KANCHI KOHLI

The Tirthan valley in Himachal Pradesh is a heady combination of spectacular landscapes, mystic forests and musical birdcalls.

"RIGHT up there and a little further!" That was the response to my question on where our trek was taking us. When I looked up, I asked myself whether I would be able to make it. But then, that's what I was in the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) for and it was not an opportunity to be missed.The GHNP is a 754.4 sq km. protected area located in Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh. Its final notification as a National Park happened in 1999. The park comprises the watersheds of Jiwa, Sainj, and Tirthan rivers. Our trek was to be an exploration of the Tirthan valley. The walk began at Gushaini village, which is eight km from the park boundary. From there it was two km to Rolla. This, we were told, was like a walk in a garden! The tough part was yet to come with the next hike being a six km climb straight up to an alpine meadow at the height of 3100 m. Of course, this was easy compared to tougher treks, with the highest peak being 5800 m.Our destination was Kholi Poi (the empty trunk of a large tree). The climb was tough but thankfully achievable. I thought I would be aching by the time I reached the top, but, to my surprise, that was not the case. Every breathless step that I had taken seemed history once we reached our destination late in the evening. The cold and crisp mountain air can be such a healer.What was interesting about this trek was that we were travelling with a set of young villagers who live in the Eco-development zone around the GHNP. They, along with a local NGO, SAHARA, were part of an eco-tourism team that helped guide treks such as ours. Needless to say, they also helped carry the tents that kept us warm and the rations that energised us with every meal. But that was not all; each one of our fellow trekkers knew a lot about these forests, and ran across them with the ease of a mountain goat. The GHNP is an area extremely rich in biodiversity. It supports a vast variety of flora and fauna. A visit to the website put together by a group called Friends of GHNP (www.greathimalayannationalpark.com) , throws up some interesting facts. When it comes to fauna, the GHNP is home to large mammals like the Himalayan Tahr, Black Bear, Goral, Bharal, to a variety of endangered pheasants like the Western Tragopan, Monal, Koklas and so on. In fact the park is known as the most important area in India for the endangered Western Tragopan. I am not an ardent bird watcher, but being in the company of those who are, allowed me to catch a glimpse of a range of small and big avifauna. The second day of our trek allowed us to explore the areas around the alpine meadow. We trekked down through a fine bhojpatra forest and got the feel of the trunk on which a lot has been written. It peals out beautifully to give us what was used to write on, much before paper arrived on the scene.But during the course of our trip, a different set of realities also came up in discussions. Before the area was declared protected under law, local communities accessed these forests for a variety of uses, including grazing, collection of medicinal plants or the rare and precious mushroom (guchhi). The park authorities are working with the communities living in the eco-development zone of the area to look at alternative livelihoods and try to be as sensitive as they can in the given scenario. However, the simple reality is that none of these can completely compensate the people for the rights that they have lost. Another disturbing reality is that a series of 11 hydel projects are planned in the Tirthan valley alone. Some of these might not be very large, but cumulatively could lead to changing the face of this "little exploited" valley. But for now, the valley presents spectacular landscapes, mystic forests, musical birdcalls, and melodious streams. Every step is a revitalisation of one's soul. I was lucky enough to be there to explore this untouched habitat, and be one with nature.