With the morning sun on her face, Kamla Joshi sits outside her house in Dalar village peeling potatoes, preparing a celebration dish for Holi. I ponder whether I should pitch in, but there are constant distractions: the toddler being chased by her grandad, the buffalo shifting listlessly in the yard, and not least the view of Trisul – a snow-smothered Himalayan knife-edge that rears above the oak trees and mustard flowers of Kamla’s garden in the Kumaon Hills.
But I’ve only stopped for a cup of spicy chai and it isn’t long before I’m on my feet again, following a hiking path through Dalar with my guide Hem, Kamla’s husband. Our tea break was partly so that Hem could show off his family and the new homestay he’s building in the village where he was born, helped by money he earns as a guide with Village Ways in Binsar wildlife sanctuary. This 50 sq km reserve in Uttarakhand, a forested northern state backing on to the Himalayas, feels far off the tourist trail and is a haven for birds.
Village Ways has spent almost two decades working with the local communities in Binsar to educate them on protecting the environment, train guides such as Hem and create income opportunities for about 250 local people in a region where there are few other paths for those who want to remain within these protected hills. The company has now helped five villages within the reserve set up community-run guesthouses for hikers. They are all accessible only on foot, all within hiking distance of each other, and all fighting to survive in the face of urban migration. Multi-day hiking itineraries, for two to six people, are tailored to guests’ interests and fitness levels.
“The younger generation don’t want to stay,” says Hem, as he points out abandoned houses and mothballed farming terraces in the valley surrounding his house. “Twenty years ago, Dalar was a bigger village with 20 families; now there are just six families left.” When I ask what can be done to stem the exodus, Hem needs no time to think: “Tourism is our only option.”
This year, Village Ways has helped the communities set up a new annual event – a birdwatching festival – which it hopes will bring in more tourists. Launched this week and running until 4 April, the aim is to attract bird enthusiasts from India and beyond with expert-led talks and hikes around the sanctuary’s villages, and wildlife film screenings at Khali Estate – a former colonial summer house built in 1874 by Sir Henry Ramsay, a British commissioner of Kumaon. Today, the estate is owned by Manisha Pande, the Indian co-founder of Village Ways, and is the start and finish point for its hiking trips. It is, quite literally, the end of the road. It is here that the thrum of the outside world melts away.
Binsar wildlife sanctuary was established in 1988 to try to repair damage done by years of logging. Among its treasures are the oak trees known as “green gold” because of their role in the forest ecosystem, absorbing water during the monsoon season and slowly releasing it during the dry season. The birdlife is immense: there are more than 200 species, including several types of eagles, parakeets, woodpeckers, forktails and the giant Himalayan vulture, plus langur monkeys, Himalayan goral goats, martens and leopards.
My three-day mini-itinerary has been designed to take in the area with the highest concentration of birdlife, focusing on the villages of Dalar and Risal. “Birds are like good gardeners in nature. They have a big role in the forest because they scatter seeds and help pollinate,” says Hem, as we head out of Dalar, his ears always open and his head always up, scanning for wildlife.A blood-red carpet of rhododendron petals guides our steps past a mop of jungle creepers, and we descend into a deep crevice with an absorbing silence, despite the tits, warblers and flycatchers hunting in shallow dimples of water along the rocky riverbed. According to Hem, people have meditated in this valley for centuries.
The peace is broken by a goat herder and his white flock scrabbling up the valley slope, quickly followed by the guttural call of a barking deer. The bark, explains Hem, is a warning sign that there’s a big cat in the area. “Leopard alarm call – now the herder is aware,” he says quietly. “Wildlife is a huge problem here,” he adds, pointing out a large vegetable garden surrounded by a high wall to keep out wild boar, deer and porcupines as we reach Risal – my base for the night – cupped between two steep-sided hills.
Climbing towards the village guesthouse, we skirt farming terraces where cabbage, fenugreek and garlic are shielded by windbreaks fashioned out of saris tied to wooden poles. I lock eyes with an old man sitting crosslegged on his garden wall, high above my head. He presses his palms together in the sign for namaste – “hello” – as I crane my neck to admire the village’s dizzying incline.
There’s a slap-slap sound coming from the guesthouse when we arrive, as the chef prepares chapatis for lunch. Roles such as porterage, housekeeping and cooking are divided up and rostered among village residents at each of Binsar’s guesthouses and today it’s one of the village grandfathers making my meal – a delicious feast of creamy masur dahl made with black lentils grown in the village, fried mustard leaves, pickles and cucumber dusted with garam masala.
During the pandemic, Risal’s community-owned guesthouse became one of the first in Binsar to have its rooms upgraded to en suite, in a push to attract a broader spectrum of hikers. It’s a pretty, whitewashed converted village house with green wooden shutters, just three spick-and-span pine bedrooms plus a dining room and terrace. Here, over a glass of rhododendron juice, Ishwar Joshi, a local historian who has written a history of the region, joins me to talk about the village’s slow stutter into the 21st century.
The community at Risal has existed for about 300 years, he says, though only five families remain today. Life inside the reserve is a tricky balancing act; a bubble outside of which modern Indian society has moved on. The village wasn’t even connected to the main electricity grid until 2012. At night, the silence seeps out of the valley’s pores, my only company the treetops that tremble in the wind.
The next day, a 6km hike takes us briefly outside the sanctuary boundaries, following the serpentine curl of a river flanked by farming terraces. We pause for Hem to catch up with carpenters chopping pine trees in the woods, and take chai with the driver who dropped me at Khali Estate at the start of my trip. Together, we watch as a crested serpent eagle swoops so low over the river that I feel I could lean over and blow it off course with a puff of breath. A farmer across the road lets out a protracted yelp to scare off a troop of black-faced langur monkeys – to no avail.
Moments later, there’s an alpha male as big as a dog prowling through the tall grasses. “Now he will eat all the mustard seeds,” chuckles Hem. It feels as if I’ve stepped into nature’s soap opera.
By the afternoon I’m back in Dalar. The guesthouse setting, on an open hillside facing a ragged curtain of Himalayan ridges, could not be more different to the one in Risal. Holi celebrations start today and half the village drops by to say hello and catch up on gossip with Pippin Joshi, a distant cousin of Hem, who is rostered on as the guesthouse housekeeper for my stay. “It’s a good system because it means proper wages for everyone in the village,” he says of Village Ways’ community ownership model.
But the villages would like more guests. International tourism in India has yet to pick up again after Covid.
That evening, I am invited – along with two other tourists, both Indian – to walk from house to house for Holi with Dalar’s women, wrapped in white saris, trading tikka blessings in bold shades of turmeric and vermilion. There is an endearing warmth and inclusivity here from the villagers. I hear a guttural ping-pong rally call from a nightjar that becomes increasingly urgent, in perfect symbiosis with the Holi drummers echoing across the hills. And I get to eat those potatoes, peeled by Hem’s wife, tossed with fried onion, mustard seeds and garlic grown in the village fields, drenched in ghee from the buffalo in the yard: a proper community effort, just like my trip.
The Binsar birding festival runs to 4 April. Lorna Parkes travelled as a guest of Village Ways on a sample of the 11-night Ramsay’s Ramble itinerary, which costs from £950pp in a group of 4-6 or from £1,160pp for 2-3 people. The price includes transfers within India, accommodation in Delhi and Binsar, guides and porters and most meals, but excludes flights. Flights were provided by Vistara, which has direct return air fares from London Heathrow to Delhi starting at £887 in spring.