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Travelogue - Munsiyari, Of Shaukas, Salt Route and Snow Peaks

The Himalayan settlement of Munsiyari, an untrodden path, is the closest you can get to experiencing the Greater Himalayas.

We set out early in the morning, two carloads of excited children and adults in two Maruti Gypsies, for a destination that few had heard of ----- Munsiyari in the Kumaun Hills. A driving distance of 650 km from Delhi. We decided to cover it in two days with a night halt at Ranikhet.

The route is fairly straightforward although a good road map is a great help. Highway driving brings its own logistics -¤ it is always advisable to pack extra helpings of munchies and biscuits. Having been put in charge of four children of "growing age", I can vouch for that. Also, carry lots of drinking water and a towel. Once in the hills, those prone to motion sickness should take an anti-vomiting tablet although on this route I found the roads to be very good and the bends gentle, unlike the acute stomach-churning ones in other parts of the Himalayas. But keep in mind that the journey is long. The other thing is to keep track of refueling points. In the hills extra petrol in a 40-litre jerrycan is a must. Petrol, particularly the unleaded variety is not as freely available as in the plains.

On the way from Ranikhet to Munsiyari we passed through pine forests that gave way to mixed vegetation of oak and birch as we approached higher altitudes. We caught glimpses of Trishul and Nanda Devi from Kausani and of Panchchuli peaks from Chaukori. Our journey was interrupted in several places by baraat (wedding) processions; entire villages descended upon the roads (most of them high on and in spirits). Each group was accompanied by men who sang and danced sporting naked swords and shields. They were in their traditional finery -¤ long skirts worn over tights. At least one man played the bagpipes. The last 10 km of the drive turned out to be the most exciting. As we turned round a bend near Kalamuni, the highest point en route, a stunning view of the Panchchuli peaks greeted us. There is a temple here. After this it was a steady descent into Munsiyari. Every bend brought a fresh view, often better than the last one. It is amazing how the slightest change in elevation alters the perspective completely.

Munsiyari is a quaint place. It is a fairly big Himalayan township; it enjoys the status of a tehsil ( ) in the Pithoragarh district with a population of 15000. It boasts of an Inter-College and its STD facilities are better than those available at Bageshwar. People here are progressive and outward bound; they tell you proudly that Munsiyari has produced three IAS officers! We met Dr. Sher Singh, a retired teacher who is vastly knowledgeable about the place, its history and people; everyone in Munsiyari knows him as "Masterji". Munsiyari has a very interesting history. The entire area is generally known as Johar valley. It was inhabited by the Shauka people from time immemorial. They led semi-nomadic lives actively engaged in trade with Tibet across the difficult Himalayan passes. It took them 20-25 days to reach Munsiyari from Tibet from where they carried back mainly salt. Salt consumed in the entire Himalayan region came from Tibet those days. Masterji recalls his childhood, "I still remember when I was in school, the month of July brought our Tibet-returned friends with their flocks of sheep laden with salt; they hummed music while weighing salt and grain with local measuring pot (nali). Beating drums and blowing trumpets every villager accompanied the outward-bound group to Tibet till the very edge of the village to bid them goodbye."

Every able-bodied man in the village braved the dangerous passes to cross over to Tibet as a trader, petty businessman, muleteer or as a helper. They travelled in convoys carrying cloth and other provisions on the backs of sturdy mountain goats and sheep, each animal laden with 40 kg. The Britishers named these people "Bhutiyas". However they are not Buddhists as the name might lead one to believe, but Hindus. They worship Goddess Nanda Devi. The locals were suddenly found without a viable livelihood when the border with Tibet was sealed in 1962 and the trade stopped completely. Agriculture has never been too developed here on account of the unfavourable climate. Most of them were therefore forced to migrate. The villages of Milam, Burfu etc., to the east of Munsyari, are largely deserted today. A walk through the local village of Dharkot reveals interesting corners. The houses are typical. Some of them have beautiful carvings on the wooden doors and windows. The art of weaving fine shawls and blankets from coarse goat wool is prevalent even today.

Upon enquiring at the bus stop in Munsiyari, we were directed to the "tent colony". Run by Wayfarer Resorts it is a camp set up about 10 km from the main township. We had bookings at Wayfarer Resorts, undoubtedly the best place to stay in Munsiyari. Set in the elevated fields there were no bricks and mortar to greet us. Instead we were accommodated in Swiss-cottage tents. The tents were furnished with twin beds, racks and hangers. They had attached toilets in the shape of a tin shed at the back fitted with "western style" commodes! We set about unpacking excitedly. Out with the binoculars and cameras! Majestic Panchchuli peaks flanked on either side by Hansling, Rajarambha and Chiplakot glistened in the sun. The name Panchchuli derives from the legend that the Pandavas cooked their last meal on their way to heaven on these five chulis (cooking hearths). To the left we could see the Milam Glacier. Way down below the thin ribbon of the Gori river meanders through the valley. It originates at the Milam Glacier. This 18 km long glacier is situated 5 km west of Milam village at a height of 3852 m. Gori Ganga flows into Nepal to the west of Kumaun, and joins the Kali river of Nepal.

Next morning, I was woken up by the loud chirping of magpies right outside the tent. Lifting the tent flaps I could see the hazy outline of the snow peaks. The sun was about to rise. However the peaks were held in silhouette since it rose from right behind them. The best views of the snow peaks were to be had only when the sun got high or in the late afternoon. But what a brilliant sunlight flooded the entire valley!

Munsiyari is ideally located for experiencing high altitude trekking to Milam glacier and the Nanda Devi base camp. In fact, Wayfarer regularly takes groups for ten to fifteen days for these treks. They organize all the paraphernalia like camping gear, porters and the most critical inner line permits. Owing to paucity of time we had to limit our explorations to short forays into the surrounding countryside. We set out for Maheshwari Kund. We followed the narrow tracks past walnut, juniper and birch; the hillside was awash in blood red rhododendrons. We clambered over huge rock falls and tramped trough brambly patches illuminated with white dog rose. Chameleons darted from the path and long haired mountain goats and sheep tinkled their bells as they gamboled up and down. As we gained height, the pink rhododendrons appeared. Maheshwari Kund is a quiet lake surrounded by marshy wetlands. The cool moist bank of the lake was teeming with life. Moss and lichens filled every nook and cranny. Legends abound about the lovers who shunned the world and were united in this place. Another short one hour trek took us to Balati Farm at a height of 9000 ft., a result of an aborted attempt of some NGOs at researching high yielding potatoes. It offers breathtaking panoramic views of the snow peaks. You are allowed to pitch a tent for a night for which it is well suited, the ground being pretty level and having a water source close by. There are a number of bugyals -- the rolling lush green high altitude meadows that lend themselves ideally for a night out under the stars.

In the afternoon it threatened to rain. Dark cumulonimbus clouds gathered around the snow peaks. Cold gusts of wind swept across the pastures and fine lightening streaks cracked across the sky and we realized none of us was carrying a raincoat! We somehow managed to reach the shelter of our tents before the temperature plummeted down and lo behold -- hail! In no time the grass in front of our tent lost its colour and the hills beyond took on a whiter look.

Ensconced inside my tent I delved into Munsiyari's past. I came across this very interesting account of the Pundit explorer who hailed from this Johar valley. Pundit Nain Singh was born in 1830 in Milam village. His landmark journey of 1200 miles from Kathmandu to Lhasa and thence to Mansarovar lake and back to India which he carried out in 1865-66 won him accolades of geographers all over the world; the Royal Geographical Society acknowledged his contribution in drawing up a map of Tibet, Mongolia and Central Asia, by awarding him a gold watch. Prior to this, these upper reaches of the Himalayas and beyond were shrouded in mystery and maps of these regions either did not exist or they were in the form of vague pictorial Chinese maps.

Cartography is an ancient obsession of man. Not only had man to travel everywhere and find a way to record his journey, he had to twist, reshape and abstract all he recorded in order to depict the contours, elevations and changing landscapes on a flat sheet of paper. The Britishers set about this task systematically. A section of the Survey of India known as the Great Trigonometrical Survey was assigned the task of fixing the co-ordinates of points on earth and their elevation. In 1863 Colonel Walker and Captain Montgomery started training Indian explorers to take latitudes by sextant, directions by compass, to determine heights by observing a thermometer in boiling water, to count paces and keep accurate notes. All this had to be done without attracting attention. The explorers had to pose as simple travellers. The Indian explorers had the definitive advantage of going unnoticed in the Indo- Tibetan milieu. They most often disguised themselves as Buddhist lamas. Like all good Tibetans they carried a rosary in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other. But instead of 108 beads, their rosaries had exactly 100; with every tenth a big one. A bead was counted after every 100 paces, the larger one reading a thousand. The prayer wheel was fitted on the inside with stripes of paper on which they took down their survey notes. Very few strangers would venture to speak to a devout Buddhist lama twirling the prayer wheel and chanting Om Mani Padme Hum(Oh Jewel of the Lotus) and looking suitably inscrutable. They could carry on their work uninterrupted.

Fascinating isn't it? Had it not been for such wandering men we could very well have been sitting in Delhi completely oblivious of this enchanting place tucked away in the lap of Himalayas! But listening to other traveller's tales only sparks off the urge to set forth and discover the places for ourselves. The trekking season had just started and soon the hills would resound with the crunch of sturdy footwear. But it was time for us to turn back

There are two distinct types to invade the Himalayas in summertime when the plains get unbearably hot, the comfort seeking travelers bound for the hill-stations, and the back packers heading for more exotic, out-of-bound locales. Being accessible on very good roads, Munsiyari is possibly that ultimate destination for all those seeking that magic combination of comfort and adventure.


Proximity & Access: Munsiyari is 285 km from Kathgodam and 275 km from Nainital. The general mode of transport for groups is either bus (42 seater) or (27 seater). For families it is Tata Sumo/Armada.

Refueling points on the way: Almora, Bageshwar

Accommodation: The best place to stay in Munsyari is undoubtedly the Wayfarer Resorts.

Wayfarer Resort Tariff:

  • Single occupancy: Rs.900/-

  • Double occupancy: Rs 1200/-

  • Extra bed /person: Rs 450/-

  • Accommodation includes cost of stay and meals.

  • child below 12 years to be charged Rs 300 (with extra bed) & Rs 150 (without extra bed)

Season: April 1- June 30 & September 15-October 30


  • Half day/ Full day nature walks & picnics amidst deep forests.

  • Day long jeep safaris along the banks of Gori Ganga

  • Two week trekking experiences to Milam glacier and Nanda Davi base camp.