of welcoming flies.
a bit later the boy asked me if i'd like some of his uncle's home brewed country liquor. "why not?" i thought, refusing to answer my own question, as thoughts of blindness and brain damage seemed unfun. we set off wandering around the village until we ended up at his grandparents house. thinking him a cushion, i sat on a boy rolled up in blankets sleeping on the couch, but no one seemed to care, including the boy. the old folks seemed a bit weary of life, occasionally mustering up the energy to ask questions of their grandson. they weren't interested in his responses. finally my guide told gramps that he wanted some hooch, and gramps complied. they found an icky plactic bottle in the corner of the room and filled it up, but they couldn't find a bottle cap. so the boy shoved the uncapped bottle into his ludicrously deep back pants pocket, and simply plugged the bottle with his grimey finger. joy. i would soon be drinking finger flavored homebrew. i prayed for high alcohol content.
my prayers were not answered. the booze was suprisingly weak. surely too weak to kill off finger scum, and certainly too weak to keep me from caring about what i was ingesting. still, i drank with the boy and a few of his friends who wandered by. thinking i was happy and drunk instead of bored and sober, and himself emboldened by booze, the boy asked me for thousands of rupees instead of the few hundred we had agreed upon. i told him i had alreadly planned on giving him a LOT more than we had agreed upon (which was true), but nowhere near the ridiculous sum he had just come up with. he protested, but with a parental firmness i told him "there will be no further discussion". this worked, but whatever bond we might have had was now irrecovably damaged. our remaining minutes together felt like hours. at last, after a final trip to the gruesome outhouse for some detoxing, i was left alone to settle into my hard, dirty bed.
the next day i would rejoin society.